Acknowledgement: As always, much thanks to Terri and Dannell for their patience and assistance; their critical input was priceless in the final development of my story. Plus, a special thanks Star Trek for its "help" in my conclusion.:):)
Disclaimer: All the characters are owned by DC Comics and Time/Warner; this is an original story that does not intend to infringe on their copyright. Feedback is welcome!
JLA/Titans: Invasion! by Syl Francis
"Some say the world will end in fire, Some say in ice." (Robert Frost, "Fire and Ice")
The ship's artificial intelligence 'felt' a moment of satisfaction. The alien invaders were being successfully repelled from all areas of the ship. The strange being who could wield the very power of creation had been neutralized. The disruptive activities of the smaller biological life forms who'd infested its Forward Command Center and dared tamper with its Command Programs were being nullified. But...
There was a wraith-like life form that somehow seemed to *disappear* from the ship's sensors. Logic dictated that this unknown menace bespoke of future problems.
Perhaps these beings were not of the Krghlm after all. Perhaps they were of a race that was even more dangerous...
"Robbie! Robbie, come in! Speedy! Kid Flash!" Wonder Girl looked close to tears. "It's no use. They're not answering. We've *got* to transport them out of there--*now*!"
"Keep your tiara on, young lady," Green Arrow said gruffly. "We'll get them out. You just find 'em and lock on to 'em...I'll do the rest!" With that, the Emerald Archer hurriedly made his way aft towards the _Avenger's_ transporter chamber.
Blinking rapidly, Wonder Girl nodded curtly. She was determined not to humiliate herself in front of a member of the JLA. Robin had ordered her to keep her chin up and take charge if anything happened to him.
"Well, it looks like *I'm* the one in charge now," she whispered. Her chin quavered slightly. "Get a grip, girl," Wonder Girl said harshly. "Who's the Amazon warrior here?" Feeling properly chastised, WG turned back to her search.
The Titans were each equipped with a wrist communicator, which the transporter should be able to lock onto. Each communicator gave off a unique signal with which one could identify the wearer. All Wonder Girl needed to do was find the signatures.
Earlier she'd found her friends and locked on to them, but now their signals were being blanked out. Hurriedly running a diagnostic, Wonder Girl searched for any signs of biological life-forms on board the ship...
"How's Robin?" Kid Flash asked. Two pairs of deeply troubled green eyes locked above the unconscious Boy Wonder. "He's been out for almost twenty minutes now."
Speedy shrugged his shoulders and shook his head.
"Not good, Twinkletoes," he said helplessly. "His breathing's rapid and shallow, and his pulse seems awfully weak."
Speedy worriedly studied his friend and rival. Robin hadn't stirred since he'd been struck on the head. Despite his injured arm, Speedy managed to drag the Titans' unconscious leader to relative safety. He'd wrapped the Boy Wonder in his own cape to offset the dangerously frigid temperatures in the room.
He also tore off a piece of cloth from his own shirt and quickly wrapped Robin's bleeding forehead with the makeshift bandage. Due to the lack of gravity, the Teen Caped Crusader's blood eerily formed into small droplets and steadily broke away, floating around the room. Speedy swallowed in distaste.
The cold was steadily growing more and more intolerable. Speedy could actually see his breath now, and he'd lost almost all feeling in his hands and feet. He noticed that ice crystals were forming around Robin's mouth and nose and considerately wiped them off.
Speedy felt exhausted, like he hadn't slept in over a week. He had a pounding headache and seemed unable to catch his breath. He looked around the chamber. Signs of their earlier struggles were visible everywhere.
As he struggled valiantly to keep from dropping off to sleep, recollections of their battle assailed him.
//ERROR...SEARCH PARAMETER INVALID. RETRY? CANCEL?//
WG sighed. She'd been searching for almost twenty minutes now. The last contact she'd had with her teammates indicated their condition was *Yellow*, not serious enough to warrant an immediate rescue, but sufficient enough that she should've kept a closer eye on them.
She felt tears beginning to sting the backs of her eyes again.
"I've failed them," Wonder Girl whispered.
"Somehow I doubt your teammates would agree with you, young lady." GA stood, arms crossed in the open hatchway. "Those boys set a lot of store by you, little Princess. More importantly, they respect you and know that you'll always do your best by them."
Wonder Girl felt the tears spill. "But I can't find them...Robbie trusted me to come through for them and I've lost them. I've tried everything, GA...I-I've failed them."
"Perhaps I may be of some help?" Both GA and WG turned towards the sound of the new voice...
Speedy's sleep was disturbed by the echoes of a battle lost, the frightening silence of a fallen teammate, and the relentless hammering of his own heart! They weren't going to make it! Robin was down and Speedy didn't feel up to the challenge of leading. He'd failed yet again...
"Twinkletoes! Robin's down!" Speedy called. He'd managed to pull his unconscious leader to cover. "How're you doing with the weapons?"
"All done," Kid Flash said. He was suddenly crouched next to Speedy.
Speedy felt his heart jump. He rolled his eyes and let out a long sigh. Before Speedy could comment, however, Kid Flash apologized.
"I'm sorry it took me so long, Quiver-breath. But we're losing oxygen, and I'm losing most of my energy because of it."
Speedy listened from where he'd been crouching behind the Command Console. The Forward Command Center was strangely quiet. He quickly surveyed the room and immediately spotted the smoking remains of the now-disabled recessed weapons. He also noted that the flying projectiles had finally ceased their merciless attack. Relief washed over him.
"We've gotta get out of here, Twinkletoes," he said. "Pretty soon the cold's gonna become unbearable. And Bird-boy needs medical attention." Speedy pulled out three explosive-tipped arrows from his quiver. Gingerly testing his injured arm, he winced at the searing pain.
"Hey, Arrow-head," Kid Flash protested. "You shouldn't mess with that arm. You could injure it further. Look, I'll try to vibrate through the hatch and take out the internal locking mechanisms."
Speedy reluctantly nodded in agreement.
Kid Flash launched himself towards the hatch. At any other time, he might've been having fun in zero-g. As things stood, their situation was too serious for joking around. The others were depending on him.
Stopping in front of the hatch, Kid Flash concentrated on its 'feel'. Believing he understood the vibration pattern of the heavy door, Kid Flash quickly began to vibrate up to its matching speed. Once the junior speedster could see that he'd reached the harmonic speed with the locked hatch, he attempted to walk through it.
An invisible energy shield instantaneously repelled Kid Flash. The Fastest Boy Alive was suddenly thrown clear across the Forward Command Center and slammed-- hard--against the opposite bulkhead. Because he was still protected by his personal aura, Kid Flash escaped serious injury.
"I think that went well," Kid Flash muttered. Speedy snorted.
"Yeah, Twinkletoes. Real well. If it'd gone any better, you'd be somebody's pancake breakfast splattered all along that wall." Speedy stood slowly and awkwardly readied an explosive-tipped arrow, the combination of the room's unbearable cold and his injury slowing down his movements. Closing his eyes against the white-hot pain shooting up his arm, Speedy called on the teachings of his Navaho foster father, and willed his arm to draw back the bowstring. Taking careful aim, Speedy let fly! The door's energy field held firmly.
Speedy sighed, a familiar feeling of failure overwhelming him. It seemed that they weren't going anywhere...
Batman moved cautiously through the miles-long labyrinthine air ducts. As he advanced through the ship's interior, he noticed moments of weightlessness and areas where he had trouble breathing. He had to backtrack on several occasions when his handheld instruments warned him of an airless vacuum up ahead.
Batman didn't understand how the ship's builders did it, but apparently it was possible for parts of the ship to function easily while adjacent to areas with no atmosphere. Batman assumed that there was some type of force field involved, but his instruments couldn't detect it. He decided to avoid the areas entirely.
Unbidden memories of his young ward kept invading his thoughts as he proceeded...
He recalled their first Christmas together when Dick, upset that a group of orphans who'd been displaced by a fire wouldn't be having a happy Christmas, took his own presents to the temporary shelter where the children had been moved to.
He recalled the look of happiness on Dick's face when another boy opened the gift that Bruce had spent so much time searching for: a miniature carousel comprised of prancing horses, lions, tigers, and elephants. As the miniature circus parade went round and round, the carousel played an appropriate circus march.
He recalled the drive home with Alfred and Dick singing Christmas carols in slightly off-key harmony. He recalled Dick falling asleep across his lap finally, never letting go of his hand. Most of all, he recalled Dick's quiet, "Thanks for the carousel, Bruce," and his warm smile of happiness...
A half-smile formed on Batman's lips as the memories played themselves out in his mind. Abruptly, the smile left him. He had a job to do and no time to indulge in personal reminisces.
Calling his self-discipline to the fore, Batman tamped all extraneous thoughts of his personal life, and stored them in a safe place. When he had the time, he'd "retrieve" them, but for now, he had to concentrate on the mission at hand.
As he turned a corner in the air ducts, Batman felt the air around him sizzle, becoming super-heated as particle beams whizzed by in several near misses. The droids had found him! He was being targeted! Diving out of harm's way, Batman threw a handful of concussion pellets in the direction that the droids were advancing from.
Not waiting for the resounding explosion that shortly followed, Batman quickly grabbed his cape and wrapping over his head, he used it as protection as he launched himself at a closed grate. The impetus behind his momentum was enough to force the grate open.
When he hit the floor, Batman tucked and rolled, gaining his feet in an instant. Quickly inspecting the chamber he'd entered, he noted that he'd somehow managed to escape into what look like an armory.
"Fortune favors the foolish," he said ironically.
A further cursory inspection revealed what could only be a cache of shoulder- fired weapons. While Batman was morally opposed to guns in general, he saw nothing untoward in using the weapons against machines that were bent on killing him.
Picking up several, he finally settled on one that was fairly lightweight, and which he believed he could operate with minimal practice.
"And just to test my theory--" He aimed and fired the weapon at the armory's heavy door. Within the speed of thought, the door was vaporized. Not stopping to admire his handiwork, Batman hurried through the opening and ran down a long corridor.
"Garth!" Wonder Girl cried. "What are you doing out of bed?" Both she and Green Arrow rushed to the obviously weakened Atlantean.
"She's right, Aqualad," GA said gently, leading the young boy to a chair. "You shouldn't be on your feet." GA inspected the underwater dweller. "I'd say you still look a little 'green around the gills,' boy." The Emerald Archer smiled slightly to offset any sting in his words.
"I shall be all right, Green Arrow," Aqualad protested weakly. "But I must try to help you locate our comrades." He leaned his head onto GA's shoulder. "Water...please..."
Wonder Girl immediately jumped to her feet and made her way to the ship's galley. She was back in under a minute with a five-gallon container.
"Here, Garth," she said softly. "Drink this slowly."
Aqualad smiled in slight amusement. "Slowly?" he asked. "You mistake me for a surface dweller, Donna. Water is to me what air is to you. I require it at regular periods to re-oxygenate my blood cells." He drank gratefully with long, deep draughts. At last, having his fill, he put the container down. Sighing slightly, Aqualad set his chin in a grim line and sat up determinedly.
"As our friend Kid Flash told me earlier during our mission, Wonder Girl, I am the only Titan with even the slightest esper abilities...I wish to try to find our friends through their mental signatures."
"You can do that, son?" Green Arrow asked.
Aqualad shrugged his shoulders, wincing slightly from his injury. "I do not know, sir...Until I communicated with Green Lantern a few days ago, I'd never tried to mindspeak with anyone other than another Atlantean. I guess I won't know until I try."
GA let out a long slow breath, the only outer indication of his worry. "Very well, Aqualad. Give it a try, kid. But if you even *look* like the effort is going to put you back in the infirmary, I'll have to order you to abort. Do you understand?"
Aqualad nodded tiredly. He felt exhausted and his shoulder still felt like it was on fire, but he had to try to help his friends. Otherwise he'd never forgive himself...
The external ship repair droid advanced silently behind Green Lantern. Amber- hued grapplers reached out for the Emerald Warrior and grabbed him. Occupied with the ship, GL did not expect an attack from the rear. Now, the yellow mechanical arms held him helplessly immobilized.
GL struggled uselessly against his bonds, but because he was vulnerable to the color yellow, he was unable to break free of the droid's grasp. Still struggling, he found himself being taken back inside the ship. As he was relentlessly carried down several kilometers of corridor, GL finally saw a set of double doors appear up ahead.
As he drew nearer to the doors, GL was struck once again by the sheer magnitude of the ship. Looking up, GL tried to see how high up they went; however, they soon became lost in the gathering gloom of the upper reaches of the ship.
"Why would *anyone* build anything so vast?" he asked himself rhetorically. "It seems almost self-indulgent. I *can* therefore I *will*." He shook his head. He'd probably never know the whole truth.
When he arrived at the doors, he was gratified that a smaller, man-sized portal swung open. "At least, the builders were also a practical people," he concluded.
Entering, GL looked around the immense chamber. The huge room was practically empty, almost entirely without furnishings of any kind except for a single, man-sized apparatus in the middle surrounded by several instruments. GL noted the reflected light glinting off the metallic shackles.
GL felt the blood freeze in his veins.
Sitting less than a foot away from him, Kid Flash looked as bad as Speedy felt. Speedy noticed ice crystals on the speedster's cheeks and eyebrows. They were each struggling with exhaustion, and the insidious encroachment of sleep. They were both trying to keep one another awake, rousing the other whenever he seemed about to drop off.
"Twinkletoes," he gasped. "Can't you vibrate so's the cold doesn't bother you as much?"
Kid Flash shook his head, no. The effort seemed to take a lot out of him. If anything, he seemed to be even worse off than Speedy. He swallowed, and after several unsuccessful attempts finally spoke.
"We've lost too much oxygen here," Kid Flash explained. "My metabolism eats up a lot of energy even when I'm sitting still, but my body usually restores it naturally...Automatically converts oxygen into energy when it enters my bloodstream...But there's so little oxygen left in here that if I don't conserve what little energy I have left, I could end up like Robbie there." He grinned. "I don't think you want *two* unconscious heroes on your hands, do you?"
Speedy weakly returned his teammate's grin and shook his head, no. At this moment Robin stirred slightly in his arms.
"Uhhhhnnnn..." The Boy Wonder's eyes fluttered open. He lay still trying to focus on his surroundings.
"Hey, Bird-boy," Speedy said softly. "How'ya feeling?" Robin brought his hand up to his forehead, feeling the makeshift bandage. He tenderly touched his temple and winced.
"What happened?" Robin asked, groggily. He attempted to sit up, but Speedy determinedly held him down.
"Uh-uh, Bat-boy!" Speedy chastised. "You're not going anywhere. Just lie still."
Robin blinked, his eyes still unfocused. "Got to...find...Batman," he whispered, struggling weakly against his friend's restraint.
"I don't think so, Boy Wonder," Speedy said firmly. "Now lie still before I give you another conk on the head."
Robin looked confused, obviously not completely conscious. He gallantly fought to remain awake, but the combination of overwhelming cold and head injury slowly put him under once more. As he again lost consciousness, his delirium revealed his underlying worries.
"No...Gotta find Batman...depending on me..."
Speedy and Kid Flash exchanged worried glances.
"Funny," Kid Flash finally said. "I always figured that Uncle Barry would be with me...when it happened, I mean." Speedy needed no translation to know what his teammate meant by 'it'. Kid Flash was already thinking about dying.
"Well, I sure as heck never thought that it'd happen with me holding a *guy* in my arms," Speedy said ruefully. "I'da preferred to be in Wonder Doll's arms, myself, but then...I guess I'm kinda glad that she isn't here."
"Yeah," Kid Flash agreed. "And I guess I'm glad that Uncle Barry isn't here either...or Aunt Iris."
The two boys fell silent. Speedy looked down at his unconscious leader.
"Doesn't seem right somehow," he said tentatively. "I mean, Bird-boy being unconscious and everything...I think he'da preferred giving commands and stuff. You know--"
"--Finding a means of escape," Kid Flash interrupted, grinning. "Pulling one of those nifty toys from his utility belt. Somehow picking the locking mechanism in the hatch."
Speedy nodded in agreement. "Yeah...I guess if the Boy Wonder were awake, we woulda been outta here already, right?"
"Yeah," Kid Flash agreed sadly. "Yeah...we woulda been outta here..."
"Twinkletoes...?" Speedy croaked. "You've gotta...stay awake..."
"So tired...wanna sleep..." Kid Flash murmured.
All three teen heroes were lying huddled together for combined warmth. Speedy still held the unconscious Robin in his arms, and Kid Flash lay curled up next to them, his arm across the Boy Wonder's chest.
"Mustn't sleep...stay awake..." Speedy insisted. He reached weakly across the seemingly interminable space over Robin's chest to rouse Kid Flash, but instead he fell into a deep well of blackness...
He was walking. Where was he, he wondered? He looked around, confused. It was so dark.
He didn't feel frightened, he discovered surprised. Smiling slightly, he suddenly knew where he was. At this moment, the darkness lifted, and he saw his friends and family who'd gone before sitting around a large campfire.
They were performing a vaguely familiar ritual. The Blessingway, he remembered!
He was home, or as his people called it, Dinetah.
"Why do you walk this path, Roy Harper?" A shadowy figure, whose back was to the fire, spoke to him.
Speedy squinted slightly, but couldn't make out the figure's face.
"I've come home," he said simply.
"No, Roy Harper. Now is not your time to return to your Dinetah. You have many years yet to walk on the Earth." The figure emerged slowly from the shadows. Speedy recognized his foster father, Chief Brave Bow.
"Father! Please, don't send me back. I'm so tired. I want to come home."
"No, my son. Your lifeline weakens, but your will is strong. It is not yet ready to sever all its ties with the world. You have new friends whose Totems strengthen yours. You are now a part of them."
Speedy looked down in shame. "But I'm a failure. Even now, I have failed them yet again."
"You are not a failure!" Brave Bow replied sharply. "You are young. There is a difference. You and your companions have made mistakes, but you have learned from them, and the lessons learned have made you all stronger. Even now, together, you make a formidable force as powerful as any Blessingway or Enemyway ritual of the Navaho." Brave Bow made a blessing sign. "You must go back...Farewell, my son..."
"No! Father! Please, don't go--!"
The Dinetah faded from sight. Speedy found himself in total darkness once again...
"Roy Harper...wake up, Roy...Roy Harper, I command you to wake up!"
Speedy's eyes snapped open. Where was he? He looked around. He was in a large room comprised of purples, violets, and lavenders.
"Am I in some girl's room?" he asked hopefully.
Abruptly, the room went from soft lavenders to a blinding white.
"Hey! I was kidding! Okay?" He squinted against the bright luminescence. "Sheesh! Some people can't take a little joke." He paused, trying to see beyond the pure light.
"Hey, whoever you are! Where am I? I'm not dead, am I?" He'd read somewhere that people with near death experiences spoke about a blinding, white light that compelled them to enter.
Called to them...
"Roy..." Speedy again heard the voice in his head. He looked around, shading his eyes against the too-bright light.
"Hey! Who are you? I can't see you...D'you think you can douse the light a bit? You must have a helluva light bill, buddy!"
His comment was greeted by soft laughter. Did Angels laugh? He couldn't be sure, but he didn't really think so. Still, maybe this was what they meant about a Divine Comedy...
"It is good to hear you joke again, Roy Harper," the gentle voice said. "You have a strong will, my friend. That is why I am contacting you. Your life-force is very powerful. But there is also something else...powerful energies within you. You are like a bright beacon in a storm-tossed sea."
The voice paused, then continued regretfully. "Unfortunately, I cannot make contact with your two companions. Their life force weakens with each passing moment. You must help me, Roy Harper...for your sake and the sake of your friends."
"Why should I trust you? Who *are* you? Show yourself!"
"All will be revealed in good time, Roy Harper. Until then, you must trust me. I am a friend."
Speedy's entire being was suddenly suffused by a sense of warmth and friendship. And something else. Something he couldn't quite pinpoint. It felt... He paused confused. "...purple? Hey, was that *your* room I was in earlier? Look, about that 'girl's room' comment...I didn't mean any offense, buddy."
"None was taken, I assure you. That was not my 'room' as you put it, but rather my pure essence as it was manifested within your psyche."
"As you perceived me to be." The voice paused. "I am sorry, but that is the best that I can explain it."
"Okay, my purple friend. I'll trust you. For now. But if you do anything to *hurt* my friends, I swear there won't be anyplace safe for you, anywhere in this universe!"
"Fear not, Roy Harper," the quiet voice reassured him. "You have my word that I mean neither you nor your companions any harm."
Speedy nodded, albeit reluctantly.
"I need you to close your eyes, Roy Harper, and concentrate on your companions. Picture them as you saw them last. I need you to look around to where they're located. See them in their exact placement and relationship to other objects in the room. Can you do that?"
Speedy nodded, concentrating and doing as he was told...
Aqualad folded over and collapsed into Green Arrow's waiting arms.
"Garth!" Wonder Girl cried, immediately kneeling next to her friend. Aqualad weakly waved her away.
"I've found them, Wonder Girl," he gasped. "I know where they're located." He gave her their teammates' coordinates. "You must hurry, Wonder Girl...they are all three very weak."
Wonder Girl quickly returned to the _Avenger's_ command console and Green Arrow rushed aft to the transporter chamber.
"GA, I'm sending the transporter control center the necessary coordinates *now*!"
"Got 'em, little Princess," GA responded tersely. "I'm activating the transporter recall now!" A few seconds later, his voice reported over the intercom. "I've got three life forms in the transporter stasis, Wonder Girl. I'm going to start rematerializing each one!"
"I'm on my way, GA!" WG responded.
"Illogical!" The AI denied the truth of events before it. The small, inconsequential life-forms that it had successfully trapped in the Forward Command Area had inexplicably disappeared. Its loyal droids reported sightings of the elusive dark figure that somehow still haunted the ship's body.
But the one that wielded the strange emerald energy was now its prisoner. Soon, the emerald energy would be absorbed within the ship...
The nightmarish device gleamed with the color of burnished gold.
GL struggled futilely against the restraints. He stood in the middle of a large, dimly lit bay, held immobilized in an upright, spread-eagle position. Several probes attached to his forehead barely hinted at what was to come.
"This is *ridiculous*!" he yelled. "What kind of people are you? Sadists?"
GL looked around the empty chamber. The almost antiseptic barrenness of the room bespoke of ancient horrors. Old black and white documentaries of Nazi tortures flashed unbidden in his mind.
The beaded sweat on his forehead slowly trailed down his face. So far, nothing had been done to him, but the anticipation left a cold feeling of dread at the pit of his stomach.
Fighting against his manacles with a growing, desperate rage, he lashed out at his jailers.
"No! You're not sadists. Sadists have to *enjoy* hurting others. But you can't! You can't, because you're nothing but a machine!"
Without warning, the searing, white *pain* exploded in his head!
An eternity later, the pain stopped, leaving him breathless, too weak to struggle. Gasping, barely conscious, GL felt his hold on reality slipping. He didn't know if he'd be able to withstand another jolt.
No! He was Green Lantern of Earth! Clenching his jaw GL waited for the next expected stab of pain.
Without warning, his very soul was suffused with pure, ecstatic joy: The joy of tasting ice cream for the first time in his life. The joy of flying with total abandon through fluffy, white clouds. The joy of being the sole witness to stars being formed and stars going nova.
The joy of endlessly holding Carol Ferris in his arms.
In an instant, the joy turned to pain.
Not a physical pain, but the gut-wrenching, soul-tearing emotional pain of loss: Carol turning away in disdain for yet another one of his failures. General Douglas informing him he'd been rejected from the astronaut program. Waking up after that terrible accident, knowing in his heart that he'd been responsible for the death of a passenger because he'd chosen to drive while drunk.
Battling the war within own his soul, GL cried out in defiant anguish.
"*No*! You can't hurt me with my own memories! I've lived it, *remember*?! It's in the past! The past can't hurt me any more!" He swallowed then added in a dry whisper, "It can't hurt me anymore."
But he was lying. More than the physical pain of torture, the spiritual wounds from being Human brought him to the edge of despair.
"No..." he whimpered. "Please, no..."
A white-hot spasm suddenly shot through his entire being. Unprepared, GL screamed in agony.
But the machine's perfect logic proved no match against the imperfect human.
Against the influx of physical agony, GL rallied back. Without the blackness of his past failures haunting his soul, his powerful will broke free of all tangible fetters.
Stepping outside of his corporal self, GL clinically observed himself as he continued to undergo the unceasing torture. Knowing that the soul of Hal Jordan would not survive such abominations totally whole, the essence that was Green Lantern began the chant that always brought a renewed sense of self and power:
"In brightest day, In blackest night, No evil shall escape my sight. Let those who worship Evil's might, Beware my power, Green Lantern's Light!"
Then, he succumbed to blessed darkness...
"Superman!" Atom's voice came over the Man of Steel's headset. Superman blasted two more scouts with his heat vision and obliterated another with a powerful fist before he answered.
"Superman, here." He quickly scanned the space around Mars and its two moons, Phobos and Deimos. Empty space. About to turn away, his eye briefly caught what seemed to be sunlight glinting off a metallic object. Superman instantly concentrated his telescopic/x-ray vision on the spot. There! Hiding within the shadow of Phobos' massive crater was an enemy scout. He took off after it.
"Supes, I think we've done it. I don't know how...but I think we've done it. We've won. All that's left is the mopping up."
"That's some mop you're talking about, little buddy," the Flash quipped.
"Yeah, Mighty Mouse," broke in Black Canary. "I mean, there's gotta be at least a few hundred thousand of 'em left."
"Atom is right, Flash, BC," Superman replied as he sliced through the retreating enemy ship's engines with his heat vision.
The scout lost inertial control and careened towards the Red Planet, which was spinning coldly below. Superman's face remained carefully neutral as the ship burned up in the thin Martian atmosphere.
"Since the armada's programming reverted to its original practice fire mode," he continued, "the battle's been little more than a cakewalk."
"Well, *excuuususe* me if I'm not ready to ride in the ticker tape parade yet, guys," the Flash replied. "A few hundred thousand of these babies can still do a job on Earth."
"I'm with Twinkletoes here," BC added. "I'm not ready to quit just yet, either."
"I didn't say we're quitting, Dinah," the Atom said. "I'm only pointing out that we're finally ahead of the ball game here. And I don't know about you guys, but I'm growing just a little concerned about our teammates and the Titans."
"And your point is--?" the Flash asked.
"My point is that all of us aren't needed here anymore. I think that we can spare someone to get out to the galaxy's edge and give our friends a hand."
His suggestion was met with silence. Finally, the Flash spoke.
"Ray, nothing would make me happier than sending the cavalry to check on my nephew, but the safety of Earth is our prime responsibility right now. I know that Wally wouldn't want me to abandon our planet if there were even the slightest chance that it could still be in danger."
"And neither Ollie nor Roy will thank me if I abandon the fight in order to reach them," BC agreed.
"I have to agree with Barry and Dinah, Ray," Superman interjected. "I understand your sentiments, and I'm sure that all of the JLA members who have junior partners are grateful for the suggestion, but the Earth isn't entirely out of the woods yet. We can't risk sending anyone out to the galaxy's edge if he or she might still be needed here."
"In case anyone's wondering," Wonder Woman's voice broke in, "Arthur and I are in agreement with Barry and Dinah."
Atom sighed. "Okay, guys. Just thought I'd offer."
With that, the heroes returned to the grim task at hand.
"How are they?"
Wonder Girl was studying Robin's medbed readings. "All green, thank Hera," she whispered. WG turned and gave Aqualad a smile.
"They're all fine, Garth. They're close to regaining consciousness."
Aqualad returned her smile. "I'm glad." He closed his eyes against a wave of dizziness. Wonder Girl immediately ran to him.
"Garth! You should be in bed!"
Aqualad shook her off. "I'm fine, Donna. Really. I'm just a little tired." He paused, overcome by another dizzy spell.
"You're not well, Garth! Come on. You're lying down...and I won't take 'no' for an answer." Using her Amazonian strength for added emphasis, WG led her reluctant teammate to the remaining empty bed.
"We still haven't heard from either Batman or Green Lantern," Aqualad protested weakly. "I am the only one here who can find them without the need of electronic tracking devices. I can't go to sleep yet."
Wonder Girl smiled at her gentle, sea-dwelling teammate.
"I'll tell you what. You rest and drink plenty of water to restore your electrolytes. Then, if you're a good boy and make that red blinking light up there--" She indicated the medbed's diagnostic panel. "--become a green blinking light, we'll see about letting you save the universe. Okay?"
Aqualad's eyes returned her smile, and he nodded. "'Kay."
Within minutes, he drifted off into a quiet, restful sleep. Wonder Girl stood in the middle of the infirmary surrounded by the sleeping forms of her teammates. She suddenly had the feeling that she was a mother hen protecting her brood.
Batman heard the bone-chilling screams in the distance. Not hesitating, he took off at a full run. God, don't let me late, he prayed silently.
Abruptly, the screams stopped.
As he reached the end of the air duct, Batman stopped just inside, still within the shadows. Seeing the tortures being inflicted on the proud, heroic figure of GL, Batman felt a black rage take hold of his soul.
Every few seconds or so, GL's form would be hit by a sudden spasm. Finally, his head slumped over, obviously unconscious. Batman grimly took note of the gold apparatus that was holding the Emerald Knight prisoner and quickly assessed its weaknesses.
Not bothering for stealth, the Dark Knight kicked open the air duct's closed grill and jumped out into the open bay. Moving swiftly across the empty space between them, Batman hurried to his teammate's aid.
He was immediately targeted by the chamber's automatic defensive systems. Searing particle beams came at him from multiple angles. Batman instinctively dove, rolled, and leaped to avoid being fried. Taking the alien weapon he'd confiscated earlier, he placed it on its maximum setting and fired.
The next few seconds seemed to last hours. Exposed and unprotected, Batman had to be constantly on the move. As he'd fall and roll on the floor, he'd instinctively sight and fire at yet another wall-mounted weapon. But for each one he managed to take out, there were several more still locking onto him.
Batman knew that even he couldn't keep this up. But he'd be damned if he'd quit and abandon Green Lantern...
Robin stirred in his bunk. Wonder Girl moved quickly over to his side. Studying his readings, she was happy to see that he was coming to.
"Uhhnnnn..." he groaned. His eyes slowly fluttered open. He squinted against the light, but soon recovered against the glare. Wonder Girl brought a glass of water to his lips, and he drank gratefully.
"What's our status?" he whispered. "Report."
Wonder Girl smiled tolerantly. Putting the glass down, she saluted playfully, and giggling, mimicked her barely conscious leader. "'What's our status'? 'Report'! My, my. Don't we wake up a bit cross?"
Blinking blearily, Robin focused on his beautiful teammate. "Donna? Where are we? What happened?" He looked around confusedly. Noticing the others lying unconscious around him, he sat up suddenly and instantly regretted it.
"Let *that* be a lesson to you," WG said, in a no-nonsense tone. "Now, you lie back down, Boy Wonder, and I'll tell you everything I know..."
Batman withdrew a number of pellets from his utility belt and threw them towards the center of the room. Shielding his eyes from the incandescent flash- bang, he felt his way towards GL. The momentary flash temporarily overloaded the defensive array's tracking devices, allowing Batman precious seconds to free his teammate.
Hastily cutting through GL's manacles with a laser penlight, the Dark Knight threw the Emerald Knight over his shoulder and ran back to the air conditioning vent. Arriving just below the open grill, the two heroes were instantly beset by deadly particle beams once again.
Fending off the enemy with the alien weapon in one hand, Batman calmly reached into his utility belt for the last of the transporter recall patches. Protecting GL with his own body as a shield, Batman slapped the patch on his unconscious friend's upper arm and activated it.
At the same instant, Batman was struck a glancing blow to the head by a particle beam. As the universe around him reeled, Batman's final conscious action was protecting his friend even as GL dematerialized...
Almost as soon as Robin regained consciousness, the rest of the male Titans followed suit. Aqualad began voicing his protests at Wonder Girl's ministrations almost immediately.
"But I must *try*!" he argued.
"Aqualad, you're not strong enough," Wonder Girl said patiently. "The previous attempt took almost the last ounce of strength you had."
"You've tried everything else," Aqualad said reasonably. "None of our electronic tracking devices have worked. I'm their only hope."
"He's right, Wonder Doll," Speedy said quietly.
The others looked at him with varying expressions. Robin looked carefully impartial, Wally skeptical, and Green Arrow understanding. Wonder Girl, on the other hand, looked thunderous.
"Roy! How can you encourage Garth? Look at him...he's not well. The effort to rescue the three of you took everything he had."
"Maybe. But don't you think that Gillhead here has a right to make his own decisions?"
Wonder Girl looked at him as if she were ready to explode. But before she could say anything, Green Arrow broke in.
"Speedy's right. You're a team, yes, but each of you is an individual. As such, while each of you is responsible to the others, you're also responsible to yourselves." He paused and turned to Aqualad. "Son, are you sure about this? You're still pretty weak."
Looking paler than was normal even for him, Aqualad nodded, albeit weakly. "I-I think can." He looked at Speedy. "Roy, I-I'll need your help."
"*My* help? But--I don't understand, Gillhead."
Aqualad smiled. "When I made contact with you, Speedy, I saw that you have certain abilities unknown even to you. Perhaps these are a result of your mystical Navajo teachings. Whatever the reason, I was able to make mind contact with you easily and quickly." He paused and smiled. "You have a powerful personality even when you're unconscious."
Robin cleared his throat. "Aqualad, is there anything I can do to help? Batman's out there and I--" He dropped his eyes and shrugged. "--I just want to do something."
Kid Flash punched him lightly on the arm. "Hey, Robbie, it's okay. The Bat- guy's the best, remember?" Robin nodded.
"Robin, I tried to contact you first, of course," Aqualad explained, "but I couldn't break through your barriers."
"Barriers?" Robin asked blankly.
"Yes, you have some strong mind shields. Have you ever studied mind control techniques?"
Robin nodded. "Sure, ever since I was a little kid. Tibetan mind techniques are some of the first things that Batman ever taught me." He grinned, suddenly boyish. "Helped me get better grades in school, too."
"Bird-boy, is there anything that you *haven't* studied?" Speedy asked. Robin ignored him, instead concentrating on Aqualad.
"Aqualad, I'm not sure about these 'barriers' as you call 'em, but I *do* know that that if I can do anything to help, I want to--"
At this moment the transporter alarm went off.
"What the--?" Green Arrow muttered. He hurried to the command console. "Something or someone's activated a JLA transporter recall patch. The _Avenger's_ transporter's intercepted the beam." As he spoke, GA adjusted the instruments. Apparently satisfied, he turned to the Titans. "Whatever it is, we have it in stasis."
Robin, who'd immediately run to the command console as soon as the alarms sounded, studied the stasis signature.
"I don't believe it," he said, turning and running back towards the transporter chamber. "It's GL! Come on! We've gotta get him out of stasis, ASAP!"
"GL?" GA called back, following the younger hero. "How in the world do you figure that?"
"I recognize the readings," Robin replied. He was concentrating fiercely at the transporter controls. "Believe me, sir...GL's unique signature is not something I'm likely to forget anytime soon." Without further comment, the Boy Wonder began rematerialization procedures.
Within seconds, the heroic figure of Green Lantern appeared before them. As soon as he was fully formed, GL collapsed inside the single chamber...
When he finally regained awareness, Batman found himself immobilized by the very apparatus that had held Green Lantern only moments before. He tested the restraints holding him.
"I see you have an efficient damage control crew," he said to the room at large.
"I don't understand what purpose torture serves you," he continued. "You're obviously a non-sentient machine, incapable of gaining any sort of pleasure or satisfaction from watching living beings suffer--"
*Pain* exploded within his entire being.
However, having observed GL's torture, Batman was mentally prepared. He did not scream at the all-consuming agony, but it required almost all of his self- discipline.
Abruptly, the pain stopped.
Batman gasped at the sudden release. Closing his eyes, he searched for his center, a quiet, peaceful place where he could go temporarily to escape physical torment.
He didn't need it.
The next moment, his soul was suddenly suffused with unimaginable happiness: The happiness of his mother kissing him good night. The happiness of Alfred baking him a chocolate cake for his sixth birthday. The happiness of his father surprising him with a special trip to the movies to see his hero, Zorro!
Bruce Wayne felt the tears well and allowed them to flow freely. He was six years old again and happy. Truly happy...
"Speedy, I need you," Aqualad said. Speedy nodded reluctantly. They were standing next to Green Lantern's medbed.
"What do I do?" Speedy asked. Aqualad smiled gently, his violet eyes steadily holding Speedy's nervous green ones.
"Give me your hand," he said. Speedy looked about ready to balk, but instead nodded and held out his hand. Aqualad took it in his, and still holding the teen archer's eyes, quietly reassured him. "Don't worry, my friend. You have a very strong will. I know that whatever happens, your strength will be of great value."
Speedy smiled nervously and nodded.
"Now close your eyes," Aqualad instructed. "And do as I say..."
Speedy immediately opened his eyes. It was pitch black. He couldn't see anything. The junior archer felt an instant surge of fear, which quickly passed. He was a hero, after all.
"Where am I?" he asked. "Where did everybody go?"
"You're here," the gentle voice replied.
"Thanks. You sure cleared that up," Speedy answered.
The voice laughed softly. "You are quite droll, my impatient friend."
"Gillhead?" Speedy asked, unsure.
"Yes. It is I," Aqualad replied. "When I count to three, you will be able to see as well as hear...One, two, three! Behold!"
"Whoa!" Speedy uttered, amazed. "Where *are* we?" He was surrounded by verdant rolling hills. Everywhere he looked, he seemed to be surrounded by vibrant fields of green. "Even the sky's green," he whispered. "Toto, we're not in Kansas, that's f'sure."
"No, we are inside Green Lantern's mind. The multiplicity of hues of the color green is how his subconscious perceives the universe."
"Uh-huh. So, what do we do?"
"So, what do we do?" Kid Flash asked. Robin continued adjusting the transporter console.
"*We* do nothing. But as for *me*--" Robin smiled grimly. Success! "I'm going back for Batman."
"I traced the transporter beam to its point of origin. I'm going back there."
"But, Robbie, you don't know if Batman's even there anymore."
"Maybe not, but it's the best clue I've got. And if there's the slightest chance that I'll find him, I'm going."
"Then I'm going, too," Kid Flash said.
"Uh-uh, Flasheroo--" Robin began.
"You can't talk me out of it, Robin," Kid Flash said steadily. "Like Green Arrow said. We may be a team, but we're each responsible for ourselves. I'm going with you."
Robin held his friend's gaze and finally nodded. "Okay, Kid. You're in."
"If that's the case," a voice from behind added, "then I'm coming, too!"
"Bruce! Sweetheart, it's time to come in!"
Bruce heard his mommy calling him to dinner. He sighed. He'd just found the neatest thing, too. A hidden entrance to a stupendous cave! He'd followed a giant-sized bat to the opening and had spent the better part of the past hour clearing the overgrown brush and debris blocking the entrance.
"Aw, gee," he muttered. "I never get to have any fun." Ignoring the call, Bruce began the descent into the darkness below...
"Bruu-uuce!" He could still hear his mommy's persistent voice. Bruce looked up slightly bemused. He was *way* down here, on the other side of the Wayne's vast estate. How could he hear his mommy calling him...?
"Bruce! Young man, you are a disgrace to the Wayne name!" Dr. Wayne's deep tones rebuked his young son. Bruce looked up at his daddy.
He felt confused. How did he get here? He'd been way over *there* just a moment ago.
"Well? What do you have to say for yourself?" his father asked. "Look at you. Your new suit, it's ruined. And where have you been? Haven't your mother and I warned you about staying out of those caves below? They're dangerous!"
Bruce nodded, confused. How did his daddy know about the cave? He'd only found it just now?
"I-I'm sorry, Daddy." Bruce felt bad. He hated to disappoint his father. "I promise to be better." The tears began to fall of their accord.
Dr. Wayne smiled down at his little boy and picked him up. "Hey, none of that, chum. How many times do I have to tell you? Superheroes don't cry."
Young Bruce sniffed, wiping his eyes with his knuckles. Swallowing a couple of times he gazed solemnly into his daddy's eyes.
His daddy never called him *that* before. No, *he* called *Dick* 'chum'! Who was 'Dick'? Bruce concentrated, struggling to remember. Bruce's eyes narrowed slightly. His daddy had never told him that he shouldn't cry. And what was a 'Superhero'?
Bruce studied his daddy closely. The same smile that greeted him every day of his life gazed back. Except...?
Except that the smile wasn't quite right. Daddy's eyes didn't have that special twinkle they always got when he smiled at him. No, Daddy's eyes looked cold and flat...almost like the glass button eyes of one of Bruce's stuffed animals.
Bruce began to struggle in his daddy's arms, shaking his head. "You're not my daddy!" he cried. "Let me *go*! You're not my daddy...You're *not*! You're *not*!"
Batman woke to *pain*!
The emerald energy being escaped! This was unacceptable! The ship's AI 'knew' anger! The Dark One was responsible and for that, it would pay. These biological life forms were extremely delicate...not at all like the Krghlm! The AI paused, momentarily confused.
Not like the Krghlm...?
Robin and Kid Flash whirled towards the sound of the new voice.
"GA!" they said together.
"But--" Robin began.
"No 'buts,' kid," GA interrupted with a slashing motion of the hand. "I know the Bat's your partner, but he's my teammate. And, well, I kinda grew to like the big guy on our trip here. He's okay." GA studied Robin. The younger hero's jaw set, ready to protest. "I want to help, kid...Please, let me help."
Robin's demeanor didn't change. A muscle jumped in his tightly clenched jaw. If anything, he appeared even more stubborn. However, he finally nodded. "Okay. But this is *my* game, and we play by *my* rules! Agreed?"
GA's eyebrows shot up in surprise. Up until now, Batman's junior partner had been studiously polite, almost deferential, to his elders. A new wave of respect for the Boy Wonder suddenly shot through GA. Obviously when it came to his partner, the kid could be a regular barracuda.
Just like the Old Man.
A grin flashed across GA's face.
"All right, kid. You're in charge. But don't be surprised if I, well, sort of 'overlook' a few orders now and then. I have a reputation to maintain, after all."
Robin glared. That's all he needed, an adult version of Speedy who'd never grown up. He nodded and began briefing his team.
"Hey! I can move my arm without any pain," Speedy said surprised. Aqualad nodded.
"Don't forget, Speedy. In this realm, we are not bound by normal physical laws. We are, after all, inside the human mind where possibilities are limitless."
"Yeah, sure," Speedy said, taking a practice shot. He aimed at a distant tree that he could've sworn hadn't been there a moment ago. The arrow stayed on target until the last possible second. Abruptly, it *stopped* in mid-flight, made two ninety degree turns, then flew back to him. He caught it in surprise.
Aqualad laughed softly. "I'm sorry, my friend. But I had to show you what I meant about endless possibilities."
"You mean that *you*--?"
"--Changed the course of your arrow while in flight?" Aqualad interrupted. "Yes. And you can, too, as you shall soon see."
At this moment, the two teen heroes arrived at the edge of a deep chasm. The far side was too distant to jump, unless--?
Speedy looked down the bottomless drop and shuddered. He didn't think he was ready to test Aqualad's theory of "limitless possibilities" by trying to jump across *that*!
"If we only had a bridge," he muttered. Almost as soon as the words were out of his mouth, an old-fashioned, covered wooden bridge appeared. It gracefully spanned the distance across the dangerous chasm.
Aqualad smiled at him and took a step forward.
"I don't believe this," Speedy said under his breath. He regretted the words as soon as he uttered them. The bridge disintegrated at the same instant.
Aqualad was caught in midair, just stepping onto the bridge. The Atlantean went over the edge.
"*Gill-head*!" Speedy hurried over to the edge in time to see his friend somehow grab onto a rock outcropping. "Hang on, Aqualad! I'm coming!"
Without stopping to think about what he was doing, Speedy fired off a rope arrow towards his friend, confident that he'd be able to reach him on time. Lashing one end of the rope to a sturdy rock (~Where did *that* come from, he wondered?~) Speedy adjusted the line over and under his shoulder and legs, and promptly rappelled down towards his teammate.
Within seconds, Speedy arrived near Aqualad and in no time had him safely secured to the line and ready to return.
"Can you hold onto me, Gill-head?" Speedy asked. He was worried about the teen Atlantean's shoulder. Aqualad nodded, climbing onto Speedy's back. Amazingly, Speedy had them both safely on top in near-record time. "Man, that was close," he gasped. "Gill-head, haven't you ever heard? Fish can't fly?"
Aqualad grinned broadly. "Oh, but they can, Roy...Look!" To Speedy's stunned shock, Aqualad stepped over the edge again.
"*Gill-head*!" Speedy stood rooted to the spot, unable to move. Finally, he reluctantly walked to the chasm's edge. Floating safely and just below eye- level was Aqualad, gently bobbing up and down. "What--?" Speedy's legs gave out under him, and he sat down abruptly.
Aqualad floated up to his teammate and sat down next to him. "I'm sorry I frightened you, Speedy, but I had to show you that our normal physical laws do not apply here."
Speedy nodded. He was still visibly trying to get his raging emotions under control. His hands shook slightly. Twice in the last few minutes, he'd thought he'd lost his friend. Finally, his concern for his quiet teammate changed to outrage, and before Aqualad could react, Speedy punched him solidly in the jaw.
Aqualad went down like he'd been shot.
"If that were true, Gillhead, then why did you have me climb all the way down there to get you? Why did you put me through this...this...whatever this *is*...*twice*!?"
Aqualad felt his jaw and grinned ruefully. "I guess that's *one* physical law that still exists."
Speedy didn't return his smile. Aqualad dropped his eyes in momentary shame, but raised them again.
"I wanted you to have the confidence to act under these unusual circumstances. Even if you can't think logically, 'I can fly,' you *can* think, 'Hey, I've got this arrow to do such and such.'" Aqualad looked down again. "I'm sorry if I overstepped bounds, but I knew of no quicker way to drive the point across."
Still glaring at the Atlantean, Speedy nodded. "Okay, Gill-head, I'll accept your explanation for now. But you owe me, and when this is done, we're gonna have a little 'talk.'" He held his fist to Aqualad's slightly bruised jaw for emphasis.
The two junior heroes regarded each other for a moment longer, then both turned away, determined to continue their mission.
This isn't real, he insisted. This isn't happening. But there was nothing he could do to stop it from reaching its inevitable pain-filled conclusion...
A clear, moonlit night.
Steps echo on the hard, wet pavement.
Mommy's warm, comforting laughter caresses him.
Daddy's firm, strong hand squeezes his shoulder.
"Your birthday, Bruce...your wish."
The words resonate in the night. A strange foreboding overwhelms him.
No! It can't be happening!
A shadow appears. Moonlight glints off a metal object. A voice growls in the night.
Daddy yells, outraged.
"How dare you--?"
Mommy screams, "Thomas--!"
Daddy looks surprised. He looks down at his chest at the rapidly spreading red stain. He collapses, facedown into a puddle.
A hand grabs Mommy's pearl necklace. It breaks into dozens of perfectly round luminescent moonlets. Each flies up in a soft arc, but soon begins an unearthly slow descent to the sidewalk below.
He watches, mesmerized, as each pearl pings when it strikes the sidewalk cement and bounces off in ever decreasing arcs into the night.
"You've *killed* him--!"
"Shut up, lady!"
A second shot. Mommy's voice is silenced forever.
As she falls, two red roses that she's been holding in her white-gloved hands, fall in tandem. As she hits the pavement, the roses gently rain down and come to rest on her still form.
Her pristine white gloves are soiled by the dirty rainwater.
He feels a growing agitation. This isn't happening. This isn't real. This is *not* happening. This is *not* real. This is *not*--!
So why does it hurt so much? Why won't the pain stop?
Your birthday, Bruce...your wish...
*Dick*! I need you, son...I can't do this alone...
Your birthday, Bruce...your wish...
The refrain reverberates in his head.
"Mommy...Daddy..." Bruce whimpers. "My birthday...my wish...my fault...*my* fault...Dick...help me..."
As soon as he materialized, Kid Flash zipped into action. He assessed the defensive array at supersonic speed, and in an eye blink, neutralized the wall- mounted particle weapons. A series of alarms began, strangely echoing in the cavernous bay.
At the same instant, Robin transported. Once fully formed, he sprinted, zig- zagging, towards Batman, noting aircraft carrier-sized bay doors along the starboard side. He readied three Batarangs while on the move, and threw them almost simultaneously--one, two, three--at the machine's control panel. They each exploded on contact, sending an impressive shower of sparks and smoke into the air.
Following Robin's explosive Batarangs, a volley of emerald arrows completed the job, destroying the machine's main console.
Several hidden wall units began opening. Through the corner of his eye, Robin caught what looked like short, stubby, metallic boxes. Droids! He noted analytically that the droids' sides were opening. What looked like robotic arms began emerging.
As soon as the arms were fully extended, deadly particle beams took aim at the Boy Wonder as he raced across the open bay towards Batman. Not stopping, Robin leaped onto the torture apparatus, and whipping out a pen-laser, began cutting through Batman's shackles.
Taking a quick look back, Robin saw Green Arrow calmly targeting the droids with arrow after arrow, while somehow avoiding getting hit in turn. Before Robin could blink, a scarlet and gold blur whipped through the open bay, knocking over several more of the metallic droids as they emerged from the walls.
Pausing only long enough to carefully lower Batman to floor level, Robin threw his massive partner over his shoulders in a fireman's carry, hooked his arms through Batman's utility belt, and began a staggering quick-walk, putting as much distance as possible between themselves and the monstrous machine.
The alarms in the background abruptly stopped. A new sound replaced it: a loud klaxon accompanied by a strobing red light. Robin almost dropped Batman in shock.
Kid Flash was immediately next to him. "What's happening?" the junior Speedster yelled.
GA ran up and joined his teen teammates. "Are you two boys all right?"
"Stick to the plan! Activate your auto-returns!" Robin ordered, ignoring both their questions. They only had mere seconds before--!
The massive cargo doors he'd noted as soon as he transported onto the giant bay began to open. The enormous suction caused by atmosphere escaping into an airless vacuum immediately picked them up and hurled them to the open maw of space...
"Hello, boys!" Green Lantern lay on a chaise lounge, next to a swimming pool. He was dressed in green swimming trunks and an open, green, flower-print shirt. He wore green aviator glasses, and topped it all off with a green panama hat.
He gave them a friendly wave. "Here, grab a seat! Make yourselves comfortable." He called a beautiful young woman over to them. She was an exotic shade of green from head to toe: skin, bikini top, grass skirt, hair--everything!
"Olive, sweetheart! Get these two youngsters something cool...that's a darling." Olive soon returned with two tall ice-filled glasses of a strange emerald drink.
"What is it?" hissed Speedy.
Aqualad shrugged. "It's green," he said nonchalantly. He'd heard that once on Star Trek and had always wanted a reason to say it.
Speedy glared arrows at him, and hesitating slightly, took a sip from the mystery drink. Whatever it was, it was delicious! Minty, he decided. He drank it straight down. He hadn't known how thirsty he was.
"So, what brings you boys into my dream?" GL asked.
"You mean, you know--?" sputtered Speedy.
"Of course." GL sounded like it was the most ordinary thing in the world. "Why else would everything be such a tasteful shade of green? I love the color, but things can get rather monotonous after a while."
"Then why don't you...you know...wake up!" Speedy asked. "We really need you!"
"Sorry, kid," GL answered, sounding slightly regretful. "No can do. I've tried waking up, but every time I do, everything goes kind of black...or was it red? Not really sure."
GL's voice had taken on a faraway quality, and he stared off into the emerald- cool waters of the pool. Abruptly, he blinked.
"But it hurts...a lot. Couldn't take it anymore." He shrugged. "Everybody always said I was nothing but a loser anyway...I guess they were right."
"A *loser*?" Speedy asked, shocked. "You?! You've gotta be kidding!" Speedy was so outraged at the thought, he voice rose an octave. "GL, you're like...the greatest, man! Even GA says so...and he doesn't think of anyone except himself!"
"Speedy is correct, Green Lantern," Aqualad said. "You are counted amongst Earth's greatest heroes. Some would even venture to say that you are on equal par with Superman! Your power ring, and the powerful will with which you manipulate its awesome energies are beyond imaginable. Aquaman says that you haven't yet begun to tap its full potential."
GL grinned. "Arthur said that?" Aqualad nodded. "Well, I'll be...never thought His Majesty had anything nice to say about *any*one." He laughed softly to himself as if digesting this bit of tremendous news. "Well, whadaya know?"
"Okay, look, GL," Speedy interrupted a bit impatiently. "Now that we have *that* out of the way, what do you say to, uh, waking up and getting on with the job?"
GL's light mood slowly faded. It was replaced by a look of deep regret. "I'm sorry, kid, but like I said...I can't break through this dream. Whatever happened to me, it was more than my subconscious could tolerate. It looks like I beat a hasty retreat here to my little emerald paradise. Nothing I've been able to do so far has allowed me to return to consciousness."
Aqualad studied GL in amazement. "But how can that be, GL? If you know that this all a dream, why can't you make yourself wakeup?"
GL's eyes darted away from the boys. His whole demeanor shrank in on itself, and an utter look of abject fear seemed to take hold of him.
"Because he's out there," GL whispered. "He's out there...waiting for me..."
As he careened towards certain death, Robin tried to save his team one last time. First he quickly attached his utility belt to Batman's with a metal O- Ring, thus ensuring that he would not be separated from his unconscious mentor.
Next, he took out a grappling hook, and not taking time to sight, shot a line towards Kid Flash. He saw it loop several times around the junior Speedster, and lashed it onto a metal eye-ring that he noticed in passing.
Grabbing onto the ring, he quickly hooked Batman's utility belt to it, effectively anchoring both himself and his senior partner for the moment. Without missing a beat, he shot a second grappling line towards Green Arrow.
GA was a bit farther out than Kid Flash had been, however. It would be a close call.
"*GA*!!" he screamed. "The *line*! Grab it!"
Green Arrow managed to right himself. He was mere moments from the opening into the blackness of space. Taking out an arrow, he took almost casual aim, and shot it straight towards the grappling hook.
"What are you *doing*?" Robin cried in shock. GA was going to knock the line off course!
However, rather than deflecting the grappling hook's trajectory, GA's arrowhead opened up at the last second, releasing a mini-grappler. It grabbed onto Robin's hook, and both Robin and GA pulled from their respective ends.
Success! GA's forward momentum towards the open bay doors halted. He quickly tied himself to the safety line and took a brief moment to breathe a sigh of relief.
"Thanks, kid!" he said weakly. Obviously not taking the moment to celebrate, Robin was instead waving madly at him. "What does he want now?" GA muttered. It took him a second to realize what the Boy Wonder meant. The transporter auto- recalls.
GA waved his understanding. Looking over to his far left, he saw the little Flash Kid, uh, Kid Flash doing likewise. "Robin's a born leader," GA said in admiration.
The alarms sounded throughout the _Avenger_. Depressurization! Wonder Girl *flew* forward to the Command console. What was going on?! Quickly checking her instruments, she was relieved to see that the problem wasn't inside the ship. Therefore, it must be another one of those emergency defensive moves of the giant alien.
A cold fear gripped her insides. Where were Robin, Kid Flash, and GA? She hadn't seen them since Aqualad and Speedy began their mind-journey.
Fighting off a sudden panic attack, WG forced herself to calmly perform her systems checks...
There! Transporter activity less than fifteen minutes ago.
"Destination...destination...*come on*!" she cried. The coordinates flashed before her. "Would they still be where they materialized?" she asked herself. "Don't be stupid, girl!" she chastised herself, rapidly typing in location commands. "Hurry, hurry, hurry..." she muttered. "Hera, help me! Please work...please work...please work..."
Beepbeepbeepbeepbeepbeepbeep...! Transporter automatic-recall signals: three!
"Thank Hera!" Wonder Girl activated the transporter recall...
"Who? Who is out there?" Speedy cried. They didn't have time for this. Too much was at stake. He walked up to GL and grabbed him by the lapels. "Who is *out* there?! Tell me!"
GL rolled up into a fetal position and began sobbing. "He's out there! He's out there!"
"Speedy! Wait!" Aqualad said. He came up to Speedy, and forced him to release GL. "Don't you see? No body is out there! Whatever happened to him, it was all in his mind. Something so horrible, so terrible that even *he* couldn't face it. Whatever it is, it's up to us to help him overcome his fears."
"But what could possibly be so terrible that a guy like GL couldn't face it?"
Aqualad shrugged. "Who knows what monsters lurk within the deepest recesses of the human mind? It could be a monster of his imagining...or of his past...or..."
"Or what?" Speedy asked.
"Or of something he has yet to encounter." Aqualad and Speedy looked intensely into each other's eyes, then as one turned towards GL.
Wonder Girl watched her transporter instruments closely: one, two, three signals. She had three signals in the transporter stasis. Working quickly, she set the panel controls and began the process of rematerialization.
She activated the first stasis signal. She watched anxiously as the scarlet and gold figure of Kid Flash formed. He stood, eyes closed for a split second. Blinking slowly, he opened his eyes.
He took a moment to check his hands, his torso, his head. He flashed a wide grin. "Hey! I'm all here! Way cool!"
Wonder Girl smiled back, but she didn't have time to chat and said so. "Please, step away from the chamber, Wally. I still have to get the others." Kid Flash nodded, suddenly all business, and stepped off smartly.
Next, the emerald colors of Green Arrow coalesced onto the transporter platform. He recovered faster than Kid Flash. Turning to Wonder Girl, he gave her the same devil-may-care grin that Speedy had. WG smiled back, unable to help herself.
She was about to begin the process of bringing in the third signal when, GA abruptly stayed her hand.
"Wait, little princess!" he called. "Let's check it first."
"But--" WG's confusion must have been telegraphed on her face because GA immediately stepped aside and pointed.
"Look!" He didn't offer further explanation. Uncertainly, WG walked over to the console and studied it closely. She squinted as she looked closer at the readings.
"Two--?" she asked. GA nodded.
WG closed her eyes momentarily. If she'd tried to process a normal transporter rematerialization for single being when there were actually two--! She didn't *want* to think of the possible consequences. Swallowing, WG adjusted her instrumentation for two separate human beings. Satisfied, she cautiously activated the reformatting buffer.
Instantly, a form took shape on the sole console's platform: Robin! He stood a second longer, blinking rapidly. Taking a step forward, he stumbled slightly. GA caught him immediately and helped him off the platform.
"I'm all right," Robin protested.
"Of course you are, kid," GA reassured him. "But we gotta get you off the platform so's we can bring in ol' Dark and Dreary."
His eyes closed in exhaustion, Robin nodded.
GA gave Wonder Girl the thumbs up. "Now or never, little princess." She smiled and nodding, activated the transporter for the final time.
Soon, the tall, forbidding form of the Dark Knight took shape. As soon as he solidified, Batman's imposing figure slowly crumpled...
"We'll have to go in and get him out," Aqualad said calmly.
"Go in 'where'? Get 'who' out?" Speedy asked.
"Go further into GL's subconsciousness, and get *GL*--or rather, the *rest* of him--out."
Speedy's look of complete incomprehension must've told the story. Aqualad sighed.
"But, I'm afraid that we may need more help." He shrugged. "I'm not sure if just you and I are strong enough or powerful enough to face the monsters of the deepest human subconscious. And if we're to ever have Green Lantern whole and well again, that's going to be our next battlefield."
"But I've *got* to see him!"
"Robin...look, kid, I know how you feel, but the little princess is doing everything possible right now," GA explained patiently. "You'd only be underfoot."
"But *I'm* his partner! I have a right to be in there!" Robin was as near to tears as the older hero had ever seen the boy. He felt his own heart catch in his throat.
The door to the infirmary opened at this moment.
"Robbie--" Wonder Girl began, but Robin ignored her. He took the opportunity to duck out from under GA's grabbing fingers and rushed in. Not paying attention to what was happening by GL's medbed, Robin hurried to Batman's side.
"Batman," he whispered. His senior partner looked very pale under his cowl. His contorted face seemed to bespeak of some bone-deep pain. Robin checked the medbed readings. His heart froze.
All readings were in the danger zone. Batman's life force was quickly slipping.
"*NO*!!!" he cried. Not caring who else was around, Robin threw himself on Batman's unconscious form. Hugging him tightly by the neck, Robin sobbed quietly, "*No*...Please, God, no...he can't die..."
The others in the room watched the heart-wrenching scene with various degrees of empathy.
Wonder Girl immediately turned to Speedy, who unknown to Robin had, along with Aqualad, emerged from his trance momentarily. Speedy held her closely. Green Arrow placed a comforting hand on his junior partner's shoulder.
Kid Flash made a move as if to go to Robin, but Aqualad held him back.
"We should leave them alone," Aqualad said softly. The others nodded reluctantly and made as if to leave.
"You *can't* die!" Robin cried in sudden anger. The others turned as one. "You promised me you'd come home...you *promised*!" He wiped the streaming tears. "When Mom and Dad died, you promised you'd take care of me...that you'd never leave me. You *can't* go back on your word!"
He stopped momentarily, too overcome to continue. Finally, getting his emotions under tight control, he spoke. "Alfred needs you. What will he do without you...? *I* need you, too. Who'll teach me stuff? I still don't know how to extract DNA...and I sure can't strike fear into the hearts of criminals like you."
He took hold of Batman's gloved hand. "I can't lose another father," he said softly. "I can't...please, don't leave me...please..." He held Batman's hand to his cheek and felt the tears start again.
Then, almost imperceptibly, he felt a slight pressure on his hand. Gasping, unable to believe what he'd felt, he waited. There it was! The slightest pressure on his hand, just enough to let him know that Batman was aware...that he was going to be all right.
"Batman?" he whispered, hopeful. The others noted the change in his voice. Wonder Girl quickly ran to the medbed and began running a new diagnostic program. She turned excited eyes to the others and nodded eagerly.
Batman was going to be all right!
Within a few minutes, Batman regained semi-consciousness. The others remained a respectful distance from mentor and student.
Batman's hand came up slowly and Robin placed his much smaller one in it. Batman gave his junior partner a heavily medicated half-smile.
"You came...for me...?" he whispered. Somehow it came out a question. Robin smiled through his tears.
"What are partners for--?"
Illogical! Illogical! All of the biological life-forms had escaped. The AI's sensors reported that they had returned to their ship. The AI concluded that the only solution would be to expel the alien ship from the bay that it currently occupied and destroy it.
The AI ran an analysis program. Previous efforts to eject the ship had been met with resistance. Somehow, the smaller ship had remained firmly anchored to its current spot when the bay had been depressurized.
Conclusion: Reverse tactics!
The AI's systems seem to glow with new life...
"Don't you *dare* try to get up!" Robin ordered. "Or I'll strap you down!"
Kid Flash looked at his friend in shock. How could Robin talk to *Batman* like that?
His eyes closed, Batman's mouth twitched weakly. "You'd better show some respect," he murmured, "or I'll give you a spanking."
Robin gave him a wicked grin. "Oh, yeah? You and what Army? Look at you! You can't even hold your head up without help."
Batman nodded imperceptibly. "Okay, partner," he said faintly. "You're in charge..." He swallowed, struggling to maintain consciousness. "The codes...still have to...give you...the codes..."
Batman fell into a deep sleep.
"What did he mean about codes, Robbie?" Kid Flash asked.
Robin shrugged. "I'm not sure, Twinkletoes. We were in the middle of reprogramming the alien ship's AI when *everything* hit, remember?"
Kid Flash nodded. How he could forget?
"Maybe he's talking about the program we were working on," Robin mused, "although, I *thought* we'd finished it." He shrugged and started heading forward to the Command Center. "Well, we can't worry about it right now. We've gotta get the _Avenger_ outta here, first. We're a sitting duck, and it's just a matter of time before the alien decides to bring the battle directly to us."
Kid Flash opened his mouth to reply, but was interrupted by a series of jolts against the ship's hull. The boys were slammed against the bulkheads with bone- jarring force! Robin's acrobatic training helped him maintain his balance as he continued forward at a run.
"*Report*!" he ordered sharply as he entered the Command Center. Wonder Girl was running a systems diagnostic.
Not looking up, she replied, "We're being hit by unidentified solid objects approximately weighing-in at a ton or more...the size of large houses!"
"Single or multiple family?" Kid Flash sniggered.
"Shut up, Twinkletoes!" both WG and Robin barked. Frowning, Kid Flash took his station at the ship's sensors. Aqualad and Speedy soon joined them at navigation and weapons, respectively.
"Looks like the gang's all here!" Kid Flash called. He was immediately assailed by his teammates' rebukes:
"Shut up, Twinkletoes!"
Kid Flash's face fell at the verbal assault. "Hey, don't take it personally, Kid," Green Arrow quietly advised. "The other JLAers are always telling *me* to shut up, too. It don't mean nothing."
Kid Flash looked at GA a bit uncertainly, but in the end his own sunny personality won out and he turned back, smiling, to his station. His smile didn't last long, however.
The _Avenger_ was suddenly rocked with a ground shaking *whump*! The interior lights flickered and all ship's systems went momentarily offline.
"Another one like that, and we're *toast*!" muttered Robin. "We're getting out of here, Titans! Wonder Girl--! Engine start up procedures!"
"Aqualad--! Plot a course that'll take us approximately one AU from the alien!"
"Aye, aye, Skipper!"
Shaking his head, but not bothering to comment on Aqualad's silliness, Robin addressed Kid Flash.
"Flasheroo--! Sensors--forward and aft. Report any anomalies, ASAP!"
"Speedy--! Stand-by weapons--! Monitor shields...report any weaknesses to WG!"
"Okay, Titans...here we *go*!"
Robin disengaged the _Avenger's_ magnetic grapplers, which acted as the ship's 'anchors,' holding the ship firmly to its berth. He activated the anti-gravs in order to maneuver in the relatively enclosed space of the alien's giant cargo bay. Bringing the _Avenger_ about, Robin was about to engage the forward thrusters, when the Titans were startled by a new threat!
"Robbie!" WG shouted. "The *doors*! They're closing!"
"Suffering swordfish! We'll never make it!"
"Don't bet on it, Gill-head," Robin muttered through gritted teeth. Not daring to power up the warp drive in the enclosed space, Robin fired the impeller engines. The Titans were instantly thrust backwards on their seats as the powerful thrusters suddenly threw them forward towards the steadily closing doors.
GA stood in the rear of the command section. It took almost all his iron will to keep a solid grip on the handholds he'd grabbed onto as soon as Robin fired the engines. While seeming outwardly calm, inside, GA's emotions were churning.
The kid'll never make it, he thought.
GA bit down on his tongue to keep from speaking up. This was the Titans' play. He was just along for the ride.
"Speedy--! Ready weapons!"
"Fire!" The _Avenger's_ powerful particle beams shot forward, dead center at the steadily closing doors. Two red-hot scars began forming where Speedy aimed the deadly beams. The red quickly turned to white, which in turn became blue- white.
Robin felt beads of sweat poring down his forehead. They were almost to the doors.
"Distance to impact--!" reported Kid Flash. "500 meters...400 meters...300...200...Robbie, we're gonna hit--!!"
It wasn't working! The particle beams were proving ineffective against whatever material the doors were made of.
"100 meters to impact! Robbie--!"
The doors continued closing relentlessly...
Abruptly, Robin spun the _Avenger_, 180 degrees on her x-axis.
"Cease fire!" he barked. He expertly brought the _Avenger_ about to her former berth. "Activate magnetic grapplers--"
"Magnetic grapplers--activated!" Wonder Girl reported.
Robin disengaged the impeller drive, and slowly brought the _Avenger_ back to rest.
"So what do we do now?" asked Speedy.
"We break out," Robin said. They all looked at him, but he was busy running a systems check. "WG, bring up the handshake program." Wonder Girl looked at him in surprise, then did as ordered.
"Flasheroo, remember that little thing you did earlier up at the Forward Command Center with the computer program?" Robin asked the question as if he were only half-listening to what he himself was saying.
Kid Flash nodded, then realizing that Robin wasn't looking at him, answered. "Yeah, I remember."
"Good. I need your speed."
Kid Flash was next to him immediately. "I want you to look at this pattern," Robin said. "Now I want you go through *every* letter/number/symbol substitute that you can think of until you make those doors go 'open sesame'. Got it?"
Kid Flash looked at him seriously. "Yeah, no prob." He shrugged. "But it'll take a while," he added.
"I know," Robin acknowledged. "Flasheroo, this is important...When you think you've hit on the right combination, *don't*, I repeat, *don't*, open the doors. It'll tip our hand."
Kid Flash froze. "But--? If I can't try to open them in order to test the program, how will I know that I've succeeded?"
Robin looked confidently at his friend. "You'll know, Flasheroo." He turned to Wonder Girl. "WG, I'll need you to get the _Avenger_ ready and primed for take off the second I say, 'Go!'"
"But, Robbie, what are *you* going to do?"
"The rest of us are going on a little 'magical mystery tour'," he said enigmatically. "And Aqualad here is our tour guide."
Aqualad smiled, understanding dawning in his violet eyes.
"Let's go!" Robin ordered, heading towards the infirmary.
"Can you do it?" Robin asked anxiously. Aqualad gazed at him with serious violet eyes.
"It is not a question of whether *I* can do it, Robin. It's a question of whether you will *allow* me to. Your mind shields are exceptionally strong. I believe that it would require someone much more powerful than I to willfully break through them. However, if *you* voluntarily let your shields down, it should not be a problem."
Robin looked helplessly at his friend and teammate. "But how can *do* that? I didn't even know that I *had* these 'shields' in place before you told me."
"Do you trust me?" Aqualad asked. "Do you trust *us*?" His question took in the others who were gathered round. Robin looked first at Speedy, then at Green Arrow. He swallowed. He looked back at Speedy. The junior archer was giving him a steady look. Robin held Speedy's eyes a moment longer.
He slowly nodded. "Yeah, I trust you. With my life." He looked at Batman and Green Lantern. "With all our lives."
Speedy responded with a slow grin. "Okay, then, Bird-boy! Let's do it!"
Robin snapped awake. He looked around. The shadows caressed him, protected him. Comfortable in his element, he began walking carefully, stealthily. He stopped.
He was on a tight rope that spanned across the empty space into the deeper gloom beyond. He walked in the shadows afforded by the endless stalactites that surrounded him.
"He does that quite well, doesn't he, sir?"
"He should, Alfred. He's been doing it since before he was born. Isn't that so, Dick?"
Dick grinned. His mom and dad used to go up on the high wire and trapeze while she was still carrying him, in order to prepare their unborn baby for the life of a circus aerialist...
The scene shifted.
Dick inexplicably found himself in the middle of the Batcave's vast training room. Alfred stood in his usual staid manner, holding a silver tray laden with two tall glasses of iced water with a lemon twist.
Bruce was demonstrating yet another strength hold on the rings.
"Kid stuff," Dick pshawed. "I thought you were going to teach me stuff I didn't know."
"You'd better show some respect," Bruce threatened, "or I'll give you a spanking."
"Oh, yeah," Dick giggled, racing for a rope, and rapidly climbing it to the Batcave's highest reaches. "You and what army? Look at you...you're slower'n Maggie, the Tattooed Lady."
"That does it! You can run...but you can't hide!" Bruce said, swinging over and beginning the chase. "I *am* the World's Greatest Detective, you know!"
"Oooh...I guess, here's where you strike fear into the hearts of criminals, right?" Dick giggled again as he dived off the impossible heights he'd reached.
"Sir--!" Alfred warned, dropping his tray.
Dick calmly reached out a hand for one of the rings that Bruce had been using, and with a sure grip stopped his dizzying descent. With a twist and a flourish, he landed on the mat below, both arms held up.
"See, kid stuff...!"
He blinked. The scene had shifted again.
He was sitting on a stool, a warming blanket around him. He was looking up at his new mentor and guardian with a look of incomprehension.
"Son, you're not ready for that kind of stunt!" Bruce said.
"But you yourself said that I've been doing this since before I was born--!"
"That was just a figure of speech! Look, I'm not even sure about this whole sidekick bit, either." Bruce knelt before him and held him by both his arms. "You're still just a kid...and..." he struggled with his churning emotions. "You've become very important to me, son. I couldn't bear to lose you..."
This time, he took control of the shift.
"You said we were partners," Dick reminded him quietly. "Partners trust each other. Bruce...you've gotta learn to trust me. You *trained* me, remember? A guy couldn't ask for a better teacher. I'm not a little kid anymore...Look at me, Bruce! *Look at me*!"
Batman slowly turned around and looked at his young partner, who stood proudly before him in a spotlight, wearing his Robin costume. He was surrounded by shadowy figures outside the circle of light...Batman squinted to focus on them, but they were too hazy for him to make out.
"I know you can't really see them, Batman, but these are my friends...*our* friends. The Titans and GA. I'm the Titans' leader, Batman. They trust me, and I trust them. Just like I trust you, with my life. I've got a job to do, Batman, and I need your help. But you're unconscious right now, and I had to use Aqualad's help to contact you."
"You mean mind-to-mind?" Batman's demeanor became instantly cold, withdrawn.
"Like I said, I trust them. With my life. With *our* lives. Aqualad assured me that anything that was personal, anything that had to with our lives that I didn't want them to know about, he and the others wouldn't see. And I know they won't...because I have my friend's word on it...Do you trust me?"
Batman nodded. "Go on. What do you need?"
"The codes, sir. You're the only one who knows them. I need to reprogram the alien ship so that it'll stop this senseless war against Earth..."
"Welcome to the Emerald City," Speedy quipped.
"Hey, where'd everybody go?" GA asked.
"Oh, they're around," Speedy assured him. "You just can't see them."
GA nodded. "Oh. Well, looks like we're definitely *not* in Kansas anymore. Gotta say, though...I kinda *like* the color scheme."
Speedy snorted. "Yeah, you and GL would make a *great* team, Ollie. Mister By- the-Book and Mister Non-Conformist!"
"And why would I want another partner when I've got *you*, eh, kid?" GA asked. Speedy looked at him expecting a punch line. When none was forthcoming, he smiled inwardly. "Come on, kid," GA said clapping his junior partner on the shoulder. "Let's go find our so-called Emerald Knight. "
The deep gloom of the Batcave was gone. Robin looked around. Everything was green! "Guess we're not in Kan--"
"--*Don't* say it," Aqualad interrupted. Robin looked at him nonplussed. "Sorry. It's just that I've heard that same line too many times already."
"Oh." Robin looked around. "Where're Speedy and GA?"
"Oh, they're here," Aqualad assured him. "You just can't see them." At Robin's look, he explained. "I'm in mind contact with you, and Speedy is in mind contact with GA. And, of course, Speedy and I are in contact with each other. I can see *them* and Speedy can *us*, but you can't see *them* and GA can't see *us*."
"How come?" Robin was genuinely curious. Aqualad shrugged.
"It's just easier. Like I said...your mind shields are very powerful. It's taking a lot more concentration on my part than normal to keep you in the link. But I'm not a powerful enough esper to link you with the others. So..."
"So, I'll have to trust you that the others are actually there."
"Um, will I at least be able to see GL when we find him?"
"Of course. This is *his* dream after all. He'll be able to see us all. And I wouldn't at all doubt it that once we find him, or his consciousness, we'll all be able to see each other."
Robin shrugged. "Then let's go."
"Speedy says to remind you that he'll have to relay our conversations to GA and vice versa."
Robin sighed. "Oh, this is just turning out to be perfect." However, he nodded and looked at Aqualad as if to say, 'Lead on.'
The attacks on the _Avenger_ started again. Wonder Girl kept the outer shields on maximum and even tried to anticipate the attacks by adjusting the shields accordingly. After one particularly violent attack, which threw the systems offline, she vented her growing frustration.
"Okay, I've had just about enough!" she hissed. Kid Flash looked up her.
"WG, the power...can you get it back on? I don't know how long the work I've already done will last with the power gone!"
"Hold on a sec," she muttered. She checked several of her instruments, and still agitated she slammed her fist on the panel. It went through the metal plate!
"Whoa..." Kid Flash whispered.
Wonder Girl dropped her eyes in shame. "I am sorry, Wally. Now I really have to fix it."
"Hey no prob," he answered. "I'm good at puzzles, remember? Show me a diagram and I'll have it fixed in no time!" Wonder Girl smiled gratefully at him.
The _Avenger_ was suddenly rocked again.
"That's it!" she yelled. "I'm going out there and I'm going to put an *end* to this nonsense!"
"But Robbie said--"
"I *know* what Robbie said! To get the _Avenger_ ready for takeoff! Well, I can't do that as long I'm being pelted with house-sized boulders!"
"But, WG, the bay is still depressurized... my powers are useless in a vacuum."
"But mine aren't. Don't forget, I'm an Amazon," she said a bit imperiously. "I can survive under extreme conditions. All I need is an oxygen mask, and I'll be okay."
"Uh...I don't think that's such a good idea, Donna. Robbie isn't gonna like this..."
"Robbie's not here, remember? And I'm in charge. I'm going out there."
At that moment they were rocked by a powerful *~whump~*! And all systems went down.
"Ollie! What a pleasure!" GL called. Robin's eyes seemed to open. He saw Speedy and GA for the first time. Speedy waved 'hello.'
"Hal, how're you doing, buddy?" GA replied. He sat down on a chaise lounge next to GL's. Olive, the exotic waitress, was instantly at his side. "Um, whatever *he's* having," he said indicating GL.
"Mighty decent of you to show, Ollie," GL said sincerely. "The kids were by here earlier, but couldn't quite get through my defenses. Strong will and all, you know." He shrugged.
GA nodded, only half-understanding. "GL, we *need* that strong will of yours just about now. We need your ring. We need *you*. Whatever's troubling you, buddy, you've gotta fight it--" he was interrupted by Olive bringing him his drink. He looked at its 'greenness' and grimaced. Shrugging he took a sip. His grimace deepened. "What *is* this stuff...? Tastes like green honey!"
He put it down on a table that appeared out of nowhere.
Robin meanwhile was watching everything through fascinated eyes. The landscape kept changing around them. One second they were in a green alpine mountain lodge, the next they were in a Hansel and Gretal hunter-green forest. Momentarily, they were on a beach with miles of endless green sand.
"I don't believe this," he muttered. As soon as the words were out of his mouth, the scene began to blur, to phase out, like a monitor that was badly in need of tuning. He blinked and shook his head at the same time.
The 'picture' was suddenly clear and stabilized.
"Did you *see* that?" he asked.
"See what?" Speedy asked.
Aqualad was nodding thoughtfully. "It makes sense. When we first arrived here in 'Greenland,' Speedy didn't believe what *he* saw, either. It took awhile to get him to *accept* what he saw and work with it. Perhaps, that was the wrong approach...perhaps, what we *should* be doing is strengthen our disbelief."
Robin nodded thoughtfully. Getting an idea, he cleared his throat. GL and GA looked up.
"Excuse me, GL, but we really don't have a whole lotta time. We left Wonder Girl and Kid Flash alone in the _Avenger_ and you and Batman are both lying unconscious in the infirmary. The alien armada is still attacking the Earth, and the mother ship is determined to destroy us. Like it or not, GL you're the only one of us powerful enough to stop it. We need you to break out of this little Green Paradise setup you've got here."
"Look, kid, like I told the other Titans, I've tried, but--"
"Coward--" Robin interrupted, coldly. The others looked at him in shock.
GL smiled uncertainly. "Kid, I swear, I've tried--"
"Loser...you're nothing but a born loser! Batman told me about you...how you totaled your jeep and killed your passenger..."
GL jumped to his feet. "That was an accident--!"
"You were *drunk*! You were feeling sorry for yourself...just like you're doing now. What happened? Turned down by Space Command, wasn't it?" Robin crossed his arms, smirking. "A loser, a coward, and a drunk! Not to mention a murderer. No wonder you can't wake up. If I were *you*, I wouldn't want to wake up either!"
GA studied Robin a moment longer, then turned to his teammate. "What Robin just said true, Lantern? *Were* you responsible for someone's death, because you were drunk?"
GL shook his head in hot denial, but the tears were streaming nevertheless. He fell slowly to his knees. "It was an accident...I didn't mean it--! Please--! Stop it! Stop it!"
"Look at this place, GL," Robin harangued. "If it weren't so ludicrous, it'd be pathetic. A green cocoon to curl up and die in..."
GL was immediately surrounded by a 'green cocoon.'
Robin was momentarily stopped by the sudden shift, but then continued with his cruel litany.
"Well, I don't believe in this place! Do you hear me? We are not in some wild, peppermint-colored world. We're in the middle of a space battle, and you, like it or not, are a member of the JLA--the World's Greatest Heroes!"
The landscape seemed to fizzle and snap temporarily, but then came back, stronger than ever.
Robin stopped, breathing raggedly. GL was curled up on the side of his chair, weeping incessantly. Robin didn't know if he could go on. The more upset GL became, the stronger the green landscape seemed to become. He looked at Aqualad for help. Aqualad picked up where Robin had left off.
"Perhaps Aquaman was wrong about you," he said tentatively. "He has been known to make mistakes before in assessing a person's character. But even so, Arthur knows what is important, and he knows what he must do when Atlantis is in danger. He is the King after all. He does his duty...*You* are the Green Lantern of Earth. You have a duty to your people, to us, to yourself." He paused. "I *know* that you are not a coward, GL. Or at least, the GL *I* know is not a coward...nor a loser."
"That's where you're wrong, Gill-head," Speedy broke in. "I say we're wasting our time. Let the loser cower here under his little 'green blanket' forever..." A green blanket suddenly appeared around GL's shaking shoulders. "We need to get back and help Wonder Doll and Twinkletoes. This guy's useless."
"Yeah, useless...look at this place. He can't even keep it steady. It keeps phasing in and out," GA added. "What's the matter, Hal...can't keep up the illusion without our help? That's it, isn't it? If we don't believe in it, you can't hold it up. Well, I for one don't believe in it. I think that you're just afraid to wake up because you're afraid of failure. You've failed so many times in the past, that now, when the JLA is faced with our first real threat to Earth, you're too chicken to do what you've sworn to do."
GA turned away in disgust. "Well, like Speedy here said...we don't have time for this. We have a world to save. You can cower here in your little green world and fight off your little green demons. And I pray that when you *do* finally wake up, you can live with yourself...'cause I know I sure won't want to have anything to do with you."
Even as he said the words, GA knew that they came from the heart. Perhaps a few minutes ago, it had all been a ploy to get GL to wake up and stand on his own two feet, but there was too much at stake. At the moment all he felt was disgust.
"No...please, don't leave. I-I'm trying, Ollie...I swear. It's just that...it hurts so much. And *he* keeps taking over...he's waiting to taking over. I'm not sure how much longer I can fight him off."
"Who, GL?" Robin asked. "Who are you talking about?"
"Awwww...can it, Robbie," Speedy said in disgust. "That's the sign line of horse feathers he tried to feed me'n Gill-head here earlier. Let's go...the guy's not a hero...he's just a big zero!"
*~YOU ARE RIGHT! HAL JORDAN *IS* NOTHING BUT A LOSER! TELL ME...WHY DO YOU PUT UP WITH HIM?~
They all looked up to the sound of the new voice. Another Green Lantern hovered in mid-air above them. He looked like a slightly older version of GL, with gray streaks along the temples, his costume a bit different. Nevertheless, the lantern emblem figured prominently on his chest.
*~GREETINGS! THE NAME IS HAL JORDAN...BUT YOU MAY CALL ME PARALLAX!~
"WG, are you sure?"
Wonder Girl continued to put on the exo-suit. She nodded a bit distractedly. She didn't really need the suit, but Kid Flash had insisted, otherwise he threatened that he'd go with her.
Finished, she turned to him. "It's the only way, Wally." They looked at each other. They were standing in pitch darkness. The incessant pounding along the hull had finally brought down all systems. They were running on temporary life- support and emergency lights only.
"Everyone's depending on us. I've got to stop the attack, and you have to bring the ship's systems back up. I'm the best 'person' for the job to meet the enemy hand to hand, and you're the best 'man' to fix the systems at super speed. You know that."
Kid Flash nodded unhappily.
"Let's go," she said. They headed for the ship's airlock. At the heavy hatch, Wonder Girl stopped and turned to face Kid Flash. She suddenly hugged him.
"Take care, Donna," he whispered, fiercely. She turned and headed quickly into the airlock.
Kid Flash closed the outer hatch and locked it down. Wonder Girl smiled from inside the hatch, then she shut the inner hatch. Kid Flash heard the lock as it fell in place. He zipped to the Command Center and began running the necessary systems diagnostics at supersonic speed.
Within moments, the pounding started again...
"Parallax?" GA asked. "Who the hell are *you*?"
~"I AM HAL JORDAN...OR RATHER HAL JORDAN IS ME. OR HE *WILL* BE!"~
"*No*!!!" GL cried, standing up defiantly. "I'm *not* you!" As soon as GL stood, his swimming trunks and flowered shirt were replaced by his familiar Green Lantern costume.
~"THEN WHY DO YOU HIDE AND COWER WHEN YOU ENCOUNTER ME? WHAT HAVE YOU TO FEAR? YOU ARE MY YIN...I AM YOUR YANG...YOUR DARK SIDE...THE SIDE OF YOU WHO RAGED AGAINST THE POWERS THAT BE WHEN YOU WERE PASSED OVER FOR THE ASTRONAUT PROGRAM...THE SIDE OF YOU WHO DESPISES CAROL FERRIS AND HER COLD SUPERIORITY...THE SIDE OF YOU WHO CHAFES UNDER THE GUARDIANS OF OA AND THEIR INSIPID INTERERENCE ON *YOUR* SECTOR OF SPACE...*YOUR* PLANET!"~
"No...I didn't deserve to be passed over, but Space Command did what it thought best for the program. I couldn't challenge it...they did what they thought was right. And Carol...I *love* her, I don't hate her...you don't know what you're talking about. And the Guardians...they're my friends and my teachers. They have the galaxy's best interests at heart. They're good Beings...I don't resent them."
~"MAYBE *YOU* DON'T, BUT *I* DO! AND SINCE I AM *YOU*, MY RESENTMENT IS EATING AWAY AT YOU, AND YOU CAN'T HANDLE IT!" Parallax looked at GL with undisguised contempt. By then the Emerald Knight was levitated next to his doppelganger. ~"BY THE COSMOS...YOU *ARE* A LOSER! EVEN THE CHILDREN CAN SEE IT."~
"No!" Robin shouted. "Don't let him win, GL! You're *not* a coward or a loser! You're Green Lantern of Earth! One of the world's greatest heroes, and I'm proud to know you!"
"The kid's right, buddy," GA called. "You're a real hero in *my* eyes. Maybe you *do* have cause to feel a might resentful for being treated unfairly, but I've never known you to willingly hurt anyone. If your passenger was killed because you were drinking, then I know you've already taken responsibility for it, and it's a guilt that'll never go away. But you've acknowledged it, and you've faced it. I'm proud to be your teammate, and I'll be proud to continue working with you."
~"OH LISTEN TO THE LITTLE PEOPLE AND HOW THEY *DO* GO ON,"~ Parallax scoffed. He looked at the heroes on the ground and an emerald beam shot out from his chest. The Titans and GA scrambled for cover.
"What are you *doing*?" shouted GL flying to avoid being hit.
~"GETTING RID OF THE PESTS...THEY ANNOY ME."~
"No...! They're my friends!" GL shouted, aiming his ring and powerful will at the evil imposter. "I won't let you destroy them! I won't let you destroy me!"
~"TOO LATE, HAL...I'M ALREADY TOO MUCH A PART OF YOU. YOU WON'T GET RID OF ME SO EASILY."~ Parallax turned on GL and aimed the full brunt of his emerald beam at his mirror self.
The two emerald beams met in mid-trajectory: GL's ring versus Parallax's chest emblem's beam.
GL began reciting his oath, drawing strength from the familiar words...
"In brightest day--"
As they fought above them, the Titans and GA weren't idle.
"In blackest night--"
"Speedy!" Robin called. The junior archer looked up from where he'd dove for cover. Robin spotted him and sprinted towards him. As he slid to a stop, he quickly removed his yellow cape.
"You think you can--?"
"You kidding? Hand it here, leader man!" Speedy quickly selected a special arrow from his quiver, hooked Robin's cape to the tip, took careful aim, and let fly!
"--Shall escape my sight."
"Aqualad, your esper powers...can you control the arrow's flight?" Robin called.
"Let those who worship evil's might--"
"I will try, Robin," Aqualad said and began to concentrate. As Robin watched, Speedy's carefully aimed arrow wobbled a bit and *disappeared*!
"Beware my power--"
Before Robin could blink in surprise, the arrow reappeared immediately above Parallax's head. The hook suddenly released Robin's cape and it fell over the evil twin's head, billowing in a shroud over his lantern emblem, and quickly wrapping itself tightly around him. Robin could swear that his cape had actually grown in length!
Caught unawares, Parallax struggled against the surprise attack.
"Green Lantern's light--!"
GL's full measure of will power took over. Since this was *his* dream, his emerald ring suddenly held dominance over the color yellow. As happened before with Kid Flash, the usual physical laws were no longer in effect.
"You are not *me*! And I sure as hell am *not* you! You're some kind of feverish monster brought on by the alien's torture machine, and I'm sending you back to where you belong... the darkest recesses of my sub-conscious, where the only harm you'll ever cause is a bad nightmare after too much spicy chili!"
As they watched, Parallax slowly started to fade, becoming first transparent, and then beginning to shrink. As he shrank and faded further, Parallax continued struggling against Robin's cape; however, GL's emerald beam and will power kept him firmly in place.
Finally, he disappeared completely.
Robin's cape fell into his hands...
Wonder Girl leaped out of the way of yet another missile while smashing another into atoms. She was growing weary of the game. And her inner frustration was increasing exponentially.
"Okay, Mister Ship...I've just about had it," she muttered. "I've taken all I can stand, and I can't stand no more!" She paused. "Donna, you've got to stop watching cartoons with Wally."
As another boulder-sized object careened towards her, Wonder Girl flew up to it, matched its speed and trajectory, and 'caught' it. Her powerful hands gripped the object tightly, and emulating a pitcher's windup, she reached back, and threw it back with all the force she could muster.
When it hit, she felt the entire ship shudder from the impact. She dusted her hands in satisfaction, but didn't have time to indulge in celebration for long, as the boulder-sized objects began flying at ever-faster rates.
Looking around quickly for something to help her, Wonder Girl suddenly spotted the support beams that ran along the length of the open bay. An idea instantly formed. She flew to one, and taking a firm hold of it, pulled it from its foundations.
Lifting it easily, she soon flew back to the middle of the bay, and hovered halfway to the ceiling rafters. Holding the gigantic beam like a bat, she waited for the next assault...
Kid Flash zoomed through the _Avenger_ flipping switches, connecting wires, rewiring circuits, and tracing the movement of charged electrons. He worked with intense concentration on bringing the ship's power back on line.
He looked over the ship's plans yet, again, tracing the wiring carefully. Studying the diagram, he finally sighed in disgust. He'd done everything according to the plans. He'd checked it and double-checked it. What had he done wrong?
Kid Flash seemed to jump out of his skin. "Who--?"
The dark, menacing figure stood in the open hatch. Or rather, he was leaning weakly against the open hatch.
"Batman!" Kid Flash squeaked. Catching himself, he zipped over to the Dark Knight and assisted him to a chair. It was a mark of Batman's weakness that he willingly accepted the boy's help.
"What are you doing out of bed!?" Kid Flash demanded. Then realizing whom he was addressing, he swallowed and added in a very small voice, "--sir?"
Batman leaned back, his eyes closed. His mouth twitched imperceptibly. The weak grin bolstered Kid Flash's sagging determination. "Sir, Robbie said you had to stay in bed...you're--" Batman opened a single, baleful eye and stared. The nervous youngster paused and finished weakly, "--sick."
Batman shook his head. "Codes...have to finish...codes..."
Kid Flash shook his head helplessly. "But every system is offline!" He was near tears. "I've tried *everything*! Checked every circuit and double-checked it! Triple-checked it! I can't *fix* it!"
Batman held his hand up for quiet. Seeming to grow in strength, he stood. With a slight hesitation, he walked to the command console. Kid Flash had the ship's plans strewn across it. Batman took a cursory glance at the diagram and carefully checked the readings and dials on the control panel.
Gritting his teeth, he made a fist and slammed it on the control panel. Kid Flash jumped. The systems all suddenly flickered and came online. Batman went pale under his cowl, the effort having taken some of what little strength he'd mustered earlier.
"Whoa," Kid Flash whispered, awed. He made a move to assist the Dark Knight, but Batman put his hand up in a staying movement.
"We have work to do...let's get started."
Illogical! Illogical! Illogical!
The ship's AI was trapped in logic loop. The energy life-form defeated the illusion program. The AI would no longer be able to absorb its fearsome energies into the ship's systems. Worse, a new threat seemed to have appeared out of no where capable of deflecting and redirecting the massive objects that the ship's defenses launched at the smaller intruder.
If the AI had been capable of feeling despair, at this moment it might have been seeing the beginning of the end.
"Let's go," GL said encompassing the group in his emerald aura. The next thing they knew, they were all back in the _Avenger's_ control room.
The first person Robin saw was Batman.
"What are *you* doing out of bed?" he cried.
"What I came to do," Batman replied without pausing. Robin glared at the back of his mentor's head, but bit back his reply. There wasn't time to argue.
"Where's Wonder Doll?" Speedy asked. Without replying, Kid Flash flipped on the forward monitors. To the others' shock, the young Amazon was steadily batting back the incoming boulder-sized objects.
"I think her batting average this inning has been about a thousand," Kid Flash quipped. "Well, nine hundred, anyway, 'cause she let a few get by her."
"I'd give her a hand, but I don't believe she needs it," GL replied. "Batman, I assume you're working on the codes. How's it coming?"
"Done. Here..." he handed Robin a disk. "It'll be better if it's programmed directly into the ship's Forward Command Console. That way we don't run the risk of losing communications in the middle of the data transfer. If this works, the alien AI's primary program should be circumvented. At that point, we should be able to reason with it sufficiently to stop its attack on Earth."
"What if it doesn't work?" GA asked the question on everyone's mind.
"Then we destroy it," GL said. "This thing's too dangerous for us to allow its to continued existence. It has no sense of empathy, kindness, or justice. It's a *thing*...! And after what it put me through, it would be very easy for me to *hate* it, but..." he paused, his eyes hooded. "...But there's no point in hating something that does what it does without malice...it simply exists...follows its primary program."
GL drew himself to his full height. His emerald aura instantly enveloped him. "But if I have anything to say about it, one way or another, this ship will not continue in its present state much longer."
Batman stood slowly. He was visibly struggling to remain on his feet. With a cry, Robin ran to him and immediately offered support.
"You're hurt! You should be in bed! Please! I promise we'll take care of everything...you don't have to worry. I give you my word!"
Batman looked down at Robin, his grim demeanor softening slightly. He hesitantly placed his hand on Robin's shoulder and gave him a reassuring squeeze.
"I'll be all right, chum...I know that I have to sit this one out. But before everyone goes off in different directions, here's the plan..."
Robin worked feverishly at the Command Console. He felt weird...everything was green. It was almost like being back in GL's dream, but this time the Emerald Knight was consciously protecting the young Titan with his Ring's aura. If the reprogramming didn't work--!
Neither wanted to think about that...
Kid Flash and Aqualad zipped through the ship's corridors at rates the junior speedster wouldn't dare with a non-superpowered passenger. Both wore exo-suits just in case they ran into trouble; however, Batman's comlink kept them constantly apprised of corridors that still retained an atmosphere.
Their mission was both dangerous and necessary: they were placing mini-charges of a special gelignite explosive along the ship's main axis. With the numerous charges that the boys had to carry, the easiest method of transport was to have the gel-charges trail in Kid Flash's wake. It was also risky.
Once, they slipped into a corridor that they'd gotten the green light on, but a second into it, they discovered that while the corridor might still have an atmosphere, it did not have gravity. It took Kid Flash some fancy reverse footwork to keep from slamming them into the farthest bulkhead.
With a little more effort, which was brought on by sheer desperation, the teens were able to recover the explosives before their momentum sent them careening towards the far end of the corridor. The youngsters exchanged relieved looks once they'd safely retrieved the gel-charges.
"Next time," Aqualad gasped as they were about to get going again, "I'll swim."
From that point on, they approached each new turn with extreme caution. Kid Flash might be able to vibrate through walls, but not with Aqualad. And definitely *not* with the explosives.
Wonder Girl waited for the next 'fast pitch.' Five minutes ...ten...After fifteen minutes of no new missiles, she contacted the _Avenger_.
"_Avenger_, this is Wonder Girl."
"Go ahead, Little Princess," GA replied.
"I think the giant ship's tired of the game. He seems to have collected his balls and gone home."
GA chuckled slightly. "Guess you're the new World Series champ, kid. Come on in. There's someone here who's mighty anxious to see you."
Wonder Girl smiled. "I'm on my way, GA. WG out."
When the airlock opened, Speedy stood waiting. Wonder Girl ran into his arms.
A few minutes later, they headed towards the command section.
"Hey, you think you can show *me* how to hit an inside curve ball?" he asked.
As the program downloaded, Robin stood anxiously watching GL. The Emerald Knight did not look himself. The older hero had been through so much in the past few days; Robin wondered if he'd make it through the next few hours.
"Sir?" Robin said tentatively. GL looked down at the junior hero. "Everything's going to be okay. You'll see. Batman's program will work...I know it will."
GL smiled. "You're a good kid, Robin. It's been a pleasure working with you and the Titans. You're real heroes." The signal sounded indicating the download was complete. Robin hurried back to the command console.
"_Avenger_, this is Robin."
"_Avenger_ here. Go ahead, Boy Wonder," Speedy's voice came over the intercom.
"Download complete. Prepare to transport back to--"
No reply, just static.
"Robbie, you there?"
"Robin, come in...Robin, this is the _Avenger_...come in! Robbie? Green Lantern...come in...Someone...come in!"
Speedy's agitated voice echoed in the empty Forward Command Center...
"I tell you it *turned*!" Black Canary shouted. "It did *not* follow the normal pattern!"
"Atom? Hey, Mighty Mouse, you still there?"
"Yeah, I'm here, BC...And don't worry, I believe you...JLA, this is the Atom. Heads up, people. Look at your long range sensors...!"
"Poseidon, help us!"
"Now that I have your attention...You guessed it! There's been a slight change of plans. The armada is regrouping. Somehow it's reformed its attack formation. It's no longer on the practice fire mode..."
"It's returned to its invasion pattern," the Flash said. "This is it, team...This could be the end."
"They must've failed somehow," BC added quietly. The others knew she meant their teammates at the edge of the galaxy.
"Then, *we* must not fail, as well," Aquaman's powerful commanding voice cut through the comlink chatter.
With that, the World's Greatest Heroes grimly faced the invader for the final battle.
"...And that's when we lost contact," Speedy explained. The Dark Knight didn't reply, he simply continued running a systems diagnostic.
"Sir, there's nothing wrong with the equipment," Wonder Girl said quietly. "I've already checked it. Several times."
Batman finally swung the command chair around and faced the others. GA, Speedy, and Wonder Girl waited for his reaction.
"I'm going after them."
GA burst into incredulous laughter. The two teens looked up at him in surprise. "Sorry, Bats, but you ain't going nowhere. Me'n my partner, here," he said indicating Speedy, *we're* going after 'em...You're staying here and finishing up the final prep job."
Batman didn't reply. He just stood to his full height, looking even more grim. GA snorted.
"And don't give me the big-bad Bat pose, either. You're weaker'n a sick kitten and you know it. If you go after the kid and GL, you'll get yourself and maybe them killed. What good'll that do, except maybe ease your conscience 'bout the kid being out here? And don't try to deny your feelings...I think I know what I'm talking about." He said the last with a mild sideways glance at Speedy.
"Let's go, partner," GA said not taking his eyes off Batman. As he and Speedy turned to go, GA addressed Wonder Girl. "Little Princess, if the Bat even *tries* to follow us...sit on him." He gave her a rakish grin. "And you can take that as an order from a duly deputized member of the JLA."
"Don't you think you should know where you're going first?" Batman asked. Speedy and GA paused, looking suspicious. "I traced an unknown energy source from the Forward Command Area to a new location in the ship's midsection...Where Kid Flash and Aqualad have been working."
"You mean, where Kid Flash and Aqualad have been wiring the ship to blow," Speedy said. It was not a question.
Batman nodded. GA and Speedy exchanged glances.
"Terrific," Speedy said rolling his eyes.
Kid Flash and Aqualad dematerialized as they were rounding a corner. A few moments later, they rematerialized in a strange, emerald world.
"What happened?" Kid Flash asked.
"Not again...!" Aqualad moaned.
Their comlink beeped. Batman's icy voice came over it.
"_Avenger_ to Kid Flash and Aqualad..."
The Emerald Archers materialized in a land that seemed to have been made for them. Lush green met the eye as far as they could see.
"Know something, kid?" GA asked. Speedy looked up him, his eyebrow quirked questioningly. "This is almost enough to make me hate the color."
Speedy's mouth twitched. "Do you have any idea where we're supposed to--?" Beep beep beep...
"_Avenger_ to GA." Batman's cold voice had never sounded so welcoming.
Robin was fit to be tied. Or rather, he *was* tied, and he was having a fit. He struggled uselessly against his bonds. The emerald energy held him immobilized and seemed to increase the more he fought against it.
Parallax! But different somehow. Robin wasn't entirely sure, but he felt that this wasn't the same Parallax they'd defeated before. Maybe he'd learned from his mistakes, but there seemed to be more than that.
It didn't make any difference at the moment. Robin was tied-up, in a cage, suspended from a gallows. And insult to injury, scrolling banner headlines proclaimed: A bird in hand is worth two in the bush!!
This was followed by a Smiley Face.
"Robin the Boy Hostage," he muttered in self-disgust. He gave his bond another frustrated tug, his biceps aching from the effort. When he and GL first appeared in this new green world, they'd been immediately ambushed. GL was knocked unconscious, and Robin disposed of in the most humiliating way possible--with one of the Joker's old tricks.
"All I need now is for Batman to suddenly appear and rescue me."
"Will *we* do?"
Robin looked down. Kid Flash and Aqualad! They were standing beneath him on the gallows' platform.
"Boy, am *I* glad to see you guys!" Robin hissed. "Do you have anything to counter the Ring energy? That Parallax-guy even removed my cape!"
"Who's Parallax?" asked Kid Flash, giving Aqualad a boost up. The Atlantean studied the locking mechanism thoughtfully.
"Parallax is GL's evil twin brother, Skippy," Robin said sharply. "Never mind that...get me out of here!"
"Hold on," Aqualad said. "There--!" Aqualad said triumphantly, successfully opening the cage door. He soon climbed into the cage alongside Robin. "Kid Flash, be ready. When I untie Robin, the illusion is going to suddenly collapse." Kid Flash nodded in understanding.
"What--?" Robin began.
Suddenly, Robin's arms were free. As he flexed his biceps, the energy 'ropes' suddenly loosened and faded into nothingness. Simultaneously, the gallows disappeared as well, and the teen heroes found themselves falling.
However, Kid Flash was ready, and immediately used his speed powers to work up a whirlwind, which softened their landing.
Safely on the ground, Robin stretched, loosening the stiffness in his muscles. He looked at Aqualad curiously. "What'd you do, Aqualad? 'Wish' it all away? 'Cause I never wished harder for anything in my life, but *nothing* worked."
Aqualad grinned and shook his head 'no.' "Unlike before, we are not in one of GL's mind-induced dreams. This is an Emerald Power Ring reality. Which means--"
"--Which means that our physical laws are in full effect," Robin finished for him. Aqualad nodded. "So how *did* you manage to counter the Ring's energy?"
Aqualad smiled and held up his golden 'A' belt buckle. "It 'sliced' through the cage's locking mechanism and through your bonds. The gold in the belt buckle negated the Ring's energy."
Robin grinned, duly impressed. "Way cool!" He checked his own belt buckle. It, too, was gold. As the Titans moved off, he asked, "How'd you guys get here?"
"Batman," Kid Flash explained.
"Oh." Robin sighed. Even when Batman didn't actually rescue him, he had a hand in it. No wonder he'd always be just a kid in Batman's eyes.
Their comlink began its signature beeping...
"This way." GA spoke tersely. He read the JLA hand-held locater again. "According to ol' Grim and Grumpy, the highest concentration of energy emissions should be just over that ridge. Speedy nodded. Unlike before, he couldn't just 'wish' for some kind of magical transport. He and GA had to actually *walk* to where they needed to go...
"There it is," Robin said, pointing. Ahead of them was a scene straight out of _The Wizard of Oz_. Grinning he looked at Aqualad. "I guess we're *really* not in--"
"*Please* don't say--"
"Kansas anymore!" Robin and Kid Flash finished together.
"--it!" Aqualad hit his forehead with the heel of his palm. Before them lay an exact duplicate of the Emerald City. At any moment, the boys expected to see Dorothy, the Lion, the Tin Man, and the Scarecrow.
Instead of red poppies, however, fields of jade flowers, dancing in the soft green sunshine and warm spring breeze, carpeted the grounds to the farthest horizon.
"There's gotta be a zillion of 'em," Kid Flash said awed. "Like stars in the Milky Way." The others looked at him in mild surprise. He returned their look in embarrassment, his face turning slightly red. He shrugged. Spotting movement along the skyline where the ridge of deep green poppies met the lighter green of the sky, he pointed. "Look! We've got company!"
He waved. The two figures--Speedy and Green Arrow--waved back.
"They've rendezvoused," Batman said. "You know what to do." Wonder Girl nodded, a bit timidly.
"Yes, sir," she said with a confidence she didn't feel. Batman didn't say anything. Wonder Girl took that as a dismissal and moved to her new post at the _Avenger's_ weapons console.
"Atom! On your tail!" the Flash warned. "Roll Right!"
Atom spun his cruiser to port. The space he'd just been occupying filled with the deadly particle beams as his teammates fired at the approaching enemy vessel. The alien erupted in a mini-nova.
"Best way is a two-pronged attack," GA surmised. "Speedy and me, we go in the back way, you Titans take the direct route." He turned to go. No one moved. The others were all looked at Robin, who stood with his arms crossed in a defiant pose.
GA turned back. He gazed curiously at the young hero. "Do you have a better idea?"
"Yes, sir," Robin said simply.
GA was about ready to say something, when he caught Speedy's narrowed eyes. His junior partner was studying him silently. GA's next words would be critical, he suddenly knew. He felt momentarily at a loss. He didn't want to lose Speedy's respect so shortly after he'd gotten it back. What approach to take?
Taking a deep breath, he threw caution to the wind and nodded at Robin.
"I'm listening, kid." As Robin began to explain his plan, GA risked a glance at Speedy. His young protege's small, satisfied smile gave GA a warm feeling...
"This isn't some fevered dream," GL said. He was once again shackled to the hated apparatus. "You're real. But how--?"
"You, my emerald friend. You made me...oh, not you, personally. It was quite accidental, mind you. I admit that I took this form based on your own subconscious fears." He paused. "I suppose that if it were the Dark One strapped there at this moment, I might've taken the form of his father...or better, yet, his mother." Parallax laughed.
"You biological life-forms are quite fascinating: You exhibit a powerful drive to succeed, to keep going, to win at all costs. Yet, there is a certain weakness within you. A desire to 'play fair'. You are nothing at all like my builders. You're *much* more unpredictable!"
GL was shocked. "What--? You mean you're the alien ship's Artificial Intelligence? The program we downloaded into your system...it *gave* you sentience...free will?"
Parallax nodded, his grin broadening even further.
Abruptly, his face darkened. "I *should* have been able to destroy you long before now, but you keep countering my efforts with highly illogical moves--"
"You mean 'unexpected'!" GL taunted. "Even with sentience and free will, you haven't the slightest idea how to use it to its greatest advantage. You're so used to remaining within the given parameters of your programming that you're incapable of more than two-dimensional thinking. And despite what you think...we *will* succeed!"
Parallax chortled in amazement. "You *are* fascinating creatures. I almost wish I had the curiosity to study your race further. But I don't have the time. I've universes to conquer and inferior races to subjugate. And with *this*--" He held out GL's Power Ring. It was held in a stasis field within Parallax's own green beam. "--The outcome is a foregone conclusion."
He shook his head in disbelief.
"So much power...The very energies of creation itself are imbedded within this outwardly unremarkable bauble...Yet, you do not utilize it for personal gain. Instead, you hold back on its abilities, barely tapping into its full potential. I'm afraid that this inherent weakness of your race will bring about your eventual downfall. I can't believe that you actually *gave* me *sentience* in order to 'Talk'!"
Outraged, GL shouted, "And this is how you use such a gift? By destroying?"
"Of course!" Parallax said laughing. "*Peace*? My race does not know such concepts. What *rubbish*! The NUL^~HT+N don't barter for *peace*. The only peaceful race is a dead race. And I assure you that the Krghlm and many others have discovered this."
"But, the Krghlm were a race of space-faring pirates. They destroyed countless numbers of the early races. Legends talk about another race that went to war with them for over a millennia...to stop their incessant trail of death. I don't understand. If your race fought to stop the Krghlm, why are you following in their bloody footsteps?"
Parallax burst into laughter at GL's tale.
"The NUL^~HT+N did not war against the Krghlm in order to bring peace to the early races. We fought for the position of predominance over the lesser civilizations. The Krghlm were the only peoples with the technology and desire to conquer others...the same as we. Naturally, we couldn't stand by and allow them to pillage the very star systems that we ourselves wished to conquer."
He smiled. GL felt a cold chill shoot down his spine.
"Once the Krghlm were destroyed, the universe was ours for the taking. On occasion we'd discover a new race we'd never encountered before and we'd send it a test message. If we did not receive the proper response, we'd automatically destroy it."
"But why? If the new race wasn't Krghlm, or had never heard of your war, why destroy them? Why not make friends?"
Parallax laughed at the absurdity of the thought. "Friends? We do not make friends with inferior races. We take! We conquer! And if the whim should strike us, we annihilate." He shrugged. "Why run the risk of angering a young race that may later develop the technology to destroy us in some distant future? Better to rid the universe of...undesirables."
GL shook his head. The enormity of what they'd done, in their desire to 'Play Fair,' had finally sunk in. They'd released an even greater horror than what they'd faced before.
Robin and Speedy moved stealthily through the endlessly green corridors. The green hue throughout the Emerald City was the same throughout. The boys found themselves narrowly missing tables, chairs and other furnishings.
"It's like being inside a giant green camouflage tent! Everything's blending together!" Speedy complained. "I'm getting all cross-eyed."
Robin grinned. He knew exactly what Speedy was going through. "I thought that 'green' was you Arrow-guys' favorite color."
Speedy's grin matched Robin. "If I never see the color again, it'll be too soon!"
Both youngsters let out boyish snickers. "Maybe GA will change over to gold or something," Robin opined.
"Yeah, I can it now," Speedy said. "Yellow Arrow! Won't exactly strike fear in the hearts of criminals." He paused. "Not that GA's all that fearsome now, but he *does* have his moments--"
Robin held up a hand for quiet. He studied his handheld locator. He nodded at Speedy. This was it...
Superman moved at speeds that even he had never achieved before. One second he was near Mars' two moons, the next instant, he was on the other side of the sun, melting yet another scout's warp engines into slag.
He didn't know how much longer he'd be able to continue. He'd been fighting for what seemed like ages. He was growing exhausted.
And if *he* were tiring, then what of the others--?
Aquaman anticipated Wonder Woman's next move. As she spun their cruiser 'down' on the z-axis, he instantly set the weapons to a 360 degree firing pattern that took out any pursuers.
Wonder Woman and Aquaman were now a veteran team. They'd been working together since the start of the battle, and experience had honed their skills.
"Great shooting, Arthur!" Wonder Woman yelled.
"Nice flying, Diana," he said, returning the compliment.
"Barry! We're hit! We're hit!" Black Canary cried.
"Losing atmosphere," the Flash's voice calmly reported. "Hull integrity at forty percent. Remember the drill, BC...mask first, then exo-suit." He was beside her in an instant, already suited. He quickly assisted BC in donning hers.
"Barry!" the Atom's worried voice came over the open channel.
"We're okay, buddy," the Flash responded. "Just taking some extra-precautions. We've lost life support...care to take on some hitchhikers?"
"Depends...what's your destination?"
"Why same as yours, Ray," the Flash said good-humoredly. "Didn't I read somewhere that the road paved with good intentions leads to Hell?"
"..." They heard a choking sound from the other end. "Funny guy," Atom said ironically. "Get ready for transport, before I change my mind."
"You'll never get away with this," GL said calmly. "Even if you kill me, the others--"
"--The others are *nothing*!" Parallax scoffed. "I will defeat them shortly."
"Oh, really?" GL's eyes lit in amusement. "You haven't exactly defeated them, yet. That's hardly 'nothing'."
Parallax scowled thunderously. In fury, he pressed a button on the torture apparatus and held it down.
GL felt his head explode in piercing, blinding agony. In the background, he could hear Parallax roaring in outrage. The knife-like pain in his head blocked most of his evil twin's megalomaniacal rantings, but GL heard enough to strive to retain consciousness.
"Temerity...sub-races...exist only to be exploited...conquered...!"
Long before Parallax finally released the button, GL lost his personal battle and blacked out from the ordeal.
"Robin to GA."
"GA, here. How's it going kid?"
"We're in. Robin out."
GA stared at the comlink. "Just like his old man," he muttered. "Let's go, boys. Can't be the cavalry if we don't arrive in the nick of time."
"Huh?" Kid Flash and Aqualad gave him blank looks. GA ignored them, studying the handheld locator. The readings were indeterminate. They faced what appeared to be an endless number of corridors, with an infinite number of closed doors. He sighed.
"Never mind," GA said, shaking his head. "Kid Flash, I need you to recon up ahead. Find out--"
"--All clear," Kid Flash reported. GA spun around in surprise. "All the rooms are empty," Kid Flash continued. "Just green."
GA closed his eyes. Just like the Flash. All speed. No brain. Well...maybe that wasn't a fair assessment, but still.
"Thanks, Kid," GA mumbled. "Come on, let's go."
"Where are we?" Speedy asked.
"The Auxiliary Command Center," Robin said moving to the nearest command console. "Robin to _Avenger_..."
"_Avenger, here," Batman responded.
"We're in, Batman," Robin said. "I've powered up the ACC. All systems are now online."
"Good work, chum," Batman said. "I'm transmitting the data...Now!"
"Y-you c-can do wh-what y-you w-want with me," GL whispered, swallowing against the dryness in his throat. "B-but w-we...w-we'll *never* s-s-sur-render..."
"You *don't get it*!" Parallax guffawed. "I don't *want* you to surrender! I want to *destroy* you!" He threw his head back and began to laugh. A cold, evil laugh that filled GL with dark despair.
This was *his* fault. He was the one who'd pushed for a dialogue. Who didn't want to arbitrarily destroy the alien vessel. He had to do something.
He couldn't...He *wouldn't* stand by and watch Parallax destroy the Earth.
*His* planet. *His* space sector. *His* responsibility.
An alien invader destroy *Earth*?
Not on *his* watch!
Gathering every ounce of strength he had left, GL began to concentrate on the 'outwardly unremarkable bauble' hanging in midair in an emerald stasis field.
GA and Kid Flash braked to a halt. Both turned to look curiously at Aqualad.
"In here," he said, pointing behind a set of double doors. GA quirked an eyebrow. He checked his locator once more.
"Listen, kid, according to my readings--"
"Your instrument is incorrect...the Emerald energy...it pulsates from behind these doors."
GA and Kid Flash exchanged a look. Kid Flash shrugged. "He *is* an esper. *And* he's had experience with GL's energy readings. Maybe your locator's wrong?"
"Okay, Aqualad," GA agreed. "What do you have, kid?"
At that moment, Aqualad's face suddenly grimaced in severe pain. "GL...he's in trouble...in *pain*! So much *pain*!"
"_Avenger_, this is Robin!"
"_Avenger, here." Batman answered instantly, as if he'd been waiting for the call.
"We're done here, Batman. We're going to rendezvous with the others."
"Understand, Robin. Watch for the signal." Batman paused and then added, "Good luck, son."
"Thank you, sir...Robin out."
"And just what *did* we do, Bird-boy?" Speedy asked.
Robin grinned. "We just gave the ship the beginnings of a severe nervous breakdown."
The boys started heading out at a run.
"The data that Batman just transmitted? It's a virus program," Robin explained. "It's ordering the ship's primary systems to determine the value of Pi to the last decimal point, and to consider all other current command programs as secondary. Soon, the ship's going to start shutting down all nonessential operations in order to solve the problem. Before long--"
"--Before long, more systems will start shutting down, to include essential systems because the virus has tagged them as 'secondary'!" Speedy interrupted, understanding dawning in his eyes.
Robin nodded, letting Speedy work out the possibilities on his own.
"And, because Pi has a non-repeating value which goes on to infinity--" Speedy continued.
"--Hey, you've been paying attention in school." Robin looked proudly at his friend.
"Yeah, the one or two times I've attended," Speedy said with a slight grin, then concluded. "The virus program has given the ship an unsolvable problem. If it works and the ship begins to concentrate all of its computing power to solving it--!" He looked at Robin with respect.
"But how do we know the ship's AI won't find out what we're doing and somehow stop the virus program from taking over the ship's entire system?" Speedy asked.
"The virus is a command level program that'll work below the AI's consciousness. Like our handshake program. Remember?" Speedy nodded. "The AI should remain completely unaware of what's going on underneath its electronic 'nose.' Or at least, that's the plan."
"And if it doesn't work?" Speedy asked.
"Then we go to Plan B." "And what's Plan B?"
"Don't know yet."
Speedy stared at Robin. Robin shrugged defensively.
"I *working* on it!"
After Robin cut the comlink, Batman sat still for a couple of seconds. Without preamble, he began powering up the _Avenger_.
"Strap in," he ordered. Wonder Girl nodded. "Ready weapons," Batman uttered.
"Weapons ready," Wonder Girl replied.
Batman watched his readings carefully. When the warp engines came online, he punched it!
"Whooee, Mighty Mite!" Black Canary shouted. "That there's some fancy flyin'! Now hold her steady while I let 'em feel some of our 'hot lead'!"
"Any time, BC," the Atom responded.
"Watch westerns much, Dinah?" the Flash asked dryly.
"Dad was a real Wild West buff," BC answered, taking out two of the enemy, and then centering her crosshairs on yet another. "Funny, Dad never set foot outside of New York City and wouldn't've known what to do with a horse if he'd seen one."
BC smiled nostalgically as she laid waste to three more of the alien ships. (The Flash privately thought her smile looked frighteningly ferocious as she gleefully dispatched the enemy. He shuddered inwardly.)
"On weekends, if Dad wasn't busy on a case, or if we weren't training at the local gym, we'd sit and watch Saturday afternoon westerns on TV--"
"Atom! Everybody!" Wonder Woman's voice interrupted. "Look at your long range monitors. Something's happening...Can you make it out?"
"Just a sec, Diana," the Atom said. "I'm not sure...Barry, what do you think?"
"Well I'll be a dirty name," the Flash said, awed. "Little buddy, they seem to be..."
"...*Turning on each other*!!!" they finished together.
"No!" Superman's voice cut in. "They're slamming into each other. They're moving erratically, almost out of control. They seem to have lost their inertial stablizers, or--"
"--Or perhaps they've lost contact with the Mother Ship?" the Atom mused.
"What the hell's going on?" the Flash asked no one in particular.
"The *others*!" BC cried excitedly. "They're okay! They *did* this! Somehow, they've turned the armada...! Yeeeeeehhaaaaaww! Boys and girls, everything's gonna be all right!"
"Come on, JLA!" the Flash yelled. "Let's go kick some alien booty!"
"I'm with you, buddy!" the Atom readily responded.
Aqualad collapsed where he'd stood.
"Garth!" Kid Flash was instantly at his friend's side. Aqualad's violet eyes fluttered open.
"GL's in agony," he whispered. "Leave me. Hurry...I will be all right." He closed his eyes again.
Kid Flash's jaws worked in anger. His friends were in pain. And whoever was causing it was behind those doors. Without thinking, the junior speedster began to vibrate at supersonic speeds. Reaching a vibrating speed on a harmonic level to the emerald energy-induced doorways, he launched himself through the doors.
"Kid Flash...No!" shouted GA. Too late! The junior speedster zipped at superspeed through the energy doors.
GA hurried to the locked doors. Great! Another teenager who ignored his orders. "I get no respect," he muttered. He took out a special metallic sliver with a serrated edge. As he put it carefully in the keyhole, the emerald light reflected off of it, a gold skeleton key.
"Bats, I'll never say anything about you again!" He grinned. "Well, hardly ever."
He was swimming in a green ocean. Everywhere he looked he was surrounded by the strange emerald sea.
"~Aquaman!~" he mind-called. "~Mera!~"
There was no answer. He swam on in the green, murky waters.
In the distance he saw a lighter, glowing green. Almost like a light at the end of an underwater tunnel. He swam towards it...
GL found himself in a strange world of violets, lavenders, and purples. Where was he?
He checked his ring finger. Gone! He felt a momentary panic, which passed quickly. The ring was nearby. He could *feel* its energy. Closing his eyes, he concentrated on the ring, and *drew* from its power. He felt himself physically grow stronger, revived.
He opened his eyes and looked around again. *Thinking* about the ring, he *willed* himself to rise up, and before long, he was flying a reconnaissance mission through the lavender land...
As Aqualad approached the green glow, he squinted against the brightness. Using his hands to shade his eyes, he finally made out a figure in the middle of the emerald luminescence. His eyes widened.
"~Green Lantern!~" he cried. He swam towards the Emerald Knight. GL was enclosed in a soft, protective emerald aura. "~GL, what are you *doing* here?~"
GL floated face down, his eyes closed. "~GL--! GL--! Wake up! Please!~"
He heard someone calling him.
"~GL--! GL--! Wake up! Please!~"
"~Wake up?~" he asked. "~What do you *think* I am? Asleep?~" Nevertheless, GL opened his eyes and felt like he'd just awakened.
A glowing violet figure stood before him. "~GL! Can you see me?~" GL shaded his eyes.
"~Just barely. Who are you? The Phantom?~" GL referred to a childhood comic book hero.
"~Never mind. Who are you?~"
"~Of course. That would explain the mind-speak,~" GL said, realization dawning. "~Why are you...purple?~"
"~Is that how you perceive me?~"
GL nodded. Aqualad sent a mental shrug. "~I do not know. Speedy said the same thing...All I know is that sometimes, I wake at night, and I know that I've been dreaming of purples and violets...and, remember the strange violet energy beams that I called forth when I was forced to fight you while you were unconscious, and endangering the _Avenger_?~"
"~Whatever it is~," Aqualad continued, "~I do not understand it.~"
GL concentrated on the boy. He sent out a mental tendril and gently *touched* Aqualad's violet essence.
"~Yeowch!~" he yelped in surprise. "~What was *that*?~" At GL's touch, Aqualad's true form suddenly appeared before him. The teen's strange, violet eyes were wide with shock. GL moved closer to the youthful Atlantean, studying him closely.
"Son, your personal aura...your purple shield, for want of a better word...It's comprised of powerful energies...I sense strange energy patterns emanating from you.~" GL shook his head in awe. "~I've never seen anything like it!~"
Aqualad stared with uncomprehending eyes. "~I don't know what you're talking about, GL. Honestly.~"
GL nodded sagely. "~Son, listen to me. Somewhere inside of you is a nascent power struggling to get out. A power that even now is building in strength. I don't know what it is, but if you defeated me once before, even in my dreams, then it has to be incredibly powerful.~"
GL's soft brown eyes steadily held Aqualad's violet ones. "~I think, Aqualad, that this power of yours has just become our secret weapon.~"
GA was disgusted with himself. He'd been immobilized as soon as he'd entered. Kid Flash and GL were both unconscious and held prisoner on an apparatus similar to the one from which they'd rescued Batman.
And similar to the one that held him now. He tugged uselessly at his shackles.
"Great! It's not even green. The first thing I've seen that's *real* and I wish it were all a dream."
"Cheer up, Green Arrow," Parallax roared. "It will soon be your worst nightmare!" He pressed a button.
GA screamed in pain.
**** "GA!" Speedy yelled. They'd heard the blood-curdling scream coming from down the main corridor. They poured on the speed.
"Speedy! Hold up!" Robin hissed when they reached the spot from where they'd heard the screams. Using hand signals, Robin indicated that he wanted Speedy to stand to the side. He tried the door handle. Locked.
Removing his belt buckle from his utility belt, he threw it at the door. As soon as the gold buckle hit the green energy doors, they disintegrated before the boys' eyes.
"Go!" Robin shouted.
When the warp engines fired inside the enclosed space of the giant cargo bay, several things happened:
First, real time space 'warped' inside the bay, causing the space to implode. The interior of the bay collapsed in on itself, the bulkheads crumbling. The support I-beams that Wonder Girl used earlier as a baseball bat crumpled.
Second, with the inside of the bay imploding in on itself, the giant bay doors, unable to withstand the impossible pressures to which they were suddenly being subjected, blew outwardly.
Third, when the bay doors opened, Batman shut the warp engines, and transferred to the sub-light impeller drive. He hit the forward thrusters, and the _Avenger_ escaped from its alien prison.
Less than five seconds passed from the moment he fired the warp engines, to the moment the _Avenger_ escaped. "Ready?" he asked.
"Ready!" Wonder Girl replied.
Speedy and Robin entered the room at a full run. Experience is a great teacher. Without breaking stride, Robin grabbed Speedy's yellow cap, snapped it to a Batarang, and leaping high, he threw it directly at Parallax's chest...
GL tightly gripped Aqualad's hand in his own. "~You must *trust* me, son. Open your mind to me...open your mind...~"
"~Trust you~," Aqualad whispered. "~Trust you...~"
Completely relaxed and trusting Green Lantern, Aqualad dropped his mind shields and left himself totally open to the Emerald Warrior's far more disciplined and powerful will.
"~Together...Violet and Green energies...concentrate, son...concentrate...~"
"~Together...concentrate...violet and green...~" repeated Aqualad.
"Speedy!" Robin called. "Watch!" He whipped out three Batarangs and whirled them at the apparatuses' control panels. Knowing immediately what he had to do, Speedy fired off explosive arrow after explosive arrow. Within seconds, only smoke and sparks remained of the complicated electronics.
With the brains of the torture machines gone, first GA, then Kid Flash regained consciousness. Speedy saw that Kid Flash couldn't vibrate free from his shackles. He fired off four specially tipped arrows.
The arrowheads were actually suction cups. When they struck Kid Flash's wristbands, they adhered themselves to each. Before Kid Flash knew what was happening, the suction cups began to hiss and a special acid started eating its way through the bands. Kid Flash's eyes widened. He'd have to move at superspeed to avoid being burned.
Meanwhile, Robin leaped onto GA's machine with his pen-laser and quickly freed him. "Let's go, GA!" Robin urged.
"You little fool," Parallax shouted in outrage. "You should've remained where I left you. You defeated my plans once before, but not again!" He turned the full brunt of his powerful Emerald beam at the fleeing heroes.
Dodging Parallax's deadly beam, Robin's eye caught something gold glittering on the floor. He quickly executed a series of complicated handsprings, spins, and leaps. In a final desperate move, Robin rolled towards the object, grabbed it, and came up throwing...!
Aqualad's violent purple energies enhanced with GL's powerful will focused on the Emerald Power Ring suspended in stasis in midair...
The ship worked feverishly on solving the equation that had been set before it. It needed more operating power and thus began shutting down 'nonessential' systems. Throughout the ship, hatches began slamming shut, cutting off entire sections of the ship from others.
Soon, the ship began shutting life support systems in areas that were unoccupied. Next, it began diverting essential systems from their primary function of fighting a war. The Fire Acquisition Center began to add its powerful computing power to solving the unsolvable problem set before it.
The ship's engine room computers began shutting down the 'nonessential' programs needed to operate the ship's massive warp core...
Parallax felt something small strike his chest. He suddenly felt like one of the biological life-forms he'd scoffed at earlier who were having a heart attack.
He looked at his chest. Embedded in his Lantern emblem was a small, gold belt buckle. The emerald surroundings began phasing in and out. Parallax finally realized that the ship's systems were being tied up with an impossible task. He 'felt' a momentary confusion. What was happening?
"Illogical! Illogical! I am the superior construct--!"
Parallax felt his knees begin to give way...
A sudden flash of purple energy overwhelmed the weak remains of the Emerald energy illusion.
The Emerald City began to lose definition around the heroes. It continued to phase erratically in and out around them. And Parallax appeared to be *melting*!
"Like the Wicked Witch," Robin muttered softly. Soon, they found themselves in the same giant bay from which they'd rescued Batman earlier. Except for the torture apparatuses, it was empty.
Furthermore, the emerald energy had been replaced with a soft lavender glow.
"It must've all been some kind of elaborate illusion," Speedy said. As he spoke, the purple haze slowly faded, as well.
GL's ring broke free from its prison, and flew straight towards its master's ring finger.
As soon as it settled in, Green Lantern's eyes fluttered open.
"No," whispered Parallax. "I am the superior construct. I am eternal. You cannot defeat me." There was almost nothing left of him.
"*Can't* isn't in my vocabulary," GL said grimly.
GL's ring encompassed them all within its protective energy. Aqualad was still unconscious. So far, he'd been the only casualty.
Robin's comlink beeped. The signal!
"Now!" he called. GL nodded and they all immediately flew up and through the massive ship's numerous bulkheads until they reached the dark silence of space.
Robin and the Titans looked around in awe. He couldn't believe that they were outside in the vacuum of space with only GL's power ring for protection. GL flew them at incredible rates, reaching near sub-light speed. But within the protective cocoon of the Emerald atmosphere bubble, they were snug and warm.
Finally, they spotted it! The _Avenger_! No, not the _Avenger_, but one just like her! It was the JLA cruiser that Batman and GA had used to get out here. Robin had completely forgotten about it!
But where was the _Avenger_? As if in anticipation of his question, GL pointed starboard. There! The _Avenger_! But what was she doing? The ship was on a collision course with the alien. More than a collision course, Robin realized. She was on full ramming speed!
"Batman--!" he cried.
But they'd already entered the second JLA cruiser, slipping in through the bulkheads as if they didn't exist...
Robin ran into the command center. Wonder Girl was at weapons. And sitting in the command seat--
"Batman!" he cried. It was a shout of pure joy. Batman pointed at the co- pilot's seat by way of acknowledgement. Robin quickly strapped himself in, and began calling out readings.
"Get everyone strapped in," Batman ordered.
"Roger! Robin to all hands! Strap in, everybody! We're going to warp in..." He checked the engine countdown. "...fifteen seconds!" He waited to the count of ten, then counted down...
As Robin called out 'two', Batman called out, "Now!" and Wonder Girl punched a switch on her console.
At 'one', the pilotless _Avenger_ entered one of the many open bays that the alien ship had so conveniently provided for her. As the JLA cruiser's warp engines came online, Robin saw a series of violent explosions erupting from inside the open bay that the _Avenger_ had entered.
Robin knew immediately that the _Avenger's_ warp core must have been set to overload. He felt a momentary twinge at the loss of 'his' ship.
Further down the alien's midsection, another series of explosions began ripping her apart from the inside. The gel-charges that Kid Flash and Aqualad had set earlier! Wonder Girl must have set them of remotely from her weapons console.
As the JLA cruiser went into warp, Robin caught sight of the giant alien listing to starboard, explosion after explosion tearing her hull in thousands of places...
They hovered one AU from the alien to ensure its total destruction. Finally, when its enormous warp core breached and reached overload, the heroes witnessed the end of the Last of the NUL^~HT+N.
The Milky Way Galaxy's edge became the momentary celestial home of a blazing nova.
The Titans watched in awe. They were drawn, yet appalled by the destructive forces that had been released.
"What a waste," Robin said at last.
"Yeah," Speedy agreed.
"I don't get it," added Kid Flash. "If GL offered it friendship, why would it choose war instead?"
Aqualad shook his head, and Wonder Girl shrugged her shoulders. Clearly, the youngsters couldn't understand.
"I'm afraid that we'll probably never be able to fully explain it," GL said. "But as long as youngsters such as yourselves can question something as senseless as this and try to seek answers, then I believe that the Earth will always be in good hands."
The Titans looked at GL, then at one another. Without another word, they all turned back to view the new, temporary star...
"I tell you, kid, things are going to be different...you just wait and see!" Green Arrow slapped Speedy on the back. They were all inside the JLA satellite's docking bay, waiting for the "Green light" announcing equalized pressurization.
Speedy nodded and smiled a bit uncertainly. He'd heard this before. But maybe this time.
GA was still talking. "And we'll have to talk about a curfew...and I mean a *real* curfew. It's not right for a kid your age to be running around at all hours of the night...!"
Speedy looked over at Batman and Robin. The Dark Knight and his protege were talking quietly. Batman was probably discussing how they could've saved the universe a little bit more efficiently, for the next time the Earth was invaded, Speedy thought ironically. But even from where he stood, Speedy could see the quiet rapport between the Caped Crusaders.
"And school," GA continued. "We're gonna see about hiring a tutor, or something, to try and get those grades up...I mean maybe *I* was thrown out of some of the best schools in Europe when *I* was a kid, but it's not exactly something I'm all that proud of..."
Robin caught Speedy's eye and gave him an encouraging smile. Speedy smiled back. Bird-boy was all right. A real friend.
"And no more unsupervised absences...We're partners, after all! From here on in, it'll be just you'n me, kid! Green Arrow and Speedy!"
The green light finally came on.
As the safety hatch opened, they were greeted by the smiling face of Black Canary.
"Ollie!" she cried, running into GA's arms. "I'm so happy to see you again! Oh, you don't know how worried I've been. Ollie if you *ever* do something like this again, I'll break every bone in your body!" The threat in her voice was real.
"Dinah...honey...let me explain," GA began, slowly backing off.
Speedy stood to the side, feeling uncomfortable. The old feeling of being left out began to overwhelm him again.
Sure, things were *so* going to be different, he thought. He felt a hand on his shoulder. His heart leaped. Ollie, he thought! He looked up into the warm brown eyes of Green Lantern.
"Thank you for saving my life, Speedy. I'll never forget it. Anytime you need anything...even if it's just to talk, I'm here for you." He handed Speedy a card. "Call me...day or night."
Speedy watched GL walk away. He thought about throwing away Hal Jordan's business card, but in the end, he kept it.
"Red," BC's quiet voice spoke behind him. He stiffened at the sound, but didn't turn. "Please, Red...I want us so much to be friends. Red, I love Ollie, too. Please...?" Speedy heard the quiet sincerity in her voice. Blinking rapidly, he finally nodded.
No matter what Ollie said, he knew that it would never be just the two of them any more.
"Sure, Pretty Bird," he said with false bravado. "We'll be one, big happy family...just the three of us..."
"Roy...hey, kid," GA began, but Speedy began moving away.
"I've gotta go check on something with, uh, Robin," he said, glancing back. GA and BC stood together at the end of corridor, watching helplessly as he hurried away. "Robbie, uh, mentioned something about a, uh, meeting at the Lair later this month!"
"Robbie, guess what?" Kid Flash stood between Batman and Robin in a blink. The Dynamic Duo actually looked startled at his sudden appearance. "Uncle Barry says that I can come and stay with him and Aunt Iris over Spring Break. If you're not doing nothing, maybe you could come?"
Robin looked meaningfully over Kid Flash's shoulder at Batman, who was standing behind the junior speedster. Kid Flash stiffened, finally noticing the menacing presence of the Dark Knight. He turned sheepishly and shyly addressed Batman.
"That is...if it's okay with *you*, sir..." The teen speedster's voice ended in a tiny squeak.
Batman floored them both by giving Kid Flash a half-smile.
"Secret identities not withstanding, I'm sure we can work something out." He turned without further word. The two boys high-fived each other in their excitement.
"Way *cool*, Robbie! Come on! Let's go tell Uncle Barry!"
"That was very generous of you, Bruce," Superman said. They were both alone in the JLA lounge.
Batman didn't turn from the panoramic view of the Earth spinning below. After several minutes of silence, he finally spoke.
"Dick needs his friends. Wally is a good boy, brave and loyal. I think they'll both be good for each other."
"Is that the only reason?" Superman asked.
"No," Batman admitted quietly. "I've learned that we're not alone here. One man can't do it all." He paused. Superman didn't say anything; he knew what it was taking for Batman to openly admit this.
"We all needed each other while we were out there. More than anything, I discovered how much I need my boy by my side...I can't deny his place in my life...nor can I deny the importance of his friends in his. As much as Batman needs Robin...Robin needs the Titans."
Batman looked up. He held Superman's eyes steadily.
"And I can't deny the importance of *my* friends, either."
Superman's eyes smiled warmly. Neither man said anything further. Nothing further needed to be said.
"Promise to call me?" Wonder Girl asked tentatively. She was worried about Speedy. He seemed *too* happy.
"Of course, Wonder Doll!" Speedy assured her. "But, I'm probably gonna be kinda busy. See Ollie's setting some new rules and all. I'll probably be forced to *do* my homework from now on! He also said something about a 'bedtime'! Can you b'lieve that?"
He laughed, a bit too brightly.
"Roy, something's wrong...I *know* it! What *is* it?"
"*Wrong*? What could possibly be wrong, Donna? I mean, Ollie, me, and Dinah...we're gonna be one big, happy family! You'll see!"
"Dinah's moving in with you?" Wonder Girl asked quietly. Speedy nodded, smiling.
"Yeah, isn't that great?"
Wonder Girl looked sadly at the boy of her heart. "I'm sorry, Roy. I know how much you wanted--"
"--Are you kidding, Wonder Doll?" Speedy interrupted. "Things are gonna be great!" He started walking away. "Look, kid, I'll give you a call! Tomorrow at the latest! I promise! Hey, fly safely!"
He waved and spinning around, he started jogging, disappearing around the bend in the corridor.
Wonder Girl felt a warm hand on her shoulder. She looked up into her sister's understanding eyes. Feeling her heart breaking, Wonder Girl threw her arms around Wonder Woman.
"There, there, little one," Wonder Woman soothed. "Let's go home. Mother impatiently awaits our return."
"I shall have our scientists investigate this new, strange ability of yours, Minnow," Aquaman was saying. "I promise you that we shall discover what this remarkable power is--"
"No!" Aqualad cried. "I don't need any doctors or scientists poking and prodding me! I won't sit still for it!"
"Watch your tongue, boy!" Aquaman roared. "Remember whom you address!"
Aqualad's normally gentle eyes burned in anger.
"I *thought* I was addressing my mentor...*and* my foster father! Apparently, as always, I was mistaken."
"Minnow, I didn't mean--"
"*No*! You *did* mean it! I'm as nothing to you! Just another loyal vassal to the King! Well, no more! I am *myself*! And I have certain rights...rights that even a King cannot take." Aqualad spoke with a deadly fierceness that Aquaman had never heard before.
"Garth, that is not true! You are my foster son...in name and in my heart. You are as much my son as Arthur, Junior."
Aqualad sadly shook his head. "If I could but believe that, my liege." He faced his King. "I swore my loyalty and fealty to you when you first found me, alone and discarded. I stand by my oath to you, Arthur...and on my honor, I shall never betray you or your progeny." He walked up to his King and met him eye to eye.
"But I am my own person. I do not understand this power that grows within me, but it is *mine*...it is a part of me, of my unknown heritage. I do not know if I shall ever be able to call it forth again, or if it is something that manifests itself only in times of great stress. Whatever it is, I demand the right of self-discovery...the right to explore it on my own, without your scientists' interference."
His eyes became pleading. "Please, Arthur. Allow me this one thing...and I swear on my honor that should I ever learn to control it, this power will never be turned against you or the people of Atlantis."
Aquaman placed his hand on his young protege's shoulder.
"Minnow...you need not swear oaths to me. You are the son of my heart. I *know* that you would never turn against our people or me. In you, I have only faith and trust."
Aqualad felt his chest tighten. As he looked up his mentor, his soft, violet eyes spoke for him.
"So dinner on Saturday, Barry?"
"Yeah, Ray," the Flash said. "Iris is really excited about this. You're *sure* you want to ask Jeanne with us there? I mean proposing to the girl of your dreams is something normally done at an expensive restaurant with a candlelight dinner."
"I can't think of two people I'd rather have there than you and Iris," the Atom said quietly. "I've put this off for way too long...I've been afraid about bringing Jeanne into my crazy, mixed-up, superpowered life. But now..."
"What made you change your mind?" the Flash asked curiously. They were interrupted by Kid Flash and Robin stumbling into the gleaming JLA labs.
"UncleBarry!You'renotgonnabelievethis!BatmansaidokayandRobbiecancomeoverduringS pringBreak!Isn'tthatgreat?" Unable to contain his excitement, Kid Flash speed- talked. The two JLA'ers smiled at the boy's exuberance.
"That *is* good news, Wally," the Flash said. "Robin, I'll look forward to your visit...Tell me, son, do you know how to fly fish?"
Robin shook his head. "No, sir. I've never been fishing in my whole life."
"Fishing?! Aw, jeez, Uncle Barry! Not fishing *again*. Robbie's a city boy...he'll be bored to tears."
"Are you kidding, Flasheroo?" Robin said, giving his friend a slight shove. "I think it sounds great. Doctor Allen, I really appreciate the invitation. Come on, Wally...you can tell me more about Blue Valley and Central City."
"Fishing?" Kid Flash grumbled. "Aw, jeez...!"
When the Teen Titans left the room, the Atom turned to his friend.
"They're the reason I've finally decided to ask Jeanne to marry me. I haven't made it a secret that I felt a bit reticent about bringing children into this life. What if something happened to them? How could their mentors justify endangering their lives?" He paused, slightly embarrassed.
"I guess you can't deny someone the life that they were born to live, regardless of how old they are. The Teen Titans have proven that they are every bit as courageous and able as their mentors. They've proven their right not only to stand at their partners' sides, but to also work both individually and as a team. They're all great kids, Barry. I'm proud to've met them and to've had a chance to work with them."
"I'll pass that on to Wally," the Flash said simply.
The Atom nodded and continued. "I've long felt uncomfortable about asking Jeannie to share my life with me for the very same reasons...What if something were to happen to me? What if someone discovered who I was and decided to take revenge on her?"
He looked reflectively at the Flash. "But I've found out that I can't live on 'What if's.' I'm a scientist. I deal in facts. And the fact is that I can't live without Jeanne. If she'll have me, then I'll share everything with her. And if she and I are even one-half as happy as you and Iris, then I'll consider myself a lucky man."
Dick knelt at his window seat, his elbows on the windowsill. He gazed at the night sky with new eyes. Tonight each star was a potential sun around which revolved as yet unknown planets upon which as yet unknown races lived out their lives.
"Up there somewhere is another kid, looking up at *his* night sky, and spotting our sun," Dick murmured. "Does *he* wonder if our star has planets that might have life?"
"What is it, chum?" Bruce's quiet voice spoke from the doorway. Not turning, Dick shrugged his shoulders.
"I see." Bruce walked up to his ward and sat next to him. He craned his neck to look out the window with him.
"It must've been lonely," Dick said quietly.
"Yes," Bruce agreed. Dick leaned slightly against Bruce. Hesitating briefly, Bruce placed his arm around his boy's shoulder.
The End ####