by Philip-Todd Franklin
In the main chamber of the Cave of the Stranger, Animal Man and Rip Hunter each quickly ran up where the man in red had fallen. Rip looked at Buddy Baker and said, “I’m sorry about this, Buddy. I wish it didn’t have to happen.”
Animal Man just continued to stare at the man he remembered from his childhood, for the moment lost in his memories.
The Phantom Stranger slowly approached both men and, speaking a few archaic words, caused a gentle glow to surround Roger.
After a few moments had passed, the Stranger stopped, then softly placed his gloved hand upon Animal Man’s shoulder. “I am sorry about all of this as well,” he said.
“So, will you be needing a lift back?” Rip asked the Stranger.
“No. I believe I and my passenger have a date with history,” the Phantom Stranger said without a hint of triumph in his voice. Glancing with concern at Animal Man for another moment, the Stranger then went to stand before the large gem. “Once again you have been defeated, as you have been several times before, only this time the world shall never have to fear your return! I shall make sure of that.”
Lifting his arms, the Phantom Stranger began to drawl circles upon the air before the gem. Slowly, a blackish light began to form before the gem. After a couple of seconds, the sound of a hideous voice screaming in utter terror could be heard not only by their ears, but also in their minds, before it was cut off, leaving only a faint echo behind in the chamber for a few moments.
By the time the Stranger had finished, the large red gem had not only become as black as night, but it had fractured into many smaller, brittle chunks that began to crumble to the floor. “It is now gone from any place that man will trod,” he said, turning and slowly walking back to join Animal Man and Rip Hunter.
Buddy had watched transfixed as the red gem had blackened and then crumbled into pieces, hearing the voice screaming for help before becoming silent, but something still didn’t feel right. The memories he had in his mind were confusing, mostly because he could tell they didn’t ring true with what he had remembered experiencing before.
“None of this makes any sense!” said Buddy. “I distinctly remember having two friends named Roger — Roger Denning and Roger ‘Dodger’ Marshall — and one of them died when I was sixteen! Roger Marshall died, and Roger Denning remained my best friend for years. Heck, he helped me break into Hollywood as a stuntman, and he even acted as my super-hero agent for a while!
“When I encountered the man in red the first time, I distinctly remember recognizing him to be Roger Marshall,” continued Buddy, “which made no sense, because Roger Marshall was dead! But now, when I look at that man over there, all I see is Roger Denning! How can this be?” Turning to the Phantom Stranger, Buddy asked him without a trace of humor in his voice, “Can you be of help to me, or am I just going to go mad?!”
Nodding, the Stranger told him, “Your life has been in flux, and its cause has been the very same Crisis that so many did once face. Many died, and others were still lost once the Crisis was over. Things for so many have gone back to normal for them, yet for some such as you, things have never been the same.”
Buddy listened to the words, and he remembered the Crisis that had destroyed so many worlds and had nearly cost the existence of all that was. “I know and remember the Crisis like most people,” he said. “What’s that got to do with my conflicting memories? How can the man in red be both Roger Marshall and Roger Denning?”
“The results of the Crisis have been thrust upon your very life, Mr. Baker,” said the Stranger. “What you truly remember and what now is… are no longer the same. The name of the man in red is neither Roger Marshall, nor Roger Denning — but Roger Marshall Denning, known as ‘Dodger’ to his friends.”
“I don’t understand!” said Buddy, collapsing to his knees. “I don’t understand any of this!”
Rip Hunter had stood there listening to the conversation, remaining quiet, but having an idea about what was possibly going on, he spoke up. “Buddy, from what I understand, the Crisis on Infinite Earths and the temporary merging, which very few remember or do not speak of, caused a ‘mini-crisis,’ if you will, centering on you and the man you remember as two distinct childhood friends, and who are now only one man, and have only ever been one man.”
“How is that even possible?” asked Buddy.
“I can’t pretend to understand it fully,” said Rip. “I may call myself the Time Master, but more often than not I’m at time’s mercy. A while back I learned from Arisia of the Green Lantern Corps that something similar had happened to her teammate Ch’p and his arch-enemy, Doctor Ub’x. Both of them had retained memories from before the Crisis that were at odds with what everybody else remembered. It was only Ch’p’s power ring combined with Ub’x’s own weapon that kept Ub’x from blinking out of existence when the timeline seemingly tried to correct itself! (*) I’ve also heard rumors that Paradise Island, Wonder Woman’s home, was similarly afflicted after her death, and that Queen Hippolyta intervened somehow to cause her daughter, the original Wonder Woman, to be reborn — if you can believe it — a second time from clay!” (*)
[(*) Editor’s note: See “The Diabolical Doctor Ub’x,” Green Lantern Corps #203 (August, 1986), “Splitting the Atom,” The Legend of Wonder Woman #4 (August, 1986), and Wonder Woman: Paradise Lost, Chapter 1: Formed from Clay.]
Once again the Phantom Stranger nodded. “The comparisons are apt indeed. In the current timeline, Roger Marshall Denning was indeed nearly shot by a would-be robber, but found himself in safety back at the church, unable to explain how he’d come to be there. When he collapsed into unconsciousness after finding himself there, he was hospitalized for a few days, which turned into weeks. By the time he was released, the doctors had told him he had a rare medical condition that meant he’d have to give up his dreams of pursuing an athletic career, and which would cut short his lifespan. He would be lucky to reach the age of forty.
“So Roger Marshall Denning instead pursued a writing career that ended up propelling him into becoming a successful Hollywood screenwriter,” continued the Stranger. “Unknown to him or anyone else, the incident in April of 1962 also set into motion a series of events that would lead him down a very dark path following a divorce from his wife Tricia a few years ago. Knowing he was living on borrowed time, he became embittered and began seeking mystical power in order to gain eternal life at any cost — even if that meant sacrificing anyone and anything to do so. As a result, he eventually became a pawn of the great evil that has resided in this gem in this cave for centuries.”
“None of this makes any sense,” Buddy said miserably.
“Unfortunately, that is the only answer I am allowed to give you.” With that said, the Phantom Stranger bent down and gently lifted Roger Denning’s limp, unconscious body, placing it over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes.
“But he — he saved my life,” Buddy said in desperate tones. “Back after our first confrontation, he knocked me out and could’ve killed me, but he didn’t! He left me outside the cave!”
The Phantom Stranger looked at him with pity. “Know that, despite the fact that he spared your life, he did fully expect you to die along with everything else around the cave once he had accomplished the work for his master. It was only due to our timely intervention that the Two Arm Death did not consume the world entire. I’m sorry to tell you, Buddy, that the old friend you knew no longer exists — he is long dead, and all that remains is his master’s evil.”
“Come on, Buddy, we’ve got to head back to my headquarters,” Rip said, grabbing Animal Man’s arm and dragging him toward the Time Sphere.
For a second Buddy started to struggle with Rip before he finally let him direct him toward the ship. Turning he shouted back toward the Phantom Stranger with concern, “What’s going to happen with Roger?”
“I think you already know,” said the Stranger. “He must pay the price for playing with fire.”
For a moment, a bright green light flashed in the main chamber, followed by a white light, and then the stones in the walls went dark.
During the short walk back to the Time Sphere, both men remained silent. The silence continued the whole trip back to Rip Hunter’s headquarters in the present.
The Time Sphere rocked and shook as it finally landed upon its mooring in the hangar of Rip Hunter’s California headquarters, on the same day they’d left: March 2nd, 1987.
Rip quickly began to flip switches and type in commands on the keyboard before him. “OK, that’s a successful — if not painless — test of the override chip,” Rip said, glancing at Animal man.
“What do you mean, ‘override chip’?” Buddy asked as he quickly exited the Time Sphere.
Taking a moment to open the panel below the keyboard, Rip yanked out a small chip about the size of a human fingernail. He dropped it onto the floor and quickly crushed it. Exiting the sphere himself, he replied as the two men left the hangar to return to his laboratory, “Don’t worry about it, Buddy. It’s no longer a problem, anyway. As we’ve seen, it’s simply too risky to ever again attempt to cross our own timelines. I knew it all along, but I still had my hopes.” Sighing, he added, “This obsession has consumed too much of my time already, and I know now more than ever how precious this resource is.”
As Animal Man was about to reply, the door to Rip’s lab opened, and out walked his companion and assistant of many years. “Hey, Rip, been on an adventure without me?” said Jeff Smith with a smile. “Ah, it doesn’t matter. I’ve had the most charming of company waiting here with me.”
At the sound of his words, a figure walked out of the office and stepped around him. She was a pretty teenage girl around thirteen years of age, five feet, eleven inches tall, with strawberry-blonde hair and blue eyes, and she was dressed in a skintight costume that looked a lot like the one Buddy was wearing, only the colors were black and orange instead of blue and orange.
Looking at first Rip Hunter and then Animal Man, she looked at Buddy Baker and said, “Daddy, I think we need to have a talk.”