“So good of you to come today,” the dark-haired man said to the man in the strange headpiece. “I understand how difficult it is for one so busy as yourself to tear himself away from his work.”
“Your offer was more than generous, Colonel,” the man in the headpiece said. “I can surely tear myself away to listen to what you have to say.”
“Most gracious,” the Colonel said. “I want you to listen to a tape recording. Please do not ask how it came into my possession, for I cannot divulge such information. But I believe you will recognize a few of the voices on the tape.”
The man in the headpiece steepled his fingertips and sat back to listen as the Colonel punched a button on a tape recorder lying on his desk. A voice the Colonel’s visitor did not recognize began speaking.
“–understand how important this is. The island nation of Vulnavia is in a very strategic location. The superpower that gets permission to build a submarine base there will take a giant leap ahead in the Cold War.”
“The Justice League isn’t used to playing diplomat, Colonel Wilcox,” a powerful voice boomed. The man in the headpiece raised an eyebrow; it could be none other than Superman. “Of course we’re willing to do whatever our country asks of us, but–“
“If I may interject, Superman,” spoke a woman’s voice, a mellifluous voice full of harmony and beauty but with an undercurrent of strength that was unmistakable. “I’m not at all sure it’s the League’s position to further the Cold War for either power. Isn’t it our duty to prevent bloodshed rather than help it along?”
“I’m inclined to agree,” spoke a voice with a strong lilt of royalty, a voice used to command. “I mean, what’s next? Drafting super-heroes into the army to fight for you?”
“Aquaman, let’s not be rude,” Superman spoke again. “All we’re being asked to do is meet a visiting foreign dignitary and welcome him to our country. And while America may not be your country exactly, wasn’t your father a member of the U.S. Navy?”
“Besides, Aquaman, Wonder Woman,” Colonel Wilcox said smoothly, “America seeks to prevent the Cold War from heating up. If the Soviets get Vulnavia, you can be sure it’ll be a lot worse for the world in the long run.”
“Well, I will bow to the will of the majority,” Aquaman said. “Wonder Woman, you’re our current leader; what do you say?”
“I believe the Colonel,” Wonder Woman said. “While I am against the very concept of war, hot or cold, I do think the lesser evil would be for America to get the base. I say we help.”
“Thank you, Wonder Woman,” Colonel Wilcox said. The tape recorder was turned off at that point.
“I see your problem,” the man in the headpiece said. “Vulnavia does seem to be the… key to your planned operations in the Atlantic.”
“And who better to help us obtain such a key base,” the Colonel chuckled, “than the Key?”
“I don’t understand the League’s role in this,” the Key said. “What are they being asked to do?”
“King Anton of Vulnavia is making a diplomatic visit next week,” the Colonel explained. “He will meet with the President and discuss the benefits to his people of allowing America to build a submarine base there. While he is here, he wishes to meet the Justice League.”
“To what end?” the Key asked.
“Merely to meet them,” the Colonel said. “King Anton is what you might call a super-hero groupie. He follows the exploits of the American heroes almost religiously. He has even proclaimed a national holiday in his country to commemorate the Justice League’s first case.”
“Intriguing,” the Key commented.
“He has been promised a meeting with the Justice League — their full membership. If, at the last minute, they can be prevented from showing up, it will seem a slap in the face to him. It will cost America the base at Vulnavia.”
“And then your country steps in,” the Key said.
“Indeed,” the Colonel said, nodding. “We understand each other, sir. Will you accept the assignment?”
“My own country has never treated me with anything but contempt, Colonel,” the Key said. “I will gladly assist you, especially if I can destroy my hated enemies in the League at the same time.”
“Wonderful!” the Colonel said enthusiastically, rising to his feet. “Let us seal our bargain with a drink!” The Colonel strode to the office bar and opened the door of the small refrigerator there. The Key’s eyebrow raised again as the Colonel pulled out two glass bottles of Coca-Cola. Condensation ran down the bottles as he placed them on the bar.
“You wouldn’t believe how hard it is to get in my country,” the Colonel said as he took out two glasses.
“Good Lord!” someone on the dock screamed. “Look!”
People on the shore pointed out into the bay. A helicopter had crashed into the water and was bobbing up and down in the ocean like a child’s bathtub toy. Everyone had seen it go down; no one was sure what had caused it. The helicopter had just dropped like a stone.
“Someone call the police!” someone shouted.
“The Coast Guard!” someone else screamed.
“I’m calling the news!” another yelled. “They pay big for tips like this!”
Suddenly, a bright emerald light streaked across the sky over the onlookers’ heads.
“It’s the Green Lantern!” someone cried.
“Thank heavens! He’ll save those people!”
Green Lantern heard their cries and smiled. He had to admit he enjoyed the adoration of the public. He had only been a Green Lantern a couple of years now, but the thrill of the job showed no signs of diminishing. Hovering over the helicopter he concentrated, sending his mighty willpower into his ring. A glowing green hand scooped gently into the water, lifting the helicopter out. The crowds on the shore cheered.
No one saw a male figure, dressed from head to toe in nondescript gray, skulking in the shadows of the second floor of a warehouse on the waterfront. The man in gray aimed an odd-looking rifle at the emerald champion as he brought up the helicopter and pulled the trigger. Silently, a golden projectile sped from the rifle and struck Green Lantern square between the shoulder blades. If the mighty hero noticed the shot at all, he gave no indication of it. Behind his full-face mask, the man in gray smiled.
The scene was repeated elsewhere in the country at about the same time — in Metropolis as Superman talked a hysterical jumper off the Metropolis State Bridge; in the mid-Atlantic as Aquaman summoned whales to help contain the oil spilling from a wrecked tanker; in Washington, D.C., as Wonder Woman stopped an out-of-control truck from crashing into a group of tourists at the Lincoln Memorial; in Middletown as the Martian Manhunter saved a glider airplane from crashing into high-tension wires. Each hero was struck from behind by a mysterious assailant in gray, and none seemed to notice the shot. Only in Central City did the scene vary; a gray man tried to shoot the Flash as he whisked the tenants out of a burning apartment building, but the scarlet speedster moved too fast for the projectile to strike.
Five super-heroes, half the membership of the Justice League of America, struck in the line of duty — but by what?
The man who called himself the Key sat on a bizarrely constructed throne in his secret headquarters. The backrest of the chair was in the shape of a keyhole; the armrests and legs, keys. He held his hands in front of his face, fingers laced together, index fingers steepled against his upper lip as he looked down at the six men in gray who stood before him.
“Key-Man One, report,” he said simply.
“Metropolis operation successful,” the man said. “Superman injected with the key-virus.”
“Excellent,” the Key said. “Key-Man Two, report.”
“Washington operation successful,” the man said. “Wonder Woman injected with the key-virus.”
On it went, until the fourth Key-Man gave his report. “Central City operation unsuccessful,” he said, a trifle nervously. “The Flash was too fast; I couldn’t hit him with the virus.”
A silent pause hung in the air. It was finally ended by the Key’s voice, saying, “Unfortunate.” His tone was no different from before. “Key-Man Five, report.” Key-Man Four let out a sigh of relief as his colleague reported the success of the Middletown operation.
When all six Key-Men had given their reports, the Key leaned back in the chair and contemplated the ceiling.
“All is well,” he said. “Despite Four’s unfortunate failure in Central City, five of the Justice League have been infected with my key-virus. Their five most powerful members. Well, I suppose arguments could be made regarding who is more powerful, the Flash or Aquaman, but that is trivial. The point is, we have succeeded. Two days from now, the King of Vulnavia will be greeted by a mere half of the team he was expecting to meet. The insult will be unforgivable, and my employers will get what they want.”
The Key turned his attention to a corner of the room, where life-sized wax figures of the ten Justice League members stood in silent attention.
“And I will get what I want,” the Key leered, “when I wipe out the other five Justice Leaguers in one fell swoop!”
“And that completes our account of our battle with Felix Faust,” Batman said. (*)
[(*) Editor’s note: See “Threat of the True-or-False Sorcerer,” Justice League of America #49 (November, 1966).]
“Ginchy,” Snapper Carr said, making a notation in the JLA Casebook. “What a far-out case!”
“If there is no other business,” said Wonder Woman, chairing the meeting, “I will remind everyone of our obligation to meet King Anton of Vulnavia at the United Nations the day after tomorrow, and then I will declare this meeting adjourned. Objections?” Wonder Woman let a silent beat pass; no one objected. “Very well, then. Meeting is… is…” She began to feel dizzy and started swaying on her feet.
“Wonder Woman, what is it?” the Flash asked. “Are you all right?”
Wonder Woman’s head dropped, and her hand covered her face. Suddenly, she looked up, and rage was written large across her face.
“Traitors!” she snarled in a more savage voice than her teammates had ever heard her use. “Assassins!” With all her Amazon strength, she hurled the meeting gavel across the room at the Flash. Even the scarlet speedster barely had time to dodge it before it buried itself in the cavern wall.
“What’s going on?” the Atom cried. “What’s wrong with Wonder Woman?”
“Killers!” Green Lantern suddenly growled, his power ring beam flashing out bright emerald. “Murderers!” Hawkman tried to dodge the beam, but it clipped his right wing, shearing off the tip.
“Wonder Woman! Green Lantern!” Batman cried. “What’s wrong? Why are you doing this?”
“Assassins!” Aquaman cried, throwing a punch at Green Arrow. The stunned archer barely had time to dodge it and took a grazing blow across the jaw.
“Killers!” J’onn J’onzz snarled, his Martian vision flaring out like lasers, almost catching the fast-moving Atom.
“Superman,” Batman said urgently, “something’s affecting our friends’ minds! We’ve got to contain them before they injure themselves or us!”
“Monster!” Superman snarled. “Demon!” And he lunged for the startled Batman.
The Flash whisked the startled Batman out of Superman’s grasp before his mighty fist could strike.
“Thanks for the save,” Batman said. “We’ve got to get out friends under control; find out what happened to them!”
“I hear you,” Flash agreed. “I’ll be right back!”
In a twinkling, the Flash disappeared in the direction of the JLA trophy room. In the blink of an eye he was back with Doctor Light’s light-wave weapon. He used it to shine a beam of concentrated red-solar energy on Superman, weakening him enough for several super-speed karate blows to render him unconscious.
“Everyone follow the Flash’s lead!” called out Batman, rising to the role of leader. “Pick your opponents and render them harmless, but without hurting them if you can avoid it!” To illustrate his own command, Batman quickly whipped off his utility belt, wrapped it around his right fist, and threw a punch at Green Lantern. The emerald gladiator, too enraged to block the blow, took it on the point of his chin and crumpled to the floor.
Green Arrow drew, notched, and fired an arrow at Wonder Woman. Instinctively, the amazon warrior raised her bracelets to deflect it. But the arrow was highly magnetized, and it drew her bracelets together. Her bracelets of submission thus chained together by a man, Wonder Woman sank to her knees, defeated.
Aquaman’s powerful arms closed about Hawkman’s neck and shoulders in a Greco-Roman wrestling grapple. In the ensuing struggle, Hawkman took his anti-gravity belt off his own waist and placed it around Aquaman’s. With Hawkman still in mental control of the belt, it sent Aquaman rocketing toward the ceiling, where his head struck with a loud thump.
The Atom, reducing his weight to a few ounces, bounced and leaped around J’onn J’onzz’s head, enraging him. The Martian Manhunter grabbed at the swiftly-moving Atom again and again. The Atom led the rage-blinded Martian out of the meeting room and into the vehicle hangar, where Atom used a remote-control device to start the League’s special jet-craft. The flames spat from the jet afterburners, and J’onn staggered on his feet, weakened. Atom was able to render him unconscious with a single blow at his full 180-pound weight then.
“Good thing we practiced in simulated combat with one another,” Green Arrow noted.
“Our friends were not in their right minds, or we’d never have beaten them that easily,” Batman said. “Let’s get them into the med-lab. I want to know just what made them go off their respective rockers.”
The others silently began carting their comrades into the sick bay. They, too, wanted answers.