by Brian K. Asbury
Firestorm grabbed Monty Moran by the throat. “You filthy lowlife! Tell me that code now, or–”
“Ronald, there is no need to resort to violence!”
“I disagree, Professor. No way am I letting this louse go. I don’t see what option we’ve got!”
“Who the hell are you talking to?” gasped a red-faced Moran.
“I’m talking to you, buster,” growled Firestorm. “Tell me that code!” He raised his fist.
Professor Martin Stein’s voice intruded again. “Ronald, stop. There is another way.”
How? Ronnie asked, remembering this time not to say it aloud. Our powers won’t work on a leather football, so I don’t see what I can do except beat it out of this pond scum.
“Trust me, Ronnie, I have thought of a solution. However, you need to make sure first that Moran doesn’t see what we do, and that he can’t get away.”
That’s easy, replied Ronnie. He brought back his fist and slammed it into Moran’s chin. The Getaway Mastermind crumpled like a house of cards.
“That wasn’t what I had in mind, Ronald!” scolded Professor Stein.
“Works for me,” said Firestorm aloud. “Now, what’s this idea you’ve got, Professor? Hey, I just realized — we could still contact Superman. He’s fast enough to whiz this bomb out of the building before it could explode — and he could well be in the building right opposite us.”
“That isn’t what I meant,” said the professor. “We can’t rely on Superman, or even Jimmy Olsen, being in the Planet Building at this time, and we don’t know how long we’ve got before the bomb explodes. It’s up to us to take care of it.”
“OK, but how?”
“First, we have to split, Ronald. Please do so.”
“What? Why? If Firestorm can’t deal with the bomb, how can Ronnie Raymond and Martin Stein?”
The professor let out a mental sigh. “Just do it, please, Ronald. I’ll explain momentarily.”
“OK, anything you say.” Ronnie concentrated and felt the familiar wrenching sensation as Firestorm vanished, to be replaced by Ronnie Raymond and Professor Stein.
The professor approached the bomb. “Stand by to merge us again, Ronald,” he said. “And don’t hesitate when I tell you to do so.”
“Why? What are you going to do?” asked Ronnie, moving up behind him.
“Please don’t crowd me,” said the professor. Ronnie backed off a little. The professor reached out toward the bomb with his right hand and slowly lowered it down toward the football.
“Professor!” Ronnie cried in alarm. “What the heck do you think you’re doing?”
“Shhh!” Professor Stein gently moved his hand even closer, then slowly pressed it into contact with the pigskin. “Now, Ronald, if you please,” he said in a whisper. “We have to merge into Firestorm again.”
Light blazed as the two separate individuals coalesced into one. Firestorm looked down — and the bomb was gone. “Professor — how?”
“Remember what we were discussing earlier?” the professor’s voice said. “About how anything we’re wearing or carrying when we merge merges with us, even if it’s made of something our powers wouldn’t normally be able to affect?”
“Yes. I was holding the bomb when we combined, so it merged with us — and is therefore rendered completely harmless.”
“Yeah… yeah,” Ronnie said, trying to get his head around the concept. “But I think you’re forgetting just one thing, Professor. When we split again, the bomb’ll come out with us, still primed to explode. We’ll be right back where we started!”
“What we have to do,” said Professor Stein, “is get as far away from here as possible before we change back. With any luck, the bomb will still be intact, and we can recombine and then fly away and detonate it safely from a distance.”
Firestorm clicked his tongue. “I dunno, Professor. For a sentence without any actual ifs in it, I could hear an awful lot of ’em in there. What if the bomb goes off straight away when we split? And we don’t know what kind of bomb it is. How far do we have to get away to be safe?”
“I can’t answer either of those questions, Ronald. But what else could we do?”
Just then there was a sound from another room. Steeling himself for a possible confrontation with one or more of Moran’s men, Firestorm moved back out of the bedroom, to see Firebrand walking steadily up the corridor toward him.
“F-Firestorm? How did you get over here? And you seem to have your powers back! How? And who were you talking to?”
“You ask a lot of questions, don’t you?” Firestorm said, trying to divert attention from the last one. “Yeah, I got my powers back — no thanks to you or that ersatz James Bond, Stacker. Who still hasn’t got here, as you’ve probably noticed.”
“Right,” she said, thinking the matter over. “You probably aren’t going to explain how you got your powers back, are you?” Firestorm shook his head. “OK, I can live with that, but I’m not sure Stacker will agree with those sentiments. Where’s Moran?”
“Back there,” he replied, indicating the bedroom with his thumb, “sleeping the sleep of the righteous — not! Hey, I just had an idea!”
“About how some days you just can’t get rid of a bomb. But on others you can. I need your help, Firebrand. Moran is out cold, but he’s left me with a big problem — but you might just be part of the solution!”
The tundra of Northern Canada was often the scene of strange light-shows, but usually their source was the Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights. On this occasion, the light emanated from a fireball-like sphere of energy streaking across the landscape like a bolt of horizontal lightning, and seeming to steer itself as if under intelligent control. Eventually it slowed, circled for a while as if making certain this was the right place for whatever it was seeking, and descended to earth.
With a deep booming sound, the fireball expanded, then seemed to implode, leaving behind two brightly costumed figures.
“Wow! Geez, I could never get used to that!” exclaimed Firestorm, who, from his perspective, had been standing in Moran’s penthouse a split-second before. “Even teleportation is less abrupt than that!”
“I echo that sentiment, Ronald,” Professor Stein said in his mind. “The discontinuity is… disturbing.”
“Well?” said Firebrand, hands on hips. “Is this remote enough for you?” Spectral flames danced all around her body as she spoke.
“It’s certainly cold enough,” Firestorm replied.
“Well, that’s what the flames are for,” she said, smiling. “So — what’s this about a bomb?”
“Ah… OK, this is the moment of truth, I suppose.”
Professor Stein’s voice sounded a warning in his head. “Not yet, Ronald. If the bomb does go off, there’s no point in catching Firebrand in the blast.”
“Yeah, I guess not. You’d better take off,” Firestorm said to his lovely companion. “There’s a chance the bomb might explode when we transform.”
“We? Why do you keep saying we?”
“You’ll see in a moment. Look, will you get to a safe distance — please?”
Firebrand sighed, but she backed off a little and transformed into her energy-form. It leaped into the air and flashed away.
“All right, Ronnie. Let’s get it over with,” said the professor.
“Yeah. OK.” Firestorm gulped. He took in a deep breath, closed his eyes, and willed himself to become two separate beings again.
A second ticked past, and then another.
Ronnie Raymond opened his eyes. The professor was just in front of him, bending over the football trophy that contained the bomb. Even in the Arctic cold, he was sweating profusely.
“So what now?” Ronnie said.
“Run,” said Professor Stein. “Run away from here as fast as you can. When I shout now! I’m going to remove my hand from the bomb, and I want you to transform to Firestorm and take off at full speed.”
“Right. But can the transformation outrace the bomb going off?”
“I don’t know. Just do it — please. I’m shaking like a leaf, and I’m scared that might be enough to set the bomb off.”
That was enough for Ronnie. He set off across the frozen plain at top speed, running literally for his life and for the professor’s. Ahead of him, he could see Firebrand’s fireball form circling. She was probably wondering what the hell was going on, but there was no time to explain.
To me! He felt the surge of merging, of changing into Firestorm, even as his ears were assaulted by a deafening noise, and a concussive blast of wind slammed into him. Taking off, he sped with as much speed as he could muster away from the wave of heat that he knew must follow — away, away, away.
A bright light appeared at his side. “It’s OK, hotshot. You outran it. You can relax.”
Realizing that he had not been breathing, he let out an enormous sigh of relief and landed. Are you all right, Professor? he thought.
“Yes, Ronald. I think so. Thank you for getting me away so promptly.”
Firebrand landed beside him and transformed to human shape. “OK, so do you want to explain what that was all about?” she said. “And in particular, how come you suddenly turned into two separate people and back again?”
Firestorm sighed. “I’ll explain — but only if you promise not to breathe a word of this to Stacker or any of your other Secret Service buddies, OK?”
She considered this for a moment. “That could be asking a lot.”
“Please,” Firestorm said. “This is important.”
To his surprise, a huge smile lit up Firebrand’s face. “It would certainly brass Stacker off if he knew I know but I refuse to tell him,” she said. “All right, I agree. Now talk!”
The dazzling energy ball that was Firebrand zoomed in through one of the broken windows of the Conway Building’s penthouse, then flared briefly to become the two heroes again. “I don’t believe this!” she exclaimed. “We fly to the frozen north and back, and Stacker still hasn’t got here!”
“Maybe the elevator broke down,” suggested a grinning Firestorm.
“Oh, I just love that. I can picture all those suits trudging up umpteen flights of steps, puffing like a broken steam engine!” She laughed aloud. And then both of them nearly jumped out of their skins with shock.
“What in the name of God was that?” Firebrand shrieked. “Another bomb?”
“I dunno. But it came from the bedroom where we left Moran!”
Without further hesitation, the pair broke into a run for the bedroom, only to stop dead as they reached there and witnessed what had made the sound. A swirling funnel of energy had materialized in the room, and through it poured a swarm of hideous armored beings.
“Ronald,” came the panic-stricken voice of Professor Stein, “do you know what that is? It’s a Boom Tube!”
“Yeah! And those are Parademons! Look out! Incoming!”
And they were suddenly in combat, Firestorm taking to the air and firing nuclear blasts at the alien invaders, while Firebrand, pushed into a corner, assailed them with her own energies. However, the fight was over surprisingly quickly. Some of the Parademons scooped up their fallen comrades and headed back into the tube, which abruptly vanished.
“What the hell?!” breathed Firebrand.
“I don’t get it,” Firestorm said. “It’s almost as if they weren’t interested in fighting us.”
“They weren’t,” said the professor. “Look over there, Ronald — at where we left Moran.”
Firebrand was already moving toward there. “He’s gone,” she said. “Damn! They weren’t after us, they were after Moran. They were his final ace in the hole — the last getaway trick when everything else had failed.”
“Yeah,” said Firestorm, an expression of disgust upon his face. “But at least now we know who Moran was working for.”
“Damn! Damn, damn, damn!” said Edward Stacker. “If only we’d gotten here sooner!”
“Personally,” said King Faraday, his American opposite number, “I’m almost glad we didn’t. From what I’ve heard of Darkseid’s Parademons, they have few qualms about killing innocent bystanders who get in their way. These two were much better equipped to take them on.” He indicated Firestorm and Firebrand.
“Even if they did fail to stop them, I suppose,” Stacker said grumpily.
Firestorm shrugged. “Hey, some you win, some you lose. Listen, d’you mind if I go now? I’ve wasted enough time here, and I’ve got things to do. Also, it’s a long way back to Pittsburgh.”
“That’s OK,” said Firebrand. “If you hang on a minute or two, I can fly you back there in seconds.”
“Oh, don’t let us detain you,” Stacker said, his tone full of sarcasm. “We’ve only had to traipse up more than twenty flights of stairs because Moran’s tantrums when he had your powers somehow shorted out the lift mechanisms. I’m only glad the bloody doors opened automatically, or we’d have been stuck between floors until now.”
Faraday smiled sardonically. “Don’t mind my colleague, Firestorm. You did a good job here. Sure you can go.”
“Thanks.” And, he added mentally, Shall we go, Professor?
“I see no reason why not. I’m sure our intelligence friends can take care of Moran’s men and clean up here. It would be a good idea, however, to make a side-trip to the Justice League satellite and pick up a replacement signal device.”
LATER, Professor! Ronnie almost screamed mentally. Geez, I’ve got far more urgent things to take care of first.
You bet! I had a date with Doreen, remember? Believe me, Professor, if you think we’ve gone through it this afternoon with Moran and his gang — not to mention that business with the bomb, and then Darkseid’s Parademons — well, there’s no comparison with what I’m going to get when I finally come face to face with Doreen!
“Poor Ronnie. Ah, the joys of adolescent courtship!”
Yeah. This is not gonna be nice. I’d rather face a whole bunch of super-villains any day!