AN: See? I told you it wouldn't be 8 months for the next update! This chapter is un-beta'd so I simply ask for an extra measure of forgiveness if something's not right. I just want to get this out before I find another reason to procrastinate!
As always, I do not own the Justice League or the Justice Lords, etc. No profit is gained from this fiction.
Eternal 19 – Turns in the Road
Justice Lord's Alpha world – Batcave
"Bruuuuce… Say it, Bruce."
"You promised me you would."
Former Justice Lord Bruce Wayne drew a deep breath through his flaring nostrils. By saying what Diana wanted him to say, it would be tantamount to admitting he had been wrong.
He hates being wrong.
His lips were tight over his tensing jaw. His eyes were cast somewhat downward, but he stole a glance at her beautiful face to see if there was any hope of working his way out of this one. Her crossed arms, that sexy smirk and that perfectly-shaped, expectantly-cocked eyebrow over her left eye outlined his fate clearly enough; he had to do it.
He huffed out a sigh, straightened up and mustered enough strength to swallow his own pride with at least a little dignity.
"You were right," he told Bruce Wayne Beta, who was actually enjoying this… for several reasons. "We needed to hear what you had recorded… what… I had said… And…"
Diana and the other Bruce stood like stern and bemused parents, watching a wayward son apologize for something fairly trivial but thoroughly embarrassing.
"And?" Diana coaxed.
"Thank you," he finished before he glanced into his counterpart's eyes. The two men instantly read and understood each other. One knew exactly how hard it was for the other to say what had been said. The other knew that he wasn't being judged or condemned for actually showing a glimpse of weakness and maybe even feeling gratitude and a certain amount of relief.
As for his own part, the Bruce Wayne from the Justice League world couldn't help but feel slightly full of himself at the moment. It wasn't every day that one manages to out-do a Batman… even another Batman.
The smirks and the scowl slowly faded as the three stood awkwardly in the cave contemplating what was next on the agenda. It didn't take long for Ex-Lord Batman to push things along, if not for the sake of comparing notes and establishing a complete turnover, then to at least relieve himself of the gnawing embarrassment lingering in his gut.
"Now we have to discuss what hasn't been going right around here," he said with just a touch of accusation.
"Yes," Diana added. "You had said that you needed to ask me something about what happened here yesterday? How could I know anything if I wasn't…"
"Let me show you," League Bruce interrupted, taking the main seat at the massive computers and calling up the security footage of the cave.
The three watched in silence as the playback rolled, showing the goings on of the 'intruder' that so strongly resembled the old Wonder Woman. League Bruce made some comments on the situation as well as some of his observations that weren't readily obvious from the footage. When all was said and done, the two Bruces turned expectantly to Diana.
"Well?" one of them asked her.
Her pretty face was stuck in a rather foggy expression. The two men watched as she slowly lowered herself into one of the near-by chairs, her face showing how deeply she was contemplating the situation. As if she had discovered something, she blurted out her first question.
"Could she be another Diana from some other dimension?"
"Unlikely," League Bruce answered. "You saw on the footage that she had flown into the cave from the vehicle entrance – so if she did come from another dimension, it wasn't through our portal. Unless somebody has devised a way – in this world or some other – to teleport between dimensions with vastly different properties of physics, our sensors would have detected it. Nothing was found."
Diana's face dropped.
"Not only that," the other Bruce added, "but for the most part, everyone who still exists in both dimensions seems to be the same age as their counterpart. We may die at different times, but we're all born on the same date. This woman was clearly younger than you."
Her face dropped a little more.
"I just… I just don't understand!" Diana said, head shaking in confusion. "Who IS that girl?"
There were so many questions running through her mind about a whole myriad of possible answers. Could it be cloning? Could her mother have crafted another child? Was sorcery involved? None of the answers Diana pondered made her feel any better as the moments ticked on.
For her own Bruce, the answers were coming just as quickly, if not more-so. And for him, the answers were almost as disturbing – not just because they posed immediate threats or dangers outright, but because he instantly knew that each solution his incredible mind deduced meant one form of pain or another for his Diana. That didn't sit well with him at all – so he kept quiet.
"It doesn't matter," Bruce Wayne Beta declared, somewhat to the surprise of the other two. "We can speculate on who she is and how she got here later. What we need to figure out now is who is she working for and what kind of sorcery are they using?"
"Sorcery?" Diana asked as her mind climbed back into the moment.
"How do you know it was sorcery?" Bruce Alpha asked.
"Because Zatanna is helping them."
"What?!" Diana asked with legitimate surprise.
"Zatanna is helping them."
"You know this how?" Bruce Alpha demanded with a Batman voice.
Turning back to the computers and calling up new sets of video surveillance footage, combined with sensor readings from several new devices he had modified or developed, Bruce Wayne Beta laid out his case.
"You both know the basics of how the Watchtower teleporters operate. There is no way in the physical universe to use technology to teleport an object without leaving some form of energy signature or residual traces. Whatever was used to transport our visitor away was NOT technology."
"The only other alternative is magic," Bruce Wayne Alpha observed.
"But you had Zatanna scan the area," Diana said. "She said that there was no trace of any kind of magic in the cave at all."
"Where's your proof?" Ex-Lord Batman demanded in a not-so-Ex Lord tone.
"Because if she had actually scanned the area for all magic, she would have found this," Bruce Beta answered as he commanded the keyboard to bring up a picture of the necklace that Zatanna had made to hide Shayera's wings. Diana recognized it instantly.
"I had this sitting in the armory," he continued, "in an open drawer."
"Maybe she did detect that, but knew it to be of no consequence," Bruce Alpha said.
"Maybe. But she also didn't detect this," Bruce Beta countered, pulling a small pendant out of his pocket.
It was something that Justice Lord Batman had carried with him since the day he bought it for an exorbitant amount. Much to his own shame, it was a magical device that he had used on his own lover when they had fought in the Nevada desert a small eternity ago. This device was fashioned to overcome the magic of Diana's lasso. In short, it was to Diana what Kryptonite was to Superman…
"There were two magical devices in the cave as well as Shayera's mace, which affects magical fields. It was sitting at the far end of the training arena. Zatanna said that she had detected nothing at all in the cave, even though I had made it clear that I needed to know about all magical devices, no matter how trivial. Whatever spell Zatanna had used the other day, it wasn't one to detect magical items or fields. She would have known about these things and said something."
"Your evidence isn't very strong," Bruce Alpha declared, once again using Batman's voice.
"No, it isn't, but it's evidence none-the-less. Zatanna is most likely working with this woman and odds are there's at least one more person working with them as well."
Once again, calling up evidence on the computers, Bruce Wayne Beta showed the footage of the mysterious man in black that had shown up at Deloris Winters' clinic the other day. With more accurate analysis of the video stream, the Batcave computers were able to extrapolate many facts and statistics about the entire situation:
The man was approximately six foot, two inches tall. At his fastest speed, he had been running at just over forty-three and a half miles per hour. His clothing didn't reveal anything and the analysis of his build suggested that he had tremendous upper-body strength.
"And here's the important part," League Bruce added.
Typing up more commands, a new video feed was brought to the screen. Unlike the high-tech security footage from the clinic, this was much lower grade, but it showed a view of the street where the clinic was located.
"This is from a traffic camera three blocks away from the scene," he explained.
The three watched as the Batmobile drove through the intersection and down the street, pulling into the clinic parking lot. A few moments later, the exact same burst of teleportation energy flashed onto the screen some hundred yards further down the street. No sooner did the burst dissipate than the mysterious black character start his superhuman sprint towards the clinic, only to reappear from the clinic and disappear once again through the same burst of energy.
"The traffic camera isn't very sophisticated, but even if it were, the teleportation happened too far away to see anything useful other than the fact that it happened. Clearly this person is jumping in and out of places using the same magic as our visitor."
"That makes sense," Diana offered.
"No, it doesn't," Ex-Lord Bruce countered. "Why would somebody send one person to help you there, then only a few moments later send another person attack you here?"
"I don't think the second person was sent," the other Bruce responded. "Remember what she was whispering as she was tied up. Clearly she was going against orders."
"That other… woman didn't teleport directly into the cave," Diana pointed out, "so perhaps she was breaking whatever protocol they observe, but when she was found out, Zatanna used her magic to pull her back."
"That's my conclusion as well," Bruce Beta said. "There are at least three people working together that the Justice Lords didn't know about. Whether they're a threat or not is still in question."
"No, there's no question," Bruce Alpha declared. "If there are mages and metas working together without the Lords' knowledge, they're a threat."
"I agree," Diana added.
Justice League Bruce glared at them both. He drew in a huge breath through his flaring nostrils and reigned in his temper before confronting them both with cold, hard words.
"You aren't the Justice Lords anymore," he said slowly, strongly. "Be careful how you handle this. These people may be the answer to your problems."
"And they may be the source of our problems!" Bruce Alpha said sharply. "You can't tell me that you hadn't considered that these people are the ones coordinating the attack."
"An attack that you assumed was coming. The only thing we've decoded from that original message was that somebody was sharing information about the Justice Lords being stripped of their powers. If they knew this and their intention was to destroy you, why would they have helped out at the clinic?"
Ex-Lord Bruce had no answer.
Diana, however, did have something to say to her colleague.
"He has a point, Bruce. Maybe they've been keeping an eye out for us because they know we're vulnerable now. It's not unlike what he did," she said pointing to Bruce Beta, "to help me out at that gas station the other day…"
"What gas station?" Bruce Beta asked.
"The convenience store at the gas station where the robbery happened," she explained. "I know that you came in when that one suspect had the shotgun and…"
She stopped herself dead in mid-sentence.
"That wasn't you, was it?" she asked carefully.
"I don't know what you're talking about."
Her hand clamped over her forehead as she pondered what his response implied. The two Bruces watched her, waiting for her to say something that made sense.
"It… it wasn't you," Diana said as if it were impossible. "I had always thought it was you watching over me, but… it wasn't you!"
"Diana, what are you talking about?"
She excused herself as she all but forced her way to the command seat of the computers. It took her a little longer than she wanted to, but she eventually found a map that showed the small town where she had been staying when she was out on her own. Panning in and scanning, she found the name and address for the gas station/convenience store where she encountered the robbers.
"This is the town where I was staying," she explained as she navigated. "The night before I called here… before you told me to come home, I helped apprehend three robbers at this gas station. During the fight, somebody covertly ambushed one of the suspects who had a shotgun. If he hadn't, I very easily could have been shot or even killed!"
Bruce Wayne Alpha immediately took command. He virtually shoved the other two out of his way, pummeled the keyboard and instantly, information about the gas station, owners, employees and financial activity popped up on all the various monitors. Automatically, at impressive speed, he found police reports and newspaper articles about the robbery in question. Moments later showed vital statistics about the suspects, their identifications and records, the charges brought against them, etc. A few moments after that, he had video surveillance footage of the night in question taken from the gas station's own cameras. Before he allowed the feed to play, however, he performed one more search for any other camera activity in the area to provide coverage of the peripheral areas, but there weren't any to be found… what the gas station systems provided would have to do.
The three watched the scene unfold. Diana was finally afforded a view of what had transpired before she burst onto the scene. When the excitement finally ensued, she was able to evaluate her own performance with a more critical eye. Until then, she hadn't given it much thought.
They all watched as she impressively took out one suspect only to find herself on the floor with a shotgun aimed at her head. The split second before she rolled away and dove for cover, the Samaritan in question blasted in through the doors and used a clothesline-leg sweep combination from behind to incapacitate the gunman. It very easily could have been the same person that was at the clinic.
"I thought it was you," Diana said when it was over, still looking at the screen. "I mean, how many people could have done that and then disappeared into thin air? When I went outside and didn't see anything, I assumed that you had teleported in and away again…"
Before she knew what was going on, Bruce Alpha launched out of his chair and blasted Bruce Beta with a devastating right cross, sending him sprawling across the cave floor. Diana jumped to her feet, somewhat shocked at the suddenness and violence of the attack.
"You sent her out there," Lord Bruce shouted, "without any protection, without any backup! She could have been killed!"
"Bruce! Stop it!" she tried, grabbing his arm.
"No, Diana! I won't stop it!" he shot back, ripping his arm out of her grasp. "This son-of-a-bitch… I trusted you! Where the hell were you while she was staring down the barrel of a shotgun?"
For his own part the visiting Bruce didn't respond. In fact, other than wipe the back of his hand across his mouth to check for blood, he lay still on the floor, staring coldly back at his accuser. It afforded him time to consider the best way to clear his name in his counterpart's eyes. It also gave him a front-row seat to the argument brewing before him…
"Bruce, please!" Diana pleaded, "He didn't know!"
"He SHOULD have known! He threw you out without any protection or any way to get back. What if somebody out there recognized you? Without your powers…"
"What? I'm helpless? Is that what it is? Without my powers I can't take care of myself?"
"No… Diana, that's not what I'm saying. What I meant was…"
"It's perfectly clear what you mean, Bruce. You said it yourself not ten minutes ago and you said it on that recording. You can't lose me and you're afraid that the entire world itself is a threat."
"I never said you couldn't take care of yourself…"
"You don't have to, Bruce. It's clear that you feel that way no matter what you say. But you're missing the point! You might be angry at him for what he did, but what's really bothering you is; that something might happen to me and you won't be able to stop it. It doesn't matter if I have powers or not. I'm not one to sit by idly and allow bad things to happen if I have a chance to stop it."
Still lying on the cold, hard floor, League Bruce allowed half a smile. She was finally going to say what needed to be said to Justice Lord Batman.
"I'm the one that chose to go into that gas station, Bruce. It was MY call, not HIS. I'd do it again if I had to… you KNOW this about me. It's not something that you can change. It's not even something that I WANT to change about myself. It's who I am! Whether I'm Wonder Woman or just Diana, I'm going to fight whatever fight needs to be fought and I'll put my life on the line if I think the cause is just."
Ex-Lord Bruce, while still seething, let his eyes drift down, effectively conceding her truth.
"The only way you're going to keep me from doing that is to lock me up, Bruce. And I know that you don't want to do that, so that means…"
She stopped dead once again, her face melting from aggravated into sudden realization.
"Oh, Hera!" she sighed dropping onto her chair limply. "That's what it was all about isn't it? Locking things up and controlling everything else… That's why we became what we became!"
Justice League World – Batcave five minutes later
The trans-dimensional portal sealed behind him with a rush of white noise and a flash. Bruce wandered over to the chair in front of his own computer console and loosed a well-earned sigh of relief as he plopped down into it. Had he really been away from his own world that long?
He and his Doppelganger quickly agreed that turn-over or not, it was time for him to get back to his own world. That other Diana had a lot to talk to that other Bruce about. They had a lot to figure out for themselves, then after all that, they had to figure out how to relate it all to the rest of their colleagues.
On the whole, progress was being made and for the next step, if things went as expected here, he'd be back in the morning for a little social experiment; something that might be of significance for Lord Superman.
Alfred came down the stairs.
"Good afternoon, sir," he said rather stiffly.
"Hello Alfred. You can lighten up a little, it's me again."
The ever-diligent gentleman allowed a small sigh of relief as his shoulders relaxed. He still kept his formal attitude, of course.
"Very well, sir. I trust your endeavors were fruitful."
"So far, yes. For the most part…"
The two exchanged a knowing look, each understanding that even though the magnitude of Bruce's 'endeavors' was virtually unfathomable, it would be logically pointless to discuss them at the moment. After all, a job worth doing is a job worth doing well.
"There is a director's meeting at Wayne Enterprises in two hours. Something about the release of the new ceramic line of engine blocks for the Charleston division of the small engine…"
"Two hours…" Bruce mumbled in acknowledgement as he turned his attention to his computer consoles. A recent news reports had caught his attention.
"Yes, sir. Should I have your… daytime business attire prepared?"
"Yes," Bruce answered somewhat absent-mindedly. He was concentrating on a story from the Metropolis Examiner… a small-time rag of a publication that spent more time reporting Sasquatch sightings than stock reports.
"Very well, sir. I will have your lunch ready for you shortly."
"Thanks," Bruce said almost as an afterthought, his eyes scanning the article about flashes of light and 'thunder-like' sounds coming from Metropolis' warehouse district.
Alfred turned sharply and marched dutifully towards the stairs. He made it only a few steps up before his charge called out in a rather honest voice.
"Alfred?" Bruce called, his attention refocused back on his friend.
"I'm glad you… " Bruce started with some difficulty.
"Thank you, Alfred. For… well… Thanks."
The older man smiled. He knew exactly what Bruce was saying.
"It is my pleasure, Master Bruce," he said with love and sincerity.
And with that, the proper Englishman turned and climbed back up to his world.
Justice Lords' World
John Stewart took a deep breath and let it out in with a solemn sigh. Bruce and Diana had come up to the Manor and told Shayera and him that a significant discussion about the Justice Lords was due. Before that happened, he had one little chore to take care of…
Standing in the Batcave training arena behind J'onn's cell, he opened the compact airlock door, set down the tray of (what Shayera called) food and sealed it shut again. A few button presses, some mechanical clanking and a hissing sound later, he knew that J'onn had his lunch.
'Just like feeding time at the zoo,' the Green Lantern thought.
Shayera had told him that it had become routine. 'Deposit' the food in the airlock and transfer it into the cell, then proceed directly to the Batcave computer monitors. J'onn likes company when he eats. At least he did for a while.
Shayera had also told him that, lately, it seemed that the only time J'onn wanted to talk to anybody any more was during meals. Other than that, the huge, gentle alien simply sat stoically in the middle of his cell, motionless. They tried to provide him with various forms of entertainment, such as music, and at first he seemed to appreciate it. They tried to teach him braille and supply him with various books and he learned it very quickly. They tried to include him in discussions, both official and personal, and he was as polite, precise and interactive as they had expected... but not anymore.
For the past few days, J'onn J'onnz had been even more reclusive than normal—something that John Stewart would have guessed wasn't possible, had she not told him. The Martian had stopped participating in any conversations and had even requested to be excused from them altogether. He left the braille books piled neatly in the corner of his cell. He asked for the music to be turned down, and then eventually, off. And at breakfast this morning, he hardly said a word to Shayera as he pushed the gray and yellow slop around his plate, barely eating anything.
It worried them all to a degree, but to John Stewart, it was alarming.
John had seen this kind of downward spiral before. It was right after he had been promoted to Corporal and was awaiting his new duty assignment in the US Marines. He had been temporarily attached to a medical unit and the in-flux of wounded was low, but steady. On rare occasions, when a leg or arm or eye couldn't be saved, a special counselor was assigned to keep watch over the Marine, not only to help them learn to physically deal with their new lifestyle, but also to deal with the overwhelming onset of depression and despondence.
Before he had seen it first-hand John never believed that the loss of a limb or some other such body part could be so impacting. To a young man, an amputated hand was something that a Marine should overcome by adaptation and improvisation. The mechanics of it was simple, really. What they never discussed or trained for at that time was the emotional devastation that cannot be predicted, nor reasoned away. There was no logic to it and oftentimes there was no warning. The emotions of a human being simply could not be calculated.
It didn't matter how tough or mentally stout a Marine was. The nose-dive into a bleak and hopeless state was unpredictable and, in many cases, devastating. And far too often, it led to self-destructive thoughts and tendencies.
So when the steady and stalwart Martian Manhunter started showing these all-to-familiar signs, John realized that something very crucial may be at play. He hoped he was wrong and he waited to voice his ever-growing concerns to the others… he hoped J'onn would 'snap out of it'. But to expect that wasn't fair, nor was it realistic.
John's hesitation was also due, in part, to a lack of understanding of the situation. How does one deal with the slipping mental state of a Martian? How closely is the internal turmoil of a human amputee associated with that of the last alien of his species with his mental telepathy stripped away? What Shayera had described to him seemed to begin only a few days ago… was it too early to tell if this was cause for alarm? He didn't know.
He made his way to the computers, typed up the appropriate commands and the inside of J'onn's cell popped up on one of the bigger monitors. His friend had already moved from his preferred spot on the floor to the back of the cell and he was carefully feeling for the plate and utensils on the tray. John flipped on the microphone and spoke slowly, enunciating clearly as if talking to a small child.
"Hello, J'onn. I hope you like your lunch. We tried a new recipe from you journal today; Bacta Stew."
"Thank you, John," the huge green Martian said politely, but with very little emotion.
The two remained silent as one ate and the other watched.
To John, the continuing silence was a bad sign. He fought hard to come up with something to say, but he knew that anything trivial would garner very little response and wouldn't lead to any kind of lasting conversation. He also was careful not to say anything too significant as he couldn't accurately predict J'onn's ability to deal with anything too 'heavy'. Finally, he decided to just come right out and call it like he saw it.
"You've been pretty quiet lately, J'onn. Anything on your mind?"
The Martian took a moment to swallow what he had been chewing before he answered.
John waited for more, but as the seconds ticked by, it didn't look like anything more was coming.
"Anything you'd like to talk about?"
J'onn slowly lowered his head, blinked his sightless eyes a few times and took a deep breath before answering.
"I'm afraid it's over, Lantern."
The Martian neatly and carefully put down his tray of food before answering.
"My species. The last of Mars dies with me."
The weight of those words hit John like a truck. His sharp mind caught the tell-tale signs of despair and despondency. He quickly realized that what he had feared may actually be coming to fruition… although he still hoped he was wrong.
"That's not necessarily true, J'onn. We've always thought that…"
"Lantern," J'onn interrupted, "I am the last. There are no others. It was incumbent upon me to preserve the chronicles of my culture – even if there was no way to preserve my race. However, now I have come to the conclusion that all my efforts were not only in vain, they were also pointless."
"Now, J'onn, wait just a second…" Lantern tried. When J'onn interrupted again, he quickly typed in the commands needed to tie his conversation in to Shayera's com link.
"No, Lantern. I have had more than enough time to consider these things and many others. For what ends would such a record be useful? Would the human race be willing or even capable of understanding the Martian histories? Countless billions of other intelligent species have met similar fates across the cosmos, but still life continues oblivious to this. Our lessons learned, the beauty of our lives… they are inconsequential."
"They live on through you, J'onn!" Shayera all but shouted over her com link as she made her way to the Batcave entrance. "As long as you're alive, your culture is alive."
"I don't want that burden any longer."
"NO! I have made my decision. I am incapable, unwilling and unworthy to labor such responsibility."
Shayera jogged down the stairs and all practically sprinted across the cave to the microphone, shoving Lantern out of the way.
"No, you listen to me, Manhunter! I'm not going to sit here and let you feel sorry for yourself just because you're having a tough time! For crying out loud, J'onn, you can't possibly mean that…"
"You insolent woman! I have endured countless eons ALONE and weathered hardships that you couldn't possibly comprehend! Do not presume to tell me that I am unqualified to determine my own fate!"
John and Shayera stared slack-jawed at the monitor. Neither of them could remember any kind of outburst like that from their friend. It was alarming, verging on frightening. For a moment, he wasn't their friend any more, but some kind of huge, green alien from some other planet…
"J'onn, please," Shayera finally found the spine to say. "Calm down for a minute. Let me get Diana and Bruce and we can all discuss this."
"There is nothing to discuss. I told you that I have made my decision."
"What decision?" Batman's cold voice broke in over the com system.
"I need Lantern to take me to Mars."
"Why?" Batman demanded.
"Yes, J'onn," Diana's pleasant voice chimed in, "why do you need to go to Mars?"
Stewart recalled what J'onn had said when he returned; "I yam glad yur back." It seemed like he meant something more than simply being happy that Lantern returned. His enthusiasm was because now he had somebody to do this for him.
Everybody listening was awaiting the answer with baited breath. The seconds crawled before the Martian steeled himself and answered with a tone of voice that brokered no discussion.
He took a rather large breath and spoke with clear, quiet resolve;
"That is where I want to die."
AN: Here's the bad news; I STILL won't be updating as frequently as I like.
Good news: I have most of the remainder of the story outlined.
What's that mean: I'm finding that I finally am feeling better about where I'm taking this story. I have to flesh things out and all, but with this good feeling should come more enthusiasm, which (hopefully) will translate to timlier updates! No promises... just optimism.
Did you catch any 'Easter Eggs' in this chapter? There are two; one is a reference (by word) to something from a popular movie series, the other is a little more obscure... it's a quote from another movie.