Batman and Insect Queen struggled helplessly in the green energy bands as the puppet Justice League became a rapidly fading dot in the night sky.
“Well, we’ve learned one thing, anyway,” Batman said.
“We have?” Insect Queen asked. “What?”
“Unlike Amazo and other villains who’ve mimicked the powers of super-heroes, these puppets don’t duplicate the heroes’ powers exactly.”
“How do you figure that, Batman?” Insect Queen asked.
“Your costume is mostly yellow,” Batman pointed out. “The real Green Lantern’s power ring wouldn’t be able to hold you like that.”
“Say, that’s right!” Insect Queen said. “Also, that Aquaman puppet has been out of water a lot longer than an hour, with no ill effects.”
“So what brings you to Gotham in the first place, Ms. Lang?” Batman asked. He knew the answer, but Lana wasn’t supposed to know that he knew.
“Long story there, Batman,” Insect Queen said. “Those puppets belong to me, you see.”
“Oh?” Batman said in an inquiring tone.
“They were given to me, willed to me by a late friend — Randall Stollman. I attended his funeral today.”
“Stollman worked here,” Batman said. “I was investigating his death when I happened on those puppets. I didn’t realize you knew him.”
“We were kids together — hey, these bands are getting fainter!“
“The G.L. puppet must be dissolving them, now that they’re safely away,” Batman reasoned. The green bands rapidly dissolved into nothingness, freeing Batman and Insect Queen.
“You say you’re investigating Randall’s death?” Insect Queen asked. “I thought it was a car accident.”
“That’s how it was ruled,” Batman said. “Recent information has led me to suspect otherwise. You say Stollman willed you those puppets?”
“Uh-huh,” Insect Queen said. “He made them himself. I woke up in my hotel room to see them climbing out of their case and flying out the window! So I put on my old bio-ring and followed them.”
“You took your bio-ring with you to attend a friend’s funeral?” Batman asked.
“Hey, no offense, Batman,” Insect Queen said, “but this is Gotham City!“
Batman let that one go by. “If Stollman made the puppets, it’s likely he knew what they were capable of.”
“Could they be miniature robots?” Insect Queen asked.
“Hmm,” Batman said thoughtfully. “It’s possible. Stollman’s field was computer programming, not robotics, but still — let’s check on that.”
Insect Queen followed Batman down into the Wayne Enterprises Building. On the ground level, they stopped at a control panel in the main security control room. Batman checked it, frowning, then turned to Insect Queen.
“After they knocked out the guard,” he explained, “they passed through a hidden metal detector. If there were any metal parts in them at all, even sheathed in wood, it would have set off an alarm. I checked to see if they had somehow put the metal detector out of commission, but they didn’t.”
“Meaning?” Insect Queen asked, afraid she knew the answer.
“Meaning they’re just wood,” Batman answered.
Batman led Insect Queen down the corridors of the deserted office building.
“So, if they’re just wood, what makes them move?” Insect Queen asked. “And how do they duplicate the JLA’s abilities? What the devil is going on around here?”
“I have a theory about that,” Batman said. “Let me try it on you to see what you think, because I’m having difficulty believing it myself.”
Insect Queen shrugged. “Fire away.”
“You said Stollman made those puppets himself?”
“That’s what his mother told me, yes.”
“His father was an archaeologist and Egyptologist, wasn’t he?”
“Yes, the same as mine,” Insect Queen said. “That’s how we met.”
“Didn’t the ancient Egyptians have a legend regarding miniature figures?”
Lana thought for a moment. “You mean the ushabti? Carved wooden figures placed in a person’s tomb, supposedly to perform manual labors for him in the spirit world?”
“Precisely,” Batman said, impressed by her knowledge.
“Wait a minute, wait a minute,” Insect Queen said in amazement. “You’re saying that you think Randall created some kind of — of super-ushabti? Spirit dolls that mimic the JLA’s super-powers by sorcery?“
“I’ve seen stranger things,” Batman said simply.
“But — but why would they come to life?” Insect Queen asked. “The ushabti were supposed to perform their master’s tasks in the spirit world. Why would they be active here?”
“Perhaps Stollman has unfinished business in this world,” Batman said gravely.
Insect Queen gasped. “You mean — bringing his murderer to justice!”
Following Batman into the computer software lab, Insect Queen asked, “What are we doing here? If Randall was murdered, we have to catch the killer!”
“I’m working on it,” Batman said as he moved to a computer terminal. “I found the puppets in here. The puppet in my image was doing something on this computer, and the rest tried to keep me from stopping him. I want to see what it was.”
“What?” Insect Queen gasped. “Randall’s killer is on the loose, and you’re going to play on a computer?“
“I am trying to find a lead to the killer’s identity,” Batman said simply, without looking over his shoulder.
“I can tell you that,” Insect Queen fumed. She turned to leave.
“Ms. Lang,” Batman said, turning to look at her. She stopped in her tracks. “There is no evidence of the killer’s identity as yet.”
“I know,” Insect Queen said coldly. “I’m going to get some.” And she stalked out of the room.
Insect Queen took the form of a wasp woman and soared into the Gotham night. She fumed with anger at the Batman. She knew he was Superman’s best friend, but how could he be so cold? Treating Randall’s death so — so clinically.
As she flew down to a phone booth, Lana calmed down. After all, it was just another case to the Batman — but not to her. To her it was personal. Lana was so focused on her mission, she did not notice the screams of horror and the fleeing footsteps behind her, or the wino promising God that he would stay off the sauce forevermore. Lana flipped through the Gotham City phone book, miraculously still hanging from its chain in the booth, until she found the listing she wanted.
Minutes later, still in wasp woman form, Insect Queen was hovering outside the windows of an apartment building in midtown Gotham. She passed by several windows until she found the one she wanted. There he was: Doug Walters. And he was sitting on the sofa next to Kathy, the woman both he and Randall had loved. Lana’s anger flared all over again, and the window shattered under the force of her stinger.
Batman’s gloved fingers flew over the computer keyboard. Screen after screen of data flashed past his eyes; he glanced over them, his remarkable photographic mind scanning each item and filing it away for reference.
In the back of his mind, he hoped Insect Queen didn’t do anything drastic. He understood that the case was personal for her. Nobody would understand better than he. But he also understood that heroes had to maintain control of their emotions, especially super-powered heroes.
Hello, what was this? Here was an interesting item. Could this be what the puppets were searching for? Batman dug a bit deeper and found his way blocked by a request for a password. Fortunately, all Wayne Enterprises software had built-in back doors, accessible by a password known only to Bruce Wayne himself, to bypass all other passwords and safeguards. Bruce typed in this master password: LESLIET. A moment later, the screen flickered with the new data.
Batman found himself doing a double-take.
Kathy screamed as the glass shattered. Doug looked up to see an enraged woman, whose lower half was that of a wasp, snarling at him.
“So!” Insect Queen snapped. “The corpse isn’t even cold yet, and you’re making yourself pretty comfortable, aren’t you?”
Doug peered closely at the masked woman. “L-Lana? Lana Lang? Is that you?”
“You bet,” Insect Queen snapped, suddenly shifting to a scorpion woman. Doug gasped at the sight of the huge tail and enormous stinger waving hypnotically back and forth as if ready to lash out and strike any minute. “I guess you didn’t know Randall had such powerful friends, did you?”
“W-what are you talking about?” Doug asked, trembling with fear.
“I’m talking about murder!” Insect Queen snapped. “I’m talking about rigging Randall’s car to crash, to get him out of the way so you could move in on Kathy!”
Doug’s fear melted in the face of righteous anger. “That’s outrageous! Randall and I were friends! We were rivals for Kathy, sure, but I would never have done what you say!”
“That’s right,” Kathy assured. “Besides, there was no reason! A week before — before the accident, I accepted Doug’s marriage proposal!”
Lana gasped. “You — you did? Did… did Randall know?”
“Certainly,” Kathy said. “We hadn’t made a formal announcement, yet, but Randall knew.”
“He was disappointed,” Doug offered, “but he got over it and wished us well. He — he was going to be my best man.”
Lana’s anger drained away, and her form melted back into that of a human woman. “Look, I — I don’t — that is… sorry about the window,” she stammered.
After making several sincere apologies and promising to pay for the window, Insect Queen took the form of a moth woman and fluttered out the window. She had never been so embarrassed in her life. And the question was still unanswered. If someone murdered Randall, and it wasn’t his romantic rival, then who?
Lana was so caught up in her own thoughts, she didn’t hear the gentle hum of rotor blades in the air near her. She did hear the deep baritone voice booming over a loudspeaker. “Need a lift?”
She looked up to see Batman, hovering in the air in one of his one-man helicopter devices; a whirly-bat, she thought he called them.
“I could use one,” she said. “I just made an enormous ass of myself.”
“You went off too headstrong,” Batman agreed. “Made a snap judgment before you had all the facts. I can understand that — this case is very close to you, personally.”
“Doesn’t excuse what I did,” Insect Queen said. “I feel like such an idiot!”
“Perhaps catching the real killer will make you feel better,” Batman suggested. Lana perked up at that.
“Lead the way,” she said eagerly.
Neither hero said another word as Batman piloted the whirly-bat through the night skies. Insect Queen, still in moth form, followed him. Soon they had left the city streets behind for the manicured lawns of Brookvale, an affluent Gotham suburb. Batman guided the whirly-bat down, and Insect Queen followed him, assuming human form as they touched the ground. They were in front of a large, elegant-looking house. The lawn was like a carpet, perfectly trimmed. The ornamental trees were of a variety not indigenous to the area, obviously imported. The walkway to the house was bright white cobblestone. Lana could tell at a glance that whoever lived here enjoyed luxury and comfort.
As Batman and Insect Queen started up the walkway, Lana gasped as she noticed something she had not seen before. In front of the door stood two of the ushabti puppets, the wooden Flash and J’onn J’onzz. They stood rigidly on either side of the door as if guarding it against any who would enter — or leave.
“Batman,” she said, stopping. Batman stopped, too, but with a look of calm purpose on his face. He held up a hand for her to be silent. Lana watched as Batman and the J’onn J’onzz puppet stared each other down for a long, silent moment. Then the two puppets stood aside to let Batman and Insect Queen pass.
Batman glanced at Insect Queen, reading the confusion on her face. “The puppets mimic the powers of the heroes in whose image they were made,” he explained. “I let the J’onn J’onzz puppet read my mind to learn that our intentions mirror their own.”
“Oh,” was all Lana could say.
Batman and Insect Queen marched into the house. They walked down a hallway resplendent with oil paintings and Persian carpeting. They found the owner of the house in a den cluttered with expensive sculpture and curios. A huge saltwater fish tank full of exotic species of fish stood against one wall. Against an adjoining wall stood an enormous mahogany roll top desk; at this a man was seated, writing. Lana could tell the man was terrified for his life. The Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman puppets stood on top of the desk watching him; the Aquaman and Green Lantern puppets stood on the floor behind him, also watching.
“Charles Walker!” Lana gasped, recognizing the man from the funeral. At her voice, Walker looked up, hope blossoming on his terrified face. “Batman! And — Ms. Lang? Thank heavens! These — these creatures invaded my home! Attacked me!”
“And they’re making you write something?” Batman asked.
“Y-yes,” Walker said, a little more nervously. “They’re forcing me to write… to write…”
“A confession for Randall Stollman’s murder?” Lana said bitingly.
Walker looked horrified all over again. “But — you — how?” he stammered.
Batman produced a computer diskette from a pouch on his belt. “I found the evidence, Walker,” he said grimly. “You thought you’d erased every trace, but you hadn’t. Stollman had a backup file hidden where you didn’t find it. It’s all over.”
Walker hung his head in shame. “I — I give up, Batman. You’ve won. I surrender.”
With those words, the puppets looked at one another. Then they looked at Batman and Insect Queen. The Batman puppet raised its wooden hand as if in a salute of gratitude. Then they all fell, as if their strings had been clipped.
“W-what happened?” Lana gasped.
“Their mission is complete,” Batman explained. “Stollman’s murderer has been brought to justice. There’s no need for them anymore, not in this world.”
“Wrong, Batman!” Walker snarled, suddenly active. His hand whipped a gun from a cubbyhole in the desk, and he pointed it at Batman. “No jury will believe a confession forced from me by those — things! And once you’re dead, and I have that disk, I’ll be home free!”
But before Batman or Insect Queen could act, one of the large fish leaped from the tank, striking Walker’s gun hand. The gun clattered to the floor. Insect Queen quickly turned into a caterpillar woman and spun a cocoon that trapped Walker up to his neck in tough, unbreakable silk. When the job was done, she looked at Batman, wide-eyed.
“Batman, what made the fish do that?” she asked, slowly.
Without surprise or wonder, Batman said, “I assume the Aquaman puppet gave it a mental command before its intelligence left this plane to watch Walker in case he tried something desperate.”
Insect Queen could only marvel at the matter-of-fact way Batman described this.
As Batman called the police to pick up Walker, Insect Queen examined the puppets. They now seemed to be completely lifeless, as they had when she first saw them. Lana looked at the bottoms of their feet and found tiny hieroglyphic symbols etched into the wood.
“Batman,” she asked, when the Caped Crusader was done with his call, “what was the evidence you found? Why did Walker do it?”
“Have you ever heard of the global computer network?” Batman asked.
Lana frowned, remembering a story she had reported on WGBS. “I think so; isn’t that something the Department of Defense rigged up so their computers can talk to each other?”
“Something like that,” Batman said. “Randall Stollman, in his spare time, designed a new computer code, a hyper-text markup language, that would make the global computer network feasible for laymen’s use.”
“Good Lord!” Lana gasped. “That would revolutionize communications as we know it!”
“To say nothing of the commercial potential,” Batman agreed. “Apparently Stollman, unaware of Walker’s nature, showed this to his supervisor before he intended to go public with it. Walker realized the monetary potential and killed Stollman to steal his invention.”
“Greed,” Lana said, bitterly, as she looked at the opulent furnishings of the room. “I might have known.”
“The code is potentially worth billions,” Batman said simply. “People have killed for a lot less.”
Lana held the Superman puppet in her hands and stared into its wooden face. “Well, wherever Randall is now, I hope he’s resting in peace.”
“I’m sure he is, Lana,” Batman said kindly. But as he watched the Batman puppet from the corner of his eye, he couldn’t help but wonder. If Stollman’s rest were ever disturbed, would the puppets walk again?