Meanwhile, Dr. Harold Melrose stood before a captive young man who wore a bright costume of red and blue with an elaborate helmet. “I’m the Comet,” he explained. “I don’t even come from this Earth. I gained my powers through a fluke accident. If the Melrose of my Earth was truly responsible for my gaining my powers, then I’m sorry. Still, if such a person ever existed, he’s dead now! Everybody on my Earth is dead except for a few heroes.”
Dr. Melrose listened as he forced the hero to tell his story once again. “Regardless of how you became an energy-filled being, my equipment reacted to you,” he said. “That means I can make use of you. Still, I am a man of science, and this tale of other worlds fascinates me. Tell me more.”
The Comet sighed and tried to release a burst of concussive energy, but the doctor’s odd sapping devices still dampened his innate powers, including greater than human strength, speed, and flight. “I once fought a guy called Inferno. He was a warped genius who called himself a super-patriot. He wore this high-tech green armor that turned out to be part of his body. Most of his body had been replaced with mechanical parts. Well, he was in prison when an ex-soldier named Marion Higgins freed him along.”
“This Higgins was a rogue military man, you say?” said Melrose. “How did he get such a powerful being to obey him once he had freed him?”
“Higgins was a cold blooded snake,” said the Comet. “He hired a mercenary called the Weapon to kidnap a kid named Jamie DuBok. The kid’s uncle Martin was a super-genius called the Scavenger. Higgins threatened to kill the child if the Scavenger didn’t invent some type of device that would allow Higgins to take control of Inferno and a couple other mechanical-based beings with names like Maxx-13, Volt, Burnout, Chromium, and Mann-X.”
Melrose scowled and said, “Your story has a flaw. If this Scavenger was such a brilliant man, then why did he not use some invention to kill Higgins or make the cyborgs serve his will?”
“Because every move he made was observed by two scientists who were loyal to Higgins,” said the Comet. “A crime-lord called Arachnus and a pint-sized creep named General Mechanix were nearly as bright as Scavenger, and they made sure he did nothing more or less than what Higgins commanded.”
Melrose nodded and said, “I begin to respect this Higgins. I have always viewed military minds as inferior.”
“Yeah?” said the Comet. “Well, I can tell already by your sunny disposition that you and he would have made a sweet couple!”
“I shall not be mocked!” said Dr. Melrose. “Now, tell me more.”
The Comet knew that every moment he talked gained him time to recharge his powers, and when they reached maximum capacity, he could just possibly burn out the sapper before it could drain his levels of energy again. Thus, the young hero told his story in detail. “The Mighty Crusaders got together after red skies and time warps became commonplace. To this day, I don’t know how Higgins caused them, or if he truly did create those effects. Anyway, we were a team of heroes made up of the Shield, the Fly, the Jaguar, the Black Hood, Fireball, and myself.”
“Hold it,” said Melrose. “Your Earth had no Superman? Your Earth lacked a Justice League?”
“We did have other heroes like Blackjack, the Hangman, and a government agency called the WEB,” said the Comet, “but otherwise you could say our planet was devoid of costumed heroes! Years ago, a smaller group of champions existed in the ’50s and ’60s, but they vanished or retired, except for one called the Black Witch, who didn’t age and turned bad. She turns up later in the story of how my Earth died.
“We were in our headquarters when the security system shut down, and we were hit from all sides by invaders!” continued the Comet. “The cybernetic types I mentioned all hit us at once. Mann-X was a bald cyborg made out of the very metal used to create my friend the Shield’s battle armor. He was not a villain by choice. Higgins forced him to kill. The exact same thing can be said for the cyborg Maxx-13. He was a soldier with a good service record, but he was helpless to resist when his mechanical functions fell under Higgins’ control.”
“What of this Chromium? What was Arachnus?” prompted Melrose.
“Chromium was a mob enforcer with a body and a face made out of metal,” said the Comet. “Only his mind was still human. He was recreated after an illness. The guy who turned him into a metal mobster was a genius who defied his crippled body by creating a spider-like harness that enabled him to move with the speed and agility of a man-spider. That was the M.O. of Arachnus.”
“It sounds like something from the funny books!” remarked Dr. Melrose.
“Well, maybe so, but it was a matter of life and death to us!” said the Comet. “Fireball was just a kid from the rural South. He was a mutant who could move at super-speed and generate fire like some type of aura. Well, he never knew what hit him! He zoomed off before the rest of us could tell him to be careful and aimed himself at Arachnus. That squatty little creep just fired a ray gun in Fireball’s wake, and the poor kid flew directly through it. See, he thought his flaming aura would protect him from almost anything. He underestimated Arachnus. That ray altered the kid’s powers, nullifying the aura that shielded his flesh from his own flame. The faster he moved, the more he burned, and before any of us could help him, Fireball literally incinerated himself!”
Dr. Melrose rubbed his hands together and said, “I do appreciate the irony there!”
The Comet strained to escape his prison, but he was still too weak. “Well, you’ll really laugh it up at what happened next, you sicko! The Jaguar, a sweet girl with feral powers, tried to reason with Maxx-13, since she knew him as a well-meaning victim of his superiors from their last encounter. But she underestimated how much he had changed under the control of Marion Higgins. Of course, we didn’t know he was under anyone’s spell at first!
“She leaped forward and spun through the air to land gracefully like a cat. She asked him what it was that drove him to help these bad men, and she said, ‘We are friends!’ in a pleading tone. That tone got to Maxx-13. He looked like he could die, but he could not. He could do nothing except obey his puppet master. Higgins had him open up his chest plate and blast Jaguar with a nearly lethal dose of radiation. She was inhumanly quick, but she could not stand up to that kind of power!
“I rocketed into Inferno and tore through him like a super-speed rocket, but again all I did was smash some metal. His human parts were well-shielded and were above my point of impact. I was no killer! Inferno just looked at me as parts of his metal form rained down. He didn’t spout his ultra-patriot rhetoric. He couldn’t say a thing. He was a toy on the string pulled by Higgins!”
The Comet remembered that fight. He had blasted away at the green-armored Inferno without tiring or weakening, but even as he brought down the armored titan, he was struck from behind. “I felt pain like nothing I had experienced since I became the Comet,” he said.
“Your pain threshold is something I should dearly love to know more about,” said Melrose.
“I had been hit by another ray from Arachnus,” said the Comet. “The spidery creep had crawled right up a wall and got the drop on me. The ray interacted with my own energies and almost shut me down like a light bulb with a broken filament. What he didn’t count on was the fact that I was a man and not just a being of energy. I had the will to fight back against the pain, and I did!”
“Yes, yes, most inspiring,” said Melrose. “Now, what of your allies?”
“The Fly was being knocked silly by Chromium,” said the Comet. “That fact was the Fly was jolted by seeing Fireball die. They were both just boys. I admire him more for his compassion. He was not hardened by what he saw as a hero. He allowed Chromium to batter him, since he was super-strong and could take a pretty serious amount of damage. While he occupied Chromium, the Shield was battling with Mann-X.”
Dr. Melrose interrupted, saying, “This Mann-X was a spiritual father to the Shield, since you said he was truly made of the same metal your heroic ally’s armor was composed of, correct?”
“You’ve got a real poetic way with words, for a lunatic!” said the Comet. “Mann-X was a parent beneath his metal shell. His kid was being held by Higgins, and this drove him to fight like a maniac! He battered the Shield around the head, since he knew the armor didn’t quite cover the Shield’s upper head. He drove him down, but the Shield was really our finest fighter, and he lifted the bigger man over his shoulders and let his size and weight carry him directly into Maxx-13. That bought us some time, but we lost it again when Maxx-13 let loose with a radiation blast that knocked the Fly out, even as it partially melted Chromium.”
“Ruthless to sacrifice an ally in that way,” remarked Melrose. “I like that.”
The Comet paused his tale as he remembered how the combat had abruptly ceased when an all-too human voice had echoed from out of the individual mechanical armaments of the cyborgs: “Joseph Higgins, the prodigal son, has returned at last! You thought you were rid of me when you pulled your last little coup, didn’t you? Well, an old soldier never dies, and this one never says die, either! I made a few connections over the years with an agency called Templar. They hid me and helped me gather the data I needed to bring my new army together. You heard me correctly, soldier! I’m the commander of this army, and it is my battle plan that will end your miserable life!”
The Shield had gasped as he heard the unmistakable voice of his father. Joe Higgins had been selected to wear the Shield battle armor by his own father, Brigadier General Marion Higgins. However, Joe later learned that in order to position his son into the appropriate subordinate role, Marion had framed him for things he had never done and had even killed another man to prevent this secret from becoming known to Joe. Joe had taken the battle armor and fled until he managed to secure enough evidence against his father with the help of the U.S. President himself. That evidence had led to Joe’s freedom from both the military and his father, since the criminal acts of the elder Higgins had led him to flee for his life.
The Comet recalled that moment, and then he continued his story aloud. “The Shield was shocked to learn that the leader of the invaders was his own criminal father. That shock was nothing compared to the news that Marion Higgins dropped on his son a moment later. He revealed that he was not Joe’s father. He said that his real father had been Marion’s brother Roger. Marion had hated and been jealous of the heroic Roger, and his forceful manner had led Joe’s mother Mary to never reveal the truth to her son, even after she divorced the violent Marion.”
“From comedy to soap opera, this story grows more diverting,” said Dr. Melrose. “Did the news of his true origin cause the Shield to surrender in abject shock? Let me guess — he fought onward all the more fiercely!”
“That’s right; he did,” said the Comet. “He generated his own electro-shock blast again and again, even though doing so threatened to drain his armor of all its power and mobility. The power was strong enough to damage Mann-X, but that still left Arachnus and Maxx-13. Arachnus met his own defeat when the Fly bravely returned to battle and broke the villain’s harness, but doing so cost him dearly. The harness was rigged, and when it snapped, it also generated a potent bio-blast that caused the Fly to revert to his normal teen form! The Jaguar was out of the fight. She never opened her eyes again during that battle. Maxx-13 would look at her from time to time, and you could tell he was fighting his master, but even he could only resist so much.”
“What of this Black Hood you mentioned?” asked Melrose.
“We thought he had deserted us,” said the Comet. “You see, the Hood’s power and desire to do good came directly from the magic of the silk hood he wore. In the past, even a crook once wore it and had no choice but to fight for justice. We should have known better. He actually slipped away and came back with help. He brought in three WEB agents.”
Melrose nodded and said, “WEB being the name of your world’s FBI or CIA, I take it.”
“Something like that,” said the Comet. “Three of the gold-armored agents charged in and blasted away with their highly charged power armor, but that was the end of their help. All Higgins had to do was use Scavenger’s weapons to take control of their armor and fuse it. A young woman named Buster and a French agent named Beau died instantly, while their older mentor Big Daddy managed to shed his armor moments before it fused. Big Daddy went wild and tried to claw his way by Maxx-13, but he never got the chance. The cyborg’s power blast swept the room and left all of us stunned. I was awake but almost out on my feet.
“That’s when our world got a brief reprieve,” continued the Comet. “Joe Higgins was unable to move, since his armor had lost its power. It was literally dead weight. The only one left to fight the good fight was the Black Hood, and he shocked us all by removing his hood and his costume to expose a very female form. The Black Witch had killed the last man to wear the Hood, and she was posing as that hero via her magic in order to fool us all. She laughed at us, because her magic enabled her to resist the Hood’s compulsion to do only good. She tossed the Hood down at Big Daddy Rothko’s body. I thought I saw him clutch it, but in the heat of battle I might have been all wrong. The Black Witch looked around and smiled at the pain and loss she saw. She had once been a heroine, but she had surrendered to dark magic long before! She said that she wanted us to know that she killed Eric Adams, the Hangman, before coming there, and that she believed heroes were about to become extinct on this world.
“Marion Higgins could not be seen, but his voice still echoed out of his pawns, and the tone grew very grim. He told Maxx-13 to disable his system protection devices and let all his power out in one final blast. That command left the cyborg no choice but to obey. He flipped open his chest cavity and adjusted several dials until a lurid glow filled the room.
“Then a strong voice rang out and said, ‘Heroes never go out of style while good men and women still breathe!’ The words came from a stentorian voice as a red, white, and blue figure with blond hair dived into the room and literally blocked the blast with his own armored body. Joe Higgins was the first to recognize the man who had come to the rescue as the original hero to wear the armor and use the name of the Shield.
“I later learned that that Shield was Roger Higgins,” continued the Comet. “He was Joe’s real father and Marion’s brother! He contained the blast enough to save us, or so I assume. You see, I only woke up here on this Earth and saw Jaguar, the Shield, and the Fly. We were in a cave, and a voice told us that we could prevent what happened on our Earth from happening here by hunting down certain robotic or cyborg types. I was told to find a creature called Red Tornado. When your gang caught me, I was instead brought here, and since then I’ve lost the compulsion to find this Tornado.”
“That’s because you are free at last, and you’ll be free of Melrose in a moment!” declared a newcomer as the Comet and Dr. Harold Melrose turned to see Captain Comet and Starman.
“How did you get in here? What about my agents?” cried Melrose as Starman shoved him aside.
“Your agents?” said Captain Comet. “You are alone here. I’d say if you had agents, then they left the sinking ship that is your scientific and criminal career!”
Starman broke open the containment shield that held the Comet and extended a hand. “I’m Starman,” he said. “I’d say we have a bit in common.”
The Comet nodded ruefully and said, “Yes, so I’ve heard. Did you really get your own powers from this nut-case?”
“Nope,” explained Starman. “My powers may be a bit like yours, but they came from other sources. (*) But that’s a long story. Melrose is just a crackpot.”
[(*) Editor’s note: See Captain Comet’s Rehab Squad: A Cosmos Imperiled, Chapter 2: The Devourer of Worlds.]
The Comet darted forward and suddenly punched Dr. Melrose with a stunning right cross. “He was sneaking up on you,” explained the Comet.
“Thanks, pal,” said Starman. “I see you’ve gained some strength back already!”
“We’ll need it,” said Captain Comet. “It’s time we ended this case. We need to go to a place where we can confront the beings behind the whole plot.”
“I’d like to know how we survived that blast,” said the Comet. “Who brought us here? Is there any way we can find lives here?”
Captain Comet looked at him for a moment and then lowered his eyes. “We have our work cut out for us,” he said. “We’d better get moving.”