The blur of the speeding object was barely noticeable until the rush of air in its wake almost blew more than a few people off their feet. That, and the sonic boom that sounded in its wake. In many larger cities, and the surrounding regions, people were used to such events as a matter of course. Metas were more common now than ever, and even the famed Justice League had more and younger members than ever.
Captain James Malmoud was not used to such things, though.
One moment earlier he had been screaming at the deck hands as the bow sank ever lower while he watched seawater rushing into the hold from the jagged rent torn in the starboard side while they fought vainly against time to fit over two hundred crewmen into a few lifeboats that could carry only half that number. The usual panic ensued, all of them knowing that less than a minute in that arctic water was going to kill them, and all of them wanted to be the next one in the lifeboat. Hence the screaming as he tried to get his younger men into the boats, knowing they still had families. Most of them with wives, and children.
Captain Malmoud had been on the sea so long he had lost both. Still, no one was heeding his authority at the very moment the sonic boom was echoed by a second, and the entire nose of the ship suddenly lurched.
One moment he had been shouting…..pleading for order, and the next, his entire ship was somehow hovering over the low-floating iceberg that had torn his hull out from under him. Another blur of motion, and water began to actually spiral down out of the ship faster than it could possibly spill as four men who had been forced over the rail into the water somehow rose before his eyes, and dropped onto the deck beside him where he clung tightly to the railing, gaping alongside his stunned crew.
For just one lone minute they were hovering over the ocean itself, the barnacles below the waterline easily visible as he craned his neck over the side to see what was happening, and try to understand this miracle of Allah. Then the ship settled back down, and in the same instant, a dull series of vibrations hammered the torn metal plates so fast, and so hard he thought the ship was literally coming apart. Only the ship now bobbed easily atop the deceptively welcoming blue waters, and the lifeboats that had been floating around the ship were somehow back in their docking ports, and the stunned crewmembers still sitting in them wondering what had just happened.
"Everything else all right, captain," a friendly voice asked in English.
The captain, a veteran of many ports, nodded mechanically as he turned to see two figures in garishly colored red and gold costumes standing before him where no one had been standing before just a second ago. One of them young, and obviously female; the other tall and masculine, glowing with power that seemed to radiate from his very person.
"You sure you're okay," the female spoke openly, but he did not chide her. He knew western women had unusual liberties even in today's world. Especially in today's world, where some were more powerful than a hundred men.
"Th-Thank you," he managed to choke out, still unable to believe they had been spared, and so swiftly.
"Just doing our jobs, captain. Go with God," the bigger male smiled, giving him the traditional greeting just before he and the small female simply…..vanished.
All that was left behind were twin sonic booms as he spied a wake of motion that the sea quickly swallowed as they literally raced away across the surface of the sea itself. They were gone in an eye blink, and all he could do was stand and stare.
Never had he seen such a sight.
And he had been on the sea for almost fifty years man and boy.
Turning back to his stunned crew, he lapsed back into the familiar, and comfortable as he began to shout orders, scold the men who had panicked, and set a new course for their home port. He had not failed to notice the iceberg that had been floating before them was gone. Shattered into harmless pieces of ice that would not have troubled even a rubber raft. All in but a handful of seconds.
It was…..a miracle.
"You were pretty good for an old man," Pulse laughed teasingly as they raced across the South Atlantic, heading back to the States.
"Someone was a little slow getting those men out of the water. Another few seconds and they would have been beyond saving," Wally told his daughter. "Remember, they aren't as resilient as we are.
"Next time, go for the people first, and then take on the bigger jobs unless there is immediate danger elsewhere. In water like that, seconds do count."
"I know. But they made it didn't they? Besides, I had to make sure you could handle the ship okay by yourself. I'll bet even the Martian didn't know how well you were going to recover your full speed, or how your metabolism was going to handle it."
"Worrying about the old fossil," Wally grinned at his daughter.
"Dad," she groaned, even as they reached the Florida coast, and raced up the interstates toward home.
"I might not have had my legs at the time, little girl, but I still have ears. Besides, I felt like a fossil," he chortled at himself. "A hungry fossil. Let's stop and grab a few dozen burgers."
She was quick to agree.
"Thank God for superhuman metabolisms," Pulse grinned a few minutes later as she finished off almost as much food as her father in a restaurant where they were surrounded by colorfully clad heroes and heroines.
"Thank God for costumed events," Flash winked at her as he noted there were at least five other Flashes in the place they had stopped at besides himself. Several of them quite authentic looking.
"Yeah," she grimaced, not seeing a single copy of herself. "Way to go."
"Wait till you've saved the world a few more times, girl," her father chuckled, understanding perfectly. "Trust me, after a time, you'll wish they'd just leave you alone."
"Really?" "Well, that's what Diana always said," he grinned impishly.
She giggled at him, enjoying the time spent with her father in a way she had never thought possible.
They were just stepping outside, at human speed, when the car came speeding toward the crowd just forming for a parade, two police cars behind them with guns firing. If they were shooting in the presence of the crowd, they had to be dangerous men, and both of them knew it.
"Take out the stray bullets," he shouted even as the crowds screamed, and leap in different directions. "I have the car."
Pulse was already gone, her gloved hands easily reaching hypersonic speeds to slap the bullets from the air, and keep them deflected from the helpless crowd only just beginning to realize they weren't falling dead or injured after all as the suspect's car suddenly smashed into an invisible barrier, and flipped upside down.
By the time the car stopped spinning on its top, and the police arrived to surround it, every man inside was disarmed, and more than a little nauseous.
The growing crowd broke into applause as Flash and Pulse stood beside the police taking the men into custody, giving their report before they turned to bow to the crowd, and then disappeared in a blur of speed their gaping imitators could never hope to manage.
"That was fun," Pulse hooted as she raced alongside her father once more, headed for the League headquarters near Central City to report before heading home.
"Always," he agreed. "But J'onn is going to have a fit."
"You mean because you were supposed to keep a low profile while you tested your abilities the first time out, weren't you?"
"Well," he grinned, easily ducking a slow moving, to him, semi as they cut across a crowded interstate, and turned west for the final leg home. "For me, that was low profile. Let's just not tell your mother. You know how she sometimes worries."
"Tell me about it. Ever since Doug almost bit it last year, she's been watching me like I'm about to….."
"She worries. So do I," he said somberly. "I got pretty close to the big one myself a few times, Pulse," he told her, using her codename while in costume. "I never think it can't happen. What I do, I do in spite of that."
"Wow. Guess Bats gave you the same lecture in your day, huh," she asked.
"Sweetie," he laughed. "Bats never lectures. He tells you like it is, and lets you do your own thing. Now, if you want a lecture, piss off the big cape. That man could make a saint feel like a naughty little boy," he laughed.
"I know," she grimaced. "Techno hacked the Pentagon his first day on the job. Just trying to get some Intel on one of their rogues, you know? And the way Supes tore into him….."
"I was there," he laughed. "I'm just glad Techno didn't tell him I suggested it."
They were still laughing when they burst into the back door of his home at just before seven. In the split second of time it took to cross the threshold, both of them were already back in their civvies even before the door shut behind them. Linda, fully dressed, but still home, stood in the kitchen, arms crossed, and glaring at them.
"Low profile, Walter," she grumbled, one hand moving to geature at the small television blaring out the newscasts. "I see you still don't have an understanding of certain basic concepts."
He grinned sheepishly as he saw the news station blaring the Return of the Flash? in word and scrolling it repeatedly as scenes from the thwarted robbery were replayed again and again, captured by security cameras that made it seem the car had just stopped, and flipped over a second before the Flash had seemed to just appear on the scene. At his side, Pulse stood grinning ear-to-ear, and looking fairly smug.
"And you, young lady, have school today. What did we say about school nights?" "Now, sweetheart, technically this is morning, and……" Wally grinned, stepping forward as if to hug her before her scowl darkened, and she tensed to hold him off.
"Don't you sweetheart me, Walter. You said you'd take this slow. That you'd follow J'onn's advice, and not jump into anything before you were sure….."
"But, Linda, I am. We only kind of stumbled into that heist. We stopped south of St. Louis for a bite, and….." "St. Louis is not taking it slow," she scowled. "Running about the country like a madman looking for trouble….."
"We didn't go looking for trouble, mom," Janey told her as she went to the table to pour herself a very large bowl of cereal. "We were just on our way back from the Antarctic after stretching our legs….." She saw her father's warning gesture too late.
"The Antarctic," she hissed, eyeing him as coldly as she ever had. "You dragged my baby to the south pole? You went to the south pole, when you don't even know…..?" "Linda," he said, trying to calm her. "It was perfectly safe. I've been tiptoeing around all week, and running circles on treadmills and tracks until I couldn't stand it. I woke up restless this morning, and thought I would just try to stretch my legs, and see how rusty I was after…..well, you know," he grimaced as her scowl did not ease.
"Yeah, mom. It wasn't his fault I heard him go out. I kind of snuck out, and followed at the start. Good thing, too, or he wouldn't have been able to save everyone on that cargo ship when we…… "Eep," she cut herself off when her mother's eyes shifted to her.
"You saved a cargo ship? In the Antarctic," she asked Wally curtly.
"Linda. Honey, it's like I have been trying to tell J'onn. I feel…..stronger, and faster than ever before. I think I am faster than I ever was before. Which is saying something. I'm getting more control, too. I even managed to phase right though an iceberg without blowing it apart like I usually do."
"He's right, mom," Janey couldn't help putting in, noticing her mother was finally cooling down a little. "Fast as I am, he actually had to slow down a few times to keep from leaving me behind.
"Didn't think I noticed, did you," she smirked at her father as she refilled her bowl.
"You….did all that just this morning," she asked.
"Well….yeah," Wally said, and went over and snapped off the portable television on the kitchen counter. "Look, I'm sorry. But….I've just had this…..gift given back to me, and I had to find out what I could still do. I was going crazy doing the lab rat thing for J'onn, and I felt like if I didn't really let loose I was going to……"
"Explode," Janey offered.
"Yeah. Exactly," Wally grinned, holding his arms out to his wife again.
She sighed. Shaking her head, she let him embrace her, returning the hug as she grumbled, "Great, now I've got two children again."
"Hey," they both complained.
"You, young lady, are still close to grounding. Don't think I won't do it," she told her daughter as she turned on her. "And you have thirty-three minutes to get ready, and get to school before you're late. So don't even think of telling me you don't have time. Get going."
Wally smiled as he sat down, "So, why are you still home?"
"It's my day off, Walter," she sighed as Janey vanished in a blur of speed, and several crashes sounded in her wake.
"Not in the house," they both shouted out of habit.
They grinned, and he asked, "So, how about breakfast?" "What did you want?" "No, no. My treat. We'll go out to that new buffet. The all-you-can eat place they opened down on Spencer."
"Uh-oh," she grinned despite herself. "Oh, all right. They can always ban you later."
"No, no. They'll welcome me as free publicity.
"I can just see it now. Flash eats here! I should charge them for the promotion."
"Walter," she scowled.
"It was a joke," he insisted.
She pointed at him, smirking. "I mean…..are you going in your pajamas?"
He looked down, blushing. He had been in his pajamas went he went speedster. He had somehow managed to forget that. "Right. Be back in a sec."
"Not in the house," she yelled after him, though nothing broke in his wake. He had more practice at dodging obstacles. Apparently, he wasn't that rusty after all.
She smiled after him, secretly grateful he had gotten out of the house, and was on his way back to being the man she had fell in love with so many years ago. She had been worrying for years he was growing too melancholy in spite of his position with the League as the new Oracle. If anything, she felt that had made things worse for him, surrounding him with reminders of what he could never have again.
As much as she had never cared for that dark character, she was more than grateful that Batman had returned to give Wally back his legs. The part of her that was a dedicated medical professional couldn't help but wonder if that same technology couldn't help the thousands out there that didn't have the chance at such miracles.
She'd have to broach it with J'onn. Although she still felt a little uneasy around the Martian even in his human shape. He just seemed so…..peculiar.
"Ready to go," Wally asked, appearing at her side in what seemed just an instant later fully dressed.
"I'm gone," Janey shouted, and the sound of the front door slamming announced her departure eloquently.
She looked up at her husband, and smiled. "I'm ready," she told him. Just as both their beepers went off. They both looked disappointed as they looked down at their beepers and groaned.
"Sorry for the short notice," J'onn told him. "However, when word reached me about your….nocturnal exploits, I had to take this opportunity to give you a full physical after you had so obviously gone against my advice and stretched yourself to the limit."
"I wasn't stretched. I wasn't even close," Wally snorted as the disguised Martian studied the many readings from wires hooked to him as the surrounding computers made the usual noises as he stood perfectly still on the treadmill, clad only in his shorts just then.
"Is that right," Dr. Jones asked him, arching a brow like another stick-in-the-mud he knew.
"Want proof," Wally asked him as he fingered the gold ring on his right hand.
"I'd rather test your……"
"Test this," Wally grinned, in full uniform as he held out a small, delicate cup of tea.
"Earl Gray, two lumps, no cream or lemon," he added as the doctor warily took the steaming cup. "Fresh from London, England," he added smugly.
J'onn glanced at his monitors, which recorded little more than a few seconds break in the readings from the hero beside him, and now were attached to him over his costume. He was showing not even the faintest signs of fatigue, or slowdown. If anything, the results indicated someone who had been having an idle moment, and had been doing nothing more than sharing the time of day.
"Convinced," he demanded.
"Astonished, actually. You do realize you'll need to be doubly careful. We have indications that this technology can…..exponentially increase strength, reflexive responses, and adrenal flow beyond your usual state. Both Nightwing, and….another test subject, showed marked increases in those areas even before we realized it was possible."
"Nightwing, huh? Heard the Bird-boy was back."
"Perhaps. That has yet to be decided. I, however, am more concerned with you. Remember, your old metabolism had you reaching dangerous peaks that required….."
"I know, J'onn. Trust me, I've considered all the pros and cons, and listened to every word you and Bats have crammed into my ears. Now, listen to me. I'm fine. I'm better than fine. If anything, I have more control than ever. Look," he said, and began vibrating his hand as speeds impossible to track with the human eye, he waved his hand back and forth through the nearby treadmill frame without even disrupting the device in the slightest.
"When could I ever do that," he grinned.
"All the same, I would like you to…..keep me aware of any unusual developments."
"Hey, I'm the fastest man alive, Dr. Jones," he grinned. "What isn't unusual about me," he asked as he swept his hand down his still trim torso, removing the wires in one move. "Now, if that's all you wanted, I have a delayed date with my wife."
"All right. Just be…… Careful," J'onn sighed as the scarlet speedster vanished again, this time leaving him alone with the still steaming cup of tea.
He carefully lifted the cup to his lips, sipping lightly, and smiled faintly. "It is quite good," he commented to no one in particular, and turned to his work with the cup in hand.
Talia wiped the sweat from her brow as she finished the somersault off the parallel bars, and landed easily on tiptoe beside her new mentor. "I….didn't know I could…..even do that," she exclaimed as she smiled up at her grim companion running hands down her sleek body clad in a dark green bodysuit that seemed made for her.
"You have far more potential than you yet realize," he told her, monitoring her physiology with the remote sensors attached to her body even as he studied her moves. "Pamela told me you handled yourself quite well last week with those assassins in the park, too."
"Did you….get a chance to check….?" "She, and the baby are fine," he told her. "Apparently, her own unique physiology protected it, as well as herself."
"Have you….heard anything else from my father?" "Not a word. None of the captured assassins are talking, not that that is unexpected. Still, rumors are starting to rise that he truly has died this time."
"You don't believe them?" "I'll believe it when I see his body."
Talia nodded. "What of the source of the illegal arms you were tracing."
"Dead ends. But I suspect some of them came from arms dealers that originated in Metropolis. That's a connection I have turned over to someone else to trace. Gotham is what concerns me just now.
"Rest period is over," he added in almost the same breath. "Now, lets see how well you spar hand-to-hand."
"With you," she exclaimed, staring at him in amazement.
"There is no one else here," he pointed out, clad only in his bodysuit without the cape and cowl just then.
Before he even finished speaking, his right hand flashed out. She caught it just short of her left breast, and countered. His smile was somber as they launched into a furious display of unarmed combat that would have left grandmasters gaping before they were finished.
"I need someone like you," the hooded figure rasped as they stood before the masked man in a tailored suit. "I have money, and weapons, but I need men to use them. I need an army, and I need it now."
"And what do I get for risking my boys," the man in the black mask asked as he feigned indifference to the slight figure that had not only found his hideout, but broke in, and left over a dozen of his men laying moaning, or unconscious around them.
"As I said. I have money."
"I can always get money, babe," he drawled, eyeing the cloaked figure knowingly.
A small, but powerful fist hammered down on the desk before him, splintering the thick wood as the low voice exploded from behind her own mask. "I am not accustomed to bargaining with common rogues, Thorne," she hissed. "I owe the Bat a blood debt. And I mean to see it repaid. A thousandfold."
"That much. Let me tell you something, babe," the masked man drawled.
The fist rose beneath his masked nose. "Address me so again, Thorne, and I'll be speaking with your successor."
The masked man chuckled. "What's wrong? Your time of the month?"
The growl that came from beneath that hood was more than eloquent.
"Let me tell you something. I've seen armies go against the Bat. I mean armies. He's still here. Now they're even saying he's come back from the dead? Frankly, I believe it. I've seen stranger things. After all, we all have…..our secrets. Don't we, assassin," the masked man chortled.
"And what do you think you know," the woman's voice retorted from beneath the cloak.
"I have eyes and ears everywhere, too," the man drawled. "You'd be surprised at what I know. Word is, you didn't fare too well when you tried to steal the Bat's new toys. Guess you are the only one here to really know how both sides of the street live now, though," he laughed.
The figure all but growled.
"So, do you still go by Ra's al Ghul? Or Rose al Ghul," the masked man chortled.
The cloaked figure shook with rage as small hands jerked back her cloak, revealing a young, pretty face framed by red-gold curls. "You come dangerously close to your own end, Thorne," she hissed, her body clad in an assassin's uniform of red and gold, with matching daggers at her hips.
"Oh, I don't doubt you're just as formidable as ever, lady," he addressed her. "But you're letting your emotions get the better of you. Guess those hormones really are a bitch. Still, you think about it, and you'll know I'm right. You won't get anywhere tackling the Dark Knight in that state of mind. He'll have you caught, stuffed, and mounted so fast you'll think you were never free. You should remember that with the Bat you have to be subtle. Patient. And….being just a little mad helps," he chuckled again.
"You aren't Thorne," silver-gray eyes narrowed shrewdly as the remade assassin stood studying him in spite of his common, linen mask. "You may wear his name, but you aren't he."
"Well, we all wear more than one face in this world," the man chuckled. "We just have to decide which face we want to put forward."
"So you say," the woman who had been Ra's al Ghul, the demon's head glowered. "All I care about is seeing the detective broken, and finally dead at my feet. Now, do you assist me, or do I speak to your successor," she spat irritably.
"Cranky, aren't we? Now, as I said, patience. If you've the….balls for it," he chortled. "I do have a role for you in a little endgame that I, and a certain cohort are planning."
"Tell me more," she demanded as one of the men groaning behind him finally fell silent.
"Sure. As long as you stop with the temper tantrums, and leave off with the threats. After all, I'm rather fond of my life, such as it is, and I need all of my men in one piece if we're going to pull this off. Unless you think you can manage to add to our numbers," he asked suggestively.
Her pale eyes glowed silver with fury for a moment, but years of experience did win out over her fury, and she drew a deep breath as she told him, "I might just have an idea that will help both of us. If you don't mind listening to a female," she added caustically.
"First time for everything," the masked man quipped carelessly, oddly attracted to the voluptuous redhead despite the fact his spies had told him that she really was the infamous assassin of legend in a new incarnation. "Who knows," he added. "This might even be the start of a most pleasurable association for the both of us."
Ra's scowled as she pulled her hood back over her head, and closed the cloak to hide her feminine curves from his scrutiny. "I suggest we stick to business," she spat, ruthlessly shoving aside those other sensations this troubling body kept insisting on foisting off on her.
On him, as a part of herself still felt quite male, even if she no longer looked it.
She grumbled low in her throat as she began to feel out this faux Thorne, and tried to draw out his own plans to see how they might aid or hamper her own. In the end, though, the greater part of her wanted only one thing. The bloody corpse of her enemy at her feet. Nothing else mattered to her just then. Nothing at all.
For even his daughter had apparently turned her back on him. On her. Choosing to side with his longtime nemesis against her own blood, especially after what he had allowed to be done to her, was inexcusable. It was not to be condoned. It was not to be forgiven. Once, and for all, all her enemies would suffer the ultimate fate, and then let the world tremble.
"Richard," Barbara smiled as she saw the door to her city office open to reveal him standing there in masculine splendor.
"I heard you would like to speak to me about the fundraiser you're holding next month. I'm rather surprised you've decided to run for the governor's office after…..last week."
"Close the door," she gestured as she rolled her chair back away from her desk. When he did, she pressed a hidden switch under the arm of her wheelchair, and nodded.
"Now, we can speak freely."
"So, what is this really about, Barbara," he asked grimly.
"A lot of things, actually. And don't think I haven't noticed Nightwing has been out there just as often as Vixen of late."
"For some reason, Wayne-Tech has been painted with a big bull's-eye of late. I'm trying to see it lasts long enough to complete the new testing on the medical applications of….. Well, our new medical technology."
"Commendable. If I believed that."
"So, maybe you'll tell me why you gave me that bull about the gubernatorial fundraiser? What's really on your mind," he asked her again.
She sighed, and lifted her hands. "I've had a lot to think about in this past week. There's something you should know," she told him.
"Yeah," he grunted, unable to keep from sounding a bit like a petulant child just then.
"I guess I deserved that, but….please, just hear me out."
"I'm still here," he told her, not stepping any closer.
"You know…..Bruce and I were close once."
"Old news. Or is it," he asked pointedly.
"Let me finish," she sighed.
"I'm listening," he nodded sullenly as he walked over to look out her window, studying the vista before him before turning back to study her.
"Well, I'd be lying if I said I never hoped……for more. Only, there is no more. Not for us. We both know how he is, and I thought I had gotten over him. Over…..both of them," she told him pointedly. "Then he showed back up last month, and things started happening so fast. He even gave me my legs back, though I can't too well let anyone know it just now. If ever," she said a bit morosely.
"I guess it is easier for Richard Grayson to try out his new discovery on himself," he admitted in a subdued tone as he held up his right hand.
"Yes, and I….I'm not really that upset. What does upset me is……."
"Yeah," he asked as he took a single step forward.
"Well, for a time, everything all came together at once, and my feelings were still all screwed up. I let past crushes overwhelm me, and…..oh, hell, you know how it is with him. He's just so…..larger than life."
"Getting to a point anytime soon," he asked somberly as he made a show at glancing at his watch.
"Damn it, Dick, I'm trying to say……I'm pregnant," she spat out.
He stared at her, his eyes briefly going to her still flat belly, and then to her wide, green eyes. "You're kidding? You're not," he said when he took in her hurt expression.
"Okay, so…..I guess you made your decision….."
"Yes, I have," she cut him off before he could turn to go.
"I chose you. If….you'll still have me."
Richard's jaw dropped. "But you just said….? I mean, it is…..?"
"Yes. But it is also mine. And I don't want my child raised in that environment. His environment. You think I don't remember Jason? Or all the others that have fallen into that abyss? I've had a week to think about it, Dick, and my answer is this gubernatorial election. I'm sticking with what I now know is best for all of us. Especially me. I want to make a difference for everyone out there, not just a few people on the street. Batman is…..well, he's Batman," she shrugged. "But I'm not Batgirl, or Oracle, or even Vixen. Last night, I destroyed everything. Every last trace of my old life. I'm moving on. The question is…..Do you still want to move on with me?" Richard frowned at her as she seemed to cringe, as if fearing his response. "Are you….proposing," he asked a little uneasily.
"Maybe," she demurred with a nervous smile. "What would you say if I were?"
He suddenly smiled. Then wider. "I'd have to say yes. It wouldn't look good for an unwed mother trying to run for governor," he told her.
"And…..your own alter ego?" "Like you said…..maybe it's time we both stepped away from that abyss. I can't deny I didn't enjoy the thrill. Almost like old times. But it isn't. Not for me. Not for us. Besides, running Wayne-Tech has its own challenges. And just think of your platform if you help me push through human testing of our new prosthetics line," he grinned. "Why….Wayne-Tech might just might even help you walk again before we're finished," he winked as he crossed the room, and leaned over to hug her even as a knock sounded at the door.
"I think this conference is about over," Barbara sniffed suspiciously as her secretary asked why she wasn't answering her page through the door, shaking the handle as she did.
"Tonight, Bernie's, eight o'clock," he asked as he gave her a peck on the cheek, and straightened up even as she pressed the hidden stud on her desk that once more freed her office's special security systems. He pretended not to see the tear she wiped away, but smiled all the same.
"I'm looking forward to it," she beamed even as shifted her chair back toward her desk as Evelyn almost fell through the suddenly open door.
"Ms. Gordon, I…..
"Oh," she blushed as she saw the residual flushes on both faces as Dick gave her a jaunty salute, and left the office.
"Yes, Evie? What was it," Barbara asked after clearing her throat as she rolled her chair back behind her desk, feeling suspicious tingles in her body in places where she had not felt anything for a very long time. She couldn't help smiling as her secretary and aide of seven years gaped at her.
"Did you and Mr. Grayson finally make up," she asked.
"You might say that. Remind me I have an eight o'clock appointment with Mr. Grayson to….ah, discuss the governor's race," she told her.
Evelyn nodded her head numbly, then shook her head as if only just remembering why she was there. "Oh, and you have the state's district attorney on line one concerning the overcrowded prison conditions. And there's a reporter from the Times waiting outside that is wanting to interview you about last week's assault on the mansion," she added.
"Tell the D.A. I've got my own city D.A. handling the issue quite adequately, and then send in the reporter. And, Evie. Give me three minutes, and then come back in, and remind me of another appointment."
"Which one," her aide frowned.
"Pick one," she said with a wistful sigh.
"Ah," Evelyn nodded in complete understanding.
Rupert Thorne's funeral garnered very few mourners.
The priest stood staring dispassionately at the few who gathered at graveside, and then droned his usual rites to comfort those that might actually grieve, and earn his way into heaven by fulfilling his perceived role in his ministry. He stood back at the end, watching as only two men came forward. One, a lean, smirking man who dropped a black rose on the gleaming coffin, and the other, a pale, brooding man who walked with unseen burdens who lay a simple white lily next to the rose.
"Couldn't have happened to a nicer guy," the smirking man drawled.
The other man merely glanced at him, then shook his head, and turned to head back to the long, black limousine that had brought them. The other mourners, just a few old men who remembered Rupert as a former boss of bosses stood standing morosely around the gravesite, commiserating with one another until the service was concluded, and even they wandered off to likely drown their sorrows in the drink of their choosing.
After everyone had left, a young woman in slacks, and a pale, green blouse walked over to the priest, and simply nodded. She stood there a few moments, then disappeared back the way she had come.
Cold, blue eyes glanced down at the coffin, then headed toward the church. Just inside the bishop's private offices where a man slept off the sleeping potion given him in his morning tea, the priest stripped out of the borrowed garments, and pulled on more sedate civilian clothes that were far more casual. He hung up the borrowed vestments, and then disappeared as silently as he had come, leaving no one behind to witness his departure.
Even as he climbed into a nondescript coupe with the brunette waiting for him in the passenger seat, he glanced at the dash where a GPS was monitoring all four of the limousines that had shown up at the funeral. "Two went back to the funeral home, and one went to the rental agency," Talia told the disguised detective who started the car even as he studied the GPS.
"The other went directly to…."
"Thorne Tower. Only it didn't stay long, did it," he noted as he realized the road it was taking led only one place.
"It seems to be headed out of town," she told him as they pulled out of the cemetery, and took their own path out of town.
"I know where it's going. And it confirms a few suspicions I've already considered."
"Do I have to stay at the cave this time," she asked as they headed for that secret lane that led only to that dead-end road that seemed to end at the foot of a towering cliff. "Can't I go with you again?"
He glanced at her, saying nothing as the car turned off a side road, and entered the secret entrance that led into the heavily guarded caverns that had long housed his alter ego. "I'll consider it," he told her dryly.
Thomas Thorne sighed as he sat back on the chair in in cell.
It was comfortable, equipped with all the amenities, but it was a cell all the same.
"So, when am I going to be next," he asked the masked man who was his constant bodyguard of late.
"The boss isn't ready for you to croak yet, Tommy Boy," the irreverent man snorted. "You still have to be around to take the fall when….. Well, whenever."
"Aren't you even going to tell me what it is that lunatic is trying to do?"
"You'll find out," the hood grinned. "And it'll be your name everyone curses after it happens."
Thomas Thorne dropped his head as the door was locked behind his guard, once more sealing him inside his cell. He barely glanced at the television, and didn't much care what was in the icebox. Wasn't even really tired enough to care about the bed. He just wanted out. He wanted his own life back.
Bad enough the lunatic had to accompany him to his father's funeral, marring his memory with his crude jokes. Then he had to suffer his cackling dementia all the way back to his own former business before being driven back here. Not that anyone would recognize him had he been seen by those that knew him. His captors had also seen fit to change his features just enough with their hellish technology to make him a stranger to himself even to his own eyes.
Even if he managed to escape, and call for help, he didn't know who he could get to believe him. He was almost to the point of trying something desperate, even if it got himself killed. At least then he would be free. Only then his name would be dragged down with no one to protest. With no one left to proclaim his innocence. He stared around the room, wondering just what he could do, and how he might go about it when he heard something crash violently into the building that held him. He heard shouts, and the sounds of men running, and went to the door to try to hear what was happening more clearly.
Which was when the shooting began just outside his room.
He jumped back, and pressed himself against the far wall as the door literally exploded, and fell back to reveal a macabre, masked figure that peered into the now, smoke-filled room. A single glance was all that was needed to tell him the figure was female. She had a long, red sash around her waist, and a matching domino mask over her eyes, but there was no denying her long, slender fingers seemed to make very deadly points as if crowned by claws.
"Thomas Thorne," she said more than asked as she held a small, beeping device up to his chest. "I'm here to get you out of here. Follow me, and stay close."
"Wh-Who are you," he asked anxiously, wondering if this weren't some bizarre trick.
"A friend. Now, come," she ordered him curtly. "We've little time to waste," she told him even as she somersaulted backward, landing behind the thug that had come up behind her, and then drove his masked face into the side of the warped doorframe.
His gun dropped from nerveless fingers even as he slid down to the floor.
"Come," she barked again, and turned to go, leaving him to follow, or not.
Thomas raced after her without another moment's hesitation.
Even as he left the prison cell fashioned for him, he spotted him. The dark cape billowed as he leapt, and dodged bullets, and landed in the thick of the armed men to drop them all with just his hands and feet in mere seconds as he seemed to dance around the flying bullets, and hard fists as if knowing where each was even before it could strike him.
"Get him into the car," came a gravelly command from the shadowy figure that made Thomas shudder in genuine trepidation. He had heard his uncle rail against the vigilante for years, and only now did he truly understand his uncle's near superstitious dread of the man that had not been seen for virtually twenty years.
He followed the green-clad female to a long, black wingless rocket, and gaped as she opened the top to gain entrance to the vehicle. "Inside," she ordered, pointing to a narrow space behind the two molded seats in the cabin, as he considered the space inside that odd vehicle.
He climbed in without arguing, nodding meekly as she ordered him, "Do not touch anything," before the hatch slid closed over his head, and he was sealed inside what seemed an insulated coffin. He could hear nothing. Barely see anything as he risking glancing up around one of the seats, only to find the opaque windshield blurred everything around him, hiding him all the more from those that still did what seemed vain battle against the pair that dropped the last man standing in tandem.
The Bat stood still now, still cloaked in the blurred shadows beyond his view, but Thomas could still make out the girl well enough. They waded through the thugs around them, tying them up, and then leaving them. Finally, the hatch over his head slid back again, and both of them jumped inside, the rocket rumbling to life even as the hatch closed once more.
"Relax, Thorne," the dark clad hero told him in a low voice. "You're safe for now."
"You're….him," Thomas said, somewhat in awe as he looked up at the strong, jutting jaw of a man that simply looked unyielding. "Listen, I'm…."
"I'm more interested in the men impersonating you," he replied as he touched a switch, and the rocket shuddered briefly as he felt it move back, then jerk him violently as it spun around and seemed to fly over the roads before them.
"I….I never really saw anyone, except that lunatic who too my place. Everyone else wore those god awful masks. Only….."
"Yes," the Bat prompted him when he hesitated.
"They kept hinting at something big. Something that I'd be blamed for, and would never be forgotten."
"That sounds more like the clown," the vigilante addressed his companion, and pressed another switch.
"Bullock," he spoke curtly into the open channel he had opened.
"How'd you get this number….. Ah, never mind," came the irritable reply. "What now, Batboy?"
"I have located the real Thorne. The one at Thorne towers is definitely the Joker. There is another Thorne imposter posing as the head of the Black Mask gang. I have my suspicions as to his identity. They are apparently planning something big. Something catastrophic, knowing the man in charge."
"So, Thomas Thorne….the real mook….is okay?"
"He's with me even now. I'm taking him someplace safe until we can take down the clown, and his accomplices."
"Okay. So, what should I do?"
"I left a dozen or so bodies for you at the warehouse just outside of town on Janyck Road."
"The clown's old hideout," Bullock realized.
"The same. They were all low level street thugs. You might get something out of them, but I doubt it. Once I secure Thorne, I'll be going to see the clown myself. Keep your men back, we don't want them setting him off before we find out what he's really up to this time."
"Yeah, yeah, don't get your tights in a bunch. We know the drill with you two. Just don't keep us waiting. These days, we kind of like it when the press thinks we're not doing our jobs," he scowled.
"Grumpy, isn't he," Talia asked him as Batman closed the channel.
"He usually is," he nodded as Thomas listened to them. "But he's a good cop, and an honest one. Likely one of the few good ones left these days."
"Are we taking him…..there," she asked him as they took a road she recognized even as he darkened the windscreen until only his instruments were guiding their route.
"For now, we have no other choice. We need him safe until we unmask all the players in this game."
"Game?" "To the clown, that's just what it is," he told her as they left the road, and began to slow as he felt the distinctive thump of the wheels hitting the first ramp in the tunnel that led them to the heart of the cave. "We're here," he turned to tell Thomas even as he shut the engines down.
"My God," Thomas stared around him as the hatch slid back to reveal a panoramic view of the shadowed cave lit up here and there by various work stations, and the locked panels to chambers only he could access. "It's true. It's all true."
"Come on, Thorne," he growled as he climbed out of the Batmobile behind Talia. "We need to talk."
"I told you…."
"You probably know more than you realize. That's what I'm going to find out before I put you to sleep,"
"For your own safety," he told him. "When all this is settled, though, you'll wake up back in your own world, and free from Joker's grasp."
"And….what about my face," he asked a little anxiously as he climbed a bit clumsily out of the rocket.
"I'm sure we can arrange something. Later. For now, we need to focus on the important matters. You mentioned something big. So let's discuss just how the Joker took over your life, and why. As well as what your business was working on at the time it happened. At this point, any detail might be important," he added when Thomas shook his head in confusion.
"All right. I'll….I'll try to help, but I don't think I know anything that important. Believe me, I've tried to figure out this madman's game, too. I've had years to think about it, and all I've done is all but drive myself crazy."
"Trust me," the Bat told him in that grim tone that sent shivers down his spine. "I can help you remember whatever it is you have forgotten," he said as he led him toward a locked, steel panel to one side of the massive supercomputer that filled one wall of the huge cave.
Thomas swallowed hard, but followed. Just then, he had few other choices.
"Techno here, what's up," the young hero asked, reclining back in the chair before the League communications console.
"I need your help," a voice he never expected to hear spoke in his ear through the transceiver he was wearing.
"You," Techno exclaimed, sitting up as he voiced his surprise. "Want my help?"
"Just listen," the stern voice told him. "This is what I want."
The young hero was no stranger to the Bat's reputation. He listened closely to every word.
"I'm on it, Batman. I'll buzz you when I have something," he told him after he had listened to what the legendary hero wanted of him.
There was no reply. The channel was already closed.
"Nice talking to you, too," he muttered, even as he turned to the computer before him, his retinal patterns already mapping the circuits, and finding the channels he wanted. Unlike most heroes with physical gifts, or super powers, he was primarily a mentally-gifted meta who could literally mentally interface with any mechanical or computer system in existence. Once linked, he could literally do anything his imagination could summon up.
"This is going to be a breeze," he grinned even as his super-consciousness fragmented like a hive-mind through the internet, each fragment holding on to the strands that made up a comprehensive whole, and kept him focused. Even he didn't understand it all, but he knew it got the job done, and that was what mattered.
"Watch me cook, Bats," he grinned as he opened over five dozen links, and followed them to their sources to seek out what he wanted.
"It is starting to make sense," Batman told Talia as he activated the cryo-chamber that had housed her for years to keep her alive.
It would keep Thomas Thorne alive, too, and safely tucked away until all the pretenders, and criminals using his face could be taken down, and their plans thwarted.
"I cannot see how it would do any real harm."
"You're not thinking broadly enough.
"Consider this," he told her. "Thorne's people stumble upon a discovery that looks innocuous, and promises a nice, relaxing sleep using low-level harmonics to gently unwind mind and body so you can sleep peacefully, and wake up to face the new day completely rested. Considering the subliminal possibilities, he could go either one of three routes depending on the tweaking he did to the original hardware he sent out with the Slumber-Gard units Thorne patented, and was starting to market just before the clown took over."
"It is a good thing you are on the side of the angels, beloved, if you are able to penetrate his macabre thinking so easily."
"It's not that easy," he told her as they left Thorne sleeping as the chamber cooled down, and began cycling the man's vitals slowly down in a descending spiral that would eventually freeze, and keep him in perfect suspension. "But I've acquired some experience with the madman's train of thought over the years."
"So, which path is more likely?"
"That is the part that is tricky," he admitted. "I'll know more when Techno reports back to me.
"As it stands, he could use the units to broadcast a signal that would make people as mad as him, or he could simply give himself control over them by making them virtual puppets."
"And the third?"
"That is the most troubling possibility. He could use the unit to put the entire city into a coma from which they might never wake up. Still, any scenario involving the technology is disturbing, and that was why Thorne was wisely pushing it through some rigorous testing before he allowed anything to even be patented. Somehow…..the clown found out about….. The secretary," he realized. "She was in Arkham after she first encountered him after she escaped his grasp. And she wouldn't be the first person he corrupted," he spat, furious with himself for not considering the possibility after knowing what had become of Harley, who had once been a respected medical professional until she met the mad clown.
He looked at Talia, and consider his next move as he told her, "I'm going into the city. You monitor the communications, and the moment Techno contacts me, let me know. Tim has helped about as much as he can in his position. It's up to that specially talented young man now. Any information he uncovers is critical at this junction."
"All right," she said, though she was obviously upset at being left behind again.
"Cheer up, Talia," he told her with a grim smile. "The way things look, there is going to be plenty for both of us to do before this over."
"I am just proud to stand at your side, beloved," she called him again as he pulled his cowl back over his face, and headed for the Batmobile.
Sally Nolan almost screamed as she closed the refrigerator in her small apartment, and turned to face a dark shadow that moved out of the corner of her room where there should have been no movement.
"Ohmigod," she gasped, heedless to the glass of juice that shattered on the floor when she dropped it.
"You and I need to speak," Batman growled, moving toward her as the woman clad in a bathrobe, fresh from the shower backpedaled across her kitchen until she bumped into a counter that stopped her as the grim intruder continued to approach her.
Batman's nostrils flared as he inhaled her fresh scent, and detected far more than soap, or perfume. He had been right. He could somehow scent her readiness to reproduce, and a part of his body was willing him to take her even as she stared at him with fear-darkened eyes locked on his grim, masked visage. He ruthless extended his own unyielding discipline over his mind and body to force it to ignore that impulse as his eyes narrowed as he looked down into her face as he learned over her where she stood pressed back against the counter.
"Joker," he growled. "You know what he intends. You told him all about the Thorne patents, and what Thomas Thorne could do with the Slumber-Gard. What else did you tell him? What else did you learn?"
"I….I don't know what you mean," Sally whined, her body coiled tightly with conflicting emotions as fear and a confusing arousal suddenly took turns at freezing and boiling her blood both at once.
"I know you do," Batman growled, his masked features now a scant inch from her face as she felt her bladder release, and the fear of a madman evaporated as pure, visceral terror knifed into her very soul as the demons of her nightmare coalesced in the face and person of the night demon before her as her bladder seemed to simply explode, drenching her thighs, and robe.
"I….I didn't have a choice," she wailed abruptly.
"He…..He was in Arkham. He….He was right next to me. Our rooms…..were connected. Somehow….he could come into mine any time he wished. He's mad. Insane in a way you can't begin to understand."
"Yes, I can," Batman rumbled, his voice low and sonorous as he stood before her, giving her no respite. "Tell me what he plans."
"I….I told him about the Slumber-Gard. I told him….how I wished I had one in that hateful place. I….I couldn't help it. Then he started asking things about Mr. Thorne. His schedule. His habits. Everything."
"And what does he intend to do? What are his plans?" "I don't know. He, and that other lunatic would sit and whisper for hours. Even after they took over Thorne Industries. They would sit in the office with maps, and cackle, and laugh, and then go back to planning. But they never told me anything. Only…."
"Only," he prompted her, closing that scant inch by centimeters.
"He would sometimes say that all my nightmares would soon be over, because….because I wouldn't care any more. Something like that."
Batman stood up, backing away only a few inches to give himself space. For a moment she had almost overwhelmed his own control, and he had almost ripped that robe open to expose her pale, voluptuous body. Almost. His will remained resolute, proving mind still ruled body, whatever its composition.
"His plans are about to end. Do not return to work until it's safe again."
"How will I know," she whimpered, painfully conscious of the small puddle of urine that had escaped her earlier.
"You'll know," he said, and went to the open window. "And don't call him. If you do, I'll know. And I'll be back," he told her curtly just before he leapt out her sixth story window.
She stared at the billowing curtains, and the darkness beyond them, and passed out on her own kitchen floor just inches from the spilled juice, and broken glass.
"Batman," Talia's voice came over the comlink even as he settled back into the Batmobile after leaving Sally's apartment.
"What did he learn?"
"He's on your channel.
"All right, go ahead," she spoke to someone else.
"Hey, Bats. You were right. Someone is up to something hinky down there."
"Give me the general outline. I'll ask for the details I require," he told the young hero.
"The somno-lentic tech they worked on has a funky add-on buried in the hardware. If it's turned on, it could literally fry critical portions of the frontal lobes, and turn everyone in range into a raving madmen with absolutely no impulse control. And that is just for starters."
"What's the rest," Batman asked curtly.
"Batman, if they crank up the hardware, I calculate a seventy-nine percent possibility that the transmitted carrier wave could self-replicate over existing technology and spread nationwide once its started. Maybe further. We're talking about digitally induced madness with no way of shutting it down."
"Give me the good news," the hero growled.
"To kick it off, they're going to need a base transmitter. A big one that could signal a very large number of active units with the incorporated software. Only then could the carrier wave be boosted far enough to start a replicating effect."
"So….I'm looking for a big transmitter," he said. "One capable of reaching almost every corner of Gotham."
"Gotham Radio," Techno advised him. "It's the only qualified base transmitter with power to broadcast that kind of signal."
"Noted. I appreciate it, Techno. Now, do me a favor, and shut down Gotham Radio, and any other potential transmitter in the immediate vicinity of Gotham."
"Whoa, Bats, you're talking about….." "Do it. Now," he spat, and closed the signal. "Talia. Get ready, I'm coming back. We may need some special gear to face the clown tonight," he told her.
"I'll be ready," she told him grimly before he closed the link.
"When the entire city starts to tear itself apart," the masked criminal told the cloaked assassin as he held out a pair of modified ear buds. "These are the only things that are going to keep you from going nuts. Because at the end of the day, lunacy will be the new currency, and guess who will be the only ones capable of cashing in on it?"
"What of the Bat," the woman spat as she took the tiny plugs.
"He doesn't have a clue as to what we're doing. We've been putting the pieces together for years, and slowly incorporating every element needed to put this all in place. By the time anyone ever even thinks of trying to piece things together, there won't be enough people left that care. It's going to one big, mad, happy world," the hooded villain chortled.
"Do not underestimate the detective," the feminized assassin spat as she held up a hand, flexing it slowly as she frowned at her limb.
"Something wrong, Rosey," the man asked mockingly. "You're looking a little paler than usual."
"I am simply weary of sitting, and waiting," she told the man as she looked around the cramped van that was parked outside their target for the night.
"I know a way we could pass the time," he grinned.
"Forget it," she spat as several men chortled around them. "I do not care what has been done with me. I would never willingly lower myself to consort with a common ruffian."
"Who said it had to be willingly," the man smirked coldly as a man on either side of her grabbed her arms.
"Thorne Industries is still the key," Batman told Talia as they raced back toward the city. "If I'm right, this is a twofold plan with one group taking the transmitting station at Gotham Radio, and the other operating from Thorne's tower as a backup, and to create the loop that could start the self-replicating carrier-wave."
"You think the clown is still at Thorne Industries?" "He likes the limelight. He'll be there."
"But what of the radio station?" "Bullock is on his way there even as we speak," he told her. "I'm more concerned with what your father may try in the interim after his attempted bloodbath was thwarted. He's been uncommonly silent since that brief spurt of madness."
"You don't think he's dead any more. Do you?" "No. Sayid was obviously acting on orders, and wouldn't have been so rash otherwise. It implies a degree of desperation that Ra's hasn't exhibited before now. That worries me."
"More than this clown?" "Without the transmitters, his plan may be at least partially thwarted. We still have to ensure he doesn't have a backup, or some way of using the local Slumber-Gard units without the transmitter. And he needs to face justice, as well," he summed up grimly.
"Will he? I mean, you do not kill? How else can you stop him?"
"There are ways," he said. "I learned more than you can know while I was in space."
The assassin who had been Ra's al Ghul screamed in frustration at the folly of these men underestimating him….or her, yet again.
He drew back a small foot, and slammed it into the jaw of the man across from her. His neck snapped instantly even as her other foot caught another in his crotch, causing him to emit only a tiny, squeaking sound as his eyes rolled up in his sockets, and he folded over as if in a vain attempt to belatedly protect himself as his pelvis was literally cracked by the blow.
Those men who had grabbed him suddenly began to convulse as her poisoned nails grabbed, and pierced their unprotected arms, and she jerked free to slam a hard palm into the foolish thug's jaw who had tried to paw at her apparently softer, rounded body.
He fell back hard enough to force the rear doors open, and as he did, the rest of those men who were trying to help restrain the obviously still formidable assassin froze for a moment as dozens of police cars began to arrive, sirens wailing, and lights flashing.
"We were ratted out," someone yelled as he pulled a gun.
The assassin swore, and pulled free of a final assailant, shredding part of her blouse as she leapt from the van, and used the few shadows to seek shelter even as police began spreading out all around them, and the vans full of men slated to take the unlikely target of Gotham Radio now began to turn instead on the arriving police.
"The detective," she swore coldly as she felt a twinge in her chest that made her first fear her true age had somehow followed her to this new body. Then another fear rose as she realized her body was no longer the same, supple color of health. She was the color of bleached slate.
Something was wrong, and only one man could save her. If he would.
First, however, he had to reach him.
"Going somewhere, assassin," the hooded man spat as he came up behind her, his gun aimed at her head.
"I don't have time for you," she swore as police continued to shoot, or chase the men who should have taken the radio station by now.
"Someone betrayed us, and you're the only newcomer to this outfit," he spat.
"The detective is at fault here, you miscreant. I told you, you can never underestimate him."
"So maybe you're working with him," the hooded man decided, and pulled out a silver coin. "We'll just let fortune decide your fate before the police can find us."
Even as the hooded eyes tracked the large coin to its arch, she dropped almost to her knees, and swept one leg out and around to knock the villain's feet from under him. His gun went one way as his coin the other. He scrambled after the coin as she turned and fled into the shadows behind the radio station even as more police came up a side street to the man that wore more than two faces of late.
"It's over, Joker," Batman said as he entered the R&D lab of the co-opted Thorne laboratory. "Your transmitter won't function, and even now police are warning the public to unplug that insidious device."
The apparent Thomas Thorne turned from a large console of archaic computers, and grinned. "Well, well," the man smiled in wide rictus like a true lunatic. "Right on cue. Batsy to the rescue. Only who asked you. This rotten city was chugging along just fine without you all this time. I was even enjoying my brief moment of feigned sanity. But now I'm ready to create the greatest joke of all. Madness ala carte," he exclaimed, throwing his arms up, and gesturing wildly. "Every mad dream, or impulse you've ever had, freed and expressed without censoring. Every repressed emotion, every bottled bit of rage, the whole shooting match let loose on the world all at once, and everywhere. It was going to be…..paradise," he sighed. Until you showed up," he turned to glower at him. "You always show up to rain on my parade.
Batman only glared as Joker paused, looking off to one side.
"Hmmmm," the madman murmured thoughtfully as if something had just occurred to him. "No, that's been done to death," he shook his head.
"It's over, Joker," he said, approaching him with both fists clenched.
"Oh, come on, Batty. It's never over. I mean, jeez, you had to come back from the dead to thwart me one more time, but….over? We've been doing this dance for ages. I mean…..how can it ever be over?" "Like this," he said, and touched his earpiece.
"Now," he spoke curtly.
Instantly, the entire building went dark.
"What, you've never heard of auxiliary power," the camouflaged Joker laughed as he reached for a nearby lever.
He shoved it back up, and pulled it again.
"Well, that's just….unfair."
"As I said. It's over, clown," he said, and drove a hard fist into his gut, doubling him over.
A second fist drove him to his knees, and he looked up with a crooked grin on his bloody lip as he asked, "I suppose a bribe would be out of the question?" "I have a better idea," Batman growled as a second figure came into the laboratory in the darkness broken only by the lights that filtered in through the open windows.
"Hey, what is…..? Ow! What did you do, Bat-brain?"
"I gave you the ultimate cure, Joker. Inside of three hours, your neurons are going to start firing in very particular patterns as your warped brain repairs itself. On the outside of three hours," Batman smiled blandly, "You are going to discover you are slowly, but inexorably, returning to a state approximating sanity. Where after you discover your new sanity, you'll stand trial for all your actions to date, and face whatever penalty the law allows."
"You're joking? You can cure insanity now?"
"You should know, clown. I never joke."
"Yeah, yeah. I just have to know. How did you know it was me? What gave me away?" Batman smiled curtly as he spun him around to slam him into the computer consoles before him, cuffing him before he jerked him back to start him toward the door. "DNA never lies, Joker. Not even yours."
"This isn't over, you know. I have…."
"By now, the commissioner is rounding up Two-Face, and his gang."
Joker's expression truly fell now. "I just can't surprise you at all, can I? You're just not any fun at all," he muttered.
"And before the power in this building is restored," he went on, "Reputable scientists, and police will be going over everything with a fine tooth comb to ensure whatever backup plans you might have had are squashed. As I said, it's over, clown." "We'll see," Joker muttered darkly, his smile much reduced by then as he was marched down the endless stairs since the power forbid the use of the elevators. He was led outside past honest guards, to a waiting squad car.
"Three hours, clown," he told him as the police shoved the genetically masked lunatic into the car.
"Says you," Joker retorted weakly.
"Is it really over," Talia came up behind him to ask.
"Almost," he nodded. "First, I have to go see someone else."
"I've been expecting you," Pamela smiled as he came out of the shadows.
"I'm glad to hear you are both doing all right."
"We are fine, lover," she told him as she embraced him, but stiffened as Talia came out of the shadows just then to stand close behind him.
"Why is she back?" "Consider her an ally, Pamela," he told her as much as asked. "There will be times when I cannot come to you. She may be sent in my place, and I wanted you to know I consider her trustworthy, and a valuable friend. Hopefully, to both of us," she was told.
"If that is what you want," she relaxed, embracing him again, though she kept a sharp eye on the woman who glared right back at her.
"It is," he told her. "I have heard some good things since you opened the park. I'm glad."
"I feel not unlike the sun has come out over me for the first time in years," she told him with a warm smile.
"I am glad, Pamela," he called her. "Anytime you need me, call, and I will come. If you need anything…."
"I still have your number, lover. I won't bother you unless it is important, because I know you are busy."
"I appreciate that, but just remember, you are important to me, too. You, and our child."
She only smiled, and kissed his cheek. "I will know when to call," she smiled at him.
He kissed her lightly, then stepped back. "I'll be around," he told her.
"I know," she said as he turned back toward the shadows that surrounded the trees that remained in the park.
Talia remained behind for a moment, studying the still svelte redhead. "Because you are important to him," she said, "I would wish us to be friends," she told her solemnly.
Pamela studied her for a moment, then cocked her head, and said, "I suppose that anything is possible," she told her, but without a smile.
Talia merely nodded, and turned to follow Batman back into the night, and whatever awaited.
"Detective," a shrill voice cried as the small, redheaded woman stumbled into the cave looking pale, and frightened. "I….need your help."
"That must have taken a great deal out of you to admit," Batman remarked as he turned from the data he was filing in his computer after finally freeing Thorne, and seeing him reinstated as the true heir to Rupert's legitimate businesses. Everything else was being wrapped up, except the location of Two-Face, who had vanished during the raid, and was still laying low for the moment.
He knew he would surface again. He always did. And he would be waiting for him.
"More than you know," the woman glowered, her silver eyes dark, and her body trembling as she staggered forward. "Something is….wrong."
"Who is this," Talia demanded, having come out of the back after putting away some of the gear they had no more use for that day.
"Talia," the young woman cried, looking at her in genuine relief. "Then you are….alive. Well."
"Obviously," she said, glaring back at the intruder.
"I am your father," she cried, reaching out to her as the lithe woman in dark green backed away to stand beside Batman as he rose to face the transformed assassin.
"So, this is what happened when you tried to combine the sensory scans you did on me and the mayor," the hero said, his glittering eyes studying the woman who wore a torn blouse beneath a ragged cloak. She had obviously had her own share of misfortune in the final breakdown of Joker's plans, and the dissolution of his gangs.
"You did this to me," she hissed. "You have to fix it. Something….is terribly wrong. I feel….."
"I know what is happening. You did not foresee the possibility that you overlooked critical information not available to your scanning devices. The techno-organic science that I was given has several….critical phases that must be manipulated with certain…..elements to manage a successful adaptation to human hosts. If you do not know what they are, or what phases must be carefully aligned in the formation of the organic phase of melding the two, the silicate structures begin a crystallization that will eventually overwhelm the organic host, and replace all active organic, cellular activity."
"In short, you marbleize. In essence, becoming a living statue of solid silicate."
The assassin gave a soft, feminine cry of terror as she held up stiff, white hands. "You cannot let this happen. We have had our differences, but…." "I cannot do anything for you, Ra's," Batman told him grimly as he ignored the trembling hand outstretched toward him. "The timing of the silicate-cellular phase is critical. You've been active for….what? Almost a week now? The phase should have been monitored, and corrected in the first hours of the melding process. Given the information at my disposal, there is currently nothing I know of that can stop what is happening. You have only two choices."
"What," she demanded, looking more and more horrified at the revelations the vigilante now gave when it was far too late.
"One, you can become a living statue. Likely forever, or….."
"You jest," she exclaimed in contempt when Batman glanced toward the cryo-tube that had been left empty after Thomas had been freed of it earlier that day. "You would lock me away like one of your sad, little mementos of your past adventures," she demanded.
"It would keep you alive, and at least partially human."
"With no hope?" "Not now. Perhaps, though, sometime in the future, there might be other discoveries that could help you. After all, we both know there are always….possibilities."
"Talia," she turned to the woman who eyed her suspiciously, even coldly. "I'm your father. You have to help me. Surely you know if he must be holding something back. Something that could free me of this….blight," she rasped. "Something that could restore me."
"I do not know you, woman," Talia said coldly. "If you were my father, that man lost my respect long ago. I have recovered enough of my memories to know that much. As for you…. You are not him. I suspect you would slay us both if you thought it would suit your purposes even now. No, I will not help you. Even if I could. I stand with my beloved. You, whoever you are, are on your own."
"Decide quickly, al Ghul," Batman told him grimly as she looked between the two of them in frustration, and fear. "That pallor you're showing is the silicate crystals already forming. You're probably already feeling stiff and lethargic, aren't you? I'd estimate you have less than five hours remaining before your internal organs begin to crystallize, and you reach a point of solidification that will likely become permanent."
The legendary assassin trapped in the body that had betrayed her trembled with fear and frustration as she stood there, looking at her own clenching hands that made, and unmade small, useless fists.
"Upon your honor, detective," she finally hissed, "You will not leave me in that cold tomb? You will seek a cure?" "If, in time, a way to reverse the effects can be found, you will be restored," Batman nodded, his hooded gaze unwavering.
"So be it," the redhead sighed, dropping her head. "I am in your hands, detective. I pray your sense of honor is as resolute as it was when we first engaged in our endless battle."
"You will just have to trust me," the grim hero told him as she moved reluctantly toward the waiting cryo-tube.
"Maybe….by such time as I rise again, you will have remembered me," she said to Talia.
Talia said nothing as the woman stripped mechanically, and let Batman help her climb into the glass chamber as her movements were becoming more and more inflexible as her body began to feel the affects of the internal crystallization only just starting to manifest on her external epidermis.
She looked up at Batman, a heated glare as the cover closed, and her final words were cut off by the insulated panel.
Batman smirked, having deciphered them all the same.
"I know," he told the assassin who had sworn s/he would rise again.
Batman stood on the parapet of the tall skyscraper overlooking Gotham City. Beside him, partially obscured by the flowing darkness of his cloak, a green-clad woman squatted on his left side. "So, when do I meet these other women of yours, beloved," she asked a bit caustically.
"In time. Their time, I suspect," he gave a grim chuckle.
"You have met Ivy. And Selina is just as independent, and willful. As for Barbara…. She has chosen another path, and I'm proud of her. She always knew her own mind better than most."
"But they have your life. Your favor."
"As do you," he told her.
She looked up at him as he stared out over the city as if he could see each and every facet of the metropolis before him, along with all its myriad occupants. "Do I? You have yet to favor me as you did those others."
"Jealous, Talia," he asked, his lips a thin slash across his unyielding jaw.
"No. Yes. I'm not sure. Am I not your beloved? Do I not stand beside you now, and forever?" "That is your choice. Now. You may change your mind tomorrow when or if your full memories return. Or any one of a dozen tomorrows."
"Don't be so rigid. If experience has taught me anything, it is there are always dozens of choices before us. Always possibilities that change, and grow out of those choices."
"As you told….her."
"Will you truly seek a cure?" "I will. But I did not lie. The possibility for such a treatment does not now exist as things stand. Perhaps it never will. But….as I said, there are always possibilities."
"Then, as much as I can know for now, I will say I will always choose to be at your side, beloved," she told him.
"Meeeeoowwwww. You always could pick them, B." a mocking voice purred out of the darkness.
"Selina," he said without looking back. "I expected you sooner."
"I've been busy. You've been busy. The whole city has been busy," she chortled.
"You know Red has left the game."
"No. She just took it to a different arena. "What about you? Are you feeling all right," he asked, now turning to look at the sleek, black anthro-morph that squatted just a few feet behind them.
"Playing the concerned, daddy, Batman? I don't think it quite suits you. Trust me. I'm fine. I've done this before, remember?"
"So, this is Selina."
"Is she kidding," the cat-woman once called Catwoman sputtered. She remembered going head-to-head with the assassin's daughter on more than one occasion.
"She has a bad memory," he told her. "She's relearning her place in life."
"Spiffy," the smirking woman bit back her life. "And she's learning from you? Like I said. You always could pick them."
"I chose to stand by my beloved, woman," Selina hissed in a very good approximation of a cat herself.
"Oooohhh, I might like her after all."
The scream echoed across the streets below before either of them could reply to the playful banter.
"Shall we, ladies," he asked as he tensed, taking the ends of his cape in his gloved hands.
"After you, lover," Selina grinned as the shadow of the bat once more stretched out over the streets as the hero launched himself out over his city.
Followed quickly by two nimble, dark shapes that moved almost as swiftly as he toward the source of the cries for help.
Not the end……