Return To Earth-X
Uncle Sam was always up before dawn, but he let the rest of the crew sleep.
Right now he was checking out the platform on which the Freedom Fighters would appear in a few hours. Already upon it was the statue they had brought with them, shrouded by a tarpulin. When the time for its dedication came, the tarp would be thrown off and the two figures would be revealed.
Only it isn't really a statue, thought Sam. It's two human beings, horribly altered. Turned to silver.
The breeze blowing in the early morning hour was crisp and a bit cold. Sam was drawing some attention, not surprisingly. But most of them kept far enough back from the man in the American suit. True, he had seemed friendly enough at the introductory appearance yesterday. But still...he had fought them. Fought them for all those decades, and finally beaten them.
There he was, just looking up at the wooden platform in the Berlin park with the thing under the tarpulin upon it.
Finally, Sam heard someone stepping towards him and turned to face the newcomer.
It was only a thirtyish man with black hair and glasses, in an overcoat and a nervous expression. "Onkel Sam?"
"Ya, ich bin Sam," responded the white-haired hero, in an accent so perfect the German did a double-take.
"<You speak our language?>"
Sam smiled. "<I'm multilingual, son. Lots of different people came to America, and I know all their native tongues.>"
"<Do you...that is, you do not mean to hurt us, do you?>"
The Spirit of America laughed. "<Hurt you? Heavens no, son! The war's over with. As long as you stand with the good, I not only won't hurt you, I'll stand beside you. And that's a promise.>"
The German smiled, a bit hesitantly, and offered his hand. "<My name is Oscar. Oscar Schaf. I am pleased to meet you, Uncle.>"
Sam took the hand, and shook it in a firm grip, with a reassuring smile. "<No, Oscar, the pleasure is mine. I want to meet the Germans in friendship now. Will you pass along this handshake to all the people you meet today? And tell them it's on behalf of Uncle Sam?>"
Oscar looked stunned for a second. "<To everyone I meet? I, that is...everyone?>"
Sam smiled, but looked questioningly at the man.
That did the trick. "<Yes, indeed, Uncle Sam. I will pass it along. To everyone. And I will tell them it is from my friend, Uncle Sam. I will be proud to.>"
"<That'll be fine, Oscar, except for one tiny detail. Don't say it's from your friend, Uncle Sam...say it's from their friend, Uncle Sam. For such it will be.>"
"<I will remember, Mr. Uncle Sam. Believe me, I will remember.>"
Sam said, "<I am sure you will, Oscar. And remember one thing more. Keep faith in the good, and in the spirit of the good. For my power is only as great as your faith. Will you do that?>"
"<To the best of my ability, Mr. Uncle Sam.>"
"<Then this handshake is just for you,>" said Sam, and pumped the man's hand vigorously twice more, his other hand on Oscar's shoulder. "Auf wiedersehen."
The man in red, white, and blue turned away and strolled around the podium. Oscar looked at his hand, and then at the departing back of the man whose hand had felt as human as that of Oscar's father.
Several others in the small crowd of onlookers were starting to run up to Oscar. Others started to run after Sam. The hero had already gone around the far end of the platform. The pursuers ran after him.
When they got to the other side, they found he had vanished.
After a few minutes of looking, they gave up and went about their business.
In the hotel room near the park, Happy Terrill, his Ray mask off, was sitting astride a chair and talking to Roy Lincoln, who lay on the bed in his Human Bomb pants, an old-style undershirt, and gloves.
"Bomb," said Happy. "After this gig, I want to go to Florida. Interested?"
"In what, Hap?" said Roy, his gloved hands behind his head. "Florida, or cutting out?"
"Both." The yellow-suited Ray looked out the window. "I want to get away from the group for awhile. I want to get out of this goodwill tour through Hell. I want to get out of this union suit for a long, long time."
"So why are you asking me? Go do it."
"Asking you because we've been buddies for a long time. I don't want to go alone."
"Oh." The Human Bomb turned over on his side. "So you do want to get away from us, but you don't want to get away from us. Or at least me."
"Come on, Bomb, you know what I mean." The Ray let a spark of light fly from one of his forefingers to the other. "It's one thing being with five others all the time. It's another, just being with a buddy."
Roy sighed. "Hap, we've been together since the Forties. Is it scary to you to be out on your own, without one of us to hold your hand?"
"I wouldn't say that."
"And in my case, it might be dangerous."
"Not with your gloves on." The Ray smiled.
"Well," said the Bomb, "I'll consider it. That's my level of commitment right now. I don't know that I'm into that Bing Crosby-Bob Hope thing."
"Doesn't have to be quite like that, Junior," said Terrill, standing up and doing a miserable Crosby imitation. "Just two old guys, living on government money, seeing what the world has to show us. Or maybe even who the world has to show us, eh?"
"Oh, please," said the Bomb, turning face down. "I get enough show-but-don't-touch from Sandy. Aggravating little bitch."
"There's gals that show as much as Sandy does these days. And some of them'll let you touch. That's why they show it."
"Would be nice," opined Roy. He turned his head to look at the Ray, sardonically. "Think they'd mind a guy who keeps his gloves on?"
"As long as you can keep that Bomb power from coming out of other places."
"Don't worry about that."
"Well, then?" The Ray leaned against the wall, and waited.
"Because it's sunny and a hell of a long ways away from here."
"It's an idea," admitted Roy.
The Ray waited.
"Let's see how it goes after the thing here," said Roy. "I've got to admit, I'd like to put this suit away for a long time, myself."
Happy Terrill grinned. "Okay, Bomb-brother. We'll book a couple of tickets to the Everglades after you come to your senses."
"If you wait for that," said the Bomb, "we'll never get there."
Sandy Knight and Tom Wright were lying in bed in Sandra's hotel room with considerably less than their friends were wearing. He had his well-muscled arm about her shoulders, and her head was resting on his neck.
So why did he feel that she was so distant.
"Sandy," he said, breaking the silence.
"Sandy, I think I want to ask you to marry me."
"That's nice, Tom." She stretched her body into a new position, not minimizing her contact with him or opening her eyes. "That's very nice."
"Nice enough for you to do it?"
She didn't answer.
Tom ran his fingers through her black hair. "Come on, Sandy. We've been doing this for, what, how many years?"
Sandy said, "Never ask a lady how long she's been making love with you, Tom. She may stop doing it."
"Look at me, Sandy."
When she wouldn't, he put his hand under her chin and turned her head to face him. She opened her eyes.
"Sandy, we can't keep on as if we were twenty-five," said the Black Condor. "We haven't been twenty-five for a few decades now."
She put her arms around him and drew his head a bit closer. "Physically, we have. I can show you that right now, if you wish." Sandra kissed him.
Reluctantly, he disengaged. "Come on, now, Sandy, get serious. I mean, what we have now is great. I wouldn't give it up. But I want something more."
He paused. "Yeah."
"With commitment comes confinement, with confinement comes dissatisfaction, lack of freedom, pounding one's fists and head against the walls, and finally comes insanity," said Sandra Knight. "And with insanity comes commitment."
"You've got it all figured out, haven't you?"
"I don't know," she said, letting go and lying face down in the bed, the sheet down to the small of her back. "But I have got some things figured out."
The Condor touched her again, on the back. She did not resist. He lay his head against her shoulder blade. "Have you figured out us?"
"Never ask a lady that kind of question, either, Tom."
"What the hell kind of questions should I ask you?"
"Try what I want for breakfast."
She hugged her pillow. "I want to fly around the world, see how it's coming along with waking up after its nightmare. I want to see different kinds of people, and not have to fight them. I want to meet other kinds of men and women. Not the ones that wear costumes, or military uniforms."
"And what do you want to do with them?" asked Tom.
"With the women, talk politics and make sure they have the vote and know what to do with it. With the men, all sorts of things."
Tom Wright sighed. "Sandra. What about us?"
"Oh, we're still fine, Tom. I still like what you do to me."
"But you..." He hesitated again. "But you don't want to stop..."
"Haven't considered it," she said. "If you mean, stopping with you."
"That's not what I meant," he said.
She turned around in bed, displaying her face and upper body to him. "If you mean, stopping with everybody else, no. I haven't considered that, either."
He struggled to keep his face from showing anger. She smiled, teased the hairs of his chest with her fingertips. "Don't do that, Sandy," he warned.
"I've been fighting a long time, Tom," she said. "A long, long time. Now I want something else. I'm going to have as much as I want of it."
"Sandy, we're not as young as we once were," Tom warned. "Sowing your wild oats, it's a thing of the past."
"Maybe I've got a lust for nostalgia," she said. "And for other things."
"Dammit, haven't you considered love?" He held her shoulders to the bed, forcing her to look at him. "And family? And even how I feel? How everybody else feels?"
She began to wrap her legs around him. "Sandy," he warned.
"I'll let you know afterwards," she said.
Afterwards, he felt as though a filter of red gauze had been imposed over his eyes. It faded, and he lay back against the dampened and tangled sheets. He breathed heavily.
He felt the level of the bed sagging and then rising as a weight was taken off of it.
"Sandy," he said, loudly enough to be heard.
She turned to him, her fine body naked, and waited on him.
"You said you'd tell me."
Sandra said, "Tom, Martha was right. I need time away from the group. So do you. I want to forget that I have to be the Phantom Lady for awhile. You need to learn to be somebody other than the Black Condor. The war is over, Tom. We won. Now we've got other lives, and we have to learn how to live them."
"What about us? Can't we do it together?"
She crossed her arms over her breasts. "Not right now."
He resisted the impulse to jump at her and throttle her. "So," he said. "I'm not enough for you, right now?"
"I'm not sure that I want any man to be enough for me, Tom," she said. "But you do fine, when I need you."
"Suppose I say to hell with you, and don't go after you anymore?"
She shrugged. "Your decision. But I don't think you will."
"Suppose I find somebody else?"
"Sandy, you've forgotten something."
She arched one eyebrow, microscopically.
"Without Sam, we'll begin to age again," he said. "And you won't be with Sam."
"I've never been with Sam," she said. "With you, and with some others, but never with Sam. As for my age--" She spread her arms and turned, then looked at him over one shoulder. "--I think I've got a few good years yet. See you, Tom, I'm going to shower."
She went to the bathroom door, opened it, went inside, and locked it.
He considered battering it down with his fists. It was only wood.
But he wouldn't give her the satisfaction.
Swearing softly, Tom Wright got out of bed, got into the clothes he had left on a chair nearby, and let himself out.
The Commandant watched from the edge of the crowd as the idiotic mayor made his introductory speech.
"I hesitate," the mayor said, standing on the wooden platform with the six costumed vermin, "to use the metaphor of darkness and dawn. For many of us, my friends, we had lived through darkness for so long a span that we had forgotten there was anything but night. Worse yet, forgotten that there was a night. When we held power, we forgot justice. When we held the reins of control, we forgot about righteousness. When we made ourselves kings of the world...we forgot about the King of the Universe."
Uncle Sam inclined his head a bit at that remark, and, though most in the crowd kept a respectful silence, a few muted "amen"s were heard. The Commandant caught that, and cursed the fools silently.
Mayor Brandt kept on. "And yet, when our fall came, let us remember, it could have been more severe, more brutal, than it was. We might have been paid back in our own coin. Thankfully, it was not like that. And for that, we can thank foremostly the persons whom I introduce to you again...the ones without whom, not only would we not have had freedom, but not known of its very existence. Fellow Berliners, I give you the Freedom Fighters!"
With that, the sextet of heroes stepped forward, and Uncle Sam waved, receiving a show of applause. There was some cheering. Perhaps it was less than they would have liked, but then again, Germans tended to be more reserved about such approval. Also, when Doll Man considered the programmatic response their forefathers had shown at Hitler rallies--"Sieg--" "HEIL!", "Sieg--" "HEIL!"--he was satisfied with what they showed.
Uncle Sam stepped to the microphone to make his address. "Thank ye, Mayor Brandt," he began. "It's not been a long time since we've been on this soil, but it's been an awfully long time since we've been here as friends. Therefore, it's like a new country altogether, and I'm glad to be here as your guest. So are the rest of my crew, and we're hoping that our hands will nevermore be raised against one another in battle, but clasped in the true gesture of friendship. Like this." With that, he grasped Brandt's hand and pumped it, holding it long enough for a good photo-op...Sam had learned about such things, in recent times...and was glad that the cheering sounded a little less formal, this time.
Brandt beamed. With this kind of capital, reelection might not be such a chancy thing.
"A lot of you know about the enslavement of the world, and yourselves, by Hitler's mind-machines," said Sam, grasping his lapels. "For a long time, though few of us knew it, we were under the control of a nonhuman agency. But that doesn't free us of the burden of responsibility. It was men who made those machines to control other men's minds. Men who thought they could dominate their horrors...but, in the end, found what all such men find: that the horrors dominated them. When the machines found that the leaders who had created them were imperfect, they killed them. Then they ruled, in secret. But never forget that those machines were created by men, to further human tyranny. And, by doing so, those machines showed us another horrible and object lesson in the cost of such tyranny.
"That lesson is, my friends, never abdicate...NEVER abdicate...control of yourself, or your government, to absolute authority. For to do so is not only to become the victim of a machine, but to become a machine yourself!"
The words, the Commandant sneered internally, were bland as week-old bread. But the fools were cheering that walking metaphor for American imperialism as if he had brought them from Mount Sinai himself.
O Germans, knew you not Hitler?
Well, the time had almost come to remind them of such. His wrist was paining him a bit. But he flexed the metallic thing that served him for a hand, and it felt a bit better after that.
Uncle Sam waited for the applause to die down. "Now, we've brought a little memento of our own. It appears to be a statue of silver. But, in reality, it is the figures of two men, frozen in silver. Two men who came from our world, but who, like us, went to another world for a time. One of them was our friend, the Firebrand, who fought against the tyrannic powers. The other was the Silver Ghost, who, in times past, had fought for such tyranny. They met on that other world, and the Ghost unleashed his power against Firebrand. But the power backfired, and turned on both of them, rendering them both statues...and, so far as we can tell, lifeless. This, again, is another metaphor of the danger of tyranny's power...that, in time, it consumes the wielder as well as its target. We bring you this gift today, and urge you to accept it, and treat it reverently. Today, for good, for ill, or both...the Firebrand and the Silver Ghost have come home."
With that, several attendants pulled ropes attached to the tarp on the stone platform behind the wooden one upon which the Fighters and Mayor Brandt stood. The afternoon sunlight gleamed off the first surfaces to be reflected. The crowd beheld a surface which, indeed, did appear to be sterling silver.
As more of the tarpulin came off, and finally fell to the ground, they saw the two figures in full. One was dressed like a masked gypsy, a powerful maverick hero who had been known to friend and foe alike as the Firebrand. The other was a costumed figure of lesser notoriety, except among some who recognized his face, for his masked identity was more famous on Earth-One than on Earth-X. He was known on this world as Raphael Van Zandt, a traitor. On Earth-One, he had taken the identity of the Silver Ghost.
Both their hands were grasped in a struggle which would probably be unending, thanks to the power-gone-awry of the Ghost's silver-transmuter. Their faces, only inches from each other, seemed to show the strain.
There was a moment of silence. At that point, the Commandant raised his wrist to his mouth, and said into a concealed communicator, one word: "Now."
No more than 500 feet away, an attendant drew two breaths nervously, and turned a key in a lock. Relays were thrown. A figure, frozen in stasis, began to stir within a concrete block.
The attendant, and the others of his group, began to exit the installation, built covertly under the streets of Berlin. After the first three steps, all were running.
"Will she know?" asked one guard, breathlessly. "Will she know?"
The one whom he addressed didn't bother looking at him. "It won't matter now!" she snapped.
The group made it to a ladder that led to a room with a door that came out on an alleyway, and they all managed to make it out. They struggled to keep from running once they were out in the open.
Now, it was all up to the being whom they had unleashed.
The Commandant could have run as well, but he had faith. He preferred to stay. He felt that the instincts of the being whom they had created...well, at least amalgamated...would run true. It would be a spectacle he could not afford to experience at second hand.
The crowd was applauding the unveiling of the statue, and Sam was about to introduce Doll Man to make his short speech, which length Darrell was sure to make a joke about.
Everything was interrupted by the crashing of two female fists through concrete and asphalt.
The onlookers near the site of this action scurried away as though a meteor had struck there. Gasps, screams, terror. A few were hit by concrete fragments, though none was badly injured.
A woman grasped the sides of the hole she had made, and climbed through it to the street above.
A woman with hell in her eyes.
Her aspect belied her ferocity and power. To look at her was to see beauty. A blonde in a very short bluish dress with a motif not unlike that of a patriotic American, with a strange, unlit torch stuck in her golden belt.
But her eyes and her opened mouth suggested something more of a Greek Fury, scouring the crowd in search of a victim to bring back to Tartarus for dismemberment.
The men and women nearest her, and those nearest them, in a chain reaction, parted before her. They began to run. Some few were hurt in the running, though, thankfully, not many.
Uncle Sam, Doll Man, Phantom Lady, the Ray, the Human Bomb, and the Black Condor took note of the activity, as did Martha Roberts, sitting in the front row before the platform. Sam shaded his eyes, and, as he beheld the crowd part sufficiently before the oncomer to allow him to see her, dropped his jaw in abject surprise.
"Usa," he said, in a voice barely above a whisper. "Usa!"
A second after that, the torch was in her hand.
A second after that, a flame of power leaped from it, and blasted towards the Freedom Fighters.