Return to Earth-X
NOTE: The Freedom Fighters and other Quality Comics characters are property of DC Comics. This story takes place between their return to Earth-X after the unpublished issues of SECRET SOCIETY OF SUPER-VILLAINS and their reappearance in CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS. No money is being made from this story, no infringement is intended.
If Mussolini made sure the trains ran on time, his successors made sure they were there to run.
The TransEuro Express had been renamed in recent years, losing a title which had honored Adolf Hitler. It was comfortable and rapid, as trains go, but still took its time compared to jet planes.
That was fine by Darrell Dane. His fianceé, Martha Roberts, had other ideas. When she wanted to get someplace, she wanted to get there fast. Three hours cross-country was as much as she would tolerate.
But that was on another Earth. The one she lived on now confused and frightened her. So did the fact that she was the counterpart of a woman of this Earth, who had died when the Nazis killed her.
On her own Earth, she had gradually fallen in love with Darrell, for the same reasons that the other Martha had loved him, she supposed. But now he had come back to his native world, and she followed, to see whether or not she could live with him in it.
She lay in her bunk, in stocking feet and a brown shirt and skirt, reading a Tom Robbins novel from her world. Darrell was in his shirtsleeves at a short writing table on the other end of the compartment, writing things on stationery provided by the train line.
The headers for the stationery had to be changed some years back to erase the swastika that had appeared on the side of the train in them.
"Enjoying it, Marth?"
She looked at him. "The book or the world?"
Darrell, all black hair and boyishness despite his age, smiled at her. "Whichever one you like."
"In that case, it'd be the book. Tom Robbins is funny. Like Kurt Vonnegut."
He winced. "I'll take your word for it. It'll be a long time before I can read somebody with a German name again."
She scowled at him. "Oh, foo. Vonnegut is an American. One of the best satirical writers around. He's about as far from Fascism as the Pope is from Protestantism."
Darrell tapped the end of his pen on the desk, in counterpoint to the clacking of the train. "The Pope over here is having his own problems. After so many years of having to live under the Fascists, the Church has to deal with Liberation. They're having a hell of a time just keeping their congregations together. Italy's investigating Protestantism, among other things."
"Sounds fascinating," said Martha. "Really fascinating." She didn't sound as if she was fascinated. She turned back to her book.
"What?" She shot him an aggravated gaze.
He stood, faced her, spread his hands. "Won't you even give it a chance? This is my homeworld, for cripes' sake. It's where I came from. Where I...hell, where I belong."
Martha put Still Life With Woodpecker down. "It's not where I belong, Dar."
"I thought we belonged together." He had a hurt-puppy-dog look in his eyes, as well as a child's resentment. "I thought we agreed that you'd try my world, for thirty days."
"We agreed to it," she said, sitting up on the bunk. "But after one week here, I am so downed it isn't even funny. And now you've got us on a train in Europe. Where all this mess began. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, Darrell."
"They want to honor us, Martha. The FF. In Germany. It's our first trip back here since we returned from your world." He laughed, briefly. "It sure as hell beats getting shot at and chased by cops, back there."
Martha, a beauty with long black hair, nodded. "But here, there's nothing familiar. It's all different from my world. Even the Statue of Liberty was remodelled."
"What did you want ‘em to do? Hitler had her giving a Fascist salute."
"The flag is different."
"Yes, we only have 48 states compared to your 50. If it makes you happy, I'll buy you a flag and sew two new stars on it."
"People speak German as much as English, all over America."
"We were occupied." Darrell Dane turned away, then smacked the metal of the inside wall between two windows with his fist, barely aware of the nightview passing by outside. "Dammit, Martha, what do you want me to say? It wasn't my fault. We fought against it. Against the Nazis."
"And I'm proud that you did, Darrell." She got herself out of the bunk, stepped over to Darrell in stocking feet, touched the side of her face. "From what you and the others told me, all of you and all the rest of the heroes...Superman and his friends...did a very great thing here. You finally liberated your world from the Nazis."
"They helped a lot," said Darrell, ruefully. "Not like we couldn't have done it alone."
The intrusion of heroes from two other worlds was a sore point with him, and with the others as well. Not that they weren't grateful when members of what they called the Justice League and Justice Society were thrown into their Earth by a teleportational mistake. With the aid of Superman, Dr. Fate, the Batman, the Red Tornado, and a few others, Darrell and his allies had finally freed Earth from Nazi domination. But they had been fighting the bastards for decades. Since the 1940's, in fact. All of them kept young, mystically, by Uncle Sam. Yet, they had not defeated their foes until outside aid came, and that rankled.
The Earth that Martha had come from was as strange and offputting to Darrell as his was to her. There, the Germans hadn't discovered the atomic bomb simultaneously with the Allies, in 1943, and forced the Americans to withdraw from Europe and Asia. Both had sent representatives to the other side's nuclear tests and found out first-hand what an atomic bomb could do. So Hitler and Mussolini took Europe and Russia, and the Japanese took a good chunk of Asia, and the butchery rose to an degree that made the Black Death seem pauperous by comparison.
What Jews were left, lived in the West, and in a few enclaves in Africa and Asia to which the Axis powers had not yet penetrated. Gypsies, Jehovah's Witnesses, and anybody the Germans just plain didn't like the looks of, vanished from Europe. A few made it to the Americas. Most did not.
Many members of European royalty came to the U.S. to live, including survivors of Britain's royal family. There, in exile, they cooperated with the American government in a cold war against Hitler, Mussolini, Hirohito, and the Axis's puppet in Russia. The Fuehrer's hand had been especially heavy against that nation, which had cost him so dearly and opposed him so bitterly. What had become of Stalin was a matter of historical mystery. Some said he was fed raw to the members of his politburo, who were killed in turn themselves. Others said he was served cooked.
The North and South American Alliance had come together in opposition to the East. They raised armies, built A-bombs, conducted exercises in open waters designed to convince the opposition that they were up to snuff, and undertook secret missions to learn what Adolf's crew was up to over there. The Nazis did it all back.
Foremost among the headline-makers in the U.S. were the Freedom Fighters, a band of super-heroes originally from Earth-Two, the Justice Society's world. Uncle Sam, who claimed to be the Spirit of America, had drawn a crop of lesser heroes to the world which Darrell and Martha now occupied, back in 1942. The first bunch had gotten promptly killed. The second, which consisted of Dane in his superheroic identity and seven others, had more staying power. That is, except for two of them. The Red Bee had gotten his back broken by a Nazi called Baron Blitzkrieg in their opening battle, and died. Hourman went back to his homeworld.
But Darrell Dane couldn't. The Nazis on the world Uncle Sam now served were a lot closer to ultimate victory. He and the others with him...the Human Bomb, Phantom Lady, the Black Condor, the Ray, and Sam himself...felt an obligation to this new world, one which had no heroes of its own. So they elected to stay there, and help its Allies fight the good fight.
Shortly afterward, they'd recruited other heroes from the Earth they left to help with the battle. Firebrand, Plastic Man, the Blackhawks, the Spider, the Jester, Usa, Wildfire, the Death Patrol, Mr. Mystic, Midnight, the Sniper, even some nutty professor with a robot he called Bozo.
Most of them were dead now. Not all of them--Mr. Mystic survived, and nobody quite knew what had happened to Usa, Uncle Sam's female counterpart--but wars take a human toll. Even cold wars.
One of those who fell was Martha Roberts, the Doll Girl, who was Darrell's fianceé and his crime-fighting partner. He often asked himself what would have happened if he hadn't brought her and the Professor, her father, over to aid in the war effort. Or if he hadn't taught her how to shrink herself.
But, hell, what-ifs didn't count. All that mattered was that she was dead.
Even the Japanese, who had carved out a bloody new empire for themselves, were subjugated to the new order. Hitler had never liked having to declare them "honorary Aryans", or sharing power with them. So, now that the Emperor had a shiny new Empire for them to take, they proceeded to take it. The Son of Heaven protested. Five atomic bombs rained down on cities other than Tokyo. The Japanese military angrily responded that, no matter what the Germans did to them, they would hang tough and retaliate.
Three more bombs, and they finally caved. There was much hara-kiri among the generals. The Emperor, who had no nuclear weapons of his own, had signed the surrender agreement. Not long after that, he died from what was described as a "throat ailment". Those in the know agreed that what had been done to his throat would ail anybody mightily. And the men in jackboots appeared all over the Empire of the Sun, and in the parts of Japan that were nonradioactive.
The Chinese and Southeast Asians noted a few changes in style with their new conquerors, but not a lot. Not wanting to find out first-hand what a nuclear bomb was like, they held their peace. And there was much servility to alien whites, and what few women hadn't yet been converted to "war heroines" under the old regime now got their chance under the new one.
Then, in 1968, came the Nazi mind-control thing, a weapon which left Germany in what appeared to be total control of the entire Earth.
Only a few escaped control, and that probably because of Uncle Sam's power: Doll Man, Doll Girl, Phantom Lady, Human Bomb, Ray, and Sam himself. They escaped control, and they escaped detection by the Nazis. Somehow. They hid like rats in sewers, in abandoned buildings, in disguise, and, finally, in a headquarters they fixed up in secret. All the time, they fought a cloak and dagger war against the Axis, who were still, unbelievably, under the power of an apparently-surviving Adolf Hitler.
It wasn't nearly enough.
By the time the JSA and JLA crossed over thanks to a lousy transporter, Martha was gone and the others had all but given up to despair, save for Sam--and God knew he might be just about to chuck it, under all that flag-waving and rah-rah speaking. But the sight of Superman, Dr. Fate, Batman, the Sandman, a new Green Arrow, a new Red Tornado who wasn't even a woman, and a guy called the Elongated Man (who reminded them of the late Plas) popping up on their world galvanized the Freedom Fighters anew. They helped save the heroes of the other two Earths from the Nazi super-weapons they faced, and filled them in on the happenings of their world. Sam hadn't been able to pierce the barriers between worlds since the Crisis in ‘42, but he and the others were overjoyed to learn that, on all other known Earths, the War was over with and the bad guys had lost.
As all good heroes will, the League and Society members pitched in and helped the Fighters locate and destroy the Nazi mind-control machines. The last to go was a device in space, during the destruction of which the Red Tornado learned that Hitler and his cronies in the upper echelon of Nazidom had been destroyed by the sentient computer which ran the controller, and replaced by android doubles.
That disappointed them all. The Freedom Fighters wanted to take the real Hitler alive, or dead. But there was nothing to be done about it. The computer, the mind-control machine, and the androids were smashed by the Tornado, and Earth was free again.
Before the JLA and JSA heroes left, they talked a bit with Uncle Sam and his crew at the latter's warehouse headquarters. One of the things they brought up, idly, was what number to give to the Earth they had just liberated. The heroes explained that there was an Earth-One, an Earth-Two, and an Earth-Three, and asked if they'd mind having their world called Earth-Four.
The Human Bomb had spoken up. "Who needs a number? Why not an algebraic symbol? X stands for an unknown quantity. This place was unknown to us before ‘42. Why don't we just call it Earth-X?"
"Sounds good to me, if you like it," Superman had said. All of them reflected on how good it was to see the Man of Steel still alive after all those years, and to know the Earth-Oners had a young Superman of their own. "Any objections?"
None was raised. "Earth-X it is, then," said Supes, and the matter was settled.
The heroes from the other Earths managed to contact their worlds and were returned to them. That left Earth-X with six heroes again.
Reconstruction began. It was hellish going. Liberating nations from a system and a mind-set their people have lived under for all their lives was never easy, even when the system was Naziism.
The Freedom Fighters were given the highest accolades. They were paraded up and down the 48 states of the U.S., made appearances in Canada, Mexico, South America, Russia, China, Australia, and the embryonic state of New Israel, which owned land in Palestine but which mostly operated out of America at the time. (With the Liberation, Jews were so few in number that they actively proselytized for the first time in ages. The spirit of sympathy, combined with their evangelism, brought not a few converts into the fold, especially to a Reform group that allowed new ones, at last, to retain a belief in Jesus as the Messiah so long as they shut up about it in Temple.)
And they were very tired, after their decades of labor.
And they discovered that there was not much left for them to do.
It had been ages since Darrell Dane had been allowed to be a scientist, or Happy Terrill to be a reporter, or Roy Lincoln to be a chemist, or Tom Wright to be a senator, or Sandra Knight to be a senator's daughter. Uncle Sam had never been anything but Uncle Sam, for about 200 years. Jobs could be found for them, if they wished. They could live on stipends from the new American government for the rest of their lives.
There were some pockets of underground resistance against the Liberation, but the Freedom Fighters were content to let normal authorities handle them, for the moment.
After the last party had been thrown, the six of them sat within their new, government-provided headquarters, as close to a palace as any of them had known, and looked at each other in fatigue and boredom.
It was the Ray who said it: "Let's go to one of the other Earths. Just for a vacation."
The rest of them, in short order, fell in with the master of light. A scientist had been reportedly working on a device to pierce dimensional barriers. They went to him, harnessed Sam's power to his machine, and were catapulted into Earth-One. That was where the youngest super-heroes lived, and the six of them wanted to see it for themselves. Maybe even fight some crooks, just like in the good old days.
They got more than they planned for.
Shortly after their arrival, the six of them had fallen under the power of the Silver Ghost, an expatriate villain from their own world. The Ghost had turned three of them into silver statues, and forced the other three to commit crimes for him, lest they remain statues forever. The heroes defeated the Ghost and restored their fellows to life, but the damage was done: the Freedom Fighters became wanted criminals on Earth-One.
Sam's dimension-spanning powers were curtailed on this new Earth, and, with all of them forced to go underground again, they had no way of contacting the Justice League to get them back home. So, for about a year, the Black Condor, Uncle Sam, the Ray, the Phantom Lady, and the Human Bomb were forced into the indignity of hiding from the cops, trying to find a way to clear their names, and fighting the odd bunch of costumed crooks at the same time.
All of them agreed that the situation stank. Doll Man was even framed and convicted on a murder charge, and only the Ray's intervention had saved him from being executed in the electric chair. But without access to their friends in the Justice League or transport back to their homeworld, there was little they could do.
Along the way, Darrell met the Martha Roberts of that world, wooed her, and won her. She was quite weirded out by the notion that there was a Martha Roberts on another world who had been a tiny superheroine and who was now very dead. But she loved Darrell, or thought she did, despite or in addition to his ability to shrink to six inches in height. He said that he could dose her with the same chemical that gave him his powers, but she'd passed on it so far.
They also met another surviving hero from their world: Firebrand, who had worked with the underground independently on Earth-X and who had come here secretly years before, in search of the Silver Ghost. Firebrand had no super-powers, just a gypsy-like crimson costume, an agile body, and great talent as a guerilla. His sister on Earth-2 had gained fire-throwing and flight powers and had adopted his name to serve with that world's All-Star Squadron. He hadn't seen her since 1942, and wasn't sure she was still alive. Firebrand ended up as the seventh Freedom Fighter.
Finally, in an incident that had pitted them against a group called the Secret Society of Super-Villains, whose members included the Silver Ghost, the Fighters had encountered the Justice Society again. The JSA were on the trail of the Secret Society, who had already captured the Atom, Dr. Mid-Nite, Mr. Terrific, and Johnny Thunder in a ten-little-Indians game. During the battle, Firebrand closed with the Silver Ghost and both of them were changed into silver statues, grappling with one another. A large dimension-warp had been created. The Secret Society fled through it, escaping the JSA. Sam saw the opportunity, altered the warp a bit, and led the Freedom Fighters through it and back to Earth-X. He took the Firebrand / Ghost statues with him, hoping that at least Firebrand could be restored to life. So far, neither of them had.
All of them reemerged into a world that had thought them as gone as Amelia Earhart.
"We're never going back," said the Human Bomb. Except for one
short venture to Earth-One, which Sam had insisted on, since terrorists
there were about to steal the Declaration of Independence and Superman
had to be alerted, they had kept that promise.
The Freedom Fighters were feted again. This time they decided to more or less retire, which rankled Sam a bit. But they had put in their time, bashing crooks and fighting Nazis, for more years than just about any heroes on any other Earth.
It was time to take the homes and money the government offered them, and enjoy what life was left to them.
They were even thinking of asking Sam to lift his influence-spell from them so they could start aging again. Phantom Lady, who had a body that was equalled only by Betty Page's, had balked at that, so far. Wearing a costume with barely more material than a bikini had proven a great distraction for foes. It was also a great way to get laid.
So here they were, now, with Germany pretty well under control and the United States' new government asking them to appear there for the first time since the Liberation. It was supposed to be a sign of token acceptance for the new regime; God knew it was going to be shaky goings over there, even with the small occupational force. But it was also a middle-finger thrust against the Nazis, a display of defiance by showing them that the six heroes who'd brought them down still stood proud.
Sam had accepted, and convinced the rest to accept, as well. The silver statues of Firebrand and the Ghost were aboard the train as well, under guard, to be exhibited in Berlin at the time of the Fighters' appearance there.
So Martha had come, because Darrell had come. They had both wondered, for a time, if she should. But she wanted to be with him. She was also curious.
Martha didn't like this new world much. Darrell knew that. By plunging into its very heart, though, by being taken through the city that had been responsible for the history that was so different from her own world's, she thought some kind of catharsis could be made. A passing through the flames, so to speak. If she could stand Berlin, perhaps she could come to accept Earth-X, as well.
So far the prognosis was not good.
Martha was saying something.
"What? What did you say?"
She paused and gave him an annoyed look. "I said, Darrell, that I appreciate everything you did for your world. For cripes sake, you are a hero. You and the others. But...it still doesn't make this my world."
He sighed. He turned from the window, grasped her arms lightly, and looked down at her face. "But it's mine, Marth. And it could be yours. Remember? You agreed to try?"
"Yes," she said. "I agreed. To try. And...I am trying. But it's so hard, Darrell. It's so, so hard."
Darrell Dane kissed her on the forehead and hugged her tightly. Martha hugged back.
Then he said, "I have to check on the others, Marth."
"So soon? Can't you keep away from them for more than four hours?"
He said, "Don't sweat it. I'll be back in just a bit. We'll have a good one tonight, just you and me."
Her hands were stroking his back. "If you won't go, I'll give you more than a good one tonight. Maybe a good two. Or three. Depends on you."
Darrell Dane smiled. But he had a note of determination in it.
"I have to check," he said.
Martha shifted her look away from him, disengaged her arms, and went back to her bunk and Tom Robbins novel. She did not look at him.
A few moments later, Darrell turned away and opened the door of their compartment.
There were four guards outside his door, two on each side. All were armed. "Going out, Mr. Dane?" said one, as pleasantly as he knew how.
"Sure," said Dane. "You know the way."
Two of them followed him, one before and one after, guns at the ready, and shooed passengers out of the walkway before them. They went to another car, to an even more heavily-guarded room. There were six guards in front of it. Darrell Dane had to provide several code words and get a retina scan before they opened the door for him.
The others were inside.
Happy Terrill, the Ray, was in shirtsleeves, slacks, and a red tie. He was sitting with the others at a table, upon which cards and a number of colored chips were scattered. Happy was blonde, rather tall, and lanky, but well-muscled. When he wanted to, he could turn himself into a being of living light.
Beside him, not saying much but holding seven cards in a white-gloved hand, was Roy Lincoln. Roy had ingested a chemical potion decades ago that had given his hands explosive power. As the Human Bomb, he was possibly the deadliest of the Freedom Fighters, though he reserved his killing to Nazis and their ilk.
He was somber, and had a right to be, but he joked whenever he could. He didn't do it as well as Happy did.
Sandra Knight and Tom Wright, the rhyming pair, sat beside each other with their thighs touching. Sandra was wearing a pair of cutoffs, a white halter top, and sandals, and Darrell knew that Sam would make her change out of that into a dress before the train stopped. Tom was in an old-style undershirt that showed off his muscles, as if he were a statue from Renaissance Italy, along with a pair of blue shorts and tennis shoes. The shorts were a concession to Sandra. He wore little more than Phantom Lady did when he was the Black Condor. But as a civilian, he had been a United States Senator, and wanted everyone to know it. Sandra's dad had also been a senator, and she was the only one who could get him to loosen up.
He had loosened up quite a bit with her. But then again, so had Darrell a few times, after the first Martha's death, and he suspected Happy had as well. She took precautions and nothing ever came of it. But she and Tom appeared to be a pair, and they remained such. And if Sandy made a few ventures into other areas, even now...well, she had been a soldier as much as any of them, and soldiers did such things from time to time, and nobody said much about it.
At least, not to her or Tom's face.
Uncle Sam was Uncle Sam. He was still in his blue waistcoat, white shirt, gold watch-chain, striped pants, and spit-shined shoes, his blue coat and striped top hat resting on a bunk to the side of him. He had white hair and a goatee and steel-blue eyes and looked like a recruitment poster, but could whip any one in the room if it came to it. Not that Sam would ever do such a thing.
But, despite what he had once been, Sam was the least human of them all, and they all knew it.
"Darrell, m'boy," Sam piped up with a 200-watt grin. "Siddown and be taken. ‘Tis a man's game we're playin' right now, beggin' Sandra's pardon, and your presence is sorely missed."
Darrell smiled. "Sorry, Sam, I've got a girl waiting on me back in my bunk. Just wanted to check and see how you all were doin'. How much of this month's checks do you owe him so far?"
"This month?" said Happy. "How about, this year?"
"Good thing we weren't playing strip poker, or I wouldn't be wearing clothes for a month," smiled Sandra, in faux innocence.
"You think they'd notice?", said Tom. She smacked him on the thigh.
"Wanna siddown and get in the game, Darrell?" rumbled Roy Lincoln. "Kinda hard playin' without you in it."
Darrell wavered. Then he said, more to himself than anyone else, "What the hell. Just for a few hands."
And a few hands led to a few hands more, and much conversation, and laughter, and even a bottle passed around that Uncle Sam refused.
And in another bunk, Martha Roberts finally turned out the light and went to sleep alone.
In Berlin, preparations were being made for the Fighters' arrival. Not all of them were on the schedule.
A man in a grey suit went to a location which was kept secret even in a time and in a place where no secrets were supposed to be found anymore. There were a few others to meet him, once he was admitted. They all carried no less than three guns apiece.
"Just wanted to see her again," he said to one of them, who stood before a metal cube with a rifle in his hand.
"Mein herr, is it such a wise thing to do?" said the guard. "Before long, she will--"
"I want to see her," said the man. The guard stepped aside.
The man went to the cube, unlocked a combination lock, and slid aside a panel approximately at eye-height.
He looked at what was inside, nodded to himself, and then slid the panel back and locked it again.
He noticed that some of the others had been trying to get a glimpse, while the panel had been retracted.
Turning to them, he said, "The train arrives tomorrow. The ceremony will be held in three days. Do not fail the cause."
"We will not, mein herr," said a female guard.
The man did not respond, or look at her.
He stepped out of the room, up the way he had come, and eventually emerged into the Berlin night.
The Freedom Fighters only thought that their war was over.
In three days, he would correct them about that point.