“Ho-ho-ho! Merry Christmas, boys and girls! Merry Christmas!”
A man in a Santa Claus suit handed out presents at a Police Athletic League toy drive for underprivileged youngsters. It was a typical holiday scene played out in almost every big city in America. Here in Metropolis, the scene was a bit different than in other cities. This Santa had a helper dressed not in the traditional red and green, but in a world-renowned uniform of blue and red. And while many PAL Santas were flanked by reindeer, few of the reindeer were actually living creatures; fewer still, bright emerald green.
“Santa, can I pet your reindeer?” one eager little boy asked.
“Ho-ho-ho, sure,” Santa said with a jolly laugh. “He loves little children! Don’t you, Blitzen?”
“I thought we agreed I was Dasher,” the green reindeer said. “Er, I mean, I sure do, Santa! Come on, little boy, pet me! Yep, that’s real fur!”
“Superman, do you really live at the North Pole like Santa?” a wide-eyed little girl asked the Man of Steel.
“My special Fortress is in the Arctic, yes,” Superman said with a smile.
“So you and Santa are neighbors?” the girl went on.
“Yes, we are,” Superman said. “We don’t often get together, though; we’re both usually very busy.”
“But never too busy at Christmas time for good little boys and girls like you!” Santa rumbled. “Ho-ho-ho! Merry Christmas!”
The gift-giving stretched on for hours as hundreds of eager children happily greeted Superman and Santa Claus, just as happy at meeting them as they were at receiving toys; for many of them, they were the only toys they would have all year.
“Thanks for coming to help out, Gar,” Superman whispered to the reindeer during an all-too-rare lull period. “It’s a thrill for the children to see a talking reindeer!”
“Hey, my pleasure, Supes,” Changeling whispered back. “Shoot, I spent my seventh Christmas in the jungle on an expedition with mom and dad; and I think my eighth was with the Doom Patrol fighting Garguax. I don’t know what a traditional Christmas looks like, but I’m glad to help give these kids one.”
“We really appreciate your help, Changeling,” the man in the Santa Claus suit said. “You have the thanks of the entire Police Athletic League.”
“No sweat, Inspector Henderson,” Changeling said. “PAL is one of my favorite causes, next to Greenpeace, of course!” Santa and Superman chuckled over that.
Hours later, the special event finally over and all the children reluctantly gone, Changeling morphed back into his human form. “Whew!” he exhaled, relieved. “What a grueling day this has been!”
“Once again, thanks for your help, Gar,” Superman said. “Come on, I know a place that serves the best pie in Metropolis.”
“Did someone say pie?” Changeling gasped, suddenly morphing into a green hippopotamus. “Lead the way, Supes. I can put away three or four of ’em!”
Chuckling, Superman opened the door of the PAL center.
All year long, these two champions faced death on a daily basis, protecting the rights and lives of the innocent. They were enjoying a rare moment of respite from the never-ending battle. Little did they know how short-lived the moment would be.
“So, got all your Christmas shopping done, big guy?” Changeling asked Superman as they strolled down the Metropolis street. Busy last-minute shoppers thronged the streets, few even bothering to stare; super-heroes were all-too common in that city.
“Most of it,” Superman said, thinking of how Kristin Wells was taking Jasma to FAO for her first Christmas-shopping experience. He had been lucky that the PAL appearance conflicted; Man of Steel he was, but the thought of Christmas shopping still cowed him.
“Must be easy for you,” Changeling said, rubbing his hands together. “A few stray lumps of coal, a little rub-rub action, and bingo, there’s your gift. You’ve got it made. Lots of us dudes experience a fear of crowded shopping malls at Christmas time. It’s well-documented.”
“Is that a fact?” Superman asked.
“Oh, yeah,” Changeling said. “They call it Santa Claustrophobia.”
Superman chuckled, shaking his head. “You remind me a lot of Dick at your age, and younger. Always with the awful puns.”
“That must have been something,” Changeling said, “hanging out with you and Batman all the time! He renamed himself Nightwing in your honor, you know.”
“I know, and it makes me very proud,” Superman said. “I always–” Superman suddenly stopped, both talking and walking, a look of sudden urgency on his face.
“Supes?” Changeling barely had time to ask before the Man of Steel was off like a shot. Changeling quickly turned himself into a duck-hawk, one of the fastest fliers he knew, and struggled to keep up with Superman’s flying form. By the time Changeling caught up with him, Superman was already at the scene.
A fistfight had broken out at a local shopping mall; two middle-aged men were throwing punches at each other. Something was wrong, though; the punches were not thrown the way a normal man would. Changeling couldn’t put his finger on it, but something seemed odd about them. Changeling arrived just in time to see Superman separate the pair.
“All right, what happened here?” Superman demanded.
“He hit me first!” one of the middle-aged men cried, pointing at the other man.
“Did not!” the other man shot back.
“Liar liar, pants on fire!”
“All right!” Superman cried, having heard enough. Uniformed mall security guards were approaching; Superman handed the two men, still shrieking childish epithets at each other, into the guards’ custody. “Keep them separated,” Superman advised.
“What was that all about?” Changeling asked.
“I don’t know,” Superman said. “My super-hearing picked up the sounds of the fight. Two grown men, screaming at each other like — like kids on a playground!”
“And did you see those punches they were throwing at each other?” Changeling asked.
“I did,” Superman nodded. “The kind little boys throw. Elbows always straight, throwing their whole weight into the swing. Like two little kids.”
“What were they fighting about, anyway?” Changeling asked.
“This,” a man in a brown suit said, holding up a brightly colored box. “It’s the last one in stock. I’m Rumboldt, the store manager.”
“Mr. Rumboldt,” Superman acknowledged, taking the box. It was small, about the size of a shoe box. The front of the box had a cellophane window showing the toy inside, a plastic doll colored bright silver and red.
“That’s Big Hero X,” Rumboldt explained. “The hottest toy fad of the year. Stores all over the country are selling out.”
“I’ve seen commercials for them,” Superman said. “This year’s Cabbage Patch Dolls, apparently.”
“Made in Japan,” Changeling said. “Based on a TV show over there. Supposed to start airing here next summer.”
“Really,” Superman said. “And the men were fighting over this… doll?”
“Action-figure,” Rumboldt corrected. “It started out as a typical argument, over which one had seen it first. You hear at least a hundred of those a week at Christmas. The arguments usually don’t develop into fistfights, though. And the way these gentlemen conducted themselves! Quite childish, really.”
“Quite,” Superman said gravely as he stared intently at the action-figure.
“I saw that look on your face, Supes,” Changeling said as the two heroes left the store. “What’s up?”
“That doll — excuse me, action-figure,” Superman said grimly. “I examined it with my x-ray vision. That’s no ordinary toy. It’s full of ultra-complex micro-circuitry.”
“Well, it is made in Japan,” Changeling offered.
“Gar,” Superman said, patiently, “the inner workings of that toy rivaled the Justice League computers for complexity. I couldn’t tell from looking what it was designed to do; but the fight that broke out can give me a good guess.”
“Whoa, whoa,” Changeling said. “Supey, you mean–?”
Changeling was interrupted by the screeching wheels of a car speeding down the busy street at speeds at least eighty miles per hour. It was headed for a red light, with no signs of stopping or slowing down.
“Whoa! Supes–” But Changeling was talking to empty air; Superman was already in pursuit of the car.
“Hey, look at me!” a voice from above cried out. Changeling’s head turned upward, as did the heads of dozens of people on the street; as one, they gasped in shock. An adult woman, too far away to gauge her age but dressed in a very conservative business suit, stood on the twelfth-floor ledge of an office building. Her arms were raised above her head in a dramatic pose.
“I’m Wonder Woman!” she cried out. “Watch me fly! Whee!” And the woman leaped into space. The crowd screamed in terror, and a split-second later in surprise as a bright green pterodactyl rushed up to meet the falling woman.
“Gotcha!” Changeling cried out as his reptilian talons closed about the falling woman’s torso.
“Lemme go, you big, ucky monster!” the woman, whom Changeling could now see to be in her forties, screamed as she pounded on his talons with her fists. “I’m Wonder Woman! You can’t grab me like this! Lemme go!”
“Lady, I’ve met Wonder Woman,” Changeling said, “and you’re not even close!”
Meanwhile, Superman had grabbed the speeding car and lifted it high off the roadway before it could crash into anything. Quickly seeking out a safe spot, he flew it to the top floor of a multilevel parking garage and set it down. He opened the driver’s door to see a balding old grandfatherly type still clutching the steering wheel and yanking it from right to left and back again, a look of maniacal glee on his face.
“Vroom, vroom!” the old man cried. “Look at me! I’m the fastest racer on the track! Vroom, vroom! Outta my way! Rrr!”
Superman stared grimly at the package on the passenger’s seat. A Big Hero X action-figure, likely intended for the old man’s grandchild.
“Thanks for the help, Beast Boy,” a paramedic said, carrying a man in his late thirties out of the charred building.
“It’s Changeling, actually, and you’re welcome,” the bright green elephant said, his trunk still dripping water. “How’d the fire start?”
“Mr. Biederbeck, here, says he was playing with his cigarette lighter; wanted to see if the curtains would burn,” the paramedic said.
Changeling shook his head in bewilderment. Like a five-year-old would do, he thought.
“Got the fire under control, I see,” Superman said, touching down from out of the sky. “I just averted a news helicopter crash and two more out-of-control cars.”
“The word’s out about the toys,” Changeling said, resuming his human form. “All the news stations are carrying the story that a bogus batch of Big Hero X figures somehow mess with people’s heads, turn them back into children mentally.”
“With disastrous results,” Superman said. “I’ve got a pretty good guess who’s behind it, too. What I don’t understand is why? Wanton destruction like this just isn’t his–” Superman stopped again.
“Super-hearing again?” Changeling asked. “Wait a minute, I’m not getting left behind again!” The young hero quickly morphed into a bright green snake and wound himself around Superman’s arm.
“Hang on,” Superman advised, and took to the sky.
“Yiii!” Changeling cried as they rocketed through the sky. “I’ve been flown around by Starfire, but she can’t touch you for speed!”
In less time than it took for Changeling’s comment, Superman and his passenger touched down at MSFS Bank. Inside, masked bandits were looting the tellers’ cash drawers, while the tellers themselves were engaged in a gripping game of ring around the rosy.
“It’s him!” one of the bandits cried out, pointing.
“We were expecting him,” another one said. “And we came prepared!” The bandit raised a bizarre-looking pistol and fired. A sizzling beam of scarlet light lanced from the pistol; Superman barely had time to dodge, and the beam bored a hole in the wall of the bank behind him.
“Supes?” said Changeling, still in snake form. “Tell me that Buck Rogers special can’t really hurt you.”
“Wish I could,” Superman said grimly. “I could tell from the energy signature. It’s a laser device laced with red solar radiation. It could do to me just what it did to that wall.”
“Wow,” Changeling said. “I guess it’s over to me, then.” In an eye-blink, the snake became a verdant kangaroo, bounding across the bank lobby with one leap.
“What the hell–?” the pistol-wielding bandit cried out in surprise.
“Hey, watch the tongue!” Changeling cried. “It’s Christmas!” The kangaroo reared back on its tail and kicked forward with both feet, knocking the pistol from the bandit’s hands.
“Thanks, Gar,” Superman said. The bank was then filled with a blue and red blur for a few seconds, following which the four bandits were seated on the floor bound back-to-back, and Superman stood beside Changeling. “At least, now we know what the toys were for.”
“I’ll say,” Changeling said. “To keep you busy stopping disasters all over town, while the henchmen rob the city blind. I wonder why the toys didn’t affect the crooks?”
Superman reached down and pulled the mask from one bandit’s head. “Complex circuitry inside the weave of the mask,” he announced. “Probably creates a block. There’s bound to be more of these crooks all over the city!”
“Then we’d better get busy, hadn’t we?” Changeling asked.
“First things first,” Superman said. “The best way to stop a serpent is to strike at its head. I want to find the man I believe is responsible for all this — Winslow Percival Schott, alias the Toyman!”
“You’ll have to look no further, Superman,” came a voice from the bank doorway.