Machines beep and hiss as Lex Luthor lies comatose. A bandage covers his head and he's attached to a respirator. A metallic door silently slides open and an aide, well-groomed and suited, steps into the room.
'Ma'am,' he whispers to Mercy, seated near the foot of the bed reviewing things on a tablet, 'the Board is getting restless and-'
Mercy looks at him, her lips pursed. 'When he's ready.'
Two dark-haired boys – both of whom had been at the charity auction as honorary guests of the Shugel Foundation – sit on a set of swings in a small park, kicking at the ground.
'You think Superman would have been able to hurt Achilles?'
'Mr Beck's dog?'
'No, the guy in the stories. He was supposed to be invulnerable, right?'
'Except for his heel, sure.'
'So, could Superman hurt him?'
'Why would Superman even want to?'
'I dunno. Sometimes heroes fight, right?'
'Sometimes. But Achilles isn't real.'
'Yeah, but what if he was?'
World's End Island
Warships line an unspoken but agreed upon perimeter. Analysts and technicians on board each one check equipment and test air and water samples. Others attend to diving drones and assemble boring equipment and attachments.
'Radiation levels are ridiculously high,' is the consensus spoken in over a dozen languages. Smoke drifts through the air and the sky rumbles and sparks, seemingly at random. At slowly increasing intervals, the island heaves and the water boils and bubbles. No one decides to be the first to risk sending anyone any closer to the island.
Metropolis - the apartment of Lois Lane and Clark Kent
Clark sleeps. His breathing is shallow and his skin is tinted green around his mouth and eyes. His hand is gripped tightly to the glowing lasso, the only source of light in an otherwise dark room.
Lois and Martha sit in an adjoining room, steaming cups of tea and coffee sit on the table in front of them as, exhausted, they quietly watch the news together.
Channel 52 News – Bethany Snow
'It's been almost a week since Superman was last seen over World's End Island, and a lot of things seem to be crawling out of the woodwork. Gang violence across the world is up 18 percent and there's been an increase in military activity in several regions.
'Have we been taking the impact and influence of the Man of Steel for granted these past two years?
'And what of the Batman? Resurfacing after years being absent, and seemingly challenging Superman to a duel, only to then fight alongside him and, according to many, saving the world from 'Doomsday'.
'Further scattered sightings have been reported around Gotham and, curiously, at least fifteen people have handed themselves in for crimes committed, purportedly, during what Gothamite-bloggers have started calling 'The Exile Years'.
'And the creature that fought Superman so brutally? Electromagnetic interference on and around World's End Island has prevented anything being confirmed about its demise, according to various national and international agencies, but the question that is slowly falling to the side is 'where did it come from?' The failure to answer the question has fuelled a number of theories, with some leading to an increase in attendance to places of worship across the world.
'Briefly, in the financial news, share prices of LexCorp have fallen another 2 percent, with the fourth day of consecutive drops now impacting the valuations of several companies with close ties to the conglomerate this morning as CEO and philanthropist Lex Luthor continues to be, to put it mildly, absent without leave.'
Clark's eyes flutter and he takes in a breath.
G Gordon Godfrey Has This To Say - webcast
Sitting behind a desk again, Godfrey stares intently at the camera, his arms wide pushing down firmly on the wooden surface.
'Work continues in the stadium but it's not rescue-work anymore. They won't tell you that – no one is reporting it on the news. No one cares. People have forgotten.
'I care, though. I haven't forgotten.'
His shoulders relax and he brings his hands together in front of him and leans forward slightly.
'Every day, I reach out to those who have lost loved ones in The Scorching and offered them my shoulder and my ear. It is the least I can do but I am just one person and there are thousands of people suffering from that day.
'A day people have forgotten so quickly.
'Before, the question "where is Superman" was because we wanted to bring him to justice. We wanted answers only he could provide. The question was asked angrily and righteously. Now… now, it's asked because people want him back.
'In one breath, all is forgiven.
'Is that right, though? Are we so fickle that we cast aside the murder of thousands because a "beast" fell from the sky? Does that make what happened in The Scorching okay? Is that day a troublesome truth for some of you?
'Us. For some of us.
'I don't know about you, dear viewer, but I just cannot help thinking that it has been so convenient for Superman's role in all this to change from the Hunted to the Saviour.'
Metropolis – the apartment of Lois Lane and Clark Kent
Clark is seated on the sofa, bathed in sunlight, his legs stretched out and a thick blanket tucked under his arms. There is still a hint of green on his skin and he looks haggard, but he is otherwise healthy. Martha and Lois sit close by, clearly relieved and tired but still a little grey from all the worry. They each have mugs of a steaming drink cradled in their hands.
'So, what did you think of Arthur?' asks Clark, and he takes a sip from his mug.
'He's quieter than I thought he would be,' says Lois, and Martha nods in agreement. 'A little like you sometimes.'
'Me?' queries Clark, his brow creasing a little.
Martha looks at her mug, rests it on her thigh and turns it a little. 'Sometimes… when you're Clark, when you're not talking to me or Lois, sometimes you almost whisper. You can hear yourself and think others can, too.'
Clark's frown deepens a little as he considers Martha's reply, and he asks, 'When I'm on the job?'
'Asking questions?' says Lois. 'No, that's when you're there, in that moment. Coaxing the answers and framing your questions.' Her voice expresses her admiration for Clark's skill as a reporter, and then she says, 'Clark Kent the reporter isn't the same as Clark Kent by the coffee machine talking to Allie.'
'It's cute,' says Lois, and she shrugs a little.
Lois nods and sips her coffee and Martha, loudly, gets up and makes her way over to the kitchen. Lois chuckles a little and moves onto the couch. The two of them sit quietly for a little while, and Clark looks over at his mother, now busying herself with chopping some vegetables. 'You had us so worried,' Lois says softly, as she reaches for the remote control and turns on the television.
She rolls her eyes, grabs Clark by his vest and pulls him towards her and they hug. The chopping sound from the kitchen falters for a second and then quickly continues.
'What are you going to do now?' she asks, as they draw back from their embrace.
'The world has changed and is still changing, and not all of it is good.'
'It's always been that way.'
'It has, but I think he was right when he said that my being here has created some sort of power vacuum.' He nods towards the television.
'Violent clashes have erupted in cities across the world,' says the broadcaster.
'You can't police the world, Clark.'
'I never intended to, but I have changed things.' He takes another sip from his mug and looks over his shoulder and at a closed door. Golden light shines from around it. 'First things first, though,' he says, 'I need to return something,' and he winks at Lois and leans in for a quick kiss.
First Church of Superman – webcast by Pastor Papp
'By now, Brothers and Sisters, you will have seen the footage of our Deliverer saving the world! Like the tales of the fallen angels in Earth-faiths, The Bringer of Destruction first fell from the sky, bearing the face of nobility in a bid to fool those weak in faith into believing him to be our Lord. It's a warning found in many scriptures but not spoken of by The Redeemer as His faith in us granted us protection.
'We have seen our numbers swell, across the world, as His message and mercy reaches out and touches the hearts of those who had been doubting these past two years.
'He is here and He is with us.
'Brothers and Sisters, do not burden your hearts with shame for the doubts and questions you allowed to enter them when the Beast rained fire down on scores of innocent men, women, and children. That night was a trial by fire, and the Revelation after was your awakening.
'Brothers and Sisters, do not be haughty for being of those who held steadfastly to faith. Your trial is now and will continue.
'We have been blessed with this age of technology. We can see the truth immediately. We can receive answers to our questions in an instant. Yet the blessing can be subverted and we must guard ourselves against that.
'We must prepare.
The Louvre, Paris
In a room annexed to the restoration workshop, Diana steps back from the control panel of an outlandish-looking machine and looks at the large screen displaying an image of a battle scene. The colours are strange and dark and flicker as the programme continues to make the image clearer, but the battle is undoubtedly between a dozen armed women and a dozen armed men. On the side of the women are owls and deer that seem to be arranged around, and perhaps protecting, an island bathed in an otherly light, with the sun visible just a little closer to the side of the men. One of the men appears to be wearing the skin of a lion as a cape, with the top half of the lion's head clasped over the man's right shoulder.
'Is that supposed to be Hercules?' says a male voice.
'Heracles,' says Diana, not looking away from the image. 'Yes.'
'Right, Greek. Sorry.'
She smiles and shakes her head as she turns to look at the speaker. 'It's a common mistake, Mr Kent.'
'Clark. Please.' He adjusts his glasses and smiles widely.
'I wanted to thank you for your help, and to return this.' He holds out a polished wood box engraved with a stylised 'W' and a star. 'I'm sorry it took a while.'
Diana gently takes the box from his hand. She brushes her fingers over the engravings, smiles, and holds the box a little closer to her chest. She nods at Clark and sets the box to one side. 'Bruce told me you… well, I knew you would get it back to me eventually. I'm glad you're okay.' She smiles again, this time as widely as Clark did a moment earlier, and gestures at the teapot on a small table nearby.
'I'd love some,' says Clark, and he draws back a chair for her and then takes a seat himself, and they talk.
Channel 52 News
'This just in:
'General Eiling has been cleared of the charges of treason and insurrection and has been reinstated in his role as director of the hitherto unknown Project Sunuria. While the President has declassified the name of the Project, no information has been provided as to what the group does, where it's based or who any of its administrators are.
'General Eiling commented as follows:
'"What I did, I did not just for my country but for the sake of our world. Our world. It was not an act of war but an act of defence, and I'm grateful this has all been resolved so quickly.
'"I hold no animosity against Secretary Swanwick. My actions put him in a difficult position and, had I been in his shoes, I likely would have done the same.
'"We all know that the world has changed and that it is still changing. I know that people agree that 'preparation is half the battle' and I think many have taken comfort in knowing that we are both prepared and resolved to protect our world from harm, both domestic and alien."'
The second hand on a clock moves from twenty-five to twenty-six.
The young man who had been leaning against a road sign after the riot in Metropolis came to an abrupt end, paces around a laboratory. Three piles of different coloured folders are stacked neatly on a desk and a series of experiments are being conducted at various workstations. The man stops at each experiment for a couple of seconds, scribbles a note, and moves to the next one.
The second hand on a clock moves from twenty-six to twenty-seven.
The Batmobile screeches to a halt in the middle of a circular platform, and steam and the smoke of burnt rubber clouds the air around the purring vehicle. The platform turns and rises up to a walkway. Batman hops out with a grunt and touches his ribs tentatively. He grits his teeth and tugs off his cowl.
'I'm getting slow in my old age,' he says, casually.
'Even you got too old to die young,' says Alfred, somewhere out of sight. 'Not for lack of trying.'
'They seem more stubborn than last time,' Batman mutters.
'Quite,' says Alfred, as he walks towards an empty worktop and sets down a tray laden with food. 'I must say, you've made considerable progress with the cold cases.'
Bruce shakes his head dismissively. 'They were easy ones and should never have been cold.'
'Do you think the GCPD-'
'No, Bullock runs a tight ship. They were just… overwhelmed.'
'So, your return is definitely temporary?'
'Never a straight answer,' mutters Alfred.
A screen flashes red and both men stare at it.
'That's not possible,' breathes Alfred.
'It is if it's him,' growls Bruce.
They turn and look towards the far end of the massive cave and, seconds later, Superman drifts out of the shadows, his cape covering his shoulders and arms. The screen continues flashing red until Batman presses something on utility belt.
Alfred stands a little taller and says, 'May I present to you… Superman.'
Bruce glares at Alfred and Superman smiles as he sets his foot onto the platform. 'I apologise for intruding like this, but I felt we had to talk.' He steps forward and nods at Alfred. Alfred returns the nod and, discreetly, steps away.
'About?' growls Bruce.
'The future. The way forward. Us.'
Superman steps forward again and surveys the cave with a glance. His eyes widen a little when he sees the giant coin and the life-size Tyrannosaurus Rex. 'Neither of us can go it alone, Bruce. The world's too big and too complicated.'
'It's not as if you've made things any easier.'
'I know. I tried but-'
'"The road to Hell," Kent. Maybe that's what your father tried to warn you about, in his own way.'
Superman nods and says, 'Maybe, but as others have said, "evil wins when good men do nothing".'
'Do you still consider yourself to be "good"?'
Bruce harrumphs and shakes his head. 'Look around us, Clark. I gave myself a mission to stop people from going through what I did that night I lost my parents; instead, I ended up breaking people and punishing them, and making them afraid.'
Superman raises his hand and then lowers it, clenching his fist for a couple of seconds. 'It wasn't always like that, and you know it. You've saved countless lives over the years. Inspired so many people.'
'Inspired them to what? Leap off buildings? Sacrifice their happiness? Take a bullet for a murderer?'
'To be good. To be the best they could be.'
'And nothing changed.'
'Everything changed, Bruce. Bit by bit. And everything does.'
Bruce watches as Clark walks around the work area.
'What's all this about, Clark? Why are you here?'
'It's about trust.'
'And why should I trust you?'
'Why shouldn't you? Still, since you're still choosing not to, then perhaps this can help us start on that path.' His cape parts as he raises his arms and holds out a canister the size of a small fire extinguisher.
'And this would be?'
'The last of the Kryptonite.'
'You named it?'
'A thing needs a name.'
'Why would you give it to me?' Bruce looks over at Alfred standing to one side, setting a table.
'Because, at the end of the day, with what we've seen and been through in such a short space of time, with what you've seen and been through over all these years, I want the thing that can stop me to be in the hands of someone I know I can trust with my life.'
'You think you'll need to be stopped?'
'I think we need to be ready but hope that it will never happen.'
'"Hope."' Bruce repeats the word and takes the canister from Superman's hands. '"Hope",' he says again, and then he places the container on a worktop. 'Come with me, I want to show you something.' He looks over and Alfred again. 'Alfred?'
'You should come, too.'
Curious, Alfred sets down the tea he had poured and follows Bruce and Clark. They walk along a footbridge and into a small antechamber lined with costumes. Most of them are 'Batman' costumes, torn and tattered or riddled with holes, but some are for Gotham's other heroes. Ones who are no longer active. There is a series of Robin costumes and a couple of dark-coloured ones with blue markings.
'Nightwing,' says Clark, stunned and awed by what he is seeing.
Alfred steps forward and, standing next to Superman, says, 'After meeting you – saving you – he decided he had grown out of being Robin. He decided to be "Nightwing". He couldn't explain it, he just knew that there was something about the name.'
'I read the articles back then,' says Clark, 'but I couldn't bring myself to come back to Gotham. To talk to you. To talk to him. He said that name when he saw me but I didn't know what it meant or why he said it.'
'Master Dick was a circus boy and he had heard tales of wonder and adventure long before Master Bruce took him under his wing.'
Bruce, eyebrow raised, shakes his head, and Alfred smiles, ignoring the reaction to his little joke.
'Tales of strong men who could shatter chains with a shrug or hold up an elephant above their head, and of boys as fast as the wind and untouchable by flame.
'Before he took on the name, and before I helped him make his first suit, he showed me his scrapbook. He showed me this.'
Alfred presses his palm onto a panel and drawer clicks open. Intrigued, Bruce steps forward. He frowns a little as Alfred takes out a thick scrapbook and places it on the edge of the open drawer. The spine of the book cracks as Alfred slowly opens it and turns it towards Clark. Inside the book, on pages labelled with the names of small towns in the Mid-West, are newspaper clippings.
Gently, Clark picks up the book and looks through some of the pages. 'These are… they're all about me. From years ago.'
'He told me he heard stories about a strong boy wandering the country, appearing at random and righting wrongs, so every town and city the circus visited he would take the time to go to the local library and look for articles like these.'
'This is before?' Bruce asks, his voice croaking a little. He starts taking off his gauntlets and gloves.
Alfred nods and says, quietly, 'It was one of the few things he brought with him when you took him in.'
'When… when I found out I could run faster than an F1 car, I decided to explore. It was little things at first, like dashing over to a nearby town and having a wander. Escaping from things at school. A kid walked into the street in Emporia, near a post office, and I pulled her to safety but I moved a little faster and a little farther than I should have.' He turns a couple of pages and shows them an article. 'They found her a couple of miles away. I hid away but kept an eye on her until they found her. She told them a laughing boy had saved her. I was laughing because I was so scared.'
Bruce, carefully, takes the book from him and starts looking through the pages.
'The fire in the truck stop,' says Clark, 'the would-be bank robbers in Abilene, the exploding tyre in Derby. None of these things made the news. I mean, the small local paper, sure, but that was it.'
'But he found them,' says Bruce.
'And you inspired him,' says Clark.
Bruce shakes his head a little. 'He was one of the best men I ever knew, and as much as Alfred had a hand in guiding him to a lighter path, it's clear, now, that you showed him something, too. When he saw the story from your world, when he saw you and recognised you, he became something more.'
'I never got to talk to him,' says Clark, quietly. 'Never got to tell him how much I admired him. All of you.'
'I think,' says Bruce, slowly closing the book, 'I think you two would have been great friends.' He smiles at Clark as he gives the book back to Alfred.
'And I think,' says Alfred, as he places the book back in the drawer, 'that you two could be friends, too.'
After a light meal prepared by Alfred, Clark and Bruce, dressed in civilian clothes, walk down the dark stone steps and back into the Batcave.
'You know we can't do this alone,' says Bruce. 'Just the two of us.'
'So, what do you suggest?'
'Diana, for starters.'
'Wonder Woman,' says Clark, and Bruce frowns. Clark shrugs, 'It's what the media's calling her.'
'They come up with the most ridiculous names.'
Clark starts to say something but then stops himself and says, as Bruce activates some screen, 'She's in. I spoke to her earlier.'
Busying himself with the computer, Bruce says, 'So, she has her lasso again.'
'Who else?' Clark prods.
Bruce's voice shifts to a raspier tone as he steps back from the control panel. 'I've been looking.'
Half a dozen screens display Arthur. One has him helping Superman into the ocean, another shows them both on a pier in Metropolis.
'Ah,' says Clark, looking a little embarrassed, 'you know about Arthur then?'
'After he pulled you from the island, how could I not? He was also in Shugel's notes.'
'He's a good man, but he'll take some convincing.'
'I'm starting to think you believe everyone is good.'
'Everyone has the capacity to be.'
'I want to meet the rescuer from the stadium. From the protest.'
'He moved over a thousand people out of the path of the beam. Disarmed scores of rioters.'
'There were reports of people saying they had been moved, but-'
'Nothing on any of the active cameras, I know. I can see things you can't.'
'He's a CSI, so maybe you might find you have something in common.'
'Since when did you become a detective?'
Military Prison - Antarctica
General Eiling steps into a cell and nods at the guard to close the door behind him. Sitting on a cot, glaring at the television screen embedded in the wall opposite, a man clenches and unclenches his fists. He glances over at Eiling and snarls a little before turning his attention back to the television.
'Awfully convenient the way things went down,' says Eiling, casually.
'That there just happened to be another Kryptonian… a monster-'
'Why are you here, General?' snarls the prisoner.
'Isn't it obvious? I have a deal.'
The prisoner snorts and grunts and shakes his head. 'No deal is going to get me out of here.'
'Of course it will, Zmeck. Of course it will.'
Deep in the ocean, deeper than any manned vessel has yet to go, and deeper than the light of the sun can penetrate, sea life rushes in panic. Predator and prey swim alongside each other, ignoring their hunger and fear and focusing only on getting away.
If someone was to track them back they would find them all fleeing from a length of seabed that had been unmoved for thousands of years. A vast area that had long been dormant.
The movement is casual here and causes no stirring of the surface waters but an alarm goes off in a hidden city somewhere in the depths of the Atlantic Ocean. No one notices.
Purple starfish of all sorts of sizes cover the faces of the slower sea life
Miles above, if the right filters are used, an eye can be seen… hundreds of miles long.
S.T.A.R. Labs off-site resource facility, outskirts of Metropolis
Victor Stone, submerged in a thick liquid, floats in a large vertical tube. He seems to be asleep and half his face is covered in shadow. A metallic overall covers his body and wires and tubes are attached to him on various parts of his body.
Words appear on a small screen but there are no spaces between them.
It hurts, Dad. It hurts so much. I keep forgetting. I keep forgetting things but then I remember and I look and I find the memory again. It hurts, Dad. It hurts so much.
Another screen displays images. Most of them seem to be from a first-person perspective. The images shift and appear to be streaming strings of code in a myriad of colours.
There's so much to learn, Dad. It's all out there and I can see it. I can see so many things.
Thousands of images flash across the screen and then there is a grey darkness that slowly shifts from the grey to a soft green and then a tender purple before shifting back to the grey.
I don't know why I'm following this but something is calling to me, Dad. Something. Something sleeping.
An image of a small baby appears. Its skin is tinted green.
It's curled up, its eyes are closed and it is in the foetal position. It turns in the air, rotating around nothing.
The 'baby' rotates again and then its eyes open and it looks at him. Three small discs glow on its forehead.
Victor's eyes snap awake, wide with fear, and he jerks around in the tube, panicked. There is a hiss a blue liquid is fed into him through one of the tubes.
Superman floats down to the perimeter of the ruined stadium. Rescue workers and other personnel pause and watch him descend and heavy machinery rumbles, idle.
A couple of supervisors and police officers hurry over to him.
'Is something happening?' asks one of the supervisors, breathlessly.
'Do we have to evacuate?' asks one of the officers.
Superman shakes his head and looks, solemnly, at the flowers and pictures and toys that make up the memorial that has been set up just outside the perimeter.
'I'm here to help.'