Chapter five: life in darkness
Alfred was down in the cave, shirtsleeves rolled up, apron tied around his waist. His half-closed eyes were fixed on the Batcomputer's main display in resignation as he monitored the state of the city in Master Bruce's extended absence. Suddenly He heard a quiet woosh behind him, heard two sets of boots land softly on the stone floor, and looked over his shoulder.
"Ah. You've evaded the intrusion detection systems," he remarked. "It would seem you've outsmarted yourself."
"It would seem," Bruce agreed, voice dark.
"I thought you might return," Alfred said stoically. With a long-suffering sigh, he turned to face them. "Though I rather hoped you wouldn't."
"I'm sorry for scaring you," Bruce grumbled, cape closing around him.
"Not to be rude, but I'm sorry you ever woke up," Alfred stated. "It's a terrible coincidence, Superman's robotic counterpart finding you as he did."
In the background, Superman frowned.
"Master Bruce was certain you were dead," Alfred continued, addressing Batman. "Very nearly wanted to give you a funeral, as I recall. I believe he felt sorry for you."
Bruce's face remained solemn under the cowl. "The feeling's mutual. I feel sorry for him because, unlike me, he is blinded by human imperfections."
Alfred sighed. "Oh yes, 'human imperfections'. I suppose those'imperfections' are the reason you're going to 'save us all from ourselves' or something or other?"
"No, Alfred. I'm going to do something the real Batman can't. I'm going to leave the human race to its fate."
"He's going to kill himself," Clark announced, sensing that Bruce had been working up to some dramatic exposition and not caring one bit if he ruined it.
"…I see," Alfred said carefully, and then stuck his chin in the air a little. "…And I suppose you intend to do that here? You've come home to die, is that it?"
Batman hesitated. "No—I came here because I have something important to tell you."
Alfred blinked. "Me, sir?" he echoed, and then frowned at having said 'sir.'
"Yes… it's about the real Batman. I don't have his human flaws, so I can see my own life— his life—with a clarity that he may never experience. …That's how I know, Alfred, that your son loves you."
Alfred blinked. "I beg your pardon?"
"You heard me. The son you raised. The one you saved, over and over--the one you stitched back together every time he tore himself apart. …he loves you."
Alfred looked taken aback. "If you're trying to rattle me, sir, I'll have you know--"
Bruce smiled a little. "Nothing rattles you, Alfred."
"Even so." Alfred's mustache twitched once, and resumed being a literal interpretation of a stiff upper lip. "I should like to know what compelled you to tell me all this."
Batman turned, so that Clark and Alfred could see his profile from opposite sides. Whether being intentionally dramatic or not, he bowed his head. "In the dark…as I awoke, I became aware of a certain guilt. I thought I owed you an apology. But I'm just a machine. The guilt I feel isn't my own, it's his. It's derived from whatever part of him lives in me. He knows that he owes everything to you, and will never be able to show you how grateful he is. For that, he…I am sorry. And I wanted to tell you that, before the end."
Alfred, clearly at a loss for words, stood stock-still for a moment. "Well," he said at last. "That's all right, now--" Bruce took a step towards him, almost without thinking about it, and Alfred automatically did the same. They both seemed unsure of what to do next, until Alfred clasped his hands in front of his apron, wrung them once or twice, and then spread them apart, palms up. Offering. "…If you'd like," he said, and Bruce didn't need any further encouragement.
The robot Batman's black-shrouded shoulders were every bit as broad and solid as the real one's, and Alfred wrapped his arms around them in good-natured tolerance, even closing his eyes for a second to rest his head against the side of the cowl.
"It's all right," Alfred assured him, patting his back a few times. Then he looked up, over Batman's shoulder, and locked eyes with Clark. "…though you're the one he…" Alfred sighed. "…has he apologized to you yet?"
"Only in a dream," Clark replied, being unintentionally cryptic. And Batman would have let go of Alfred at that point to turn around and glare at Clark, but an alert for an incoming call interrupted the scene. Batman pushed himself away from the old butler just as the screen lit up.
"We're back," the real, human Batman said from the screen. A red 'S' hovered in the background behind him, blue-sleeved arms folded across it. "We've been briefed by the League." His already-narrowed eyes seemed to narrow even further as he realized who was standing in his cave. "Batcave," he enunciated clearly. "Priority one lockdown. Initiate. Hang on, Alfred. We're on our way."
The screen went dead, as the cave itself came alive with the thrum of energy fields and the groan of shifting metal.
"Let's go," Batman said.
"Go where?" Superman asked, frowning.
"Anywhere!" Batman barked. "The cave can't hold you, Clark. We can escape."
"But why should we?" Clark argued. "The real Superman and Batman will be here any minute. And I still think we ought to talk to—" he was cut short as a portion of the ceiling exploded.
Looking up through the cloud of dust, Clark saw the real Batman swooping down, cape spread behind him like black dragon wings. And he couldn't believe his eyes, because tucked into the real Batman's shoulder was, unmistakably, a rifle. And it was aiming right at the robot Batman.
"No!" Clark exclaimed, already in the air. He put his fists in front of him, his target lined up between his first knuckles, but all he saw was a flash of red and blue and suddenly he was slamming into the wall of the cave, far out of the way.
"I know you want to," said Clark's own voice, sympathetic yet firm. "But you can't this time."
Horrified, Clark looked for the source of the voice, and found himself face to face with the real, flesh-and-blood Superman. The man he was copied after; the man he'd thought he was. He would have stared, but he had other things on his mind. The real Batman was still aiming that rifle.
The real Superman caught his arm, and the robot Clark trembled—he'd never felt anything as powerful, as absolute, as that grip. "It shoots a magnetic beam," that calming voice explained, as the real Superman guessed what it was that had his robotic double so concerned. "It's designed to disable computer circuitry. He won't feel any pain."
Clark strained to fly away from his captor, but the real Superman dragged him to the ground, and stood fast behind him, holding the robot by both elbows. Clark tried to pull free, popping the air and denting the ground, but to no avail. The real Superman was stronger. Clark could do nothing but watch as the robot Batman was subdued by the beam.
It seemed to take forever. The robot Batman's head snapped back, his arms rising away from his sides. Clark pulled even harder against the real Superman's hands, until the fabric and then the synthetic flesh tore away from his arms, traces of fluid trickling down to reveal the clean, silver-white metal beneath. The real Superman was forced to grip down even harder, leaving handprints.
At last, the robot Batman crumpled to the ground and lay still.
"No," Clark said again.
The real Batman was already peering at the screen of some kind of scanning device. "It's done," he reported, tucking the device neatly away somewhere on his belt.
"Thank goodness," the real Superman replied, letting go of his robot.
The robot fell to his knees. "But… why?" he asked, looking up at the real Batman. "You… both of you—you're not supposed to kill!"
"I haven't killed him. I've deactivated him. He had a very dangerous program built into his operating system," the real Batman reminded them all. "And, being here, he was within inches of accessing one of the most powerful computers on the planet. If he was lucid at all, he would have wanted to be shut down."
"You did say he was contemplating suicide, Master Clar—" Alfred glanced over at the real Superman, and cleared his throat. "a-hem. I mean, Robot Superman."
"But… he was going to do it himself, on his own terms," Clark protested. "That's what he wanted." He locked eyes with the real Batman. "…Couldn't you trust him that much?"
"Hn. Could I trust a copy of myself, loaded with data from my past, with physical and cognitive abilities presumably superior to my own, and programmed to eliminate humanity?" Batman scowled, and flatly gave his answer. "…No."
"It is good to see you again, sir," Alfred said. His tone of voice was completely ignored by Batman himself, but elicited a small smile from the non-robotic Clark.
"What are you going to do about him?" Batman asked Superman, nodding towards the robot-Clark, who was still on his knees.
Superman put his hands on his hips. "Well, Kara did mention that he's been incredibly helpful up at the Fortress."
"So you plan to keep him. You don't suppose this one infected him, do you?" Batman tapped the motionless Batman robot with his boot.
Superman smiled again. "I doubt they were sharing straws, Bruce."
Superman shook his head. "That's how you catch colds in Kansas," he explained. Batman's expression didn't waver, and Superman sighed. "Never mind. I'll do a full diagnostic on him back at the Fortress. That is, if he agrees to come along."
Real Superman and robot Superman looked at each other. "…Are you okay?" real Superman asked, eyes and voice sincere.
The robot got to his feet. "I…I don't know," he answered. His eyes ran back to the 'deactivated' Batman on the floor. "…He was my friend."
"Kara told us that too," real Superman said kindly. He took a few steps, and put his hand on the robot's shoulder. "Sorry we had to meet like this—I know you've been doing your best to take care of that guy." He tipped his head in the general direction of both Batmans.
"…it seemed like the right thing to do," the robot mumbled.
It's suspicious that he's fully sentient, the real Batman was thinking, pretending not to be paying attention.
Superman was smiling at the robot, mostly with the sides of his eyes. "It's amazing that you're fully sentient," he remarked.
Unnoticed, Batman ground his teeth together. He and Clark were doing that thing again, that thing where their thoughts were the same but opposite. He hated it when they did that thing. Clark probably wasn't even aware of it.
"Are you going to…reprogram me?" the robot asked.
Superman crossed his arms. "I'd rather not, to be honest," he said. "Hopefully it won't be necessary. I will fix your arms for you, though."
The robot looked down at his fleshless elbows, the handprints crunched into the bright, once-smooth metal. "…Oh," he said absently.
"Would you like to continue working for me? As caretaker of the Fortress?" Superman asked, in a frank, neutral voice that made it seem like he actually had a choice.
"…yes," the robot answered. Superman held out his hand, and the robot clasped and shook it.
"Good," Superman said warmly.
"But what about him?" the robot asked, looking back down at the fallen Batman.
"He'll stay here," real Batman growled. "Where he belongs."
"That's what he was afraid of," the robot said quietly. "That you'd put him back in a box, in storage on a shelf. He didn't want that."
"He's offline. It's not like he'll know," Batman said.
"I'll know," the robot replied, and then looked at Superman. "Would it be all right if I kept him in the Fortress instead?"
Both flesh-and-blood heroes seemed inclined to disapprove, but Alfred had a clear line of sight to a certain brightly-colored costume spotlighted in a case, and felt a twinge of inspiration. "As a memorial, of course," the old butler spoke up. "Seems fitting, sirs, if you ask me."
"Hmm," Superman said, considering. "Actually, it would be pretty cool to have a Batman robot on display in the Hall of Weapons. Bruce?"
"Grmph. That's fine. Just as long as he doesn't try to bring him back to life."
The Superman robot quickly resumed his routine at the Fortress, doing the chores he'd done before, taking care of the zoo and the computer systems and all the in-progress experiments in the lab. Supergirl hugged him the next time she saw him. She and the real Superman decided to call him 'Ned', which he didn't mind, but to himself he was still and would always be Clark.
Wally West visited the Fortress one day and wanted to see the Batman robot.
Clark showed it to him.
Wally said it was 'creepy' and then, with a huge grin, he declared that he wanted one for the Flash museum.
"Sorry," Clark told him. "This is the only one."
Wally looked concerned for a moment. "You know, robo-Supes, this just occurred to me. Isn't it, like, weird for you to keep this here? I mean, it's a robot, you're a robot… isn't this kind of like a deer keeping a stuffed deer head on the wall in his living room?"
Days turned into weeks. Clark got to fill in as Superman a few times, for lesser emergencies and even public appearances here and there.
The real Superman always told him he'd done well, always thanked him after sending him on a mission. And Clark was happy to help, glad to be useful, honored that he was trusted to save lives. He was good at being Superman.
But he missed his other job.
Sometimes at night he would sit at the computer and write. Once he even compared his work with some of the archived articles written by the real Clark Kent. The caliber of writing was exactly the same. He debated asking the real Superman if he could help with some of Clark's assignments, but ultimately decided against it. In a moment of weakness, he sat down in the Hall of Weapons, across from the Batman robot, and read aloud something he'd just written about violence in East Timor. Afterwards, he felt a little better.
Gradually, visiting the Batman robot became a habit. He'd sit down and read aloud if he'd written something, or he'd just sit and talk, or he'd sit and say nothing. It was then, he realized, that he was admitting he was lonely.
Then his dreams turned black.
At first it was confusing and uncomfortable. He'd never known such darkness. It was endless and empty. He tried to compare it to the blackness of space, but space wasn't black at all. Space was every color, and a color all its own, deep purple. Like Lois's eyes.
Reluctantly, the dream let him go.
But it came back, the very next night, and this time it almost took shape. It was all arcs and points, hard corners and dangerous curving edges, like black shark teeth.
"Batman?" Clark asked in the dream.
He woke up in midair, which was new. He hadn't known he could fly in his sleep.
Then he realized he was in the Hall of Weapons, right in front of his deactivated friend. Which was definitely not where he'd gone to bed. Slowly, he put his feet on the ground, and gazed suspiciously at the robot-Batman's face, behind its protective pane of glass.
"What do you want from me, Bruce?" he asked quietly. "I can't bring you back. I promised I wouldn't try."
After that, Clark locked his door at night, with a key that he knew he'd have to be conscious to operate.
Existence at the Fortress became even more lonely. The League never called him. The real Batman only called to use him as a reference tool, calling him 'Ned' and commanding him to retrieve this or that obscure morsel of data from the lab or the computer, making it clear that he wasn't going to put up with any kind of conversation. Kara came to visit him sometimes, which was always nice, but usually she just wanted his opinion on what civilian outfit to wear (just so she could wear the opposite of whatever he suggested), or else she would vent about boys who were 'impossible,' and always being 'jerks', except for that elusive Nightwing guy who she kinda had a crush on even though she knew it was totally wrong of her, because he was older, although not that much older, you know?
Clark let her rant and made her dinner and proofread her essays for her. It was as close to really being 'Clark' as he could get, and as much as he enjoyed it, when she would leave he'd feel lonelier than ever.
He began to look forward to the times when Krypto would play with him and accidentally rip one of his limbs off, because repairing himself served as a lengthy distraction.
The best times, naturally, were when the real Superman would come home to the Fortress. Everything made more sense when he was there. Superman would talk to Ned, and ask his opinion, and treat him as a colleague. Ned, for his part, slipped effortlessly into a servant-like role, his sense of identity temporarily repressed by the presence of the original, genuine article.
He felt comfortable around the man he was supposed to be. And that was why he was honest with him, when one day Superman casually asked Ned how he was doing.
"I'm sad, most of the time."
The real Superman's brow furrowed in concern. "You're sad?" he asked, as if that wasn't supposed to be possible. "Why?"
"I miss Lois," Ned replied. He'd decided that was the easiest way to explain it.
Ned nodded. "Every day."
The real Superman looked at him in surprise, which immediately turned into compassion. "My God. I didn't realize."
"I'm… pretty sure I feel the same way about her that you do," Ned said.
"I'm sorry," Superman said right away, searching his eyes. "It must be horrible for you, not seeing her."
"I think it's for the best that I don't see her," Ned admitted. "I mean… I almost don't want to see her, if I can't be you. I mean, if I can't be hers."
"I understand," Superman said. "But why didn't you tell me you felt this way?"
"I…assumed you knew, I guess. And it's not like there's anything we can do about it."
Superman smiled a little. "I almost want to say, 'let's go build a Lois robot,' but I'm fairly certain that would be crossing a couple of lines we do not want to cross."
Ned shook his head. "I don't want a Lois robot."
Superman tucked up his lower lip, determined to find a solution. "Hmm. Well, I hate to suggest this, but I could try to tweak your programming a little, if you'd like. It might make you feel better."
"You'd make me stop loving Lois?" Ned looked Superman in the eye. "What would you say if someone offered you that?"
"…I'd probably say that I'd rather die," Superman admitted.
That night, alone again, Clark couldn't sleep. At last he got up, and went for a walk around the silent Fortress. He walked through the zoo, walked past the towering statues of Jor-El and Lara holding aloft a replica of their deceased world. Walked past the bottled city of the Kandor. And eventually wound up in the Hall of Weapons, face to face with his lifeless friend.
He stood still for a long moment, thinking back over the past few months. It hadn't been for nothing. He'd accomplished plenty of good in his short time as a sentient being.
But he wasn't Superman. And, more painfully, he wasn't Clark. And he was alone.
He hadn't cried, when they'd deactivated the Batman robot. Hadn't cried over Lois yet, either.
But suddenly he couldn't help it. He sat down, not across from the Batman robot as usual, but in front of it, with his back resting against the glass case.
He put his face in his hands. He'd known he could cry, but suddenly it seemed cruel that he was even able to.
Why would anyone make a robot that can cry? He wondered. But there was a much deeper issue, a much worse question, and it finally surged to the surface.
Why would anyone make a robot that can love?
…TO REPLACE HUMANS, came the answer, smacking into his mind in a furious shout.
Startled, Clark scrambled away from the memorial. "Bruce?" he asked.
Yes. Finally, you can hear me, said Bruce's voice in his head.
"You're alive? But how?"
My consciousness was remotely linked to yours through that dream-sync phenomenon. I've had to carefully adapt the connection. Your mind isn't as easy to control as I thought it would be. Now get me out of here.
"No way. Not if you're intent on replacing humans again."
That was the answer to your question, you idiot, Bruce snarled at him. It's the answer to the questions I've had all along but didn't want to think about. It's why we have eyelashes. Why we can eat. Why we can dream.
"It's wrong," Clark realized, feeling certain once and for all. "It's wrong for us to be…this…"
Let me out, Clark. And we'll make it right.
Clark reached for the latches on the case. Once it was open, he reached for the panel on Bruce's chest and opened it just as easily. A tiny blast of heat vision was enough for Clark to slit open the back of his own hand, and from it he extracted a single shining wire.
One spark from that wire was enough to jump-start the battery that served as the Batman robot's heart.
Bruce came back to life.
…to be continued!...