“So then Ben Franklin says, ‘That’s what I told you this morning, and you told me to go fly a kite!‘” The soldier laughed at his own joke. His partner only frowned.
“I heard that one in sixth grade, Chuck,” he said.
“Yeah, I know,” Chuck said, reaching for a cup of coffee. “This sucks, though. Graveyard shift babysitting that hunk of iron out there.” Chuck gestured through the plate-glass window to the cylindrical metal device, about twice as big around as a thermos bottle, sitting in the center of a ring of electric-eye beams. “Nobody can get within a hundred yards of it, so what are we doing here?”
“What the brass tells us, that’s what,” Chuck’s partner said. “Which is what we always do, ’til we get our twenty in, and we–“
“Holy crap!” Chuck exclaimed, staring out the plate-glass window. The steel wall of the structure inside which they sat, the secure bunker housing the metal cylinder, suddenly dissolved in front of their eyes like ice cream in a microwave oven. Four costumed figures stepped through the gaping hole into the bunker, heading for the cylinder.
“Cripes!” Chuck’s partner cried out. “Super-villains! Just what I need!” Galvanized into action, Chuck and his partner grabbed their rifles and ran out of their enclosed guard post. Chuck had hit the alarm; other soldiers would be coming. But would they be quick enough?
“Hold it right there, mister!” Chuck said to one of the four, a blond man who was reaching for the cylinder. The blond man smiled and waved his hand at Chuck. A bolt of sizzling energy shot from his hand, striking Chuck’s gun. Chuck screamed and dropped the suddenly white-hot weapon.
Chuck’s partner reached for something on his belt. Before he could touch it, the huge bald man raised his hands. A booming thunderclap echoed through the enclosed building. The older soldier screamed in pain, clapping hands over his ears and dropping to his knees.
“Freeze!” a new voice barked out. Many other soldiers had arrived and were streaming in through the hole in the wall. The long-haired man in the blue costume grinned, then all of a sudden he was not there. Only a blue blur was whipping through the phalanx of soldiers. A moment later, the long-haired man was back with his friends; the soldiers had been disarmed, their weapons stacked up next to the four intruders. The man in bulky metal armor pointed his gauntleted hand at the pile of guns, and it dissolved into a shiny, metallic liquid.
The blond man raised both his hands, and there was a sudden flash of brilliant light. The guards blinked, rubbing their eyes. When their vision cleared a few seconds later, all four costumed intruders were gone, and with them, the metal cylinder.
“This is not good,” Chuck’s partner said simply.
“They came through here, I take it,” Green Lantern said, looking intently at the hole in the wall.
“Uh-huh,” Chuck said. “The wall just — dissolved, man! I mean, one second it was there, the next it was all over the floor like a spilled Coke!”
“No fused edges,” Green Lantern said. “The edges of the hole are a sharp delineation. Whatever caused the wall to dissolve simply… stopped there. That means it wasn’t heat or force, or — anything in my experience.”
“What did the intruders take?” asked J’onn J’onzz, the Martian Manhunter.
“That’s the problem,” said General Sennett, commander of the base. “I’m afraid they got away with the L-Bomb.”
“The L-Bomb?” J’onn asked uncomprehendingly.
“The L-Bomb!” Green Lantern cried out. “Oh, no!”
“What is this L-Bomb?” J’onn wanted to know.
“A new weapon developed by the Army,” Green Lantern said. “It’s still top secret, but the JLA was briefed on it last month in case of, well, this.”
“I must have missed that meeting,” J’onn said. “Please explain.”
“Simply put,” General Sennett said, “the L-Bomb sends out electronic waves that attack and break down lipase.”
“Lipase,” J’onn said simply. “That element is present in all living flesh.”
“Exactly,” Green Lantern said. “The idea is to wipe out people, but leave buildings and other structures standing.”
“I never cease to be amazed with the ingenuity Terrans exhibit in destroying one another,” J’onn said, shaking his head.
“Well, if the L-Bomb has fallen into the wrong hands,” said General Sennett, “the results could be nothing short of disastrous!”
“I’m not certain there are any right hands to possess this weapon,” J’onn said. “However, the Justice League will endeavor to recover the bomb.”
“I don’t recognize the villains you say grabbed it from your descriptions,” Green Lantern said.
“Want to take a look at the security tape?” General Sennett asked. “We should have the whole thing recorded.”
“Yes, that would be a big help,” Green Lantern said.
A few minutes later, Green Lantern and J’onn J’onzz stood in the audiovisual communications center of the base, watching the playback of the recording of the four costumed intruders’ attack and theft of the weapon.
“No,” Green Lantern whispered.
“You recognize them?” General Sennett asked.
“It would appear so,” J’onn said. “And yet it does not seem logical.”
“Who are they?” General Sennett asked. “I’ve never seen them before; what villains are they?”
“They’re not villains,” Green Lantern said. “Their names are Tin Man, Pulsar, Wandjina, and Jack B. Quick. They’re heroes — heroes from another planet.”
“Heroes?!” General Sennett exploded. “What kind of heroes break into a military installation and steal a deadly weapon of mass destruction?”
“That is precisely what I am wondering, General,” J’onn said.
“Un-be-frickin’-lievable,” Green Arrow said in awe. In the communications room of the JLA Satellite, several members stood and watched the film record of the four heroes from Angor stealing the L-Bomb.
“Is it possible that the Assemblers have turned bad?” the Flash asked. “I mean, I’ve studied some of their cases, from the data files we exchanged with them. Seems like the costumed guys on their world change allegiances more often than professional wrestlers!”
“I don’t want to believe it,” Aquaman said. “And yet, there’s the evidence in front of us.”
“Perhaps the Assemblers learned of this weapon somehow and decided it was too deadly for anyone to possess,” J’onn offered.
“I can almost buy that,” Green Arrow said, “but why wouldn’t they have come to us first?“
“There’s only one way to find out,” said Zatanna, the current leader of the League. “Go and ask them.” She turned to Green Lantern. “Hal, you’re our best transportation to Angor. Take three volunteers, go to Angor, and ask the Assemblers about this. This is to be a friendly interrogation only, but if you do find that they’ve gone rogue — well, use your discretion.”
“I shall accompany you, Hal,” J’onn said.
“And I as well,” Wonder Woman declared.
“If I may offer my services,” Red Tornado said, “perhaps my skills could be of some use in this situation.”
“There’s our away team,” Green Lantern said. “OK, gang, hop aboard the power ring express.” Green Lantern’s ring enclosed his three friends in an emerald bubble. “Next stop, the planet Angor.”
“Good luck, Hal,” Green Arrow called. “Keep us posted.”
“Will do, Ollie,” Green Lantern said. The emerald gladiator and the glowing bubble phased through the satellite walls. Once out in space, they shot forward in a glowing green streak that rapidly disappeared in the depths of space.
“I don’t know,” the Flash said, watching the departing green streak. “Maybe I read too many comic books when I was a kid, but I smell a big super-hero slugfest on the horizon.”
“When you were a kid?” Green Arrow repeated. “What, like Thursday, you mean?”
The Flash shot him a dirty look.
“Bishop to Queen Six,” said the man with the bizarrely shaped head. The computer hummed a moment, calculating its next move. The man reclined in a cushioned chair, playing chess with his super-computer. There was no board and no pieces, not even electronic representations of them; the man and the computer simply spoke the moves back and forth. The man was grossly ugly, due to his misshapen head; it was three sizes too large for his body, and almost perfectly round. It was nearly bald, except for a small patch of dark hair in the center, standing up on its own.
As the computer spoke its answering move, and the man contemplated his next move, the doors of his laboratory burst open. Tin Man, Wandjina, Jack B. Quick, and Pulsar raced into the room.
“Pumpkinhead,” Pulsar cried, pointing a finger at the reclining scientist, “by the authority of the Assemblers, I place you under arrest!”
The air hung silent for a moment. Finally, the man called Pumpkinhead spoke.
“Droll, very droll,” he said humorlessly.
“Ah, you’ve got no sense of humor,” Pulsar said. The four heroes’ forms began to shimmer like heat mirages. Then the heroes were gone; four other costumed men stood in their places.
“We’ve got the bomb,” said a man with a strangely shaped helmet, standing where Jack B. Quick had been and holding up the device.
“Excellent,” Pumpkinhead said. “Very soon, the city of Cosmopolis dies screaming.”
“I still don’t understand why we wore the holographic disguises,” the blue-skinned man said. The four costumed men stood behind Pumpkinhead as the scientist examined the L-Bomb. “I mean, nobody on that world knows us! Not even their own heroes!”
“But their heroes know the Assemblers,” said Pumpkinhead without taking his attention from the device. “It will be they whom the Justice League is now looking for, not the Plunder Lords. I daresay the League is winging its way to Angor right now.”
“So, what?” the man in the bizarre helmet asked. “We’ll have two groups of heroes after us, rather than one?”
“Use your head, Spin Doctor!” a man in green and orange snarled. “The heroes of the other world — what’d you call ’em? Justice Legion? — are gonna stomp on the Assemblers, thinking they stole the bomb!”
“Precisely,” Pumpkinhead said. “If there’s one thing I’ve learned from my many years fighting the Assemblers and their ilk, it’s this: heroes always win. No matter how grand the scheme, no matter how much the odds may appear in the villains’ favor, heroes always win. I’m not the first villain to notice this, either. Look how many members of the Assemblers are former villains who decided they’d rather switch than fight. Jack B. Quick and the Silver Sorceress, Green Arrow, the Bladesman, Amazing Man — all former evildoers who now fight on the side of right and virtue. And now, they win.”
“So your idea is to pit heroes against heroes,” the blue-skinned man said.
“Exactly, my dear Roentgen,” Pumpkinhead said. “If heroes always win, with heroes fighting heroes, anything is possible. Either the Assemblers will be defeated and taken away to Earth for punishment, or else the Assemblers will defeat the Justice League, incurring the wrath of other heroes from Earth — leaving us free and clear to use this lovely L-Bomb the Earth government so nicely provided for us.” Pumpkinhead ran his palm over the smooth casing of the bomb.
“You mean to really use that thing?” The man in green and orange asked. “Not just blackmail with it?”
“Dissembler, when you deal in the currency of terror, a demonstration is always required,” Pumpkinhead said. “If I merely told the governments of the world what I possess and what would happen if they failed to capitulate, they would not believe. But when the great city of Cosmopolis becomes one gigantic graveyard, they will know. They will believe. They will give us anything we want, to keep us from using the L-Bomb… a second time.”
A shiver ran along the Dissembler’s spine.
“Belvedere!” a loud, rumbling voice boomed through the halls of Assemblers Estate. “We’re out of RZ Cola again!”
“I believe there is a case in the storeroom, Master Behemoth,” the Assemblers’ butler said patiently as he polished the silver tea service. “I shall fetch it for you.”
“Don’t bother, Belv,” the giant voice boomed. “I’ll get it!” A fifteen-foot-tall blond man in a red and white costume strolled through the high-ceilinged kitchen, headed for the storeroom.
“Belvedere, are you in there?” the Silver Sorceress’ voice came over the kitchen intercom.
“I am here, Madam,” Belvedere answered. “How may I be of service?”
“Well, I’m afraid there’s a bit of a mess in the rec room,” she said. “I was watching my favorite game show, and, well, I guess I got a bit too emotional, and… my hex power sort of… went off.”
“I shall attend to the wreckage immediately, Madam Sorceress,” Belvedere said, his patient voice never wavering.
“Thank you, Belvedere,” said the Sorceress. “By the way, the people from Alpha magazine called about the photo-shoot for Jay’s new discovery. They moved it up to one o’clock.”
“I shall see that all is in readiness,” Belvedere said, rising from his chair to attend to the cleaning. Enjoy American tax tables, endure American eccentricities, his father had always said. His father had never seen anything like the Assemblers.
“There it is,” Green Lantern said as he flew down from the sky, power-ring bubble in tow. “Assemblers Estate.”
“They operate out of a mansion?” Wonder Woman asked.
“I suppose our satellite headquarters would seem as strange to them,” Red Tornado offered.
Green Lantern deposited his friends on the lawn in front of the mansion and dissolved the bubble. Together, they walked up to the door.
“Remember, we do this friendly-like,” Green Lantern said. “We’re giving them the benefit of the doubt.”
“As you say,” Wonder Woman said coldly. She noticed that Green Lantern had been looking sideways at her when he said that.
The Justice Leaguers reached the front door, and Green Lantern knocked smartly. A few moments later, the door was opened by a tuxedoed butler.
“Yes?” he asked, eyebrow slightly raised. Green Lantern had set his power ring to automatically translate the Angorian language as soon as they set down.
“We are the Justice League from the planet Earth,” Green Lantern said. “We wish to see the Assemblers.”
“Certainly, sir,” Belvedere said. “If you would care to wait in the parlor.”
The four Justice Leaguers took seats in the comfortable parlor as the butler disappeared into the depths of the mansion.
“Wow,” Green Lantern said. “I’d have thought the appearance of four extraterrestrial heroes would have come as more of a surprise to him. But he seemed totally unfazed.”
“As the butler to this world’s greatest heroes,” Red Tornado said, “he has probably seen more than his share of unusual occurrences. He is probably inured to them.”
“Or they were expecting us,” Wonder Woman offered, “knowing someone would come after the weapon they stole.”
“What weapon?” a booming voice demanded. “Who stole?”