Diana could taste dirt. Dust swamped her senses. Gone was the vacuum of space. The neural net had fallen too, and with it the reassuring sense of being connected to the League and the other Olympian Champions. There was silence but for the whistle of wind. Everything had changed.
Diana felt cold.
She stood, and in doing so felt dizzy. She thought, am I concussed?
Have I fallen back to Earth?
Diana searched the dusty blur for geographical clues.
She saw a wasteland expanse.
Somewhere cold, she felt it, and so her first thought was perhaps the Gobi Desert?
But second thoughts came fast, and she knew that was wishful thinking. This land wasn't terra-firma. This was somewhere, and something else.
The world she could see was grey scale, almost like a classic black and white film, bereft of life and colour, but this cold landscape was also a violent one. The distant escarpments looked like broken teeth, shattered jagged shapes against the sky.
For an Amazon unreality came as no great surprise. Centuries of meditative discipline had granted her people extensive knowledge of the Astral Realms – but this place was different from an altered states of consciousness. Places experienced by the mind absent from the body, because Diana was here, bodily. This alien desert lay outside Amazonian science or training.
Wonder Woman had not felt this cold in a long time. She wondered how could this be?
Her sense of truth, her connection to the Earth herself, convinced Diana that the ground beneath her feet wasn't of Gaia, it wasn't even dirt - the dust wasn't really real.
Her lasso trailed from her side, attached to her at the waist, the filament unbreakable, yet it seemed to have been unravelled stretched across the ground. Diana began to wind her rope back to her, walking forwards as she did so. She felt dimmed, as if she was moving through treacle, the air tasted thick, and it seemed to take forever to coil up her lasso. All the while the cold wind bit her exposed skin, whipping up dust that stung her eyes.
Diana realised she was no longer alone. The rope had led her to something else, a shape huddled on the desert floor. Then came a familiar sound, a baying baritone herrrup of an animal, lost frightened and confused.
"Hush my friend." Diana said stroking its neck with her fingers.
"Herrupp." The Kanga replied.
Diana had recognised her animal by its voice. By the gift of Artemis of the Hunt Diana understood the creature's incredible pedigree.
Somehow this Kanga was her Space Steed. The highly evolved, genetically engineered, space going organism had been magically transformed twice. Now it had been changed again a third time; in colour and appearance, the space animal had become in every way a living breathing Kanga of Themyscira.
"How is this possible?" Diana asked.
"Herrump." The Kanga knew no more than she.
Were they still giants? Diana wondered, how could she determine this? Looking out across the barren landscape, there was no certain clue, no known measure of comparison for scale.
The wind eased a little. The air became less opaque with dust.
Diana's dizziness passed, and, while soothing the beast at her right hand, she scanned the horizon; turning to take in the full vista, and then Wonder Woman spied a figure riding towards them.
The dust driven by winds that rolled off steep jagged cliffs swirled around the horse's hooves. The distant shape drew closer against a backdrop of vertical rock that cut a swathe across the horizon.
Diana stood ready, her hand fell to her Falcatta, and had on hilt of her Sword, she waited for the rider to approach. First with curiosity tempered by caution, then came surprise. Diana felt joy.
"Where did you get that hat?" She asked Clark Kent.
Superman wore his cloak arranged like a poncho, it seemed more voluminous than she remembered, but Kryptonian cloth was not simply made, like his other alien garments it was highly evolved technology, reconfigurable and self-repairing.
Diana reminded herself, that nothing here seemed as it should be. This was an unreality.
She frowned. Diana could not trust her senses. This cowboy could be an apparition, even a mirage or a hallucination of Clark Kent. A demon in disguise.
Diana shivered. Mind over matter, she reminded herself, recalling the discipline of her Amazon Training.
"I'm glad to see you." The cowboy Clark Kent said, leaning forward, tipping the wide brim of his crude approximation of a Stetson.
"The Hat?" Superman smiled. "Well, thing is, I've been here a few hours."
"How?" She asked fast.
"Seeing you I'm thinking that we'll all probably arrive at different times." He added. Smiling again, this time it seemed by way of apology.
Diana dared hope, there was the look she remembered from Jerome's bar, full of sadness, hope, and passion.
He leapt of his horse. "Since you're the first of us I've found, beside my trusty steed that is."
Next Diana felt herself swept up into his arms, as he hugged her.
She guessed he was making sure she was real, and as she felt his pulse Diana knew Clark wanted her to be real, and she realised she very much wanted him to be real too.
"I couldn't be sure, that I wasn't going to be the only one, but finding you – I reckon that's a good sign that the others will be along soon too."
He hung on longer than he had to, before he let her go.
Diana almost convinced herself she regretted this because he was warm to hold.
Clark's giddy grin melted into a more embarrassed and self-conscious expression, again taking Diana back to the man she'd met at Jerome's.
"I guessed that more of us would come through, once I found my horsey here." Clark rubbed the animal's neck with a firm hand.
It nudged him back making a quiet whinnying noise of affection.
Diana heard the animal's voice, the horse's same story was the same as her Kanga's, both Space Steeds had been reconfigured in this reality.
Clark rubbed the back of his neck. "Yes. My bad. I should have started at the beginning. This place, well the short story is it's another universe. My people called it the Phantom Zone."
"Yes I recall you telling me of a Kryptonian Prison dimension?"
"Which means your Flying Fortress was responsible." Diana remembered the Vessel's appearance and the brilliance of a weapon fired. "Nekron, Krona and Chronus, the ghosts in the undead machine - you took them out, and us with them.
"Athena." Diana added to herself, having determined who was to blame.
Clark shrugged. "They occupied so much space, the resulting field size meant everything in the vicinity of the Phantom Wave was taken too."
Wonder Woman now appreciated both the success and the cost of the goddess' plan.
"So why are we arriving at different times – different places?"
"That's down to the nature of a Phantomic Wave form as it expands out from the generator nexus." Superman answered. "The small differences in real space time as the wave crossed our different geometric positions are translated here into minutes even hours here, depositing us a different times and places."
"So you, me, and our Space Steeds, and everyone else including our enemies, we were all caught up in this Phantomic Wave – right; banished to this netherworld?"
"Great Hera." She said shaking her head, thinking about their cosmic enemy, wondering about their fate and location. "Desperate times call for desperate measures." She reasoned. "After all not one of the Leagues powers, and our magically enhanced weapons and skills amounted to anything against the three ghosts of the Machine god.
"What about them – Cronus, Krona and Nekron." Wonder Woman asked.
Clark frowned, he shook his head sad. "I really don't know. They are, or will be, out there, somewhere, sometime… soon."
"Okay, but back to the important stuff. Where did the hat come from?" Diana laughed.
"Yeah, this?" Clark tipped the brim again. "There's a settlement of sorts." Superman pointed through the swirling dust. "err… I managed to make friends."
Diana sensed at once there was more to this story. She peered through the murk in the direction Superman had pointed.
"I see it I think." Diana said. It was a tiny speck in the far distance.
Diana shivered again as the wind gusted with renewed violence. The strange reality of the Phantom Zone chilled her to the bone, reminding her that she was somehow physically manifested in this netherworld, if incompletely, translated in body and soul.
It reminded her she was vulnerable in a way she had not experienced since her childhood.
Clark noticed her discomfort. Grabbed something from the back of his horse.
"Here's something else I… acquired." Superman explained as he draped a blue cloak over her shoulders. At once Wonder Woman recognised Kryptonian cloth.
Diana was glad of it, even if it did smell of horse and the dust. She wondered how long this cloak had been in the Phantom Zone?
"Now you've answered the important hat question." She said with her best smile. "Perhaps you could explain why am I so damn cold?"
"It's the nature to the Phantom Zone Diana." Clark replied. "It changes everyone and everything that gets placed inside of it."
"You mean it robs us of our abilities, our strengths?"
Diana's thoughts turned to the enemy – thinking strategy; would the ghostly trinity be powerless too, how would they be changed – and was that the point?
"Athena are you not done yet?" She laughed to herself.
Clark was speaking. "The Phantom Zone is a multifaceted series of sub-dimensions that cascades under normal space-time's geometry. The short answer is that the Zone makes us into phantoms of our former selves. It's a universal equaliser. We're all ghosts – for want of a better word, in a ghostly world. It's a universal level playing field."
"I don't feel like a ghost." Wonder Woman sniffed. "And Clark Kent I'll have you know I'm used to walking the astral planes. I know what being ghost feels like, but here - here I'm feeling all too human." Diana stated as she mounted her Kanga.
"Everything feels real – almost too real."
"But it isn't" Clark interrupted. "It's Phantom."
"Yes and I get that." Diana said.
Clark mounted his horse, and drew to her side.
"Diana see there?" Superman pointed to the high mountains, to the horizon. Clark eased his horse into a trot. "If we were to climb to the horizon, we'd come to what the locals call the barrier, there you'd be able to see how real this place isn't."
"What's the barrier?" Diana asked her Kanga loping along beside Superman's horse.
"The barrier is where the Phantom Zone intersects normal space time, it's where the first inmates lived. There it's possible to exist almost in sync with our normal higher geometry. To move in the real world as an invisible ghost, with zero ability to influence or communicate."
"As a prison, that sounds pretty awful. I guess that's why people didn't stay there – at the barrier? They moved outwards to live in these Bad Lands?"
"Most have, a few, are still too angry to come down off the mountains. The real crazy ones, the locals tell me they aren't even aware of the plains. They just stare into the space where Krypton used to be."
"That's awful." Diana replied.
"Yes, it's nothing like Amazon Reformation." Clark admitted, saying. "When the first prisoners were returned from the Zone, their sentences ended, they had no idea there was a landscape beyond the interface horizon. Later some found it was possible to carve out a basic existence beyond the Barrier.
"Jor-El theorised that the inmates made the Phantom Zone more real by simply by being in it. A case of the observer changing the observed."
"I'm glad they were civilised enough to help you."
Clark nodded. "I was surprised too. I didn't know what to expect." His face took on a grim look. "From their perspective the Zone saved them, had they been free – on Krypton..."
"That would change anyone's perspective." Diana said.
"You know Clark, this reminds me of penal colonies from Earth's history. Prisoners became the first settlers of harsh lands."
"That is a fair approximation." Superman agreed, as he gestured to the Kanga. Which makes your choice of steed also very appropriate.
"About that?" Diana asked. "I get that we're diminished, we're a kind of phantom, but why is it our Space Steeds are like animals?" She asked.
"Kryptonian Science, my Father's theory, called this colonisation of the Zone, or consciousness capture and expression in parallel dimension."
"So the huge space going organisms were first evolved into knights, then into animal-like space vessels; but here in the Phantom Zone your saying it's all about our own self-image. How we see ourselves?" Diana concluded. She considered the implications. "Thus our Space Steeds became what they perceived themselves to be."
"That's a better explanation than I offered." Superman agreed.
"So I guess we're riding in search of our friends."
"Yup." Clark agreed.
"Then why tarry?" Diana asked. "Let's go. What's the worst that can happen?" Diana laughed adding. "Race you."
She urged the Kanga onward, and the beast shifted from its loping gait into tremendous leaps that carried her far ahead of Clark.
Superman not to be outdone urged his horse forward, the ground under the hooves became dusty clouds about the animal's feet as he sped after the Amazing Amazon.
"Woohoo" Diana shouted, as for a moment she forgot her real concern. How they were going get out of this.
"Where are we Talia? Bruce gasped.
"Breathe Bruce and focus." She told him.
Bruce's eyes frowned behind his cowl like a child, but Talia watched his training win out. Batman pushed back against the confusion she remembered feeling herself.
She watched Gotham's Knight rising from the dirt, the fine dusty blanket of wind driven sand falling from his great black cloak, and back to the ground. Before Batman took the time to view their surroundings. Behind them rose a jagged broken mountain range of preposterous scale, ahead was a great grey plain extended into the distance. Talia thought there was something of the Western desert States of America, only writ larger; Bad Lands made worse.
Talia saw the Batman crouch and pinch the desert between his fingers. The Detective tasted it with his tongue his eyes narrowed; angry.
Talia watched the Dark Knight think, and remembered her Father's teachings, the distillation of countless disciplines from many cultures. She rested her hands on her sword, and remembered the magic well of power gifted to her and Bruce by the god Hades. This had all but run dry, drained away into the parched landscape of this strange place. All that was left was a shallow puddle, before they had been immersed in power, here it barely wet their dry lips.
But at least she still had the Underworld's god's sword, and Talia was glad of it.
Bruce's body tensed as hers had done, ready to fight or flee, as the adrenaline flowed.
"This is yet another dimension of existence." She told him.
Batman nodded. "So I see."
The cloudy sky churned in maelstrom of tortured shapes, lost in grey scales that bled to blue and purple like a bruise, there was no silver lining to these alien clouds."
"This isn't like Olympus." Bruce observed. He stared out across the wind swept desert.
Talia agreed "The rules here are different. We are different – again."
"Transformation." Bruce noted. "It is becoming a theme."
"The collision of worlds another." Talia replied. "That is our story Detective."
The Batman turned from her, he began checking the contents of his utility belt.
"How long did it take you to find me?" Bruce asked as he sifted through his pouches.
"Hard to judge, perhaps four hours, maybe longer." Talia replied. She pointed back to the mountains. "I woke further up, higher in those rocks."
"And you saw me how?"
"Fear not lover, I haven't gone soft. My first thought was not you. No, I had already begun to make my way down from the escarpment when I caught sight of you."
"Hmmpph." The Batman growled. "Your arm is bleeding."
"A little." Talia agreed. "Something was lurking in the shadows, stalking me."
"A foolish thing to do no doubt" Bruce noted. "What kind of something was it?"
"A phantom, a monster all teeth and claws, small like a monkey, a cat, alien and very nasty."
"A phantom?" Batman asked. "Why do you say that?"
"When I smashed it against the rock wall it burst into nothingness."
"Ah – Interesting."
"From what I've seen it was but one of many more, and a small one at that."
"If you weren't looking for me, what were you doing?"
"I saw what appeared to be a distant settlement."
Talia pointed into the desert. There was a cluster of dwellings, just visible in the murky air.
"I have it, and yes, reaching that settlement is good a plan as any. I would assume anyone coming through would make their way there."
"You think the others are here too?" Talia asked.
"And do you have any idea where we are – what this strange other world is?"
The Batman nodded "Superman and I discussed certain things about his culture, we wanted to establish what appropriate tech could be introduced through Wayne Industries."
"And the relevance being?"
"A segue to that discussion; I had a question for Superman, I wondered how an advanced society dealt with its criminals."
"Of course you did." Talia laughed. "So what did Superman's people do with the likes of me?
Talia smiled at her former lover.
"The brutal, the savage, but redeemable?" Bruce asked.
"Are you sure about the latter?" Talia replied.
The Batman held out his hands to encompass the strange world around them. "I believe this Krypton's Phantom Zone."
"So like the American Television Show?" Talia chuckled. "And full of monsters?" She touched the wound on her arm, the deep cut had stopped bleeding. Glad that it had, she still wondered why. However Bruce was not looking at her, but out into the desert.
"Monsters and men." Batman said. "This dimension coexists alongside normal space, vibrating at a different rate. Superman told me at its boundary the Zone intersects our world at every place, at every point, in time and space."
"So there's a way out?"
"I don't know."
Talia heard deception, she felt it. They were trapped here.
Together they made their way down the escarpment, tacking in the direction of the settlement.
Later as they approached the end of the rocky spur Batman gave out a loud shout.
"There!" Batman's gloved hand pointed into the distance. "See, riders."
"Is that Kangaroo?" Talia asked. She saw these riders too were headed in the direction of the settlement, their path took them past the scattered rocky edge of the cliffs she and the Batman traversed.
Batman gasped as he answered. "That can only be a Themysciran Kanga… but how?"
Talia concluded that others must come through too. "Is there time for questions?" She asked.
Batman said nothing, as she pushed past him. Talia stared at the shadows below, there she saw movement. "Ah! The beasts have seen them!" Talia hissed to Bruce. "See how the shadows at the foot of cliffs squirm?"
The creatures like the one Talia had encountered higher on the escarpment crept forward. However these were much larger, adults she theorised, the one she had killed perhaps a juvenile, driven by competition to less hospitable higher grounds.
Bruce acted. Talia sighed and followed his lead. The Batman ran on, he leapt acrobatically down from the rocks to the plain, down to meet the riders, to warn them. Talia knew his heroic code demanded it. Still she wondered who the riders were.
"Look out!" Batman shouted.
The monstrous beasts bounded out of shadows. The first of them, a big thing. All spikes, horns and teeth, sprinting through the dust. It pounced meaning to take the hold of the nearest rider. However the Kanga reacted lashing out with two powerful rear legs, the kick sent the shadow creature rolling away back against the jagged rocks, with a surprised howl, then the rock face was black in wetness, a shadowy stain that seeped away, just as she had ended the smaller beast which had attacked her up the mountain.
Talia now recognised the rider as Wonder Woman. The Amazon's lasso fell to hand, and like a cowgirl she had wrangled a smaller beast that ran on past her, using her steed's momentum she threw the smaller creature into the path of another larger shadow beast. This brought both down in tangle of teeth and claws, which ended in an implosion of hissing gas, both things vanished into the grey sand, like black water, soaking away to nothing.
The second rider on his horse wheeled. His cowboy hat, his dark poncho, confused Talia for a moment, then she saw it was Superman. Like Wonder Woman he rode, Talia concluded their superhuman powers had been much reduced, something she guessed to do with this place. Superman like a Cavalry man he drew a sword, and Talia watched someone comfortable in the saddle, well accustomed to riding. He moved with the horse, which showed no sign of skittishness under his hand. She had not expected the Kryptonian to be a horseman. Together Superman and his steed met the third creature with slashing blow from the glass-like sabre.
There was strange hissing sound like a deflating tyre before the creature collapsed back in shadow.
Batman dropped from above, his cloak like wings, batarangs zipped at the fourth of the pack, and this too burst into nothingness.
With this display of skill the remaining creatures turned and ran back into the shadows and dark crevices from whence they had come.
Talia joined Bruce on the grey plain, leaping onto the sand, as Batman collected his weapons, and the riders came to them.
"So you did it?" Bruce stated looking at Superman. His arms folded, his cape billowed in the wind. "You blew us all to hell?"
"What choice was there?" Superman replied.
"Thanks for the heads up." Batman looked at Diana. "Both of you."
The Amazon did not react or answer.
"It's not like I primed the Phantomic wave myself." Superman answered. "I had maybe several micro-seconds to think about the consequences."
"I'm sure Diana and the Flash would call that a long time."
"But what you're really saying is it bugs you no one ran the plan past you first?"
"Boys." Diana growled.
Bruce sighed and shook his head hands held up. "No, it bugs me that we have to find a way out a prison that you refused to share the specifications for."
"Bruce we've been over this before, Kryptonian science is too far removed from Earth's current state of advancement, I might as well have shared the specs of a Supercomputer with a cave man – for the good it would do. …"
"How about this Caveman? Can I understand?"
Vandal Savage fell upon them, his primeval roar declared dominance.
Talia hissed. She wondered where had the big man been hiding - how long had he been watching them, stalking them? Long enough she wagered to see them defeat the Shadow Beasts.
Savage's hands flew, a giant by past standards, he loosed rocks as missiles, primitive, but deadly enough, and Vandal Savage, the immortal born when Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon man had competed for the world had thousands upon thousands of years to practise. He chose to strike at her first.
Talia ducked, almost fast enough, good enough to catch his back with her foot, a kidney punch, even as she felt Savage's stone glanced across her brow. The Demon's Daughter rolled with the blow. Talia tumbled, then she rolled recovering in the dirt. Wise she thought, she was assassin, her ethos was not the same as the other heroes.
The immortal caveman fell too. She had hurt him.
Savage stepped sideways, his primal yell changed to a shout of pain, cut short by gritted teeth as the big man found his feet with something approaching elegance.
The second stone had found Superman who was unhorsed, but the cowboy was rolling back onto his feet. Superman may not fly here, Talia thought, but she saw that he remembered the skills of an aerialist.
Batman beside her wasted no time, being the closer, he connected with the brute's solar plexus with his left, with a chopping blow to the madman's throat.
Wheezing the immortal's voice was silenced but not his strength or anger. He grabbed the Dark Knight in a crushing bear hug. At once Batman could no longer breathe.
Diana's leapt and answered his aggression in kind. She brought a rock against the head of bullish Cave Man, but not her sword, Diana was a warrior and not an assassin, and as Amazon she would want to question Savage.
The Amazons were a curious tribe.
Talia too wondered what her erstwhile ally from Terra First knew. Was it madness that possessed Savage, drove him to attack, or was it something else – did he know something they didn't?
Savage roared again still defiant, rocked by Diana's stony blow. Vandal staggered back, but if anything his grip on Batman tightened further. Bruce gasped.
Talia came to a decision. She used the brutes own weapon against him. Taking his stone in her hand and struck so with an assassin's aim.
"His life is mine to take." She yelled. "Not yours."
Savage shook, his eyes wide and stunned. Blood ran from his scalp.
Batman broke free, kicking backwards. The twitching form of the immortal fell to the fine dust of the Zone's desert floor. His bloody head wound painted the grey sand a black colour.
"A killing blow Talia?" Batman gasped, catching his breath. He rose to his knees.
"Is that possible?" Talia asked. "Is this is Vandal Savage." She shrugged, not regretting her actions one bit.
Diana knelt down and felt Savage's pulse.
"It appears in the Phantom Zone the immortal can die." Wonder Woman said.
Bruce frowned and sought confirmation for himself. Which did not surprise Talia. As Batman knelt beside the giant man, his finger pressed to his neck.
Bruce said. "Savage shows no sign of the accelerated healing that distinguishes him from normal men."
"His powers are legend." Diana noted.
"The man I knew would already be on his feet." Talia agreed. Looking at Superman she said. "But he also was known for flying not riding."
"Clearly here things are different." Wonder Woman replied.
"If he is dead then the world – any world is no poorer for his loss, we all know that to be true." Talia stated. Looking for anyone willing to argue the point.
"Can it be true Kal?" Diana asked. "Can we Phantoms die?"
"No one dies here." Batman stated. He turned his voice carried a tone of accusation. "That's what you told me Kal."
"It's what I was told." Superman agreed. "Look I don't know. The Phantom Zone has existed for more than twenty five years without Krypton. All I do know is imprisonment here wasn't supposed to be a death sentence, then again being a Phantom Prisoner wasn't supposed to be like this either – it was supposed an intangible ghost-like existence. Things changed – people changed the Zone."
Kal wiped sweat from his brow, Talia assumed to make that point.
"The first inmates of this place were just Phantoms. Like living ghosts, they saw but could never interact with their world, their people and their loved ones."
"What changed?" Batman asked.
Superman explained. "As more individuals were committed many stopped staring outwards at Krypton, at what they'd lost, and started to look inwards at the theoretically infinite space of the Zone Dimension – and so the landscape beyond the barrier was created."
"If I follow your reasoning you're saying it's like quantum physics where observation effects reality." Bruce concluded.
Talia shook her head. "Your Kryptonians could have imagined something better than this." She sniffed. "More pleasant than this cold grey desert."
Batman then observed. "Given the superstitious, and cowardly nature of the criminal mind is it so surprising that the Zone became a terrible place full of monsters?"
"Of both kinds." Diana observed. "Literal and figurative."
Talia laughed without sincerity. "So it's just another prison – where men fight and die?"
"Batman is right. If it is just another prison – it's because the people here made it that way." Kal replied.
Diana gestured to the fallen Savage, "This is Hell, Kal, Millions of Years more evolved Kryptonian Science generated, but hell nonetheless…" The wind blew, interrupting Wonder Woman, almost as if provoked by her words.
Talia saw Diana's eyes widen, they all stared with the Amazon, fixed on Vandal Savage. Each of them surprised by what happened next to the fallen cavemen. Savage crumbled away as they watched. The body collapsed into the dust, motes to be carried aloft on the stiff breeze. Savage was just more fine dirt suspended in the thick cloying atmosphere. The wind carried the dust away.
"Dust to Dust." Talia stated. A smile crossed her lips. "And this is hardly normal." She looked at Bruce. "Are you thinking what I am thinking?"
"Hmmm," Batman growled, "I'd say nothing is as it seems. Not you, not me, not anything."
"I guess this just proves we don't know what death in the Zone really means." Kal said.
Talia nodded. "Just look at what happened to the Shadow Beasts, how they melted away, is that death – is this?"
"So you think this could be like a comic book – where no one stays dead?" Diana asked.
"Yeah." Batman growled. "Just like you said, it's Millions of Years more evolved Kryptonian Science generated hell."