“We commend our dear friend’s spirit to the Lord,” the minister droned on in dulcet tones. When he was younger, he rehearsed in front of his mirror before every funeral service; by now, it was rote to him. Sometimes he wondered, as his own funeral inevitably approached, if the service would be said over him with the same ennui.
The mourners for Randall Stollman were many. He had no family left, but his friends were many, and to a one they turned out for his funeral. Lana Lang, one of his oldest and dearest friends, had come from Metropolis for the service. She had asked Clark Kent to accompany her, but he respectfully declined due to a professional commitment. This didn’t bother Lana, because Clark had never met Randall.
“Lana?” a voice familiar to her called. “Lana Lang?”
The young redhead looked up in pleasant surprise. “Bruce Wayne?” Lana had met the young billionaire a few times over the years, sometimes through their mutual friend, Clark Kent. The first time they met had been when they were mere teenagers, and Bruce moved to Smallville for a short time. In fact, Lana had been responsible for Bruce donning his very first costumed identity of the Flying Fox, who briefly became a partner to Superboy. (*) As adults, of course, they had also run into each other in their professional roles of Metropolis television journalist and Gotham City industrialist. “Bruce, it’s good to see you! I didn’t expect you to be here.”
[(*) Editor’s note: See “Origin of the Superman-Batman Team,” Adventure Comics #275 (August, 1960).]
“What, you don’t think the CEO of Wayne Enterprises attends the funerals of his employees?” Bruce asked good-naturedly. “I try to. I like to think of W.E. as less of a corporation and more of a family. And Randall was brilliant, make no mistake. He was on the verge of some really interesting stuff.”
“Computers was his field, wasn’t it?” Lana asked. “He told me about it a couple of times in his letters, but I have to confess it was over my head.”
“Yes, he was one of our brightest whiz kids in computer programming,” Bruce said. “I never knew he knew you, though.”
“We met when we were kids, through our fathers,” Lana explained. “Randall’s dad was an archaeologist, same as my father, as you know. They met in college and became the best of friends. I think our mothers kind of hoped for a romance between us, but you know me — back then, I only had eyes for Superboy!”
“Just as well,” Bruce commented. “I think Randall was married to his work. Many’s the time I’d come in at 5:30 in the morning for an overseas teleconference, and he’d already be here.”
“That was our Randall; his work was his life,” a new voice insinuated itself into the conversation.
“Oh, hello, Doug,” Bruce said as a handsome young man approached Lana and him. A sad-faced blonde woman held onto the young man’s arm. “Lana, let me introduce Doug Walters. He and Randall worked together in our software development division. Doug, this is Lana Lang, a childhood friend of Randall’s.”
“You’re Lana Lang?” Doug asked, shaking Lana’s hand. “Randall told me a lot about you. He thought of you as a sister.”
“We were very close when we were little,” Lana explained, “our fathers being such good friends. Randall’s dad took him along on a three-year dig when we were nine. I didn’t see much of him after that, but we kept in touch.”
“I still can’t believe he’s gone,” the blonde woman said, her voice trembling. “He was so young — so alive! And now — now–”
“Easy, Kathy, easy,” Doug said comfortingly. “Randall would have wanted us to be strong. Let’s honor his memory without tears.” Doug led Kathy away to get her something to drink.
“Hmph,” a middle-aged man with iron gray hair sniffed. “Downright disgusting, that.”
“Charles, I didn’t see you there,” Bruce said. “Lana, this is Charles Walker, Randall and Doug’s supervisor. What’s so disgusting, Charles?”
“The way Doug is moving in on Kathy,” Charles said. “Everyone knows he and Randall were romantic rivals for her. Doug is certainly losing no time in making his play. The corpse isn’t even cold, if you’ll allow me the vulgarity.”
“I see what you mean,” Bruce said, contemplating.
“Lana?” An older woman’s voice spoke tremulously. Lana turned to behold a gray-haired woman in her early sixties in mourning dress. “I don’t know if you remember me, dear…”
“Mrs. Stollman!” Lana cried, opening her arms to hug the mourning woman. “Of course I remember you! My God, it’s been ages and ages!”
“Please call me Clara, dear,” Randall’s mother said, choking back tears. “Oh, it’s so good to see you again! I only wish — I wish it–”
“I know,” Lana said, patting the woman’s back. When they released each other, Lana presented the woman to Bruce. “Bruce, this is Clara Stollman, Randall’s mother.”
“How do you do, ma’am?” Bruce asked politely, taking her hand. “Randall was one of my most valued employees, and I like to think we were more than that to each other. He will be deeply missed.”
“You’re so wonderful to say so,” Mrs. Stollman sniffled. “Lana dear, I have something for you.”
“For me?” Lana asked, surprised.
“Yes,” the mourning mother said, holding up a black leather case the size of a small briefcase. “Poor Randall didn’t make out a will; he was so young. But he always told me, if anything should ever happen to him, he — he wanted you to have these.” Mrs. Stollman handed Lana the case.
“Well, thank you, Carla. Thank you very much. It’ll be nice to have something to remember Randall by.”
“Please open it, dear,” Mrs. Stollman encouraged. “I’d like to see what you think.”
Lana smiled indulgently and flipped the latch on the case. She opened the lid and peered inside.
“Oh, my!” she exclaimed.
Lana looked inside the case. The interior was divided into seven sections by foam rubber partitions. Inside each section was a small wooden marionette, roughly eight inches high, crafted with great skill and attention to detail. The marionettes were tiny replicas of the seven original members of the Justice League of America.
“Carla, they’re beautiful!” Lana exclaimed. “I’ve never seen anything like them!”
“Randall carved them himself,” Mrs. Stollman said with pride.
“He did?” Lana gasped in amazement. “I never knew he did anything like this!”
“Oh, yes. When we were on the dig in Egypt when he was a boy, an old native attached to our expedition taught him wood-carving. He did it to relax; he said concentrating on it took his mind off other concerns.”
“Lana’s right, Mrs. Stollman, these are amazing!” Bruce said. He stared at the likeness of his other identity, Batman, in his original costume without the yellow oval around the bat-symbol. He was very impressed.
“I’m touched that Randall wanted me to have them,” Lana said. “I’ll treasure them always.”
Bruce started a bit. He had been staring at the Batman marionette. The Superman marionette nestled in the section next to it; Bruce could have sworn he saw its head move slightly as Lana spoke. He quickly attributed it to a trick of the light.
That evening, after the funeral was over and Lana had said goodbye to everyone, she went back to her Gotham hotel room. She took the beautiful marionettes out of their case and stared at them for over an hour. She had never known Randall was capable of such artistry. The amazing attention to detail, down to minute touches like the scales on Aquaman’s shirt and Superman’s spit-curl, was amazing. It was obvious Randall had labored on these for years; all the JLAers were depicted as they had looked a decade earlier. J’onn J’onzz even had the smooth-browed look he had used when he originally made his activities public on Earth.
Finally, Lana yawned and stretched; the emotional and physical exhaustion of the day was catching up to her at last. She carefully put the marionettes away in their case, undressed, and climbed into the soft hotel bed.
She had been asleep a very short time — she wasn’t sure how long — when a sound from the next room awoke her with a start.
Lana wondered if she truly heard a noise, or if she had she dreamt it. She lay in bed awake, silent, body tense, listening for another sound. There — she heard it again. Someone was definitely in the next room moving around. Lana quietly crept out of bed and moved stealthily to the door of the bedroom. Her hotel suite consisted of the bedroom and a larger outer room; she eased the door open a crack and looked into the room.
What she saw made her scream involuntarily.
The Justice League marionettes were moving. They had opened the locked case and were walking about on the table. Although they made no sounds, a couple of them faced each other, and their heads moved and their hands gestured as if they were communicating with each other.
At Lana’s scream, their wooden heads turned in the direction of the bedroom. The Wonder Woman puppet pointed at Lana. The puppets hesitated, as if unsure of what to do. The Superman puppet was the first to act; it inhaled sharply, then blew out the air in a gust of super-breath that slammed Lana’s bedroom door shut, knocking Lana back a couple of feet. Lana quickly recovered herself and pushed the door open, bursting into the main room.
She was just in time to see the puppets fly out the fifth-floor window. The Superman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, and J’onn J’onzz puppets flew under their own power, while the Batman, Aquaman, and Flash puppets traveled in a green force-bubble created by the Green Lantern puppet. Lana stood at the window for five minutes, watching the puppets fly until they were out of sight. Then she slowly walked backward into the room, sitting down hard on the sofa. Her eyes gaped in amazement. Had she really seen what she just thought she saw?
“Evening, Mr. Wayne!” Tim, the security guard stationed at the front desk of Wayne Enterprises, greeted the young CEO with a smile. “What, no date tonight?”
“Afraid I’ve got a date with paperwork, Tim,” Bruce Wayne said, smiling back. “I expect to be in my office quite late.”
“Fine. Roby’s relieving me at eleven; if you’re still here, I’ll let her know you’re in the building.”
“That’d be good. Thank you.”
Bruce Wayne took his private elevator to his penthouse office and settled in to work. Hours went by, though, without much work getting done. A thought kept nagging at him. The police had ruled Randall Stollman’s death a vehicular accident, but…
At about twenty minutes to eleven, Bruce touched the button on the intercom that connected him with the front desk. “Tim? It’s Mr. Wayne. I’m going to be leaving now.”
“Tim? Tim!” It wasn’t like Tim to leave his post. Bruce opened his desk drawer, the one with the flat video screen, and punched up the coordinates that gave him a view of the front lobby. What he saw made him gasp. Tim was slumped across the front desk. But was he asleep or unconscious?
Bruce Wayne acted quickly. As he shed his outer clothing for the Batman uniform beneath, he scanned the security camera views of the building for some sign of whomever had immobilized Tim. When he found what he was looking for, he froze in his tracks.
In the computer software lab, he found seven intruders — seven eight-inch-tall, wooden intruders — the JLA marionettes. They were roaming all over the lab, as if searching for something. Bruce shook his head, then looked at the screen again. They were still there. He shook off his surprise, pulled down his Batman cowl, and burst from the room.
In the computer lab, the Batman marionette stood on one of the work-tables in front of a computer keyboard. Its tiny wooden hands flew over the keys, punching in passwords. The computer screen flickered into life.
“OK, that’ll be enough of that,” the real Batman’s voice commanded from the doorway of the lab. Seven wooden heads turned on their wooden necks, staring at the darknight detective. The Batman marionette turned its head back to look at its companions and pointed a wooden finger at the real Batman. The others took the silent cue and charged the flesh and blood crusader.
Even as Batman drew his batarang, he reflected on the absurdity of the situation. He hurled the weapon at the Flash marionette, but the wooden image moved with all the speed of its inspiration and dodged the missile effortlessly. Batman was knocked off his feet as the J’onn J’onzz marionette launched itself at him like a missile, and he expelled his breath with a loud grunt as the puppet rammed into his midsection. The Batman marionette, meanwhile, continued to manipulate the computer keys.
Batman rolled with the impact and came up on his feet in time to dodge a similar assault by the Aquaman puppet. The Wonder Woman and Superman puppets were right behind, pressing the attack. The Darknight Detective quickly realized that the other puppets were trying to keep him away from the puppet made in his own image to buy it time to complete its task on the computer. Well, he wasn’t about to allow that.
“System shut down!” Batman barked. Instantly, the secret voice-controlled override built into every Wayne Enterprises computer recognized his voice patterns, and the screen went black. The Batman puppet did a double take, as if registering surprise. It then turned its blank, expressionless face toward the real Batman, who repressed a shudder. If a sculpted wooden face could be said to glare, this one was doing it.
The other puppets gathered to the Batman puppet’s side. The Green Lantern puppet surrounded them all in a bubble of power ring energy, and they floated through the ceiling.
Batman reasoned the puppets were trying to escape through the roof. Well, the computer lab was in the basement to help maintain cool temperatures. Batman had to get there before the puppets. He dashed to the elevator shaft and pried open the doors. Batman punched the button for the penthouse, then climbed deftly through the trapdoor in the elevator ceiling and crouched on the roof of the elevator. When it had gone high enough, Batman took out his grappling hook launcher and fired it at the ceiling. The bat-grapple dug into the roof of the elevator shaft, and Batman activated the powerful winch. It hauled him up like a bullet, leaving the elevator behind. Batman reached the roof of the tall building just in time to see the puppets emerge.
The Batman puppet stared at him again, as if angered by Batman’s perseverance. The Green Lantern puppet dissolved the bubble, and the Superman and J’onn J’onzz puppets combined their super-breath into a powerful gust. Before Batman could prepare himself, he was swept off the roof and into the night sky.
Batman let his muscles go limp as he fell. His analytical mind quickly searched for the best way to save himself.
Suddenly, he heard a sound behind him. It sounded somewhat like helicopter blades, but not as loud — more like a loud, persistent hum or buzz.
“Need a lift, Batman?” a feminine voice from behind said as Batman’s descent was suddenly stopped by two hands grasping beneath his arms. Batman’s cowled head tilted back to look up into a smiling face in a yellow mask.
“Ms. Lang?” he asked, surprised.
“Call me Insect Queen when I’m in this outfit,” the sometime-super-heroine said as she flew Batman back toward the roof. Her lower half was currently shaped like that of a giant dragonfly, including two pairs of powerful wings.
“Insect Queen it is,” Batman conceded. “What brings you here?” Although, as Bruce Wayne, he felt he knew.
“I’ll explain later,” Insect Queen said, dropping Batman onto the roof, “after we corral those malicious marionettes!”
In a twinkling of an eye, Insect Queen changed from a dragonfly woman into a spider lady and spun a quick web that caught the Flash and Wonder Woman puppets. They were not caught long, though, for the J’onn J’onzz puppet used its Martian vision to burn away the strands.
Batman plucked a glue bomb from his utility belt and hurled it. The thick adhesive caught the Superman and Batman puppets, sticking them fast to the roof. The Superman puppet merely flew out of the adhesive, using its strength, while the Aquaman puppet came to the Batman puppet’s aid, yanking it out with its own strength.
The Green Lantern puppet quickly ended the battle with its power ring. Green energy bands fastened around Batman and Insect Queen, pinning their arms to their sides and their legs together. With the heroes thus immobilized, the Green Lantern puppet enveloped its comrades in an emerald bubble, and they made their escape, soaring into the sky.