The terrorists holding the Museum of Natural History had been decent enough not to take more than ten hostages. The rest they let go. That was their only mark of charity.
A few of the people they had been holding had been beaten. When one of the captive guards tried to intervene, he was pistol-whipped. One of the terrorists wanted to shoot him. The head man wouldn’t allow it.
“Save your bullets,” he advised. “We may need them later.” The boss was a thrifty sort.
Their band was without ideology. All they consisted of was a fairly smart guy on top, who knew how to build bombs and how to strategize in chancy situations. The seven men in the hoods and camouflage uniforms were out for the money, and their leader was showing them a way to make more of it than they could ever have dreamed.
The clock, in the meanwhile, was running down.
“I say we shoot one of ‘em and shove ‘em out a window to let the putas know we mean business,” said one of the terrorists in a reasonable tone. “That way we can get out of here, have dinner, go to bed at a decent hour.”
“You are crazy, my friend,” chuckled a second. “Anyone who thinks we’re going to keep regular hours tonight has to be crazy.”
“Watch your mouth, smart boy,” said the first one, his hand hovering near his pistol.
“I can’t, without a mirror,” said the second, with deadly calm. “Want to see my knife through your arm, amigo? Just make a move.”
The command came from their leader, Mr. H, who was carrying enough plastique to wipe out the entire block. “Both of you, stand down and keep your heads straight. We’re playing for five million dollars here. Isn’t that enough to keep you from each other’s throats?”
“For the moment,” admitted the first man, and the tension lessened a bit.
“Only for the moment,” agreed the second, sinisterly.
“Good,” said the leader, who had no intention of sharing the ransom with his underlings. “Now. If you please, check out the window. If the cops are readying any SWAT teams, I’d like to have a little advance warning.”
That was when the yellow smoke started pouring in.
“Wha–!” The seven terrorists looked at the gas, emerging in a great golden billow from a doorway into the next room. Their guns were out, and they fired in the direction of the yellow smoke, shattering several objects in the room beyond.
A small section of the roof above them, cut with a flexible sawblade, fell in and banged one of them over the head. Two lines dropped through the hole, and two men slid down the lines so quickly that both terrorists and hostages could scarcely credit their eyes.
“Down, all of you!” yelled the faceless one to the hostages, and knew some of the terrorists would follow his advice as well. As his feet touched the carpeted floor, he crouched low and avoided a blast from a machine pistol. Nasty, he told himself. But no less than he expected.
The Question launched himself forward and plowed into the thug’s midsection. The bad man tried to fight back, but his attacker really didn’t have time for it. An upward strike to the chin lay him out. Six to go.
Thunderbolt, his eyes protected from the enveloping smoke by filters the Question had given him, was losing no time. The lives of innocents were endangered. Those who endangered them would soon regret it, as they had never regretted anything before. He hit the ground, rolling forward in a series of somersaults, his red-and-blue-clad form too much of a blur for the terrorists to hit. But he kept his path well away from the hostages, drawing fire away from them.
Then he sprang at two of them, his arms outstretched, snagging their heads together and cracking their craniums against each other on the fly. With his arms still around their necks, he somersaulted, pushing off of the unconscious men before they could fall, and coming down with both feet against the face of a third hood. His target fell flat, his nose smashed, his mind shut down, and his weapon fallen from his hand.
The gas was making it hard for the hostages and remaining terrorists to see, which was just what the Question had planned when he released it. He had no fancy gimmicks to proffer besides that, and had never needed them. A burst of machine-pistol fire almost stitched him...worse, got close to a woman and her child, huddled against a wall. Beneath his faceless mask, the face of Vic Sage tightened in a snarl.
His foot came up in a high kick, aided by a steel-reinforced toe in his shoe, and exploded against the jaw of the man who had fired. The terrorist dropped, his jaw broken. The Question’s foot came down on his head twice more, to make certain he was out.
One of the remaining two of their foemen gaped at what he had just seen. The leader of the group shouted, “Shoot! Shoot, dammit!” The terrorist assumed the boss was talking about one of the interlopers, not one of the hostages. He brought his gun up, trying to aim it at the man without a face.
He didn’t get very far. An arm snaked from behind him and wrenched the gun skyward. A knee caught him right where it hurt, even through the padding he had been careful to wear. The hero’s other arm sought out his neck, touched a nerve, rendered him unconscious. The terrorist slumped to the floor, with Thunderbolt still holding his gun and gun arm pointed upward.
The danger was hardly ended.
The leader of the gang still held a weapon and a quantity of plastique. He’d seen his men go down, one by one, and knew he had little to lose by what he did next, except for his life. He was holding the plastique in one arm and had a machine pistol in the other. With his gun hand he sprayed an arc of bullets around the room, above the level of the hostages, who were lying flat on the floor, but at gut-level for both of his attackers.
The Question had already seen his motion and had dropped to the floor and rolled. The bullets went harmlessly over his body, shattering statuary, destroying wooden cases, embedding themselves in valuable books.
Thunderbolt had crouched and sprang at the same time, launching himself upward on muscles that uncoiled with a force beyond that of an Olympic athlete. Peter Cannon, who was an avid fan of athletics, often watched track and field events and was depressed that he was barred from competition. But the players who ran, jumped, vaulted, hurdled, hurled, and did all the rest did not have the advantage of years of study of the High Abbot’s sacred scrolls.
The man in blue and red javelined towards the ceiling, a full fourteen feet upward, brushing the sound-retarding tiles with his shoulders, arcing down perfectly. The terrorist had time to pull out his triggering mechanism from his coat pocket. But watching the human missile come down at him, he had to hesitate in disbelief. Nobody could make that kind of jump. Nobody. Except in the comic books.
The Question’s kicking leg hit him in the back of the knees as Thunderbolt’s tennis-shoed feet came down on his face. He fell. On the way down, the Question wrenched the trigger device away from his hand, covering it with his body as he sprawled.
Thunderbolt landed with both feet astride their foe’s head, then quickly spun and grabbed the plastique away from his chest, where the man lay senseless on the floor. The masked man pulled metal wires out of the explosive mass, disarming it with a motion.
The Question, regaining his feet, breathed a bit easier. “You did that nicely,” he said.
“So did you,” said Thunderbolt, but the grim set of his jaw didn’t change. “Just wish we didn’t have to.”
“I understand,” said the Question.
“No, you don’t.” Thunderbolt stared out at the scene. The yellow smoke was settling, revealing seven fallen men and ten terrified hostages. But more than that: shattered statuary, damaged books, wreckage of a place which was meant, culturally, to be a bulwark against that which they had just experienced.
“Jackals,” said Thunderbolt. “Destroying life. Destroying art. They would be paid for doing such things. They should receive death.”
“That is up to the state,” the Question said, gently, moving closer to him.
“Don’t worry,” said Thunderbolt. “I never kill. And these people need us.”
“I need you, too,” said the Question. “Let’s get them untied and get out of here. We need to talk.”
The Bug headed for New York City, and the Blue Beetle wondered if he should have told Captain Atom and Nightshade who he really was. Then again, they hadn’t revealed their identities to him. So what was the point?
He’d only wanted to be a good scientist, and that he was. How the heck did he get sidetracked into wearing a union suit, piloting a giant, flying beetle-ship, and fighting crooks in weird costumes with weirder gimmicks?
Because it had been handed down to him, and because he believed in justice.
Ted Kord hadn’t been out of college all that long when he learned of a plot by his uncle, Jarvis Kord, to create a host of powerful robots and use them to loot and conquer. He had thought Uncle Jarvis was dead, but it turned out to be only a fake job. And the robots had been created by a procedure discovered by Ted himself.
He showed the film he’d discovered, which depicted Jarvis putting his robots through their paces, to a friend and colleague, Dr. Daniel Garrett. Dr. Garrett had agreed to go with him to Pago Island, from which the film was said to have come, to investigate.
Both of them were discovered on that island and captured by Jarvis’s powerful robots. The machine men brought them to their controller. He informed them of his plan to carve out an empire for himself once the robots were in mass production, and then told the robots to crush Ted and Dan.
Ted felt the steely arms of the robot constricting about his chest at the same time he saw Dan manage to pull a small scarab of sapphire from his pants pocket and say two words: “Kaji dha.”
He had no idea what the words meant, or what language they were in. All he knew was that, with a burst of power, Dan Garrett was transformed into the super-powered crusader known as the Blue Beetle.
The Beetle had strength enough to tear himself away from the robot and to free Ted in turn. “Find a hole and hide,” he advised, as he waded into the metallic horde.
The Blue Beetle was winning, which made it all the more tragic when Jarvis played his hole card.
The madman, thinking himself safe in his control room, sent a surge of current through his robots that destroyed them but managed to deliver an electrocuting shock to the scarab-powered super-hero.
What Jarvis did not bargain on was a feedback effect that blew up his control room, and himself with it.
In the end, after the smoke had cleared, the only sounds Ted Kord heard were his own breathing, and the groaning of the Blue Beetle.
Ted made his way over to the Beetle, who lay half-pinned under debris and bleeding. His red visor had been blasted away. Before that moment, Ted Kord had no idea of what the phrase “dying eyes” meant. He knew its meaning now.
“He couldn’t fake that,” Ted said. “He’s dead this time. My uncle is dead. Dan...I’m okay...how about you?”
“I’m afraid I’ve had it,” the Beetle admitted.
“Dan,” said Ted, coughing as he did so, “I’ll get help. I’ll get to the, the mainland. I’ll bring back a doctor.”
The Blue Beetle tried to get up, fell back, and coughed hard, bringing up some blood. “It’s too late, Ted. Way too late. But thanks, anyway.”
“Ted,” said the Beetle, “just listen.”
With as few words as he could manage, the Blue Beetle told Ted Kord of how Daniel Garrett, in his capacity as an archaeologist, had found the sacred blue scarab in the tomb of an Egyptian pharaoh, and how, picking it up, he was mentally transported to the chamber of a long-dead priest of the scarab god who informed him of the talisman’s great power, and to what uses it must be put.
When he had emerged from the vision, Dan Garrett found himself clad in the costume of the mighty Blue Beetle.
He had used the powers inherent in the scarab to help him fight an evil Middle Eastern general and a risen mummy, then went on to battle foes such as the Red Knight, the Praying Mantis Man, the Scorpion, Magno, and others.
Now he had fought his last battle.
“Ted,” said the Beetle. “You must keep my secret. Promise me you’ll carry on. For the Blue Beetle. You can do it. Promise me.”
Dan said the only thing he could think of to say. “I promise, Dan.”
“Then,” said Dan Garrett, pointing at the sapphire scarab on his belt, “take this.”
As Ted Kord reached for it, an ominous creaking sound came from above. He looked up.
The ceiling was collapsing.
Instinctively, Ted threw himself backward. The ceiling came down, and tons of rock came down with it. Ted stumbled away from it, forcing himself down the tunnel which led to Jarvis’s laboratory, trying to keep ahead of the collapsing cave ceiling.
He had not managed to take Dan’s scarab.
But he did manage to escape the cave, and collapsed on the beach of the island. The tide came in and went out, wetting his face. All Ted Kord could manage to do was mutter over and over again, “I promise, Dan, I promise.”
Then, spent, he fell asleep.
The explosion had drawn the attention of the Coast Guard. They found Ted Kord there, brought him back to the mainland, and delivered him to the police.
He started to tell them everything, then stopped himself.
How could he tell them that Dan Garrett was the Blue Beetle, if he intended to carry on in Dan’s stead himself?
“I don’t remember,” said Ted.
The cop doing the interrogation had looked at him skeptically. “You don’t remember?”
“I don’t remember,” said Ted. “Just...an explosion. Things falling. Lots of, lots of smoke. I don’t remember. That’s all.”
The cop had leaned forward. “Mr. Kord, it’d be in your best interest to remember. According to your own admission, Dr. Dan Garrett went with you and didn’t come back. What happened to him?”
Ted had drawn a shaky breath. “I remember he came with me. To Pago Island.”
“Because of that film you told us about,” said the cop. “The one with the robots and your uncle.”
Ted Kord nodded. “But I don’t know what happened.”
Another cop had said, “Sarge, he got a bump on his head. You see it. Maybe he really does have amnesia.”
“Maybe,” said the interrogator. “Maybe.”
In the end, Kord had stuck by his story, and they had to let him go. He did not consent to a polygraph exam. He was within his rights.
But Detective Mike Fisher was suspicious, and wanted to find a way around those rights.
In the meantime, Ted Kord went back to his laboratory and to the defunct factory he had inherited from his father, Ralph. Some of the robotic processes had gone into the creation of a large, anti-grav powered skyship, but only certain sections had been completed.
Ted Kord looked at what was there, and visualized the form of the craft he wanted to build.
The form of a giant, flying beetle.
It took months, working alone. It took money, of which, thanfully, he had a great amount. At the same time, he had to devise a costume both like and unlike the one worn by his predecessor, in two tones of blue, with a mask that couldn’t be torn apart or taken from his head by anything but the touch of his finger on an electronic lock under his chin.
He also created the Beetle Gun, which shot a dazzling flash of light at anyone standing in front of it, and yellow lenses to protect his own eyes from the flare.
The toughest part was keeping the entire operation secret from his personal assistant, Tracy Case. But he managed that, turning up bleary-eyed for work every day, and telling her only that he was involved in something top-security. She didn’t like it, but she had to accept it.
Then, finally, one night it came together.
Karl “Killer” Koke and his gang had been terrorizing Hub City with a series of bank robberies. One night, he chose the wrong time for his latest job. He and his mob emerged from the City National Bank with large sacks of cash...
...and a huge, metallic, blue-painted beetle hovering overhead like a monster from Hell or a Japanese movie.
From a hole in the bottom of its “head” dropped a character on a metallic cable, holding onto a handle. He landed on the sidewalk near Koke and his boys, and announced, “Looks like the Blue Beetle is about to crash a going-away party!”
Ted admitted, even to himself, that his dialogue could use a bit of work. But he waded into the mobsters with both fists and both feet, and, when one of them complained that “He ain’t the Blue Beetle I once seen!”, answered, “No, I’m not! But you fellas will be hurtin’ just as much when I’m through with you!”
It was a brave statement. But the new Blue Beetle backed it up, plowing through the villains with reinforced gloves and boots. He had met Koke’s men, and they were going down.
Then the guy in the getaway car drove by them and pitched a stun-grenade at him, and the Beetle went down himself.
One of the mob tried to tear the Beetle’s mask off, to learn if he was sent by a rival mob. No soap. The mask wouldn’t tear, and it wouldn’t come off. Koke motioned his man back, and had his .38 out, ready to finish the job.
The cops showed up at that moment, and Koke and his men piled into the car and started their getaway.
Reviving in time to see the car taking off, the Beetle used his glove-controls to summon the Bug, grabbed its catch-bar, and was yanked back inside its control room by the retracting cable. When one of the cops yelled at him, “Hey, who in heck are you, anyway?”, he yelled three words down to them, and hoped they heard.
“The Blue Beetle!”
Then he was off in the Bug, to find his quarry. And he did, seeing the careening green sedan speeding off in the direction of the waterfront. They were well on the way to making a successful escape.
That was before they felt the car being picked up off the ground by four metal pincers which locked onto the sides of the vehicle with incredible power.
Koke’s boys tried to put holes in the Bug, which they couldn’t, or into its driver, which was equally unlikely. The Beetle yanked the control yoke and put the Bug on its back in the air, and the carful of hoodlums thumping down on their heads.
A few more good shakes and they were ready to behave.
The Bug took the Koke car back to the bank, where it deposited the mobsters neatly before the contingent of police. Then, before any questions could be asked, the giant beetle soared up into the night and was gone.
Koke was white-faced, with both hands in the air. “Don’t shoot!” he begged. “We give up! Just don’t let that Beetle guy get hold of us again!”
And Hub City found itself with a new Beetle.
More cases ensued, often against adversaries with flashy names like the Masked Marauder, the Squids, the Madmen, and the Men of the Mask. Some of them involved Tracy herself, and the Beetle finally took her into his confidence and revealed his identity and origin to her. But the same information couldn’t be given to Detective Fisher, who was bound and determined to learn what had happened to Dan Garrett on Pago Island. Eventually the inquest was ended, when an impostor of Dan’s had turned up and was finally killed in a foreign land. The cops decided that Dan Garrett was officially dead, and Ted Kord didn’t disabuse them of that notion.
The Blue Beetle’s own position in society was often questioned. When his flash-gun was stolen by the Madmen, rumors grew in the public mind that the weapon was a disintegrator or some such, and demands for his arrest grew more strident than those demanding the apprehension of the Madmen. He captured the Madmen and demonstrated the true nature of his gun, and many decided that he was a hero. But those did not include the student radicals who championed the cause of an antihero called Our Man, who was devoted to destroying art exhibits that portrayed the heroism he despised. Nonetheless, the Beetle prevailed.
That time, he’d gotten a little help from a crusading reporter named Vic Sage.
The Blue Beetle wrapped things up with a battle against a half-seen opponent called the Specter, and then turned to Tracey, who had been a valued aide to him in his career ever since he confided in her and said, “Want to get married?”
Her response was in the affirmative, roughly.
So Ted Kord and Tracey Case had tied the knot, and the Blue Beetle’s career had been put on hold while the two of them made preparations for starting a family, and renewed their commitment to Kord Laboratories, Inc. The business had grown, and Ted and Tracey found few problems that demanded the presence of the Blue Beetle.
Then came the news of the escape of several of the Beetle’s old foes.
And now, here he was. In the Bug again, with Captain Atom and Nightshade beside him.
“Well,” said the Beetle, with the skyscrapers of New York in sight on the horizon, “looks like we’re here.”
“According to the news reports,” said Atom, “Thunderbolt’s been seen taking down a mob of terrorists in a museum. They said a man without a face was helping him.”
“The Question,” said the Beetle. “I’ve heard of him, but I’ve never worked with him. When did you hear the report?”
“Just now,” said Captain Atom.
The Beetle frowned at him. “What do you mean, ‘just now’? I didn’t turn on the radio.”
“Cap doesn’t need a receiver to hear the radio,” explained Nightshade. “He is the receiver.”
“Great,” the Beetle muttered. “Okay, I guess we’ll put out the announcement when we get over Manhattan.”
“No need to wait that long,” said Captain Atom. “Can I get you to move your seat back?”
The Beetle shot him a look, then moved his control chair backwards down a track. It exposed a port in the floor, and Atom dropped through it. Considering they were over a thousand feet up, the Beetle couldn’t stop himself from shuddering. Through the opening, he saw a trail of sparkles.
“He’ll get the message to them,” said Nightshade, smiling.
Looking at her, the Blue Beetle decided he could get to dislike this pair, given very little time.
The Question and Thunderbolt sat in the shadow of a rooftop water tower and discussed matters which had brought the faceless man to New York.
“One of my old enemies, the Banshee, seems to have been recruited by men who could be from your jurisdiction,” the Question said. “Plus we’ve gotten reports of supercriminals being liberated from prisons all over.”
“I’ve heard,” admitted Thunderbolt. “It may be tied into the same gang which stole the mummy of one of my old foes.”
“The mummy?” The Question wondered just what irrationalities lay ahead of him now that he was in Thunderbolt’s corner.
“It’s difficult to explain,” Thunderbolt said. “I’ve never worked with, you might say, a costumed partner before. But if we have to...”
The Question was about to say that he didn’t consider his business suit to be a costume when, over Thunderbolt’s shoulder, he saw something that made him start. He pointed with one gloved hand. “Look there,” he said.
Thunderbolt turned and looked.
In the evening sky, words of fire were written:
THUNDERBOLT AND QUESTION: CAPTAIN ATOM WANTS TO CONTACT YOU.
After a moment, the Question said, “What do you want to do now?”
“Find out where he is,” said Thunderbolt. “And have him find us.”