Summary: Vandal Savage finds out what his future might have been, and makes a fateful choice.

Disclaimer: All of these characters remain the property of their owners/creators.

Rating: PG-13, for themes.

Time Frame: Just after "Hereafter." (spoilers)

Archiving: Be my guest, but e-mail me (eilandesq@hotmail.com) to let me know. . .I like to know where stuff I write ends up and I might want to see what else you've got.

BY ANY MEANS NECESSARY

I regain consciousness slowly, and it hurts as much as it always does when my regenerative powers have to work overtime. There's a definite downside to having revealed my special abilities to my enemies--even the ones with scruples against killing aren't hesitating any more as far as beating me to a bloody pulp goes. Fine. I'll be just as alive when it's over, and they'll be just as defeated and dead.

My eyes open, and Superman and that damned Martian are standing in front of me. My escape from Kasnia--two months of planning--all undone by these two and their friends coming out of nowhere and protecting that damned scientist. Had things gone according to plan, there would have been no evidence to betray my plan except a demolished building and a corpse. How had they known?

More importantly--why is that smug alien bastard alive, and looking like he's just come back from six months on a desert island with no razor? I lock eyes with him and call out, "You're looking rather healthy for a dead man--and rather scruffy for a live one. Another miracle for the Last Son of Krypton?"

Superman shrugged. "You're one to talk of miracle escapes, Savage--you've had two hundred and fifty centuries of them. It ends here, though. You've become an intolerable threat to life on Earth, and I promised someone that I would stop you by any means necessary."

"Oh, really--do you really expect me to be frightened by that threat, Kryptonian?" They have me shackled to a wall, and these shackles are not fragile by any stretch of the imagination. If they were foolish enough to leave me alone, I could escape eventually by simply pressing hard against the sharp edges until a hand falls off, then rinse and repeat while I wait for the first one to grow back. I've done that precisely thirty-seven times in the past nine hundred years--I've got it down to a science. I don't think he's going to give me the chance, though. "You don't seem to have the concept of 'immortal and can't be killed' down. Do whatever you wish--I'll survive it and be back for more."

Superman smiles coldly. "Oh, I think that I could come up with an effective method. I could send you on a one-way trip to the sun--even if you somehow survived, you'd drift down to the center and be trapped there until someone came to get you. There are seven black holes within range of the Javelin-7: you could be drifting down into an inescapable, lethal gravity well within thirty-six hours. Or we could just send you drifting off in interstellar space--the odds against a floating body being found in a location between stars and outside the established star lanes make winning the lottery look like an odds-on favorite. Shall I go on?"

"Don't bother--I get the message." A little life lesson for me: don't taunt people with faster than light spacecraft. I feel a genuine moment of fear, then relax. After all, they're violently opposed to killing--they didn't even kill that Toyman lunatic when it looked like he vaporized Superman. "Very well, then--by what means will you violate your principles and end my life?"

Superman's expression changes--it actually looks. . .sad? I must be misreading it. He shakes his head and says simply, "I feel obligated to give you one last chance to mend your ways, Savage--in spite of the centuries of evidence against you. You may not like what it entails, though."

I shrug. "Whatever it is--I am certain that I have endured worse."

Superman nods, and walks closer to me, stopping about three feet away. The Martian walks to a point between us, then looks at Superman. He nods and says, "Go ahead, J'onn."

The Martian nods and reaches out, touching Superman's forehead and my own. I feel disoriented for a moment, then begin to experience a rush of memories: Superman waking up on a desolate world under a red sun, surviving without his powers, and finding the wreckage of the Watchtower in an overgrown jungle clearing. I feel his rage as he discovers who is responsible.

Me.

The gravity control device was more destructive than I could have possibly imagined. I remember the desolation Superman had to travel through, and listen to myself tell how it all happened. I listen, and I shudder in spite of myself. My blunder was truly monumental--what does it profit one to conquer the world, when there is nothing left but the roaches to boast of it to?

Time passes in the memories, and I see that my future counterpart and the Kryptonian are peacefully co-existing, after the momentary spasm of anger from the hero. Logical--the technology to survive was all in my hands, and the big oaf's muscles would be useful even without his superpowers. Suddenly, Superman discovers a time machine that my counterpart has designed over the long years, and he regains hope--and I see that my counterpart shares that hope.

They face appalling hazards and triumph, and at length Superman stands--as powerful as he ever was--with my counterpart urging him to go back and save the world. As he speaks, a particular sentence leaps out at me:

"You have to stop me--by any means necessary."

I am stunned, and watch in disbelief as my counterpart reveals my plans, then watches as Superman leaps into the portal and returns to his own time. The images stop, and the Martian steps away, looking fatigued. Superman is watching me carefully, and says simply, "Now you know."

I stare at him, shake my head, and say quietly, "Thank you for stopping me." I'm being perfectly sincere--I've seen all too well where that particular road was headed, and I didn't like it one bit.

He smiles ever so slightly and replies, "You're welcome." He folds his arms, and waits for me to speak again.

It's obvious what he wants, and I have centuries of acting experience with which to give it to him. "Superman. . .this has been an earthshaking revelation for me. I've seen the price of my ambition--written in the blood of six billion corpses. I'm ready to lay aside my plans to conquer the Earth--and use the genius and long life which I have been granted by fate to leave a different sort of legacy for the day that I do depart this existence." My greatest performance, delivered while chained and helpless at the mercy of my most powerful enemy--and I can see my words and the expression on my face--complete with tears--have moved him deeply. He shivers, then turns to his left and says the one word that I don't want to hear at that moment: "J'onn?"

I turn in horror, and see that the Martian is not as fatigued as he pretended to be--he is staring at me with an expression that would be contempt on a human face, and I can hear that emotion in his voice as he says simply, "He's lying. He was shaken up by what he heard, but he's planning on just lying low for a century or two and coming up with a better and somewhat safer plan."

Damn. Outmaneuvered again. Oh well, might as well taunt him about his foolish willingness to give me another chance. I stare at Superman and smile--it is an oily and contemptuous smile, and I see him shudder at the sight of it as I say, "So--you thought you'd put on your little dramatic performance, and I'd turn away from the ambition and planning of twenty- five millennia? You are a fool, Kryptonian. I doubt my counterpart really wanted you to convince me of the error of my ways--he just wished to erase the irrefutable evidence of his cataclysmic failure: who could blame him? I'm willing to learn from my mistakes--take the time to plan again, come up with a foolproof method to pull off the whole thing. Next time I'll store away a bit of genetic material and more technology--if the human race won't be conquered, it can be exterminated and replaced! You need not worry about that pathetic version of myself, alien--he won't be coming back."

Superman nodded and whispered, "I know," He steps forward and throws a perfect uppercut at my chin, and I know no more.

* * * * *

Ugh. My head hurts. At least he didn't actually remove my head from my shoulders with that punch. I know how it feels to come back from that, and this is different. My jaw still isn't working--he must have shattered it. The rest of my head seems more or less intact. I open my eyes and look around. The Martian isn't visible, but I can see Superman standing at a panel across the room, talking at what looks like a microphone. I struggle to focus on what he is saying, and am rewarded as a familiar voice comes out of a speaker: "That's good news, Superman--Vandal Savage is a menace to humanity, and the League's efforts in stopping him are greatly appreciated."

"Thank you, Mr. President." Superman's tone is respectful. "Unfortunately, we were forced to use lethal force to stop him; apparently, he wasn't as immortal as he thought he was."

Bastard. He's covering his tracks so he can dispose of me without interference. I try to call out to announce my continued presence among the living, but am thwarted by my still-mangled jaw. I hear the President reply, "None of us are, Superman. I know the code you and your teammates live by--if Savage is dead, it's because you didn't have any better alternative for stopping him. I have other matters to attend to; once again, my thanks and those of the nation for what you have done." There was a click, and the connection was broken.

Superman turned, walked over to me, and waited for my jaw to shift back into position and heal fully. His expression was sad as he said simply, "It's time to end matters. Are you ready?"

"If that's your plan, I'm surprised we aren't in space by now--you could have talked to that fool from orbit as well as from wherever this is." I'm not going to let this child intimidate me.

"We're far north of the Arctic Circle, in my Fortress of Solitude. Assuming that you could get past me and J'onn--" he nodded to the Martian, who had just entered behind him, "--and get through the outer doors, it's a hundred and fifty miles to the nearest human settlement through subzero temperatures with no supplies."

I smirk at him. "Not bad--I can't think of more than three or four more difficult situations I've escaped from in the last five hundred years."

Superman sighs. "No doubt--but you won't be here for long." He walks over to a device sitting on a nearby table: it is about the size of a large microwave oven, with an long arm ending in a black lens projecting from the front, what looks like a viewing screen on its back, and a tripod beneath. He carries it over to a spot about five feet in front of me, and puts it down. The lens is pointing directly at me, and I can see my reflection in it.

I am fascinated in spite of myself--the technology looks completely unfamiliar. "That's new--experimental disintegrator design?"

"Kryptonian technology--something my father invented." Superman glances at the machine and makes some adjustments. Superman's body language is very human--his posture and movements indicates that he has great distaste for this device, whatever it is. "I was hoping that I would never have to use it again."

I feel a cold chill go down my spine--as if I should be remembering something. I shake it off and snicker, "So--I am to be executed by a legacy from the enlightened and very dead Kryptonian civilization? I should feel honored, I suppose."

He shakes his head slowly, and I see him shudder slightly--the Martian reaches out and squeezes his shoulder. He looks over and smiles gratefully, then turns to me and says quietly, "You're not going to die-- but I have heard that some who have been where you are going would have chosen death as an alternative." He blinks, and adds, "Mala was particularly vehement on the subject."

Oh, no.

I recognize the name, and the story behind it--along with the vague descriptions of the place that Superman is talking about that reached the media at the time. My enemy is exiling me to the Kryptonian version of Hell--the Phantom Zone. I struggle against my chains and snarl, "Coward! You claim to be so damned morally superior, but you could sentence me to an eternity of torture rather than give me the clean death you have the power to grant me?"

"I thought about it, and I almost decided in favor of it," replies Superman, making another adjustment and looking at the Phantom Zone projector with loathing. "But you have caused great misery over the centuries, Savage--the blood of millions is on your hands. You owe the human race restitution for what you have done, and you can't do that if you are dead. I'm going to leave you to think--to consider your existence and what you can do to amend your ways. I'll make sure someone checks every century or so to see what your outlook is--along with a telepath to confirm whatever you say--until you have genuinely reformed. You'll be just as immortal as you ever have been--just a lot less corporeal. If it's any comfort, I'd say that it's a less unpleasant fate that the one your future self experienced, and which we saved you from. I believe that this is a solution to the problem that he would approve of, however reluctantly. Use the time well--you'll have plenty of it." He sighs, and I see a fleeting look of regret as he presses a switch and whispers, "Good-bye."

I scream, and the sound of it is muted as I leave this existence for another one. My last thought as a material being is a familiar one to me:

* I shall return, Kryptonian--and you won't stop me next time *

As always, comments are welcomed and desired.