Return To Earth-X
The train rolled into Berlin on schedule. Along the way the Freedom Fighters had made whistle-stops at three other cities, including Karlsruhe. In each one they had put on the uniforms, appeared at the backmost car, waved to the crowd, did a few stunts with their powers, and let Uncle Sam make one of his Reconstruction and Reconciliation speeches. There was more applause for the stunts than the speeches.
When they were back in the train, Sam had said, "The Nazis bit deep. We're going to have a tough time with these people's minds."
The Ray had shrugged. "We had a tough enough time with their bodies, Sam. You knew it wasn't gonna be a cakewalk, after the war."
Irritably, the Human Bomb had snapped, "That's enough, Terrill. All we have to do is make one more stop, stay for a few days, and give them Firebrand and the Ghost. Did anybody say you had to do more than that?"
Black Condor stepped between the two, saying, "Stand down, both of you. Can we save the intramural fights until we get back in the States? Look, getting near the Nazi Nervecenter isn't easy on any of us."
Sam said, "I don't reckon those two were close to punches yet, Tom. But it's sure as shootin' not a good idea t' start yellin' at each other at this stage o' the game. We've been together a mighty long time, fellows. Maybe too long. But all we're bein' asked to do is show up at a dedication. After all we've been through, don't you think that's a small thing to be asked of us?"
"Ah, nuts," groused Roy, the helmet of his Bomb suit thrown back. "We're tired of seeing each other's faces all these years. But we've been together so long, we don't know how to live apart. We're like quintuplets, all of us."
"Speak for yourself," said Phantom Lady, casting a glance towards Black Condor. "I don't see Tom as my brother. And I'm not living apart from him."
Ray wanted to make a snide comment. Doll Man, all six inches of him, bounded into the car at that point. "In a way, you're both right, Sandra," he said. "Let's face it, we are a unit, like it or not. We need some space away from each other. But none of us really wants to live that far apart from the others. C'mon, now. Do we?"
There was a bit of awkward silence.
"You've been a right good bunch of companions," said Uncle Sam. "Soldiers, too. In all my 200-plus years, I don't think I've worked with a bunch whose company I've enjoyed more."
The Ray sat down on a metal chair, not looking at the others. "I want to fall in love, Sam. I want to find a wife and get married and have kids. I want a job and a life. The Freedom Fighters can't give me that."
The Bomb put his gloved hand on the Ray's shoulder. "Know how you feel, Happy. Believe me. But maybe--for you, at least--it can happen. Maybe."
Sandra crossed her legs. "It could happen for you, too, Roy."
"Hah!" Roy turned to her, without smiling. "You think a woman'd want to give herself to a guy who can blow up buildings just by slapping ‘em? You think she'd ever want to make love to him, even if he kept his gloves on? Even you never--"
"That's right," said Sandra. "Even I never. Not with you. You know why, Roy? Because you're a self-pitying, selfish pain in the butt. That's why."
Sam's and Happy's eyes went to the Bomb, instantly. For a second, his eyes showed fury. Then he sagged, as if someone had pulled a cord on his back and let his energy run out of a valve.
"I think you'd best apologize, missy," suggested Sam.
The Bomb turned away. "Don't bother," he said, walking away. "Don't bother."
Doll Man tried to hop after him, but Uncle Sam caught him neatly on the fly and held him in one hand.
"Best to let him go, little feller," said Sam. "Man's got to work things out in his own way."
The Ray looked at Sandra Knight. "You ought to apologize to him, you know."
Sandra smoothed back her long black hair. "Be damned if I will. Roy Lincoln has had that coming for a long time. I'm catching some sack time. Want to come, Tom?"
Thomas Wright, in his Black Condor uniform, looked at her and then looked away. "Maybe not, Sandra. Thanks, though."
She shrugged and left the car. In a few moments, Tom Wright followed her.
Doll Man, standing on one of Sam's knees, said, "Obviously he has a case of the case-of-the's."
"Yeah," said the Ray. "And it's contagious. Believe me."
Martha Roberts was coming through the dining car one way and Uncle Sam was coming the other. Both did a double-take when they saw the other.
"Why, Miss Roberts," said Sam, doffing his hat and bowing from the waist. "Right pleasure to see you. Still lookin' as pretty as dawn on a Virginia morn, if you don't mind my notin' it."
"Um. Well, thank you very much, Mister, uh, Sam," she said, wondering how to avoid him and be tactful. The eyes of the few diners in the car were upon them both, mainly because of the white-bearded guy in red, white, and blue recruiting poster colors.
Sam motioned to a booth with his hat. "I'm in need of victuals, Miss Roberts. Care to join me? I'd be right pleased to have your company."
Martha was flustered, glad she had a purse to hold onto. Uncle Sam was the most unnerving one of the Fighters, at least to her. But how the hell could she bow out of this, and not look make a total faux pas?
Lord, she wished she was back home. On a real Earth, not one reflected in a cracked mirror.
"I was just passing through," she lied, "but I'll have something, if you want."
A waiter materialized and showed the two of them both to a small booth. He took their orders. Luckily, Martha didn't mind German cooking; quite enjoyed it, really. And it was interesting to note that Sam did eat real human food, or at least ordered it. She'd have to remember not to stare too hard at him while he ate.
Sam had his hat off, sitting on the seat beside him. Despite what she felt for him, he gave her a kindly gaze.
"It isn't so easy for you, is it, missy? Bein' so far from home, and all that."
"No," she said. "No, it isn't. Can you read my mind, or is it that obvious?"
He chuckled. "Been a long time I've been on Earth, my own and this one and the one you came from, and I learned a lot about judgin' folks feelings in that time. Just wonder if my own poker face is any good, sometimes."
She said, looking at her hands, "Appears to be. If that money you took off Darrell's friends is any indication."
"I give it back every night, missy," he said. "I've no real need for money, and I'd be an old skinflint just to keep it out of spite. Nope. I play for the pleasure of the game. That's the only way to do it."
"You...must have been playing poker for a long time."
"Oh, yes! Just about since the game was invented, I guess. But I know most games you can play with a deck, and many without. No awkward implications intended, Miss Roberts."
"None taken." She looked at him. His face was that of a normal human being, a strong old man. If you discounted the bit that he looked like something from James Montgomery Flagg's paintings, it was not like sitting across from a ghost.
"I have to admit something. I don't know how to react to you. You're supposed to be part man, part ghost. Part something else, I don't know. A, a concept. And over 200 years old. All the others, they're still human, even with those powers. But...you kind of scare me."
Sam was sober, thoughtful in his expression.
"Perhaps I understand, missy," he said, softly. "Sometimes, it almost scares me. I can tell you this much, this modern world scares the pants offa me, sometimes. But I have to poker-face it there, too."
"I'm sorry," she said.
"Don't be," Sam replied. "I'm still a man, Miss Roberts. A very old man, a very tired man sometimes, but a man, notwithstanding. Sometimes I don't even understand how it all came about. Did anyone ever tell you about me?"
Martha began to feel a strand of tentative empathy. Was he manipulating her, somehow? She decided not; if anything, Uncle Sam always looked sincere. "Not a lot," she said. "You mean, how you got in those striped pants and top hat and all?"
"It is a wild kinda uniform," he admitted, "but you'll have to blame the imagination of your countrymen for that. Well, missy, let me see if I can remember it fair and plain for you. But I must warn ya, it's been 200 years and more, and there's still a lot even I haven't figured out yet. It is still a strange and wild thing to me, as well.
"I'm not sure about the process, but it seems to me that nations in this world have a spirit, which is born to them in the tribulation of their formation, not unlike a woman givin' birth. I can testify that I have met an individual called John Bull, who performs the same service for the British that I do for Americans. I do not know about other nations, but I half suspect that they have t heir own guardians, because I sense such when I am in their environs. But this is outside of my memory, because my memory begins with a man named Samuel, which was me. Too complicated so far?"
"No. Go ahead," said Martha, as the waiter brought them some iced tea. Sam kindly nodded to the man, then continued.
"Samuel was born in 1721 in Pennsylvania, which made him in his fifties when the Revolutionary War broke out. He sided with the rebels, and was almighty proud of that flag which Betsy Ross had run up on her sewing table. Carried a flag with him almost every day after he got his first one. Samuel's job was drivin' supply wagons, and, by 1777, that's what he was doin'. He was headed for Valley Forge."
Martha sucked in a breath. Sam noticed it.
"Now, don't you worry, missy," he said, laying a hand on her wrist. It felt reassuringly warm and human, even to her. "You're thinkin' that you're talkin' to a man who's nothing but livin' history, knowin' all the names and dates you've learned from schoolbooks. In a way, that is true, but remember: history is just folks goin' back and decidin' what's important to remember about what happened yesterday and the day before. While it's goin' on, nobody thinks much of whether it's gonna end up in a book or not. Leastways, I didn't.
"More important history to me was my wife Kate, my son Jonathan, and the house I lived in up to then. I never saw any of ‘em after that day I'm about to tell you of, but I never ever forgot ‘em. Fair enough?"
"You're doing fine, Sam," she said. "Please continue."
"Well. To resume. There we was, drivin' that load of wagons full of supplies for General Washington. Problem was, we had a load of Hessians on our tail. If they captured us and our stuff, the general was gonna have the devil's own time gettin' through the winter. Wasn't like it is today, with mobile barracks and heating and all that. Anyway, the enemy was gainin' on us, and I suggested to the other two drivers that was with us that one of us branch off to lead them Hessians on a wild goose-chase. That would let ‘em get through with the wagons. Old Tip Brown, another of the drivers, said we ought to draw straws for it. But I said no, it was my idea, I'd stand for it. Plus I had Old Glory, which I thought was almost as good a protection as, God forgive me, a Bible. Didn't think it'd ward off any bullets, but felt like I had a better chance with it in my possession.
"So I went out, found the Hessians, waved the flag at ‘em to get their attention, and got ‘em all on my trail. I got their attention, all right. I also got two minnie balls, right in the back. And I died."
Sam nodded, soberly. "I did. It was not a pleasant experience. All I could think of to cheer me up, while I was doin' it, was that I was helpin' the wagons get through, and that I was lyin' on Old Glory, which was soakin' up my blood. I was lyin' down, and watchin' the rays of the sunset, and they seemed to me to look like the stripes of the flag. I knew the stars would be followin', shortly after.
"But that wasn't it.
"I got touched on the shoulder, and I didn't know if I was gonna be lookin' into the face of the Lord, or my daddy, or what. Instead, I was lookin' up into the face of a man dressed...just like this." He gestured to his blue waistcoat, light blue vest, and white shirt. "And he did seem to me to have the aspect of an angel. An American angel, if you would. But his face...God help me, it was my own face.
"I don't know if he made it that way, or if it was just the way I saw it, or something else. But there I was, lookin' up at myself in a red, white, and blue suit. And the man gave me a choice. He asked if I was willin' to defend America always, in exchange for givin' up eternal rest. I didn't have to think two seconds. I give him my hand, and he raised me up...out of my body."
Martha saw Sam's eyes looking beyond her, beyond the last 200-plus years, and didn't make a sound.
"Somehow, he placed me within himself. No, that's not quite right...let's just say he and I were one and the same, from then on. And I knew what I had to do. Though few men would ever see me and know it...I was off to guard America.
"And that's what I did. I had more strength, more speed, and more grit than any dozen men. I had the power of a newborn nation. But it was keyed, always, to how much people believed in me...in America. If their faith faltered, so did I. And that, missy, was a hard thing to know.
"And so it was through the Revolution, through the 1812 War, through the Civil War, where my strength was halved and a duplicate of myself in a gray uniform became my reluctant enemy. Then we merged, at the end of that conflict, and were whole again, though I still declare I feel the seams sometimes. Through the Indian wars, the Spanish-American battles, the first Great War and its terrible successor...I was there.
"Perhaps I always shall be.
"But in the 1930's, something else disturbed my rest...the emanations of hatred which that Austrian man were stirrin' up. Against God's chosen people, and against democracies everywhere. Well, not just democracies, but everyplace he hadn't taken over yet. I couldn't act over there yet...but I could act in America, where I felt the repercussions of the poison he was dealing.
"There was a town in America named Glen Valley, and it was basically bein' ruled by a newly-made shadow government. It was an offshoot of the Klan, called the Black Legion. I was drawn to a secret meeting of a few townspeople there, and when I arrived, I knew why...because one of them was named Samuel, and he was one of my descendants, through my son Jonathan.
"Samuel was the one who stood against the Legion the most. I knew I needed someone to embody my power, ‘cause it'd been over a century and a half since I died, and there is such a thing as renewal. So I came to Samuel, in private, and surprised the heck out of him. But I calmed the boy down, and gave him a choice...the same as I was given back in 1777. And he gave me his hand, and accepted.
"So Samuel the younger became one of me, and I have his memories within me to this day. Uncle Sam became visible to normal men, and became a rallying point when the country so badly needed one. We got rid of the Legion, thankfully. Then I travelled on to a place in which migrant workers were bein' terrorized by another such group, which called themselves the Purple Shirts. A young boy named Buddy Smith saw his father get killed by those hoodlums. But I showed myself to him, helped him buck up, and with his help, and the help of the townspeople, we gave the Shirts the everlasting bum's rush.
"There was still a lot of work to do. But Buddy Smith decided to tag with me thereafter, as my sidekick. It was rough work, but havin' a boy like him around was almost as good as havin' a son."
Sam was silent for a while. Martha knew he wanted to be asked. "Sam, what happened to him?"
He looked up at her. "I didn't find out until many years later, Miss Martha. I left him back on the Justice Society's Earth when I came with the Fighters to this here Earth. He grew up, just in time to answer his country's call in the war they had in Korea. And he died at Inchon."
"Oh," she said. "I'm...I'm sorry, Sam." She lay her own hand on his, and was not in the least hesitant.
"Thank you kindly, missy," said Sam. "I don't suppose any family in America hasn't lost someone to war, in one generation or another, and I'm like all others in that respect. We all hurt.
"There were others like me, of course. There was John Bull, whom I told you about. There was King Killer, who was my opposite number and my worst enemy outside of Hitler, kind of a distillation of the worst human gangsters possible, with power not unlike my own. And then there was..." Sam drew in a breath. "Then there was the woman I fell in love with, after my dear Kate. But whom I never proposed to, and always regretted not having done so."
"A woman?" Martha's mind whirled. What sort of woman could the Spirit of America fall in love with? Or vice versa?
"Her name was Usa, and they called her the Spirit of Old Glory. The feminine to my masculine, with, again, powers like my own. She gave her life in freedom's cause, but a small thread from Betsy Ross's flag was kind of a talisman. She gained the might of a Lady Liberty, and manifested herself in the Forties to help us all fight against Hitler. I met her, and we both knew each other for what we were...the only ones of our kind who might marry. But...I was shy. I had Buddy, and I had memories of Kate. So I let her slip away, and it hurt her, much the same as it hurt me. We both went to this Earth, but we split up. I never knew what became of her. She's been lost since 1944, and I fear she ended up like so many of the others who made the passage with me." He shook his head, put his hands to his face. "Lordamighty. For that one woman, I'd cross seven stars in the heavens and Pennsylvania to boot."
"Please, Sam," she said. "Don't hurt yourself anymore. It wasn't your fault...and we all have things we regret, missed chances and so on."
The waiter discreetly arrived with their food, placed it before them, and left, saying nothing.
Sam's hands came away from his face, and if his eyes were wet, it would be hard to tell. "I apologize for my outburst, Miss Roberts. Such isn't seemly for a man of my sort, I know. But..."
"But nothing," she said, grasping both of his arms. "Sam, I wasn't sure you were a man before. I didn't know what the hell you were, or what to make of you, in that corny outfit and beard and top hat. But now I know. You may be over 250 years old, but you're just as human as, as Darrell or any of the others. And, if it helps any...I'm sorry for you. I truly am."
He smiled, sadly. "It does help, missy. A whole heap. Thank ye kindly."
Then he kissed her on the cheek, and she flushed and said, "Oh."
Sam looked concerned. "Beg your pardon again, Miss Roberts. I wasn't meaning anything beyond an expression of friendliness there, you understand."
She laughed, nervously. "No, no, Sam, don't worry about that. It's just that...well, I've never been kissed by the Spirit of America before."
He smiled. "And how did it feel?"
"It felt like being kissed by a man."
"That's good, missy. Thanks very much. Now, let's eat."
And they did.
The Brotherhood awaited the time of awakening.
The speech was to be made in the spot where the silver statues of their agent and the damnable Firebrand were to be unveiled. When it was underway, another unveiling of a different sort would occur.
The leader looked into the cube again, through the peep hatch, and saw the face within.
Their objective would be glad to see her, after so long a separation.
And in that, he would open himself to disaster.
The leader did not hold back his gutteral laugh, as he slid the peep hatch shut.