by Martin Maenza
“It’s definitely a change of pace,” Elongated Man was saying, “but I’m enjoying it.” He stretched his arm out to grab some snack mix from the nearby table.
“Yeah, who knew you’d make a great dad, Ralph?” Green Arrow joked.
Red Tornado walked up and joined in the conversation. “I am certain Ralph is a wonderful father,” the android interjected. “And he is correct. It can be a rather enjoyable change. Why, it was just about four years ago that Traya came into my life.” The three men nodded.
“Don’t be so hard on Ralph, Ollie,” Hawkman scolded. “Change is a good thing. Keeps us on our toes.”
“Really?” Green Arrow asked. “So when are you and the ball-‘n’-chain gonna add to your little love nest, hmmm?”
Hawkman shrugged his shoulders. “When are you and Canary going to get married?” he countered. “The holidays are a great time to propose, you know? Isn’t it time you two settled down?”
Now it was Green Arrow’s time to squirm. “Yeah, I suppose,” he said. “But I was leaning more towards Valentine’s Day. More romantic.”
“Romantic. Green Arrow.” The Elongated Man shook his head. “Nope, I don’t see it.” Then he laughed. “Just kidding, Ollie.”
Suddenly, the monitor board signal sounded.
“I got it!” The Flash was the first one to the controls, thanks to his super-speed. He checked out the incoming message. “Hey, gang, we’ve got a minor situation. Anyone want to volunteer?”
Steel perked up. “I’ll go!”
Batman glanced over at the monitor board and read about the situation. “Count me in, too,” he said. “I think the three of us can handle this.”
The Flash turned to Batman and asked quietly, “Should we tell Superman, given the who and where of the situation?”
Batman glanced over to where the Man of Steel was; his friend seemed to be enjoying himself quite a bit playing with young Diana. “No, I don’t think so,” the Caped Crusader replied. “I think we can handle it without him. Let’s give him a break tonight.”
The trio of heroes headed for the transporter to beam down to the Earth below.
The Midtown Mall of Metropolis was enjoying its busiest season ever since the opening a few years back. The economy was well, and people were in the mood to spend their money on gifts for family and friends. But the hundreds of people who had gone out for an evening of shopping on this particular Saturday night could never have guessed things would turn out this exciting or deadly.
A squadron of radio-controlled planes soared up and down the walkways of the three-story shopping mall. Patrons had to dive into shops and behind trash cans to avoid being pelted by the projectiles the planes fired. The air was filled with sounds of screaming patrons, shattering display glass, and the whirring of the toys’ engines.
But there was nowhere for the shoppers to run to. Armies of red and white toy soldiers, no more than three inches high in height, blocked the main entrances. The wooden-faced robots brandished razor-sharp steel bayonets, and they slowly herded the shoppers toward the downstairs center court.
It was here that Santa’s workshop was set up, which was normally a place where cherub-faced tykes would reveal their holiday wishes. But tonight the man sitting in the chair and dressed in the red and white Claus suit was laughing a more sinister, “Ho-ho-ho.” He had wavy brown hair and glasses, and this chaos was his doing. Winslow P. Schott, the infamous Toyman, was pleased.
“Come out, Dunholtz!” Toyman shouted. “Don’t make me come and find you! You don’t want to anger me further!”
A man in a dark suit made his way through the crowd. He was older, of similar age as the villain, but a bit thinner and slightly gray-haired. “Why are you doing this?” Chester Y. Dunholtz asked. “If you’re still mad at me, why threaten all these innocent people?”
“Ha!” Toyman laughed. “You’ve made quite a career for yourself. I read the papers. You’re now the manager of this mall and a rising figure in Metropolis business. Given that you made my childhood a living hell, it’s only fitting I turn your livelihood into one as well!”
Toyman reached between the chair upon which he sat and pulled out a gun-like weapon. It looked like a space pistol that a child would play with. “Prepare to meet your maker, Dunholtz!” Toyman said. “This toy maker’s sending you to your grave!”
Suddenly, out of nowhere, a small, lightweight black object made of carbon-steel alloy whizzed toward the villain. Aimed with great precision, it knocked the weapon out of the villain’s hand. The Toyman caught a glimpse of item that disarmed him. “A batarang?” he exclaimed. “Batman’s here?”
“That’s stating the obvious,” the Caped Crusader said as he soared down from the upper landing on a thin rope line. His cape fanned out, making him appear like the nocturnal animal from which he inspired his persona. “Give it up, Toyman!”
Another figure dressed in red, white, and blue leaped down from the upper level; Steel landed hard on the level below. A crimson blur joined the other two on the ground. “Game over!” the Flash announced.
“Hardly, stupid speedster!” Toyman laughed as he pushed a button on a small remote. “You may get me, but hundreds will be killed by my soldiers!” All throughout the mall, the tin soldiers raised their weapons to strike.
“Flash, round them up!” Batman ordered. The speedster gave him a nod and was gone. “You can threaten us all you want, Toyman, but it won’t do you any good.”
“Really, Batman?” Toyman said. He pressed another button. “We’ll just see about that, won’t we?” Suddenly, two giant stuffed bears that appeared to be part of Santa’s workshop display sprang to life and rose up on their hind legs. One of the twenty-foot-tall toys lunged at Batman with great speed, catching him off-guard. The other went for Steel. “Teddy and Eddie, give those two great big bear hugs! Ha-ha-ha!”
“Ugh!” Batman struggled in the grasp of the giant toy. Judging by its incredible strength, these toys were made with Superman in mind. He wriggled his blue-gloved hand down toward his utility belt, hoping to locate something that might assist him in the situation.
“Yeah-ahhh!” Steel exclaimed as he flexed his augmented muscles. The technology his grandfather, the first Steel, had used upon him provided the young man with super-strength. It was in situations like this that Steel appreciated these special abilities. He broke free of the giant bear’s grasp and went on the offensive. “Try this one on for size, Mr. Bear!” He grabbed the right arm and tore it from its socket. Sparks shot everywhere.
“Here, let me give you a hand!” Steel said as he swung the torn arm back and then forward and through. The brown-furred weapon struck the damaged robot and knocked it backward across the mall floor. It slammed into the edge of the water fountain and tumbled in. The combination of the water and the electric motors did not sit well, causing the threat to short circuit. “Wonder if that was under warranty?”
Steel turned around and realized his teammate was still wrestling in the grasp. “Batman!” he exclaimed as he dived onto the other robot. He began to tear into the machine. “Sorry about that!” Steel grabbed the bear’s head and gave it a good, solid twist. The robot began to jerk and convulse.
Batman was able to slip free from the weakened grip. “Many thanks, Steel,” he said. “My only option was a vial of acid, but that would have taken too long.” He whirled around and turned to Toyman once more. “OK, Toyman! Enough is enough. Surrender!”
“Sorry, Batman,” the Toyman said. “I had a different endgame scenario in mind!” He pulled the red satin covering off the workshop display’s chair to reveal a large metal device that looked like an overgrown child’s puzzle. At the top, there was an LCD that was counting down two minutes.
The Toyman smiled wickedly. “When the counter reaches zero, this whole place goes boom! Unless, of course, if you can beat the game.” A small panel opened on the one side, revealing a video touch screen. “Still think you can play in my league, Batman?”
“Batman, let me toss it away!” Steel offered as he stepped toward the large device. “It’s probably not near as heavy as it looks.”
Batman shot his arm out, blocking the young man’s progress. “No! From those gyroscopes on the side of it, I’m betting it has motion sensors. We move it too much, and it’ll explode.”
“Brilliant, detective!” Toyman laughed. “Right on the money. And while you ponder this precarious predicament, I’ll be on my way.” The villain attempted to flee.
The Caped Crusader gestured to Steel. The young indestructible man took three quick strides and took a shot to Toyman’s jaw. Steel pulled his punch so it was just enough to knock the man backward. Toyman fell to the ground, unconscious. “If that bomb goes, so does he.”
At that moment, the Flash raced up. “Toy soldiers are all wrapped up,” he said, then noticed Batman staring at the explosive device as its counter continued to drop. “Whoa! Do you want me to…?”
“Nothing at the moment, Flash,” Batman said. “Just hold tight for a minute, please.”
Batman stepped carefully toward the display screen. There appeared to be four identical playing fields made up of six-by-six slots. The four fields were stacked one above another in a three-dimensional way. The computer prompted for the placement coordinates of a black circle. A white circle had already been placed in the third row, second column of the bottom field. The name of the game in a gold and blue plate under the screen told Batman all he needed to know.
“Four in a Row,” Batman said aloud, “with a three-dimensional twist.”
He glanced at the LCD counter as its red digits continued to count down. Just over a minute and a half to win the game. Batman smiled confidently. No problem at all. He keyed in a coordinate on the small keypad on the screen — row, column, and field level. His black circle fell into place at the spot he designated.
Steel and the Flash stood behind their teammate but far back enough to stay out of his way.
“Flash, maybe you should get people out of here,” Steel whispered. “You know, just in case.”
“Uh-uh,” Flash said. “First, I don’t know the bomb’s radius. I could put people where I think they’d be safe, but they still might not be. Second, just too many folks. It’d cause more of a panic and thus risk more folks getting hurt. Third, I trust in Batman. He’s one of the best. My uncle Barry believed in him, as does my best friend Nightwing. That’s good enough for me.”
Steel nodded. He hadn’t known or worked with Batman as long as Wally had. For a man who only had his intellect and the physical abilities of a normal human, the Caped Crusader indeed seemed to have the respect of the entire hero community. There had to be something to be said for that.
Steel then noticed that the computer almost got four in a row; Batman needed to use his turn to block. “I wonder,” Steel whispered. “What happens if the computer wins?”
“Boom,” said Flash.
“And if there’s a stalemate?”
“No clue. Hope it doesn’t come to that.”
Batman continued glancing back and forth between the game board and the LCD. He was more concerned about the time factor than running out of squares on the board. The computer made its next move. He smiled. He blocked another pattern with his black circle and set up his victory.
The computer played very smartly and anticipated the win positions. But the human mind could think more than a few moves ahead. Batman set up his pieces so he had two possible ways to win. When the computer blocked the one, he quickly took the other space. The board flashed four in a row win for black, and the LCD countdown stopped at 0:09.
“All right!” Steel cheered.
“Nice playing, Bats!” the Flash commended. “Good thing Toyman played by the rules.”
Batman nodded. “I counted on that,” he said. “I hoped he’d give it a sporting chance.” He reached into his utility belt and extracted a few tools. “Just in case, let’s be on the safe side.” He gestured to the two younger heroes. “Come here, boys, and let me give you a little lesson in disarming explosives.”
“I’m so impressed,” Steel continued to gush over two hours later back up at the JLA Satellite. “Batman totally faked out that game computer — in record time, no less.”
“Batman has very sharp computation skills,” Red Tornado said as he sat at the monitor console. “He has impressed me as well on many occasions.”
“I bet he can outwit the best machines on the planet,” Steel said. Then he paused as Red Tornado stared at him blankly with his hollow eye sockets. “Er, no offense, Red Tornado.”
The android cocked his head slightly. “Why would I be offended, Steel?” He turned back to the consoles and continued to survey the various bits of data as they scrolled by.
The party had pretty much broken up about twenty minutes prior. Only a few folks remained at this late hour. Steel decided to start cleaning up before he further insulted Red Tornado. The android was a machine and thus lacked any true, human feelings. But having spent so much time around humans, he had learned to emulate some of them through his own means.
Across the way, the red-haired winged woman was speaking to a red-haired young man. “Are you sure you can’t stay, Wally?” Hawkwoman asked. “Ralph usually sticks around, but he has new responsibilities. He left with Sue to put little Debbie to sleep.”
“No can do,” the speedster said as he pulled on his red cowl. He then made his way toward the transporter tube. “It’s almost midnight here. That gives me just enough time to beam back home, shower, and rush out to San Francisco. I promised some of my old Titan teammates I’d make an appearance at their holiday bash.” (*)
[(*) Editor’s note: See Titans West: Holiday Blues.]
“Haven’t you had enough for one night?” Superman asked.
“You know me,” the Flash said. “Always on the run.” He stepped into the tube and was gone.
Batman returned to the room with a small carousel of colored ships and a deck of cards. “Where’d Flash go?” he asked.
“He bailed out on us,” Superman said. “Guess he didn’t want to stay for our little holiday tradition.”
“We’ll have to call it a night, then,” Hawkman said rather dejectedly. “It’s not as challenging playing four-handed.”
Before he sat down at the table with Superman, Hawkman, and Hawkwoman, Batman noticed that Steel hadn’t left yet. Red Tornado offered to relieve him of his monitor duty cycle a few minutes early.
Superman caught Batman’s glance and nodded. “I think that’s a good idea, old friend,” the Man of Steel said softly.
Batman nodded and crossed the room. “Say, Steel, why don’t you leave that stuff for a bit?”
“Oh,” Steel replied as he put down the empty cans. “I was just trying to help out.”
Batman put his arm around the young man’s shoulders. “Where we can really use your help is over here,” the Caped Crusader said. He steered the young Leaguer over to the table where Superman had divvied out the poker chips. “We need a fifth for our annual poker game.”
“Really?” Steel’s eyes brightened. “You want me to play?” Batman pulled up a seat for the young man between he and Superman.
“Sure thing, kid,” Hawkman said. “Your money is just as good as the rest of ours. Besides, we’re pretty particular on who we let play. Green Arrow tends to turn it into a political discussion, and we can’t ask Black Canary to play when he’s around. That wouldn’t be right.”
Superman leaned in as Steel sat down. “Just watch out for Shayera, Hank,” he said with his hand blocking his mouth. “She’ll clean you out if you’re not careful.”
“Hey, I heard that!” Hawkwoman said as she shuffled the cards like a professional dealer in Las Vegas. “Just for that, we’re starting with one of my favorite games — Dixie Queens!” She started to deal out the cards to the players.
The three senior male heroes let out a collective groan and then began to laugh. Steel smiled, too. He felt honored to be accepted into this unique circle within the League. He couldn’t have asked for a nicer holiday present.