The Freedom Fighters:

 Return To Earth-X

 by DarkMark

 Part 5

The Ray had sense and reflexes enough to throw himself in the path of the torch-blast coming at himself and his comrades, and to assume his energy-form.

The flame was more than ordinary fire.  It held mystic energies whose power had not quite been calculated, and it was the weapon of Usa, the female counterpart of Uncle Sam.  As such, it battered Happy Terrill, knocked him back against the supports of the platform on which his friends stood.  But he endured it, absorbed its punch, and wondered simultaneously where Usa had been these last four decades and why she was trying to kill them.

At the same time, he threw back a light-force blast that pushed Usa back a few feet.  It didn't seem to hurt her much, though.

Uncle Sam was drop-mouthed.  He just couldn't believe it.  Of all people to attack the Fighters, how could it be Usa...his Usa?

Her face was twisted in a grimace of hate, and she was aiming her torch straight at Sam himself.

"Down, Sam!" yelled the Black Condor, and, seizing his shoulders, threw him flat on the platform.  The flame-burst went high overhead, burning part of the canvas drapery over the statues.  Whether anyone liked it or not, the unveiling was going on ahead of scheduled.

The part that was revealed showed Firebrand grappling with his arch-foe, the Silver Ghost. Both had been transformed into solid silver.  A few in the crowd whose morals were less than perfect wondered what chunks of the statuary could be sold for, if chipped off.

Doll Man, the Human Bomb, and Phantom Lady were already hopping over the rail of the platform, making for their attacker.  The mayor of Berlin had already been pushed flat on the floor, and he wasn't trying too hard to get up.  Good for him, thought Darrell Dane.

Martha Roberts was trying to find cover that would still enable her to see the battle.  The woman's torch could fricasee her in a minute, she knew.  But Doll Man was in combat.  And Doll Man, Darrell Dane, was the man she loved.

She wondered, given the danger he found himself in again, if she dared to love him more.

The Human Bomb slammed his hands together and a powerful wall of pressure and exploding gas burst forth from the contact.  The shockwave went right where he directed it, hitting Usa and knocking her down.  She dropped her torch.  The Black Condor swooped for it, grabbed it, and was about to take off again.

Unfortunately, he screamed in pain, letting the torch go from his burned fingers.  No one but Usa could safely hold the torch.  It fell on the grass, sizzling.

Usa, snarling, got up again and recovered her torch.

Doll Man leapt up from a spot near her shoes, holding his fists clenched before him, and bulleted upward towards her jaw.  He had a twinge about hitting a woman, but tried to block out his gallantry.  After all, she'd damned near just roasted himself and his teammates.

But Usa's jaw was hard, about as hard as that of Uncle Sam's.  They both could take a normal man's best blows without going under, probably without even going down.  It took something on the level of a bomb blast to knock either of them out, and probably a BIG bomb blast to destroy them.

Probably.

Darrell bounced off, yelping at the pain of his bruised hands, and then somersaulted in mid-air to avoid a fire-burst that seared the edge of his cape.

The Phantom Lady positioned herself square in front of Usa, and did not flinch as her fist lashed out with force enough to puncture metal.  It met considerably less resistance in Sandra Knight, who had made herself immaterial.  Usa's fist and arm went right through her, without disturbing her low-density form.

Sandra retaliated with a black-light blast, which blinded the raging woman for a bit.  But the flame-burst of her torch pierced the wall of blackness, and she followed it out of the zone of darkness.  Desperately, Phantom Lady turned her head towards the platform.

"Sam!" she yelled.  "We need you!"

The cops on the scene were trying to get the onlooking crowd back behind barricades, hoping the Freedom Fighters could handle the crazy woman with the flamethrower.  The only one on the platform still standing was, appropriately, Uncle Sam.

He looked like a man who had seen his one true love turned into a monster.  Which, of course, was appropriate.

But he forced himself, with a shake, to deal with the problem.  There was a foe, threatening his teammates and the populance at large.  He had fought against the Germans for many years.  Now, it was time to fight on their behalf.

Sam grasped the rail, vaulted across it, and landed on his heels on the grass below.  Then he began a sprint that took him straight at the enemy.  The enemy who was Usa.  The enemy who was pointing her flame-torch at him now, and letting loose a burst at him.

He took it, felt it burning power, smelled his jacket sizzle, and hoped he could get through this without too much need for Unguentine.  But the Spirit of America forged on, burst through the blaze, and grabbed both of Usa's arms, forcing them upward.

"That'll be enough, dear," he snapped with sooty face.

She spat at him.

For a moment, he thought he saw another countenance behind her beautiful face.  There was something in the eyes that reminded him of someone he had known, as many years ago as Usa.

Then she headbutted him, kneed him in the stomach, and threw him back.

The Black Condor divebombed down and smashed his feet into her face, knocking Usa onto her back.  "Sam, get up," he warned.  "I can't handle her alone!"

"You don't have to, Tom," hollered the Human Bomb.  He was next at Usa, smashing both hands open-palmed down at the fallen woman.  The blast from both hands would probably have put her away.

But Usa lifted her torch once again, and engulfed the Bomb in flames whose power could be felt even through his protective suit.  He cried out, fell, and rolled, trying to douse them.

Phantom Lady, looking on, was suddenly conscious of the voices not too far off to be heard.  "They can't stop her!  She's going to kill us all!"  "If they can't put her down...who will?"

And much more sinister than that, a frightened, "Oh, God.  Heil Hitler!"

As if the saying was a talisman which would protect them from the fury in a skirt.

She wheeled on the crowd with a vengeance.  "No.  No more of that, my friends.  No matter who we're facing...the Freedom Fighters will fight for you!"

With that, she abandoned her phantom-form and tackled Usa as she rose, bringing her down to the grass again.  But she had sense enough to become a phantom anew a second later, as Usa's hand reached for her throat.

The policemen and government agents were edgy, as well they might be.  They had to keep order, keep the crowd back and try to push them back further, get the mayor out of harm's way (which they did), and wonder whether or not to get the heroes the hell out of there and try guns on the crazy broad with the torch.  Black Condor swooped down from above and landed in front of the guy who seemed to be in charge of the cops.  He had a walkie-talkie, and said to the party on the other end, "Just a minute."

The Condor said, "If you would, sir, the Freedom Fighters need to handle this problem."

Heinrich Ganz, the guy in charge, said, "Can you give us an assurance than you can handle the problem, Herr Kondor?"

Tom Wright looked grim.  "If we can't, sir, you'll know, because some of us will be dead."

"That's not an acceptible answer from my standpoint, Herr Kondor," said Ganz.  "We need to keep order.  What is that woman, anyway?"

"She used to be one of us," said the Condor.  "Her name is Usa.  I don't know what's happened to her.  But if she needs to be brought down...we'll do it."

"There's doubt that she needs to be?"

"Not right now, I've got to admit," said the Condor.

"You'd better have it done within fifteen minutes," said Ganz.  "Otherwise, clear the area and my men will take charge."

"You've seen what she can do with that torch," said the Condor.  "Imagine her turning it on your men."

Ganz said, "Fifteen minutes. That is all."

Without a word, the Condor leaped back into the air.

In the crowd, a man with a metal hand grinned in triumph.

Uncle Sam had picked himself back up, shoved the Bomb aside, and rushed Usa.  "I hate to do this, dear, but you've forced me," he muttered.  He smashed an uppercut into Usa's jaw.

She swayed, almost stunned, then thrust the torch into Sam's face.

"NO!" cried Phantom Lady, in horror.  But Sam yanked his head back just in time. The torch-blast went over his face by a bare inch, singeing the end of his white goatee.  He smelled it as he fell back.  Usa grabbed for his lapel with one hand, tried to force the torch into his face again with her other.

He rammed his shoulder into her stomach, trying to forget she was a woman.  The two of them rolled on the ground several times, his hat falling off, his hand on her torch wrist.  Finally, she landed a blow to his chin that knocked him off.  The two separated, standing.  The other Fighters came near.

"Usa," he said, "what in tarnation has gotten into you?  Speak to me."

The woman's face twisted in a horrible grin.

"You wouldn't believe what's gotten into me, Uncle Sam," she said, in a voice not her own.

Sam's eyes widened incredibly.  Doll Man, seeing it, was dumbfounded.  "Sam, what's the matter?" he said.  "Besides what we already know, I mean."

The Spirit of America moved closer.  "I know you," he said, softly.  "I know that voice.  How did you get in her body?"

Usa replied, "You'll never know," and let loose a flame-burst that caught him in the midsection.

Sam had to duck and roll to put out the fire.  Part of his shirt and waistcoat were burned away, and his skin beneath it looked reddened.  The others figured he'd gotten off easily, at that.

But he looked as resolute as he ever had in his life, even while facing a German Panzer division in New Jersey.

"Sandy, Happy," he barked.  "From opposite sides, hit her, now!"

"What do you--" Usa started to say, and then was blinded from two different sides by two diametrically opposed sources: the black light of the Phantom Lady, and the intense candlepower of the Ray's brilliant beam.

"Tom, Roy, dive-blast!" instructed Sam.

The two superhuman soldiers had fought under Uncle Sam's direction so often that they executed the maneuver almost without thinking.  The Black Condor swung down, picked up the Human Bomb by the ankles, dragged him into the air, hands pointing downward, and then released him at an angle that brought his explosive palms into contact with Usa's head as she flailed blindly.

BOOM.

The impact knocked the Fighters off their feet, carved out a small crater in the ground, damaged part of the platform in front of the statue.  It also knocked the hell out of Usa.  When the smoke cleared, they saw her sitting or half-sprawling in the crater, shaking her head as if half-stunned, and groping about for her fallen torch.  She almost got her hand on it.

But Doll Man pounced on it first and bore it away, making it appear from some angles that the torch was running away by itself.

Seconds later, the Miniature Marvel passed the torch to a stooping Uncle Sam.  "Thank you, Darrell," Sam acknowledged.

Usa was getting to her feet.

Sam pointed the torch at her, summoned the energies within him, and let loose.

She was bathed in the cleansing flame of Liberty.

When the flames died down, some seconds later, there were two figures where one had been.  One of them was Usa, on her hands and knees, seeing apparently clearly enough, and looking around as if she was waking up from a particularly bad dream.

The other was a hideous-looking male character of the approximate dimensions and scar-bearing status of the Frankenstein Monster.  He seethed with rage, and his rage was directed at Uncle Sam.

The Ray had flown down to stand beside the white-haired man. "Sam, who is this guy?" asked Happy Terrill.  "Do you know him?"

"You bet I know him," replied Sam.  "Been awhile, hasn't it, King Killer?"

"Too long, Uncle Sam," said the thing of evil.  "Far too long."

Sam handed his hat to the Ray, and then started taking off his waistcoat.  The Phantom Lady trotted up to take it from him.  Sam's attention was on King Killer.  "How'd you get inside Usa's body?"

King Killer, walking slowly towards his enemy, rumbled, "They melded me with her when they captured her, many years ago.  We were waiting for the right moment.  It has come.  Inside her or outside her, I will destroy you, Uncle Sam."

The Spirit of America rolled up his sleeve.  He flexed his awesome bicep and balled a fist that would have awed John L. Sullivan.

"You asked for it," he said, "and your Uncle Sam is gonna give it to you."

The two adversaries lunged for each other.

Fist struck chin.

One flew backward with impressive arc and speed, crashing against the platform beside the statues, bringing the rest of it down upon him.  He was out for the count.

The Human Bomb looked at the Condor.  "Do we have to go dig him out?"

"Guess we do," said the Condor.  They started towards the pile of wood.  The cops, having decided the moment was ripe, joined them.

Phantom Lady and the Ray were with Sam, who was helping the bewildered Usa up from the grass.  Sandra Knight saw the great man's countenance and knew he was holding back tears.  At that sight, she barely held back her own.

"Sam," said Usa.  "Uncle Sam.  Is it...really you?"

"It's really me, dear," said Sam.  "And it's really you.  And we won."

"We won?" she said, in near-unbelief.  Then: "We WON!"

She grabbed Sam in a grip a dinosaur couldn't have broken and pressed her lips to his in an all-American smooch.  The Ray and Phantom Lady grinned.  So did Martha Roberts, who came out of hiding.

One man wasn't smiling.  The Iron Major, cursing, broke from the crowd and started trotting in the direction of the secret hatch to his headquarters.

He felt something grab his ankle and he fell down flat on his face.

"You'll have to excuse me," said Doll Man.  "But when I notice men with metal hands, it makes me suspicious."

 -F-

Minutes later, Heinrich Brandt and his bodyguard were conferring with the Freedom Fighters in front of the half-tarped statues.  King Killer had been led away in chains, and the cops had forced the Iron Major, one of the old Hitler henchmen Sam's band had fought more than once in the bad years, to take them to his co-conspirators, who were similarly arrested.

Usa and Sam had their arms around each other.

"I can't give you a clear picture of what happened to me," said Usa.  "I was taken by some Nazi operatives in a surprise raid...Fraulein Fury, the Son of Siegfried, and Kriegerin, I think.  When I awoke, I was strapped into what I thought was an electric chair.  Someone I couldn't see clearly was in a booth beside me.  There was a metal bowl over my head, and probably electrodes fastened to my scalp.  The last thing I saw was that man with the metal hand, throwing a switch.  Then...the next thing I saw was all of you, here.  What happened?"

"Like we knew," said the Human Bomb, adjusting his protective glove.  "What do you think happened, Sam?"

"Doesn't take a Pinkerton to figure it out," said Sam, smiling.  "The Iron Major's crew of scientists, and probably some of those damnable Black Legion magicians, found a way to merge King Killer with Usa.  Killer is what you might call my dark counterpart...the distillation of the nature of over a thousand criminals.  I fought him several times, back in the Forties.  They wound up with a being that had Usa's body and power, but King Killer's mind.  A living Trojan horse.  It had the power to destroy us all.  Would've been Hitler's final revenge."

Usa, looking as beautiful as ever, hugged Sam tightly.  "It was his final failure," she said.

Phantom Lady looked soberly at them both.  "Maybe not," she said.  "If your countrymen cannot rebuild, Herr Brandt, or if they fall prey to the old ways when they falter, or if we fail them, somehow...then this may not be the final battle."

"Perhaps not," answered the mayor.  "But let us hope that it is, Fraulein Phantom.  And let me give thanks to you, on behalf of myself, of Berlin, and of the free German people.  I could dwell on the symbolism of what has happened today.  But..."  He winked.  "Why bother?  It's too obvious."

The Ray said, "Guess we may as well unveil the statue.  Doesn't seem much use in keeping it covered up, now."

"Let me," said Black Condor, and launched himself upward.  He hovered over the tarpulin, and, taking it in both hands, zoomed further skyward.  He carried the tarp with him.

Unveiled below was the silver forms of Firebrand I, the masked guerilla fighter of Earth-X, and the Silver Ghost, Nazi collaborator who had gone to Earth-One and fought Uncle Sam's band there.  They were grappling, in just the position they had been in when the Ghost's silver-converter had short-circuited and turned them into gleaming metal sculptures.

The crowd applauded, though whether it was for the Condor's stunt, the statuary, or both, none could tell.

Sam said, "Both of them used to be alive, Usa.  That is, before the Ghost's device turned ‘em into metal.  The guy in the scarf-mask there used to be one of us."

Usa drew herself and Sam closer to the statue.  "They were once alive, Sam?"

"Yes," he said.

She raised her torch.  "Then perhaps they can live again."

She loosened the blast of Freedom's Fire.

The grappling statues were engulfed in it for a long moment.

The Freedom Fighters watched, not knowing what emotion to react with or suppress.  The others just wondered what the hell was going on.

And when the fireburst waned, two human figures sprawled upon the base of the statue.  They were wakening, much as Usa had been, less than an hour before.

The Silver Ghost shook himself to wakefulness.  What on Earth...whatever Earth one was on...was this?  He tried to orient himself.  As he looked around, he caught sight of several costumed figures.  Most of them were familiar.  His face split in a wicked grin.  He raised his hand, showing them the palm-ray that could turn people into silver statues.

A fist slammed into the side of his face, and he went down, falling off the statue base.  Firebrand, Rod Reilly, stood there.  He was as bewildered as the Ghost.  But he wasn't so befuddled as not to know when to punch out a bad guy.

Uncle Sam, Usa, the Ray, Martha Roberts, Doll Man, Phantom Lady, and the Human Bomb looked up at him.

"Welcome back," grinned Sam.

 -F-

The rest of the Fighters' stay in Berlin came off nicely, with Uncle Sam and Usa sharing a private car, Black Condor and Phantom Lady enconsced in another, the Ray, Firebrand, and Human Bomb batching it in a third, and Martha Roberts and Doll Man in a fourth.  Practically the whole city came out to see them off, and, after the leavetaking from Berlin, Darrell Dane sat at the table in his compartment again.

Martha was sitting across from him.

They were not touching.

"Which of us is supposed to speak first?" he asked.

"Guess you've already decided that," said Martha, softly.

"Yeah," he said, his right hand stealing towards the middle of the table.  "Martha.  Do you read palms?"

"Not very well," she said.  "And my crystal ball's in storage.  Maybe I can read your mind?"

"Um," he said.  "Sure you want to?"

"Let me try."  She closed her eyes, pressed her hands to her temples.  "Get that dirty image of me out of your brain, Darrell."

"Oh, sorry."

"It's just that it doesn't do me justice.  I'm much better-looking than that."  She paused.  "Okay.  You want to know if I'm going to stay."

"Yeah," he said.  "And?"

"You want to know if we're still in love."

He said, "Didn't know Roberts was a gypsy name."

"You want the answers to both these questions."

Darrell breathed, twice.  "If you please."

She took the hands from her head and covered his hands with them, opening her eyes.  "Darrell.  To the first, let me say...I'll try.  This isn't my world.  I'm not sure I like it.  But...I'll try."

"Good," said Darrell. "Maybe the most good thing I've heard in my life.  What about...the second?"

"I'll try that one, too," she said.  "There is at least one thing I like in this world, Darrell."

"Which is?"

"Uncle Sam."  She smirked, seeing him gape.  "And then you, of course, you dope.  Come here."

He barely had the chance to draw the blind.

He had no need to become Doll Man for a long time afterward.

 -F-

Uncle Sam and Usa took up housekeeping when they returned to America, and was accepted as a Freedom Fighter, though she stayed apart from the group for a time.  She and Sam had a lot of time to catch up on.

Roy Lincoln and Happy Terrill made plans for their trip to Florida, which was going to take place a month in the future.  Both of them had no plans to sever ties with the Freedom Fighters, though.  Despite their needing time to themselves, they knew more than ever now what the group meant to them.  And that, probably for the rest of their life, they would be part of it.

Firebrand planned to go to Earth-Two as soon as conditions were optimal, and find out what had happened to his sister.  He had not seen her since 1942, when she wore a costume like his own and had served, with her fire-casting powers, in the All-Star Squadron.

The Black Condor and Phantom Lady remained together for the present.  Uncle Sam and Usa's example seemed to rub off on them.  But privately, Tom Wright wondered how long it would be before Sandra Knight decided to fade from his grasp again.  And the Phantom Lady's thoughts were known only to herself.

The Doll Man and Martha Roberts planned to get married in a month, with Sam as the best man and Usa as the maid of honor.

All of this would have made a nice and fitting end to this story if everything had come off as planned, a month from the action's closing.

The problem with that was manifest a week or two afterward.

The skies started turning red.

*********

This one's for RJ.  And if you want to see more of the Fighters, check out "The Apokolips Agenda."

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