Year One: World's Finest
Author's Note: This is intended to be a fairly lengthy story (current plan is 30 chapters of varying length) using Man of Steel as a springboard for a "legacy" story. I'll be picking and choosing what to use from the DCU, whether its from pre-Flashpoint, to nu52, to the DCAU, to whatever else I feel like. At its heart, this will also be a SM/WW story , so keep that in mind.
And yeah, we're going to go ahead and start with my treatment of MoS 2...
More in depth information below.
Metropolis Rebuilds in Wake of Zod Invasion
Published September 25. 2013 / Associated Press
METROPOLIS, N.Y. - President Obama marked the three month anniversary of the failed Kryptonian invasion with a visit to Metropolis and a promise of additional federal funding to assist in the rebuilding efforts. Speaking before a crowd of survivors, he pledged to ensure that the tragedy which claimed the lives over twenty thousand and leveled most of downtown Metropolis would not be repeated.
"The United States stands with Metropolis in this dark hour," Obama said. "The entire world stands with Metropolis."
Obama refused to comment on the so-called "Superman" although his administration insists that the Kryptonian named Kal-El was instrumental in stopping General Zod and has been equally helpful in the months since.
Following the speech, the president toured the most heavily damaged parts of the city.
HE WAS EXHAUSTED.
Sixty-three consecutive eighteen hour days of hard, physical labor was taxing, even to him, but Clark knew it was far more than that. Since Zod, he'd avoided wearing the Suit except when absolutely necessary – it was easier to move among the humans without it if he was completely honest and right now, Metropolis needed a tireless, inhumanly strong emergency worker a lot more than it needed a Superman. The worst part, though, the part that kept him working long past the moment when he felt like collapsing in bed and sleeping for a year was knowing that far too much of this destruction was his fault. Why hadn't he made more of an effort to minimize the damage? Why hadn't he tried to take his battle with Zod out of the city itself? How many had died because he hadn't been careful enough?
"Third shift!" the construction foreman bellowed. "Let's pack it up! Sun's setting!"
Adjusting his hard hat – as if he needed it; still, regs were regs and if he wanted to stay under the radar, it wouldn't do to attract too much attention – Clark fell into step behind the other workers. They were all big men, his size or even taller though more than a few of them carried a lot of extra weight around their bellies, and at any other time, most of them would have laughing and joking with one another, despite their exhaustion. Their grim expressions were to be expected: spending all day knee-deep in the ashes of a once-great city drained any hint of humor from even the most robust of souls.
Clark waited until no one was looking his way – one advantage of super senses was always knowing when someone was looking at him - and took to the skies. He kept his initial speed low so as to avoid causing even more damage, but poured on the acceleration once he was clear of the city. It took only a few minutes before he reached Kansas airspace and, as expected, there were three surveillance drones circling over the greater Topeka area. Yesterday, he'd intentionally broken the sound barrier above that city, just to see what might happen. Swanwick had clearly noticed and, despite Clark's agreement to lend assistance to the U.S. government from time to time, the general was obviously still trying to identify him. It was frustrating to still be so untrusted … but all too understandable.
He reached the farm a few seconds later, dropping down out of the sky twenty miles out of Smallville and hugging the ground the rest of the way. Even before he landed, Clark could tell his mom was asleep – her heartbeat was steady and rhythmic – so he avoided the front door and floated toward his open bedroom window. Rebuilding the house … or at least making it livable again had been his first action once the bruises faded, but it was just a patchwork job. He could do better.
Clark grimaced. That was becoming his mantra lately, wasn't it? He could do better.
No. He would do better. He would show Earth that not all Kryptonians were beings to fear. He would prove himself worthy of Earth.
And, by God, he would make his father – both of them – proud.
But first, he needed to get the military off his tail.
Three Months Later
Clark hated these debriefings.
Ever since he'd agreed to help out Swanwick and the Department of Metahuman Affairs with rogue superhumans in the hopes that it would help rehabilitate his image with humanity, these sorts of weekly meeting with the general to review the events of the previous seven days had slowly become a scheduled thing. Clark wasn't exactly sure how that happened but suspected it was Swanwick's laid back 'I'm not a threat' vibe. Lois had warned him early on that the general had a reputation for being a manipulative, sneaky bastard, though he at least was considered fairly honorable among her father's clique of senior military command.
The debriefings wouldn't have been that bad if Swanwick didn't invite Luthor along as often as he did. Ostensibly, the man was just an advisor who the U.S. government paid billions to develop weapons, but Lois was positive Lex was bad news even if she couldn't actually prove it. From the moment he first spoke with Luthor, Clark knew she was right. There wasn't any single thing about the man that was really wrong – Luthor was charming, intelligent, witty, and knew how to play a room – but something about him simply rubbed Clark the wrong way. It certainly didn't help that, thanks to his enhanced senses, Clark could tell when the billionaire was lying to him … which was fairly frequently, actually.
Like right now.
"From everything we can tell," Luthor was saying, "this … Bat person only operates in Gotham and possesses a number of metahuman abilities that make him difficult to apprehend." Swanwick frowned – he was doing a lot of that lately and Clark wasn't sure why; in fact, something had been off about him for several weeks – and Lex shrugged in response to the unspoken question. "My people think he's a stealth-based meta – he can turn invisible, teleport and might even be able to change his appearance. There are even unsubstantiated reports that he can fly." This last part was said with a sidelong glance in Clark's direction and, as was always the case, Luthor's heartbeat changed ever so slightly.
"Wayne Enterprises also recently reported a hijacking of several million dollars' worth of equipment that the authorities believe were taken by this Bat-Man," Swanwick interjected. "A considerable amount of this equipment is military grade so we can't rule out the possibility that terrorism is involved."
"I'm more interested in getting confirmation that this Bat-Man actually exists," Luthor said. The smile he gave Swanwick never touched his eyes. "To be honest," he added, "I suspect the internet theories about this just being a police operation using a number of different specially-trained personnel to have some merit. The captain in charge of Gotham's taskforce to apprehend this vigilante has Special Forces training, I believe." This was said with a questioning glance in Swanwick's direction and the general hesitated for a heartbeat too long.
"I served briefly with Jim Gordon," Swanwick said slowly. He frowned, as if he were considering the option. "He is certainly capable of this sort of asymmetrical thinking."
"I'll look into it," Clark said flatly. Luthor's heartbeat jumped once more, though there was little sign of it on his face. Swanwick nodded and stepped aside so Clark could depart.
"I still don't trust him," Luthor said once Clark was out of the room. They remained oblivious to just how sensitive his senses were and he'd never felt the need to fill them in. "How do we know those other Kryptonians are really in this … Phantom Zone?" Clark took to the sky, ears still attuned to the conversation taking place behind him.
"You've reviewed Doctor Hamilton's research notes." Swanwick's tone was flat and devoid of the humor he'd shown flashes of since Clark met him. "So far, Kal-El has shown no inclination toward deception."
"That you've noticed." Luthor was silent for only a moment. "I still don't trust him."
Gotham City was a pit.
Lois had warned him when he told her about his meeting with Swanwick and Luthor, and he'd thought he was prepared after spending a couple of hours researching the city online, but the moment he stepped off the bus and got his first real look at the city from ground level, Clark realized he hadn't been ready at all. A tangible sense of despair and fear seemed to hang around the inhabitants, and he could not help but to notice how few dared to make eye contact. He was nearly swarmed by desperate-looking prostitutes as he exited the bus station – they were all too skinny and even without using his enhanced senses, he could tell all of them were drug addicts – who snarled curses at him the moment they realized he wasn't interested. By the time he reached the hotel that he'd already made reservations for, he'd fended off five separate attempts to lift his wallet and a pair of mugging attempts. The urge to get the hell out of this city now was hard to suppress and he couldn't help but to wonder if a shower would be enough to wash the stink of Gotham off.
The following day was even worse than the first. He spent most of it prowling around the East End district since it was here that this Bat-Man was most commonly sighted, and it was only due to his sheer size and abilities that he did not end up another statistic. The entire district felt like a slum, with prostitutes on every corner, drug-dealers in every alley, enforcers for local criminal organizations bullying everyone they encountered, and the poor unfortunates who lived here simply try to get by. Broken bottles littered the sidewalk and entire tenements were filled with homeless. After the third body he stumbled upon, Clark stopped calling 9-1-1 on his cell to report it, especially since the dispatchers he'd spoken to sounded both indifferent and terribly overworked.
At first, the locals seemed openly hostile toward him, answering his questions with insults and threats, but somehow, word got around that he was a reporter, and the tone of the interviews began to change. Once they were satisfied he wasn't an undercover vice cop, the hookers answered eagerly – the Bat-Man wasn't a threat to them and were, according to more than a few of them, responsible for beating the hell out of their abusive pimps. Several of the local shopowners were just as effusive with their praise – one, a bent-backed, white-haired grandmother who had a rundown pawn shop, told an unlikely story about seeing the Bat pay homage to where the Waynes had been murdered twenty or so years ago, which only convinced the old woman that he was Gotham's avenging spirit here to bring justice to the scum who had ruined the city. She had other theories – he was a Kryptonian like that Superman fellow or maybe a creature brought back from the grave by the last survivors of the Miagani – but Clark excused himself and made a discreet exit.
After going ahead and buying a Gotham Knights jacket from her. He paid too much for it and gave it to the first homeless person he encountered after. It didn't fit anyway.
If the people just trying to eke out an existence approved of the Bat, the criminal element most certainly did not. He managed to impress one of the local gangs with a foolhardy stunt – a judicious use of his enhanced speed and strength to take away a gun from one of the kids who threatened to shoot him – and they quickly claimed the Bat wasn't an issue. Even without his senses, he could tell they were lying. Half winced anytime someone claimed to have met the Bat or beat him in a fight, and at least that number constantly watched the roofs, as if they expected a bat-shaped figure to swoop down on them at any moment. This encounter opened the door to other members in the criminal element and, by dusk, Clark had interviewed more thugs and would-be murderers than he had ever met in his life before now. Each and every one of them tried to hide how terrified they were of this Bat-Man, but none of them succeeded, and Clark returned to his hotel with more questions than answers. From everything he'd learned, this Bat-Man was more like Robin Hood than a terrorist, although to be fair, wasn't Robin Hood considered a criminal by the government of his day?
He watched the local news while he worked: WayneTech was announcing a new software platform that was supposed to make Windows obsolete; Captain Gordon of the GCPD was credited for saving some kids from a deranged kidnapper who had just been released from Arkham that day; district attorney Dent announced his intent to push forward with bribery and corruption charges against the mayor who continued to plead innocence; and then, the kicker: the White House officially canceled the president's planned tour of Gotham due to 'security concerns' which made him the sixth president in a row who had avoided visiting the city. The local anchors savaged the president's decision, coming just short of calling him a coward, which Clark thought ironic considering their earlier remarks about him following a precedent set by previous administrations. For that matter, if he wasn't bulletproof, Clark didn't think he'd want to visit this city.
In mid-diatribe from the pretty anchor, the screen on the television fuzzed and froze. Barely a second later, the image being displayed changed to a green question mark that began rotating. Clark glanced up.
"Citizens of Gotham," a male voice announced, "this is the Riddler." The question mark continued to revolve. "Riddle me this, riddle me that," the person continued, "who's afraid of the big bad bat?" The unseen man laughed. "Because the police have been woefully inept, I am turning to this, the idiot box that holds so many of you hostage, to advise you that money cannot buy happiness … so I have taken all of yours. Kings and queens may cling to power and the jester's got his call. But as you may discover, the common one outranks them all."
Clark was in the suit and out the window before this so-called Riddler had finished his mocking remark. The sun had already vanished behind the clouds and Clark arced up into the sky, focusing his enhanced senses on the abandoned factory he'd noticed during the day's work. Dried and peeling, the paint on the massive Ace playing card on the factory's roof had demanded notice. Exactly as he expected, deep within the bowels of the building, a single man sat before a wide bank of computers. Above him, there were a half dozen other men, setting up what looked to be lanes of fire and places of concealment. Clark smirked. This … Riddler intended to ambush the Bat-Man.
He struck the roof at just under two hundred miles per hour, smashing through the concrete as if it were simply wet tissue paper. Two of the ambushers opened fire immediately, screaming as they sprayed wildly, and Clark straightened from his landing crouch and started walking forward, ignoring the soft rain of bullets at they struck his crest and fell to the floor. He waited until there was no way for them to have not realized who he was before speaking.
"Surrender and you won't be harmed," he said flatly. All but one of the men on this floor immediately threw down their weapons and, after an extra moment of consideration, the last man did the same. Clark pointed to the ring of debris surrounding the hole in the roof. "Kneel there and do not move until the police arrive." When they hesitated, he concentrated on the ever-present heat just behind his eyes. His vision briefly fuzzed out – it always did when he used this ability and additional concentration was required to actually see the things he was burning – and he frowned before pushing the heat back. Just the hint of red was enough and the men scrambled to obey.
The Riddler had backed up to the wall and stared with open horror as Clark tore the door to his sanctum off its metal hinges and tossed it aside. Unlike the thugs upstairs who were still kneeling – Clark checked – this man wasn't dressed in urban camouflage but rather wore a ludicrous green suit with a black tie that had a prominent green question mark upon it. Strangely, he also wore a domino mask, also green.
"You are not the Bat," the man said with wide eyes. Clark smirked.
"Are you sure?" he asked. He cast his eyes around the room and noted a cell phone. As he strode across the floor to retrieve, he eyed the computer monitors set against the wall … and his good humor dwindled. "When were you intended on broadcasting the riddle?" he demanded with a frown. Riddler's heartbeat trebled and Clark looked at him.
"Thirty minutes," the criminal replied. "How did you know to come here?" he asked.
Clark didn't answer.
But he had a good idea who was responsible.
Captain Gordon was not a happy man.
The sandy-haired police detective was solidly built, with an easy grace that Clark had seen in many soldiers, but walked with a very slight limp that hinted at an explanation for why he was former military. He wasted no time in having the Riddler and his goons hustled away to waiting squad cars, and glowered at the hole in the ceiling. From where he floated some five hundred feet above the Monarch Playing Card Company factory, Clark could see the captain's face – Gordon went from confused, to angry, to resigned in a matter of seconds – and decided to make his presence known. He dropped through the cloud cover and came to a floating stop just above the roof where only the captain could see him.
"Hello, Captain," he said.
"Is there a reason you're in Gotham?" Gordon asked without preamble. This close, Clark could smell tobacco and cheap cologne, as well as hints of a more feminine scent that were fading. "Gotham's in bad enough shape without you coming along and doing what you did to Metropolis." Clark blinked.
"That was Zod, sir," he replied calmly. "I'm trying to help." Gordon glowered and fished out a pack of cigarettes.
"You can help by leaving," the captain said flatly. "I already have one nut dressing up like a bat," he added and Clark noted how the man's heartbeat altered slightly. "We don't need someone like you."
"As you wish, sir," Clark replied. He began pushing against gravity and steadily rose. "I apologize for any inconvenience I may have caused you." He was out of sight in less than a second but smiled slightly at Gordon's next remarks, comments he doubted anyone else was meant to hear.
"At least this one has manners."
Rather than returning to his hotel room, Clark concentrated on the strange sensation in his chest that allowed him to defy gravity and floated quietly for a long moment. Gotham stretched out before him like a glittering painting and even at this distance, he could hear the sound of sirens without having to utilize his special talents. Anger swirled within his stomach and frustration – he could not blame Gordon for the man's distrust of him, not with the sheer damage wrought in the wake of the Kryptonians led by Zod, and it once again made him wonder if he was doing the right thing. Should he spend even more time in the Suit? There were so many people who needed help, who needed someone to defend them or save them … but what right did he have to do that? If he did too much, would they come to rely on him? Would his very presence stifle their creativity and ability? Jor-El had meant for him to be a symbol of hope … but how could he do that when humanity was so afraid of him?
"People are afraid of what they don't understand," his father had told him and he had taken that warning to heart. All too often, it had turned out to be true though there were the occasional glimmers of hope – Lois was one of the first in a long time who had not freaked out completely when she learned what he was.
A shrill, high-pitched noise pierced his musings and drew his attention toward the freight yards near the center of the city. There was no immediate cause of the sound and he was just about to turn away when a trio of cars suddenly squealed to a halt, disgorging what looked like a veritable platoon of heavily armed thugs wearing ill-fitting suits. Clark hesitated only for the span of a single heartbeat – Gordon would not be pleased, but these men meant to murder people – and he threw himself forward at just barely subsonic speeds. A quick glance with his enhanced senses verified the target vehicle wasn't occupied and he landed on its hood with crushing force and an explosion of noise that threw four of the assassins to the ground. The rest oriented toward him quickly and, despite clearly recognizing the crest of the House of El, opened fire with their illegal submachine guns. Clark straightened and then blurred forward, tearing the weapons free and crushing them into useless scrap. The bravest of the lot drew a knife and lunged forward, shouting his defiance.
Clark let the man break the knife against his chest before casually backhanding the criminal. None of them realized how much fine control it required to do that without turning the man into Jello and he wasn't of a mind to tell them.
"This ends now," he growled, calling the fire to his eyes once more. He raked the heat vision across the trunk of one of the intact cars, melting wide, gaping holes in the metal and turning the extra weapons inside into so much slag. The heat was so sudden, so intense, that the explosives within were simply vaporized rather than detonating. His face still creased in a scowl, Clark turned away from the now retreating thugs and glared at the armed security guards who had belatedly rushed out to respond. They could have been clones of the men now running and Clark suddenly realized that this entire facility was probably owned by one of Gotham's many criminal syndicates. This had been gang versus gang …
And someone had led him straight to it.
He rocketed up into the sky without a word, vanishing between blinks of an eye, and soared through the stratosphere angrily. Gotham was seven hundred miles from Metropolis, but he covered the distance in a matter of minutes. Dropping down from the sky, he slowed his speed to subsonic and darted toward Lois' apartment. She answered his knock with bleary eyes.
Lois hurried him out of her apartment less than an hour after he arrived – she was supposed to be interviewing the governor today and absolutely had to get some sleep if she was going to be sharp enough to catch him in the lies she expected him to provide when questioned about the campaign irregularities uncovered by the Planet – so Clark returned to Gotham and his hotel room. There was no transmitter hidden in the walls as he'd feared and the television was just a television, so he turned on ESPN and watched the tail end of a football game between two teams he could honestly care less about. Sleep was out of the question, especially with the far too routine sounds of gunfire in the distance and the constant wail of sirens. How even a normal human managed to tune this noise out was beyond him.
The following day should have been a repeat of the first, but Clark decided to go to WayneTech instead of doing more man-on-the-street interviews. His Planet credentials worked and he soon found himself chatting with one of WT's junior executives about the stolen merchandise. The list of missing stolen equipment was eclectic – there were three prototype suits of light battle armor intended for the infantrymen of the future, a wide variety of electronic equipment that ran the gamut from eavesdropping and surveillance to miniaturized low-light gear, and a host of other non-lethal crowd control weapons. It was the latter section of the list that honestly interested Clark the most since he couldn't think of a reason why a terrorist would actually want such a thing.
Mister White wasn't especially impressed with his progress when he reported in later that day, though he was certainly curious about the angle Clark outlined. The rumored Bat-Man had never been more than tabloid fodder until recently – after Zod and the other Kryptonians forced Clark into the limelight, it was harder to ignore the notion of a guy dressed up like a bat running around Gotham – and gave the greenlight for Clark to keep digging.
But Clark kept running into dead ends.
The GCPD refused to comment – the official stance on the Bat-Man was that he was an urban legend, and that Gotham did not and would not tolerate vigilantes – and none of the people who would go on record about the Bat were remotely believable. Clark took to lurking in the clouds at night, using his enhanced vision to try and locate this guy, and even that wasn't very fruitful. Oh, he stepped in and stopped more than a few crimes, but made sure to do so at speeds too quick for normal people to even comprehend so Gordon wouldn't have a panic attack, but the Bat remained elusive. Clark began to wonder if he even existed.
On the sixth day of his investigation – the last day as Mister White had made it clear the Planet was done with this story unless something major broke – an immense explosion tore open one of the numerous heavy cargo ships sitting in the Port of Gotham. Clark didn't even hesitate to dive toward the crippled ship and he spent the next three and a half hours ensuring the fire didn't spread to the other ships in the area. As the largest inland general cargo port in America, Gotham's docks were always busy and Clark had little doubt more than a small portion of the shipping was illegal, but that wasn't important at the moment.
His presence drew quite a number of cameras and onlookers – even Gordon showed up with the mayor and commissioner – but, for a change, none of the people in charge screamed for him to leave. In fact, the mayor was effusive in his praise. If you listened to him, the city itself would have been burned to the ground if it wasn't for Clark. When he climbed into the sky, satisfied that he'd done all he could to help, Clark let his forced smile fade. Barely thirty minutes into the rescue efforts, he'd discovered the remnants of an explosive aboard the ship and it took him another hour to discover that the ship itself was manned with only a skeleton crew who would have had plenty of time to escape if the ship couldn't be saved. This entire event had been a distraction.
A quick patrol over the city revealed the true target: one of LexCorp's subsidiaries had been broken into. Clark peered through the walls and noted with a dark frown that whoever was responsible was long gone. He shook his head in muted admiration and returned to the hotel room.
Instantly, Clark knew someone else had been here. He scanned the room quickly, finding no less than four bugs, one of which was actually a miniature camera spliced into the hotel's cable network. The bugs themselves matched the models of those stolen from the WayneTech facility so Clark squared his shoulders and looked directly into the tiny camera.
"I'm not your enemy," he said calmly. "I think we're on the same side." The abrupt ring of the courtesy phone caused him to jump and he shot the camera a wry smirk before picking up the handset.
"Clocktower," a dark voice ordered. "We need to talk."
It wasn't difficult to locate the Clocktower. Centered in Old Gotham, it dominated the district and looked down on the smaller buildings like an older, wiser sibling. Gothic and ornate, it looked to belong more to a city somewhere in Europe than here in the United States, and Clark took a long moment to admire it. He located a mostly concealed but open hatch near the roof and floated down through it, halfway expecting an explosion or machine gun fire or something else. What he found instead was a workshop filled with the kind of lab equipment one would expect to find in a police station. A wall monitor dominated the far wall – the computer attached to it was using WayneTech's new Oracle operating system, Clark noticed with a smile – and flashing across the screen were blueprints, medical reports and other scientific reports. His good humor dwindled the moment Clark noticed the distinct LexCorp symbol stamped on most of the documents.
"Lex Luthor is investigating means to neutralize you and your abilities," the Bat-Man declared as he stepped out of a shadow off to Clark's left. His voice was gruff but to Kryptonian ears, the low pitched hum betrayed the electronic devise disguising the man's vocal patterns. He was a large man and the heavily-modified combat armor he wore did little to impede his movements. Clark glanced once at the man's belt – at least three different gadgets were active – then back up to meet the opaque lenses hiding the man's eyes. He concentrated ever so slightly and, to his vision, the concealing mask fell away to reveal the man's identity. Clark blinked.
That wasn't what he expected.
"I wish I could say that surprises me," he said as he crossed his arms. "I've known he was up to something, but I didn't know what."
"There's more," the Bat-Man said. He nodded toward the screen which changed to a grainy photograph of General Swanwick. The general was holding some sort of device in his left hand – it wasn't quite a glove, but definitely extended halfway up the man's forearm and wrapped around his hand while leaving his fingers free. Clark frowned.
"That symbol there on his hand," he murmured. "I've seen it before."
"Is it Kryptonian?" There was a distinct, accusative tone to the question and Clark shrugged.
"I have no idea," he replied. "I didn't even know I was Kryptonian until seven months ago."
"Since the general came into contact with this object," the Bat-Man said, "his actions and activities have significantly changed. Where before he resisted certain of Luthor's more esoteric experiments, now he seems to have directed Luthor in certain directions." A click of the remote device hidden behind his cape later, the screen shifted to several wiring schematics. "The ongoing Project: Metallo is one such example as is LexCorp's latest defense contract which replaces and upgrades numerous computer targeting systems for the military." Clark inhaled – he had heard all about both from Lois over dinner last week – and kept his eyes on screen.
"So what do you recommend, Mister Wayne?" he asked without looked at the armored figure. He could almost sense the shock in the other man and finally looked him. "I looked through your mask," he said. "It only seemed fair since you bugged my hotel room." The other man frowned – his heartbeat returned to normal, but his body language displayed his discomfort.
"We need more information," Bruce Wayne said. "If the device Swanwick encountered is Kryptonian, we need to know what it does." His frown deepened. "I had hoped you would know since you're Kryptonian, but … you were raised as human, weren't you?"
"I was." Clark glanced away. "I … I might have an idea." He turned toward Wayne. "I retrieved what was left of the scoutship Zod crashed." It hadn't been easy and he knew for a fact that the government had secured numerous other pieces, but the majority of the craft he'd relocated to somewhere safe. The small shuttle Zod had used to reach the scout ship had still been parked on the ice and, to Clark's continued fascination, the two vessels had effectively merged into one over the last few months. "The database aboard isn't complete, but we might be able to use it." Wayne was silent but nodded and strode toward the computer. He shut down and unhooked a portable hard drive and offered it to Clark.
"I'm trusting you with this," he said flatly. Clark smirked.
"If you like," he replied, "you can keep it." His smile deepened. "Up for a road trip?"
As it turned out, Wayne wasn't enthusiastic about being flown to the North Pole but had a personal plane that he was interested in giving a test flight. It was of a design Clark had never seen before, but then, he'd never been much of an aeronautical buff even before he learned he could fly. Clearly designed or at least retrofitted to fit in with Wayne's Bat motif, it had swept wings and just looked aggressive as hell. It was also a one-seater, which meant Clark would have to fly under his own power which suited him fine. Of all his gifts, flight was easily his favorite. Wayne gave him a hands-free headset that somehow filtered out the noise of the air around them so they could talk. Under normal circumstances, the jet wouldn't be able to make this flight without having to refuel, but Clark solved that be scanning its underbelly to locate the strong points, then carrying the aircraft on his back. Six months ago, when he first started flying, this would have been impossible to accomplish, but he'd grown much stronger since then.
It took several hours to reach the site of the Kryptonian scout craft, which gave Clark plenty of time to think. Most of his interest was directed at the billionaire sitting in the jet above him – Clark's investigations and research over the last week had turned up few indications that Wayne was dangerously unhinged. Okay, that wasn't entirely true since the man did dress up like a bat and beat up criminals, despite being in the top ten on Forbes' list, but from what Clark had seen of Gotham thus far, Wayne was lucky to be this sane. The tragic loss of his parents when he was a kid was a well known story, especially since most of the subsequent reports were inevitably laced with disapproval over the latest antics of Gotham's first prince. If only they knew …
He only briefly gave thought to the mess involving Swanwick and Luthor, but quickly turned his attention to something else. At the moment, he didn't have enough information and making decisions without all the variables was a certain way to disaster. Instead, he focused on what they did know and that curious three-circled symbol he knew he'd seen somewhere before. But where?
Snow and ice had covered up the slowly regenerating scout craft, leaving only the doorway accessible, so Wayne's black plane looked ridiculously exposed once they'd landed. Clark almost smiled at the armored man's sour look – he looked as out of place here as his plane – and then led the way into the Kryptonian vessel. Instantly, the hologram of Jor-El materialized and, not for the first time, Clark felt his stomach clench. Thus far, he'd been unable to do more than retrieve his biological father's appearance and vocal patterns; whatever Zod did when he was here had stripped away the personality.
"Greetings, Kal-El," the hologram said emotionlessly. "I am detecting an unauthorized human. Do you wish to sound an alert?"
"No," Clark said. "He's a guest."
"Reclassifying. How may I be of assistance?" Clark glanced at Wayne and this time, he did smile at the way the billionaire was looking around with open interest.
"Are you capable of reading data from an Earth hard drive?" Clark asked. "We have a potential Kryptonian symbol we want to research."
"Unknown." The hologram turned toward a wall that folded out into a wide shelf with a small depression. "I will endeavor to accomplish this task to my utmost capability." Wayne extracted the hard drive from a pouch hidden at the small of his back and placed it on the shelf.
"If I'd know you were going to do this," he growled, "I would have just printed a copy of the picture for you." Clark shrugged.
"Accessing," the hologram of Jor-El stated. A horizontal bar of light began crawling down the length of his body and it took Clark a moment to realize that is was simply a progress bar. At the midway point, it stalled and the far wall transformed into a crude three-dimensional image of General Swanwick holding the weird device. "Query," the hologram declared, "is this the artifact you are inquiring about?"
"It is," Clark said. Once again, Wayne was studying the technology on display with open envy and fascination.
"Confirmed Kryptonian origin." The image flashed and transformed to a different device, but one that bore the same three circle sigil. "Brain InterActive Construct," the hologram continued. "Artificial intelligence developed by Kryptonian scientists four hundred solar cycles ago. Intended to maintain day-to-day operations of Kryptonian birthing matrix, it was deactivated ninety-three planetary rotations after its initial deployment. Thirty-seven warrior caste were killed implementing the deactivation."
"Okay," Clark muttered. He glanced at Wayne who was frowning. "Why was it deactivated?"
"Brain InterActive Construct was deemed dangerously unsuitable for the task it was developed for and was considered a malicious intelligence intent solely on self-preservation as opposed to successful continuation of Kryptonian bloodlines." The hologram tilted its head. "Senior Scientist Jor-El reopened Brain InterActive Construct research in his thirty-second cycle but intentionally severed all higher functions."
"Jor-El." Wayne glanced at him. "Relation of yours?"
"My father," Clark replied. "Why did Jor-El reopen this research?"
" There is no data on this." The hologram tilted its head again. "Warning: Brain InterActive Construct algorithms detected." Clark's breath caught.
"Where?" he demanded. The wall shifted and transformed yet again, this time reforming into a relief map. From the looks of it, the signal emanated from Nevada…
"Groom Lake," Wayne growled. "But what is the objective?"
"Brain InterActive Construct upload to planetary satellite system appears active," the hologram continued.
"We need to go now," Clark snapped. He eyed the hologram. "Do you have the frequency of the headsets we're using."
"Then monitor the upload progress and provide us status reports every ten minutes."
A hundred miles north of Groom Lake, Wayne ignited his jet's engines and Clark let the Bat-plane go. He poured on the acceleration, leaving the dark aircraft behind, all the while straining his senses to their maximum. Already, he could hear the sound of sirens, even at this distance, and two highly advanced aircraft were beginning to orient toward him. Tilting his head slightly, he concentrated.
"Mayday, mayday," one of the pilots was saying into his radio. "I am declaring an emergency! I have no control over my aircraft!" A flash of light was Clark's first warning that missiles had been fired and a moment later, four fast-moving objects streaked toward him. A normal person wouldn't have had time to react, but Clark banked hard, corkscrewing through the clouds while focusing on the heat behind the back of his eyes. One of the missiles exploded outright, while two others abruptly curved down and smashed into the ground. The fourth missile tried to follow his tight turn which gave him enough time to send another pulse of fire at it.
"The jets are under the Construct's control," Wayne said, his voice easily picked out among the noise. "They're trying to eject but-"
"I'm on it!" Clark shouted. He pushed harder and streaked down toward the first of the jets. The pilot was struggling with the ejection controls and visibly jumped when Clark slid alongside him. Without warning, the jet rolled – it definitely wasn't the pilot's doing as Clark could see both of the man's hands – and very briefly tried to go evasive. Grimacing, Clark pursued. He punched his left hand into the fuselage of the jet, then tore the clear canopy free with his other hand. The pilot gave him a quick thumbs up before gesturing toward the ejection seat. Clark nodded his understand and simply ripped the seat free before tossing the whole apparatus (complete with the pilot) away from the out of control aircraft. After ensuring the parachute had deployed, he pushed away from the jet and accelerated toward the other one which was now banking toward him. Gunfire erupted around him – the bullets slammed into him with terrific force and it hurt – and he darted forward underneath the jet, trailing his right hand through the fuselage. Smoke exploded outward as he arced up through the exhaust and back toward the nose. As before the pilot was gesturing, though this time, he was pointing away from the crippled jet. Clark followed the direction they man was pointing and nearly cursed.
The other jet, now unmanned, was still mobile and had reoriented toward them. A long tongue of fire flashed out as the plane's gun erupted. Reacting without hesitation, Clark blurred forward, tearing the canopy free of the jet he was currently atop and pulling the ejection seat free with both hands. Metal shrieked and tore, but he ignored it as he half-turned his head and concentrated on the approaching jet. Heat sprang from his eyes and, a heartbeat later, the aircraft vanished in an immense fireball. A quick glance at the pilot he'd just rescued confirmed the man hadn't been hit, but in his haste to get him free, Clark realized he'd damaged the ejection seat.
"Hang on!" he shouted to the pilot as he kicked off the second plane as it spiraled toward the ground, the seat still in gripped in one hand. The pilot started screaming as Clark angled them toward the parachute of the other man and it took Clark a half second to realize the screams were laughter and glee.
He touched down alongside the first pilot, now grounded and extracting himself from his seat, and lightly placed the second pilot down.
"Are you all right?" he asked the two men even as he scanned them with his enhanced senses.
"Holy hell, that was awesome!" the second pilot – his nametag identified him as Hal Jordan, Captain – exclaimed as he rapidly unstrapped himself.
"Thanks to you," the other pilot – Steve Trevor, Major – replied. He glowered at the smoking craters that were the two crashed jets. "Everything just went haywire," he said before glancing in the direction of the military base. Clark did the same, wincing at the sight unfolding before him. Soldiers and airmen were taking fire from vehicles and equipment that should not have been able to operate independently. He drew breath to tell the two pilots to stay here, but both of them had already drawn their sidearms and were starting to jog in the base's direction. Clark smirked.
"This isn't going to be comfortable," he warned as he slid closer to them and took a careful hold of the harnesses they wore over their flight suits. "But I think I can get you there more quickly."
"Outstanding!" Jordan declared with a broad grin that earned him a sour look from Trevor.
He released them a hundred feet or so from the base outskirts so they could join a team of armed Marines before flashing forward to assist with the unexpected attacks. A trio of heavy battlesuits – they reminded Clark of the one in District 9 and the stylized LexCorp logo embossed upon their chests didn't surprise him in the slightest – pursued a squad of unarmed airmen scrambling for cover, but shifted their attacks toward him the instant he appeared. Energy blasts of unknown origin flashed out from the three battlesuits, narrowly missing him as he blurred forward. A quick x-ray glance confirmed the suits were empty so he punched through the first, tore the arm off the second and flash-fried the third. Even as the armless mech staggered in a circle, desperately trying to orient its other arm on him, Clark stepped closer and kicked its legs out from under it. He smashed a fist down through its power core before it had even struck the ground.
"Superman!" one of the Air Force personnel cried out. She pointed toward something behind him and Clark began to turn.
And a solid wall of crimson light picked him up and threw him into a truck.
Metal squealed as he pulled himself free and he glanced up. Icy shock coursed through his body at the sight before him. General Swanwick … or rather, what was left of the general strode slowly through the carnage. His right arm was gone and in its place was a long cybernetic device that seemed to shift and transform in the same way that the world engine thing had changed. Half of the general's face was missing, exposing what should have been bone but looked instead like glossy metal. His left eye gleamed red. A quick scan with his senses revealed Clark's worst fears – there was hardly anything left of Swanwick. Bones had been altered somehow and turned into a dense, hypersteel. Where the heart should have been was … something else, something mechanical and organic, all at the same time. Trillions of tiny … things swam through the Construct's veins but they weren't blood cells.
"Ah, Kal-El," the general said in a voice that was most definitely not his. "I had not anticipated this engagement to occur so soon." The thing that was no longer human continued its slow approach. "You are aware of my identity?"
"The Brain InterActive Construct," Clark replied. He pushed the ruined truck away. Behind Swanwick, he caught sight of a flash of movement entering a building – it was Wayne, which meant he must have ejected from his jet over the base – but kept his attention on the former general. "How are you still operational?" he demanded. "You should have died with Krypton."
"Indeed, I should have." The Construct lifted its cybernetic arm. "One of General Zod's scientists – Jax-Ur – reactivated me. I believe he intended to use my capabilities to displace the general." The Construct's arm shifted to something that almost resembled a hand. "This primitive creature encountered my core matrix and erroneously believed I was simply another weapon." The Construct looked up and met Clark's eyes. "He intended to use this weapon against you, should it become necessary."
"What the hell is that?" A squad of marines had come within visual distance and their forward progress faltered at the sight of the Construct. "What did it do to the general?"
"I remade him," the Construct announced. "And through him, I will remake this world."
"Not a chance," Clark replied. He blurred forward, heat exploding from his eyes, but two feet away from the Construct, he slammed into an unseen wall and rebounded. In mid-air, he righted himself and froze in place.
"Your actions are not logical, Kal-El," the Construct announced, turning its back on the marines. "These primitive creatures are not worth your concern."
"On the contrary," Clark replied tightly, "they're the reason I'm here." He tapped the House of El crest. "This means hope," he said, his eyes still searching for a weak point. "But you're just a machine. You can't understand."
"Perhaps." The Construct glanced away …
And four more battlesuits tore through a warehouse wall. These were armed differently than the first three and they opened fire instantly. Bullets and energy blasts tore through the ranks of the Marines in the half second before Clark could reach them, but he shoved aside the guilt that surged through his stomach as he blurred forward to engage the exo-suits. Rockets streaked through the air, slugs whined past his air, and Clark pushed himself to move faster than ever before. He took blasts meant for the defending Marines, batted aside ordinance intended to blow them to pieces, and walked his own heat-vision across the attacking automatons. Beside and around him, the Marines responded, unleashing their own firepower against the exo-suits.
"We got this!" one of the Marines shouted to Clark. "You take out that Brain Construct thing!" The man was wounded but did not stop firing. Clark nodded and threw himself into the sky once more.
He hit the Construct at just under Mach One, smashing through the invisible force screen with a boom that leveled one of the massive antennas the Construct had turned his attention to. Fire flashed from Clark's eyes, burning away more of the late general's flesh to reveal a skeleton of pure metal. The Construct's eyes gleamed as well and suddenly, searing pain exploded through Clark's body. A metal fist smashed into his face, sending him stumbling back into another antenna.
"Your actions are not logical, Kal-El," the Construct declared. Its right hand shifted and transformed into a cannon-like device. "I cannot allow you to interfere with my primary programming." Crimson light blasted from the being's arm.
And the pain. Oh, God, the pain. Clark dropped to his knees and struggled to keep from screaming. Weight pressed in on him, crushing him, squeezing his organs and bones. He couldn't breathe.
"As you see, Kal-El," the Construct said, his voice reaching Clark's ears despite the agony coursing through him, "I have already anticipated this encounter. Nothing you do is adequate." Clark groaned and once more tried to struggle to his feet.
An explosion of fire suddenly wreathed the Construct, staggering it and knocking the energy cannon that was its right arm off-target. A second and third blast rattled the former general and Clark glanced up as the agony evaporated. The Marines had taken down the last of the exo-suits and somehow, seized control of the weapons. They laid down a withering barrage of fire against the Construct, hurling grenades and rocket-propelled incendiaries and regular bullets. Air Force personnel, among them the two pilots Clark had rescued, joined the onslaught, and it was just intense enough to give Clark a moment to recover.
"I need two more minutes to jam his frequency," Bruce Wayne's voice drifted through the air, inaudible to everyone but a Kryptonian. Grimacing, Clark shook his head to clear it, narrowed his eyes, and blurred forward once again.
He hit the Construct with everything he had, the shockwave shattering glass and knocking several of the attacking military personnel to the ground. The Construct reeled back, but Clark pressed on, grabbing the right arm as it began to alter and squeezing tightly. He heard and felt the metal tear, but didn't let up.
"Keep shooting!" he bellowed as he smashed his other fist into the Construct's torso. Heat erupted from his eyes nonstop, burning away the last scraps of the former general's uniform and melting entire chunks of the Construct's skeleton. It tried to speak but Clark didn't hear it over the rain of steel erupting from the defenders' firearms and his own shouts. He pulled hard and felt the cyborg's arm come lose. Sparks and something that was not blood splashed out, igniting almost instantly under the torrent of heat erupting from Clark's eyes. The Construct shook and twitched and spasmed ….
And Clark punched his fist through its chest.
He tore out the thing that was not a heart and crushed it. Instantly, the Construct froze in place and a barely audible hum began building rapidly. Without thinking, Clark threw himself and the thing that was no longer human into the sky.
The Construct exploded before he could breach the atmosphere and the sudden detonation smashed into Clark with crushing force. He tumbled end over end, barely conscious, and fell toward the Earth with increasing velocity. His impact shook the ground and he staggered back to his feet, ears ringing and vision blurry. It took several long minutes before he regained his equilibrium enough to retake the skies.
By the time he reached the military base – what had Wayne called it? Groom Lake? – the situation looked to be well in hand. The fires caused by the Brain InterActive Construct's unexpected attack were being tended to and medics were checking over the wounded. Clark touched down next to the senior of the two pilots who was in deep conversation with the wounded Marine.
"What the hell was that thing?" the Marine demanded immediately. He had captain rank, Clark finally noticed, and his nametag read STEWART.
"And what did it do to the general?" Major Trevor asked.
"It was the Brain InterActive Construct," Clark replied tightly. "One of Zod's scientists reactivated it when he shouldn't have and it … it altered the general. Rewrote him, I guess you could say." As he spoke, Clark scanned the base for any sign of Wayne but found none. He did find Lex Luthor, slowly regaining consciousness, in a room with a bank of computers. From the looks of things, he'd been treated rather roughly, though Clark didn't know if it was Wayne who was responsible or the Construct.
"Brain Inter … that's a mouthful," Captain Stewart muttered. "Brainiac. Let's call him that."
"There's going to be a lot of questions about this," Major Trevor said. He offered Clark his hand. "But those of us here know whose side you're on." Clark smiled and returned the handshake, taking care not to crush the major's hand.
"Thank you, Major." He shook Captain Stewart's hand as well before pushing up off the ground. The surviving soldiers shouted and cheered as he rose toward the sky, and he threw a quick salute to them all. He glanced back once and, the last thing he saw of Groom Lake was Lex Luthor, standing in the doorway of a building and glaring at him.
For the next few weeks, things were crazy.
Luthor spun the story in the media as being Clark's fault and a sizeable percentage of the population seemed to believe him right up to the point where an anonymous source released actual recordings of the incident that clearly showed Clark actively defending or fighting alongside the military personnel against automated weapon systems that prominently wore the LexCorp logo. Major Trevor – now Lieutenant Colonel Trevor – and Captain Stewart testified before Congress about the incident, which was carried on all of the major networks, and both men were quite vocal in their refusal to blame any bit of what was being called the Brainiac Incident on him. The public clamored for his side of the story and finally, 'Superman' gave an official interview with a reporter.
Lois thought it was hysterical that the person he turned to was none other than Clark Kent, rookie reporter for the Daily Planet.
The interview cemented his place at the Planet, at least for the time being, although Clark found it increasingly difficult to juggle his dual roles as ace (but still relatively new) reporter and caped superhero. He had his suspicions that Mister White knew about his alternate identity, but to Clark's relief, the older man never treated him any differently. When he screwed up – which was fairly often, actually – Perry chewed him out just like he chewed out everyone else, and when he scored big – as was the case with the Superman interview – Mister White simply asked when his next story was coming.
A week after the Brainiac incident, Clark received a text message from an unlisted number that read simply Gotham. He ducked out of the office – officially, he was chasing a lead – and flew out of Metropolis, still in his regular slacks and dress shirt. Wayne Manor was on the edge of Gotham and he hovered in the clouds for several minutes, scanning the surrounding environs for anyone who might see him arrive. When he knocked on the door, an older man with a thing mustache answered.
"Mister Kent, I presume?" the man asked in a distinctly British accent. Clark smiled.
"Clark," he said as he offered his hand. "I guess I'm expected."
"You are, sir." The butler – if that's what he was; Clark had no idea – led him through several cavernous rooms, several of which were larger than the Kent house before finally stopping outside an open door. He tapped lightly on the wood. "Mister Kent to see you, sir."
Bruce Wayne was still dressed in a robe despite it being three in the afternoon, but his demeanor as he greeted Clark was nothing like the vapid airhead so many people saw in the interviews on television. From where he sat behind his desk, he nodded.
"Thank you, Alfred. Would you like coffee, Mister Kent? Or tea?"
"Coffee's fine," Clark replied. The butler – Alfred – made a discreet exit. "I'm presuming he knows about your nightlife?" Clark asked with a smile as he took a seat in one of the chairs in front of the desk.
"I've been reviewing the data from the Groom Lake incident," Wayne said, as if Clark had not even spoke, "and I've made some troubling discoveries. Before we shut it down, the Brain InterActive Construct uploaded a considerable amount of its code to a number of satellites around Earth." Clark frowned.
"And?" he asked.
"And several of those satellites have since sent transmission pulses to various spots in the galaxy." Wayne leaned back. "I don't think this is over." Clark sighed.
"No," he muttered. "I don't either."
A/N #2: Even though the official releases have Bruce Wayne as being older than Clark in MoS 2, I'm going the opposite way. My Bruce is younger, mid-twenties, just starting out but already full of awesome.
I'm mentally using the maps from DCOnline for Gotham and Metropolis.
In my version of the DC Universe, there is no Chicago or New York. They're replaced with Gotham and Metropolis respectively.