Too Many Long Boxes!
   
   

End of Summer
 

The Vile Vial

"The Vile Vial: Release"

What has come before:

All of the villains have been gathered at Belle Reve, awaiting permanent incarceration. All of the heroes who dropped them off are gathered in an empty rec area of the prison yard.

"Quite a collection, isn't it?" Superman asked once he spotted Batman in a corner of Belle Reve. "This has to be the biggest breakout in years. I'm long past thinking this is a coincidence."

"That doesn't take a detective. No offense meant," Batman grumped, glowering at the villains. "Especially when villains incarcerated in five different prisons and Arkham Asylum all had the same idea at the same time."

"I can tell there's a plot," Superman said, "But I'm at a loss to detect what it is."

"I shook the truth out of Major Disaster when I cornered him. Says Captain Boomerang gave them the idea, but it wasn't any more in-depth than 'spread out and rob other cities.' I got the same answer from ten other prisoners. Boomerang may have the facts, but no one has brought him in yet," Batman said.

"Is this the fellow to whom you're referring?" Wonder Woman asked, holding up the gold-bound rapscallion. "I've never encountered him before, and hope I don't anytime soon. His take on male-female relations is rather, er…"

"We know what he's like. On behalf of men everywhere…sorry," Batman said. "If it helps, you can help us beat the stuffing out of him until he tells us the purpose of this plot."

Wonder Woman dropped Captain Boomerang, not too gently, to the prison parapet where Batman was standing. "Or I can just compel him to answer with my magic lasso."

"Vicious beating. Magic. Whatever," Batman muttered.

Wonder Woman gripped the end of her lasso and concentrated, channeling her power of truth through the metal braids. "Captain Boomerang, you must tell the truth."

Captain Boomerang eagerly answered. "I hate rap music. Anchovies give me gas. I saw me cousin Betty starkers when I was six. I cheated on my I.Q. test. A local kangaroo wrestler used to buy me cigarettes if I gave him pics of me mum. 'Coyote Ugly' was a real waste of money. I cry when I hear 'You Light Up My Life'. I'm picturing you covered in whipped cream right now. I ---"

"No, no, no…tell us the truth about the break-out. Did someone set you up to do this?" Wonder Woman said, barely covering her annoyance.

"Yeah. We was organized by this skinny sheila. I dint know who she woz. She looks like that Zeta Jones bird," Captain Boomerang stammered.

"Catherine Zeta Jones?" Superman said. "Straight, long black hair? Vaguely Asian?"

"Yeah."

"What were your orders?" Batman continued.

"Spread out across the country, and get as many of me fellow escapees to do the same. And cause chaos wherever we go."

"Why?" Wonder Woman demanded.

"We was never told. It was a straight money deal for me," Boomerang said.

Batman nodded, and Wonder Woman hauled away her prize. "Superman, who is this Zeta Jones woman? Unfortunately, I don't know actresses."

"I imagine you don't find much time for movies," Superman said, nodding. "Simply put, she's the spitting image of Talia."

"Ra's al Ghul," Batman said. The two of them mulled that over for a moment.

"With Boomerang in, that's just about everybody. Scratch that. I can see the Metal Men bringing in Shrapnel just over the horizon. All escapees accounted for," Superman said. "Do you think we'll have trouble with the transfers back to Arkham and the prisons?"

"That's the other puzzle. The many escapes when they were apprehended. Since Oracle began coordinating this massive clean-up operation, there hasn't been a one. What does that mean? It's unsettling. Now that we know Ra's is behind this, I fear that we're lab rats thinking they're in charge because they find the end of the maze," Batman muttered, almost to himself.

"I wish I could chalk that up to your paranoia, but I've had the same suspicions," Superman said with a nod. "He's been keeping us busy, but we don't have any idea what he's going to do. Let's get these villains back to their overseers and have an emergency meeting."

"JLA only?" Batman insisted.

"There are about a hundred back-up and past members of the organization here. Heck, I see people here who didn't even make it to the Mageddon crisis. Look! Captain Comet's back on Earth. And that's JudoMaster over there. G'nort's even here. He doesn't have a ring anymore, but apparently he ran into Catman," Superman said. "Let's just get all of them up to the Watchtower and see what we can discover about Ra's plot."

In the middle of the supervillains, one of the guards at Arkham sneezed violently. Superman spun at the sudden noise, then saw he was overreacting. "Let's go. I'm getting edgy waiting for something to go wrong."

Superman flew over to the front of the assembly of superheroes. "Greetings everyone. Thank you, all of you, for your help. We're…" Superman stopped, noticing that The Ray was sneezing. Ray covered his mouth and motioned for Superman to continue. "We're going to make this as fast as possible, so that…" Superman stopped again.

Heroes and villains were sneezing now. Here and there, but it was bothersome. Superman glanced at Batman, and noticed his friend was smothering a sniffle. Superman raised his voice and asked, "Excuse me…how many of you are feeling sick right now? Guards and criminals as well, all of you. How many of you are not feeling well? Raise your hand or nod. I'll see you." To his dismay, hundreds of hands went up.

Black Canary clutched at her stomach. "I was fine ten minutes ago! I'm feeling queasy…ugh!" she moaned, sliding to her knees. Behind her, Hawkgirl passed out. Superman spun and saw that Batman was trying to put on a brave face but his knees were wobbling.

In five minutes, most of the people gathered had collapsed into a heap. Superman noticed a pattern: none of the aliens had succumbed, nor had Captain Comet. Although Hector Hammond was contstrained in a chair that held his head upright in any condition, his face looked healthy and he appeared conscious. "Captain Comet, Hector Hammond, do you have any idea what's happening to them?"

"It would appear some kind of virus has been released here," Captain Comet said, looking embarrassed to point out the obvious. "An airborne contaminant judging by the even spread. You're immune, as are J'onn J'onzz, that dog over there and the other aliens present. The robots and inhumans are similarly unaffected."

"Yes, and Comet and I are permutations of future humanity, from a time when the human species will be resistant to most any virus, thus we aren't affected by it," Hector Hammond's voice said, emanating from the air around them. "Superman, if you'll unfasten the dampening harness on my brain, I'll be able to psionically probe the minds of everyone here and determine if someone is responsible for this…perhaps even provide more details. With the harness on, I can barely muster the energy to talk."

"I'm not an idiot, Hammond. You'll just try to escape…or at the very least, go probing into their minds for secret identities and other harmful information," Superman said, dismissing the notion.

"What? I'd never do that! I can't believe you don't trust me. I'm only trying to help!" Hammond insisted. Superman huffed indignantly.

"Hm. Superman, I think he's actually telling the truth. I have psi abilities as well and I detect no lying on his part!" Captain Comet said. "He really honestly wants to help. Either that, or his mind is powerful enough to completely mask his true thoughts."

"I appreciate your support, Captain. I do hope you'll act fast. These people are not well and we must try to save their lives. This is not a time for petty recriminations about past crimes," Hammond said, his voice quite earnest.

Superman punched a code into the lock on the psionic dampening harness. "I may regret this, but we've little choice. We need an answer fast."

A faint ectoplasmic projection of Hammond's face now appeared in front of him. "Thank you, Superman. You shant regret this. Beginning my scan now. I'll start with the prisoners and civilians, since it's less likely a superhero was responsible," Hammond elaborated. With that, the head began floating around the open square. For tense minutes he continued his scans while the rest of the unaffected people tended to the sick.

"Here! He's over here! This man is a plant…an agent of Ra's al Ghul!" Hammond enthused. In a blink, the others were around him. "It is he who released the virus while posing as a guard whom he killed yesterday. He opened a vial and left it here in the courtyard…and was affected by it himself."

"What does it do?!" Superman said, quite agitated at the sorry state of his friends. He dreaded the answer.

"It…hm…oh, good news! It is not lethal!" Hammond said. "It's a specially-engineered virus based on a particularly virulent strain of influenza as the carrier but with a unique attack on the body…most particularly the brain. It affects the parts of the brain that govern the attitudes and mores of the host."

"What?" Iron of the Metal Men said. "That's strange. I didn't realize that affecting the human brain physically could change a person's morals. We studied humans for a long time and it said that people were the sum totals of their experiences."

"The nature vs. nurture argument, yes," Captain Comet said with a nod. "The way a person is raised and taught has the greatest effect on behavior…but not always. Most of us know of the case of Phineas Gage in 1848, the railroad worker who was tamping explosives with a metal rod and had the rod driven through his frontal lobe by the explosion. He lived, but he was no longer the same person. Gage became a foul-mouthed, ill-mannered liar. The case of Phineas Gage became a landmark of medical science, proving that the brain's chemistry and structure could affect behavior. Indeed, I believe that Guy Gardner has been a more recent example."

"So this disease is affecting their brains…to what end?" Superman asked.

"It reverses the settings of precise parts of the brain. The attitude toward the self. The attitude towards society. Various social mores," Hammond said, as if reading a book. His forehead wrinkled as he delved deeper. "Ra's explained the plan in brief to his agents. There are over a dozen of them heading for various American cities, all of them airport hubs. The release of the virus will cause, speaking in simple terms, the good to become evil and vice versa. Society functions because the number of people following the laws and behaving themselves far outweigh the number of criminals. A society of people putting themselves before others with no regard for the law would tear itself apart…which is, I believe, this Ra's fellow's objective?"

Superman nodded. "Riots, anarchy, murders. It's madness, but in keeping with his goals of significantly cutting the population. Did he give any indication of a cure? Or are these agents on a suicide mission?"

Hammoned leafed through the fellow's mind. "No cure that Ra's mentioned, although I'm sure he wouldn't give it or specifics to these agents in case they were interrogated. However…however, there is a way to stop the spread of the disease. Ra's told them all to use a lamp on themselves before returning to the base…assuming that they still felt any loyalty to Ra's, of course. The lamp is in a locker in the guard quarters. It will personally decontaminate the agent before his return. Comet, could you please get it?"

"Certainly. Before I go, I should point out that you probably aren't immune to this virus. You've probably been affected by it…you just didn't come down with the flu," Comet said. "Now, if you can send me a mental image of the lamp, I'll fetch it." With that, he was off.

"Strange, his remarks. I don't feel affected. In fact, I feel just fine," Hammond objected.

"I think he's right," Superman said. "I remember when your Royal Flush Gang was putting all of the JLA into a coma. You would have let all of us die, just as a form of revenge. Now you're concerned about our health?"

"Funny, I recall that. I know it happened. I know I did it. But I don't feel any hostility towards you. Why did I do that?" Hammond said. "I have this wonderful advanced mind, a rare gift that no one else has. My mental powers could be a boon to humanity. It seems such a pitiable waste to spend it on myself. I don't know what I was thinking."

"This is good. This is a good example of how all these prisoners will be thinking when they awaken," Superman said. "Without any awareness of the inconsistency. Look…some of them are starting to wake up."

Captain Comet returned. "Here's the lamp, but I don't think we can shine it on everyone in this prison fast enough. It's quite small," he said.

"True, but…ah! Dr. Light!" Superman called, noticing that Kimiyo Hoshi had struggled to her feet. "We need your assistance immediately."

Hoshi turned and made an offensive hand gesture. "The hell with you! I feel like crap!" she shouted. "Get someone else to do your bidding when you snap your fingers."

"Superman? You needed something?" Dr. Arthur Light asked, obviously still woozy from the illness. "I'm sorry, I'm out of sorts. Perhaps you didn't mean me."

"Dr. Light, no, you'll be fine. We need your help. Can you duplicate the light from this lamp and blast everything in this prison as fast as you can?" Superman asked, handing over the lamp. "It's the only way to destroy a dangerous airborne virus."

"I can certainly do my best. I'd hate to let Superman down," Dr. Light said, taking the lamp and examining it. "It appears to give off UV rays in a specific band. I'll have to increase the field without prolonging exposure."

"Do it, as fast as you can. We all believe in you, Arthur," Superman said, hastily removing Dr. Light's explosive bracelet. He was amazed at how quickly he was adapting to their behavior.

Dr. Light raised his hand…and a burst of bright purple light shot out, illuminating the courtyard. He flew into the air and circled the prison, bathing Belle Reve with a glow.

"All of the people in Belle Reve are still infected, but now they can't pass the disease to anyone else," Hammond said. "Unfortunately, the virus isn't likely to have a cure, for the simple reason that mankind has never cured a virus."

"Ugh. Superman? What's going on? What was that light?" Felix Faust asked. "Is there anything I can do to assist?" All around him, the so-called supervillains were looking at him with mild looks of concern and benevolence. Glancing at the superheroes, he saw them sneering and breaking out into small fights. None of them seemed to trust the other.

"People, please listen up. I've disarmed the guards because they probably won't be doing their jobs. It's up to us to contain everyone here. The superheroes are infected with a virus that is causing them to rebel. We need to secure them as quickly as possible, then I'm going to need your help in stopping some agents who are releasing more virus." Superman didn't mention that they were infected. Like Hammond, they appeared to view their attitudes as normal.

"I don't think so, Superman," came a loud, echoey voice. Dr. Fate waved his hand, and the entire gathering of infected heroes disappeared.

"Oh no. This couldn't get any worse," Superman said.

"Um…Superman?" said the agent of Ra's al Ghul, who had now recovered.

"You're going to tell me something that makes this worse, aren't you?"

"I suppose it does. Sorry," the agent said. "It's about you and the aliens. Ra's mentioned that your cellular structure wouldn't be affected, but that you would be infected. The virus has a very aggressive attack system, so it's embedded in your body. And it's mutag…um, mutato…no…I don't remember the word, but basically it keeps mutating, looking for a new way into your body."

"Yes, a mutagenic virus," J'onn J'onzz said, nodding his head. "We had those on Mars. Since we were so resistant to viruses, the viruses kept getting smarter until they were able to penetrate our defenses. By then they'd become quite horrific. Captain Comet and we and the rest of the aliens should immediately quarantine ourselves in the Watchtower. Hammond too. He feels the effects, but I think the virus is still attacking him due to his genetic structure."

"All right. Here's what's going to happen. We'll retire to the Watchtower and Hammond will coordinate efforts with all of you using his telepathy. We need you to capture the renegade superheroes and return them to Belle Reve, which will hopefully have fresh guards by then. We'll also investigate the reports of a team of agents releasing the virus all over the USA. I will broadcast to all channels the news that you are all to be trusted in this." Superman squared his shoulders and strode among them, looking them in the eye. "You are hereby designated the Justice League Task Force. Out west is an abandoned Headquarters once used by Captain Atom's splinter group of the JLA; you can operate from there for the time being. I hope you will operate in teams or in groups of two or three. As chairman of the group, I pick Scarecrow. He's a professor and has a keen analytical mind when it comes to picking out an opponent's shortcomings."

Scarecrow humbly nodded his assent.

"Meanwhile, the rest of us will be sequestered in the JLA Watchtower, analyzing this virus. We'll keep you informed."

"Best of luck to all of you."

Thus begins the "Vile Vial" Challenge

 
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