by Brian K. Asbury
Ten bottles, standing on a wall.
None of them were green, and none accidentally fell — at least, while they were still bottles. One turned into a golf ball and rolled off the wall, another became a puddle of mercury and simply glopped away, while a third seemed to disappear, actually transforming into an invisible cloud of carbon dioxide gas. The remaining bottles became a variety of everyday objects, from a teddy bear to a plastic Daffy Duck figurine, all except for one.
“Are you all right, Ronald?”
“Yeah, sure, Professor. It’s just the same feedback as usual. But it’s not so bad with something that isn’t actually alive. I knew this was gonna happen, though. It always does, so why do we need to test it?”
“Because I need specific data if I’m going to try to figure out how our powers actually work,” said the disembodied voice of Professor Martin Stein, unheard, of course, by anyone other the individual who shared this red, white, and gold-costumed body with the flaming hair, known to the world at large as Firestorm.
“Well, it beats me how this helps, Professor,” Ronnie Raymond’s voice said, issuing from Firestorm’s mouth. “I mean, we already know that our powers don’t affect anything organic.”
Professor Stein’s voice seemed to laugh. “That’s not strictly true, Ronald. Each of those bottles were made of different materials, and several of them were organic, in the strict chemical definition of the word. If we couldn’t change organic matter, we wouldn’t be able to affect plastic, and yet you even created plastic objects. The wicker bottle was changed without difficulty, too, yet the material it was made from was once living matter. Only the leather bottle remains unchanged.”
“Right. So why do you think that is?”
“I don’t know for certain. We know that our Firestorm powers cannot affect anything actually alive, but while we can affect nonliving plant-based matter, the same cannot be said for nonliving animal protein. And there’s an exception even to that. Our powers affect living matter when we merge to form Firestorm, and even my leather shoes enter the fusion with us and are restored when we split. For some reason, ourselves and anything we happen to be in contact with when we fuse seem to be an exception to the general rule.”
“Yeah, well,” Ronnie said, shuffling impatiently on the spot. “I don’t understand all this stuff myself — I’ll leave it to the big brains like you to figure it out, if you don’t mind. Can we get back to Vandermeer now?”
There was a puzzled tone to the voice in his head. “There are no classes today, Ronald. It’s Sunday.”
“I know, Professor, but there’s more to student life than studying, y’know. I’ve got a date with Doreen tonight.”
“Oh, I’m sorry, my boy. We’d best go, then.”
“Thanks, Professor.” Firestorm launched himself into the air and soared gracefully back toward Pittsburgh and the Vandermeer University campus where Ronnie was a student and Martin a teacher.
However, as he flew over the city, his keen eyes caught a plume of smoke issuing from a tall building about half a mile away. “Looks like we’re not gonna get back straight away after all, Professor,” he sighed.
“Indeed not, Ronald,” remarked Professor Stein. “I’m afraid a super-hero’s work is never done.”
They changed course and headed toward the smoke.
“He’s coming,” said a heavily muscled man standing at the window with a pair of powerful binoculars in his hands.
“Very well, then,” said another man, stocky and with a full beard. He slipped on a lab coat. “Everyone into the lab and take your places..”
“That Amy girl isn’t back yet,” one of his subordinates pointed out.
“So? We don’t need her for this,” their leader said, a slight hint of irritation in his voice. “Peterson will take her place.” He noted the doubtful looks on some of their faces. “Yes, I know this is earlier than I had originally planned this to happen, but we might as well do it while Firestorm is available. Everything is ready; there’s no point in waiting any longer.”
He opened the door to the laboratory. Smoke billowed out to greet him. “Geez,” said the man who had complained about Amy not being back. “Do we haveta go in there, boss? I’m gonna be coughing my lungs up before–“
“Get in and quit complainin’, Seeger!” said the man with the binoculars.
They began coughing and spluttering from the effects of the smoke. “God, where is he?” croaked Seeger, holding a handkerchief to his face. “Boss, I can’t stand this. My asthma!“
“All the more realistic for our guest,” said the bearded man smugly. Alone of them, he seemed almost unaffected by the smoke and fumes issuing from the burning machine in the corner. “Speaking of whom, here he comes now.”
And as he said this, the opposite wall glowed, and a brightly costumed man with flaming hair phased though it.
As Firestorm phased through the wall of the penthouse suite of the Milgrom Building, he found himself engulfed in smoke. “First things first,” he said. “Let’s make the air a bit cleaner around here.” With a gesture, he changed all of the carbon particles in the smoke to nitrogen, revealing six coughing men in what looked to be an electronics lab of some sort.
“The source of the fire seems to be that machine in the corner,” the voice of Professor Stein said in his mind.
OK, I’m on it, Professor, Ronnie thought back. The filing cabinet-sized machine was still belching out smoke, although there was little sign of flame. Firestorm’s keen eyes sought out the electrical flex, and he transformed it into pasta. He then changed the air and smoke around the machine to dry ice, which evaporated instantly as it touched the hot metal, smothering the fire with carbon dioxide, and at the same time cooling it to a safer temperature.
“Good work, Ronald,” said the professor.
Thanks. Firestorm alighted and cast his gaze over the six other men. “You guys OK?” he asked out loud.
One of the men, a white-coated stocky man with a beard, approached him. “Yes, yes, thank you, Firestorm. You’ve saved our lives and the project.” He held out his hand. Firestorm took it. “I’m Dr. Montague, and you have my eternal gratitude and that of my colleagues, of course.”
“What happened here?” asked the nuclear man.
“One moment,” said Dr. Montague, turning to the others. “Is everyone all right?”
“I think Seeger’s in a bad way,” said one of them — a big man who looked more like a nightclub bouncer than a scientist. He was supporting another man, who was coughing prodigiously.
“Take him into the other room and call the company doctor to come and have a look at him,” said Montague. “Peterson, give them a hand. And get me something to drink, please. My own throat is rather parched.”
“Yes, Doctor,” said the man called Peterson, helping the other two.
“Uh… I could fly your friend to a hospital if he’s in need of attention,” said Firestorm.
Montague smiled. “That won’t be necessary. Mr. Seeger is an asthmatic, is all. Our company doctor is based only two floors down. He’ll be here in a jiffy.” Peterson returned with a glass of orange juice. “Thank you, Peterson.” Montague took a sip. “Oh, but I forget my manners, Firestorm. Would you like something to drink?”
“No thanks,” Firestorm said. “But like I said, what happened here? Is this a lab of some kind?”
“That is rather obvious, Ronald,” Professor Stein said silently.
“Yes,” Montague said. “We’re working on a unique project. One that might well interest you, in fact. Luthor,” he said to a red-haired man who was examining the machine which had been burning, “what do you see?”
“Luthor?” spluttered Firestorm.
Montague laughed. “Oh, don’t worry. Burt Luthor, here, is no relation to the notorious Mr. Lex Luthor, so far as we know. “He’s perfectly harmless.”
“Aw, not that old chestnut again.” Grinning, Burt Luthor said, “It was what we thought, Doctor. This old unit couldn’t handle the load.”
“It was a good thing it was a redundant unit not vital to the project,” said Montague. “You see,” he added to Firestorm, “we’re on the verge of success.” He pointed to a large, shapeless lump under dust covers. “I have perfected a machine which will enable us to contact other planes of existence, co-existing with ours but vibrating at different rates. We were just about to test it when the accident happened.”
“Ronald! This could mean–!” Professor Stein mentally exclaimed.
I’m way ahead of you, Professor, Ronnie answered. If it’s true, we could use it to contact Earth-Two and the Justice Society!
Dr. Montague handed his empty glass back to one of his subordinates. “Would you like to see our psi-com machine, as we call it?” he said.
“Um… will it take long?” Firestorm said.
Yeah, yeah, Professor, but remember my date. Doreen gets mad if I’m late, y’know. You don’t have to deal with her.
“Ronald, as you just pointed out, if the project these people have been working on really does what they say, it could re-establish communications with Earth-Two. Remember how much some of our fellow members in the Justice League have been worrying about the fate of their friends there. We still don’t know if Vixen, Vibe, and Gypsy ended up on Earth-Two as has been speculated. And the Flash, in particular, has been tremendously concerned for the welfare of his counterpart, Jay Garrick. And remember that some of them were badly injured — Wildcat and Hawkman, to name just two. Everyone is anxious to hear how they are.”
Yeah, OK, Ronnie sub-vocalized gloomily. I guess that’s important. But I’m running out of original excuses, Professor.
“One of the problems of leading this double life, my boy!”
Oblivious to this silent conversation in Firestorm’s head, Dr. Montague had moved to the bulky shape in the middle of the room and, with the help of Burt Luthor, had begun to remove the dust covers. “It’s a good thing we hadn’t taken the covers off before we tested the transformer array,” Burt said.
“Quite. It is, as I have explained, important to keep the equipment clean. To answer your question, Firestorm,” he said, addressing the nuclear man, “I hope that a quick demonstration will not take long.” He smiled. “I understand, of course, that as one of America’s premier super-heroes, you probably have a busy schedule, but the psi-com could be of great use to the Justice League. Like everyone else, I heard about those other Earths that briefly impinged on our own during the great Crisis of last year, and I read in Lois Lane’s column that their super-heroes have interacted with you and your colleagues on many occasions.”
“That’s right,” said Firestorm. “But since the Crisis, we haven’t been able to contact the other Earths. Are you sure your machine will be able to do that?” He surveyed the exposed psi-com machine, which resembled a high-tech dentist’s chair with a big hair dryer at the top end. It was surrounded by computers and banks of other electronic equipment. What do you make of this, Professor? he asked silently.
“It’s hard to say. This isn’t my field of expertise. But I have to say, I’ve never seen communications equipment that looked like that.”
“I realize the psi-com looks a little strange,” Montague was saying, “but remember that this is only a prototype.” He and his colleagues began to flip switches, and various lights came on on the equipment.
Firestorm walked around it, allowing Professor Stein to study it. “I’m sorry, Ronald. I still can’t make head or tail of it. This sort of technology is beyond my experience.”
“How long have you been working on this project?” the flame-haired hero asked.
“Oh, about five years now,” said Montague. “Are we ready, gentlemen? Mr. Luthor, are we certain that the remaining transformers will be able to handle the load without any further, ah, accidents? We are? Excellent! Then let’s begin.”
“What are you going to do?” asked Firestorm.
Montague moved to the psi-com and seated himself in the chair, tilting back as he operated the controls and pulling the dryer helmet over his head. “Why,” he said, “I’m going to test the psi-com in a little experiment, of course.” Burt Luthor operated another set of switches, and the whole array lit up like a Christmas tree. “In just a moment, if this works, you should be talking to your friends on those other Earths!”