Firestorm blinked as the bright light faded, to be replaced by a strange darkness illuminated only occasionally by hundreds of small pinpoints of pale light. He glanced around and realized that his friends were not with him. “Great! I’m lost,” he muttered. “This is getting better every minute. Where’d Cosmo send me, anyway?”
Professor Martin Stein’s mental voice echoed in his head in reply. “Ronald, Cosmo did not say he was going to send you all directly to the source of our odd teleportation through time. He actually said he would send you where you were needed.”
Firestorm smiled briefly and said, “You know, Professor, nobody likes a know-it-all!”
“I’m sorry. I was merely trying to help.”
Firestorm smiled broadly and said, “Gotcha! Just yanking your chain. Helps to relieve stress. I need all the help I can get. What kind of place is this? It’s like I’m in a cave or something.” He flew into the air but found only a confining roof that felt oddly damp to his touch. “It’s a cave? No, it’s a subway tunnel or a whole subway system, but it’s different. What are those weird blinking lights?”
“Ronald, I don’t think they’re lights,” said Professor Stein. “I think they’re eyes!”
Before Firestorm could react, dozens of weird humanoid figures swarmed out of the darkness to surround him. To his surprise, they were human-sized rats dressed in clothing. “Whoa!” he gasped. “This is like Disney on acid! Rats wearing jumpsuits!”
“Hacker-San, the animal speaks!” said one rat. “He even appears to be reasonably intelligent!”
Another nodded thoughtfully and replied, “Indeed he does, Gaites-San. What do you make of his flaming head?”
The smaller rat said, “He is a mutant, like the other one. Perhaps we can make good use of him as well.”
“What is this place?” said Firestorm. “What are you?”
The rat called Gaites bowed slightly and said, “We? We are the Techno-Rats, and this is the Tokyo System!”
“This is fascinating!” said Professor Stein. “They’ve converted a whole subway system into a huge computer! It’s as if they combined elements of Japan with a high-tech nightmare!”
“It is a computer!” said Firestorm. “I didn’t realize the magnitude of it before! The wires and circuits are spread across miles of tunnels! I can see that now!”
“Come with us, animal,” said Hacker. “We will not hurt you.”
“OK, what have I got to lose except what’s left of my sanity!” said Firestorm, thinking to himself, Professor is it just me, or do all these rats talk to me like some teachers I’ve had? They use a slow, placating tone like I’m a problem child or something.
“I’ve noticed the same thing,” said the professor. “They appear to act like some colleagues I’ve known. They view us as if we were slow, stupid, or incapable of logical reasoning.”
Firestorm shrugged and thought, I’ve never been talked down to by something that eats garbage before, so this is a first. He allowed the Techno-Rats to lead him deeper into the maze-like system until he came upon a brightly glowing giant figure that crouched in one corner of the tunnels and gazed out at the rats with flashing, fiery eyes of yellow. He was obviously uncomfortable, but his vast size made that unavoidable.
“The mutant!” said Firestorm. “This guy must be the mutant they mentioned. He looks like he is made out of pure energy or something!”
Hacker smiled and revealed rows of small teeth. “The animal is brighter than most. He almost judged the mutant’s nature correctly. In truth, our Explorer, here, is a being composed of nuclear energy. Explorer, as we call him, is a nuclear man!”
“Why is he so quiet?” said Firestorm. “He looks as if he’s in pain.”
“He is beyond feelings of pain or pleasure,” said Gaites. “He merely serves the System according to the dictates of the Mouse. You shall be equally functional.”
Firestorm shook the rat’s arm off of his shoulder and said, “Hands off, Mickey! I’m not going to let you enslave me or that poor guy!”
Hacker sighed and said, “Oh, dear! I suppose we’d better use the Mouse to make Explorer subdue him.”
Gaites nodded and cried out, “Sigh Bur, use the Mouse!”
Firestorm frowned as a dozen rats wheeled out a giant device and adjusted a single wheel that rested on the top. The device was vaguely shaped like a mouse. Wires sprouted from a narrow, snout-like front as if they were whiskers. A long cable ran out the back of the device like a gray tail.
As the rats moved the Mouse, the glowing man crawled forward and lashed out at Firestorm with a huge fist. The JLAer crashed to the ground from the impact and realized that he was facing a super-strong foe. Before he could fight back, he was struck a second time by the huge figure.
“Ronald, the giant’s movements correspond with the movements of the Mouse,” said Stein. “I think the whole System is like some bizarre computer. When they move the Mouse, the captive nuclear man moves as well. That’s how they are controlling him.”
Firestorm nodded and said, “Well, it may be trite, but I’m going to reboot the Techno-Rats of Tokyo System like Godzilla used to do in the movies!” He gestured, and the Mouse changed into a snapping mousetrap that slammed to the ground and sent the rats scattering to each side.
“Say, Professor, do you remember that old game called Mouse Trap? No, I guess you would not, at that,” he said as he dodged the glowing nuclear man’s charge.
“You’ve freed him from their control by destroying the Mouse, but now he’s just a rampaging monster beyond any control!” said Professor Stein.
Rubble rained down around them as the giant smashed his way along the tunnels. Firestorm used his molecular transformation power to turn the falling stone and metal into thin air, but he realized that he could only do so for so long before the whole tunnel system collapsed or the nuclear man hurt someone. “I can’t let him do a Tom and Jerry on these creeps, even if they were trying to make me into their pawn.”
“I agree,” said Stein. “As strange as they appear to us, it seems as if these intelligent rats are the dominant species of this strange new world, or at least of this part of it.”
Hacker screamed as the giant grabbed him in one mighty hand. “Help me!” he shrieked. “Explorer is offline! We can’t stop him!”
Firestorm rammed into the giant and nodded in approval as his impact made the being drop the frightened rat. “Say, is it just me seeing spots from that last blow I took, or does his body have some kind of flickering or pulsing pattern?” he said.
“My word! I think you are right,” said Stein. “That pulsing pattern is like his heartbeat, only he has three of them!”
“They called him a nuclear man,” said Firestorm. “You don’t suppose he and I have more in common than our good looks? Professor, I’m going to try something risky. Forgive me if I get us killed!” Stein understood completely, since he knew Ronnie better than he knew anyone else. Their bond was a deep and rewarding one that had enriched the lonely scholar’s life in many ways.
Firestorm flew directly in the giant’s path and raised both hands in a placating manner. “I’m your friend! We’re alike! Watch what I do! Just watch!” he said. The giant hesitated for a moment, then lifted his fists over his head.
“This better work, or we’ll be pancakes!” He concentrated for a moment and then reversed the fusion process that merged Ronnie Raymond with Martin Stein. The two men appeared side by side and gazed up at the looming giant before them. Around them the Techno-Rats watched with interest, fear, and concern.
The giant stared at them, and then slowly his own body began to flash with light as the three pulsing spots separated, and he transformed into three humans of normal size.
In a flash of light, Ronnie Raymond and Martin Stein returned to their Firestorm persona. “Well done, Ronnie!” said Stein. “As the three pulsing hearts suggested, the nuclear man called Explorer was a fusion of multiple beings, much like us!”
The three humans who had been the nuclear giant all wore red costumes but were different-looking in terms of their features and coloration. One of them was a dark-haired man with a beard and a perpetual scowl, while the second figure was a young blond man with an open manner. The leader, for so he clearly was, had brown hair and a confident look to him. He stepped forward and extended his hand.
“I’m Ben Boxer. That’s Steve and Renzi. We owe you a debt of thanks. We’ve been trapped in a merged form for a while now. Those creeps were using us to defend their turf from any invaders.”
“How’d you become nuclear men?” asked Firestorm.
“We were born with certain mutations as determined by our fathers,” said Ben. “Those mutations gave us unique powers and equally strong limitations, but we needed them in order to survive in the world around us.”
“This world is full of mutated animals like the Techno-Rats?” asked Firestorm. “I guess humans have to battle them constantly.”
“Negative,” said Steve. “The three of us mutants are the only humans alive capable of normal reasoning — I guess until you showed up.”
“You aren’t from our world, are you?” asked Ben. “The way you referred to it as this world tells a lot about you.”
“I’m from another time,” explained Firestorm. “This future is totally unknown to me.”
“The Techno-Rats have held back for now out of pure intellectual curiosity,” said Ben, “but they will regroup and be on us soon enough if we don’t get out of here.”
“Yeah, good point,” said Firestorm. “Let me make us an opening to the world above.”
Ben smiled grimly and said, “Allow me!” He walked to a wall and turned into a man made of flexible metal. As a steel-like being of great power, he easily smashed through the wall and led the others into the light above.
Firestorm scowled as he gazed around the world beyond the System. “The surface world is ruined!” he said. “I can’t see any sign of life!”
“After the Great Disaster occurred long ago, most manmade structures were destroyed or left to rot,” explained Ben. “You see, as odd as it sounds to you, this era is dominated by intelligent animals who consider themselves to be human, while humans are viewed as mere savages or animals by their inhuman masters.”
“We mutants and a friend of ours named Kamandi are the only rational humans around,” said Renzi.
“We’d better find him,” said Ben. “The last thing I remember before we woke up trapped as a merged energy giant was trying to help him tap into the Great Vortex near the Western Wall.” (*)
[(*) Editor’s note: See “The Wondrous Western Wall,” Kamandi, the Last Boy on Earth #59 (September-October, 1978)]
Renzi scowled and said, “It didn’t work too hot now, did it?”
“Will you join us?” asked Ben. “We could use a good man — or men.”
“This Great Vortex of yours sounds like the kind of weird energy source that might have brought us here,” said Firestorm. “I’m willing to go there.” He looked around at the world that combined the tragic loss of all that made human civilization a thing of beauty as well as of potential ruination with a sense of fragile hope. “I’ve got nowhere else to go here,” he said softly.