The assembled heroes stood before a cavern near a small community in Rhode Island. Captain Comet, Dolphin, the Enchantress, Starman, Cyborg, Changeling, Raven, Celsius, Halo, Windfall, Blossom, Cliff Steele, the Atom, Steel, and the four other-Earth heroes — the Fly, the Shield, the Jaguar, and the Comet — waited as two other figures swooped down to join them.
“Superman, who’s your buddy?” asked Steel as the hero landed with a red-bearded man.
“This is Len ‘Big Daddy’ Rothko,” said Superman. “I picked him up and brought him here after Lois Lane summoned me through a mutual friend. We were heading for the scene of your battle with the Shield when your signal device allowed me to trace you here.”
The Comet clasped hands with Rothko as the other-Earth heroes greeted their comrade. “We thought you were dead!” said the Comet.
“I would have been a goner, except that Black Witch used her magic to transport herself away, and I rolled into her line of fire,” explained Len. “I might have been pulled there because I was holding the empty hood of the Black Hood. Magic is drawn to magic. I got here months ago and just tried to drink my losses away. Where have you guys been all this time?”
“We are a bit fuzzy on the details,” said the Shield. “We all just found ourselves here. That cave was our first view of this world. I know magic can do weird things, and even the kind of time-warping energy those red skies seemed to bring could have messed up our sense of time and place, but we’ve not been here that long at all.”
The Jaguar nodded slowly. “I can’t even say how I recovered from the energy blasts that hurt me before.”
“The Black Witch actually died in that effort to escape the crisis that destroyed your Earth moments afterward,” said Captain Comet. “Her ghost appeared to us, and apparently it was that selfsame spirit that told our foe all about you all. That data enabled him to use his powers to… do what has been done.”
“Adam, my magic allows me to sense a great power is inside that cavern,” said the Enchantress. “In fact, that cavern extends far beyond what it appears from out here.”
Raven nodded and said, “I can feel a being of nearly limitless power within that cavern. His needs are so human in nature, yet strangely palpable.”
Changeling perched on her shoulder as an owl and said, “Whooo cares? We’ll just beat him up, and then the drinks are on me!”
“Blossom also feels one is within that is not connected to this world’s Green in any way!” said Blossom.
“Isn’t this place near our Secret Sanctuary?” asked Steel. “Hopeful Harbor?”
“Actually, you mean Happy Harbor, and we are only a few miles away from that town,” explained the Atom.
“I had a tough time convincing a certain girl reporter not to come here with us,” said Superman. “I’ll make the same offer to you all. If any of you wish to leave this to us, the JLA will handle it!”
“No way, Supes,” said Cliff Steele. “The Doom Patrol and the Outsiders are in for keeps!”
“The New Titans stand behind you, too,” said Cyborg.
“I’m in too deep for the Forgotten Heroes to turn back now,” said Captain Comet.
“Now, who were you guys again?” said the Changeling. “The names seem to have slipped my mind.”
Cyborg slapped him on the back of the head and said, “Ignore him. We can’t take him anywhere!”
“I’d like to get some answers,” said the Fly. “I’m feeling bad about this whole thing.”
“Perhaps a few of you should remain here as backup,” said Superman. “Halo, Windfall, and Blossom could await our return and bring help, should we fail to emerge from the cave.” The three women agreed readily and waited beyond the cavern as the rest entered the vast cave.
That’s typical Superman for you, mused the Atom. He thinks of the young and inexperienced first.
“This cavern is a bit unnatural, to say the least,” said Superman. “I’d estimate it is almost exactly like the one we used as our first JLA base, even down to the interior and the relative distance from Happy Harbor itself.” He looked around at displays and trophies and equipment that were eerily familiar. “This is a near-perfect duplication of the JLA’s first headquarters!”
“Of course it is!” said a being who stepped forward from the shadows of the cavern to greet them. The being was humanoid with an androgynous appearance, manner, and voice. The blond being seemed to be of both genders, yet of neither gender. “Why should it not be when it is destined to serve as the base for the team that will supplant the Justice League in the hearts and minds of the world? I see no reason not to make use of the good features of your old team, even if that team is now obsolete, thanks to my Mighty Crusaders!” It spread its arms and said, “Welcome to the beginning of the new heroic age! It is fitting the members of so many different heroic organizations are here to face the fact that, thanks to my new team, none of you are needed any longer!”
“Who are you to say we’re old news?” said Cyborg. “You look like an alien Annie Lennox!”
“Say rather that I merely defy your limited and conventional expectations,” it said. “I surpass your ability to conceive. I am more than mortal. I am beyond imagination. I am simply the Unimaginable!”
“Say, I read about this guy!” said the Atom. “He wanted to join the JLA, but he was turned down and tried to destroy the team out of spite. He was a being of pure energy or maybe of thought. He could not been seen by the naked eye!” (*)
[(*) Editor’s note: See “Metamorpho Says No,” Justice League of America #42 (February, 1966).]
“That explains why his essence is so strong,” said Captain Comet. “He is like some kind of living energy source!”
“You mean you brought these Crusaders here from their dying world in order to make them into your own pet super-team?” said Starman. “This whole thing was designed to humiliate other heroes of this world in order to appease your own wounded ego?”
“For a being of such power and age, I fear you are petty and shallow,” said Celsius, alias Arani Caulder.
“Don’t worry none, Arani,” said Cliff Steele. “I’ll beat this creep into feeling pretty bad!” He moved forward, but the Unimaginable deflected him with a flicker of pure mental force.
“I escaped from captivity aboard the JLA Satellite when it was damaged by Martians,” it said. “I then remained inert and devoid of visible form until the Crisis itself offered me sustenance through the many universes that died in its wake. Since then, I have assumed this perfect form which is beyond the frail limits of the mortal mind!”
“Your thoughts guided us and made us want to fight the metallic or robotic heroes,” said the Comet. “You lied and said they represented the same type of threat that killed so many on our world!”
“It is so,” said the Unimaginable. “Now you shall humble the heroes of this world, since none of them can boast of the combination of your courage and my raw power!”
“Please!” said the Jaguar. “How could you pluck us from doom and yet leave so many more to die? Why did you let our loved ones die if you had the power to save them?”
The Unimaginable said, “It is well within my power to reward you if you make me proud. Look!” It gestured to where a beautiful blonde woman stood holding hands with a blond man.
“Mom! Dad! You saved my folks!” gasped the Fly as he flew into the arms of the beaming couple.
“Jason, we are so proud of you!” said the woman.
“You know I’m the Fly? How did you learn? Did he tell you?” gasped the hero. “Wait! This is all wrong! You and Dad broke up a long time ago! How can you be together and look so happy? How can you accept my alter ego without going through the roof?” asked the Fly as he stepped out of the embrace of his mother.
“They are as you would have them be! That is part of my power!” said the Unimaginable. “See? Look at what wonders await you, my loyal Crusaders!”
A sexy woman with dark hair and a pretty delicate face stepped out to kiss the Comet. “Victoria? Is it really you?” he said slowly.
The Shield looked up to see a black man in a military uniform leading four other figures to meet him. He recognized his parents, Mary and Roger Higgins (the original Shield), his best friend Devin Hall, and an old man named Dusty. “I can’t buy into this!” he said in horror. “I’d love to be with my mom again. I’d love to get to know my true father and his former sidekick Dusty, but you can’t fool me. Devin Hall was my best buddy, but he was killed by Marion Higgins. You can’t restore life to the dead!”
“That remains to be seen,” said the Unimaginable. “Ask the Jaguar if she does not agree that her beloved Aunt Luiza stands before her now and is perfect in every nuance and detail!”
The Jaguar gasped as a tall striking woman stood before her with a welcoming smile on her face. “It can’t be!” whispered the Jaguar.
“If you become my team of champions, then all your desires shall become reality!” said the Unimaginable. “The Justice League could have had such a pleasure had they accepted me as one of their own!”
“We’re not alone here!” said Captain Comet. “That cavern leads to some type of other-dimensional portal!”
“By Azar!” cried Raven. “There is a veritable army within that portal!” She pointed to a seemingly endless number of grim-faced soldiers who marched steadily forward from out of the inter-dimensional portal.
“This army of mine is designed to conquer you all!” said the Unimaginable. “Then my Mighty Crusaders will rescue you, and you will be forced to admit their superiority!”
“Superman, do you recognize those things?” said Captain Comet. “They are from Apokolips! They are the automatons or androids used to house the sentience of Doctor Bedlam! They all look alike. However, normally, they reflect his own appearance or one he wishes them to assume!”
“You’re right!” said Superman. “That means they are empty shells being driven, so to speak, by one mind.”
“Not quite!” said a female voice as a gray-skinned woman appeared and stood defiantly before the heroes. “This time they each house the angry spirit of an ancient race of Zorians! Don’t think I’m not capable of surprising you, you delicious Kryptonian hunk!”
“Pandora! Darkseid’s daughter!” said Superman.
The gray-skinned woman from Apokolips was well-known to Superman and Captain Comet. Both heroes had encountered her before, and Comet knew that his last battle with the daughter of Darkseid had indeed involved disembodied spirits from the planet Zor, where Tharka the Superwoman now lived after she arrived from the Earth-Two universe’s version of that planet. “I allowed you to trap Devastation in order to acquire the wraiths of ancient Zor,” she said. (*) “They now dwell in these silvery androids, and believe me, they are more than willing to kill you all!”
[(*) Editor’s note: See The Forgotten Heroes: Devastation (Unnatural Woman).]
“They may be spirits, but their bodies are machines,” said Superman. “We don’t have to hold back when fighting with robots!” He blasted the roof with his heat-vision, while Starman and Celsius followed his example with their own energy and temperature-based powers.
As the roof crashed down on the army of androids, Captain Comet urged the other heroes to retreat until they were outside the mouth of the cave. “Perhaps burying those androids will slow them down enough for us to regroup!”
Cyborg shook his head. “We don’t have long. Those things are tough. They are smashing their way back through the rocks like that solid stone was tissue paper!”
“If they are just machines, then couldn’t we shut them off some way?” suggested Steel.
Dolphin punched at one of the silvery androids as it clawed through the rocks to grab her legs. “They don’t exactly have working parts or internal systems,” she said, kicking free of the android. “They just sort of house the awareness of whatever being controls them!”
“We can’t hold off a whole army!” said Cliff Steele. “Some of you tire, and those things don’t need rest or food or air!”
“I can try to banish those angry spirits from their metal homes!” the Enchantress said, beginning to chant arcane words, when a red beam struck her, and she collapsed to the ground.
“June’s hurt!” cried Dolphin as she ran to help the fallen witch.
“Hurt? She should be glad she is not dead,” laughed Pandora. “I only used my Omega Beams to stun her!”
The Shield crushed an android with an impressive display of strength, but he glanced over at his friends and said, “You guys know we can’t play along with the Unimaginable, don’t you? He can’t restore our loved ones. They died in the Crisis. Those things he tempted us with are just different models of the same robots that were fighting!”
“True enough,” said the Unimaginable. “I admit that I could only draw upon your memories and my own powers to shape Pandora’s creatures into the images of those you cared for on your own worlds, but I can still make you all the premiere heroes of this world! When Pandora’s army overwhelms the other heroes, then the Mighty Crusaders will in turn conquer them! Pandora and I have made a bargain to that effect!”
“You cannot trust one such as she,” said Raven. “I feel her deceit from here!”
“I make no effort to deceive you,” said Pandora. “The Unimaginable served my needs, and that is as it should ever be! He occupied you all with his Crusaders and lured you here where I could slay you all. As for his team of heroes, they are nothing to me. When the spirit of the Black Witch came to him and told him of her world’s dead heroes, he merely made use of Doctor Bedlam’s automatons and his own power over things inanimate to create a higher level of pawn. Pawns are designed to be used and then discarded!”
Dolphin turned to Captain Comet and whispered, “You suspected the Mighty Crusaders were not truly human all along, didn’t you?”
Captain Comet nodded sadly. “The Black Witch admitted as much to me. I didn’t fully know what she meant then, but now I do. These poor heroes are non-living energy beings housed in advanced android bodies and possessed of the memories and feelings of the dead originals. I’d say the Unimaginable did too good a job with them. They truly act and think and feel like the heroes they are based upon, but they are going to face a hard truth now.”
The Comet blew a group of androids into scrap metal and shouted, “Did you hear that witch? We’re not alive! We only have fake memories of the lives that belonged to the real Crusaders. They died in the Crisis, and we’re nothing but mockeries! We’re no better than high-tech wind-up toys!”
Jaguar shuddered and said, “Then we have no souls? We have no hope! Please, tell us the truth!”
“She speaks the truth,” confessed the Unimaginable. “I could not save a world from the Crisis or restore life to the dead. All I could do was craft her androids with my own power and wit until they became much more! You may be artificial in nature, but you are heroes! You and I can be more than the League ever was!”
“Forget it!” cried Len “Big Daddy” Rothko. “Didn’t you hear that alien witch admit that she only wants her army to kill everyone? Your duplicates of my friends mean nothing to her. She’s not gonna let her army fall down because you say so! She played you like a fool. Hear that, Unimaginable! You wanted to be human! Well, you just learned a real life lesson! Don’t believe everything you hear!”
“This is treason!” the Unimaginable said. “Pandora, you swore that your army would fall to my heroes. That was ever our agreement!”
“I am the princess of Apokolips!” said Pandora. “My word is law. I do not honor promises to my inferiors, and I recognize only one as my superior!”
“Captain Comet, didn’t you once defeat those things before?” asked Superman.
“Yes,” said Captain Comet. “I managed to get an energy monster from space to diffuse its awareness through the whole lot of them. That destroyed it and ruined them!” (*)
[(*) Editor’s note: See Captain Comet’s Rehab Squad: A Cosmos Imperiled, Chapter 2: The Devourer of Worlds.]
“We’re not what we thought we were,” said the Shield. “Our world didn’t die, because we never truly had a world. The true Shield, Comet, Fly, and Jaguar died when Maxx-13 opened up that terrible energy field. But we do have a role we can play. Maybe even androids can be heroes! We are glorified versions of those energy or spirit-housing androids. Maybe we can link up with them, now that we know the truth. Maybe we can take them over! That’s what Captain Comet and Superman are hinting at!”
The Fly gazed sadly over at the androids that resembled the real Fly’s parents and said, “I’m with you. The real Jason Troy would have wanted to go out like this.”
“I could honor Rob Connors, the Comet, if I pull this off!” said the Comet.
The Jaguar merely nodded and moved to join her friends as they joined hands and looked expectantly at the androgynous Unimaginable.
“We have been wronged,” it said. “I see that. I am still beyond human limits, and thus will my cause yet triumph! What am I if not one composed of mental energy, and how better may those who rejected me from their fellowship learn my worth than through seeing me save their world?”
An orange energy flashed, and the Mighty Crusaders vanished until only a huge, jagged lightning bolt-shaped being loomed over the countryside for a moment. When that flickered form also faded, the rampaging army of androids collapsed to the ground.
“That witless thing has dared defy me!” shrieked Pandora. “It destroyed my precious automatons by purging their bodies of the Zorian minds! I sense nothing where once their wonderfully bloody desires were rampant!”
“That was the Unimaginable’s goal,” explained Captain Comet. “He dispersed those disembodied spirits back into their own limbo, where they will remain forever. Without them to power the androids you took from Doctor Bedlam, your army is so much scrap metal!”
“Do not presume to gloat!” said Pandora. “You and your fellow heroes are living on borrowed time. You will all regret this day!” She vanished as a Boom Tube roared into being and whisked her back to her father’s dark domain.
Stillness reigned over the countryside as the heroes took stock of all that had happened. “I guess the Comet and his buddies proved they were worthy heroes, after all, in spite of their true origin,” said Starman.
“Yeah,” said Len Rothko. “If those guys weren’t my friends, then at least they honored them with how they went out.”
Superman turned to the burly bearded man and said, “I know what it means to be the only one to survive the death of a world. Can we help you in any way, Len?”
Len shook his head and said, “Naw. I’m OK. I’m going cut down on the sauce and try to do a bit of good here. Maybe some spy agency here could use an old dog like me!”
“I’ve got a friend named Rick Flag who might be able to help you,” said Captain Comet.
“Yeah,” said Len. “Maybe I could use that hood, after all. I never tried before, because I felt funny about taking on my old pal’s role.” He frowned and said, “I lost it again! In all the madness, I lost the Black Hood!”