In downtown Gotham City, a brownstone building hosted a somewhat modest looking room. In the center of the room was a large, oaken table emblazoned with the emblem of the Justice Society of America. Green Lantern flew in through the open window, the emerald glow which surrounded him flickering out as he alighted on the hardwood floor. "Sorry I'm late, I had another run-in with the Thorn."
The Flash raised an eyebrow. Given the intensity of the woman's obsession with him, it had seemed curious when she had emigrated from Keystone City to Gotham in order to bedevil his teammate … not that he begrudged his old friend her attentions. "What was she up to now?"
Green Lantern shook his head, wiping an imaginary bead of sweat from his brow with the back of his hand at the memory. "She attacked me in my alternate identity of Alan Scott, threatening to kill me and Green Lantern as well. She then tried to kidnap Molly Mayne … she might have managed to kill us both, but Molly's hypnotic glasses led the Thorn to believe she had us in a death trap, and I was able to use my ring to knock her unconscious."
Flash said, "Well, at least you're here now, and we can get started ..." He looked around at the fellows who had answered his summons. "Thank you all for coming at such short notice," he said.
"Of course," Green Lantern said with a nod to Dr. Mid-Nite, Hourman, and Starman, his eyes lingering on the trenchcoated man accompanying his old friend. The man's fedora was pulled down low over his face, and gloves and a scarf further concealed his features. He briefly contemplated using his ring to surreptitiously discern clues regarding the man's identity, but refrained out of respect for the Flash.
"My name is Rand," the man said, noting the direction of Green Lantern's gaze. "I'm an astronomer of sorts, operating out of Keystone City. I've been making a special study of the planet Mars."
Starman raised an eyebrow. "I know something about astronomy. We ought to compare notes."
"Some of you may remember my account of the Kigor … the so-called Spider Men of Mars," the Flash said, "Professor Rand seems to have found way to observe their culture, and has made some … disturbing discoveries."
"The Spider Men," Rand said, "believe that strength only comes from conflict."
"A warrior race, then," Dr. Mid-Nite said, to Flash's nodded agreement.
"It's really simple," Rand continued. "You bring two sides together, they fight, a lot of them die. But those who survive are stronger, smarter, and better. A few get lost along the way, yes, and that's unfortunate."
"Social Darwinists from another planet," Green Lantern mused, his eyes focused piercingly on Rand. "You sound as if you're in sympathy with them."
"Nothing could be farther from the truth," Rand assured him, "I simply understand them. From what Flash and I have pieced together regarding their planet's history, we believe it was once home to a great and benevolent civilization of humanoids, which perished. The Kigor were barely sentient savages, but they have made use of some of the true Martians' derelict technology in order to evolve their culture; an admirable goal, but in some twisted form of altruism they have since decided they want to release our potential as well. Everything depends on getting humans to fight each other, to create conflict in order to promote growth and evolution."
"From what Rand has discovered," the Flash interjected, "they've contributed to the current world war, and are now going to start using supervillains to further create discord on the home front."
Hourman cracked his knuckles. "We'll soon put paid to that."
"Moreover," Rand said, "I believe that one of the Kigor has made alliances through the … the Flash's Rogue's Gallery? … with a man who calls himself the Shade. They're planning a military assault on Opal City."
Starman's eyes widened, and he looked at the Flash. "I suppose it says something for you that your enemies are emigrating to other cities … the Thorn to Gotham, and the Shade to Opal, from the sound of it."
Flash attempted a wry smile, "And here I was hoping to retire, maybe let someone like Antelope Boy fill in for me."
Green Lantern listened to the discussion, scowling. "It's time to shed some light over this gathering dark evil … for the dark things cannot stand the light." A beam from his ring created a glowing green platform. Hourman and Dr. Mid-Nite climbed aboard, and after an inviting nod, Professor Rand joined them. The foursome passed intangibly through the ceiling of the brownstone and then skywards, with Starman following under his own power and the Flash tracking them from the ground.
Starman began to take the lead as they homed in on Opal City, using his cosmic rod to illuminate the streets of the city which he loved so well, casting about for any unusual criminal activity.
As they passed over James Street, it seemed as if there the flicker of a mysterious shadow, a hint of night and fog. Starman beckoned his teammates over to investigate. And then, all the Justice Society saw was darkness.
It is to another assemblage of wartime heroes where the story now turns: the Washington, DC office of the Freedom Fighters. The work area is dominated by a large circular table, with enough seating spaces to accommodate a sextet of mysterymen. The table is white, with forty-eight blue stars illuminating the circumference of the circle and the center, in blue, decorated with the logo of the Freedom Fighters. To the right of the entrance is a framed picture containing the patriotic logo of the Quality corporation. The wall to the left sports a series of windows which look down on the heart of the city. Along the far end of the room are six marble busts on small pedestals, which represented the visages of the Invisible Hood, Magno, Miss America, Neon, and the Red Torpedo. The opposite corner of the room contains a filing cabinet with the team's archives, on which is a bust of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Those archives are now in danger, as the building in which the office is located finds itself in the middle of an inferno!
Wildfire furrowed her brow, and leaned against the table in discomfort. "These are not … ordinary flames… else I'd be able to easily dispel it with the powers given to me by the god of fire."
The Ray rested a hand on her shoulder. Her body temperature resembled a dangerously high fever, though he knew that was simply a result of her using her powers. "Take a break from that, Carol," he said. "If we're under attack, the rest of us can deal with it. Face front, Freedom Fighters!"
"You bet, chief," said Plastic Man, crashing through the open window and down to the ground in the shape of a medicine ball. The Ray and Black Condor followed afterwards, taking to the skies, and Quicksilver leapt agilely down the fire escape. Wildfire rallied herself, using the updrafts caused by the heat to waft her skywards, joining her compatriots.
The day had turned unseasonably hot, the dryness in the air adding to the flames, and a quintet of brightly garbed individuals were on the street below. A small man in the purple tights seemed to be ejecting flames from his gloves, while an Asian woman wove the flames into a net which encased their building. A man in black seemed to be casting his hands skywards in some sort of ancient ritual, while two other men in red and green stood by watching the others dispassionately:
Amateras, an Asian woman in her late teens, wearing a costume with flame designs;
Aztek, a big man in black armor, wearing a golden battle-helmet which resembled the head of a bear;
Brimstone, a red-haired bearded man wearing a red suit and carrying a staff, burning at one end;
Deathbolt, a man in a green costume with purple finned helmet and a black lightning bolt on his chest;
Feuerwanze, a short narrow man wearing a purple exoskeleton and helmet with an insectile design.
Amateras looked up as she spied Wildfire descending. "I had wondered who was interfering … it didn't feel like something I would expect from the Ray, and the only distaff member of the Freedom Fighters I'd expected was Phantom Lady … but it is far more appropriate that I get to pit myself against you" she said, her accent clearly that of someone who was born in the United States, despite her apparent Japanese heritage. "You claim you received your powers from the god of fire … well you're not the only one. Let's see whose god is more powerful, shall we?" She drew a trail of flames away from the burning building and wove them into a lasso around Wildfire, who experienced a pang of pain at their touch.
Quicksilver landed near Aztek. "My father was a strongman," he said, "let's see how tough you really are." As the big man reached for him and Quicksilver moved to block his reach, he winced in pain; Aztek's armor was hard as steel and hot as if it lay in the desert sun, nearly scalding his hands.
Brimstone looked up as Black Condor approached. "I've grappled against Dr. Mid-Nite in my time, don't expect me to be impressed just because you can flutter through the air," he sneered. He began to whirl his staff in a circle, waves of heat in its wake.
The Ray alighted onto the tarmac. "Deathbolt," he said to the man dressed in green and purple, "yes, I've heard about you through my contacts in the All-Star Squadron. I've always wanted to test my light against yours." He began to glow, and Deathbolt nodded in response. "Happy to oblige," directing a surge of energy towards the other. The Ray gasped, as the forces projected by his opponent's body differed from the natural energies his body typically assimilated.
Plastic Man bounced down before Feuerwanze, who stepped back in dismay, trying to track his movements. Finally, the elastic figure reformed into a humanoid shape. "What's cookin', short stuff," he said, peering over his goggles at the man.
The man shrieked, "You are!" and directed twin blasts of flame from his hands.
"Not cool!" Plastic Man replied, bending his body to narrowly evade the heat.
The street outside the Freedom Fighters' hq became a model of hell on earth, fire and heat mixing with grunts of pain and anger from the combatants. Wildfire and Amateras fought over the physical integrity of the office building as well as each other; and the odd, glassy object like a smoked mirror on his chest of Aztek's armor shone with an iridescence which seemed to call down the fury of the sun itself, the pervasive heat further wearing down the mysterymen's endurance.
Plastic Man and Feuerwanze dealt each other heavy blows, as the small man recoiled from repeated blows from his opponent, although the Freedom Fighter had to struggle to retain his elasticity as he felt the integrity of his form softening under the other's fiery blasts.
Black Condor miscalculated in his swooping attack and felt the burning ember on Brimestone's staff catch him on his bare skin, and he careened to the ground in pain. The Ray saw his long-time ally downed and instinctively turned to defend him, and felt a blast from Deathbolt strike him in the small of his back.
Aztek watched as Quicksilver's great speed and strength started to become exhausted against him, and he began to close in against him when he felt the light blocked from above. He looked up to see a man clad in a blue bodysuit with green trunks, boots, gloves, mask, and cape descending from the sky, boot airjets enabling him to fly. "Who the hell are you?" he said, looking up.
"I'm called the Shadowman," he said in a voice which revealed some time spent overseas, "and it is time for the weeds of crime you have sown to bear their bitter fruit." From beneath his cloak he withdrew a gadget which appeared to be a metal disc with an extendable arm. He hurled it down so that it landed over Aztek's chest, where it secured itself; the arm began to circle around, acid ejecting from the end until it ate through the armor. He grappled with it in a futile gesture, until finally it clattered to the ground, taking the mirror with it. Immediately, the ambient temperature of the air seemed to reduce by several degrees, reinvigorating the besieged Freedom Fighters.
Plastic Man shaped himself into a giant slingshot, and hurled Feuerwanze directly at Aztek, knocking them both down for the count. Shadowman joined Black Condor and the Ray in flight, and with his assistance the remaining members of the team made quick work of their opponents.
Wildfire wiped her brow as she looked at the now-unconscious Amateras. "Thank you," she said to the newcomer, "I thought they might have had the better of us."
The Ray nodded, "All the Freedom Fighters owe you thanks … you would be a welcome member of our organization, based on the skills who seem to possess … I'd be happy to put in a good word for you with Uncle Sam."
Shadowman smiled, "No thanks are necessary … I only did what was necessary. But these villains were not working alone … I came here to warn you of a much greater threat which was working behind them."
"They were working for the Axis, then?" Black Condor furrowed his brow.
"No," Shadowmen replied, "but they and the Axis are working for the same people. I came here, hoping to warn you before their forces had begun to organize against you, but was too late. The threat I speak of is the Martian invasion."
Plastic Man's forehead immediately projected a pair of antennae, and he directed them at the newcomer. "Martians? I know Midnight fought some gangsters once who pretended to be … "
"I wish that's all this was," Shadowman continued. "I have been attempting to repel them for some time. Their planetary civilization was destroyed eons ago, as is clear if you peer at it through a telescope, but a apparently a number of survivors left the planet before the extinction, came back a decade or so ago to find everyone wiped out, and set up a temporary base of operations for their nefarious scheme. They present themselves as benevolent advisors to people in power, but they are order fanatics who wish to control the way the nations of the Earth interact, and they are now using costumed criminals as confederates."
"That's horrific," Quicksilver said, "but we've beaten back their front line, yes?"
"I'm afraid the true battle is yet to come," Shadowman said. "I recently discovered that the Martians are also shapechangers … and they have taken to impersonating the Justice Society of America."