Too Many Long Boxes!
   
   

End of Summer
 

Eve of Destruction

plot by David R. Black
story by David R. Black, Nicolas Juzda, D.J. LoTempio, and Matt Morrison

The conclusion to the Vile Vial!

Prologue

Ivy University. Ivytown

"You two better not cause any more trouble!" The dean of Ivy University wagged his fingers at the two costumed villains who were doing their best to ignore him. "We've had enough trouble already with this alleged 'ghost' that's terrorizing the campus."

"I'm picking up slight radiation traces, Spellbinder." The large African-American man, dressed in a black costume with blue highlights and yellow wristbands, held a portable radiation detector in his right hand. With broad sweeping movements, he moved it from side to side in a half arc.

Spellbinder, a young woman whose tastes in costumes (and hair color) showed a passion for purple, nodded her head. "Good job, Black Mass. We're getting closer."

Black Mass pointed to his left. "It's getting stronger. The amount of roentgens in the surrounding air just doubled."

"Hell-oooo? Are you even listening to me?" The dean voiced his frustration even louder. "I call the DEO, tell them we have a ghost, and what do they do? They send me you two! I guess Dr. 13 wasn't available so they sent me the amateur ghostbusters!"

Spellbinder turned her attention towards the whining man. "Look, sugar, let's get this straight. We ain't amateurs. Black Mass has a PhD from MIT. We know what we're doing."

"But the ghost!"

"You don't have a ghost."

"But....but what about all the incidents here on campus? The insects freed from the biology labs, the change removed from all our parking meters....One of our security guards even swore she saw a man disappear before her eyes!"

"You don't have a ghost. You have the Atom." said Spellbinder.

"The...The Atom?"

"Yes. Pulling pranks at small sizes. Definitely no ghost."

The trio stopped in front of a large, brownstone building. A sign near the steps leading inside informed them that it was the Kane Building, home of the university's physics department.

"Levels are increasing exponentially." observed Black Mass. "He's definitely inside."

"How can you be sure?" asked the dean.

"The white dwarf-star material the Atom uses to shrink emits low levels of gamma rays." said Black Mass. "Gamma rays emit ionized photons, and the photons are easy to detect using a customized radiation detector. Based on the ionization of molecules in a mass of air, a unit called the roentgen...."

"I think he gets the picture" said Spellbinder. "C'mon, let's go get 'im!"

The two villains bounded up the stairs into the Kane Building with the dean straggling behind them.

"Wait! I'll have no more destruction" shouted the dean. "We just renovated this building!"

"He's on the first floor. Down this hallway." said Black Mass, keeping one eye on the radiation counter while watching where he was running. The hallway, though, soon came to an abrupt end at two doors leading into smaller offices used by university professors.

"Door number one, or door number two?" asked Spellbinder.

Black Mass didn't need radiation detector this time. He pointed at the faded nameplate on the door. "Door number two. His identity's common knowledge. Palmer. Ray Palmer."

"Let's do this right or else Waller will have our hides" said Spellbinder. "Ready?" Black Mass nodded. "Let's do it then. After you, dearie."

Black Mass stepped back, lowered his shoulders, and ran towards the door like a charging rhinoceros. Splintering and cracking upon impact, the wooden door gave way under the behemoth's might.

A startled Ray Palmer looked up from his computer, where just seconds earlier, he had been happily downloading pornography from the 'Net. "What the...?"

"You're under arrest! Your crime wave stops here!" said Spellbinder with authority. She had always wanted to say that. Ever since the Batman had growled the same words at her, she had longed to see if she could inspire the same fear and awe in others. But she couldn't, at least not without her powers.

Palmer dove for his shape changing belt, hanging lazily on the back of a nearby chair. If he could get it, he could shrink down to molecular size and escape.

"Oh no, you don't!" Black Mass activated a dial on his yellow wristbands and instantly doubled his size. The wristbands allowed him to grow larger, essentially doing the opposite of the Atom's shrinking belt.

His increased mass filling half of the room, Black Mass positioned himself between Palmer and the belt. Palmer cursed loudly, realizing he'd have to fight this one as Ray Palmer, and not the Atom.

"Can't you read? I don't have office hours today!" hissed Palmer as his fists pounded Black Mass.

"Don't waste your energy, sugar" said Spellbinder. "Hitting him's like punching a brick wall."

"Purple went out years ago, lady" said Palmer, turning his attention to Spellbinder. "Get out of my way and I won't call the fashion police on you."

"Uh-huh. I'm shakin'. What are you afraid of Palmer? How 'bout I have a little look?"

Using her psychic powers, Spellbinder probed the depths of Palmer's mind, looking for images that would rock his soul to its foundation. Finding one, she projected it into his mind, essentially creating a virtual reality world.

"Here's one. Awww, poor boy." said Spellbinder. "Afraid of letting anyone into your life. Your wife left you for another man, your girlfriend was killed...."

The room swirled around Ray Palmer, and powerless to stop, he danced to the marionette strings Spellbinder was pulling in his mind. He saw his wife, Jean, on the day he caught her kissing another man in their car. He saw his girlfriend, Laethwen, on the day she and her entire tribe of people were killed. Ray Palmer stood catatonic, the controlling images all he could focus on.

And then Spellbinder decked him with a right uppercut.

And then the swirling black pools of unconsciousness were all he could focus on.

"Pick him up, and let's hightail it back to Metropolis" said Spellbinder to Black Mass. "Waller wants him ASAP."


Chapter 1

STAR Labs, Metropolis

Dr. Marie Martin stared at the MRI scan of Ralph Dibny, an eerily colorful map of his topography, and with its surface strewn with fissures and cracks, thought it looked like the moon's surface. Somewhere between those folds lurked the consciousness of humanity - love, greed, honesty, and spirituality - formed by the grey angles. Dibny was the hero Elongated Man, a sleuth blessed with the powers of maximum flexibility, but infection with the Vile Virus had reworked the cradle of his mind. It had been changed and twisted. This fine mental tool, which had toiled for justice, had become a vessel for villainy. It was Martin's job to stop it.

Amanda Waller entered the office, her girth filling the room with its presence. Martin didn't much care for the dispassionate Waller, but one could hardly ignore the superlative work accomplished by the woman, the President's Secretary on Metahuman Affairs, in light of the Vile Virus crisis. With a combination of tact and bullish persistence, Waller had succeeded in corralling a team of researchers, scientists, and physicians. Martin was a little worried as the team assembled at the Metropolis branch of S.T.A.R. Labs - more than a few of the newly arrived professionals had egos the size of Grenada. But none of them were prepared for Waller and her powers of intimidation.

"Good morning, Secretary Waller," Martin said. "What can I do for you?"

"You can tell me that you've developed a cure for the Vile Virus based on the rancid stuff you call coffee in the commissary. Some how, I don't think you accomplished that particular feat." Waller surveyed the room. Unlike the other scientists, Martin's office was clean and neat, a by-product of Martin's curious habit of becoming more efficient under stressful situations. As anxiety rose, so did Martin's command of order. Waller secretly approved.

"I've come for a report." She said. "What do you have for me?"

"Well, I completed an analysis of that blood sample you gave me. It was in terrible condition. Where did you say it came from?"

"Off a Batarang that we recovered from the Oval Office. Batman used it to slice open a character by the name of Prometheus. Claimed he was immune to the virus."

"It appears his claims are justified. His cells have a curious design structure, such that a foreign virus is unable to enter his cells and inject their genetic package. If I understood how he does it, the process would be a super-inoculate; the ultimate protection, but useless if you're already infected."

"Were you studying the design of the virus with Dr. Stachowski?" Waller asked matter of factly. It didn't sound right to Martin. Did Waller want to know about the virus or about Stachowski?

"Yes, Stachowski performed the initial research on the virus, which I have been able to further elaborate on. We've created a breakdown of the virus' components, which roughly are formed by two structures. First, we have the outer shell, a modified strain of the influenza virus. The strong shell and allows the virus to exist in harsh external conditions for long periods of time. It protects and acts as a liaison with the internal package - a nano-robot. The shell can communicate with the internal robot via proteins. It also carries the robot into the host, latches onto outer cells, and injects the robot into the human cells. The robot takes over the original cell and begins to replicate. The virus specifically latches on the cerebral cortex where the robot modifies the structure and alters the mind of the subject. Pretty ingenious."

Waller was unmoved by the explanation; her broad face looked stoically at Dr. Martin. She turned to a folder she held and fished out a report. It dropped to Martin's desk, disrupting pens, pages, and films. "I knew all of that already."

Martin read the cover of the report - External and Internal Exploration of Manufactured Influenza-based Nano-probes by Dr. William Stachowski, Wayne Tech. "Where did you get this?" Martin asked.

"It was posted on the CDC's Usenet this morning. I was notified immediately because the information contained in the report violates a host of international and federal laws. To say nothing of national security. I noticed that your name is missing from the report."

Martin grabbed the report and stormed from the room. Stachowski wasn't in his office but Martin knew where to find him. She rammed through the doors of the Mirco-biology lab and screamed. "Stachowski!"

He was huddled among a small group of other scientists, among them were Sivana and T.O. Morrow. Their rapt attention was broken by Martin's anger. Stachowski looked up above Sivana's bald plate and exclaimed a silent "oh, no." He turned from the group, dropped his copy of Playboy magazine, and rushed for the rear door.

"I'm going to lance you like a boil." Martin promised. She rushed to the other side of the room. Stachowski was going to make the door in a moment if Martin didn't stop him. She grabbed a chair with casters and kicked it towards him. The chair hit him squarely on the shins.

"God damn it!" Stachowski exclaimed, his curly, uncombed hair bouncing dangerously as he tried to shake off the pain. His eye grew in terror as Martin grabbed a Xacto knife from a table.

"Go easy, woman!" He pleaded. "Take a chill pill! We've got some Motrin in the cabinet. So why don't you take a few, get both our heads back on straight, and not resort to violence."

Martin grabbed Stachowski by his lab coat and spun him to the ground. She was surprisingly strong for a slight woman. Stachowski felt her knee in his back.

"I have never encountered such a jerk as you, Stachowski. Some of that was my research! I don't even mind that you broke national security but you tried to take credit for my work!"

He screwed his face up towards Martin. "I'm sorry." He mewed.

"Let him up, Martin." Waller ordered from across the room. "I'm going to put him in detention until the Vile Virus situation blows over."

Stachowski got up and massaged his shin. "Detention? You mean like in the Breakfast Club?"

Waller twisted her face as is she were a hunter about to kill an injured pet. "No, I don't mean like the Breakfast Club. I'm talking about the place with drunken pederasts and convicted murders. I'm talking about that type of detention; there ain't no Molly Ringwold there. Now, are you listening to what I'm saying or do you want a lecture from the back of my hand?"

Stachowski raised his hands into the air. "It's cool. Props to the lady from Washington. I'm sympatico."

The diminutive Dr. Sivana stepped up. "Perhaps you're being unduly harsh on the lad, Secretary Waller? Such a young, bright mind doesn't belong locked up in the bowels of jail. We have important work to do and his talents have been so useful. Why, I think of him as a son. Let me take him under my supervision."

Waller considered the request. Sivana and Morrow had been two of the evilest scientists in the world before infection by the virus. Now, they had dedicated their energy and intellect towards finding a cure. She had to admit that they were changed men. She appraised Stachowski.

He was frantically looking around the room. "Hey, who took my magazine?"

"You can't seriously be considering this request." Martin said. "This worm stole credit for our work and then posted it on the Internet before getting official clearance. He's jeopardized my reputation and the lives of thousands, maybe millions, of people."

Waller stormed over to Stachowski, grabbed his wrist, and slapped a bracelet on it. "Now you can stay." She said.

"What is this?" Stachowski asked.

"Explosive bracelet. You go too far, I blow you up. Stay nice, Stachowski." She pointed her finger menacingly at Sivana. "He's your responsibility."

Sivana swallowed. "I don't think I've ever encountered a woman so..."

"Large." Stachowski said.

"Commanding," Martin replied.

Waller waited impatiently for the correct answer.

"Um, why don't we compromise with 'grand." Sivana's nose twitched with anxiety. It was a large thing with generous nostrils; the kind that made Stachowski want to dig into. Sivana gestured to a computer console, hoping to turn their collective attention towards more cerebral pursuits. "Would you be interested in what we've accomplished?"

They milled around the terminal where Dr. Morrow was sitting. Morrow had been an unlikely contributor to the Virus research, his area of expertise being temporal studies, but his experience designing and engineering robots and mechanical intelligence had been a boon. He hadn't been the first choice for the Virus Team, though.

"Sivana, Stachowski and I," T.O. Morrow began to say but paused and added, "based on work by Dr. Martin, identified that the primary obstacle is one of communication - how do we communicate with the Vile Virus? Our second obstacle was identifying what we want it to do.

The final obstacle, frankly, has been the most pernicious - how do we get it to repair each brain exactly right."

"What does the Virus do to the brain?" Waller asked.

"Lesions within the cerebral cortex." Sivana replied. He tapped his great bald skull like an egg. "By creating new geometry in the brain, the virus alters the normal patterns of blood flow. The immediate effect is a reversal of attitude. Over the long-term, the brain will respond to these changes by reworking its entire structure. It begs the question, if Descartes was correct in saying 'I think therefore I am,' then what happens if I cannot think, or think as well as I should? Yes, grim thoughts."

"Maybe things aren't as bleak as you think." Martin exclaimed. "The blueprint of the brain should be retained in the DNA of each individual; something the virus will not have affected. Yet, the nano-tech antidote should be able to read the DNA, with the right programming, and restructure the brain based on those parameters. I imagine that a few individuals will have no memory of the events since infection, but that may be a blessing in disguise. We need to be able to connect with the virus, though."

"What about Batman?"

"Well, you know that he hasn't let anyone get near him, Waller. But we were able to study a few X-rays and MRIs after he was pimp-slapped by Prometheus. It seems that Batman's condition has stabilized. We're guessing that whoever created this administered some kind of protein command that told the Vile Virus to fix any damage while maintaining the new attitudes. Makes sense, cause then you can weed out the useful heroes from the useless, like that Argus guy. Waller, if you ever start up that Suicide Squad again why don't you call him up."

Martin frowned at Stachowski. "That's good news." she exclaimed. "I mean that part about the virus. If terrorists can use the Vile Virus to restructure the brain, then we can do the same."

"Yes, I have already developed a language based on viral proteins to communicate with the virus." Sivana said. "It has a curious emerald reaction with skin oils, perhaps you would like to try it?"

"Oh yeah." Stachowski said. His eyes gently imagined Marie Martin's skin a luscious green, a forest that he could skip through, lost among its verdant landscape. Suddenly, Waller applied a mild electric shock through the explosive bracelet. "Son of bit--"

"I can hear what you're thinking, boy." Waller said. "Just remember, no Molly Ringwold."

Sivana cradled Stachowski's hand and applied a healing lotion to it. "Now be a good boy, William."

"Well, we've addressed a couple of the problems." T.O. Morrow said through a mouth filled with steak and cheese. Food was one of Morrow's small pleasures. Victory over opponents like the Justice League or Superman usually brought on a hunger for fine cheese or a good steak. After the Virus, he still equated his achievements with food, but now he craved Whoppers, Snickers bars, and a host of the cheapest and greasiest snack foods imaginable. He generously licked his mustache, seeking second helpings of onions and mayonnaise, as he talked with Martin and Waller.

"But Sivana's protein language won't mean squat until we can crack the command code. We were hoping to shrink someone down to virus size and then override it manually."

Waller could tell there was a catch. "But?"

"Sivana had a reduction ray," Martin replied, "but it disproportionately shrank anything caught in its light; horrible way to die."

Sivana nervously giggled. "I had hoped to use it against Captain Marvel but, well, you know how these things go."

"Is there any chance that the heroes could shake this thing off by themselves? Green Lantern was able to regain control of himself for a brief period."

Sivana shook his head. "That was in the early stages of infection, and by now the virus has made its modifications. 'Change the brain, change the person.' I believe Dr. Richard M. Restak wrote that. The mind of the young Green Lantern still had some semblance of its former construction, but the mind is not the brain. Rather, it is what the brain does."

"If you drop everything else, and concentrate on constructing an antidote, can you have something by 4 PM?"

"Probably." All four replied.

Waller turned from the group. She pulled out her Compaq iPaq and jotted an appointment down. "Meet me in the Holding Cells downstairs at 4 PM with whatever you cook up. We'll try it out on one of the captured heroes."

***

The quartet worked furiously for the next eight hours, propelled by a mission of mercy. Martin's incredible efficiency again rose to the occasion; she allowed few distractions and demanded total focus from her peers and, in the case of Stachowski, those below her. The best equipment and resources were within reach, teams of other researchers leapt at their commands until, with a combination of brilliance, insanity, and luck, they had concocted a viral protein with the proper programming. Martin was flushed with the energy of success. Morrow was gorged with a bag of sour cream and onion chips.

Sivana looked at the office clock. "We have 15 minutes to get downstairs with Secretary Waller. I recommend that we gather ourselves and collectively meet in the Holding Cells. Does anyone have something to apply the protein?"

"Back in my office." Martin said. She handed the container with the protein to Sivana. "I'll grab it and meet you downstairs."

Martin went to her office and grabbed her equipment. On her corkboard, the lunar relief of Elongated Man's MRIs captivated her attention. Practitioners of neuroscience used the euphemism an insult to the brain to describe damage caused by trauma, stroke or disease to the brain. Her mind turned on the word insult. Insult: from the Latin in sultare - the root word for the words assault and assail.

This was what the virus was - an attack upon society's mind that crunched through the brain like an evil worm. History revealed a long tradition of avenging insults through duels or counter-insults. It gave Dr. Marie Martin no small satisfaction that she and her peers were going to spin the original insult - the virus - against its creator. Whomever it was that held humanity in such contempt had reckoned poorly with the ingenuity of Martin, Sivana and the countless villains turned heroes. A smile crossed her lips.

She entered the elevator and pushed the button for the Holding Cells. Inside, there was a trim, athletic man with snow-white hair. He might have been attractive if not for his face. It had a prune-ish look to it, as if it had been inflated and then suddenly contracted. Its surface was raw and red. Martin moved to the opposite of the cab. She felt an undeniable dread; the kind of feeling one gets when standing under a darkened parking light, spotlights busted, and the car lock refuses to open. Martin held her breath as the disfigured man suddenly reached for his pocket.

He brought out a tube of antibiotic ointment and applied it to his face. Martin relaxed. Finished with the tube, he placed it back in his jacket. "I was looking for some acquaintances of mine, Dr. Martin." The man said. "The male is central European. Handsome guy. Blonde hair with a shock of white. Kind of snooty. He should be with a girl. Kind of Pollyanna. Turns into electricity. I heard they were getting treatment here. Do you know them?"

Martin felt her skin go cold. Of course she knew. He was describing Count Vertigo and Blythe Bonner. How could he know about them? Was he one of the infected villains? He didn't appear to be a hero. "I'm sorry, but those individuals aren't here right now. I think they're with the other infected villains at the headquarters for the Justice League Task Force."

The man seemed disappointed. "I heard that they were seeing each other. Something like a Cinderella story but where you're not sure which one needs the fairy godmother. I wanted to give them something." He reached into his jacket once more and pulled out a CD case. He handed it to Dr. Martin.

The elevator stopped and its doors opened to the mezzanine. The man stepped out without a backwards glance. "Tell them it's a present. Something to keep their relationship spicy."

The doors closed. Martin looked at the case; its table of contents read Marquis de Sade, W. Burroughs, Anais Nin, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, and Pauline Reage.

***

Stachowski was waiting by the elevator as the doors opened. He caught a glimpse of the CD and growled.

"Hey," he said. "Did you hear the good news? We get to use Elongated Man for a guinea pig! I can't wait! This is going to be great."

Martin leaned into his face; her eyes curdling in his wane courage. "Stachowski, Some of us have more important things on our minds than puerile thoughts. You have to be the biggest creep I have ever encountered."

"Arousal is 90% in the mind." He replied. "I don't mind if you don't mind."

An electric shock ran up his arm. A few feet behind them, Amanda Waller stood holding a small remote control forcefully. "You don't have a mind, Stachowski."

The group went deeper into the central Holding Room, passing numerous Checkmate Knights who guarded the cells with watchful eyes. The cells' occupants, all the rogue heroes captured by the villains, included Green Lantern, both Flashes, Power Girl, Fire, among others.

The imprisoned heroes, in various states of consciousness, appeared drugged up and lethargic. Passing by the Batman's cell, T.O. Morrow marveled at the hundreds of chains binding the dark Knight's arms and legs together.

"Don't you think that's cruel?" asked Morrow.

"No," said Waller tersely, "He's the world's greatest escape artist. I don't take chances. Period."

They stopped in front of the cell holding Elongated Man, and Waller shooed the Checkmate guards out of the way. She grabbed the file on the cell door.

"Hmmf.....Ralph Dibny. This is him." Waller turned to Stachowski. "OK. Do it. "

Stachowski held up a spray bottle containing the experimental nano-antidote and readied to release it through the vents regulating air supply into Dibny's cell.

"Wait! Are you sure?" cried Dr. Martin, "It's still experimental! It...It might kill him"

"We gotta test this on humans." answered Waller. She pointed towards the cell next door, which held Plastic Man. " So what if we lose him? The world will still have a stretchy hero."

Stachowski released the experimental antidote, and the others began monitoring various digital readouts analyzing the antidote's progress.

Dr. Martin closed her eyes as Dibny's shrieking and cries of pain filled the air.


Chapter 2

Ra's al Ghul's Inner Sanctum

Far from the frantic activity in Metropolis, and far from any activity really, sat the underground headquarters of Ra's al Ghul. Protected from the virus he had unleashed on an unsuspecting world, Ra's and his followers could safely observe the chaos unfolding throughout the globe.

And no one was more interested in the chaos than Ra's himself.

Resting in a synthetic leather upholstered chair in his spacious "war room", Ra's could hardly believe his plan was succeeding. And yet, he was not a man inclined to doubt.

Certainly, he had not questioned the righteousness of his actions in a very long time. The sacrifices he knew would have to be made, the price that he must ask of others, the responsibility that rested upon his shoulders alone... all of these things he felt no ambiguity towards whatsoever.

But with each failure, he had grown a little more skeptical about his chances of ever achieving his elusive goal. And now, after so many years, when success was so close, he realized that he had lost faith. Somewhere along the way, it had become almost impossible to conceive of a day when his duty would be discharged, and he could rest at last. But that day had almost arrived. He was actually going to do it.

Ra's al Ghul was going to save the world.

"Beautiful," came a voice from behind him.

Ra's turned to see a young man clad in a distinctive costume. In the dimly lit room, the green and red suit of his visitor took on a surprisingly ominous hue, and combined with the black cape to give the youth an improbably menacing appearance. He was the latest of the Detective's whelps.

"Do you mean this?" Ra's asked. He pointed towards the bank of television monitors that covered one end of the room. Upon them were displayed scenes from around the globe, each one an image of death and disaster.

"That's right. It's bee-yootiful." Robin paused. "Say, what the Hell's this muzak you're playing?"

Ra's sighed. "I thought it appropriate for the occasion. Would 'Ride of the Valkyries' be more to your liking, perhaps?"

"You have got to get some better tunes."

The elder man stared silently at his visitor for several seconds before speaking. "Did you have some reason to see me, boy?"

Robin winced slightly at the dismissive address. "Yeah. I was wondering where Talia is. I figure that if I'm here to replace Batman, like you say..." He winked broadly.

"My daughter's whereabouts are not your concern," Ra's said a bit more sharply than he had intended. "You outwitted the Detective, and I know how difficult that task is. You may therefore be of use to me. But do not think you can try my patience."

"Okay, okay."

Robin turned to go, but before he had left the room Ra's called softly after him. "Do you really find it beautiful?"

"Oh yeah." A grin split Robin's face. "It's the loveliest thing I've ever seen. Why? Don't you? You seemed to be enjoying it enough."

"I find it... satisfying. But that is all. These images repulse me. The only thing that mitigates that revulsion is the knowledge that my virus will save the world."

"Save the world?" Robin snickered. "I think your vision's going, old man. Look at those screens."

"You speak of vision to me, whelp? I have a vision of a world where men do not contaminate the planet with poison and refuse. I have a vision of a world where one can breathe the air and drink the water without wondering what it contains. I have a vision of plants and animals thriving, living as they were meant to live, not merely existing at mankind's sufferance. I have a vision of the Earth as a living, healthy entity, one that will endure. If there is one thing I do not lack, boy, it is vision."

Robin mimed stifling a yawn. "Geez, I didn't ask for an entire speech. So, are you trying to tell me that you did all this because you're a tree-hugger?"

"That is essentially correct, yes."

"I don't buy that. If you really just wanted to get rid of mankind, there are a lot of simpler ways to do it then this whole Vile Virus idea. If you don't want to spread chaos, why else would you make everyone on Earth evil?"

Ra's waved a hand at the images flashing on the monitors. "Is this evil to you then, boy?"

"Duh."

"Then you are a fool."

"Now wait a minute-" Robin began.

"Evil," Ra's continued as if there had been no interruption, "is not simply the harming of one's fellow man."

"Could have fooled me."

"Evil is selfishness. It is the placing of one's own needs and desires above the consideration of those around one. And it is the placing of one's own group, and their needs and desires, above the consideration of other groups."

"And if I just kill someone for the fun of it? Isn't that evil?"

"Are you not listening to me, boy? To murder for fun is to murder because one wants to. It is placing one's own wants above the consideration of another, the victim. I would have thought the Detective would have demanded better analytical skills in his protege. Your predecessors certainly had them."

"Whatever."

"He also seems to have relaxed his standard for witty repartee," Ra's said dryly.

"Holy whatever."

"To kill one's neighbor to satisfy one's own whim is bad. To slaughter the neighboring tribe to satisfy one's own people's greed is worse. What then must it be to ravage the planet, to annihilate entire ecosystems full of living creatures, all in the interest of one's own species?"

Robin laughed. "You're actually serious, aren't you? You think that nearly everyone on Earth is evil just because we haven't joined Greenpeace?"

"Evil does not begin to describe it. There are no words to encompass the horrors mankind perpetrates on a daily basis. Slash and burn policies leveling the rainforests, toxic waste dumped into the oceans from which all life sprang, cosmetics tested on animals. Think about those, and the thousands of other sins of our species, and tell me mankind is good."

Robin nodded. "Okay, I can see that. Maybe we are a pretty bad bunch, when you put it that way."

"My virus will reverse that. It will make the population of this planet finally put their priorities where they belong, not with their fellow humans but with the Earth that nourishes us all."

"And the fact that they're killing each other doesn't bother you?"

"Of course it does! But it is necessary. Besides, everyone dies eventually. Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more. What endures, what must be allowed to endure, is the Earth."

"So, let me get this straight. Most people think they're good, because they put other people ahead of themselves. Enough not to kill or steal or rape, anyway. But we also put people ahead of the environment, which is bad. Now, with the virus, everyone does whatever the Hell they want to other people, but we worship Gaea?"

"Exactly. Perhaps there is hope for you yet, boy."

"I still don't see why you didn't just kill everybody. It seems a lot simpler."

"I have been down that route before. Indeed, for so very long I thought that wiping out the vast majority of mankind would be unavoidable. This virus... I have found a way, at long last, to spare humanity. Some will die, yes. Perhaps many. People are killing each other all over the world even as we speak. But vast outbreaks of mayhem and murder are only the initial result of the virus. Eventually, peace will return, as those inclined to violence perish in each other's brutal embrace. And though man may not love his neighbor ever again, he will not kill him either. In the end, far less will die than would otherwise be necessary."

"This is your version of a happy ending? Man, you are the most depressing guy I've ever met."

"Coming from the Detective's whelp, I suppose that is something of an honor."

"And infecting the heroes and villains? How does that fit into this whole crazy scheme to save Mother Earth?"

"In the past, my efforts have too often been thwarted by so-called heroes. This time, I ensured that their attention would lie elsewhere. But there needed to be a counterbalancing force, or they would run rampant and threaten all that I was working toward. So I arranged to have metahuman criminals infected as well."

"Gotcha. Say, what about all the people who were good little nature lovers before?"

Ra's frowned. "It is unfortunate that their priorities will be changed for the worse. They will pose a danger to the planet, and we will have to eliminate them. But sacrifices must be made." He glanced at one of the monitors, and saw a pretty young woman covered in blood, screaming. Her hair was dark, and her sharp features reminded him of- he put the thought from his mind. "Sacrifices... must always be made."

***

As the Boy Wonder departed, Ra's turned his full attention upon the multitude of television monitors, each set tuned to a different news broadcast. Picking up a remote control in his right hand, Ra's looked at the monitors reverentially, like a father admiring the work of a son.

With a flick of the remote, a CD player in the back of the room sprang to life. Ra's skipped the CD ahead to track six, Barry McGuire's "Eve of Destruction."

"Ah, Mr. McGuire," said Ra's to no one in particular, "You were a few decades ahead of your time, but how right you were. No, actually. How right you are."

The soft strumming of a guitar filled the air, and Ra's continued to watch the monitors and marvel at the sheer vicious beauty of his handiwork, the Vile Virus.

The eastern world, it is explodin'....violence flarin', bullets loadin...'

Ra's watched as the Rocket Red Brigade launched an all out assault on the Kremlin. Lasers rained down, engulfing the surrounding parts of Moscow in a raging inferno. The Russian villains Stalnoivolk and the People's Heroes lay unmoving in the streets, defeated.

Old enough to kill, but not for votin'......

On another monitor, the Cadmus Project was under attack by Superboy. Amid the bodies of Cadmus guards strewn everywhere, the Guardian motioned frantically for survivors to retreat.

Don't believe in war, but what's that gun you're totin'?

"This is Vicki Vale reporting from Gotham. Police have evacuated the downtown area after the new Peacemaker, randomly firing his automatic weapons at anything that moves, injured 25 people. The Ravens - Pistolera, Vicious, and Cheshire - attempted to subdue the Peacemaker, but right now he has them pinned behind a makeshift bunker consisting of metal trashcans and burned out car husks"

And even the Jordan river has bodies floatin'....

The feed from Gotham was interrupted by a GBS World News anchorman. "This just in from the Middle East. The Israeli heroes Ramban, Dybbuk, and Golem are causing wanton destruction in downtown Jerusalem. So far, they've destroyed two temples, three mosques, and the Wailing Wall. Doing their best to stop them and prevent loss of life is the Jihad, led by Dervish, the Quraci speedster."

But you tell me, over and over and over again my friend, Ah, you don't believe we're on the eve of destruction.

Ra's al Ghul laughed. "No, we're not, Barry! We are on the eve of salvation!"

Don't you understand, what I'm trying to say?

"And in Los Angeles, the Justice League Task Force, led by the Scarecrow, kept warring groups of Los Angeles residents apart for two hours. Their attempts to disperse the crowd proved fruitless, however, and as they retreated, Major Disaster used his powers to create a huge chasm between the groups."

Can't you see the fear that I'm feeling today?

"Scarecrow, my old friend," said Ra's, "Don't tell me the master of fear has found something he's afraid of!"

If the button in pushed, there'll be no runnin' away.....

"WABC is reporting at this hour that the Atomic Skull barely prevented the Atomic Knight from detonating a bomb over Three Mile Island. According to authorities on the scene, the bomb would've shattered the nuclear power plant's reactors, releasing enough toxic radiation to cause a disaster ten times the size of Chernobyl."

There'll be no one to save with the world in a grave....

"In New York, Rainbow Raider and Dr. Light are using their light based powers to stop the virus from spreading. Authorities doubt their efforts will have much measurable impact."

And you tell me over and over and over again my friend, Ah, you don't believe we're on the eve of destruction.

Ra's allowed a small smile to cross his face. "We're on the eve of a new world order, Barry old pal!"

Yeah, my blood's so mad, feels like coagulatin'.....

A satellite link showed the JLA Watchtower, quiet and unmoving.

"Superman, Superman, Superman," said Ra's. "How angry you must be. But can't you see that I'm saving your adopted world?"

I'm sittin' here, just contemplatin',

"Inner surveillance mode, please," said Ra's, pushing a button on the remote. All the monitors began to display images shown from hidden cameras Ra's' agents had planted within various buildings.

The first monitor showed Cliff Carmichael, the Thinker, hard at work on a cure for the virus.

"Think all you want, Thinker" said Ra's. "The probability of you finding cure before Earth's entire population is infected is next to nothing."

I can't twist the truth, it knows no regulation,

Inside the office of Opal City's mayor, Bobo Benetti readied to fight a platoon of virus infected police officers led by Commissioner Clarence O'Dare.

"Shouldn't have turned down their request for a pension increase, Mr. Mayor" said Ra's tersely.

Handful of Senators don't pass legislation,

Tuning into the US capitol building's security cameras, Ra's watched Firehawk attack the Capitol Police. As the Congressmen scatter and run, one of them, Senator Reilly, pleads with the rogue hero to stop.

And marches alone can't bring integration, When human respect is disintegratin',

A few short blocks away, protestors demonstrated outside the White House. Their picket signs read "No more metas!," "Give us the cure!," "You suck, Luthor," and "The End is Near!"

This whole crazy world is just too frustratin'

"This is BBC-Australia. Reporting from the steps of the Sydney Opera House, we're watching Captain Boomerang tussle with the Tasmanian Devil. The crowd here, a bunch of open minded blokes, are actually cheering for Boomerang."

And you tell me over and over and over again my friend, Ah, you don't believe we're on the eve of destruction.

"Cheer for Boomerang?" asked Ra's. "That has to be a first!"

Think of all the hate there is in Red China!

"Unconfirmed reports from China say that an angry mob of Chinese citizens have seized half a dozen government and military leaders. The mob has taken them to Tiannamen Square and may execute them at any time."

Then take a look around to Selma, Alabama!

"And from the American South, the villains Magenta, Neutron, and Crowbar were unsuccessful in their attempt to capture Max Mercury and Impulse. The three villains were reported to have been severely brutalized by the two speedsters."

Ah, you may leave here, for four days in space...

"In Rio de Janeiro, a man wearing a read and white jumpsuit and a rocket pack suddenly appeared and began combating the mobs and looters roaming the streets.

But when you return, it's the same old place...

"Official word from the White House indicates that the man is Adam Strange, champion of Rann."

The poundin' of the drums, the pride and disgrace...

"In a Hollywood, a battle royale between Damage and Sonar resulted in the destruction of the infamous 'Theatre of Treats.' City officials have yet to comment, but the seedy, X-rated film house will not likely be rebuilt"

You can bury your dead, but don't leave a trace...

"Dr. Simon LaGrieve, a doctor at the Institute for Meta-Human Studies, confirmed that villains injured during the Vile Virus epidemic are being treated there. LaGrieve also confirmed the status of three recently injured villains. Brainstorm is being treated for fractures in both legs, and both Firebug and Prometheus are recovering from second degree burns."

Hate your next-door-neighbor....

"GBS News would like to remind all viewers to stay indoors. Incidents of neighbors attacking neighbors are becoming commonplace, and police forces are stretched to the limit."

But don't forget to say grace....

"In light of this, churches throughout the nation have called off public prayer sessions. In a statement from the Vatican, the Pope encouraged all Catholics to 'Pray for the success of our villains'."

And you tell me over and over and over and over again my friend, You don't believe we're on the eve of destruction....

"Scientists gathered at S.T.A.R. Labs are working frantically to develop an antidote for the virus. A S.T.A.R. spokesman, in a GBS exclusive, reports that an experimental vaccine is in the last phases of testing, and may be ready for release sometime soon."

Yeah, you don't believe we're on the eve of destruction.

"This doesn't look good." said Ra's. "No, not good at all."


Chapter 3

Metropolis, STAR Labs

One by one, the scientists filed into a large conference room and sat down. Sivana and Morrow silently took their seats. Their faces pale and drained from working long hours over the past week, they tried to hide their exhaustion. Dr. Martin looked a bit more upbeat as she entered the room, and a tiny glimmer of hope danced across her green eyes.

At the head of the table, Amanda Waller rose to her feet. "Let's get down to business. Dr. Martin, how did..."

"And so the priest says to the engineer..." Stachowski entered the room, his ribald joke cut off mid-punchline as Professor Ivo nudged him in the ribs.

"Stachowski! Shut up and sit down!" yelled Waller. "I've about had it with you. I ask you to be here on time, you be here!"

"I was only telling Ivo a little joke," said Stachowski, "Maybe you'd like to hear it. You could lighten up some, Waller."

"I'll never 'lighten up'!" scowled Waller. "This is serious. Sit down now or I'll make you sit down." She pointed at the explosive bracelet around his wrist.

"You think you're so tough, with your little bracelet."

Waller strode over and came face to face with the impudent scientist. "I don't need it," she said as she rolled up her shirt sleeves. "I heard you've been laid up twice - put in the hospital once by Prometheus and once by Count Vertigo. You think third time's a charm?"

Stachowski gulped and tried to squirm away from her unrelenting stare.

"I didn't think so," said Waller, "Sit down. Shut up. Now."

Stachowski slumped into the nearest chair.

"As I was saying, Dr. Martin, how did the test on Elongated Man go? Will the experimental antidote work?"

"Yes and no," said Dr. Martin as she handed written copies of the experiment's results to her colleagues.

"Yes and no?" asked Waller, thumbing through the thick document Martin had prepared. "Give me the annotated version."

Dr. Martin reached for a small black console situated in the center of the conference table and tapped a small white button. The lights dimmed and a holographic projection of Elongated Man appeared atop the table.

"This is Dibny just before we released the antidote into his cell. Everything appears fine."

Dr. Martin tapped the button again, and a second hologram replaced the first one. The second hologram, however, showed Dibny stretched out across the floor of his cell, the expression on his face clearly one of sheer agony.

"One minute after exposure to the antidote, Dibny lost all control of his powers. Witness how his arms and legs are splayed out haphazardly."

"He nearly tied himself in knots," added T.O. Morrow, "Screamed and hollered like a banshee, too."

"Ah, he's just a wuss," said Stachowski.

Waller shot Stachowski an icy glare. "What happened next?"

"Six minutes after initial exposure, he began to regain control of his powers," said Dr. Martin, cycling through another series of projections. "At the ten minute mark, all traces of Vile Virus in his body were gone."

"So it works. Sort of," said Professor Ivo.

"But that five minute period," said Waller, "We release this and there's no telling what kind of destruction meta-humans could do during the time they lose control of their powers."

"Those with heat or flame powers could incinerate entire forests," said Sivana. "Boil oceans, fry passersby."

"What about the effects on normal humans?" asked Waller.

"We're testing the antidote on Batman," said Sivana, "Looks like normal humans experience severe muscle spasms for the same five minute period."

"The antidote works, but can we eliminate the side effects?" asked Waller. "Otherwise, consequences be damned, we're going to release it anyway."

A hologram of the viral antidote, magnified thousands upon thousands of times larger than actual size, flickered into view. Two receptors along the antidote's starboard side were highlighted bright red.

"By switching these two binary receptors from the 'on' to the 'off' position," said Dr. Martin, "We believe that would eliminate the side effects."

"How sure are you?"

"Reasonably sure. 75%."

"Can you do it?"

"No, not in the time we have," said Stachowski, speaking up from the room's rear, "We don't have any tools capable of switching the receptors. We're talking sub nano-scopic here."

"But you did design the antidote."

"Yes, but making and repairing it are two different things, " said Stachowski, "We could build the revised antidote, but that could take days."

A Checkmate Knight, accompanied by Black Mass and Spellbinder, barged into the room and strode over to Waller. Spellbinder leaned over and whispered into her ear.

"What if I had something tiny enough that could do your repairs for you?" asked Waller.

"Then it'd be as simple as flipping a light switch, " said Stachowski.

***

Two short minutes later, a platoon of Checkmate Knights and STAR security guards escorted Ray Palmer into the room. Palmer, his hands cuffed in front of his body, swore defiantly at the Knight who prodded him to keep moving. Behind Palmer's entourage, two more Knights carried a large, padlocked container.

"Ray, I got a job for you," said Amanda Waller.

"Bug off, Waller," said Palmer, spitting at her, "I ain't doing anything for you!"

"Maybe not for me, " said Waller, "But you'll do this to save your own hide, I bet."

"What are you..."

"Black Mass, you got those wristbands you modified for me? Give 'em here, "said Waller, turning to the large villain behind her.

Black Mass nodded and handed her a spare set of his size changing wristbands.

"Black Mass modified these to act like your shrinking belt," said Waller, "Even used white dwarf star material, too. Just like yours."

"White dwarf material?" asked Palmer, "How'd you?"

"Mister, I got contacts with government spooks the government doesn't know exist. I can get anything I want."

Waller slipped the wristbands over Palmer's hands, secured them tightly, then unlocked the handcuffs. She then motioned for the two Checkmate Knights to open the padlocked container. Gaseous dry ice vapor escaped from it as they lifted the lid.

"See that vial in there?" said Waller, pointing at the container. "I want you to shrink down and flip two switches on the virus antidote in there."

Dr. Martin showed him the hologram. "They're in the fifth and sixth slots along the starboard side. You shouldn't have any problems."

"And if I refuse?" asked Palmer.

"It's my understanding," said Waller, "That 99% of all matter treated with white dwarf material explode after a certain time period."

"Very, very unstable," said Black Mass.

"These...these wristbands, then, will....will..." Palmer choked on the words.

"Explode. Only I have the code to take them off your wrists," said Waller. She pointed at the vial of antidote. "Time's wasting. You know what to do."

Cursing under his breath, Ray Palmer activated the wristbands, and shrinking himself to the size of an atom, jumped into the antidote vial.

"All right people, let's move!" shouted Waller. "As soon as he gets out, I want that antidote mass produced."

"How much?" asked Professor Ivo.

"According to my calculations, "said T.O. Morrow, "If we release it where the jet stream is the greatest..."

"You five work out the details," said Waller to the scientists, as she exited the room. "Black Mass, Spellbinder, you're with me. Get me as many villains as you can find. There's bound to be trouble when we try releasin' the antidote."


Chapter 4

Justice League Task Force Headquarters

The Riddler looked at the crowd assembled before him. With Scarecrow in the field, it had fallen to him to address the rest of the team. All the villains not already occupied in battle elsewhere stood before him, held in reserve in case of an extreme emergency.

And now... the catastrophe they all feared was too close. And it would come upon the heels of the best news the world had received in days. But it was bittersweet news for all those in the room. Heroes-come-lately, one and all... but heroes still, nonetheless. And now it fell to him to tell them all how to save the world.

He think they already knew what he had to say. The grim look on his masked face was easily read, even by those who were not telepaths or empaths.

"My friends..." the green-suited man began. "I'm not sure quiet where to begin."

"Begin at the beginning," the Mad Hatter said, gravely, "And go on till you come to the end. Then stop."

The Riddler almost laughed. Jervis was quoting away, even at the end.

"Very well. I am a man accustomed to posing questions... and now, I have one for you all," Nygma said as he began to pace before the crowd. "What is it that makes a hero?"

The crowd was silent for a moment as Riddler waved his cane.

"A question many have answers for. But watching you all these last few weeks, I have come up with an answer. A definition, if you will, which fits us all - be you soldiers on the front line, a spy behind enemy lines, or a general on the backline. A hero is anyone who gives of themselves to help others, no matter what the cost to themselves."

A few villains in the crowd nodded, but the majority remained silent as The Riddler paused to allow his words maximum effect.

"You have all proven to be heroes in the time since the release of the virus. I now ask you all to join me... and prove yourself heroes for one last time."

The gasps were felt rather than heard. Even those whose lungs did not suddenly draw in air seemed to exude a sudden shock.

"We may not die. Not physically, at any rate. As the old saying goes... I have good news and I have bad news. The good news is that they have finally devised a cure for the virus. However, I am afraid that for us, if I may quote another old saying, the cure will be worse than the disease."

The Riddler regarded the crowd. He was trying not to break down, but it was clear to everyone that he was on the verge of cracking like a fine china teacup.

"The cure is a viral antidote to the original virus. It will be dispersed into the upper atmosphere and then spread across the globe on the winds. This means that when the antidote reaches us, it will cure the virus within us as well."

Protests rang like bells throughout the room, nearly every villain shouting or muttering in disagreement. One voice stopped them all cold, a low bestial growl.

"Couldn't we just seal ourselves up somewhere? Wait for the virus and the antidote to die out?" said Killer Croc.

"I'm afraid waiting out the clock is not an option," The Riddler gulped. "Some of us are needed to safeguard the release of the antidote. We believe that a contingent of rogue heroes will try to stop the release."

"Them stop it? What about us stopping it?" Harley Quinn said with a pout. "Why should we have to go back to being the way we were? We can take these creeps down eventually!"

"But at what cost?" asked Mirror Master. "The virus is turning the average person on the street into a baddie. How are we going to hold nearly every formerly decent Joe Schmoo and Suzie Housewife then? Not enough prison space in the world for that. And I don't think I need to tell most of you what a powder keg we'll be looking at with that many raving psychotic loonies crammed together."

There were nods and mumbles of affirmation again. All in the room knew of the dangers that overcrowded prisons could pose.

And then The Riddler burst out with a scream, falling to his knees and yelling to the sky.

"Why? Why did we get this chance for redemption... only to have it taken away? Why were we allowed to do so much good? Why did we get to become so much better... and now have everything we did become meaningless? Does anyone have an answer for that?"

"I do," said The Trickster from the back of the room. All eyes fell on him as he leaned against the back wall of the meeting room. "I've got an answer, Riddler. But I'll have to match you a question first."

The Trickster grinned as he stepped forward, walked past the aisles of chairs, and into the middle of the room. He glanced to both sides, and then full ahead.

"What makes you so sure you'll go back when you're cured?"

"But... but... the virus..."

"Forget the virus!" The Trickster said with a sudden harshness. "Some little bug that flipped some switch in your brain. Is that what made you all into robbers and killers? Fine. What is going to stop you from flipping that switch yourself?"

The Trickster's voice became strong and serious. He had spent time training with the sideshow barker back in his circus days, and his voice rung strong and true.

"After all this is done we'll still have the memories of what we did here these past few days. Can any flipped switch make you forget the smiles and cheers you got as you flew overhead or drove past? Can any virus make you forget the kiss on the cheek you got from the pretty young girl you saved from a burning building? Is there anything on this planet that can make you forget all about the kid who said they want to be just like you when they group up?"

James Jesse looked around the room, his voice growing softer. "I'd like to think that we all can overcome our base instincts. I like to think that because I have, for the most part. I'm a scoundrel, a sinner, a liar and above all else a rogue. But despite all that, I like to think that I'm a pretty good guy. I found my switch and flipped it. I think the rest of you all can too. But that doesn't matter. That's a problem we'll all have to face tomorrow. Today, we are all heroes. And we have to go do what heroes do."

There was silence again, as everyone looked at everyone else for affirmation. Eventually it was The Mad Hatter who stood up, hat in hand, and speaking quietly.

"The Riddler and The Trickster speak truly," said Jervis Tetch. "Today we are heroes and heroes always put others before themselves, no matter what the cost."

The Hatter paused briefly, as a smile came over his face. "It is no secret that I put Carroll above all other writers. But in this case, I think Dickens put it best... 'It is a far, far better thing we do, then we have ever done before.' I think it best we go and do what need be done and hope that the world shall look upon us kindly for this day, whatever the outcome."

Nothing else was said. There was nothing else to say. And so it was that they all stood as one, and a group of men and women stood in unison and went to meet their fate. Heroes-come-lately, one and all... but heroes still, nonetheless


Chapter 5

Various places around the globe

The desert stretched out, seemingly forever. In the distance, she could just make out the tips of the pyramids, but aside from that there were no traces of civilization. It was as if the world was only her and Khufu-

"Shut up, shut up, shut up!" Kendra cried. She pounded her fist against her forehead, as hard as she could. The pain was worth it; for the moment, the voices fell silent.

Ever since she had been infected by the virus, Hawkgirl had known little peace. Images of past existences haunted her. She saw lifetime after lifetime, all of the bodies that the soul now residing in Kendra Saunders had worn.

She hated them all.

"Why won't you leave me alone? You're dead. It's my life, not yours, and I don't want your memories. I'm not some dead princess. And I'm not Shiera Hall, either. I'm Kendra Saunders, do you hear me? Kendra Saunders!"

Two lives stood out from the rest. In one, she was the bride of a Pharaoh in ancient Egypt, and in the other a crime-fighter during the mid-twentieth century. Of all her prior incarnations, those two came to mind most frequently, most vividly. And so Hawkgirl hated them most of all.

Her rage had been building for weeks, without any outlet for her to express it. The dead are notoriously hard to strike back at.

Finally, she had found a target.

The permanent Egyptology exhibit of the Midway City museum was considered one of the best in North America. The previous curators of the museum had assembled an impressive collection of artifacts and had possessed an almost uncanny ability to breathe life into the displays. The latter were so spectacular that they had been left unchanged for decades.

This was largely because the previous curators were Carter and Shiera Hall, the original Hawkman and Hawkgirl, and they could easily remember their previous lives as rulers of the land of the Nile.

It was almost too perfect.

Kendra, her mind clear once again, returned to the task of gleefully laying waste the entire wing of the museum. She shattered urns. She painted mustaches on the hieroglyphic figures. She posed the mummies in positions inappropriate for family viewing. And she smiled as she went about her work.

"That sarcophagus is probably priceless, you know."

Kendra paused in mid-air, poised to let drop the relic to shatter on the ground below. She had taken care of the security guards, and at this time of night there should have been no one else in the building.

The man staring up at her smiled slightly. "Although, come to think, that's probably the idea."

"Who are you?" Kendra asked.

"The handle's Arsenal. And you, I imagine, are Hawkgirl?"

Between the code-name and the man's customized red clothing, Kendra realized that she was dealing with either a super-hero or super-villain, although off-hand she couldn't remember which. Not that it much mattered; since the Vile Virus outbreak, such designations had become unreliable at best. Hawkgirl decided that she might as well play along and see what he wanted.

"That's right," she said.

"Quite a mess you've made here." Arsenal looked around. "Not too keen on ancient Egypt, I see. Or the Halls."

"What's it to you?"

"Well, from what I've been told, you're going a little nuts. Voices in your head and all that. They've always been there, I know, but now they're a whole lot more insistent. Some people might say that that was your soul, trying desperately to remind you of who and what you really are. Me, I'm more pragmatic. I say that it's just a chemical imbalance in your brain, an accidental side effect of the Vile Virus. And that's where I come in, because the man who made that virus sent me. So tell me, Hawkgirl, what do you want?"

"I want to kill that man," Hawkgirl said, heaving the sarcophagus towards the floor. It landed barely two feet from Arsenal, and shattering upon impact, some of the pieces flew through the air towards him. Before any hit, however, he shot them all in midair, deflecting them. His aim was perfect every time.

"Wrong answer," the Titan said. "What will that solve in the long run?"

"Fine. I want the voices gone."

"Bingo." Arsenal pumped a fist in the air. "And the man I represent can do that. With the technology that created the Vile Virus, he can get all those nasty past lives out of your head. Now, why don't you come down from there and we can talk?"

Slowly, Kendra descended to the floor. She landed upon a shattered piece of an ancient vase, crushing it to powder, but she had more important matters to consider now than petty vandalism.

Meanwhile...

Most Americans know very little about the country of Markovia.

Oh, most of them may have heard its name mentioned somewhere, and perhaps one in five could find it on a map. But the average man on the street would probably not know much about its cultural festivals, its checkered history, its trade policies, or the hundred foot high stone wall that had recently appeared all along the country's border, blocking all land access to the small European nation.

The young woman entering Markovia knew a little bit about its checkered history, having played a role in said saga on multiple occasions. She had been to a couple of the cultural festivals, and enjoyed them. She was bored silly by what little she knew of its trade policies.

And, since she could fly, she didn't notice the hundred foot stone wall at all.

Halo headed straight for Castle Markov at supersonic speed, and when she arrived, she sailed through its halls towards the throne room. That was where she expected her quarry to be located.

She was not disappointed. On the throne sat her fellow Outsider Geo-Force, now dressed simply as Brion Markov. Although 'simply' was probably not the correct word, since his clothing was that of a king. He looked weary. Halo suspected he hadn't slept in days.

"Who goes- By my crown! Gaby?" Brion's face broke into a grin, cheering Halo no end. "I haven't seen you since Belle Reeve!"

"Well, you don't make it easy, do you? The first thing you did after that was head all the way back here to Markovia." Halo waved a finger at him accusingly. "You didn't even tell us where you were going."

"I apologize. But my duty was to my people. I have neglected them for too long."

"What do you mean?"

Brion stood, and clasped his hands behind his back. "Markovia needs a firm hand to guide it. I have been foolish to allow so-called progressive ideas to sway me from my responsibility to be that firm hand. Of course, resuming my rightful place as absolute ruler of Markovia has necessitated the elimination of certain dissident factions. It has kept me occupied."

"You could've called," Halo said.

"Actually, no. I severed all of Markovia's ties with the outside world."

"Oh."

"And how about you? How have you been?"

"Pretty good. I've been hanging out with Tatsu. She's been showing me all sorts of really neat stuff. Anatomy, mostly."

"Really."

"Yeah. Like, it's not as easy to get it all in the bucket as you'd think, 'cause most people tend to thrash about a lot. But then I thought that I could use my stasis aura..."

As Halo continued bringing Brion up to date on her activities, he couldn't help but smile. She was so bubbly and cheerful, for a second he almost saw her as the teenage girl he had first known her as, and not the woman she was now.

"... and it turned out to be the spleen after all," Gaby eventually finished.

"So, what brings you to Markovia, then?" Brion asked.

"Oh, right. This guy named Ra's Al Ghul is recruiting people. He offered me a chance to get my old Violet Harper body back if I joined his team. And then I thought that maybe you'd want to sign up too."

"I'm sorry, Gaby. But my duty compels me to remain here."

"I knew you'd say that. But Ra's said that if you helped him, he'd help you eliminate threats to your country. And we both know that you get invaded all the time here, so I figured you might be interested in that."

"I did just erect a giant wall around the entire nation, Gaby."

"And of all the people who have tried to invade here, how many would that have stopped?"

"Good point."

"Look, why don't you have a talk with Ra's? I'm sure he can explain everything..."

Meanwhile...

Diana had never been one to think small.

She had, after all, left Paradise Island with the intention of changing the world. As the ambassador of the Amazons, she had been charged with single-handedly bringing peace to the world. For years, in between her various activities as "Wonder Woman", she had tried to achieve that goal.

So, really, nothing at all had changed. It was just that she was now trying to be a bit more... pro-active. And soon the world would know peace, everlasting.

It had taken her all morning to fight her way through the soldiers guarding this silo. Now, at last, she was face to face with a nuclear missile. But Wonder Woman suddenly realized that she had no clue what to do next. For a couple of minutes she stood in silence, contemplating the object before her.

Finally, she heard heavy footsteps behind her, and turned to see a gleaming silver figure. "Captain Atom," she said.

"Wonder Woman," he replied. "I like your handiwork out there."

"You mean those... men that I defeated? Barely worth my time."

"If you say so. Me, I think that smashing the military is always worth the time."

"Don't let me stop you." She gestured towards the door he had just entered through.

"Now, now, Diana. Play nice. I have a message to pass on. Ra's Al Ghul wants you."

"And why should I want to aid him?"

Captain Atom shrugged. "Because it's better than blowing yourself up trying to figure out how that works?"

"Very funny."

"Seriously, Wondy, he told me to tell you that if his new order succeeds, it'll mean the end of sexual inequality. Or the reversal of it. Something like that. Really, I'm just the messenger here. He wants to see you in person to discuss the exact details."

Wonder Woman reached forward and picked up the missile. She weighed it in her hand, considering her next option. At last, she put it down again. It landed with a loud clank, but failed to detonate.

"Alright," she said. "Let's go."

Meanwhile...

In Hub City, a man with no face was still looking for answers. But the questions were now quite different...


Chapter 6

Ambrose, North Dakota - Ground zero for the antidote's release

There were stormclouds in the distance.

Scarecrow held up a hand to shield his eyes from the sun's glare, muted by the clouds but still bright, as he surveyed the horizon. There was as yet no sign of any trouble. He doubted that would last.

"See anything?" asked the Parasite.

"No."

"Me neither."

The tension was palpable. Fifteen men and women were assembled here, far from civilization. Their number included liars, thieves, blackmailers, murderers, and worse. They were among the most feared beings on the planet, and now they were its last line of defense.

"Think anyone'll show?" asked Spellbinder.

"Count on it," Deadshot said.

High above them, the Red Tornado floated in midair, summoning the storms that would carry the antidote to the Vile Virus to the far corners of the globe. On the ground, the Weather Wizard, heavily bandaged and lying in a portable cot due to injuries sustained in a recent battle, leant his own talents to the effort. The air seemed to crackle with static electricity.

"Can't we just release the antidote now?" asked Captain Nazi.

"You know better than that. We need to wait until the winds reach maximum pitch, and the storms spread enough. Worldwide distribution is what we need to pull this off." The Trickster looked up at the android floating above them. "Let's hope the robot and Mark can manage it."

The Weather Wizard looked over at them upon hearing his name, then returned his mind to the task at hand.

Fifteen men and women, charged with saving the world. With the spread of the virus into the general population, most of the reformed villains were still needed for crowd control. Cities around the globe were rapidly descending into anarchy, and the fewer super-villains who were called away from containing that chaos, the better.

The most intelligent of the villains - Riddler, I.Q., Sivana, Professor Ivo and a few others - had selected this group as the most likely to be able to handle whatever Ra's threw at them.

Some excelled in raw power: Match, the new improved variant on Superboy, with all the latter's abilities and more; Captain Nazi, product of the Third Reich's attempts to create a super-soldier; the Parasite, against whom an enemy's strength was actually disadvantageous; Clayface, who combined raw power with an ability to infiltrate the enemy disguised as one of them.

Other villains present would attack the very minds of their opponents: the current Spellbinder, able to weave illusions that would befuddle even the most powerful foe; Scarecrow, able to exploit the fears of his enemies; Count Vertigo, his hands wrapped in bandages, who would nevertheless strike from a distance by inducing his nauseous namesake.

Two others, whose abilities lay in magic, provided perhaps the ultimate in versatility: Felix Faust, long-time JLA foe, experienced at dealing with the most powerful heroes on the planet; Circe, mythic sorceress and modern day villainess.

And then there were the others, those who defied such categorizations: Trickster, the king of con artists ; Deadshot, sniper sans parallel; Dr. Polaris, master of the magnetic fields; Killer Frost, whose touch was as icy as her usual demeanor; New Wave, the water-based leader of the Masters of Disaster.

Fifteen men and women. Together, they would save the world... or die trying.

"I see them," Deadshot said suddenly. It was no surprise that his eyes were the first to pick up signs of the enemy, but within a few seconds they were visible to all of the villains.

For now, it appeared that the reformed rogues would retain the advantage of numbers. There were only a dozen dots in the distant sky.

As they grew nearer, their identities became apparent. Wonder Woman, Captain Atom, Wonder Girl, Halo, Geo-Force, Hawkgirl, Mary Marvel, Jesse Quick, Steel, Sentinel, Changeling (or, at least, a bright green Pterodactyl), and Animal Man.

"Okay, we're dealing with an aerial assault, it looks like," the Scarecrow shouted. "Fliers, get up there. Anyone who can hit an aerial target, do so. That means you, Deadshot, and the mentalists too. Magic users... do whatever you do. Get to it, people."

There was a chorus of assents. As some took to the sky, and others readied weapons, Scarecrow raised his voice further for one last word to the villains before the battle.

"Gentlemen, ladies, whatever happens, it's been a pleasure. Now let's give the world a day to remember, a day where we did everyone proud. Because God knows we usually don't make folks proud."

******

There was a roar of thunder, and it began to rain, lightly. The storm had arrived, if not yet in force.

******

In the sky, Jesse Quick flew towards Red Tornado. Even among the elite group Ra's had assembled, her speed was unrivalled.

Until, that is, a blurred shape pulled alongside her.

"3X2(9YZ)4A," she said. This was not a particularly thought-out plan, since repeating the formula from which she derived her speed would not increase it further. It was merely an instinct.

The being next to her resembled Superboy, but he was wearing a different costume, and his hair was the wrong color. "Who are you?" she asked.

"Match."

That was the last thing she heard, because immediately after he said it, he punched her in the face with super-human strength, knocking her unconscious.

******

The rain increased slightly, dampening the clothes of the combatants.

******

"By the eldritch forces at my command," Felix Faust chanted, "let there be a-"

He never finished his sentence, as Captain Atom, flying overhead, fired a blast of nuclear energy down at him. The ensuing explosion would likely have killed an ordinary human, but Faust had various spells guarding his person, and survived. However, between the various broken bones and bloody wounds that not even his wards had prevented, he was no longer in any shape to channel mystic forces.

******

The wind picked up slightly. It ruffled the hair of some of the people present, and capes rustled slightly.

******

Steel spotted a young woman in front of him, standing on a ramp of solid ice. Her entire body was a faded blue, as if she had been carved from a block of ice.

"Out of my way," he cried, swinging his hammer towards her.

She smiled, and gestured towards the hammer. Instantly, it became coated in a thick layer of frost, and when it hit her it shattered. Then she reached forward to touch his armor.

Frantically, Steel tried to fly away, but he was too late. His suit's joints locked in position, frozen, and the circuitry began to malfunction.

******

Now the rain beat down even more, and Clayface began to worry that it might eventually become enough to dissolve him.

******

Wonder Woman headed straight for Red Tornado. Nothing else really mattered, after all.

In front of her floated a man in purple armor. She remembered that he was Dr. Polaris, an old Green Lantern foe. He was in no way as powerful as her, so she didn't even bother to acknowledge him. He was of no consequence.

Only, suddenly, she jerked to a stop, her arms wrenching painfully behind her. After a second she realized why. Her bracelets were being held in place magnetically.

"You bastard," she screamed.

"I heard that if your bracelets were ever bound by a man, you'd lose your powers," Dr. Polaris said. "I wonder if magnetically counts?"

Wonder Woman thrashed in midair. "I'll kill you! You can't hold me!"

"Magnetism is one of the four fundamental forces of the universe. I think I can hold you long enough."

Diana snarled.

******

Another boom of thunder shook the battlefield.

******

Circe looked up at Geo-Force. "Hmmm... I think you'd make an excellent-"

But before she could do anything, she felt claws raking her back.

"You'll pay for that insolence!" she cried. Turning, she saw a young man, his face and hair a bright green color. Waving her hands, she transformed him into a green pig.

He promptly changed back.

Again, she transformed him, this time into a goat.

He was a man again within a split-second.

"How can you do that?" she asked.

"Long story." The green man shrugged. Then he kicked her in the gut, hard.

Vomiting, Circe leaned over, and her opponent clasped his hands together to deliver a blow to the back of her head. She went down, agony wracking her. It didn't end then, though. She felt him kicking her as she lay there, until she eventually slipped into blessed oblivion.

******

The rain increased yet again. The costumes worn by the combatants became unpleasantly damp.

******

Halo flew above the fray, and never saw the bullet that brushed the side of her skull. It knocked her out without doing anything more serious than drawing a bit of blood on her temple. A shot like that would have been impossible for all but a handful of people.

Deadshot was one of them.

Taking aim, he fired another shot, this one at Hawkgirl. She fell from the sky as well.

Suddenly, he found himself hauled into the air. A brunette in a white outfit held him.

Recognizing his captor, he counted himself lucky that she hadn't already squeezed the life out of him. With her strength, she could have easily managed it.

"What a month to lose my death wish," he muttered.

In reply, she smiled sweetly and said a single word.

******

Lightning split the sky.

******

"By my crown! Who dares stand before the monarch of Markovia?" Geo-Force hollered.

"The monarch of Vlatava dares!" said Count Vertigo.

"Good. For too long, I've soiled my hand with the blood of commoners."

Geo-Force said little else, as he promptly spun in mid-air, vomited, and plowed straight into the ground.

Vertigo didn't savor his triumph, for he saw within his field of vision a young girl falling, presumably to her death.

"Why does this keep happening to me?" he asked.

Then he flew over to catch her.

******

The wind had really picked up now, and capes were whipping dramatically.

******

"Nazi!" Alan Scott screamed. He forgot all about his mission to eliminate the Red Tornado as soon as his eye caught sight of a figure wearing the swastika.

Captain Nazi looked around. Whether he was being addressed by code name or simply affiliation, he didn't know, but he realized that he was the one being called. He caught sight of Sentinel seconds before Alan plowed into him, his blazing green aura lighting the entire battlefield.

Alan was enraged by the sight of the symbol of the Third Reich. Evil Sentinel may now have been, but that was an old hatred, and it ran deep.

Throughout the entire Second World War, in dozens of battles with German soldiers and super-villains, Alan Scott had never taken a single life.

That was an error he intended to correct.

******

Lightning split the sky again.

******

Vertigo saw the falling girl struck by lightning, and was briefly dumbfounded by the improbability of this. When his vision cleared a second later, he saw not a charred corpse, but Mary Marvel.

Mary Marvel also clearly saw him.

"Why does this keep happening to me?" he repeated.

******

The clouds rolled above the battle, billowing and blackening.

******

The Parasite had fed well. Already, he had absorbed Animal Man's strength. Now, he turned his attention to Geo-Force, who was crawling out of the crater his impact had formed.

As Parasite approached, however, the ground rose up around him, and he was swallowed whole by the very Earth.

Geo-Force's triumph was short-lived. Still dazed by Vertigo's assault, he was an easy target for Match, who descended upon him before he could return to the sky.

******

Now the sun was hardly visible. The only light that was cast on the battlefield was generated by the combatants themselves., yet it was still bright as day.

******

Wonder Girl could hardly believe it. She had hung back from the battle, and finding herself ignored by the former villains, she could now slip by undetected.

Or so she thought.

In reality, Spellbinder was casting the illusion that no one was paying any attention to her while the Trickster slowly approached her. Wonder Girl was fifteen feet above the ground but that didn't stop him; his shoes allowed him to literally walk on air.

As he arrived directly in front of her, he quickly whipped out a handkerchief soaked in chloroform, and covered her mouth.

Wonder Girl felt herself becoming suddenly lightheaded, and couldn't figure out why. "But no one's noticed me," she said, her voice inexplicably muffled.

Then she collapsed onto the ground below.

"Sorry, kid. You got conned," said the Trickster.

******

The rain beat down still harder, running into the eyes of the combatants.

******

Changeling was looking down at the fallen Circe and never saw the wave of water that crashed down upon him. Quickly turning into a fish, Garth swam inside the liquid form of New Wave.

After a second, he had a better idea. He became a squid, and shot ink throughout his living prison. New Wave quickly ejected him, and as he flew through the air, both combatants changed forms.

Changeling, now a bumblebee, turned to see a costumed woman with a mohawk. He prepared to shift to a more combat-capable form, but when he noticed the ink dripping out of her mouth, nose, and eyes, he realized he wouldn't have to. His opponent had made a costly error.

Or had she? Now she was getting up, only it wasn't her anymore, it was some sort of horrible nightmare creature... or Steve Dayton, angry at him... or the Titans, looking down on him because he was just a screw-up... or...

Changeling fell to the ground cowering.

Scarecrow ignored him, going instead to see if he could help New Wave.

******

Now lighting was shooting from the sky everywhere, jagged blue-white streaks against a pitch-dark backdrop.

******

Vertigo didn't stand a chance. Mary Marvel knocked him aside with one blow. He was unconscious before he hit the ground.

She soared towards the Red Tornado, intent upon finally ending this. Captain Atom flanked her on the right.

They were the only two agents of Ra's Al Ghul still active. Wonder Woman was being held captive by Dr. Polaris and Sentinel was occupied fighting Captain Nazi. All the others were unconscious.

But now, for some reason, Red Tornado was descending. The two villains exchanged a glance. Then they followed the android down.

The machine landed on the ground, and Mary plowed into him. But something was wrong. She felt suddenly drained, as if the strength was being sucked out of her.

Which it was. Because she had not collided with the Red Tornado after all. He remained far above her. Instead, she was grappling with the Parasite, who had used the power he had absorbed to free himself from Geo-Force's earthen prison.

It was over by the time Captain Atom arrived. His silver face was covered with a frown, as he attempted to make sense of what he had seen. From his perspective, Mary Marvel had had the life sucked out of her by the Red Tornado, which didn't make sense.

Standing nearby, Spellbinder felt beads of sweat pour down her brow. Maintaining an illusion of that quality for two people at once was no small feat, and even now that she no longer had to influence Mary, she felt exhausted.

But if the illusion dropped, Captain Atom would surely kill her. He was standing mere feet away.

Spellbinder prayed for her concentration to hold.

******

The winds howled.

******

Match looked down at Captain Atom. He didn't seem to be buying the ruse. The clone prepared to charge when he suddenly felt a prick in his chest.

Looking down at himself, he saw an arrow sticking out of him. It was glowing faintly green. Kryptonite.

"Oh man," he said.

Arrowette and Arsenal had arrived at the scene late, since they couldn't fly at supersonic speeds like their compatriots. But now that they had arrived, they were picking off the competition from a distance. Standing nearby was the Question, who was surveying the battle to see where he could be of use.

Arrowette had taken down Match with her first arrow, but Arsenal's attack upon Killer Frost proved less effective. Like Steel's hammer, his projectile shattered into icy shards upon contact.

Those single shots were all they had time for.

Match flew towards his attacker, the arrow protruding from his stomach.

"Don't you know Kryptonite can't hurt me?" he shouted as he approached. It was a rhetorical question, because he had dispatched the three of them a split second later.

******

The earth had dissolved into mud under the heavy rains, and the combatants on the ground had to carefully watch their footing now.

******

Captain Nazi was knocked back, again and again, by the pounding fists of Sentinel. His attacker's hands were bathed in green fire, burning the flesh of the German. Alan snarled something, but it was incomprehensible.

At last, Nazi reached out and grabbed Alan, pulling him close. Sentinel struggled, but could not escape the firm grip of his foe.

Then Captain Nazi flew straight down, as hard and as fast as he could.

******

Another thunderclap, the loudest one yet.

******

"Adams," came a very familiar voice. Captain Atom turned to see Wade Eiling. Not Eiling as he currently was, but Eiling as he had been years ago, when he had managed to ruin seemingly every facet of the life of Nathaniel Adams.

"Eiling," Captain Atom hissed, a murderous gleam in his eye.

But luckily for the general, that momentary distraction was all that was needed for Killer Frost to swoop in and freeze Captain Atom solid.

With Atom safely dispatched, Eiling seemed to melt as he reverted to the form of Clayface.

For a second, Parasite, Clayface, Killer Frost, and Spellbinder just looked around in silence.

"Who's left?" Parasite asked.

"I don't see anyone."

Scarecrow walked up to them then, followed shortly by the Trickster.

Half their number had been felled, but these half dozen villains had survived the battle. Above them, Dr. Polaris still held the struggling Wonder Woman. Weather Wizard and Red Tornado continued their work, influencing weather patterns worldwide to build the biggest storm the planet had ever seen.

"Did we... win?" asked Spellbinder.

"Yeah. Yeah, we won," Clayface replied.

The Trickster threw back his head and laughed. It was a sound of pure joy. "We did it. We actually did it. The rogues saved the world."

It was a moment all of them wished would last forever.

But reality has a way of interfering with such wishes. The moment was broken almost immediately by a disembodied voice. "Stnemecrofnier ot elttab," it said.

******

The sky poured down its fury.

******

Heroes were suddenly everywhere. The villains had been defeated by these men and women many times before, but this time that defeat would mean the end of civilization as they knew it.

There was Zatanna, of course. And the Ray. And Guy Gardner. And Atom-Smasher. And Firehawk. And Black Lightning. And Doll Man. And Impulse. And Tempest. And Blue Devil. And Katana. And Aquaman. And Damage. And Peter Cannon, Thunderbolt. And Moonbow. And Gunfire. And Troia. And Jade. And on and on and on. Dozens upon dozens of them.

Things did not look good.

"Alamo time, guys," Scarecrow said.


Chapter 7

The inner sanctum of Ra's Al Ghul

Everything had led to this moment.

The Arkham break-out had been orchestrated to confuse the Detective; give him a small mystery and he'll be too distracted trying to figure out why his foes have fled to even think of checking for the real plot Ra's was hatching. With the Dark Knight such an improbably persistent thorn in his side over the years, Ra's had felt the need to so arrange matters that Batman would have other concerns by, paradoxically, ensuring that he didn't.

With Batman thus (un)occupied, Ra's had turned his attention to the rest of the meta-human defenders of the status quo. It had been astonishingly simple to divert their attention. By having them face unfamiliar villains, they were forced to put all of their efforts towards reacting to new situations and developing effective strategies to counter foes they had never handled before. They were left with little time to spot the pattern in the attacks.

Then, finally, the time had come to release the virus. Ra's recalled that it had been dubbed "vile", but to him it was anything but. It was the last, best hope for a better world.

He had begun by infecting most of the prominent meta-humans. Originally, that had been to ensure that the heroes wouldn't concern themselves with stopping him, but now he had been forced to recruit those very heroes in a desperate attempt to preserve his plan.

Curse those scientists! A cure for the virus would ruin his hopes. But his foes had a most delicate time-table with which to operate. One chance was all they would have, when the Red Tornado had summoned the storms necessary to carry the antidote to the far corners of the globe.

That chance would arrive in mere moments, if Ra's forces did not stop the release. Half a world away, everything rested upon the actions of a handful of people. Ra's Al Ghul could only stand and wait, to see whether his forces would emerge victorious.

Within minutes, he would have his answer.


Chapter 8

Ground Zero

The villains stood back to back, as the massive hoard of super-heroes slowly closed in on them. Some of the heroes were unsheathing weapons; others were charging up powers; still more were simply smiling predatorily.

And then...

"Hi-yo, Emerald! Away!"

The strange and sudden yell shocked those on the battlefield. But its shock value paled in comparison to the stunning sight that came down from the sky.

Leading the way was a familiar figure astride a horse of emerald light. His costume was familiar, its complex green mask replaced by a simpler one, accentuated by the glowing green cowboy hat that rested on his head. Even if his costume was not the usual one, there was no doubt as to his identity as Green Lantern,.

Right by his side rode a "faithful Indian companion" of the same green light. Behind them was a widely varied posse of more green figures, all of them looking as if they had just stepped off a movie screen. John Wayne as Davy Crockett lead a small group of men in buckskins. A surprisingly good caricature of Teddy Roosevelt was blowing a loud bugle charge as he led a platoon of Rough Riders. There even appeared to be a small group of horse-riding Scotsmen, with a leader who didn't look that much unlike Mel Gibson as William Wallace.

And behind them came the rest of the cured heroes. Flying under their own power, or on green horses of their own, they rode into the battle as Green Lantern yelled once more.

"Hold on to your hats, folks! The cavalry has arrived!"

All the heroes who had been captured in recent days flew down from overhead, some on emerald steeds and others under their own power. Argus, Black Canary, Fire, Power Girl, Blue Beetle, Booster Gold, the members of the Inferior Five, Batman, Nightwing, Plastic Man, Elongated Man, Superboy, Mr. Terrific, the Atom, both Flashes, and of course Green Lantern. Cured of the virus, they now joined their former foes to stop Ra's plans.

"I never thought I'd be glad to see you," Scarecrow said to the Batman. The Dark Knight dismounted from the glowing green horse seconds before it disappeared into nothingness.

"What's the situation, Crane?" Batman asked.

"I think the Red Tornado's almost ready. If we can hold off the enemy forces for just another couple of minutes, we should be fine."

As sleet and hail poured down upon them, as lightning crashed from the sky, as the wind howled, the battle was once again joined.

Power Girl and Dumb Bunny battled back to back against the Titans.

Superboy, captured after his attempt to destroy Cadmus had failed, was joined by Match, the two clones fighting on the same side for the first time ever. Together, they grappled with CM3, dodging the lightning bolts he called down.

The Golden Age Flash took a break from keeping pace with Impulse's attempts to outmaneuver him, deciding instead to subdue Wildcat. His teammate's punches were far too slow to be effective against one of the fastest men alive.

Green Lantern created a green gag around Zatanna's mouth even as he dodged Peacemaker's bullets.

The Atom was little more than an irritant to Atom-Smasher, a gnat against a colossus. But Ray Palmer was only trying to distract Al; the real attack came from the Parasite, who grabbed the giant and began to absorb his strength.

Batman wielded a glowing green sword, provided courtesy of Green Lantern, as he dueled with his former teammate Katana. To fall here would mean a fate worse than death; her blade trapped the souls of those it killed.

Argus stepped out of the shadows to deliver a well-placed punch to the head of Geist.

Plastic Man, his face unusually grim, wrapped himself around the struggling figure of Robin. The Boy Wonder cursed his decision to leave the comfortable life he had set up for himself when he heard the offer to join Ra's Al Ghul's forces.

Mr. Terrific fought with nearly inhuman precision as he traded blows with Richard Dragon in an almost beautiful exchange.

The Scarecrow unleashed some of his gasses upon Nightshade, incapacitating her. He wondered what nightmares the woman who belonged to the shadows could possess, secretly hoping he would never find out.

Some of them had always borne the title "hero"; others were new to it. But as they struggled to contain Ra's forces, all of them displayed valor beyond question.

But they were outnumbered, and sometimes that's more important.

One by one, they began to fall. Spellbinder went down first, her illusions no match for Dr. Midnight. Then Elongated Man was overpowered by Risk and Joto. Fire's flames were unable to remain lit in the rain, just as Clayface found himself barely able to maintain cohesion, let alone the upper hand in battle. Nightwing, distracted by Firebrand, was too slow to dodge Vixen's claws. White Feather managed to wound the Creeper, but his maniacal adversary quickly gained the advantage and dispatched the archer.

"How much longer?" screamed Green Lantern above the howling winds.

"Just a few more minutes!"

"I don't think we can hold out that long!"

Suddenly, as if with one mind, many of the infected heroes turned to look above them. The Red Tornado was unprotected, and there were more than enough evil heroes present to occupy the android's defenders while a few attacked the main target. The battle with the cured heroes and infected villains was just a distraction.

The storm increased still further, until even the battle cries ("Shazam!" "I can, I must, I will!" "In brightest day, in blackest night...") could no longer be heard over it. Combatants had to squint to keep the water from obscuring their vision totally. But still it was not enough.

Some of Ra's recruits began to rise towards the heavens. The Ray, Northwind, Troia, Firehawk, and more. Nothing stood between them and the Red Tornado.

On the ground, the cured heroes and infected villains could only watch helplessly, too caught up in their own battles to interfere. Everything seemed lost.

And then, from out of the heavens, appeared a red and blue blur. It sailed towards the ascending infected heroes at unimaginable speed.

Superman had arrived.

And right behind him was a green and blue blur: the Martian Manhunter. And after him followed Captain Comet. They were three of the mightiest beings on the planet, trapped on the Watchtower since this crisis began, now cured and ready to join the good fight.

Within seconds, the trio floated between Ra's agents and the Red Tornado, at the heart of the gathering storm. Wind and rain whipped around them, but they didn't appear bothered by it in the slightest.

"I wouldn't advise coming any closer," Superman called, his mighty lungs enabling him to be heard even there.

If there was a reply, it was lost to the storm, but the agents of the Demon's Head paused.

For ten or fifteen seconds the tableau in the sky held. It is hard to believe that such a minuscule delay could be of any importance. But on such ten or fifteen seconds do empires rise and fall.

For at the end of that time, the storm had finally achieved the fervor necessary, and the Red Tornado seemed to explode as he released the antidote.

For an instant, the sky was filled with a swirling yellowish mist, as the antidote flew from the android's form. Microscopic nanites, only visible because of their high concentration, quickly dispersed, carried by the storms that the Red Tornado and Weather Wizard had summoned.

The nanites flew far, although it would take hours, if not days, for them to cover the globe. They replicated as they did so, and as they settled over the Earth, they were inhaled by the population. As those infected with the virus were cured, peace returned.

The marks of the Vile Virus would remain. There was much rebuilding to be done. Some things that had been destroyed were irreplaceable, and would now be lost to history. Injuries would need to heal, and some victims would never wholly recover. And there had been lives lost to this tragedy.

Yes, the Vile Virus was cured. Yes, there would be celebration. But there would also be mourning.

And then there were the memories. For people had seen themselves reduced to all that they abhorred, and for the rest of their days would carry knowledge of their actions during this crisis. Next to the lives lost, the Vile Virus' most mourned victim was innocence.

All that lay in the future, however.

As the antidote came to settle over the field of battle, heroes and villains alike began to cough. The sounds of fighting ceased. Now the battle that was going on was occurring within them.

It was over quickly and inevitably.

As the survivors looked around the field afterward, it became clear that they were uncertain what to do next. For amidst the assembled heroes, who had fought on both sides but were all once again dedicated to the cause of justice, stood three men.

The Scarecrow. Parasite. Match. Dr. Polaris.

The villains made their way over to stand together. To say that they were outnumbered would be an understatement.

"Do we fight them?" Parasite asked quietly.

"We're outnumbered," Match replied in an equally low tone.

"We've faced worse odds," Dr. Polaris added. "But... you know..."

He looked at the other two, and then the three of them looked at Crane. He held out his arms, a few centimeters apart, hands bent apart but with the inner wrists facing each other. They nodded in unison.

"Superman," Scarecrow called.

"Yes?" The Kryptonian's posture was wary, defensive.

"I think... I think that we want to surrender."

The Man of Steel could hardly contain his surprise. "You do?"

"They know they don't stand a chance," came a voice from the shadows.

"No, Batman," Scarecrow called. "If that was it, we'd go down fighting anyway. We've got appearances to keep up."

"Then why? I mean, the antidote did affect you, didn't it?" Superman asked.

"We were heroes today, Superman. We may never be again. And I think that we just want to go out that way, you know?"

"I'm sure that with your actions these past few days, you'd be more than welcome to reform. We'd have a place for you in the JLA if you did. All of you."

The Parasite snorted. "No. We're villains. But... not today."

Superman smiled. "No. Not today."

Scarecrow held out a hand, and Superman shook it.

"I was proud to have you on our side, Crane," Superman said. "You did good work."

"Yes. We did... good work." Scarecrow smiled beneath his mask. "Who would have thought?"

The last heroic gesture of the four villains at ground zero was repeated a surprising number of times around the world. Not by all of the villains, certainly, but by far more than expected.


Epilogue

Ra's Sanctum

"It is done, then." Ra's Al Ghul sat down upon his throne.

"Master?" Ubu asked.

"Yet again, my dreams of a better world have proven fleeting. I had such hopes, Ubu. Such hopes."

The giant approached his master. "You did not foresee this possibility?"

"No, I did not. Who would have thought the criminals would have it in them? They have failed so many times in the past, and now, when it was most crucial that they do so..." His voice trailed off into silence.

"What is your bidding?" Ubu asked.

"Nothing. This plan cannot be salvaged, I am afraid. Large-scale application of personality altering viruses are not the answer. Not yet, anyway."

"Then you believe the virus to have been a failure."

"Today, yes. But I have learned much about the workings of this virus upon the human mind. The entire world has served as my laboratory this day. Much can be done with the data I have gathered. Next time..."

There was a fanatical gleam in the eyes of Ra's Al Ghul as he stood once more. "Next time, I will save the Earth at last. Or the time after that. Or the time after that. We are in a race with mankind, to see if I can save the world before humanity destroys it, but it is a race that I shall win! I shall win because I know that I must, because I am the only hope the planet has!"

But who could ever believe that the only hope of the planet would be a villain?

THE END

David R. Black is Fanzing.com's magazine editor and chief archivist. A big fan of "The Warlord," he has a cat named Shakira and is looking for a girlfriend named Tara....

is an aspiring writer with a wife, child and dog. He is a closet libertine and thinks he can sing like Marvin Gaye...on his good days. Wishes he could write like Nelson Algren. He is also a contributor to our first comic book, "Fanzing Presents: Job Wanted", which can be purchased at Too Many Longboxes.com!

Fiction editor Nicolas Juzda is currently studying law in Saskatchewan. He fills the void that was left in his soul by contributing to Fanzing. He has twice been among the winners in the Bulwer Lytton Fiction Contest for bad writing.
AIM name: nwjuzda

Matt "Stars" Morrison is a college student in Arlington, TX. He is a staff writer for Fanzing and dreams of one day actually being paid to tell people his opinions.
ICQ: 61180234
Yahoo Messanger: starmanmatt

 
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"Eve of Destruction" lyrics are © Barry McGuire
Dr. Marie Martin is © 2001 David R. Black
Dr. William Stachowski is © 2001 D.J. LoTempio
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This piece is © 2001 by David R. Black, Nicolas Juzda, D.J. LoTempio, and Matt Morrison.
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