Twenty-nine years earlier ...
"I think it landed over here, Martha."
The pair stopped their truck by the side of the road, next to a Kansas wheatfield. "Do you think it was a comet? I've never seen anything like it," she said.
"Let's go take a look. We'll make an adventure of it."
She grinned, and waited for him as he climbed down of the truck and then circled around to open her door, taking her by the hand as she walked the step down. She squeezed his hand, "Let's go have our adventure."
They waded through the talk stalks, until they found what had appeared to have been sent hurtling from sky, though it landed noiselessly: the look of a snowflake molded into a rocket ship, glittering blue and red. Barely able to breath out of sheer excitement, they walked closer.
The hatch of the ship was open, and in it lay, in swaddling clothes, a small and easily recognisable figure. "John," she gasped, "it's ... it's a baby! Like it's the answer to our prayers!"
She heard a small explosion, and looked down to see her husband falling to the ground. "John?" She turned around to see a man in a dark trenchcoat, and didn't have time to scream before a second bullet pierced through her skull.
The man walked over to the infant, who looked up at him, seemingly undisturbed by the loud noises. The man reached into a pouch at his belt and removed a single bullet, glowing green, which he loaded into his revolver before taking aim once more.
Nineteen years earlier ...
The boy's eyes were wide with terror and shock as the horrible scene was spread before him.
"Father ... Mother! ... Dead! They're d-dead."
The illumination of the streetlight, which fell over the bodies of the boy's parents, was suddenly blocked. He looked up to see a man in a dark trenchcoat. "Are ... are you a policeman? I think my parents are ... "
The question remained unspoken, silenced by a third bullet, the sounds echoing through Crime Alley.
Nine years earlier ...
The tall blond man with the crew cut walked slowly, deliberately, feeling sated from his lunch, back to the police laboratory where he spent most of his life. He was known as one of the best forensic scientists attached the department, largely due to his careful and scrupulous thinking, although he occasionally irritated his friends and co-workers as that nature contributed to a reflective manner. Conversations with him could seem to proceed with glacial slowness at times.
He switched on the lights as he entered the room, and paused there to enjoy the sounds and smells of the rain storm occurring outside. The overhang outside the window kept the interior of the lab scrupulously dry, so he felt no need to close it. He walked over to the rack of vials and beakers which was arranged before the window. "Every chemical known to science is here," he contemplated with pleasure, "sufficient to perform any experiment ... "
His reverie was interrupted by the soft sound of metal on metal behind him. He turned to see an unfamiliar man in a dark trenchcoat; possibly a new detective assigned to the squadron. "Yes," he said, "can I help you?"
The answer came in a hail of bullets which pierced through his body, and the blond man collapsed to the floor. The room was suddenly illuminated as a bolt of lightning struck through the open window, shattered glass and burning chemicals falling over the corpse.
Freddy and Mary sat atop the roof of the tallest building in Fawcett City, sipping their egg creams. "I'm just glad you and Billy were able to get there so quickly," Freddy said. "I think that may have been the worst break-out Crowley Penitentiary has ever seen."
"Billy certainly had his hands full with both Ibac and Sabbac," she reached out to squeeze his hand. "I'm just glad Black Adam isn't being held there anymore. And ... frankly I'm glad I was able to take Captain Nazi off your hands. I know it's a grudge match between the two of you, but ... "
"For once, I didn't mind. By the time I saw him, I had my hands full with those grotesques Daddy Heart, Alan Satan, and the Spider Sisters."
"Those sisters give me the creeps, though one can almost admire them, or feel sorry for them, or something. It takes a lot to develop your own martial art specifically designed for a pair of conjoined twins."
"I certainly don't feel sorry for Alan Satan ... after what he did to that bus full of handicapped children ... "
"Most of them are still in drug rehab, aren't they?"
"Yeah ... that's what I read, too ... he still acts like it was a practical joke, or something ... "
"Prank. He thinks he's acting like the Merry Pranksters ... you know, from the 60's? Taking enough drugs will solve everything?"
"Well, you know the saying ... opium is the religion of the people."
She blinked. "I don't get it."
He looked at her, furrowed his brow. "Ummm ... from Karl Marx? 'Religion is the opium of the people'? I've never read Marx really, but that's a famous quote."
"I've never heard of it. Was he one of the Marx Brothers? It's not very funny, though I can see why someone might find it clever, in a sort of ... nihilistic way ... "
"Seriously, Mary, you've never heard of Karl Marx? I mean, Communism has been old-fashioned since the fall of the Soviet Union, but ... "
"Freddy, I have no idea what you're talking about. The 'Soviet Union'? Are these 60's rock bands or ... "
Freddy's mouth dropped open. "I thought you did better in History class than I did. Wow."
"Anyway," he sighed, "I was just thinking ... if Black Adam or Sivana had still been at Crowley Prison ... things would have been a lot worse. Maybe we need to set up a system for support, like a hotline to the Justice League of America or ... "
"Freddy, if this is some clownish joke you feel the need to keep playing today, it's not funny. Who the heck are the Justice League of America?"
"I play the clown?" he said, bewildered.
There was only one place Junior could go to seek a vantage point which would allow him to see what may be wrong: the Rock of Eternity. Onwards and upwards he flew, traversing the universe at speeds fast enough to break the bounds of ordinary space and time.
Finally, it was within sight. He smiled to himself despite his concerns, the grandfatherly old wizard someone whose presence was always anticipated with pleasure. As he approached the towering rock, however, he suddenly found himself on the other side of it. He whirled around, confused, and attempted again, to find the experience duplicated. Once more he repeated the approach, at a slower pace, and found that it was like shooting a spear at a fish underwater: the Rock never seemed to be where he was aiming at. He thought to himself, "I don't know what is being acted out in this theatre of madness ... but the Wisdom of Solomon is telling me there's nothing wrong with me. So there must be something wrong with the universe."
He returned to Earth, circling in orbit speculatively. Something was wrong. Where were the all the missing satellites? Where was the international space station? He approached several of the myriad communications satellites ... they all looked decades old.
What was the connection? No Soviet Union ... Russia must be a democracy or maybe even still a monarchy ... so maybe no Cold War ... the space race wouldn't have had the same intensity ... technology lagged ...
Where to now? Back home to consult with Billy and Mary? He remembered the perplexing discussion with his girlfriend. "So you're saying you have no memory of the times Cap substituted for the Manhunter and led the JL8? All you know is some group called ... the Justice League of America ... spearheaded by some superheroes that I have never heard of?" The common factor between the two Justice Leagues appeared to be the Martian Manhunter. He decided to travel back to New York City, home of the so-called JL8, and see whether he could learn anything from the telepathic alien.
As he descended over the skyline of Manhattan Island, and witnessed the devastation there, he wondered whether he had already arrived too late.
What appeared to be a weapon shaped like a stylized Egyptian eye, with twin pupils set inside a glowing green iris, was projecting powerful, destructive bolts of energy over the city. Apparently operating in conjunction with it, several hawk-headed creatures were razing the city.
He hovered in the air briefly, undecided, when his course of action was made for him as he felt himself suddenly encased in steel-hard webbing. He looked down, to see one of the hawk-headed creatures bearing a bow and arrow, aimed at him. He burst free of the cords easily, and felt a blow from behind, knocking him for a loop. The flying creature had the body of a voluptuous woman, with silvery metal skin, and a helmet reminiscent of the Fawcett City hero Bulletman.
He re-oriented himself, and pulled his arm back to knock the creature out of the sky, when he suddenly found himself flung towards the ground as if by some immense, invisible hand. He looked up to see another hovering female clad in a long green dress, with a green witch's hat perched over her hawklike face. A magic user ... just what he needed ...
Another pair approached him on the ground, one clad in blue and carrying a golden shield, the other freakishly small and perched on the former's shoulder. "I'm starting to lose my patience here!" he shouted, and sent them both flying with a powerful blow.
Another pair approached him, one tall, cloaked and green-skinned ... the other squat and immense with sickly yellow skin. He rose into the air once more, and they followed. Beams of energy projected from the eyes of the green one, which struck him with pure kinetic force, enough to cause him pain. He backed away, and the yellow one blasted him with fiery breath. He felt his skin begin to blister, and whirled away to do a quick u-turn mid-air in order to engage them more physically. As they exchanged blows he realised that they were each close to his level of strength physically, and he would not be able to withstand a battle against both of them alone.
He flew towards the green-skinned one at his top speed, attempting a knock-out punch, only to pass through him as his opponent turned intangible. Bemused, he realised suddenly the true identity of his opponents: Manhunter, the Atom, Bulleteer, Enchantress, Etrigan the Demon, the Guardian, and the Spyder. So where was ...
He barely heard the rush of air behind him, and he saw a figure in a multicolored costume approach him on a pair of flying discs. He recognised him immediately ... Shilo Norman, aka Mister Miracle ... the final member of the JL8. From his peripheral vision he saw Etrigan approaching him again, and he turned to ready himself, when he felt a light touch on his shoulder. A small box had been placed there by Mister Miracle, and before he could tear it off he felt his will weakening, and the contours of his skull beginning to shift and change. He heard a silent voice in his mind: "I know the way. Do not deny me."
"I am not the puppet," he muttered, and desperately shouted, "Captain Marvel!"
Freddy Freeman fell to earth. In a panic, he felt his skull ... and realised it was normal. The transformation back into his non-powered form had cancelled out the other one. But he had to change back, quickly before he hit the ground, and hoped the undoing would remain. "Captain Marvel!"
Restored, Captain Marvel Junior soared upwards once more. He realised now he had been fighting victims, rather than the true enemy. "You control the hidden, to stay in shadow. I know you now," he shouted. "The Eye of Horus ... the Eye of Ra!" Using his near-godlike speed he evaded the other flying members of the JL8 to attack the eye itself.
He bolted into the center of the Eye, and found himself passing through a deep corridor ... and the Eye was a long hallway. He saw that what appeared to be pupils were in fact a pair of women back-lit in shadow, their faces like that of cats.
"Greetings," purred one of the feline women. "Glow, glow out of the dark, and join us."
"Who ... who are you two? Why are you seeking to enslave the city?"
"Our names are Sekhmet and Bast," the other one said, "and we are the instruments of Ra's will."
"Goddesses," he muttered. "I suppose it would have taken the power of gods to alter the old wizard's spell ... and what is Ra's will, then? Carnage and destruction?"
"No," replied Sekhmet, "the birth of a new age. You are an avatar of the Age of Horus yourself. "
"You tried that already. It didn't take."
"Everywhere his government is taking root," said Bast. "Observe for yourselves the decay of the sense of sin, the growth of innocence and irresponsibility, the strange modifications of the reproductive instinct with a tendency to become bi-sexual or epicene, the childlike confidence in progress combined with a nightmare fear of catastrophe, against which you are yet half unwilling to take precautions. Consider the outcrop of dictatorships, only possible when moral growth is in its earliest stages, and the prevalence of infantile cults like Communism, Fascism, Pacifism, health crazes, occultism in nearly all its forms, religions sentimentalized to a point of practical extinction. Consider the popularity of the cinema, the wireless, the football pools and guessing competitions, all devices for soothing fractious infants, no seed of purpose in them. Consider sport, the babyish enthusiasms and rages which it excites, whole nations disturbed by disputes between boys. Consider war, the atrocities which occur daily and leave us unmoved and hardly worried."
"It is up to you, and other like you," continued Sekhmet, "to guide Earth through the next age. The one you call Mister Miracle is another avatar of the Age of Horus, but he failed to maintain his will against ours. You did not ... you were stronger."
He narrowed his eyes. "Does this have anything to do with the ... changes in history I have been noticing?"
Bast purred again. "You are wise," she said. "But we did not cause the changes you discuss. We sought an avatar to reverse them. Hence this unfortunate subterfuge."
"Agencies seek to preserve the old ways of human society ... the Age of Osiris," Sekhmet said. "They are altering history to increase the authoritarian powers of old. Unfortunately, their agent has passed beyond their simple plans."
Despite the warmth of the space they were in, he felt ice touch his spine. "What do you mean?"
"He is the Checkmate Man," Sekhmet continued, "and he has gained in power with each death. He now seeks to travel not only back in historical time, but in iconic time as well. He can end all human life with only a few more deaths."
"What you said ... gaining power ... you're suggesting he has the power of both Superman and the Flash?"
He grinned. "Not a problem."
"You can no longer travel there on your own from the Rock of Eternity," Bast said, "so we will have to translate your vibrational rate to temporarily be compatible with this alternate present ... it will last just long enough for you to go where you need to ... the year you call 4004 BCE."
"Let's go then," he said, and watched as the Eye departed from Earth and traveled to the area of space he knew so well. When the Rock of Eternity was in sight, he lifted off and flew towards it down the long, echoing, hallway eye. "And pray for me," he whispered quietly.
He felt the indescribable sensation of the goddesses translating his body from one vibrational rate to another, and then again as he set off down into Earth's past, from historical to what they called 'iconic' time.
He arrived in the primordial presence of a garden.
It was dizzying in its complexity and odd beauty. It was as carefully organised and arranged as a quaint English garden, and yet he realised that no two trees or any other kind of plant were of the same species. Every plant he could imagine, and innumerable ones he was unfamiliar with, seemed to be represented. He knelt down to the ground, and saw the same applied to the grasses ... every blade was different from its neighbor. So involved was he that he didn't hear the footsteps behind him, until he heard the sound of a woman's voice.
He did not recognise the language, although it appeared to have a Middle Eastern sound to it, and was sung rather than spoken. And yet, he found he could understand it easily, as if it were some preternaturally human language. "Are you an angel of our Lord?"
He looked up, surprised, and immediately averted his eyes, for she was completely naked. Her skin was dark, almost black, though her facial features seemed to be of some indeterminate mixed race. Her hair was long and straight. He also realised, through his shy glance, that she had no navel. She stared at him, innocently and quizzically.
"No, I ... " as he stammered, searching for words, a man approached, as naked and navelless as she, his skin marred by a slight scar along his side. He gave the woman a chaste kiss.
"He says he is not an angel," she sang to him, "and yet he flies, and he has no genitalia."
Junior's mouth fell open. "Now wait a minute ... "
The man tilted his head. He words were sung in the manner as hers. "He has no wings, simply that flap attached to the back of his neck, and colors to his skin like a flower's. Maybe his genitalia retract, as do lizards."
She clapped her hands delightedly, "You shall have to name him!"
The man smiled happily, "I have not named anything for a long time."
"Oh look," the woman pointed. "There is another one. Do you think it's his mate?"
Junior turned, his heart clenched tightly, to see a man in a dark trenchcoat. The Checkmate Man reached into a holster at his side and pulled out a gun, which he aimed at the pair, and fired.
The man and the woman gasped in alarm as the unexpected sound echoed through the garden. The speed of Mercury stood Junior in good stead as he intercepted the bullet, grabbing the gun from his opponent's hands and tearing it to pieces. The Checkmate Man responded with a blow to Junior's chin with enough speed and strength to make him feel he was almost decapitated.
Junior swallowed his pain, and flew at the man. It was only his greater experience in battling superpowered foes which gave him any advantage, as the Checkmate Man's powers exceeded his own. Their blows were like thunder, and animals scattered in their wake.
Bruised and bloodied, the young hero started to feel desperate. He only had a sense of the stakes of this game, but he knew it may have been the most important battle he had ever fought. A double-handed blow knocked the Checkmate Man into the base of a tree, one he did not recognise, with purple, apple-ish looking fruit.
Junior flew towards him, when he saw a strange creature, what appeared to be a boa constrictor though with multiple legs like a centipede, scramble up the side of the tree. In its jaw, it plucked out one of the small fruits and dropped it onto the head of the Checkmate Man, so that it shattered and its juice trickled into the man's mouth. It stared at him, and at Junior, with wise eyes quite unlike those of the other entities they had encountered in the garden.
The man wiped clean his face, and narrowed his eyes at Junior, readying himself for further battle. He swallowed, a few drops of the juice going down his throat, and then he paused. His face changed, taking on an expression of stricken grief.
"Oh," he said, speaking for the first time. "Oh. I have been doing such evil." He began to sob, great wracking sobs that contorted his body in pain. "I am sorry. I am so sorry."
Junior watched him for a moment, then bent down to pick him up, and lifted off into the air, hoping the cat goddesses would be able to translate him back into his own time and space.
As he left, the dark-skinned man noted the boy's jet-black hair, the blue tights, and the red cape. "I shall name him: a superhero," he said pleasantly.
The woman smiled agreeably, though something about the way the events transpired had disturbed her. Surely they had been forbidden from eating the fruit of that particular tree?
Back in the Eye of Horus, the youthful superhero deposited the Checkmate Man at the feet of Sekhmet and Bast. "So ... we're done here? The timeline has righted itself?"
"It will, soon," Bast purred. "It remains to this one," she nodded at the one who still sobbed at their feet, "to undo the evil he has done. You would be best to remain with us until he has done so, lest you remain trapped into a timeline which will cease to exist."
"What will happen to him, now?"
Sekhmet's tail curled thoughtfully. "He shall remain with us. He is too powerful, and too knowledgeable, to live comfortably any longer in the worlds of men. We shall teach him what it means to be like a god."
Bast's rant describing the Age of Horus is slightly edited from a text by Alistair Crowley.
Checkmate Man trademark and copyright Grant Morrison.
JL8 created by Grant Morrison.