The Aristarchus crater draped over the Horn of Africa as the moon stretched over the curve of the Earth. If he squinted he thought he could spot Socotra, off past the tip of the Horn, Indiaward: it was said the diving was incredible. He also remembered vaguely that it ranked up there with Madagascar and the Galapagos for unusual plant life. The dragon's blood tree, for example, leaked a very thick sap, once prized for its medicinal qualities by gladiators.
For his part, he was more interested in the fact that this isolated island paradise was a major nexus for illegal trade in North Africa. The Kenyan government, through whose country most of the goods passed through afterwards – Mombasa in particular, which had the only official international port – enjoyed the bribes too much to take action. Yemen alternated between harsh crackdowns for the cameras and insisting that nothing was going on, and Somalia didn't even pretend to care. He should ask the African desk how things were going.
Question turned from the window. The main deck of the Watchtower was pretty quiet at the moment, all murmurs and electronic paperwork; early-evening shifts tended to be be slow and relaxed. Much slower than mid-afternoon, at least under the new arrangements, and the staff were definitely a little loose. Actually, come to think of it, that'd make sevenish the perfect time to launch an attack against the station for anyone familiar with the schedule: and if he could notice, so could others less well-intentioned.
He should talk to Lantern about setting up another surprise drill. It had been a while since the last. One scary enough to keep everyone alert for a few months, and warn them that not all of their foes will be idiots.. and many of the systems they rely on would be among the first to get disabled by the enemy in a real fight.
Who knows? Could be my last act. Might be fun to take this place down one more time before I go.
Eleven-zero-three. Not a bad record, if I say so myself, and Terrific had to fight hard for those draws when he took over. Still not sure where he got the mirrortech for the second match, but I award considerable points for originality..
I'd thought it would take at least six minutes to get past the lockdown barriers and antiteleport fields once I tripped them, but in under forty-five seconds he had the defence team in place beyond the third ring of doors. With portable gravpacks, no less! No idea how he found out I'd set the floor gravs to randomize. That should have bought me another minute and a half.
He probably would've won if I hadn't rigged one of the docked ships to blow the station beforehand, on the grounds it was always intended to be a suicide mission and that everything else was just distraction. Read Ender's Game sometime, Terrific. You're not always playing the game you think you are..
I'll never forget the look on his face when all the screens went white. Lucky for me he couldn't see mine.
He sighed, recognizing the tone of his thoughts: nostalgia. And before he'd even left, at that. He was getting sentimental in his old age. Must be her influence, he never used to be like this.
Helena's right. I really would miss it here.
Friends he didn't need. But it was surprisingly.. refreshing.. to have equals.
His quarry finished receiving some sort of update from one of the support personnel, and was now alone, reviewing a datapad. It was time to stop postponing the inevitable. He crossed the deck, and stood beside his target.
"We should talk," Vic said.
"Now is not a good time, Question."
"Better than most. And we've been putting this off for far too long. But I guess we can talk out here, if you'd prefer. Should we start with how you've been completely obnoxious?"
The nearest tech, who'd been unobtrusively eavesdropping, realized he was overhearing something way over his pay grade and decided that the board on the other side of the deck was really much more important and should definitely be tended to first. He left quickly.
After a few moments, Batman marched off to the inner conference chamber, and Vic followed, casually. When the door closed behind him, they walked to the centre of the room.
Batman turned to face him, and gave him the deathglare which had reduced countless Gotham criminals to gibbering fools.
"Look, I'm not interested in one of the staring contests you have with Superman. It's a waste of time and energy, and we both know that I'll win. After all, I have an advantage you don't."
The Question adjusted his tie, loosening it a bit, and tilted his fedora; relaxed as only a man without a care in the world can be.
"Unlike you," he said, "I can blink as much as I like."
From behind the mask, he smiled.
A few seconds went by, and then Batman gave a curt nod.
Point to me. That bodes well.
"You wanted to talk, then talk."
"More like I had questions. One's especially been preying on my mind: why am I still in the League?"
"If that's your problem," said Batman, with a hint of dry amusement, "I have a solution."
"I thought you might. But it's not a problem-- it's a puzzle. Why am I still in the League? Huntress got kicked out for much less."
"At first I thought it was only because everyone wanted to sweep the Justice Lords under the rug. I even wondered if the job was a bribe to stay quiet about everything I'd seen in the Cadmus files."
"Or it could be another example of the arbitrary standards in this place. Huntress tries but fails to kill the man who killed her parents, and who's responsible for the death of dozens more, and she gets expelled. A certain Thanagarian betrays the League, betrays her adopted home, and her actions lead to the death of thousands of innocent people. Could have been billions. What happens to her? Years in prison for treason and mass murder? Well, she's one of the Seven, and an ex-lover of another, so.. nothing. She mopes for a while, and she's having relationship troubles. That's her punishment."
"That's what the League needs," Helena had said. "Emo birds. I got out just in time."
"I think it's clear how things work around here: once a Superfriend, always a Superfriend. It's not what you've done, it's who you know. And apparently I know someone."
Batman shook his head. "Don't blame me for that. You must know my Shayera vote."
"I do. And I know you signed off on Huntress' expulsion as well. Which makes it even stranger that I'm still around, doesn't it? I went digging, and do you know what I found about my status?"
"Absolutely nothing. Which can only mean that the man most likely to have me expelled – you -- didn't want me expelled for some reason, and so the subject never arose. And I don't think that's because you suddenly decided that it was time to start being consistent."
"Apart from your attempt on Luthor," Batman said, "your work on Cadmus was good. Some might even call it excellent."
Nice. Offer a sideways compliment, but avoid having to say you agree. Helena's right: you're all class.
"It was," agreed the Question. False modesty was the worst kind of pride. "But you wouldn't keep me around as thanks for things I'd already done; that kind of gratitude isn't in your nature." On a whim, he added: "Huntress says you're welcome, by the way."
"No, you'd only have me stay if there was something you still needed me to do."
"And I asked myself, what could that be?"
"Then one day Green Arrow dropped by with a few quiet words about what might need to happen if any of our more powerful members went off the rails in Justice Lord fashion. And he mentioned your name: 'quis custodiet custodes ipsos'. And then.. and then things finally started to make sense."
Batman tightened his stance slightly. Not much, but enough that it was clear he meant it to be seen.
"With only a few words, you gave Arrow the go-ahead to develop contingency plans. And that's where I come in, isn't it? After Cadmus you knew that I wasn't impressed by the so-called authorities who outrank me; that I was willing to do what was necessary, and capable of it; and that as a well-known madman I could be thrown away if needed, with minimum damage to the League. You realized I'd already been watching the watchers, and had a perfect cover story established to dismiss anything I'd need to do."
"And you couldn't give up such a useful pawn. So you didn't object when the softhearted council members let me off, because you had plans of your own."
"Arrow's job is to play Superman in any resistance movement, I think. To lead the fight, to inspire the troops. Mine? I guess I'm supposed to play you. My role is to operate from the shadows."
Arrow would be the white knight, charging to the defence of the League, raising the banner everyone would flock to. The Question would be the black.. no, black knight was already taken, which left..
The bishop. Responsible for confirming new members, and defending the faith, even to the point of deposing errant priests. He stole a glance at the ceiling in wry acknowledgment of the appropriateness. He did hand out the keycards..
"And if that involves actions you officially abhor?" he asked. "Well, you've always been more willing to let things go than you pretend, haven't you? When the Justice Lords showed you just how high the stakes were, I think you finally acknowledged you need a fallback, and one whose necessary acts you can wash your hands of afterwards."
"To do what you won't. That's why I still have a desk. And the security codes."
Watchtower remote self-destruct included.
"Those are serious claims," Batman said.
A heartbeat passed.
Saying that was in execrable taste, and a sign that the Bat was in a very unpleasant mood. Using an unpublished True Name like Vic Sage would be bad enough, but using the name behind the name? That was downright personal. It went way over the line, and could be interpreted as a crude threat.
Well, two could play at that game. He should really save this card for another day, but now he was annoyed.
Batman's eyes narrowed to horizontal slits, and the sudden icy silence made the background whisper of the air filters sound like roadmaking machinery.
If Helena had been there, she'd have imitated crickets chirping, and at the thought of that he had to force down a laugh. He suspected it wouldn't have been appreciated.
Oh, come on, Batman. If you hadn't thought I was capable of finding that much out, would we really be here?
He'd taken it up as a part-time hobby many years ago when a Batman project had interfered, unintentionally but very inconveniently, with one of his own. Three months' work down the tube, without even an apology. It was a violation of the unwritten rules to try to name someone behind a mask, but he'd been seriously irritated, and he wanted to know exactly who he was angry at.
At first he'd spent his time trying to rule out those who couldn't be the Dark Knight, which went nowhere; there simply weren't any plausible candidates left when he was done. It wasn't until he threw Sherlock out the window and realized that he should instead look for the best possibility among those who were least likely to be Batman, who couldn't possibly be Batman, that he made any progress.
Batman was brilliant, athletic, motivated, psychologically damaged beyond repair, seemingly omnipresent in Gotham, and with unlimited resources. And he didn't want to be recognized. So, Vic had reasoned, he should be looking for someone stupid, clumsy, frivolous, well-adjusted, who was sometimes in public when Batman was also in public, and poor. That hadn't worked either, but he was confident he was on the right track, so after spending a few weeks toying with the ideas that Batman was a woman or a known criminal, or maybe even the Flash, he started dropping the conditions one by one.
As usual, it was in the last place he looked. Bruce Wayne was not poor.
It was a Tuesday morning when he put it together, he remembered. Kaleidoscope meets Taser meets cerebral cortex. Not fun. After coherent thought returned, he'd spent the rest of the day astonished at the sheer magnitude of the effort involved. Why not just kill the playboy and act the hero full-time? Finally he'd decided that it was an obligation to the parents, that Wayne's sense of filial duty meant he had to keep the son alive.
Batman was still glaring at him, which wasn't nearly as intimidating as he must've hoped – having grown up under the watchful eye of the Mother Superior, this was nothing – and Vic felt a burst of dark pity.
But it's too late, isn't it? The son died that night in the alley. Now the man who bears his name is just a character in a one-role play performed by the monster who took over.
It's not your parents you're trying to avenge. They'd never have wanted this for you. You have to know that much.
It's the boy. It's him you can't forget.
"So now what, Batman? You have me mindwiped by one of the telepaths? I wouldn't recommend that."
The Question was nothing if not well-prepared. He had to be: you never knew when a secret elite squadron of mystic ninjas working for the government would be sent to brainwash you. It had happened to a Brownie troop once, back in '83; it could happen to him.
The complex series of events he'd arranged if anything out of the ordinary were to develop, from sudden forgetfulness to sudden death, might seem like overkill.. but there were quite a few people out there who must pray every night that he crossed the street safely.
One more couldn't hurt.
Batman seemed to be considering ways of having him dealt with in some painful fashion, but Vic knew it was all for show.
You were already pretty sure I knew who you were, Wayne. That's why you said my name in the first place.
You knew that it would bother me. So at the least it'd distract me, and if you were really lucky you might be able to confirm your suspicion that I'd cracked your secret. I'm fine with you knowing that, so all is well.
Your cold rage is all pretense. This way, on the off chance that I didn't realize you knew I'd found your name, then I'd think you were surprised and angry and scared-- and therefore predictable. So if we crossed swords at some point in the future, I'd respond not to what Batman would do but to what an upset, petulant Batman would do: and then you'd win by doing something else.
It's the same reason I said your name in reply. Why would I give up such an important tool purely out of frustration?
No, you must have suspected I knew. Now, either you underestimate me, or you understand I can play at your level. Both ways I win.
Eventually Batman spoke. "No. I trust you'll keep the code. As for the other matter: if your theory is right?"
The identity issue off the table already? So Batman had known his name wasn't a secret. Giving the Question the chance to deduce that must be intended as a warning that there was no underestimating going on.. and a bold statement that Batman was confident enough in his position that he could afford to give out warnings.
You're even better than I gave you credit for. I'm going to have a headache tomorrow from all this.
"If I'm right? Honestly?" He shook his head. "Then I resent that I've had to play mind-reading games with you when I could have been doing something useful. This is the third time I've tried to talk to you. You must've guessed what it was about. If you wanted to know if I'd do something, you could have asked. Even Arrow managed that much."
"It could have been a test," Batman said. "To see if you were worthy of the task. If you couldn't discover it for yourself, I'd have found someone else."
You really are an insufferable rich kid, aren't you?
People go through worse things than you did every day, Wayne. Every single day. And they dust themselves off, and they survive, and they don't wear their tragedies as a badge of honour, or think their pain gives them privileges others lack.
"My work's more important to me than jumping through your hoops, Batman."
As are reruns of professional bowling.
"And I doubt I'm the only one who wishes you'd see that."
That was about as far as the matter could go. Batman was constitutionally incapable of recognizing there were stories other than his; his emotional landscape was still that of a precocious eight-year old boy.
I suppose one of us has to be the adult. Might as well be me.
The Question put his hands in his pockets. "In any event, the danger's real. I know that better than anyone. So I'll see what I can do.. which, for the record, is what I told Green Arrow back when he asked. Simpler all around, don't you think?"
No response; but he hadn't expected one.
"So if that's your only condition for my staying in the League – that I keep worrying about the concentration of power, and think of ways to prevent catastrophe if the safeties fail, and be ready to move if the worst happens – then I accept. Would have done it regardless. If you've got something else in mind, then let me know right now or I'm done. I'm through guessing your intentions."
Vic had hoped to work a sudoku reference into that, but he couldn't make it fit. He should really write this stuff down beforehand.
There was another long silence, but somehow it was less threatening than those that came before. Finally it finished with a short nod on Batman's part. The Dark Knight had recruited another soldier for his emergency army, and that was that: he moved to the exit without a word. Still, Vic imagined that he walked somewhat lighter now, with one fewer uncertainty to distract him. If only Batman could show that courtesy to others.
At least this was over and done with.
Almost over, that is.
As Batman crossed onto the main deck the Question pushed a button on the PDA in his coat.
Beep beep beep.
A pause, of only a moment, and not even a glance inside his cape; and then Batman walked on. The door closed behind him, leaving Vic alone in the room.
It had taken almost seventy solid hours of work. The first ten or so were straightforward: finding the appropriate tech to make and edit a copy of the device's flash memory without triggering any of the comm's active sensors. Twenty more to break the encryption, and that was easy enough, though dull.
The remaining forty hours were excruciating. The designer had been admirably paranoid, and the machine compared its live code memory with a long hash stored in hardware hundreds of times a second. It wasn't enough just to remotely overload the memory. He had to ensure his replacement code had exactly the same hash or the machine would warn the user it was under attack. And since brute force would take centuries, he'd had to build a code that matched manually. Doctorates had been granted for less.
And now he'd have to do it all over again, probably from scratch.
But there was no point in doing things by half-measures. On that, he and Batman agreed.
For it wasn't the man with the gun who killed the young Bruce Wayne, was it?
It was you.
He wasn't the victim of murder.
He was the victim of suicide.
It was worth all the effort to give Batman an answer to the question he wouldn't ask. There was no way around it: a man with the drive, the determination, and the skill to make plans to bring down his colleagues – a man like that bore watching himself. And the Question thought he was up to the challenge.
It was rumoured that there was exactly one League member to have a private supply of Kryptonite, and there was no doubt who that was; another, maybe J'onn, held chains worked by Hephaestus; and who knows, maybe the Flash kept a tank of yellow paint to spray Stewart with if Lantern went bonkers. He'd have to find out, one way or another.
Who should do the actual deed if the day came? Superman? Probably not, it'd tear him up too much. He'd be useless afterwards. Not fair to Diana, either. Besides, it should be a mortal.
Nightwing could get close enough, but Grayson had already suffered enough at Batman's hands; the Question wouldn't add to that tally with a Freudian nightmare.
Well, decisions like that could wait. He just had to make sure it could be done.
But I won't do it for you, Batman.
I'll do it for the people who care about you, despite everything, and who should never have to be in the position you've put them.
I'll do it because even though you're crazy, you're one of the best the human race has to offer, and it's only fitting it should be one of us who ends you.
I'll do it because it will need to be done, because you're too dangerous as it is, much less if you lose your flimsy grip on what's left of your mind.. and because I'm one of only a handful who stands a chance.
And I'll do it for the boy you killed rather than let him suffer like the rest of us.
I always did have a soft spot for kids.
Helena gave him an impish smile as he took off his jacket and threw his hat on the rack. She turned the wok, adjusted the temperature, and reached over to kiss Vic across the kitchen counter.
"What's the story, babe? You still the ugliest man in the League?"
He rolled his eyes. "Remind me to frame Flash for something. Something that would get Shayera very, very mad. I hate that phrase."
"That a yes?"
"That's a yes."
She took out the pins she'd used to keep her hair up while she was cooking, and shrugged. "Well-- I guess that's good, right? Still, I gotta say, I was kinda looking forward to having you more to myself."
"Sorry, Helena. Duty calls, and who am I to refuse? I'll tell you all about it. But there is something we can do together.."
She raised an eyebrow. "I'm flattered, but I'm starving. First we eat."
"That's not what I m--"
Well, maybe that's what he should have meant. She did look awfully cute in the apron.
She swatted his hand as he tried to taste the sauce. "We're not on patrol, and we're not animals. We'll eat from the table, like normal adults, with a fork and knife."
"This from the woman who eats my cookie dough raw?"
"That was different," she said. "That wasn't at a meal. The cookies were the only course. And I don't trust you to read a recipe right. Here, take this."
He carried the tray into the next room. "Don't trust? You ate a whole sheet's worth," he said. "Did you really need to try that much just to check? I don't even understand how you managed it."
"Grab the wineglasses too while you're at it. The secret," she said, "is in the water."
He looked for the glasses, but they weren't in the cupboard with the others. "Where are they? And what's this about water?"
"Wineglasses, Vic. Not plastic juice cups. They're in the main cabinet, with the china. The one in the living room. You've seen them a thousand times."
"I actually haven't, thanks."
"Dearest? You're an idiot," she said, as kindly as she could. "Every time you watch TV they're hanging there only a few feet from your head."
"I'm an idiot? When I'm watching TV, by definition, I'm watching TV. I'm not breaking my – here they are, I found them – not breaking my neck to look behind me and to the left. There's no television in your china cabinet."
"Some master of observation you are. Okay, we're done." She bumped the drawer closed with her hip as she carried the final two plates into the dining room.
"Am I ever going to find out what you're on about with the water?"
"Oh, that. If you eat dough until you're totally full, but then you drink ice water, it resets your stomach somehow. It's gotta be almost frozen, but if you do it right you can get more in that way. Usually works twice for me before I'm done."
He felt a little queasy at the idea. "Helena--"
But there she stood, across the table, with hair disheveled, and she'd missed one of the hairpins, and she was reaching awkwardly behind herself to get at the apron knots and not having much luck. She was beautiful beyond belief.
He blinked several times to avoid embarrassment.
And there was nothing to say.
Except-- "You're beautiful."
"Well, I know that, Vic. What's next, you'll notice my hair colour?" But she turned aside to say it, and she looked a little redder than usual when she turned back.
The apron dealt with, they sat down, and she poured each of them a half-glass of Merlot. "So what're we doing together that's got you so excited?"
"Are you free next Thursday evening around seven?"
She thought about it. "Should be. Why?"
"How'd you like to demolish the Watchtower? I was thinking of crashing it into the ocean. Oh, and we have to steal a copy of the tech database first. We need to teach the evening shift a thing or two, and I have a reputation to maintain. Anyway, the more we break, the better. And I could use your help."
Slowly she realized he was serious. The resulting grin would have scared a tiger.
"Sounds fun," she said calmly.
They clinked glasses. "Cheers," said Helena.
He couldn't help feeling that things were going to work out just fine. A lot of things.
"So.. well.." He trailed off.
She shook her head, and began to cut the bread; but she smiled while she did so, and her eyes were full of promise.
"You League boys. First things first," she said.
"First we eat."