Too Many Long Boxes!
   
   

End of Summer
 

Vile Vial

Are You Interested
In The Watchtower?

by Michael Hutchison

RELEASE + 43 minutes.

The JLA Watchtower's lights came up as J'onn J'onzz the Martian Manhunter, Superman and Captain Comet teleported in.

"A colossal facility! I'm impressed. Earth certainly has advanced. I never thought you'd have made such advancements in teleportation tech while I've been away from Earth," Captain Comet commented as he gazed at the main room, nicknamed the Hall of Justice.

"The teleporters are a combination of Martian technology and other discoveries the League has made. They are not available for Earth's use yet," J'onn corrected, guardedly. Captain Comet had been one of the only other active heroes in the age before Superman's arrival, and yet they hadn't made any strong connections. J'onn knew Comet worked for L.E.G.I.O.N., an organization whose ethics he mistrusted. After all, they did employ Lobo, a psychopathic hired killer who was in many ways far worse than some of the colorful villains the League had jailed over the years.

"I can see why. You don't want this getting out!" Comet said, glancing at Superman. "Any villain would give up a vital organ just to get their hands on this. A device that can take Superman apart atom by atom and reassemble him? All they'd have to do is destroy the receiving pad and they'd have eliminated the Man of Steel without throwing a single punch."

Superman nodded, grimly. "You noticed that, did you? Most of the time I fly here and back. It's not so unsettling."

"The room is secured, Superman. Blast doors are sealed and the air cyclers are sectioned off. This section is now under quarantine. Go ahead and bring up the others," J'onn said as he continued to activate the controls. "I will begin emergency containment coordination. You'll need to handle the public addresses."

"After that...J'onn, I think we may need to open the secured Alpha files," Superman said with a tinge of hesitance. He activated the controls to bring up the other quarantined infectees.

On the platform appeared G'nort, the ex-Green Lantern. Vaguely canine, G'nort had been hanging out in the alley behind the Warrior's bar and restaurant ever since he'd lost his ring. He'd tagged along with Guy Gardner when they were bringing in Brainstorm. As an alien, he was unaffected by the virus.

Next came Hector Hammond. Like Adam "Captain Comet" Blake, Hammond was a "future human." Both men were mutations of evolutionary leaps that mankind may or may not over the coming millennia. But where Adam Blake was vital and strong, Hammond had developed a strong mind in a misshapen and immobile body. The differences between them had also affected the potency of the virus. Unlike Blake, who seemed to embody an age where man might be free from disease, Hammond was somewhat affected by the Vile Virus. Previously an arrogant, overbearing snob, he was now as earnest and helpful as a shoeshine boy. Nevertheless, the others had feared that the virus hadn't fully manifested itself in his modified DNA, and thus there was the danger that the virus would mutate further. Hammond mentally guided his floating chair off the platform.

Another crackle of energy. Shrapnel, who had been transformed from a human into a being of living pieces of metal, had just enough human DNA left in his system to possibly be infected. So far, he showed no signs of being pleasant or good.

Several more transports...several more individuals shown to temporary living quarters...and it was done. The JLA Watchtower was now a quarantine zone. All the inhabitants possessed DNA that the Vile Virus was attacking in order to fulfill its designed intentions. As the virus continued to attack their cellular structures, it would change and redesign into new forms...which would then have unseen effects on any further individuals to whom it may spread. The mere "ethical reversal" that had struck the others may seem like child's play when the virus fully affected them.

RELEASE + 1 hour, 27 minutes.

The coordination with emergency services had gone well. Viral outbreaks had become one of the great fears of the early 21st Century, and Superman had been impressed with the implementation of emergency containment procedures. Airports and other transport terminals had been locked down and swept, sporting and theatrical events canceled, conventions and trade shows postponed...all in hopes of avoiding a target for Ra's al Ghul's people. President Luthor had been briefed and had made a request for calm to the American citizens, assuring them that the Centers for Disease Control, LexCorp, S.T.A.R. Labs, WayneLabs and others had all begun feverishly working on virus solutions. Then Luthor turned the global feed over to Superman, who made the big announcement.

"What this virus does is, for lack of a better term, damage the brain's ethical/social more centers. People concerned with the common good and obeying the law become antisocial and selfish. The only good news we have is that, in reversing this part of the brain, it also causes the criminals and deviants to become positive and productive citizens. The creator of this virus thought of that as a negligible side effect, as our society's breakdown of good vs. evil is hardly a 50/50 split. If all the decent, law abiding citizens of our nations began acting like soccer hooligans, the reformed criminal element would hardly be big enough to keep order," Superman said, hoping he wouldn't lose anyone with the scientific talk.

" Most of the metahuman crimefighting element as well as the costumed criminals were infected during an outbreak at the Belle Reve Metahuman Containment Center in Louisiana earlier today. A complete list of the infected heroes and infected villains is being faxed and e-mailed to every law enforcement and news organization on the planet."

Superman took a deep breath. "This is difficult for me to say...so I'll just say it: if you see a superhero that you know, don't trust him or her. For the duration of this emergency, they should be considered hostile unless you've confirmed his or her status on this list. Also, most of the costumed criminals are now acting like upstanding members of the law enforcement community, and for this reason I have made them into a special Justice League Task Force. Again, their status can be confirmed on the published lists. I know it's going to be difficult for you to trust people who are infamous convicted thieves and even murderers, but their present behavior is genuine...and they are the best chance we have to contain the stray superheroes. We need them right now."

"One last thing. If you are the family member of a metahuman crimefighter, it would be best if you sought shelter someplace where they can't find you. We don't know what effects the virus will have on their relationships to those who were close to them. For your sake, you should go into hiding until we know more."

RELEASE + 1 hour, 54 minutes.

"Stupid books!" Ron Raymond shouted, hurling his textbooks at his step-mother, Felicity Smoake-Raymond. Ronnie continued to rant as he paced around the dorm room. "All I ever do anymore is study, study, study! Obviously, plain ol' jock me is not good enough for anyone. What good is Firestorm if I don't have some professor stuck in the back of my head giving me the formula for everything!?"

Felicity glanced around to see if anyone else had heard Ronnie giving away his double-identity. The hall appeared to be empty. She frantically scanned for Ronnie's father to appear from parking the car.

"Ron, calm down, Ron! If you're going to be abusive, we're leaving," she shouted back at him as she deflected a chemistry book. "You've obviously been drinking again!"

"Noooooo, I haven't been drinnnnnkinnng!" he taunted. "Did it ever occur to you that maybe I'm just not made for college? That maybe I'm never going to learn chemistry and physics because I'm just a dumb jock and that's all I'll ever be?"

"What's going on here!" Ed Raymond shouted, entering the room and seeing the mess. "Ronnie, what's gotten into you? Have you been drinking?"

"Gah!" Ron screamed before flaming into life as Firestorm. There was a quick burst of flame that seemed to fill the room and then disappear before it could harm anything. Ed and Felicity brought their hands back down from their faces to see that their son had vanished through the melted window.

"Felicity, what's going on? Ron's always been moody, but I've never seen him like that," Ed said, looking at his wife's singed hair to make sure she wasn't hurt.

RELEASE + 1 hour, 59 minutes.

"All of our friends are now dangers to their loved ones, should they return to their secret identities," Superman said when he and J'onn J'onzz were alone. "Furthermore, some of them may be in hiding by returning to their private lives. I hate to do it...but this necessitates the use of the Alpha files."

"I disagree. They should remain secured. Previously, the League and other superteams have vanished, been possessed by foreign intelligences, bodyswapped, hurled out of space and time...and yet the Alpha files have not been used," J'onn protested. "Why should we resort to them now? I believe the Alpha file amendment of the League Charter does not mention this situation...only death or prolonged absence."

"Oh really? The vast majority of good superheroes turned evil, a deadly virus threatening the whole planet, and you don't think it's a great enough danger to warrant accessing the files?" Superman asked. "I understand being hesitant..."

"What you are asking..." J'onn spat, "is for us to violate the privacy of our friends and associates. As both Batman and I have found, this is hardly regarded as a small thing. We gathered the information as a last resort...as information to be released upon our deaths or in the event of a great tragedy such as the Dominator gene bomb. You fled the solar system shortly after that, so you don't realize the calamity that brought about the building of the files. When we returned to Earth with the cure, we were informed of what had happened."

"What had happened?" came a voice from the door to the chamber. Both men spun to see Captain Comet leaning on the door. "Sorry, I only heard the last part of the conversation. What are you talking about?"

J'onn wondered if Comet was able to mask the sounds he made...or if the argument had just gotten so heated that neither he nor Superman had heard him. "We are debating the accessing of confidential information on the secret identities of Justice League members, reservists and other costumed adventurers who have entrusted us with important contact data in case of emergency."

"When Earth fought the Dominator's Alien Alliance, a bomb infected all metahumans on Earth. Superheroes and supervillains by the hundreds lay dying in a medical facility...and we were presented with a crisis. We had to prevent their unmasking by government agents, the press and other spies. At the same time, the loved ones of those people could not be informed...and those who DID know the secret identities couldn't visit them in the hospital. Sue Dibny, the wife of a JLA member named Elongated Man, was the only one who had access as his ID was common knowledge. She confided to us that she had been approached by the ex-wife of Black Lightning, who had recognized her. She and others wanted to visit their own family members, yet couldn't. It was finally decided that Sue alone would be allowed to gather the confidential information, verify it and allow the applicants private access. Sue had been a member of the JLA's support staff and already knew a fair number of secret identities. She managed to weed out a few spies trying to sneak in..."J'onn said, shooting a sly glance at Superman, "including a reporter from the Daily Planet who tried to pose as Green Flame's sister."

Superman continued. "The Justice League organization decided to give Sue the task of assembling and encrypting confidential data on all willing superheroes so that, in the event of their death, corruption or other calamity we could notify their next of kin. Sue was perfect for the job, because no one would ever suspect that she'd be given such information. The data became known as the Alpha Files and they are stored so securely that only Mr. Miracle, designer of the containment system, could retrieve them without authorization. Not even Batman. The records will self-destruct if tampering is even suspected."

"And you need to use them now, of course. Seems obvious," Captain Comet concluded. "It would probably save lives and help to corral some of the corrupted heroes."

"The only problem is that one of us, if not both of us," J'onn said, "will have learned the secret identities of almost all the superheroes in the world. They may be cured in a few days, but there's no way to purge the knowledge. The data can only be accessed from the Watchtower, so Sue Dibny cannot do it."

"So? If you can't trust Superman, who can you trust?" Comet said.

"I wish that was the case, but I've been mentally controlled any of a few dozen times. Brainiac or Parasite, for example, could learn all that I know. J'onn is just as trustworthy...but he encounters telepathic attackers all the time."

Captain Comet mulled this over. "On the L.E.G.I.O.N. Team we have a new recruit named Plasfire. What almost no one knows is that he is in reality Tikron Nasdul'k of Vicros IV. What do you think of that?"

"It doesn't mean anything to me," J'onn said. "I've never even heard of the planet."

"Exactly. And I feel the same way about Earth identities, having lived off planet for so long. If you'd like me to access the files, I can make whatever calls or measures you want me to take, and then I'd seal it up again. I'll be 37 light years away the week after this problem is solved," Captain Comet offered. "It makes no difference to me. I hardly know any of the heroes who were at Belle Reve, and I don't have a personal stake in knowing their real names."

J'onn and Superman discussed it at a sound level that was sub-audible.

"I'm glad you agree!" Comet said. The two looked at him. "Did you think human ears wouldn't be better in the future?"

RELEASE + 2 hours, 14 minutes

Superman, Captain Comet and the Martian Manhunter went to an alcove adjacent to the Hall of Justice. There, Superman entered several keypad entries allowing a series of doors to open. Finally, they revealed a self-contained computer console.

"You now have access to the Alpha Files mainframe," the computer's voice said. "Access to the Alpha Files requires authorization from three Justice League members. Membership must be Level One Active and must be established before the unlocking of the Alpha files. Justice League members added to the database within the last 20 days will not be eligible, nor will any members added after an unsuccessful access."

"Shoot," Superman muttered. "I forgot about that. We don't have three members. Now we're locked out."

"You couldn't even swear me in now, could you?" Comet asked. The others didn't answer.

"All other Level One Active members are corrupted by the Virus," J'onn said, then withdrew into silence. His eyes stared into space while he searched for options. "There is a back door. We cannot draft a new member...but we can change the status of an existing member from 'Reserve' to 'Level One Active' and see if the computer will accept it."

"Oracle?" Superman asked.

"No, she can't do it remotely. That's one of the most basic defenses against hackers. But we do have an old member," J'onn said. Flying away in a sudden burst of speed, he returned with his quarry in tow.

" Last time I was in the League I didn't even get access to the fridge!" G'nort protested.

"It doesn't matter. You were a member of Justice League Antarctica. And even though you're inactive...and powerless...and an inept disgrace...you're still a member of the Justice League," J'onn elaborated as he pulled up a spare terminal and began typing. "All we have to do is change your status to 'Active' and then bump your authorization up to Level One."

"All right! The Big Time! Bumpin' me up from Two?" G'nort asked, looking pleased.

J'onn sighed as he imprinted the authorization. "G'nort, there are people who've saved entire continents who don't get to be Level Two."

"Whattaya mean? I saved a continent!"

"Exactly," J'onn answered...knowing full well the semantic argument went well over the doggish alien's head. "Now, this level requires a password. You'll have to enter one now. Just speak into the mic."

"Mike who?"

"The microphone...there," J'onn corrected.

"I can't."

"Yes, you can. Just ennunci - er, speak clearly. The microphone will record your audio for future confirmation."

"No, I can't!" G'nort protested. "I can't say it here. You'll know what my super-secret double-dog password is."

"It doesn't matter. You won't use the password unless we're present," Superman offered.

"Yeah, but I use the same password for everything. If you know it...you'll be able to get into my online trading account!" G'nort protested.

"I think I see why the tech boom went bust," J'onn muttered. He turned back go G'nort. "Fine. You speak into the microphone and we'll go into the other room."

"Don't you all have super-hearing?" G'nort asked.

RELEASE + 2 hours, 26 minutes

**I cannot believe how fast you caved into that idiot** J'onn sent telepathically to Superman as the three of them floated in the vacuum outside the Watchtower. J'onn checked the seal on Captain Comet's spacesuit.

**I believe all beings deserve respect, J'onn, including him. Besides, I've been dealing with concerns of privacy ever since I revealed I could see and hear almost everything within an atmosphere. I can understand his anxiety,** Superman sent back along the mental link.

**Still, this seems a little overboard. None of us would have misused his password,** Comet said, looking through the bubble to see if G'nort was finished. He appeared to be deep in thought by the keyboard.

Superman shook his head. **You say that now, but we don't know what the Vile Virus might do to us when it infiltrates our cellular structures.**

**My, yes. With such vital information at our disposal, we could use his E-trade account to buy 32 bucks' worth of Phillip Morris!** J'onn griped.

Superman glanced at G'nort and said nothing for a moment. Finally he turned to J'onn and said, **You know, J'onn, you become a whole different person when he's around.**

**Oh? How so?**

**Just this wry humor streak that surfaces. You never struck me as a comedian.**

**Really? On Mars, I once opened at the H'amarsh Kanarra.**

**What's that translate to, J'onn?**

J'onn raised an eyebrow. **Def Comedy Jam**

RELEASE + 2 hours, 29 minutes

In a lonely corner of the Watchtower, a terminal lit up and a remote computer accessed the building internal sensors. Thirty seconds later, a nearby transporter pad came to life and a dark figure stepped out. A handheld device activated hidden devices in the walls which buffered telepathic probes. Leaping to the terminal, Batman began tapping into the system and removed traces of his access. Then he began to lock down the section of the Watchtower and open the connecting sections to vacuum so that Superman wouldn't hear him...and saw that it had already been done.

Batman began his plans.

RELEASE + 2 hours, 38 minutes

G'nort greeted the trio as they entered through the airlock.

"I'm glad you saw me waving. I finished ten minutes ago. Why didn't you come in after I said my password?" G'nort asked.

Exercising his red sun-powered super-patience, Superman calmly explained, "Because, G'nort, we couldn't hear you say your password."

"Well...if you couldn't hear me say my password, why'd you go outside?" G'nort asked, turning to shuffle into the other room.

J'onn made to throttle him, but Superman and Captain Comet grabbed his arms and held him back. J'onn calmed down, then looked at the two people restraining him. "Strange...I'm getting a strong sense of deja vu from this pose."

Superman took over. "All right, G'nort. You're set up at full membership. Please put in your password and then we'll be finished."

"What password?"

"The password you just put in."

"Ummmm," G'nort hummed, rubbing his jaw, "I forgot what it was."

"Think!" Superman shouted, his voice echoing in the chamber.

"Oh, I remember now. Wait, if I say it aloud, you'll hear it," G'nort protested.

"Ready at your elbows whenever you need us," J'onn murmured to Superman from behind a raised hand.

RELEASE + 2 hours, 49 minutes

Captain Comet left the others to work on procuring the Alpha files. Meanwhile, he entered the Monitor Womb and began following the reports of villain sightings.

Three minutes into the information overload, a floating green mask appeared. "Oh! You're not Superman. The profile threw me for a moment. You're...Captain Comet?" it asked in a synthesized feminine voice.

"Yes. I hope you won't be offended if I get right to the point and ask for identification," Comet said. "I'm a little unfamiliar with JLA procedures."

"Oracle. I'm the key tech support for the League," the mask said. "I've been keeping tabs on the people in my little corner of the world and thought I'd report in. I'm going to need some help corralling them."

"Go ahead and report verbally. I have been blessed with an eidetic memory," Comet mentioned as an afterthought.

The mask giggled at this. "All right, here's what I've got so far. Blue Beetle has been spotted in his Bug ship, but only visually. He's succeeded in cloaking it from screens and has even disabled the JLA tracker. I don't know what he's up to yet, but it could be big. Do not underestimate this guy. He's a genius, even if he hides it. He could commit some serious trouble unless he hooks up with an old buddy of his who is something of a drag on his professionalism. This cohort is named Booster Gold and would be a minor menace except that he was something of a scheming con man before exposure to the virus, so who knows what he'll be like now!"

"Batman and his two closest associates, Robin and Nightwing, are untraceable. And believe me, if anyone is in a better position to know, I'd like to meet him. They've not returned to their private lives or hideouts. I'm still looking for them."

"Black Canary...I'm dealing with personally. Have some personnel ready to haul her in when I trap her. Got it?"

"Roger Wilco," Captain Comet said.

"It's been a long time since I heard that expression!" Oracle said.

"I suppose it's been even longer since I learned it," Comet mused, wondering if he should mention that he was over 70. "Is that it for your list?"

"Hardly. I have leads and leads, but nothing definite. Firehawk and Phantom Lady have apparently teamed up in Washington, but the police lost sight of them. The JSA members aren't at their present headquarters; I'm checking on their past haunts. The Atom phoned himself into the N.Y.S.E. computer and wreaked a lot of havoc when he made Salon.com worth three times as much as Microsoft stock, then plummet to almost nil...but he fled and I don't know where he is now. He could be in my modem right now for all I know," Oracle said, then fell silent. Just as Comet began to worry that she'd been hit, the mask's animation began again. "I hate to do it, but I've begun running a scourer on my line. It may harm the speed of my connection, so if I disappear..."

"Understood."

"Oh! Shares in Verner Brothers Communications just tanked on the Nikkei. No apparent reason why, so I may have a lead on The Atom. If you make contact with the Justice League Task Force, see whom they might have available in the way of computer people. The Thinker, Bug and Byte, Velvet Tiger...if they've reformed and have tech skills, I want 'em!" Oracle said.

"Verner Brothers tanked? Oh, my god, I've lost my life's seventeen bucks!" G'nort moaned, entering the Monitor Womb. "I have to log onto my Lex*Trade account and put the remainder into penny stocks before I'm living on the street more than I already am!"

"Hello, G'nort. I'm Oracle," the mask stated, turning to face him. "I've opened up a line to Lex*Trade so you can log in on that terminal over there...although I should warn you that the cautious investor tends to ignore the day-to-day shifts and turns of the market and waits for the long hau--"

"All riiiiiiiight! G'nortorino is going to play the market for a while. Go ahead and get back to what you were doing," G'nort said, his blank eyes already glossing over with dreams of money.

"Oracle," Comet asked, observing the whole interchange that had taken place, "how powerful are the communication systems here? Could they reach L.E.G.I.O.N. headquarters on Cairn? If I can get hold of a certain Coluan scientist, we might be closer to a cure to the Vile Virus."

RELEASE + 3 hours, 22 minutes

"Hello, my dear fellow!" an echoey voice said as G'nort signed off the Internet. G'nort spun to see a man with a giant noggin floating in a chair. Beside him, a spectral copy of his head was talking.

"Ahhh! More floating heads!" G'nort said, jumping behind a chair.

"Come out! I won't hurt you. That's it. I used to have dogs in my youth. Come come! You've nothing to fear from me. I'm sure we'll be best friends. My name is Hector Hammond," the ectoplasmic face said courteously, bowing slightly. On the chair, Hector Hammond's immobile body stared into space. Literally, given the stars glittering outside the clear dome.

"Pleased to meetcha, Hec! Name's G'nort. Used to be one'a the Green Lantern Corps. Now I'm just a.........hm. Dunno. Uh. Just a G'nort, I guess."

"You were a Green Lantern?" Hector asked. "YOU were a Green Lantern?! Impossible!"

"No, really. Had the ring, the lantern, the oath an' everything!"

The ectoplasmic head spluttered with rage. "Of all the outrageous...! After years of that self-righteous prig arrogantly denying me the power, and then they just give it to a canine simpleton! Oh! If Green Lantern hadn't had the decency to off himself I'd save him the trouble right now!"

"You knew Jordan? Cool," G'nort said, oblivious to the seething fury boiling off of Hammond's avatar.

"Er, ah, yes. Sorry," Hammond muttered, recovering his composure. "I bear no ill will towards the late Green Lantern, although past hatreds apparently survive the change in attitude. You see, before the recent viral outbreak I was a villain...the greatest of his foes."

"Really?" G'nort asked, slurping chocolate Yoo-Hoo through a straw. "Huh. He never mentioned you."

"What!" Hector exploded again. His ectoplasmic head swelled and shimmered. "He must have! No greater menace was there for Green Lantern than Hector Hammond, the future man!"

"Nah, never heard that name before. *Slurrrrrrrp!* I'd remember. "

"Well...perhaps you just didn't pay attention. Or maybe he was just quiet about it. After all, who...heh...who needs to waste time talking about past battles when one has a power ring? He must have just been too busy with new adventures to talk about his deadliest foes."

G'nort considered this and continued slurping noisily from the bottle. "Nah. He talked all the time. That guy, he's a talker, that one. Talk, talk, talk. Sinestro this, my girlfriend that, the ugly wizard guy sank California, the guy with tattoos knocked over a building, Puppetmaster had puppets doing puppety things. I don't remember the specific stories, unnerstan', but I sure do remember him talking. Lots of stuff about his foes. Wait, do you talk a lot in tiresome cliches?"

The spectral head shook. "No, that's Black Hand. He talks in tiresome cliches."

"Oh. Then yeah, he didn't mention you. I don't think. Ummm...lessee...uh, Evil Star, the Baron guy, Doctor Ub'x the killer beaver, Sonar, Flicker...um...that one Magnet Guy...um, the WeaponGuys of Qwartz. That one renegade Guardian of the Uneeverse, Appa Ali Alpo..." G'nort rattled off the names as best he could.

"And he never mentioned me? Oh, that burns my britches. I don't know how, I don't know when, but somehow he'll get what's coming to him. Who does he think he's messing with? He'll rue the day! I'll dig up his grave and kick his ass! Nobody slights Hector Hammond and gets away with it!"

G'nort's suspicions were aroused by this fit. He listened to Hammond's rant, mulled over the words and thought very, very hard. An idea began to form in his head. "Wait a minute!" he said, jabbing his finger at Hammond. "I see what's going on here! I'm not an imbecile!"

Sweat began to drip down Hammond's brow.

G'nort bared his fangs and leaned into Hammond's face. "You're Black Hand, ain'tcha?!"

RELEASE + 3 hours, 41 minutes

"I see it now, Adam. You're right, it's definitely a programmable virus...a combination of biomechanics and bioengineering. This optical burst which kept the virus from spreading wasn't a decontaminant, but more a signal to the virus software to stop replicating. Are you sure this is Earth-based? If you hadn't told me, I'd say it was Psion or Khundian in origin," Dox said from the lab where he was getting the first transmissions from Earth's moon.

"It definitely is Earth-based. There's nothing in the background of Ra's al Ghul that gives credence to his use of a non-human solution to humanity's problems. I read through the JLA's dossier on him and it seems extremely unlikely that he'd use alien tech. Ego is very much a part of his profile. If you were to drop a complete plan for destroying the human race in his lap, he would probably turn up his nose at it because it's not his," Captain Comet reported over the interstellar link.

"A simple yes would do, Captain," Dox chided, not glancing away from his analysis. "In that case, I can still try the cures we have for existing biomechanic viruses but this might take more work to crack. I'll find some human tissue to test and get back to you in ten standard hours. Dox out."

With that, L.E.G.I.O.N.'s lab resources began work on a cure for the Vile Virus.

RELEASE + 3 hours, 52 minutes

"And that's check!" Hammond exclaimed, moving his knight into position. "The game is nearly over. There are several moves from this position, but they'd be known only to grandmasters."

"Huh. Okay. Uh. My knobby guy goes in the corner, and 'King Me!'" G'nort exulted, moving his piece. In just a half hour, the two of them had become best buddies.

"Yes. I think there has been a failure on my part to convey the full nature of this game. This move is exemplary, in that it could not be any more completely wrong. You misidentified your bishop, which is in any case blocked, and even when free they do not move like that. Furthermore, you have moved it too many spaces, and in the wrong direction, and you've mistaken the side as my end of the board. Plus you've chewed on your bishop, and you seem to think we're playing checkers. Congratulations. You have managed to invent a whole new way to, as they say, suck."

"Uh-huh. So, uh, do I get to move forward and backwards now?" G'nort asked, quite hopeful.

"Oh, G'nort, my dear G'nort. You make me wish I had the mobility to hold the bridge of my nose between my fingers and shake my head," Hector lamented.

"Happy to oblige, Hec," G'nort said, gripping the nose on Hector's body.

Concerned, Hammond glanced from his body to the alien. "Not that I don't appreciate your casual touch, G'nort, but notice how my head is beginning to turn blue? I think you're squeezing too hard."

"Sorry."

"Not at all, G'nort. I realize you can't really help it, can you? After all, you were born this way. I wonder...is it because of the smaller brainpan? Or could it be cultural?" Hector asked. He quickly saw that G'nort had no clue that they were discussing his intelligence...which only caused Hammond to revise his estimate downward. "What I'm asking is...is everyone on your planet as smart as you?"

"Nah, I'm a lot smarter than a lot of people. I don't do drugs, f'r one thing..."

"That's wise of you, G'nort."

"...an' I'm not easily distracted."

"I see. So, my suggestion that we play chess didn't make you forget how I was acting earlier?" Hammond asked, as nonchalantly as possible.

"Chess is a what now?" G'nort asked blankly.

"Good."

RELEASE + 4 hours, 1 minute

Superman flew into the Monitor Womb to see that Captain Comet and Oracle were comparing more notes. "The Alpha files are now ready. I had no clue how complicated they'd be to retrieve."

"Thank you, Superman. I'll get started in a moment. Oracle has an updated list of the whereabouts of some heroes. Green Lantern looks to be the biggest problem. He's generated his own mountain in the Himalayas. The problem won't be finding him...it's 'who wants to go up against him?' as you might imagine," Comet conceded. "I daresay you, J'onn and I would have a hard time of it, and we're up here for the duration."

"I agree. I'll get in touch with the Justice League Task Force," Superman said, taking a computerized clipboard from Comet, "and see who could begin tackling the problems."

RELEASE + 4 hours, 5 minutes

"G'nort, I've been examining your mental activity telepathically," Hammond said. "I hope you don't mind."

"If I knew what you just said, I'd probably still not mind," G'nort said, licking his chess piece.

"Oddly enough, your mental patterns are remarkably similar to those of the Earth canine."

"Makes sense. Our greatgreatgreatgreat-whatever-grandmother came from Earth about 800 years ago," G'nort said, dipping a snausage into his glass of milk. "This country on Earth shot a pregnant dog into space in this teeny metal capsule, and it went into this time/space swirly thing. And the radiation did something to her, because by the time the capsule emerged in orbit around G'newt, she'd become this humanoid."

"Astounding! Evolution within a pre-existing lower lifeform...exactly what happened to me" Hammond shouted, delighted at the discovery.

"So she splashes down and gives birth to the great dog race of G'newt!" G'nort finished.

"...and generations of inbreeding explain why you're so intellectually uninclined for an advanced humanoid. Yes yes, it all makes sense!" Hammond said.

"Uh-huh. Something like that."

"G'nort. Forgive me for my rudeness, but you must see that we're practically brothers. Earth creatures who have leapt eons ahead on the evolutionary ladder, far ahead of the lesser species of Earth. You and I can explore this further. No one has studied the science of the developed brain more than I have, and I have been analyzing your mental faculties. I could, through telekinesis, reshape the mental pathways of your mind so that you don't have all of the...er...misfirings that you have now. It would make you smarter."

"Smarter than I am now? Wow. Would I be as smart as you?" G'nort asked.

"Highly unlikely. But you'd be as smart as a normal human...or, at the very least, a movie producer."

"Hey, it sounds like fun!" G'nort said, setting his glass down and slopping milk all over the computer terminal.

"Ironically, once I finish you'll probably have enough brains to say no to such a dangerous and risky operation," Hammond said with a smile.

RELEASE + 4 hours, 27 minutes

"Ma, I just wanted to make sure you're okay," Superman said from within the League's secure communication center. The soundproofed, psi-proofed walls kept out spies who might pry important information from a Justice Leaguer in a private moment.

"Your father and I are fine. They've been interrupting 'C.S.I.' with news reports on this outbreak. As far as we can tell, Kansas isn't even under a threat. We're remote enough that if any outbreaks occur, we can hole up here in plenty of time," Martha Kent said over the phone.

"Actually, if it gets to that," Superman said, the worldwide menace weighing on him, "I want you and Pa to go to the old toolshed. There's a loose piece of cement in that cracked old floor. Lift it up and you'll find a small red and blue box with a yellow button on it. Depress it and stand on the cement, and I'll beam you up to the Watchtower's uninfected quarantine zone. You'll be safe there. If anyone asks, you're a favor for my old buddies Clark and Lois Kent."

"Gotcha. Will Lois be there, too, if the worst happens?"

"She's a reporter, Ma. If there's an outbreak, she'll probably be on the scene. I may be able to juggle a Space Shuttle, but there's no way I could get her to run from danger just because I don't want to see her hurt. I made peace with that a while ago."

"No you didn't, you just say that," his mother said. "I know Lois. What else can you do?"

RELEASE + 4 hours, 31 minutes

Captain Comet finally broke away from the work in the Monitor Womb and went to the terminal J'onn had set up for access to the Alpha files. He pulled up the entry screen and typed in the password Superman had given him. The first list of entries appeared on the screen.

As the data for "Animal Man" popped up, a horrifying scream echoed down the corridor. Comet locked out the terminal and raced off to find its source.

In the middle of the JLA's arboretum, J'onn J'onzz clutched at himself while his skin bubbled, popped and shifted like a lava lamp. Comet, G'nort and Hector Hammond all raced through the door and leapt back from the sight of the Martian's plight.

"I came here...to center myself. Lost control! The virus is...uht...attacking my mutagenetic structure. Can't...can't...can't..." J'onn stammered, falling over. Captain Comet caught him and looked up to see Superman flying into the room.

"I'm so sorry. I couldn't hear you within the secure room! Is he all right, Adam?" Superman asked.

"I'm...I'm better now, Superman. Please send the others away. I need to...to discuss something," J'onn said with difficulty. His skin continued to shift and bubble, but less severely.

The others withdrew.

"I've been so concerned with tracking the Leaguers and overseeing the Task Force, I'd almost forgotten that we too are infected, Clark. We're all infected," J'onn repeated, locking gazes with Superman.

"Of course. All this talk of the Alpha Files falling into the wrong hands, and we never realized that that might be our hands!" Superman said, surprised as the thought came to him. "Captain Comet is fine now, but the virus may get to him eventually. After all, Hector Hammond is a future man and he was affected."

"Are you certain he's fine now? Consider," J'onn said, "that the virus struck Hammond without manifesting any flu symptoms. If the same happened to Captain Comet, he could use his advanced intelligence to disguise himself as an unaffected man and infiltrate our operations here. And so far he's hypothesized a way to kill you and volunteered to be placed in charge of information on all Earth superheroes, all very innocently."

"Hmmm. Let's get him off the Alpha Files project and tell him we decided to focus our attack in another direction. Watch him like a hawk, and beware; we've no idea what he's up to, yet, but he could try to kill us in an unguarded moment." Superman hated thinking ill of a fellow hero, but the situation was getting grimmer. He flew off to catch Comet before he could access the files.

RELEASE + 5 hours, 13 minutes

"Are you sure now is the best time to do this, whut with that ruckus J'onn made?" G'nort asked, as Hector Hammond floated over his medical bed.

"Absolutely, G'nort. If your intelligence is boosted, you can help us find a cure to the virus," Hector Hammond said. He began telepathically examining G'nort's brain, fine tuning it here and there.

RELEASE + 6 hours, 2 minutes

"Superman, I've been over all the information we have available, and there have been no more sightings. If they're making criminal plans, I imagine it will take some time to formulate. Perhaps we should try the information in the Alpha files, see if any of them have returned to their loved ones..."

"No, Adam. We'll keep at it this way. If you're getting tired, you can catch some Zs and I'll take over monitor duty for a while." Superman acted nonchalant about it as he took over in the Monitor Womb, but Captain Comet stopped before leaving.

"You no longer trust me, do you, Superman?" Comet stated as a fact.

"J'onn and I simply fear that any one of us could succumb to the virus, and we are trying to prevent any vulnerabilities. That's all."

Comet considered this.

"By the way, if you see G'nort and Hector Hammond, please tell them their guest rooms are ready," Superman said.

"Yeah, sure. They're probably still in the rec room playing games. I overheard a bit of their conversation earlier. It turns out that G'nort is actually evolved from human dogs, so the three of us have something in common!" Comet said with a chuckle. "They've probably lost track of the time."

RELEASE + 6 hours, 19 minutes

G'nort had fallen asleep in a ball by the door to the medical bay. Hammond watched him, making mental notes on his progress.

G'nort stretched and made some woofing sounds, then muttered in his sleep. "A squared plus B squared equals C snrxxzm." A loud snore, then more muttering. "An object in motiosnrxxfsm."

"Excellent!" Hammond said with a grin. His mentally projected head furrowed for a moment until he could conjure up projections of hands, which he then steepled together and wiggled. Spinning his chair, he glided out of the room and went to get some sleep.

RELEASE + 11 hours, 24 minutes

Batman finished his rewiring of the JLA systems and took some time to review his priorities.

Catwoman had been contacted. He'd composed a note to leave for Superman when it was time for him to abandon the tower. He'd created a separate communications band that would not be registered on the League's instruments. He'd monitored all of Oracle's reports and used her information to coordinate his fellow renegades.

And he'd talked with Ra's. At last, he could comprehend Ra's objectives and viewpoint, and he would be permitted to remarry Talia. Playing a role in the spread of the Vile Virus was all Ra's asked for.

If he could use the JLA's teleporters freely, he might have the virus dropped across the globe in minutes. But teleporters used up too much energy to go unnoticed.

Batman crumpled the note to Superman and began a new plan. When finished, Superman would not be in any condition to read a note.

RELEASE + 1 day, 9 hours, 47 minutes

The day had gone badly. Numerous encounters between renegade heroes and reformed villains had flared up, with only a few renegades on the "captured" list and Rising sun being the most powerful. L.E.G.I.O.N. had contacted Captain Comet to report on the status of their investigations, and so far they hadn't come up with a cure or a vaccine. Tensions were worsening between Captain Comet and Superman, who continued to rebuff Comet's requests for information and leave him out of important discussion.

Captain Comet finished his analysis of the day's reports and gave copies to Superman and J'onn. "So far, there does not appear to be any pattern to the crimes that are occuring...and the lack of sightings of the biggies like Wonder Woman, Sentinel, Stars and S.T.R.I.P.E. and others seems curious, although it has been only a day. But if you can see a pattern or detect a plan, please tell me."

"We trust that you're quite capable," J'onn mused, "but a fresh pair of eyes never hurt. Meanwhile, the Task Force is performing better than I expected. I noticed that in two encounters, heroes who usually triumphed against their foes were defeated by the same. Merlyn the archer was able to defeat Green Arrow, and Black Manta succeeded in bringing in Tempest. Perhaps there is something to the simple admonition that crime does not pay."

"Either that, or there is an internal struggle that keeps the infected from performing crimes as well as they fought crime. I hope so. We've been lucky so far that none of our friends have committed murder while they're infected. I'd rest better if I thought there was some assurance that it would continue," Superman said. "Say, what is that? Do you smell that?"

The three of them sniffed the air and followed the odd smell into the JLA's lounge, where G'nort was wearing a robe and smoking a cherrywood pipe while reading a printout. His hair was brushed and parted, and a pair of reading glasses were perched over his nose. He continued to read aloud to Hector Hammond: "'...of an uneventful, if dogmatic, night on the town. Certainly I disagree with some of his policies, but the streets are safer and that's worth ten times what we paid.' You must admit, Hec, that Camille Paglia is resolute but nothing if not fair."

"Oh, absolutely, my dear boy. Do go on!" Hector prodded.

The Martian Manhunter's mouth fell open, but he couldn't find any words. He glanced at the others and finally managed to whisper, "Huh."

"Huh," Captain Comet agreed.

"Where did he get tobacco and a pipe?" Superman asked.

RELEASE + 2 days, 13 hours, 28 minutes

"Good news, Superman!" Captain Comet said, gliding into the room. "Dox reports that my body chemistry is totally immune. And so is your body. We aren't even carriers."

"Are you sure?" Superman said.

"Well...as for your cellular structure, the virus has a better chance of infecting a battleship's hull! The rest of us were at least at risk, but my evolved body is resistant to all disease. Always has been," Comet said, with a self-satisfied smile. "If we set the transporter to screen out the surface viruses lingering on our skin and clothing, we'd be safe to return to the planet."

Superman smiled for the first time in two days. If he and Captain Comet, at least, could return to Earth and get to work, they could round up the rogue heroes and perhaps even take the fight to Ra's Al Ghul.

Superman looked at Captain Comet's expression. Comet looked eager and happy. Perhaps too happy.

"Adam..." Superman said, choosing his words carefully, "may I see their analysis of the virus' effects on our physiognomies?"

"I don't have any details, yet. They'll probably be transmitted as soon as Dox has compiled the reports. But the longer we wait, the worse things will be on Earth. The two of us could make a difference --"

"No!" Superman said, stronger than he'd meant to.

"Why not?!" Adam shouted.

Superman leveled his gaze at Adam Blake. "Not without hard proof. I can't just take your word for it that that is what Dox said."

"Superman! Where's all this hostility coming from?" Adam asked. "Why don't you trust me any more."

"You say your superevolved body isn't prone to infection, but Hector Hammond is infected!"

"I realize you're not exactly Dian Fossey in the observations department, but did it ever occur to you that Hector and I aren't exactly the same?" Adam spat. "We followed divergent paths that future humanity might take. He obviously got the short end of the stick in terms of futuristic advantages. Leaving aside the immobility and gargantuan head, there's also the horrible possibility that male pattern baldness will still be around in 100,000 years. Considering the many ways my body is more healthy than his, didn't you consider that I might also be more resistant to disease than him?"

"That's one possibility," Superman agreed. "Another is that you're smart enough to not show any signs of being ill and are infiltrating our group."

The accusation hung in the air.

"Superman...I've not done anything to --"

"It's you who has been tampering with the security systems, isn't it?" Superman accused.

"No! My only access has been to the Monitor Womb and the interstellar communications center. Honest to Mercatroid!" Comet protested.

"I'd like to believe you, Adam. My senses tell me you're not lying, but you have better control over your heart rate and you could hide it," Superman said. "Ask Dox for hard evidence ASAP. I want to trust you, but there is evidence of tampering in the Watchtower and you're the prime suspect. You'd be a most dangerous man if you were corrupted."

Adam gave a wry smile. "Thank you, Superman. That's the nicest spin on a damning accusation I've ever heard."

"Please understand, Adam. Hector was affected by the virus despite a biology that is far removed from that of a normal 21st Century human. That means that a wide range of Earth life could be susceptible to the virus, including you.."

RELEASE + 3 days, 4 hours, 48 minutes

"So many stars. So many possibilities. To have been denied them by capricious nature..." the dark figure muttered, looking at the viewport. "My mind is open to new avenues...new paths that I might take."

With that, he turned to the JLA Trophy Room and walked up to the first display and pressed a small button at the side. "Denied. These trophies may not be accessed by unauthorized personnel," said a disembodied electronic voice.

"Computer, please recognize Level One Active JLA member G'Nort Esplanade G'neeshmacher of G'newt."

"Confirmed. Welcome G'nort. You now have full unrestricted access to the Trophy Room."

"Splendid," G'nort said, with relish. He had begun affecting a British accent. "I think we shall start with this little beauty," he said, lifting a Khundian sidearm that was comparable to a human anti-tank gun.

Placing it as the start of a pile on the floor, he proceeded to the next case. "Booster Gold/Goldstar Technology" read the legend. He opened the top to extract a number of energy cells, experimental gauntlets, goggles and such. He proceeded along, taking out Blue Beetle's concussive burst gun, Mr. Miracle's spare multi-cube, numerous alien weapons and artifacts, and finally Professor Kirby's Dots.

"Ready to go, are we?" Hector Hammond asked, gliding into the room. "Ah, I see you packed for the trip. Thank you for the initiative, my boy."

"No problem, Hector. When do we teleport down?"

"I received notice from our benefactor that he will lock onto us in about thirty seconds. Brace yourself!"

A moment later, Hector and G'nort were gone.

RELEASE + 3 days, 5 hours, 2 minutes

"Gone! How can they be?" Superman asked, scanning the floors for signs of G'nort and Hector Hammond.

"I am unsure, but they must have had help. I don't think either of them have the ability or mobility to set up the teleporters," J'onn remarked. "The real question is, why? Did Hector resume his old evil ways, or was he never on the side of light...or is he being manipulated by an infected G'nort?"

"We've no choice. I have to go down there. Can you set up the teleporters to screen out the virus as Adam mentioned?" Superman asked.

"I've already programmed those parameters. All I require is a moment to load up the package. Ready?"

"Go!" Superman said.

J'onn pressed the controls.

As the system began to warm up, Captain Comet came down the hallway to the teleporter room. As he saw Superman awaiting transport, he flew into action. Racing at top speed, he slammed into Superman's stomach and knocked him off the platform.

Sparks began to fly from the teleportation platform, coalescing and building into a column the size of Superman...then bursting apart into an explosion of energy particles.

"I don't believe it. You saved my life! It was ready to take me apart permanently!" Superman sputtered. "I think I owe you an apology, Adam."

"No, I owe you one...for not deducing who the spy in our midst was earlier than four minutes ago."

RELEASE + 3 days, 5 hours, 12 minutes

Batman cursed as his plan to derail Superman had failed. Smoothing out the crumpled note for Superman to read, he teleported from the Watchtower.

G'nort's adventures conclude in...

HUNT THE DARK G'NORT

 
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