Justice League of America: World’s Fiercest, Chapter 2: Tarnished Image

by HarveyKent

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The Secret Sanctuary, the JLA’s alternate headquarters in Happy Harbor, was the site of a grim gathering. It turned out Nightwing had disabled Titans Tower as well as the JLA Satellite with his virus, so the active members of the New Titans, as well as a couple of inactive members, had gathered with the Justice League to address the problem. It seemed the World’s Finest heroes had gone mad.

“I’ve been trying to debug the satellite and tower systems,” Cyborg said, “but no dice! This virus is like a couple hundred years ahead of its time; nothin’ I do cracks it!”

“I managed to get ahold of Alfred at Wayne Manor,” Elongated Man said. “Seems Batman hasn’t been there in three days. He was getting worried, was on the verge of calling us, when he heard on the news.”

“What about Robin?” asked Artemis. “Has he seen Batman recently?”

Ralph shook his head. “Robin’s out of town, testifying at the trial of a crook he and Kid Devil captured.”

“The first thing we need to learn is if these are indeed our old friends or someone disguised as them,” J’onn J’onzz said. “And if they are the genuine article, if they’re being mind-controlled.”

“How do we do that?” Aqualad asked.

“The monitors here in the old headquarters are set to alert us of any public activities by any of them,” J’onn explained. “When they make their move, we engage them, keep them busy, while I attempt to read their minds.”

As if on cue, the monitor alarms began sounding. In a twinkling, the Flash was at the console, bringing the display up.

“Look at that!” Changeling gasped. All watched the display in awe. Superman was hovering in front of Mount Rushmore, using his super-strength and heat-vision to alter the face of George Washington into his own.

“Let’s go!” J’onn shouted. “Our mightiest members only! Hal, Nubia, Kory, Wally, Zee! The rest of you stay here in case Batman or Nightwing become active. Go!

The Leaguers raced out of the headquarters. Green Lantern transported all but the Flash in a power-ring bubble, and it was all the emerald gladiator could do to keep up with the fastest man alive. They reached South Dakota in minutes. Superman had already finished his own monument; it was Superman’s face, but somehow dark, malignant. He had already begun altering Thomas Jefferson’s face into that of Batman.

“Superman!” the Martian Manhunter called. “Stop! Turn and face us!”

The Man of Steel halted his work and slowly rotated in midair. His face lit up with an expression of pure evil delight at the sight of the heroes.

“Ah, my old friends,” he said. “Batman and Nightwing have already joined me in my mission to remake this world in my own image. Have you come to do the same?”

“You know us better than that, Superman,” J’onn said grimly. “We have come to ask you to surrender this foolish campaign or to stop you if we must.”

Superman threw back his head and laughed. “Stop me? Try it if you like. I could use the laugh!”

J’onn looked at Firestorm and simply nodded. The nuclear man brought his power to bear, and instantly Superman was encased in a cage of glowing green kryptonite. Everyone gasped as Superman snorted derisively and broke through the cage with the tiniest amount of effort.

The battle went poorly after that. The heroes threw everything they had at Superman, and he laughed it all off. Within minutes, the heroes were lying on the rocky ground at the foot of the monument, bruised, battered, and beaten.

“Send the message to the rest of the super-hero community!” Superman demanded. “I was merciful with you now, in remembrance of past alliances. But any further attempts to stop me will be met with extreme force! Not one of you can stand against me — not even you, Hal!” And with that, Superman flew off.

J’onn had kept out of the fight, using his telepathic power on Superman the whole time. He stood there, grim-faced and silent.

“If he’s not Superman, he ought to be,” the Flash said, picking himself up. “I haven’t been beaten up like that since — Hell, I’ve never been beaten up like that.”

“He called me Hal,” Green Lantern pointed out. “He knows who I am!”

“But the kryptonite didn’t stop him,” Firestorm said. “How could–?”

“Kryptonite never stopped Superman for long,” Zatanna said grimly. “Once he used a plasta-lead alloy to shut out its effects without tipping his enemies off that it was useless against him. Perhaps he’s done that now.”

“J’onn?” Nubia asked, turning to the silent Manhunter. “You read his mind. What did you see?”

“Yes, J’onn, tell us!” Green Lantern said urgently. “Was that Superman? Was that really our old friend?”

The Martian Manhunter looked at the assembled company. They expectantly hung on his next words, perhaps afraid to hear them but unable to bear the uncertainty any longer.

Finally, J’onn sighed and said, “I don’t know.”

“You don’t know?” Nubia demanded. “How can you not? Did you not read his mind? Did–?”

“I tried to read his mind,” J’onn said, simply and quietly. “Superman’s mind is closed to me. I could not reach his thoughts.”

“But — what does that mean?” the Flash asked.

“I can think of two possibilities,” J’onn said. “Either it is not Superman at all, but an impostor who is also a strong enough telepath to block my probes, or Superman is being mind-controlled, and the control somehow blocks my telepathy.”

“But we still don’t know which one,” Green Lantern pointed out.

***

On the way back to the temporary headquarters, Zatanna turned to J’onn. “So far, Superman, Batman, and Nightwing haven’t been seen together,” she said.

“I know,” J’onn said. “I find it reasonable to assume that, if they are being impersonated, the same man is impersonating all three.”

This theory became full of holes when the heroes returned to the headquarters to find it nearly deserted. Only Arsenal remained, watching the monitors.

“What happened?” Arsenal asked. The Flash quickly filled him in.

“But where is everybody?” Zatanna asked.

“While you were gone, Batman and Nightwing popped up at Arkham Asylum, trying to blow it up and kill everyone inside,” Arsenal explained. “The rest of our team went off to engage them.”

“What?” Green Lantern gasped. “At the same time that we were fighting Superman?”

“Yep. We got the alarm almost immediately after you left.”

J’onn and Zatanna looked at each other. “That either means,” Zatanna began, “we’ve got three culprits who can impersonate our old friends enough to pass, or…”

“Or they really are our old friends, presumably — and hopefully — under someone’s control,” J’onn finished.

“Why are we sitting around here?” Nubia wanted to know. “Why do we not do something?”

“For one thing, there’s only so much we can do now,” Zatanna answered. “Have you seen the news broadcasts? Do you know what they’re saying out there?”

“Yeah, it’s pretty scary,” the Flash said. “Apparently, the general opinion is, if Superman and Batman can turn bad, any hero can. A costume would be about as welcome out there now as a white hood at the Apollo Theater.”

“Responsible journalists like Lois Lane and Jack Ryder are doing what they can to turn the tide of opinion,” Zatanna said. “But it doesn’t look good.”

“Why do we cower here in this cave, waiting for Superman or Batman to show themselves?” Nubia wanted to know. She was still not satisfied.

“The Amazon has a point,” Raven put in. “Our enemies, whoever they truly are, do not expect us to go after them.”

“Good reason for that,” Cyborg said, “is that we don’t know where they are.”

Don’t we?” Green Arrow asked, not looking up from the arrow he was busy fletching. All eyes turned to him. Noticing the silence that hung for a few moments, he looked up from his arrow. “Pardon me; arrow-making has always been occupational therapy for me. Helps me think. And it helped me think of this: if Supey, Bats, and the bird-boy haven’t been seen at the Batcave in all this time, where are they likely to be hanging out?”

“The Fortress!” Aquaman interjected.

“Give the fish-man a gold star,” Green Arrow said.

“But how would impostors even find the Fortress of Solitude, much less get in?” Steel asked.

“I think it’s safe to assume we’re not dealing with impostors,” Hawkman said grimly. “If we were, where are the real Superman, Batman, and Nightwing? Why haven’t they responded to the situation or at least to our efforts to contact them?”

That was met with silence for a moment. The Elongated Man finally suggested, “Couldn’t the impostors have imprisoned them somehow? If they’re powerful enough to lick us, which they are, they could do that.”

No one wanted to voice the other, horrible possibility: that the impostors had made it a very final certainty that the true heroes would not expose their charade.

“The Fortress is still our best bet,” J’onn said. “All right, let’s take a company of six and investigate. I’d like at least one of our heavy-hitters to remain here in case our foes attack. Volunteers?”

“I’ll stay,” Starfire said. She wasn’t sure what she would do if they found Nightwing there, and he had truly turned evil.

“Fine,” J’onn said. “Hal, Nubia, Zee, Katar, Victor, the six of us will go to the Arctic and see what we find.”

J’onn turned to Aquaman, one of his oldest, closest friends in the JLA. “Arthur, I’d like you to assume leadership of the team in the event that…”

“I will,” Aquaman said quickly. He did not want his old friend to finish that thought. The two friends clasped hands, and then J’onn led his team away.

***

“There it is,” Green Lantern said as the heroes approached the golden key that marked the Fortress of Solitude’s location. Only J’onn J’onzz flew unaided through the cold Arctic skies; the other heroes, even Hawkman, rode in Green Lantern’s power bubble.

“Let me try my Martian vision first,” J’onn said. “I’ll try to find out if they’re in there, and what our chances are of taking them by surprise.”

The heroes waited tensely while J’onn stared at the Fortress.

“See anything?” Hawkman asked finally.

“I think — yes,” J’onn said. “I see one of them — Batman. He’s in the computer room, alone. I don’t see Superman or Nightwing anywhere.”

“All right — let’s go!” Green Lantern said. He moved swiftly toward the Fortress, using his power ring to ghost the heroes through the thick rock walls. J’onn, of course, accomplished this with his own Martian powers. They emerged in the trophy room, surrounded by monuments of Superman’s friends and foes. And Superman and Batman were waiting for them.

“Look, Clark, they’re surprised,” Batman said, pointing at their astonished expressions. “They thought they’d catch us flat-footed!”

“Well, be fair, Bruce — they didn’t think we knew they were here,” Superman said. “It’s almost as though we could read their minds, isn’t it?”

Zatanna was the first to act. “Cigam ygrene nosirpmi ruo seof!” she commanded in her magical backwards language, hands spread wide. A glowing, six-sided cube of golden light appeared around Superman and Batman. The two prisoners looked at each other, smiled evilly, and disappeared.

“Th-they’re gone!” Cyborg stammered. “But how?”

“It could be a trick,” Zatanna offered. “Somehow they made themselves invisible, hoping I’ll drop my magic prison. Let me see if I can make them visible. Tel tahw si neddih–”

“Hey, super-saps!” came a familiar voice from the trophy room entrance. All heads turned to see Nightwing standing in the doorway, holding a spherical red device. “Say cheese,” he said. A white burst of light flashed from the device, and suddenly all was dark.

***

The Justice Leaguers floated in a strange void. Their bodies were transparent; they could see right through one another. Nubia tried to speak but found she had no voice. But she could hear her comrades’ voices inside her head.

“Where are we?” Cyborg asked. “What happened to us?”

“Ladies and gentlemen, I’m afraid we are in the Phantom Zone,” Green Lantern said. “Nightwing caught us with the Zone projector.”

“The projector is the only way in or out,” J’onn said. “I’m afraid we’re trapped here.”

“I see he got you, too,” a very familiar voice spoke in the heroes’ heads. They turned to look, and they could not believe what they saw.

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