Hey guys! It's sure been a while. I've been swamped with work heading into exams (which are in less than two weeks, haha) and what with the clueing up of all my extracurriculars, starting my first job, and just general life stuff, I've barely had any time to work on this. I finally got it done, and I hope it lives up to your expectations and my standards. This episode is very near and dear to my heart, and is a huge turning point in the series in my opinion. I really wanted to do it justice, so I definitely took my time with it. See you at the bottom!
Unknown, ?:? ?
I watched in numb horror, the sight of Bruce's ship facing off against the aliens filling the holo-screen. A burst of bright light. When I blinked, it was gone. Disintegrated. Just like all the leaguers before him. He was gone.
I felt… nothing. It didn't feel real, like everything happening around me was irrelevant somehow. The iron taste of fear stung my mouth, but I stood as tall as every other member of the team. I couldn't help but glance over to Rob, to see how he was taking it. His expression matched mine, and the rest of the team; steely determination betraying nothing else.
A second holo-screen appeared as the one we had all been watching cut out. Zatara's stony face filled it, his voice grieved, "Tornado. Did you —?"
RT spoke firmly, "yes, Zatara. We saw. Celestial defenses have failed, initiate all terrestrial measures."
"Affirmative, see you in the field," Zatara's face blinked out, the screen disappearing with him.
Red Tornado turned to us, the faint sound of his whirring joints all that could be heard in the silence of the room. His voice was unmoved, "I must join the League. We will protect the planet at all costs." He shifted into a softer, more tender tone, "but should we fail, the responsibility falls to you.
I kept my eyes on Tornado's face, despite the fact I could feel Kaldur scanning ours. He stepped out from our line, unshaken, "we stand ready."
Unknown, ?:? ?
Iris filled the view of a holo-screen, her professional composure as evident as ever as she stood tall and calm. Central City fell apart behind her, screaming civilians running for their lives as alien ships blew apart buildings. "This is Iris West-Allen, reporting live. The extraterrestrials have brought their relentless global attack to Central City." A beam from one of the alien's ships destroyed an arch behind her, the concrete crumbling to the street with a resounding crack and boom.
She shrunk back from the devastation, fear spelled out on her face. Another beam vaporized a group of civilians behind her, their arms stretched up in panicked surrender as they ran. A blur of red — Barry — swooped in from the right of the frame to scoop Iris up just as an alien ship plowed through the ground where she had been standing. Alien ships parked themselves in view of the camera, and Zatara's voice filled the room, chanting something I couldn't make out. Pure, golden light filled the screen, and the cameraman was on top of a roof, Zatara stood before him with one glowing hand outstretched. Flash zoomed into the frame, setting Iris down gently.
Zatara grabbed his cane, "you should both be safe here. At least for now."
Iris turned to Barry, "thank you… Flash." Her voice went from tender to awkward as she had to address her husband like she didn't know him, "and Zatara." Barry laid a hand on her shoulder before he sped off, and Zatara lifted off the ground in the same direction with a harsh chant. The camera zoomed in on Iris as she faced it, her eyebrows drawn tightly together, "Denny, you okay?"
The cameraman flashed her a thumbs-up, just visible in the corner of the frame. She offered him the smallest smile, the camera following her arm as gestured towards a nearby burning building, "as you can… see, the Justice League is… attempting to hold the line." Flash picked up a young woman, he and Zatara clear against the miserly gray of the sky just before a beam of light and an explosion rocked the camera, plumes of black smoke blooming out in every direction. Iris dropped her composure as the camera panned back over to her, one hand extended towards where her husband had been standing only seconds earlier. The camera caught the softest whisper from her, as an alien ship rocketed towards the foreground of the camera, "no."
A new feed snapping into place in midair, Cat Grant's desk seated in front of her own feed of Central City. Her voice was frantic as she screamed at the screen, "Iris! Iris get out of there —!" The screen blurred and turned to a mess of static and rainbow-coloured bars before cutting out completely.
Cat sat back in her chair, tears pooling in the bottom of her eyes as she attempted to maintain some semblance of calm composure. Her hands fisted in the papers on her desk, the paper crinkling beneath her perfect, pink acrylic nails, "I'm sorry, we're experiencing technical difficulties from our Central City feed." Her eyes slid over to the giant NO SIGNAL behind her, a tear slipping down her cheek, "we take you now to a devastated Taipei." A new feed blossoming against the darkness, the TAIPEI 101 glowing behind a clip of the Hawks disintegrating within alien beams. Cat's voice maintained its usual bounciness, "where another League contingent is having a bit more luck."
A new clip of Dinah and Oliver standing back to back on a rooftop filled the screen, her cry causing an explosion within a pod of alien ships that rocked the camera. Oliver turned to face her as a cloud of black smoke filled the air, drawing back an arrow as an alien ship emerged from the cover. It was too late, and that same searing light filled the screen.
Taipei faded into black, and Cat faced the camera, face and tone sober, "ladies and gentlemen; we have lost Black Canary, Green Arrow, and the Hawks. Other heroes reported missing or dead include Batman, Icon, Atom, and Aquaman."
Another new feed, Diana's vicious face covering the screen. Her lasso was wrapped around an alien ship, and she flung it headlong into another one as it zoomed past. The victory was cut short when RT's voice boomed out, "Wonder Woman! Above you!"
A beam knocked into her, and she was gone. Red Tornado flew out from under a particularly large ship, and a clip of it settling onto the entirety of Smallville filled the screen. It was shaped kind of like an egg, with parts shaped like thorns stretching out from it. A few glowing, giant red holes covered the sides of the ship, and the whole thing looked so out of place in contrast with the idyllic farmhouse in the foreground of the shot. Tornado kept fighting, shooting out bursts of crimson wind towards the ships that zoomed around him. His voice filled not only the screen, but the comms in our ears, "Red Tornado to Cave: I fear I am all that remains of the League."
Rob called out, "RT —" he cut himself off as a beam hit Tornado square in the back, and he disintegrated before our eyes. I couldn't look away from all the feeds floating in the air now, so many cities torn apart, so many innocent lives taken. I added Red Tornado to the list of names I was tallying in my head.
We turned to each other, uncertainty a black shroud hanging in the air. Kaldur spoke calmly, "we are Earth's heroes now."
"So what are we waiting for," Connor demanded, "a theme song?"
"A strategy," Kaldur said, "Earth's weapons are ineffective. And it has been made tragically clear a direct attack will not succeed."
Rob tapped away at his holo-computer, "checking satellite imagery…" a giant hologram of the globe filled the room, bright red spots like blood stains blooming out from major population centres.
Connor pointed at a more concentrated red dot, located very high up on the hologram, "that one get lost?"
I had to blink, and Rob seemed utterly taken aback, "it's Superman's Fortress of Solitude."
Connor looked down, surprised, "Superman has a Fortress of Solitude?"
"His glorified Kryptonian man cave, yes," I said, my eyes focusing on that little red dot.
Rob sent me a sidelong annoyed glance, "its powersource must have attracted the alien's attention. At least enough to send a scout ship to investigate."
Superboy turned away, voice tight, "must be some fortress."
M'gann rested a hand on his shoulder, "Connor —"
He turned to her, taking on a lighter tone, "no, it's okay. I guess there's a lot about Superman I'll never know." His eyebrows drew together, a certain gravity hitting his features as he seemed to realize how true that was, "y'know. Now."
"We will target this lone ship," Kaldur said commanding, staring at the hologram cooly.
"Yeah," Wally said menacingly, "break it down, build more. Hit those ugly aliens with their own mojo."
He slammed his fist into his palm as Artemis elbowed him sharply, a yelp echoing from him. She leaned in to speak in his ear, "Martian and Kryptonian in the house."
M'gann and Connor were eyeing him with guarded faces, and Kid's face fell into a more typical, goofy expression, "uh, not that all aliens are automatically ugly."
"Keep digging yourself into a deeper hole here, KF," I said, walking over to Superboy and M'gann. I stared them in the face, trying to seem as serious as possible, "you two are friends of Earth — family to us, practically. And quite a few aliens just —" died was the word I wanted to use, but I bit it back, "fought out there to save us. We will never stop trusting you on the foundation of your species, the two of you are just as much from Earth as we are."
M'gann nodded, taking my hands in her own, "we appreciate it, Catgirl."
Rob typed something into his holo-computer, face lighting up, "there should be some thermal suits in the back room, designed for arctic temperatures."
Kaldur gathered us round, and I had to examine each of my teammates carefully, knowing this could be the last time I saw them. The curve of Dick's pinched-together eyebrows, every freckle on Wally's face, the gleam of Artemis' eyes, the particular green of M'gann's skin, Kaldur's tattoos, the wrinkle starting to form on Connor's forehead from frowning so much. Kaldur regarded us with calm authority, "this is our mission: protect Earth at all costs. We will engage that scouting ship, and as Kid Flash so eloquently put it, hopefully reverse-engineer the alien's technology so we may use it upon them. I believe in you all, and may we do right by our mentor's sacrifices so that Earth may be saved. Now go suit up."
We nodded, dispersed, and then the die was cast.
THE FORTRESS OF SOLITUDE
Unknown, ?:? ?
Despite the warmth of the thermal suit I was wearing, the cold of the wind here still bit at my face. I tugged the furry hood of my parka closer to my cheeks, settling into place next to Artemis as M'gann flew from the south towards the alien ship. I could barely see the outline of her against the sky, her camouflage mode working as well as ever. Artemis nocked an arrow. My hand tightened around my whip. The steady pulse of the mindlink echoed in my head.
A low creaking sound of metal ripping apart filled the air, paired with the buzzing hum of electricity. M'gann's voice entered the link, "communications disabled," a loud boom, practically deafening in the snowy quiet, "propulsion disabled."
Artemis curled from around the rock we were hiding behind, letting her arrow fly. That foam she used spread across the big red dot of the ship, which we had discerned to be the door. The little attachment on top of the ship, vaguely reminiscent of a periscope, started to whir around, wildly firing beams in our direction.
I rolled to the left as a giant hole was blasted in the ice guarding us from the ship, debris hitting the top of my head. I shook it off, meeting Artemis' wide-eyed stare from my crouched position. She was safe. No more shots rang out, and Artemis spoke into the mindlink, "and ET's are sealed inside!"
The sharp noise of the ice beneath the ship splitting into a million pieces made me jump, Kaldur emerging from the water beneath, waterbearers at the ready. I almost screamed when the periscope-thingy pivoted to face him, the glowing of it indicating an incoming beam. A blur of white flew through the air, Wolf knocking the cannon away from Kaldur with his whole body, jaws sunk into the metal. Superboy soon followed, holding the cannon in place. Total relief filled me, Robin and Kid jumping onto the roof of the ship from wherever they were hiding.
Rob tapped away at his holo-computer, "identifying weapon's structural stress points and links to the ship…" he pointed at various points on the cannon, "here, here, and here!"
M'gann raised her hand, the metal of the cannon crushing inwards in exactly those places. Connor started to tug, the low groaning of the cannon detaching from the ship filling the air, and underneath the faintest whirring noise. Wolf ran at his master, knocking Connor off his feet and onto the ice. A burst of orange light filled my vision, and when I blinked Wolf was gone.
A dawning horror bloomed across the mindlink on all sides as what had just happened finally clicked. M'gann's devastated voice was booming in the heavy silence, "Wolf…"
Rob swiped at his holoscreen, taken aback, "there — there was no indication of feedback," he turned to Connor, whose head was hung in grief, "I'm sorry."
Superboy raised his head, fixing his gaze on the ship, "can't do anything for him now." He grabbed the cannon again, the metal creaking as he tore it from the ship, "let's go!"
I nodded at Artemis, who nocked another arrow as we prepared to move towards the Bioship. M'gann was working some kind of Martian magic on the stolen tech, the shell of the Bioship twisting up and connecting with the end of the cannon, "re-rooting systems to integrate weapon into ship's Biomatrix. I'll need to de-camouflage for a few minutes."
"We may not have a few minutes," Robin said, and I followed the rest of the team's gaze to where two alien ships zoomed past in the sky. I tensed, the ships making a U-turn to wheel on the Bioship.
Kaldur's voice boomed in my skull, "Miss Martian, open fire!"
"Can't," she said desperately, turning back to where the cannon was integrating with the Bioship, "weapons systems are offline to incorporate the new cannon. And that's not fully integrated yet either!"
"'Gotcha covered!" Artemis called, nocking two more arrows, "get inside! We're almost there!"
She let the arrows fly towards the approaching ship, and I ran by her side as we sprinted towards the Bioship. Explosions sounded in the air behind us, and I turned and looked over my shoulder to see one of the ships hitting the ice and skidding towards us. Bits of ice flew up like sparks, the screeching noise of metal against the ground piercing my enhanced ears. I missed a step, slipping on the ice to fall on my face. Leaning forward on my hands, I barely registered M'gann's voice, "Artemis, Catgirl, behind you!"
I rolled to my back, watching Artemis wheel around, another arrow ready to fire. She drew it back, and that orange light filled my vision and it was all over.
Before I could blink, Artemis was gone.
M'gann screamed with her real voice, "ARTEMIS!"
I joined her, a loud keening cry ripping itself from my throat as I scrambled backwards on the ice. Wally was screaming her name too, and Kaldur was saying something behind me, but all I could hear was Carla's voice, of all people, in my head; just run sweetheart.
A chasm opened in the ice as I tore off towards the ship, vision blurring with tears. The full weight of what was really happening hit me all at once. Bruce was dead. The whole League was dead. Wolf was dead. Artemis, my teammate, my confidant, the girl who was growing to be a sister to me, was dead. I couldn't breathe. Nothing was okay, and nothing would ever be okay again.
Stumbling to where the rest of the team stood, I could only watch as Wally stared out to where the alien ship now lay sunk, his face both unbearably sad and enraged. "They're dead," he choked out, anger and grief dripping from him like poison, "every single alien. If it's the last thing I do."
The urge to reach out and comfort him gripped me, but I didn't know how. Instead, Dick fell on me, grabbing at my face and arms and checking for any sign of injury. I took his hands in mine, "I'm fine. I'm okay. I made it." Artemis didn't. The unspoken words hung heavy in the air, and a low sob came from M'gann.
Connor's voice was scratchy when he spoke, "what do we do now?"
Kaldur turned away from where Artemis had died, "we carry on."
Artemis' empty seat stuck out like a sore thumb. In front of Wally, across from Kaldur, and a short diagonal line across from me. I couldn't do anything but sit,
curled into a ball and my head resting on Rob's shoulder next to me. His fingers were entwined with mine, each of us with an iron-tight grip. I felt empty, like all the nerves responsible for me feeling anything were deadened and shrivelled inside my chest. Unshed tears still clung to my eyes, finally spilling over onto my mask as M'gann started to crack behind me.
Little sobs came from her pilot's chair, and Wally promptly started to lose his shit. He slammed his fists into the little tray table attached to his chair, noises of pure anger tearing themselves out of his throat. I was reminded of the smell of Artemis next to me, and the sea air, her voice in my ear, 'he was kinda hot today though, when he was ordering everyone around.'
Kaldur practically leapt from his seat, "there will be time to mourn later. Now we have a job to do. Defend the Earth; and ensure Artemis' sacrifice was not in vain."
I lifted my head from Dick's shoulder, stepping out of my chair as softly as I knew how to. I felt disconnected from myself, too-light and floaty. Settling on my knees next to Wally's chair, I grabbed his hands, "she'd want us strong."
His lip quivered, "it's not fair."
"Nothing's fair," I said, "and she knew that. She knew that better than anyone. Honour what her life was worth by making sure that it saves the world."
After a long pause, M'gann spoke, "back to the Cave?"
"The Hall of Justice," Kaldur said, "the human race must know that there are still heroes defending them. There is still hope."
Returning to my seat, I had to pose a question, "these aliens, what do they want?"
"Clearly to take over Earth," Kaldur said.
"But why," I asked, "why haven't we seen a single one of them? Why haven't they posed any demands?"
"On Mars, we knew of a certain philosophy many alien races follow," M'gann said, "they have vast empires across hundreds of planets, and each time a new one is captured they take up a kind of, scorched earth policy. Every last remnant of the culture that had been there before is wiped away, and alien citizens are put there in its place."
"Why would they ever do that, they know nothing about Earth," Rob said, eyebrows pinched together.
"The races who subscribe to that kind of philosophy believe, fundamentally, that their way of life is better than of each planet they subjugate."
"That's horrible," I said, fingers shaking. So not only were these imperialistic aliens trying to take over Earth, they were bigoted imperialistic aliens.
"How are we going to let anyone know that we're still alive and fighting, much less the world?" Connor demanded.
Kaldur settled into his seat, the Bioship picking up speed, "we'll figure it out when we get there."
THE HALL OF JUSTICE
Unknown, ?:? ?
We watched from behind as a pod of three alien ships swooped down towards troops on the ground, cannons at the ready. Connor stood, "let me at 'em."
M'gann opened a hole just wide enough for him to drop out of, and I watched from the front window as he landed on the back of an alien ship, punching into the metal with a viciousness. M'gann blasted the other two ships out of the sky, the newly integrated cannon working remarkably well. Just as Superboy's ship hit the ground, trailing smoke and sparks, the Bioship landed gracefully on the ground next to it.
We disembarked quickly, the soldiers forming a cheering crowd as we descended the Bioship's ramp. I kept my game face on, schooling my features into something calm, cool, collected, and totally not what I was currently feeling. One soldier nudged his buddy, "see? It is Superman! I told you he wouldn't leave us out here alone!"
His friend rolled his eyes, "I don't know. He looks kinda young. Where's the cape?"
The weight of who he had to live up to seemed to settle over Connor's shoulders, "I'm not Superman."
The general who seemed to be leading these people stepped forward, voice rough and scratchy, like he spent too much time knocking back whiskey and smoking cigars, "I don't know who you are, son. And right now, I don't care. You wear the S, and you got the job done."
Connor looked down, voice quieter this time, "I'm not Superman."
The man smiled at him, "tell that to the enemy." Kaldur approached him, and he straightened up with a salute, "General Wade Eiling, US Air Force."
Kaldur nodded, "Aqualad. Justice League. We'll help you salvage as many of the alien's cannons as possible." His face grew grave, and angry, "then we start taking back what is ours."
We managed to rescue a good few of the cannons, and while I wasn't entirely sure as to how the Air Force was going to weaponize them without alien tech of their own, I just let them do their job. It was hitting me now that this wasn't going to be a short fight, not the usual reconnaissance mission gone sideways that we usually embarked upon. This was planet-wide siege warfare, with hundreds of lives lost each second.
I pulled Connor aside as he was stacking the last of the stolen cannons, pointing to his shirt, "I know Clark didn't talk to you much, if ever. But, do you know what that means?"
He frowned down at the red S, "it's Kryptonian, isn't it?"
"It's so much more than that," I said with a shake of my head. "That there is the symbol of the great and noble House of El. Superman's family back on Krypton before it was destroyed. That symbol, that little mess of red lines that happens to look like a latin letter, it stands for hope. That's its meaning. Which means to these people, you stand for hope. We all do. We aren't people, we're ideas. So that's what we're here to do, fight, and maybe die, and give the people of Earth a little hope."
It looked like he wanted to say something, but he swallowed, Adam's apple bobbing, and nodded. We walked back to the others, and the soldiers parted like the Red Sea for us to enter the Hall.
The serene quiet of the Hall, a place of wonder and majesty, was filled with a different kind of silence now. Several statues of our mentors, which had once stood imposingly above the room, were fallen. A solitary line of them still stood, coated in dust and filth. The debris was a crumpled mess, the pristine floor now dirty and covered in bits of rock.
Dick and I both turned to Batman's severed head, tilted to the side next to the Flash's. He grabbed my hand, "th — they're really gone."
I tried to envision a Wayne Manor without Bruce in it, and I fell short. What was Wayne Manor without his warm, fatherly affection, his brooding air, that full-bellied laugh that was so hard to get out of him but when you did it rattled furniture? The sarcasm, the quick-wit, the playful banter. I thought of Selina, and instantly pushed that thought away. If she was gone —
M'gann didn't let me finish the thought, hovering to where the head of Martian Manhunter lay, tears already dripping down her face. She crumpled before the now-weathered stone, sobs tearing from her with a ferocity that made her whole body shake. I was about to move to comfort her when her crying stopped, and her head jolted up. Flying backwards, she lifted the upper half of the statue straight into the air with her telekinesis.
Underneath, like an insect beneath a log, was Martian Manhunter.
"Uncle J'onn!" M'gann flung the statue to the side with a large crash, the glass of the nearby wall shattering entirely.
But when she moved to fling herself at the man, Kaldur raced in front of her, hand already traveling towards his waterbearer. His voice rang clear through the link, "M'gann! Check his mind. Make sure he is who he appears to be."
Her hand flew to her temple, and her excitement and joy was a shining light in the mindlink, "it's him. He's real. And he's alive!"
Connor spoke aloud, "but we saw you get disintegrated. You and Superman!" He rocked back, seeming to realize he was showing bias towards his would-be father figure, "and everyone!"
M'gann helped J'onn to his feet as the Martian clutched his head, "yes, I remember. But… I cannot remember how I survived." He turned to his niece, "or… how I arrived here?"
"Maybe you were density shifting and the beam passed right through you?" she suggested, voice bright for the first time since Artemis' death.
Rob nodded enthusiastically, "scrambling your brains along the way!"
Martian Manhunter nodded, hand coming up to grasp his forehead, "my mind is clouded. I feel certain I had something important to tell you."
Wally slapped himself on the forehead, a small spark of hope lighting on his end of the link as he spoke through it, "hello Wally! C'mon!"
Dick's face was suspicious as Kid and I followed him back out of the hall, the soldiers helpfully pulling up a Jeep for us to stand on so Rob could properly analyze the cannon we'd integrated into the Bioship. I peered over his shoulder, "so what exactly are we trying to prove?"
"I knew it!" Wally said through the mindlink, ignoring me, "look! It's giving off Zeta beams. The same stuff that powers our Zeta tubes!" He grabbed Rob's arms, shaking him a little, "th — this thing doesn't disintegrate! It teleports!" Kid was working himself up into an ecstatic frenzy, "Artemis is alive!"
Rob was frowning down at the analysis, "maybe, but—"
KF cut him off, "no maybes! They're all alive!"
For one, precious moment I allowed myself to have hope. Artemis, Bruce, Selina, the League, all alive, just in need of a rescue. But Rob's maybe weighed on me, what did he know? He still wasn't smiling. M'gann's jubilant voice echoed through the mindlink, directed at J'onn, "that must have been what you wanted to tell us!"
The now-familiar roar of alien ships filled the air, and we barely had time to duck for cover before beams were being launched at us. Kaldur spoke in the link, "we're on our way!"
"Negative!" Rob said, peering over the edge of the Jeep, "we can't win this. Miss Martian, camo the Bioship!"
The camouflage rolled over it, but not before a beam hit the bow. The distant sensation of agony hit the mindlink from both M'gann and J'onn, and I sprinted towards the entrance before anyone else could move. Rob followed with a hasty, "we're falling back!", but I sped through the doors and flung myself to the floor at M'gann's side. Connor cradled her, tears streaming from her eyes. She look harrowed, and I wiped her tears away, shushing her softly.
She turned to me with a whisper, "Cat, something isn't right."
Eiling and co. stormed the room before I could ask her what she meant, his nasally accent grating on my ears, "we're trapped!"
Kaldur pressed a hand to the keypad outside the door that lead to the inner chamber, the metal doors sliding open with a clang. He turned to us, "maybe not." The soldiers entered first, forming a protective line as we made our way through the long room. I tried to read as many of their names as possible, just in case. As we ran, Kaldur explained the plan, "we can all Zeta to the Cave," he turned to J'onn, "if you can grant us computer clearance to access the tubes."
J'onn looked beleaguered, "I can only authorize one at a time."
Kaldur nodded, pointing to the entrance of the Zeta tube, "send the soldiers first."
"Belay that!" Eiling shouted, "you seven are assets we cannot afford to lose!"
Kaldur nodded, and J'onn set to authorizing the first trip. A scanner dropped from the ceiling, blue-green light flickering over J'onn as he spoke aloud, "override, Martian Manhunter, zero-seven."
That familiar automated female voice rung out, "recognized, access granted."
I moved to the back of the line, determined to be the last to leave. M'gann went first, then Dick, just as Wally was scanned, an explosion wracked the front of the room. We turned, Superboy running to a soldier with his leg pinned beneath a rock. Before Wally could take off anywhere, I watched Kaldur grab him with both hands and fling him into the light of the Zeta tubes. The roar of machine gun fire filled the room, and Connor lifted the boulder off the man, slinging him over a shoulder. He called out to Kaldur, "he goes next."
The computer scanned him, "Private Jason Bard, US MC, A04."
Connor helped him in, and the jumped forward himself. As he faded into golden light, alien beams started to hit soldiers, vaporizing them on the spot. I watched Eiling disintegrate, his last expression one of twisted agony. Kaldur flung J'onn into the Zeta, "they need you more than me, go!"
I grabbed at Kaldur, trying to force him behind me and in front of the scanner. But he was always so much stronger, and he placed me behind him, "run agapía!"
The last thing I saw before I dissolved into golden light was Kaldur's skeleton, illuminated to stark clarity as an alien beam threw him backwards.
I hit the other end of the Zeta tube screaming furiously. I pounded my fists against the metal, "KALDUR! KALDUR! KALDUR YOU STUPID FUCKING—"
Arms wrapped around me from behind, pulling me kicking and screaming from the Zeta tube, and I wasn't thirteen and in the Cave anymore. I was a tiny, shivering little girl, fighting tooth and claw to Carla's dead body. I bit and kicked and punched, trying desperately to scrabble my way across the room to the Zeta tubes, to call for Kaldur.
A cool hand laid itself across my forehead, and I was utterly at peace. Nothing was wrong, why was I acting like this? I looked up and into M'gann's eyes, just a shade too orange to be the same colour as mine. A hint of revulsion curled in my chest as I realized what she had done. But it was for the best, I couldn't be losing my shit right now. She took her hand away, and Connor let go of me. His arms were red where I had scratched at him, "I'm so sorry."
He shook his head, "it's fine, what happened?"
I floundered, unable to conjure the words. Finally, I turned to Rob, "Kaldur sacrificed himself for me. For all of us."
My knees buckled, and I almost hit the floor again. This was too much, how was it even possible to feel this much? J'onn took over explaining what I couldn't, and everything else passed in a blur. Contacting every hero left on Earth, offering them the Cave as a beacon and a homebase. The arrival, dozens of them, some who I had never met before, piling in.
My mind tuned back in for an argument, Rob addressing the five of us, "our next mission is clear. If we believe the aliens have been teleporting their victims—"
Kid cut him off, "we do."
Rob turned to him, "then the only reasonable detention facility is here." He pulled up an image of that thorny egg-shaped ship from before, "their Mothership, atop what used to be Smallville." He dropped the hologram, turning to J'onn, ring any bells?"
"No…," he said slowly, "I'm sorry."
Rob turned to Connor, "Superboy, you'll create a distraction."
"No!" M'gann said, turning to Connor with a horrified expression, "he's offering you as a sacrifice. Aqualad would never do that!"
"You're right," Dick said plainly. "Aqualad would sacrifice himself, a mistake that just cost us our leader." I swayed, guilt and empathy for the burden now laying on Dick's shoulders washing over me. He was starting to raise his voice, "Superboy is the most likely to be perceived as a threat, motivating the aliens to deploy."
Wally stepped forward, trying to pacify the situation, "worst case, he's teleported inside. And we set him free along with Artemis." He paused, stuttering, "and — uh, Aqualad an — and everyone."
Connor and M'gann turned to each other, carrying on a silent conversation. He looked resigned to his fate, and I tuned back out, the next few hours passing in a blur. Someone was leading me to a back room, and I put on a fresh suit, new contacts, new enhancers. I watched dimly from somewhere outside of myself as Roy stocked his quiver, Zatanna and a hero I had just met named Rocket put on their suits, Tula and Garth arrived from Atlantis. I sharpened my claws as Rob strapped on the most utility belts I had ever seen him carry, each lined with gadgets and explosives. His face was drawn and severe, an expression I had only ever seen on Batman painted across it.
When I tuned in again, I was standing in front of a hologram serving as a camera, and M'gann was speaking. "And though we know all seems lost, the one thing the aliens cannot destroy is hope."
Connor picked up after her, "hope survives because the battle is not over. Not as long as even one of us is willing to fight."
The hologram panned to Wally, "it doesn't matter how many fall, for new heroes will always rise to carry on. Bringing all their resources, their skills, their talents to bear, to defeat the enemy."
Wally nudged me, and it was my turn. I faced the camera, without a script and without any idea of what to say. I thought of Artemis, of her stoic strength, of Bruce's infinite steadiness, of Selina's composure no matter what happened on a mission. I stepped forward, "though many of you may have suffered losses, we will carry the names of those we loved into this battle. They are who we are fighting for, and so long as we breathe, it is our duty to honour their sacrifice and create a future they could be proud of."
Rob stepped in front of all of us, voice rising, "the people of Earth will survive this. We will rebuild, and we will thrive. Never doubt, and never forget. The Earth will never surrender."
The camera held on our stoic faces for just a few more seconds, and then fizzled out.
It was time to put our money where our mouths were.
Rob stood before us, atop the stump of what had been a tree of epic proportions, monitoring the Mothership through binoculars. M'gann stepped forward, her and J'onn the first to play their part in this plan. Dick whispered something to her I didn't quite catch, and she and Martian Manhunter flew into the sky, the sight of their clasped hands the last thing I could make out of them before they camouflaged themselves.
I waited with bated breath as seconds ticked by, the wind stinging my ears. I fought the urge to cup my hands over them, fiddling with my utility belt for the five millionth time. Something heavy hung in the air, disturbed only by M'gann's voice in my mind, "ready and in position."
With a nod from Robin, Connor launched into the air and landed on the side of the Mothership, pieces crumbling beneath his weight. I lost sight of him as smoke billowed into the air. I could barely breathe, only relaxing somewhat as I found him pulling a cannon out of the ship. Rob's voice flashed through the link, "careful! Don't disconnect the power source!"
Connor held the cannon aloft, bellowing into the night, "alright you glorified trespassers! You wanna see how a real alien fights?!"
That same searing light bloomed in the mouth of the cannon he was holding, launching forward to destroy some kind of alien machine clinging to the wall of the Mothership. Two of them exploded in a burst of smoke and flame, and a metallic whirring filled the air. Before Connor could move, thousands of alien ships filled the sky.
Wally tugged Dick and I under his arms, Connor's voice echoing in my skull, "now or never!"
The world blurred beneath me, wind stinging my eyes to tears as Wally ran us towards the edge of the cliff. For a moment we were weightless, flying through the air as Kid jumped, his legs still kicking in the air. And then we fell. Wally let go of us, and we tumbled towards the metal of the alien's loading dock. Tucking my knees up, I rolled on impact, barely coming into a crouch before I was up and running again.
The three of us ducked into a shadowed alcove just as another ship flew out of the loading dock. My heart thumped rapidly in my chest, and all I could smell around me was the alien ship, the strange nothingness of their scent mind-boggling. It wasn't quite the same as a hospital, where all scent was subsumed into the tang of disinfectant. It was just empty… like an old room that hadn't been opened for decades, without the smell of dust and antiques. Rob curled around the edge of the alcove, voice sharp, "way's clear, go!"
We sprinted for the next bit of cover, a floor-to-ceiling metal pillar about a meter in diameter, connecting what looked like giant pipes. I was squished between Rob's back and Wally's chest as we pressed ourselves against it, and I could feel their heartbeats hammering a mile a minute. The loud buzzing whirr of an alien machine passed us, and we flipped to view it. It was a security camera of some kind, flying through the air with tripod legs and a big, glowing red eye.
Buzzing in my left ear. The hairs on the back of my neck barely had time to stand up before a crash echoed behind us. I whipped around, a shock of blue sparks and smoke trailing through the air. J'onn and M'gann landed in front of us, just barely discernible in their camouflage modes. Rob gestured for them to follow, and we tore through the halls of the Mothership, towards the centre. That's where Kid estimated the holding cells would be, as well as a way to destroy it.
I slowed as the sound of M'gann and J'onn's footfalls behind us stopped. A slight twinge through the mindlink, and then pure shock from M'gann, "no… he's gone!"
Pivoting, I ran back to her, Wally and Dick right behind me. I wrapped my arms around her as she crumpled to the floor, waves of grief and desperation radiating from her mind. She was already crying, and Wally fell to his knees next to us, "it's alright. We'll find him with Artemis. I know it."
His voice was so warm, so hopeful. J'onn's was not, "no. My mind is clearer now. The disintegration beam is exactly that. There is no detention facility, no prisoners to rescue." Wally stood, face growing stormy as Martian Manhunter continued, " Our mission holds no purpose."
"No! You're wrong!", his voice was growing increasingly frantic, "The Zeta radiation proves she's alive! She's!—"
Rob grabbed him by the collar, cutting Wally off and forcing him to look him in the eyes, "stop it KF! I've been scanning for League and Team signals since we got inside, they're not here." Wally's face fell, and my own grief rose up in me like a wave. They were dead. All of them. Sacrificed to the hordes of alien invaders. Rob's voice was regretful, "Artemis is gone. But our mission still holds purpose; to destroy the Mothership."
My resolve solidified. I was going to save the world or die trying. Either way, I could grieve when this was over, or I would be dead and not have to deal with it. But right now, I needed to get over myself and put the mission, put Earth first. Helping M'gann to her feet, I brushed her hair behind her ear. Maybe the last affectionate thing I would ever do for her.
We started running again, only stopping to let Rob hack his way past the biggest door I had yet to see in the whole of the ship. A wall of heat hit me as soon as it slid open, an orange-y glow filling the room. We ducked behind a giant exposed pipe. It only came up to my chest crouching, hardly the best cover, but it was cover nonetheless. We stared out at a giant golden-orange ball, opened in the centre to reveal nothing but coppery light, the rest of it surrounded by horizontal and vertical platforms. They were arranged strangely, weaving in and out of one another to look almost like some kind of markings. Rob tapped away at his holo-comp, "this is the power core. Blow this and the whole Mothership blows."
We ran towards it, and I followed Dick all the way to edge of the nearest platform. Something was… tugging at us, and I watched in horror as at first Dick's cape flew out towards the core, and then the rest of him. Stretching out a hand, I grabbed at his collar as he fell to the ground of the platform. I dug my claws as deep as I could into the smooth metal, barely making a groove. Someone grabbed my arm, Wally, but the extra weight just added to the gravity being exerted on us. My claws slipped loose of the metal, the scraping of them against the platform going all the way up my arm as we tumbled towards the core. Swinging onto Rob's back, I shifted out of the way as he reached for his grappling hook. It flew across the room, hitting the edge of a platform with a loud clang. We stopped dead, the force of it snapping the cord of Robin's grappling hook like a whip and flinging us up and down.
I felt the muscles of Dick's arm and back strain under the pressure of holding on to the grappling hook with me on his back and Wally grabbing his hand. The metallic stomping of one of those alien security robots creeping around the edge of a platform filled my ears.
Curling one arm around Dick's neck, I uncoiled my bullwhip and snapped it at the sentinel. It wrapped around what would have been its neck, and I pulled. Its pincers came free of the platform, and it flew towards the burning centre of the core. Tugging, I yanked my whip free of it just as it fell through the maze of platforms. A hissing noise filled the room, the sound of metal melting. Dick panted just below my ear, his voice filling the mindlink, "good one."
M'gann and J'onn appeared above us like heaven-sent angels, M'gann's hands flying to her temples and eyes glowing as she used her powers. The tension immediately eased from Rob, her telekinesis holding us and the grappling hook aloft and gently lowering us to a safe section of the core. Heat radiated from beneath whatever material was covering the strange power source beneath. It was still hot, the warmth soaking into the rubber of my boots, but it wasn't at melt-entire-metal-robots levels.
Dick unstrapped the explosives I had watched Connor clasp around his chest just hours before. He flipped them down onto the core, fingers flying as he primed them to explode. Wally looked at him, some kind of haunted acceptance on his face, "you knew. You knew from the beginning why we were really here."
I thought back to Dick's non-committal 'maybe', the grim look on his face. He could have known from the beginning, but something told me he had just refused to hope. Bruce had drilled Murphy's Law into our heads. Expect, plan for, and brace yourself for the worst possible conclusion. Always. Dick didn't confirm or deny anything, turning away from us as a timer popped up on his holo-comp, "four minutes, let's go."
M'gann lifted us up off the core, and we hit the ground running. Tearing past the still empty doorway, we wove through the tangled mess of halls ever outwards. The persistent beeping of Rob's timer was a constant reminder of the threat we had laid behind us. We ran and ran and ran until I no longer felt the pounding my feet against metal, the brush of air past my face. We ran until we came to a door that closed on us. Wally glared at the door, "perfect."
The distant clanging of alien robot sentinels no longer distant, but very, very close. I whipped around just in time to watch one of them prepare to charge, the crackle of copper-coloured energy sparking around its eye. We leaped and rolled to the side as the beam hit where we had stood, smoke rising in a giant plume that filled the air and choked me. Rob looked down at his timer, face growing severe, "sixteen seconds and counting." He turned to M'gann and J'onn, "Manhunter, take Miss Martian and go."
M'gann's indignation flickered across the mindlink, "no! We won't leave you."
"That's an order," Rob retaliated, "we'll follow as soon as we blow those doors."
She sent me a last, heartbroken glance before flipping her hood up and shifting through the floor. Dick, Wally, and I shared a nod. We had nothing to live for but the dead, and we knew what had to be done. We had a mission to complete.
We raced against the robots, Rob throwing a birdarang as we ducked out of our little shadowed niche. I curled my whip around the neck of a robot, pulling it to slam into the one next to it. An explosion sounded from deeper with the Mothership, and it was all over. I turned, catching sight of Dick and Wally a few feet away. I had to do something, say something. For the first time in my life, I was speechless. All I could think about was how much I loved them. The warmth Wally invoked in my chest, the fond memories and fake pickup lines he had ditched since meeting first M'gann and now Artemis; even every time he had rested his elbow on my head like I was a counter now filled me with affection.
And Dick. Dick. Robin. Rob. My Little Boy Blue. A swell of love for him washed over me. For every conversation we had carried on without speaking at all. For every misadventure, every fight, every movie marathon, every time he helped me with my math homework, every nickname, every summer filled with light and life.
For the fact that he had filled me with light and life. He had become my anchor, my safe place, my home. Neither the Manor, nor Selina's apartment, nor the Cave could ever compare to the sense of belonging I felt with him. He had taken me, as a small, bleeding, bruised thing and taught me that it was okay to enjoy things, to laugh, to feel safe. To love people, to let them love me. And I loved him, beyond any kind I had ever felt for anyone before.
My vision blurred with tears as more explosions rocked the Mothership, death looming ever closer. I tumbled to the side as the room we were in shook, just narrowly missing one of the robots' pincer. The metal floor was vibrating, and I looked up from my position on the floor to meet Dick's wide eyes. The mindlink was still barely there, and the shout I sent across it was more of a whisper, one that I didn't know if he would hear, "wherever we're going after this, I'll find you."
Fire billowed into the room, and a sensation I had never felt before rocked me. It was almost like being transported by Zeta Tubes, but instead of being just disorienting and faintly unpleasant, it was excruciating. I had never experienced pain like it in my life. The sensation of both burning and falling away. All I could smell was burning hair, gunpowder, and rancid roasted meat.
My last sight was Dick and Wally. Their faces mottled red, pink, brown, black, the skin burning away. Horror and agony painted across them.
And then there was nothing.
White. There was nothing but white.
I was suspended in motion and time. Weightless. Floating. Empty. Where was I? Who was I? What was happening to me?
Voices whispered into the white, hints of soft colour. Gray, low, quiet, gravelly. Bright yellow in sobs. A gentle green, murmuring softly. I latched onto a soft blue, grave but gentle. I knew that voice.
I wasn't expecting to be introduced to afterlife lying down.
The thing beneath me was long, flat, hard, and metallic. I was crying. Why was I crying? I had no frame of reference, just a feeling like someone had shoved a hand into my chest, grabbed my heart, and squeezed.
I sat up, breath coming in sharp gasps, sobs shaking me. Dick, Wally, Artemis, Kaldur, Connor, probably even M'gann at this point. Everyone I had ever loved was dead.
I was alone. Where even was I?
The mission room in the Cave. The rest of the team was scattered around on their own metal beds, harrowed expressions on all their faces.
Artemis was alive. Wally was alive. Connor, and M'gann, and Kaldur were all alive. And so Dick…
He was sitting near Bruce, sweat pouring off him. I pitched myself off the slab, a twinge of pain stabbing through my ankle. I just kept going, tripping over myself and sobbing all the way.
Dick turned, surprise evident just from his mouth, those damned sunglasses covering his eyes. I slammed into his chest, vision a blurry mess and entire body shaking. My arms were curled around his neck and my nose was buried in his shoulder before he could react, and all around me was his sandalwood-clove smell. The smell of home.
He was alive. He was alive. He was alive.
He clutched at me too, and the unmistakable sensation of tears hitting my hair told me he was crying just like I was. His voice was rough and scratchy, like he hadn't used it in months, "you're alive."
Bruce's voice sounded from my left, "what happened in there?"
He was talking to J'onn, who was clutching his head in pain, "the exercise… it all went wrong."
Rob spoke from above my head, "exercise?"
"Try to remember," Batman said commandingly. As he kept speaking, the tiniest hint of a memory twitched in the back of my mind, "what you experience was a training exercise. Manhunter psychically linked the seven of you within an artificial reality. You all knew this going in. What you didn't know is that it was a train-for-failure exercise. No matter what the team accomplished, the scenario was designed to grow worse. Still, you were aware nothing was real. Including the deaths of the entire Justice League."
"That is why you hardly grieved. Even when Wolf was disintegrated before your eyes," J'onn said. He was right, hadn't I just pushed the fact that so many of the people I loved, trusted, and relied upon had died to the back of my mind? He continued, "but all that changed. When Artemis died."
The girl in question had her head hung low, clutching at her own wrists with white fingers. I didn't miss the dismayed look Wally sent her way. J'onn kept going, voice now even gentler, "though consciously Miss Martian knew it was not real, her subconscious mind could not make that distinction. She forgot it was only an exercise. And her subconscious took control, making all of you forget too."
We all turned to M'gann. She stood in the centre of our metal slabs, hands held in front of her chest, face devastated. She looked back at all of us, tears starting to well in her eyes, "I — I'm so sorry."
"This isn't her fault!" Connor shouted, getting defensive on her behalf, "why didn't you stop the exercise?!"
"We tried," Manhunter refuted. "M'gann had… a death grip on the scenario. Even Artemis — who should have awakened upon her death — was so convinced she had passed, she slipped into a coma. I realized I would have to arrest control from Miss Martian's subconscious from within. But upon entering the reality, I was overwhelmed by your collective emotion. There was too much… noise to think clearly. To remember why I was there. The deaths of Aqualad and Superboy helped; but only when the Mothership exploded, and Robin, Catgirl, and Kid Flash were silenced, did my mind clear enough to remember my true purpose. To shock M'gann out of the exercise, before your comas became permanent. My apologies. I had no idea a training exercise could be so dangerous." His eyes shifted to M'gann, who was standing now with her head in her hands, turned away from us. His voice grew devastated, "so damaging."
J'onn turned to walk away as Captain Marvel wrapped his arms around M'gann, but he stumbled and had to be caught by Batman and Red Tornado before he hit the floor. Bruce's voice was quiet, "as bad as all that?"
Dick's arms tightened around me, and all I could think was yes.
J'onn voiced my thoughts, "perhaps worse."
"Yet this is not what troubles you," RT said.
"Make no mistake," Manhunter said, straightening to his feet, "my niece is untrained and cannot be held responsible for this. For our debacle."
Everyone else had turned their attention to M'gann, held up only by Captain Marvel's strength as she sobbed. But J'onn's voice held a dark promise. Bats looked Manhunter in the eye, "no one blames her. But clearly we underestimated her abilities."
J'onn turned his gaze to his niece, "you understated. In terms of raw power, she has the strongest telepathic mind I have ever encountered. Stronger by far than mine."
I tuned out at that point, pressing a quick kiss to Dick's cheek before slipping from his arms. My legs almost gave beneath me as I came to stand, but I walked shakily to M'gann, wrapping my arms around her. Marvel let her slip from his arms then, and we both sank to our knees. Her sobs were soaking the cotton of my shirt, and I found myself beginning to cry again too, even as I tried to comfort her.
My voice was rough, but managed to come out gentle, "it's okay, M'gann. We love you. Not one of us blames you. If anything this just proves how much you love us."
She just cried harder, and I shushed her in vain, stroking her hair. Before I knew it, Artemis had thrown herself on my back. Her body was shaking, but I didn't think she was crying. Next came Wally, his scent of cedar and bay leaves filling my nose. Then Connor, then Kaldur, then Robin, until finally we were all a tangled mess of limbs and bodies, crying emanating from the whole of us, like we were one, sole, grieving creature.
One thing was for certain; nothing would ever be the same.
So how was that? Hopefully not awful. Writing this was definitely a challenge. The pacing was an absolute bitch, and I really wanted to create a feeling of something being just a little bit off without Arabella actually realizing she was in a simulation. Her death scene was so hard to write, especially as there is literally no consensus as to what A) dying in an explosion feels like, B) what burning human bodies smell like. Here's to hoping I captured the feeling well enough.
tjgrov17: Thank you! Sorry for the wait, I hope you liked this!
KingTritium: I'm sorry you feel that way. I'll do my best to make sure you don't feel jarred from here on out.
HephaestusBuilds: Thank you very much! I actually really despise love triangles in most books (so many are so contrived, especially when it's a two-boys-fighting-for-same-girl type of thing. You'll notice a lack of catfighting between Arabella and Zatanna. (Heh. Puns.)
Briezy23: Oh my god thank you. 1) When you're ready, publish your story and let me know it's out. 2) I actually really liked Zatanna in my first watch of the show as a twelve-year-old. It was only when I went back as a teenager that I realized that she had some majorly annoying tendencies and that her and Robin's relationship was kind of bullshit. I still think her characterization can be considered logical, if not kind of trope-y, but I'm hoping to flesh her out a little. Thank you for the compliments on Arabella's development, the last chapter was definitely a change for her. She's not used to being Dick's second choice, haha. Never apologize for a long review, they're my favourites! I hope I did this episode justice for you!
Jayy: I'm not telling you that your thoughts and opinions are irrelevant. I was under the impression that you're the kind of reader who dismisses this story on the basis of it being a RobinxOC or RobinxCatgirl story, with no further analysis. I can see the argument for the platonic nature of their relationship, but that will change in due time. Because of their age (13 going on 14) I feel uncomfortable writing anything like what someone might call sexual tension between them, because they're literal fetuses. I won't spoil, but there are some big changes coming, especially after the end of season 1 when I start to diverge seriously from canon. I hope you stick around long enough to see that, and thank you for the compliments on Arabella xx.
A Deathless Song: First things first, love your username. Secondly, thank you so much! A lot of Arabella's season one arc is fleshing her out, establishing her in-universe, and establishing both her relationships with other characters and future conflict/themes. Hope the wait wasn't too long!
C.B Weasely: Thank you! I really can't wait to flesh out Zatanna and Arabella's dynamic (shit goes down). I love the idea of having a brother-and-sister relationship between Kaldur and Arabella. I think it really disproves the boys-and-girls-can't-be-friends thing that admittedly some people could shove this story into. Kaldur is just so calm and stable, and I think it's nice for Arabella to have an emotional rock like that, similarly to what Dick is like for her, without the additional confusing feelings later on, and Kaldur can lean on her too. They're really going to start understanding each other what with their mutual cases of at-the-moment unrequited love. Thank you, thank you, thank you, and I hope you love this chapter!
Lorien Legacy: Thank you!
So that's it for reviews, I hope you all loved this chapter, and hopefully I'll put out a new one soon (I'm about to start working on it, get ready for ANGST.)