In Bruce's dreams, it was wildflowers. Every graveyard was the same, a sea of tall grass that lashed about his legs, and as he waded through this testament to neglect, he would gather a fistful of lupines and Queen Anne's lace. He would walk to the grave or into the mausoleum and he would place the bouquet, and he would look at it, leaning spindly and inadequate against a monument to someone he had failed. Sometimes he would touch the name, and sometimes it would change under his fingers.
Then the dream would turn. Beyond that point, no two were the same except for how they ended.
Awake, in a manicured cemetery outside of Smallville, he brought Clark Kent lilies. Winter had crisped the grass to brown, and Bruce's ragged grocery-store bouquet was strikingly white and green against it, the headstone, the overcast sky. The weather was cold and breezy; a ribbon snaked past him in the air, escaped from some other grave offering.
He'd have liked to say something. By rights, he should have been better at talking to graves. In the last year, he'd had a hundred conversations from which Clark had been ringingly, unforgettably absent. Now the man himself lay six feet beneath Bruce's shoes, and—what to say?
Sorry. Things are coming along. I'll do better this time.
This was pointless; he shouldn't have come. He stayed anyway, waiting for words, or a sense of satisfaction, or to wake panting with the feeling of Clark's dead hand around his throat. When he heard a tread on the footpath behind him, he stood still and waited for it to pass by, but it crossed the grass and approached him tentatively. From the sound of the shoes and the length of the stride, probably a woman of above-average height, and not here on business. Not here for Bruce Wayne or for the Bat. When she was just behind him he stepped aside from the foot of the grave, and half-turned to meet the eye of Clark's mother.
She had her hair up, and a couple of tall sunflowers in the crook of her arm. "You're Bruce Wayne," she said, then half-covered her mouth like she'd committed a faux pas.
Not the time to play dumb. "You're Martha Kent," he said, and offered his hand. She shook it; both their hands were chilly. Her gaze bounced from that damn mole on his cheek to the cleft of his chin to his eyes.
"I sent a thank-you note after the funeral, but I don't know if that sort of thing reaches you," she said. "So it's lucky I can thank you in person, I guess."
Bruce put on a smile. "Why would you need to thank me?"
"Oh, come. A billionaire attends the same funeral some mysterious benefactor paid for. Turns out the Wayne Foundation covered half the funeral expenses related to the—" She stopped. The press had a lot of names for the destruction last year. Bruce couldn't blame her for not liking any of them.
"Guilty," he said, rather than make her fumble for the rest of the sentence.
"You and Clark were—friends?"
He had told her that, hadn't he. "He shook me down for sound bites at an event once," Bruce said now. She gave him a narrow, skeptical look, and he went on, "We spoke a few other times. Mostly to disagree. But I think we would have seen eye to eye eventually."
"I'm sorry there wasn't time," Mrs. Kent said, looking at the grave.
Bruce rubbed his face, and didn't speak until he was sure he wouldn't sound angry; he kept the edges of his voice round and soft. "Don't comfort me about the death of your son, Mrs. Kent. I'm—sorry for your loss. You raised a good man. That's all I meant."
"Well, thank you," Martha Kent said, "but I'm still sorry. He was so lost in Metropolis, he could've used a friend."
The low turnout at his funeral had suggested as much. Of course his mother would frame him that way, as her lonely son adrift in the big city, rather than as the sort of distant and forbidding figure—however decent he had turned out to be, however much he had been willing to give up for the lives of others—that people would naturally not flock to socially.
"My shy boy," she said, mostly to herself, and stooped to place one of the sunflowers on Clark's grave, snugging it up against Bruce's staid white lilies. The other one went to the grave directly to the right of Clark's, which Bruce's eye had passed over when he first approached: Jonathan Kent, two decades in the ground this year.
"Anyway," Bruce said, when the silence stretched too long, "I don't mean to intrude. Have a good evening, Mrs. Kent."
He turned away from the grave and the flowers and the mourning woman, and had made it a few strides when Martha Kent said from behind him, "Can I offer you some dinner?"
Bruce glanced back at her, standing between the headstones of her husband and son and extending hospitality to him. The wind pulled a lock of her hair free and she corralled it impatiently behind her ear.
"It won't be fancy," she added.
"Well, I was just going to have a protein shake and a martini in my hotel room," he said.
"I've got gin."
He followed her pickup back to the farm in his rental, careful not to drive like he knew the way. Their encounter a year ago had led him here before, though not in person: he knew the Kent farm from stolen satellite photos that showed the hole in the barn roof, the house caved in by a thrown truck, the tree out front in full leaf. Now the tree was bare, the house rebuilt, the barn haphazardly patched; the cornfield that stretched away to the east was shorn down to stubble for the winter.
"It's a bit of a mess," Martha said, hesitating with her key in the lock. A dog whined longingly on the other side of the door.
"I don't plan to look very far past the rim of my glass," Bruce said. She shrugged and led him inside.
It was just a house. Bruce hadn't expected anything else. This was the engine that had propelled Superman, per his research: a home in the country, an anonymous upbringing, all the milestones of a human life measured out upon an alien. He still found himself frozen in the entryway, taking it in, while the dog wriggled up to him and asked to be petted, while Martha hung up his coat. In his mind Clark Kent was a larger-than-life figure in blue and red, ripping open the Batmobile, giving up his life, but he wouldn't have looked like that when he stood where Bruce now stood. He must have fit somehow, among the sheer white curtains and the framed photos.
"Can I help with anything?" said Bruce, once Martha had led him into the kitchen. He made a point of looking around like he had never seen the inside of such a room before.
"How about this," Martha said, gently removing a spatula from his hand. "You're on drinks duty." She rounded up gin, tonic water, tumblers, knife, and popped a tray of ice for him, then transferred a basket of citrus fruit from the counter to the kitchen table with a decisive thump. "Can you—"
Either his posture of helplessness was working better than intended, or she was fucking with him. "I think I can figure it out," he said, with a grin that wouldn't inspire confidence. "I've seen it done enough times." She gave him exactly the look he deserved, but turned to inventory the refrigerator while he cut a lime.
Once Martha had her drink in hand, Bruce waited for her attention to return to her dinner preparations, and wandered out into the living room. He'd pulled this in dozens of mansions and corporate offices, poor Brucie, perpetually looking for the bathroom; it wasn't really the maneuver for a compact farmhouse with only two human occupants, but Martha let him go without comment.
The living room wore the scars of Zod's visit more clearly than the kitchen or entry had. The seam in the northwest corner where new drywall met the old plaster, the spackled pockmarks where debris had peppered the undestroyed wall, the scratches in the floor partly hidden by overlapping throw rugs. He ran his fingers along the contents of two new flat-pack shelf units and the battered hardwood bookcase they stood next to. Tape crackled on the spines of salvaged volumes: westerns, cozy mysteries, airport thrillers, librettos; a scattering of nonfiction, denser as his eye wandered toward the bottom shelves. First classical philosophy, then legal and natural history, then physics and cognitive science. Military science fiction up top, anthropological science fiction down below. Either Martha Kent had a varied palate and an idiosyncratic shelving system, or this library represented the tastes of three people, two of them dead.
He crouched, pulled a book from down low, and scanned the back, then the introduction: a survey of theories of consciousness. Or, to put it another way, a book full of nitty-gritty accounts of how humans experienced their own minds. Something an alien might use to keep his story straight.
"I never did figure out how to throw away a book," Martha said, standing in the doorway with her empty glass in hand.
"Don't you mean 'donate'?" said Bruce, and she laughed.
"It's a little different for the rest of us, Mr. Wayne. I'm not sure anyone needs another Miss Marple I dropped in the bath."
"Call me Bruce." He slid the book back where it had come from. It was enough just to know the title and author, for later.
"Bruce. I'm Martha."
"Can I get you another round?"
Bruce straightened, and she placed her glass in his hand, then walked back into the kitchen, back to whatever she was doing at the counter. Beating egg whites. Souffle?
"Tell you what else you can do for me," she said. "Clark's room is the first on the right, at the top of the stairs. There's a stack of boxes, you can't miss them. Pack one for yourself."
Bruce froze with a wedge of lime half-squeezed in his hand. "Mrs. Kent—"
"Martha," she said again.
"I didn't come here hunting for mementos."
"You'd be doing me a favor," she said, intent upon the eggs. "There's so much to go through, and it's just going to gather dust up there while I avoid it."
"I can't ... I can't take your son's things."
"They're just things, Bruce." She sighed; her whisk paused, then resumed. "You wouldn't be drinking my gin right now if I thought you'd come just for souvenirs. Even if you had, it's mostly books. You came because you wanted to know about Clark, not to have dinner with an old woman, and that's fine."
Bruce refrained from informing her that there was no alcohol in his drink, which he hadn't touched anyway. He topped topped up her second round and hesitated behind her with it in his hand. "You could always just talk to me about him." He imagined he could hear Alfred somewhere in the distance, laughing bitterly into a glass of scotch.
"I could, and there's a whole room of starting points up there that I can't bear to look at myself. So go right ahead. Maybe—" Her voice wavered, and she looked up at the ceiling, blinking. "Every boy has secrets from his mother, and God knows I haven't been over that room with a fine-toothed comb. Maybe you'll be able to tell me something about him I don't know, and it'll be—it'll be like—" She inhaled like it hurt her. "I really hoped he would make friends in Metropolis."
Bruce couldn't say no to that. He left her drink on the counter near the stove, and dragged himself bleeding up the stairs.
"Soup's on," she called up, after maybe thirty minutes. The house had smelled of bacon for the last ten. Bruce came back down the stairs with a box under his arm; Martha watched him, silently, as he put the box in the entryway under the hook where his coat hung, then held her again-empty glass out to him when he turned toward the kitchen.
"Belgian waffles?" he said, when she stepped back and he saw what was on the table.
"I panicked," she said unrepentantly. "They're the best thing I make, so we're having brunch. How do you take your eggs?"
"However you're making them is fine."
"Sunny side up it is."
Bruce pried more ice cubes out of the tray for round three and waited for her to ask, but she just cracked four eggs into a skillet with the casual smoothness of a closeup magician, and said nothing. The silence wasn't uncomfortable, but it was heavy with un-begun conversations. Once he'd presented Martha with her drink and had nothing to do with himself anymore, Bruce could take no more of it.
"I didn't want to help myself to anything too personal," he said, half into his glass of tonic water and lime. "But I noticed some binders marked The Smallville Torch—local paper?"
"High school paper," Martha said.
"Right. And some that look like fiction. I thought...." There had also been over a dozen journals, jammed into a cinderblock bookshelf that Bruce had rearranged slightly to correct its sag. He had thumbed through a few of the journals while he was at it, then put them back on the shelf. Not yet. He had that luxury. If he had still been investigating Clark, it would have been crucial to get at the heart of him as quickly as possible, but Clark was gone and there was no reason not to make a slower introduction.
Martha nodded, and the atmosphere eased. Maybe this had been a test. Per Lois Lane's article and Bruce's own research, the pattern of unexplained phenomena that marked out Clark's global wanderings had begun the summer of his eighteenth year; he hadn't been home much since he left for college. Most of the teenage detritus in that room had been corralled enough that Bruce could imagine a grown man sleeping there when he visited, but it was still a time capsule of a seventeen-year-old Clark Kent and the things that were important to him. His books, his games, a box of model kits, a signed baseball, a defunct laptop. A mobile of papier-mâché planets. Bruce could have chosen any number of things. The tension leaving Martha's shoulders told him he'd picked right.
"He was always such a writer. Told me he wanted to be the next LeGuin. Go ahead and sit down, get started. This'll just be a minute."
Bruce did as instructed. There were bowls of fruit and whipped cream on the table and it probably would have been rude to ignore them. "I've read some of the work he did for the Planet. He was sharp. Did he ever publish any fiction?"
"Oh, no. That was when he was fourteen, and he came to me a year later and told me he didn't have what it took to write fiction and he was devoting everything he had to the Torch." Martha used her spatula to separate the eggs; they joined the bacon on two plates. "He was heartbroken, but I couldn't talk him out of it."
"What does it take to write fiction?"
"Probably being less hard on yourself about the first thing you try that doesn't come easy," Martha said, a little offhandedly, a little sharply, then sighed. She shut off the stove, and transferred her glass and both plates to the kitchen table in one trip with no juggling or apparent thought. "That's not fair. I don't know. He never met an essay he couldn't make shine. Maybe that doesn't translate. How do you write a novel? I've driven a tractor but I couldn't tell you how to build one, and I don't imagine it'd be riveting to watch me guess at that secondhand either."
"I did ask," Bruce said.
"That you did."
They ate for a while in that busy silence that follows the commencement of a meal. The dog crept up next to Bruce and put its head in his lap. "Just push her off if she's annoying you," Martha said; Bruce stroked the dog's ears instead, and cut his food with his other hand. Martha's best was more than respectable, though he still would've laid odds on Alfred.
Bruce let the imaginary gin in his drink kick in, let it soften his posture, smiled more. He loosened his tie, pocketed his collar bar. When the conversation resumed, he played the affable businessman and drew Martha out about the Kent farm's fortunes; it took some maneuvering to get her to mention her job at the diner without letting on that he already knew, and he wasn't sure whether her resistance was the caginess of wounded pride, or an attempt to get him to show his hand first.
"One old woman can't run a farm this size," she said. The sky had cleared a little, and a sunset slanted in through the window behind her. "So I sold the cows about ten years ago—Clark was not pleased, they were his babies—and I've been renting the fields to that place down the road. That plus four shifts a week just about keeps a roof over my head."
Not to Beverly and Jim or to the Johnson farm, but to that place down the road. Bruce took his hand off the dog, which thumped its tail and quietly voiced the agony of betrayal, so he could fish his phone out of his pocket for a little research. Martha was halfway into round four and showed no evidence of caring about brunch-table smartphone etiquette. "So, that barn...."
"Tornado," she said, too promptly. He imagined she'd dissemble better if he hadn't been getting her drunk. "Almost two years ago now. Clark's—Clark wasn't handy like his father, but there are no cows to keep the rain off anymore, so here we are. Oh no you don't. I don't need to know you to know that look, young man."
"You're not exactly the only person in this room with a few grey hairs," Bruce said, because there was no point in denying that there was a look.
"I guess the dog's getting up in years too. That barn is fine and I will not have you charging in here with your money and trying to fix my life because you spoke to my son a few times."
"You won't take a favor for a favor?"
"I don't see that I've done you one. Tell you what I will trade, though: brunch for brunch. I'll be in Metropolis in a few weeks, and if you're free that day, it'd be nice to see a friendly face."
"Expecting a lot of unfriendly ones?" said Bruce, unlocking his phone again.
"We're mopping up the remains of the Extranormal Science Transparency Act," Martha said, and Bruce went still, with his thumb hovering over the icon for his scheduling app. "I'm going to be yelling at politicians all day, in uncomfortable shoes."
"I don't think I've heard anything about that," Bruce said, which wasn't completely untrue. He had pegged it as probably doomed.
"It would have required disclosure of alien artifacts, and made some kinds of research illegal." Martha rattled this sound bite off like she'd done it a hundred times. Bruce imagined her delivering it five times a day, at the diner, at the supermarket, until the edges of it wore smooth from use.
"Sounds like a good idea."
"Shame it was always going to fail," Martha said, and Bruce looked at her squarely for the first time since he'd taken out his phone. "But it started the discussion, attracted some attention. Now that it's dead, someone who actually knows how to make a law work steps in and maybe we get something done, finally."
"'We'?" said Bruce, and then, before she could reply, "'Someone who knows how to make a law work', hm?"
"Well," Martha said, chasing a slice of strawberry around her plate. "I'm more modest about it when I'm sober."
"I'll bite." Bruce illustratively forked the last of his waffle into his mouth.
"This is usually when I have to promise not to start talking legalese, and maybe change the subject," Martha said, but Bruce looked at her so expectantly and was so pointedly unable to complain around his mouthful of food that she shrugged. "Well, ESTA was proposed as an Act of Congress. Most times, you can push one of those through quickly after a—a tragedy, because no one wants to look like they don't care. But this one makes life difficult for a lot of government agencies, who we know are holding alien artifacts and Lord knows what else. There's too much resistance to get anything done at the federal level.
"But we need legislation," she went on, really warming to it now, "because they're still making damnfool decisions about this stuff—rumor mill says they're finally planning to move the ship in Metropolis somewhere more secure, and LexCorp of all people is oh so helpfully offering to transport it for free— Oh my goodness, Bruce, I could've told you that was a bad idea. Take a sip of your drink."
"I'm fine," Bruce croaked, and coughed one more time. "Sorry to interrupt. So you, what, sweeten the deal? Soften your terms?"
"You make an end run around them," Martha said, in tones of satisfaction. "Wouldn't work if Gotham and Metropolis weren't on either side of the state line—but they are, so we get a revised ESTA passed in just two states, which forms an interstate compact. Still needs congressional approval, but support is so high there after all the destruction that they'll throw us a bone. Then our foot's in the door. Other states that come on have to respect the terms of the law as written. Adoption in all fifty states is rare, but it's not impossible, like ESTA was."
"And there's your federal law," Bruce said.
"Clever. Be careful I don't hire you."
"Oh, I think I'm safe. I'm not even licensed to practice law. I'm just helping out, you know how it goes. Put a face to the families. Anyway, I didn't say it was my idea," Martha said. Bruce gave her a look. She shrugged, and added into her drink, "Maybe I also rewrote it."
"I take it you're where your son got it?"
"Lord, no," Martha said, laughing. "I'm dry as a bone. But I taught constitutional law, once upon a time, and I haven't forgotten everything."
"Is there anything the Wayne Foundation can do to help?"
"Bruce—" she began.
"Martha," he shot back, and something about it, something about the way he said that name, stopped her cold. "This is why the Wayne Foundation exists. If this law could prevent another Doomsday Event, and you really think you can make it happen, I'd want to help you no matter what I thought of your son. At least let me give you some people you can email if you need anything."
"All right. But you're still on the hook for brunch."
"Of course. What day?"
They spent a minute sorting out the details. Bruce rearranged his schedule, and a server back in Gotham notified his personal assistant that she'd need to make an apologetic phone call. The dog's anguish reached a nearly ultrasonic crescendo and then cut off when he pocketed his phone and put his hand back on her head. "Don't give her any bacon, you'll never know another minute of rest," Martha said. Bruce snuck half his remaining rasher under the table when Martha got up to find him a pad to write email addresses on.
She escorted him to the door when the food was gone. Bruce had expected to spend another hour refilling her glass and obliquely prying into her life, but some feat of Midwestern politeness aikido transformed his attempt to help her with the dishes into a gentle expulsion from her house.
"You're sure you're all right to drive?" she said as he shrugged into his coat, exactly like someone who wasn't kicking him out of her home. She was in the entryway with him, looking through the box Bruce had packed and touching the notebooks and binders inside it with just the tips of her fingers, as though she might damage them, or they might burn her.
"I'll pull over and call someone if it turns out I'm not," Bruce said, by rote. He put his hands on the box, and Martha stilled, but he didn't take it from her yet. "I could come back and read these here. You don't have to give them to me."
"With your schedule?" said Martha. She leaned up suddenly and hugged him; Bruce froze. The box was an awkward obstruction between them, and it spared him from reciprocating. "Take good care of them," she said into his ear, then pulled away, smoothing her hair and pulling her cardigan closer about herself.
"See you in a few weeks," he said inadequately, and made his escape into the clear winter night.
"I expected a magical jump jet, not a flying saucer," Bruce said. He handed a coil of cable off to Diana, who hung it over her shoulder as though it didn't weigh a hundred pounds, and held her hands out for another. "How many UFO sightings have you, personally, caused?"
"I've hardly used it for decades, and it's invisible," Diana said. "You can leave your case files open."
Invisible wasn't completely accurate, but from any great distance it might as well have been. Bruce would have had trouble spotting Diana's aircraft on the overgrown lawn of the Manor if he hadn't known to look for the region of flattened grass and the slight wavering of the air; if it had been hovering, he might have crisscrossed the grounds any number of times in his Jeep before he found it. Flying saucer was also an approximation: it had no wings, but as he walked back and forth from plane to Jeep and watched the shapes of its outline parallax in front of the fading evening sky, Bruce added fins and protuberances to his mental mock-up.
Its stairs were startlingly visible from this angle, descending from nowhere; Diana carried her load up them lightly, and disappeared from the head down as the bulk of the ship obscured her. Bruce followed her up with a couple of duffels of equipment. The interior was circles and helices, carved stone and what looked like bronze, but apparently instrument panel was a concept articulated in nearly the same way across all Earthly technologies. Bruce had to admire the effrontery of putting that much basalt in an aircraft.
On the way back down to the ground, he stopped to run his fingers along the lip where the interior of the craft met its camouflaged exterior—it was smooth and cool, metallic when he drummed his nails on it—and then the landing gear, which angled away from the center mass of the craft with the springy readiness of an insect's legs. The same part of him that balked at the sight of a man flying under his own power or a woman casually shouldering more than half her weight in steel cable tried to reject the image of his own hand wrapped around a curved spar of nothing. He jammed it into his worldview alongside everything else. His deeply programmed assumptions—that physics worked a certain way, that some feats were impossible—were no use anymore.
"I can just show it to you when we're somewhere less exposed," Diana said, disembarking behind him. The Jeep's suspension creaked when she relieved it of more cable.
"You've been so coy about it up to now, I'd hate to ruin that."
She snorted almost inaudibly on her way back up the stairs: one of her rare laughs. Bruce hauled up another couple of bags, then left her there while he garaged the Jeep and hiked back out over the grounds. He returned to find Diana lounging in the pilot's seat and the plane still real and not a strange dream he'd been having, a fact of which he'd stopped being wholly convinced the moment it was out of his sight. When she spotted him, Diana put down her book and pushed a lever that retracted the stairs and closed the hatch.
Bruce rolled up his sleeves and slithered down into the compartment under the cabin for a thrilling two hours of retro-fitting tow cable attachments onto a magic plane older than his native language. Diana fed parts and equipment down to him until things were set up, then climbed through the hatch to join him.
Two people in such a tight and irregular space should've been difficult, but as in everything they'd undertaken together since they'd met, Diana was an impeccable partner. It had taken him a while to put his finger on why, because he'd never seen the phenomenon from this angle before: this must be how it felt to be a Robin, working with someone unfathomably more seasoned who could assess him with a glance and anticipate all his moves. It wasn't a comfortable reversal. She never condescended to him unless he earned it, but he had the constant suspicion that she found him predictable and not particularly complex.
"How reliable would you say this craft is?" he asked after a while. Diana was outside his field of vision, stretched out on her back; he heard her wrench pause, then resume.
"Is this an academic question, or are you concerned about tonight?"
"Both. I'd like to know if it's going to refuse to take off because I ate dog meat once."
"Why were you eating dog meat?"
"It was offered to me. That's beside the point."
"Why would eating dog meat stop a plane from—" began Diana, with a ripple of amusement in her voice.
"It's just an example," Bruce said. "Which I picked because it's as plausible as anything else. Maybe this thing is like a normal plane, or maybe it refuses to fly on the new moon and has to be appeased with sacrifices. I have no idea."
"Sacrifices," Diana echoed. "Bruce, it's a plane." She fitted another bolt; he tested the brake on a winch. "This machine came from the forge of Hephaestus, long before the deaths of the gods. It isn't like your plane, which you could disassemble and make anew with the parts from three other planes like it. It would lose its vitality, its completeness. But it's not like an animal that has to be befriended, either. More like a sword, which only has to be understood."
Bruce considered this. "Okay."
"You still want to take it apart and see how it works, don't you."
"Don't listen to him," Diana cooed, stroking the stone surface on which they lay.
The new containment tent had gone up in Heroes Park less than a day after Lex Luthor's monster destroyed the old one. God forbid someone got access to the crash site and subverted extraterrestrial technology for their own ends. The park was harshly lit at night, and with the initial spasm of public grief a year in the past, it no longer teemed with mourners. Infrared, and whatever the hell the readouts in Diana's ship were, showed a handful of the usual late-night park denizens, plus the blaze of life inside the crash site's security perimeter. Activity was densest in the research tents and around the checkpoint, but there were some patrols inside that might make trouble.
Bruce opened the hatch and let the cool breath of Metropolis touch his face.
"Check," he said.
"I read you," Diana said, from the pilot's chair behind him but also, crisply, over his communicator. He got the impression she found his voice modulator amusing.
"Copy," Bruce said, and tugged his grapnel to make sure it was secure. "Deploying."
He leapt from the ship. He leapt, to his own eye, from nothing: he descended on a cable that anchored him to a dark square in a starry sky. No bystander would spot the hole in the heavens from which Bruce had emerged, and with no reason to look his way, no bystander would spot the rippling, irregular silhouette of the Bat. In an infiltration like this, Bruce usually had to choose between giving himself away with engine noise or tangling with security when he went in on foot; with no such dilemma, this entire mission so far had felt sedate.
It would be easy to learn to rely on Diana. She had a deep well of historical and esoteric knowledge, a suite of magical tools, and hands that could bend steel like taffy. It would be easy to get lazy. He thought sometimes that she held herself back; maybe she sensed that potential for dependence too, and she wanted to spare Bruce's self-respect, or humanity's self-reliance, or a world she might someday withdraw from again to live quietly as an art dealer or basketmaker. The real problem with all-powerful metahumans might be that you couldn't expect them to stay.
Bruce touched down on the white eggshell of the containment tent. It gave tautly under his feet. No immediate alarms.
He left the handle of his grapnel hanging and skulked along the spine of the tent, until the slope became just enough to make the footing uncertain, then tossed down the fist-sized rover he'd built for the occasion. It was just a cutting laser with wheels and a couple of algorithms, but it would free him up for the real work. It found its starting point and engaged its laser; the canopy of the tent parted like the skin of an animal under a gutting knife.
Air sighed inward, so powerfully that Bruce felt it on the exposed part of his face: the interior of the tent had been at slightly below local atmospheric pressure, to keep airborne contaminants from spilling out in a situation just like this. Bruce was reasonably sure any alien pathogens lurking in the wreck would have well and truly escaped when Lex Luthor unleashed a monster from it last year. No sudden epidemic had materialized, and the free blood test suite Wayne Medical-owned clinics offered hadn't turned up anything unusual. Still: smart move. If only they'd thought not to give a madman free run of the place.
Now there was an alarm, a gentle reet-reet at the edge of Bruce's hearing. Air pressure rather than incursion, probably. He might have been able to disable those on the way in if he'd gone in under his own power instead of airdropping, but regardless of how it started, this operation wasn't going to end stealthy.
As the slit in the canopy lengthened, tension pulled it wide, and the steel skeleton of the tent began to shoulder its way out. Through the opening, Bruce saw white lights, and the ship.
He attached his backup grapnel to a tent strut and lowered himself a hundred feet, past the scaffolding that held this place's harsh floodlights, to the dorsal surface of the ship. It rang under his boots, but it rang wrong: he didn't know this metal, and he couldn't anticipate its acoustic character. It stretched away from him in all directions, a dull grey-bronze expanse longer than a city block and about as wide. A long, melted scar traversed most of its width. Punctures marked Clark's ingress on the night of his death and the monster's exit a few minutes later. The ship had survived its long slumber under the ice without worse than scuffs, but the last few years had been hard on it.
Bruce didn't know what the ship looked like to him. A spaceship. A craft designed by a mind that shared no frame of reference with him at all, and could not conceive of adding the sort of flourishes to it that made human artifacts look like they were made for humans. He'd stolen quite a lot of classified data about it, watched footage of its crash from a dozen angles; seen up close, it still refused comparison. It looked like a spaceship.
"Deploy line one," he said.
"Mm-hmm," said Diana, who seemed to have little interest in comms protocol. He'd bother her sometime when it was important. For now, he saw the first tow line appear against the night sky and descend toward him; that would do. Its end passed through the tent supports without incident but caught on the light scaffolding, then slid sideways off it and jerked to the full length of the line. Bruce's impulse was to move to catch it, but he waited instead and let it clang to the surface of the ship: it was a lever-operated suction cup half his height across and perhaps twice his weight.
Diana had been skeptical about this part of the mission briefing, until Bruce had shown her a turnaround of the ship and asked her where she suggested he put a tow hook. He'd identified a few likely spots; she found them too. Not enough of them. On the other hand, the Kryptonian ship had a smooth upper surface hard enough to shear a skyscraper in half.
It had only taken a couple of requests to get her to stop playing with the levers. Not because he'd thought she might damage them—Bruce had never seen her slip up with her strength, and these were marine rescue gear that could take some abuse—but because ... they weren't toys, damn it.
"Deploy line two," said Bruce once the first cup was down, and watched the second descend through the lengthening slit in the canopy while he activated the lever on the first. Cup number two had to be dragged into position on the other side of the central rise of the ship; over the sound it made against the ship's dark carapace, Bruce could hear a commotion beginning at ground level. Security understood the nature of the intrusion now and would soon be making themselves annoying.
A sonorous female voice cut through the din, too muffled to decipher—was it inside the ship?—but clearly the loudest person in the room.
There was a clunk. Lights came up on the top side of the ship, harshly blue-white. Bruce had been clearly illuminated before; now he would be impossible to miss as soon as someone got line-of-sight to him.
"New user identified." The voice he'd heard now boomed melodically from some external speaker Bruce couldn't spot. "Please provide personal designation."
The hell. "Deploy line three," Bruce said. He was irritated to find he'd automatically lowered his voice. From below, he heard an engine; not a troop transport but a piece of heavy machinery, maybe a forklift.
"Deploy line three lacks the characteristics of standard names, user handles and other forms of address in this locality. Repeat personal designation to confirm."
"Is everything all right?" said Diana, but Bruce saw the third suction cup descend.
"Fine," Bruce muttered. "Some unexpected activity from the ship, but no hostilities. Deploy line four."
The fourth tow attachment emerged just as Bruce reached the third; he hastened to pull it into position, forward of the first by a quarter of the ship's length, and clamp it down. The engine was probably even with the lip of the ship now. Bruce heard someone instruct their squad to switch to non-lethal ammunition. Well, that would make this easy.
"Repeat personal designation to confirm."
"Is it speaking to you?" said Diana. "I didn't know this ship spoke. What is it saying? Also, you have a cherry-picker approaching from the ship's right."
Bruce paused just as his hands closed around the fourth tow line. "I know. I've been hearing it for a while." There was a forklift-like whir as the basket ascended.
"Repeat personal designation to confirm."
"Had you been hearing it for a while before I mentioned it?"
"I don't answer that sort of question."
"Previous designation candidate discarded. Please provide a personal designation, new user."
"Deploy line five," Bruce said.
"Deploy line five lacks the characteristics of standard names, user handles and other forms of address in this locality. Repeat personal designation to confirm."
"Fuck," Bruce said. Line four attached closest to where the cherry-picker would crest the horizon of the ship. He set the cup, then abandoned it and ran—then skidded, as the slope increased—toward the nearest point on the lip. One hand stabilized him; the other pulled his smallest-range EMP grenade from his belt, and activated its magnet.
"Are you cursing at me or someone else?"
Local SWAT had been sharing security duty with the National Guard at this site; the squad slowly rising to join Bruce was SWAT. They were about fifteen feet forward of him when he leaned out past the lip of the ship's proof, and they hadn't been expecting him to come to them. In the moment of confusion this created, Bruce tossed the grenade down at the arm of the cherry-picker, where it stuck.
"What's the ship doing? Do you need backup?"
"It wants me to create login credentials." Bruce dragged himself up to the crest of the ship. No more engine noise or mechanical whirring from below; no line of sight. The grenade activated almost silently, but it had done its job.
"Oh, I'm no good at those," Diana said.
Someone rattled up a latter toward the light scaffolding. At its top was an electrical hub that would also make a decent sniper's nest. No, three someones at different points. He'd deal with that in a moment.
"Really." Tow line five attached one quarter ship-length aft of the nose; it was a long way to drag that much rubber and metal.
"Repeat personal designation to confirm."
"I used to use Wonder Woman everywhere, but since I became a public figure again, it's always taken."
"Deploy line six," Bruce said, as the first sniper drew a bead on him. Not as much time as he'd thought; she hadn't waited to reach the ad hoc nest, just climbed high enough to see him and then swung around to the other side of the ladder so she'd have something to brace on. He dropped a smoke pellet at his feet and sank into a crouch, then burst another with his thumb and rolled it toward the sixth suction cup would strike the skin of the ship.
"Previous designation candidate discarded. Please provide a personal designation, new user."
A round cut through Bruce's concealing cloud, halfway between his current position and cup six. So the sniper was smart, but didn't have an infrared scope. Hard to say what kind of round it was. Something big and slow enough to leave ripples in the smoke, but not a dart; the report of a suppressed conventional rifle came to Bruce clearly.
He activated the lever on the fifth cup, then cracked two more pellets and rolled one toward the nose of the ship, one toward the stern, just to keep things interesting. The whole upper shell of the craft billowed with smoke, thick enough now to present a visibility problem for Bruce as well as for the snipers.
"Please provide a personal designation, new user."
An exploratory shot cut a little closer to Bruce than he liked; he tucked and rolled away. Suction cup six was twenty feet from where it needed to be, and if he dragged it into place, they'd know his location the entire time.
"Fuck," he said again, under his breath.
"User designation Fuck already assigned," the ship boomed, "Please select a unique designation, new user."
For God's sake. All right, either he had to gamble on taking multiple rounds of whatever the snipers were firing at him, or he needed a workaround.
"Funnel, ferry, bubble bath," he said.
"Bruce?" said Diana.
"Funnel ferry bubble bath lacks the characteristics of standard names, user handles, and other forms of address in this locality. Repeat personal designation to confirm."
"Nothing," Bruce said. "Deflecting the ship. How much slack can you give me on line six?"
"About eight meters."
"Can you descend about six and give me all the slack you have on all lines?"
"I can do that."
"Repeat personal designation to confirm."
"Thank you," Bruce said, which was both redundant and inappropriate to say over comms in the middle of a mission. This clusterfuck, or maybe just working with Diana, had him all out of sorts.
Around him, all of the lines drooped to meet the surface of the ship; line six in particular coiled serpentwise around its suction cup, a pile of woven steel. Bruce tossed down two more smoke pellets while he waited for it to settle, at lines four and two; give them something to think about. There was no more sniper fire, but they could be up to anything out there, and Bruce wouldn't know until the smoke cleared or they came at him through it.
"Repeat personal designation to confirm."
When line six had finished relaxing onto the ship's roof, Bruce tacked it down with a wad of putty at the first point where the descending cable touched the surface, then partly dragged, mostly pushed the suction cup the twenty feet to its destination, staying low and trying to keep quiet. The length of cable that rose up toward Diana's aircraft shook and twisted, but the putty held; the line stayed vertical instead of following Bruce.
"Previous designation candidate discarded. Please provide a personal designation, new user."
Exploratory fire punctuated his smoke cloud at intervals. They didn't have a clue where he was, though sounds from outside the range of Bruce's vision—machinery; a throng of people—told him that might not be true for much longer. Diana hadn't warned him about whatever it was, which meant that either she thought he could handle it or she was waiting to see if he would ask for her aerial perspective.
He finally got to see what they were firing at him when a shot struck the skin of the ship and its momentum carried it skidding past him: beanbag rounds. He could have taken a few of those after all, but not getting shot was probably preferable.
"Bedsocks, knockwurst, Tinkerbell," Bruce said, actuating cup six.
"User designation accepted: Bedsocks knockwurst Tinkerbell. Repeat personal designation to confirm."
"Oh, I can hear her now," Diana said.
"Is everything all right down there?"
"Just fine," Bruce said through his teeth. "Take us up, slowly. Strictly vertical."
"Repeat personal designation to confirm."
He ran for the nose of the ship. The smoke was thinner there, clearing, and he experienced a moment of perilous visibility as he entered a front handspring. His hands came down just at the edge of the ship's roof. Beanbag rounds pummeled the air around him. At the apex of his maneuver, Bruce rotated his body on its long axis and switched the positions of his hands like he was on the parallel bars. His last glimpse of the Kryptonian ship's curved beetle back showed dissipating smoke and the tow cables just pulling taut; because he was listening for it, he heard the tiny sound of the putty on cable six giving way.
"Repeat personal designation to confirm."
A lot had clearly changed since the datestamps on Bruce's most recent stolen intel: before the Doomsday Event, the ship had been a glitchy cypher. Some major breakthrough must have transpired to make it so chatty. But it would be nice, and would make the next couple of minutes of Bruce's life much simpler, if the memo from eighteen months ago about keeping the forward door open at all times "for air circulation" was still in effect.
Bruce bent at the waist and swung his weight forward and down. His boots did not strike the closed door of the ship. Good. They did strike the chest of one of the four SWAT officers arrayed at the doorway, but that was fine. This was a straightforward fight. Disable the firearms, dispense mild head trauma to the most aggressive one and knockout gas to the other three. The entry hall of the ship looked like the gullet of an animal, rendered in grey metal; a stray bullet ricocheted off a wall that rippled like melted wax.
"Previous designation candidate discarded. Please provide a personal designation, new user."
Bruce was three quarters of the way through this process when a quick pivot brought into view an additional figure, standing at his elbow. He kicked it in the knee, reflexively. His boot passed through unimpeded.
All right. Bruce completed his business with the fourth SWAT officer and then gave this new figure his full attention. It was a man five or ten years Bruce's senior, with wavy hair and a neat, greying beard; half-concealed by the lapels of his elaborately pleated jacket, on the suit beneath it, Bruce saw a symbol he'd know anywhere. Mostly because it was an S.
"Please provide a personal designation, new user."
On my world, it means hope, Clark had said, in the interrogation footage Bruce stole.
"User designation confirmed: Nightwing. Thank you." There probably was not a subtextual finally in the ship's voice, but Bruce could have sworn. "Welcome to the KFS Fortress of Solitude. A list of commands is available upon request."
"Is that your doing?" said Bruce.
"I assume you don't mean me," Diana said in his ear.
"It seemed more expedient than waiting for you to pick one," said the man wearing Clark's insignia. Bruce had expected him to also have Clark's Midwestern accent, but he sounded like a British newscaster; he had a hushed, faraway voice that was clearly audible to Bruce through some sort of acoustic trickery. Something to do with either the architectural and material properties of the ship, or the way it was broadcast.
"Can you also tell me if there are any more people in here?"
"Who are you talking to?" said Diana.
"You could ask it yourself," the man said, but followed up immediately with, "No. Just them."
The deck lurched as Diana hit the ends of the tow lines and lifted the ship from the ground. The man—it was probably not too early to speculate that he was a hologram—lurched with it; Bruce had to shift his weight to take the shock, but the man was perfectly stationary with respect to the ship, like a statue bolted to the floor.
Bruce used a belt off one of the SWAT officers and some carabiners from his own toolbelt to fasten the four of them securely to each other. He looped the cable of his grapnel through some unpleasantly organic elaboration of the ship's architecture, clipped the end to a carabiner, braced himself, and shoved all four officers out the door with his foot. They descended just a little faster than the ship was rising, and touched down in its footprint with probably minimal bruising.
The holographic man watched all this silently, with his hands clasped behind his back. He suited the place, which Bruce had not thought anyone passably human-looking could: this ship looked like it had evolved independent of the people who used it, not been built by and for them. Reconstructions of the interior gave Bruce the impression of some smooth-shelled sea creature that, when split open, revealed the maze of tubes and gelatinous organs inside. This man, though, was like a visual stepping stone, standing at ease in his intricate long coat and the suit beneath that so resembled Clark's. Bruce could almost see it, a culture of people who would find these surroundings welcoming, or elegant, or functional, and not feel trapped the moment they set foot on the ship.
He wondered how Clark had looked here. In Lois Lane's photo of him walking across the glacier alone at night, he had been wearing jeans and a white shirt with its sleeves pushed up. In his day-to-day he had seemed to wear a lot of flannel. Had he felt alienated by the Kryptonian aesthetic, or had it been a relief? Did it speak to some unresolved thing in his psyche; had it felt like coming home?
The ship lurched again: they'd struck the skeleton of the tent. Time to find out whether it would split for them, or if they would be tearing it from its moorings and taking it with them.
Bruce retracted his grapnel. "What are you?"
"That would be interesting to know." Diana sounded amused.
"A memory," the hologram said. Beyond the door of the ship there were sparks, the squealing of metal. A commotion of voices filtered up from below.
"An uploaded ... person, or an artificial intelligence based on one?"
The hologram's manner remained mild, but it seemed put off by this question; maybe to an AI, Bruce was being inappropriately personal. "A residential supervising presence with a consciousness imprint in place of a personality module. For practical purposes, I am Jor-El of Kandor. And you are?"
"It's the—" began Jor-El, then froze. The simulation was so believable that Bruce thought for a moment he had just hesitated mid-sentence, but as the pause stretched he saw that Jor-El was truly motionless. Bruce waved a hand in front of his face. He had no practical reason to use his eyes to look at things, but he'd given the appearance of making eye contact with Bruce earlier. Nothing. Bruce reached out slowly to touch Jor-El's shoulder, and the hologram vanished.
No way to tell if the AI was still listening, but Bruce had no reason to conceal this conversation with Diana from him, either. "There's a second artificial intelligence on the ship, with a holographic interface. It's modeled after a Kryptonian I take to be an ancestor of Clark's."
"Oh, gods. Has she asked after Clark yet?"
The tent supports gave way with a tremendous noise, a series of squealing reports and then a prolonged nails-on-a-chalkboard screech as the ends of the broken struts caressed the rising bulk of the ship. Bruce watched beams and electrical cable and light fixtures rain down past the open door. Somewhere in the wreckage was Bruce's cutting laser rover, a sacrifice to the mission. He'd made a point of machining his insignia onto it, so it was as likely to end up in an underground auction house—or just on eBay—as in an evidence lockup.
"He," Bruce said, when he was sure he'd be heard. "Or it. It's an AI. I'm not sure what it knows about Clark. Is there anything in the air we need to worry about?"
"I see two news helicopters but no military or law enforcement," Diana said. "I think it took them a while to understand that there was something in the air above them."
"Good. Things are resolved down here. When we're clear, take us north."
Bruce had been exploring the circuitous metallic bowels of the ship—well, the ship was all bowel—for twenty minutes when the hologram reappeared.
"—bird you're dressed as," it said, and paused. "Pardon. This craft is badly damaged. Idiomatic translation from Kryptonian to English is difficult under the best circumstances. I may have solved the problem, but expect small delays if you use unusual colloquialisms."
"Bird," Bruce repeated. It was better than "rodent", he supposed.
Kryptonians liked a flat surface to walk on as much as humans did. Bruce had followed a walkway until it twisted and crumpled and descended into a murkily glowing orange pool. This had been Lex Luthor's base of operations inside the ship: rattly prefabricated platforms took over where the walkway left off, and the walls were jammed with monitors—normal, rectangular, probably government surplus plasma screens, a visual respite from the ship's almost total rejection of rectilinear shapes. It was hard not to think of the rounded, ridged chamber as a womb, particularly at the sight of the mass of Earthly cables and tubes and Kryptonian ... cables and tubes, he supposed, but also branching, venous structures a step more organic even than the rest of the ship. They descended along the far wall to the torn-open sac where Luthor's monster had grown.
Helmet cam footage of Luthor's arrest here had shown the surface of the pool choked with something lumpy and dark, like curds on milk. That had been skimmed off or filtered out, by either the inter-agency task force that had managed the site or by the ship itself. Cephalopoid shadows swam in the depths. Jor-El had materialized standing on this surface as though it were solid, looking up at the platform where Bruce stood.
"An endothermic flying animal," he said. A dark shape bloomed in the fluid under his feet, different from the tentacled shapes that Bruce deeply hoped were just maintenance robots. The surface just behind Jor-El churned as what looked like many small pellets rose to the surface—and then just past it, dripping, into the air, before subsiding again into the murk. Jor-El pursed his lips and half-turned to watch them float back down out of sight. "As I said, this craft is not operating at full capacity."
Bruce had backed off from the railing. "What was that supposed to be?"
"Gravitic particle visualization."
"Thanks for clarifying."
"You're quite welcome."
Being unable to tell whether this thing was even capable of sarcasm annoyed Bruce more than straightforward mockery would have.
"The nightwing is a flying carnivore," it went on, "significant to the religions of the Menna subcontinent circa five thousand local years ago. I'm curious about how a human comes to be wearing the costume of a stock character from classical Mennan theater."
Well, it had worked before. "I'm a friend of your son," Bruce said.
The hologram didn't bat an eyelash. Point for Bruce. They didn't look much alike—the hair, a little, maybe; the color of the eyes. But the slow, soft voice Jor-El was using on Bruce was precisely the voice Clark had used in the interrogation room during the Zod fiasco, first on Lois Lane and then on the terrified men on the other side of the mirror. Project, but make them want to lean in to listen anyway. Furrow the brow, weight every word with the urgency of what it might mean if the audience didn't listen closely. Clark could have made a tremendous teacher or public speaker, and Bruce thought this man might have been one in life.
"So I gathered," Jor-El said. "I had hoped that Kal might find, among your people, a few who loved the ideals of the House of El as we do, and that they would follow him. I hadn't expected you to dress like him too."
That was enough of that. "This ship's been on Earth for much more than five thousand years. Did—Kal—install you on it himself?"
"Yes. He carried me with him as he left our dying planet."
"And then installed you without a hitch on hardware that's at least twenty thousand years old?"
"Closer to fifty. This is a long-distance exploration vessel and was in service a long time before it was lost. Is stagnation versus backwards compatibility in Kryptonian technologies of the last hundred thousand years really what you came here to discuss?"
Bruce put his hands back on the railing. "That sounds like the title of a dissertation."
"Kryptonian and human academic societies seem not dissimilar. Is that a yes?"
"It's not a no."
"What, then?" said Jor-El, and folded his hands, in exactly the manner of an unaging, unalive man prepared to wait indefinitely for Bruce to get to the point. "He could take the Fortress from your government himself. Instead he sent you here."
That answered Bruce's actual question: they hadn't let slip to the artificial intelligence that its son was dead. That the machine it inhabited had been instrumental in the attempt on his life. That a man dressed like an endothermic flying animal had also played a crucial role.
Bruce found himself looking away from Jor-El exactly as though he were a living person and not a suite of household management software with some didactic tendencies and a face meant to appeal to an orphan. The hologram stood below him, a breathtakingly believable simulation of a man unprepared for his own bereavement. The light of the pool underfoot coruscated off his face and robe as though both were actually there.
"What did Kal say to you, when he was here?" asked Bruce, finally, just for something to say. "What did he want to know first?"
"I could show you."
"What?" Bruce was grateful to the modulator for flattening the expression out of his voice; resonating unmodified through his own body, the question sounded breathless.
"The ship retains records of all activity aboard it for approximately eight local years. Playback may be compromised by structural and systemic damage, but it would answer your questions."
Bruce jerked away from the railing again, like it had burned him. "That's all I need to know for now. How do I get topside?"
Diana set them down on a likely-looking patch of arctic nowhere Bruce had scouted out a few weeks ago. It was a production. Two ships to land separately and six suction cups to hand-deactivate, which caught on their hatches when Diana tried to retract them into her ship. Bruce was getting remote-controlled cups the next time he had to steal a spacecraft.
Before descending to the Kryptonian ship again, he had detached his cape and pulled on his extreme cold-weather layer; he had an inkling Diana might find this funny, but managed not to feel too hard-done-by about it until she came out of her ship to meet him in nothing but her armor, arms and thighs bare to the cold and the incessant biting wind. Her ship crouched on the ice beyond her, finally visible: now that Bruce could do more than infer its shape, it looked to him something like an ancient sailor's vision of a spacecraft, something like a flying sextant. He could have stared at it all day, after his time inside the Kryptonian ship.
Bruce was again standing on the alien ship's carapace. He walked to the edge and let himself drop, landing in a great cloud of snow. Under the powdery, blowing layer, the footing here was solid ice; this place hadn't seen a thaw in roughly as long as the Kryptonian ship had been on Earth, and with any luck would be stable indefinitely.
"Think of anything yet?" he asked as Diana approached.
"I have something in mind," she said, a little dubiously. When Bruce was expectantly silent, she looked at him askance. "I'm not going to tell you."
"It's a username, not a wedding dress."
"This is one of the reasons I'm not telling you."
He had asked Jor-El to close the main door for aerodynamic reasons, but it folded back open as Diana passed Bruce on her approach to the ship. There was Jor-El again, standing a few body-lengths back from the doorway and watching them with his fingers interlaced and a thoughtful furrow in his brow. He caught the harsh arctic sun like any solid object would.
"New user identified," the ship said, the moment Diana crossed its threshold. "Please provide— User designation confirmed: Flamebird. Thank you. Welcome to the KFS Fortress of Solitude. A list of commands is available upon request."
Diana began speaking as soon as she heard the name. "That's beautiful! Thank you. I wonder if it's taken on Twitter."
"Probably," Bruce said, and stepped up behind her.
"Welcome back, user Nightwing."
"It's worth the attempt," Diana said.
"You have a great deal more optimism than I do about everything related to Twitter."
"This is something related to the birds of your world?" said Jor-El, sounding, for the first time, a little lost.
Bruce opened his mouth, but Diana got there first. "No," she said. "Excuse us. Twitter is a communication network, related to the bird names you've given us only by coincidence. It's an honor to meet you, Jor-El of Kandor."
"Thank you," Jor-El said. "My data about Earth from prior to launch is a few thousand years old, and what I've been able to gather while here has been limited."
Diana half-turned and shot Bruce a look so significant it was a wonder it didn't make a noise when it hit him. Jor-El's gaze followed their interplay; Bruce had to remind himself that Jor-El was not a biological presence with real eyes, and that this bit of body language was calculated to signal that he knew they were keeping something from him.
"For example," Jor-El went on, "Earth was an uncontacted planet as of the last Kryptonian survey, but yours is the second extraterrestrial presence—"
Bruce cut in, "Second extraterrestrial presence?"
"Excluding Kal-El?" added Diana, who had gone on alert right along with him.
"—apart from my son and the Fortress itself," Jor-El concluded, that I've encountered here.
"You're just mentioning this now?" said Bruce.
"You left in considerable haste earlier."
Diana looked at Bruce again, just as pointedly. Damn it.
"Would you care to expand," Bruce said.
"The Fortress of Solitude's systems were compromised by a non-biological hive entity during the capture of Alexandor Luthor. It removed all security measures and took a copy of everything except for me and my personal database, which I concealed."
"Non-biological hive entity?" said Diana.
"A group of networked robots," Bruce said. "Is this why the ship bleats until you identify yourself now?"
"That's unkind," Jor-El said, "but yes. It's also what allowed me to activate this backup of myself, despite the loss of my override dongle." His voice caught almost imperceptibly on the last word, and Bruce thought he saw a momentary freeze as Jor-El called up his colloquialism.
"Dongle," Diana repeated. Her face was very still.
Bruce sighed. "Any small hardware item that plugs into a computer. A bluetooth stick, for example. Clark—Kal. Brought this AI to Earth on one."
She was having less and less success controlling her expression. "Those are called dongles? All of them?"
"Most people don't know this term—" Bruce began.
"I get to teach them."
"Can we focus on the alien invasion."
"We know far too little to call it an invasion," Jor-El said.
"There's an alien on Earth, tampering with other alien artifacts, that has made no effort to announce itself to the general public. This is, at best, an infiltration."
The metal throat of the ship was silent but for the echoes of the wind.
"I'm surprised you and my son are friends," Jor-El said. Diana stared at the wall as hard as anyone had ever stared at anything.
"Look," Bruce said, then thought better of it. "Tell us what you can about whatever it is that hacked you."
Jor-El paused just long enough to make it clear how gracious he was being by assenting to this change of subject. "There's very little. It was a cloud of machines, each the size of a fruit fly. It assumed mostly simple geometric shapes but briefly took a humanoid one that resembled no species of which I know. It left few traces of itself in the systems, and I haven't deciphered the traces it did leave. If any of its component robots remain, I've been unable to recover them. They would most likely be in the genesis chamber, which is in poor repair."
"What's—" Bruce said, then closed his eyes. "The yellow pool, right?"
Jor-El nodded. "The maintenance presences have found nothing, but they're in poor repair as well."
"Is that liquid safe to swim in?"
"For a human, no."
"I should be able to do it," Diana said.
"I'm curious about your planet of origin," Jor-El said to her.
She gave him the same patient smile she used whenever the media speculated about what planet she was from. With Clark's alien origin very much a matter of record, Bruce supposed it was reasonable for the public to assume she was another Kryptonian and not a demigod sculpted from river clay. Bruce wouldn't have come up with that one independently either.
"I'm sorry," she said, "I haven't introduced myself. I'm Diana of Themyscira. My people and I are very much of Earth."
"Excuse me, then," Jor-El said. "You're giving the ship's sensors some difficulty, and appear less bothered by the cold than your companion."
"I have gifts that are rare among mankind."
"I see," Jor-El said, and Bruce thought his manner toward her cooled just a little. "What is the nature of your enhancements?"
"Most were granted by my father, Zeus, who hoped to imbue me with the best qualities of the other gods."
Jor-El paused. "Yes, but by what means?"
Diana looked blankly back at him. "By—granting them? I also have certain extraordinary artifacts of my people."
"I meant, what is the technique by which Zeus conferred these 'qualities'?"
"Um. My mother tells me he held me in his arms and kissed my forehead."
Jor-El looked, if anything, even blanker than Diana. His eyes flicked to Bruce, who shrugged.
"She also has a rope that makes people tell the truth," he said. "Let's move on. Can this ship self-repair? Enough to make examining the genesis chamber feasible, if not enough to get it in the air."
"It would require close to a ton of materials, but yes."
"Give me a list."
"Most of them are rare in this solar system—"
Jor-El paused, then rattled off a list of minerals Bruce would have to pay out the nose for or, in one case, steal. He wasn't sure what that pause was: a Kryptonian shrug? Did Kryptonians shrug? Jor-El's body language seemed so unremarkable, so normal, that it was easy to lose track of the fact that Bruce's human lens might be the wrong one through which to interpret it. Or not. If he could speak English like a native, there was no reason to think he wasn't deliberately affecting human body language as well. It would have been what Clark knew.
"Got it," Bruce said when Jor-El was finished. Then, to Diana, "We're done here." He turned on his heel.
"We've barely stepped in the front door," Diana said.
"It all looks like this," Bruce said, half-turning back. "Parts of it are in worse shape."
"Do you truly expect me to pass up the opportunity to explore a ship from another world?"
"I thought things from other worlds were old hat for you."
Diana raised her eyebrows and tilted her mouth the way she did when Bruce was being more amusing than irritating, but still more irritating than she'd prefer.
"I could show one or both of you around," Jor-El put in. That must have accounted for most of what he'd done since arriving on Earth: surely Clark had wanted the tour too. He had been a reporter—in his way, as much of an investigator as Bruce was.
The ship would have records of that. Bruce should have asked Jor-El more about them earlier to forestall his own speculation now. Were they audio, video, baffling alien text? Would they move and speak like Jor-El did, untouchable projections? Bruce saw himself following a digital ghost of Clark through the ship, watching his face as he'd discovered his father and his past, and shied from the thought the same way he'd rejected the idea of reading Clark's adolescent journal entries. Not yet.
Bruce controlled his face. "You can show her around. I have work to get done."
"Are you planning to steal my plane?" said Diana. She was at least half joking, but he thought she might not be completely sure he could do it. He could not, in fact, but the uncertainty was good.
"I brought a laptop."
"He's unbelievable," Diana said to Jor-El, who seemed to have no idea what to do with this.
"You know where to find me," Bruce said, and walked back toward the door and the drifting snow.
The first time Clark made him laugh, Bruce was sitting in the cave.
Barry stuttered to a halt when he heard it. He had been in the middle of a sentence, and after a moment, Diana prompted, "Closer to this manufacturing plant?"
"I didn't know he laughed as ..." Barry said, and trailed off. "You know, in uniform."
"Why wouldn't I," Bruce said.
"I mean ... your personality?"
Bruce looked up from the tablet in his lap without raising his head. For lack of a better place, the binders from the Kent house now lived in one of the lockers where he kept confiscated items. Digitizing them had been the sort of project that rapidly grew beyond its original bounds: if Bruce was going through each sheet individually anyway, he might as well be interleaving them with archival tissue while he was at it. He sealed everything in airtight containers when he had finished. Clark's old articles for the school paper were now as safe from the ravages of time and environment as anything ever committed to cheap looseleaf by a teenager was, and Bruce had access to them from anywhere he took an electronic device with him, which was everywhere.
"Something about my personality strikes you as incompatible with a sense of humor?" he said.
Barry's throat worked; he and Diana were using the chairs in the workshop, too far away for Bruce to hear him swallow. "I didn't mean— You seem like you probably smile with grim satisfaction in the dark all the time, so, like, I'm sure you appreciate irony and pratfalls, I was just surprised to hear you actually—"
"Barry," Diana said.
"Yeah, I should stop," Barry said immediately. "What are you even reading?"
"Files," Bruce said.
Barry nodded rapidly. "Okay."
Bruce had expected managing Barry to be more difficult than it was. He was refreshingly awed by both Bruce and Diana, and eager to be liked. He also could have killed every human being on Earth in less than a day—maybe far less, if he felt like it was urgent. Bruce was working on regulating his reaction to that. If-then statements: if Barry proves to be a threat, then I will deploy ... well, discovering the end of that sentence was also a project of his.
"You said you thought the incidents were moving closer to this LexCorp plant?" said Diana again.
"Right," Barry said, regaining his footing. "So I thought it might be LexCorp, or someone who has it in for LexCorp? Like a revenge thing? But the next one was in upper midtown, and it's starting to look like they're actually targeting buildings with security systems from Frontpoint."
"What do you have on Frontpoint?" asked Diana.
The investigative element of this case didn't require Bruce's input, and the perpetrator was a metahuman who was within Barry's abilities and certainly within Diana's. If these crimes had taken place in Gotham rather than in Keystone City, Bruce would have resolved the case a week ago, but this was Barry's beat and Barry could deal with it.
Not taking point on every case that came to his attention was another challenging new experience. Bruce had never troubled himself with Keystone City, but he'd also never had a major contact there, providing regular stream-of-consciousness updates on its criminal and metahuman activity. This wasn't like delegating a case to a Robin, then workshopping it as it progressed; Barry was a colleague, not a protege. Even if Bruce had been surprised to learn he was old enough to drink.
Bruce tuned out. He touched the dimmed screen of his tablet and the last page he had read sprang back to life.
Digitization had preserved the deep marks of Clark's pencil on the page. He'd been seventeen when he wrote this, and the "mysterious accidents" around Smallville had stopped a few years prior; his strength had been well under control. Clark had just been frustrated, pressing down on the page no harder than anyone else would have.
... training manuver, he'd written, in one of the drafts for the Smallville High student paper.
manuvoer manou manouver maneouver
MAN AEIOU AND SOMETIMES Y VER
US maneuver UK manoeuvre planned and regulated movement of troops &c
My Angry Nana
My Anteater Needs Even
I give up :-(
"Tuesday, right," Barry was saying, somewhere at the edge of Bruce's perception. "Amazing, thank you. I'll have everything ready. Um, I was thinking, since I'm here, and you guys are here, maybe I could run out for takeout?"
"Don't eat in the cave," Bruce said, without looking up.
"Alfred says you take half your meals down here."
"Don't pester my butler. I eat down here because I work here. There's no reason for you to be here in any capacity; you didn't need me for this conversation."
"Well, you're kind of ... I mean, you organized all this. It seemed like the obvious place. And Diana doesn't like coming to my base of operations."
"Because it's not a base of operations," Bruce said. "It's a bachelor pad."
"Have you looked at your lifestyle recently?" said Diana.
"No element of my lifestyle involves Cheetos," Bruce said, and swiped to the next page.
The interstices of Bruce's life were few. If he wasn't reading financial reports, he was occupied with the emails of a person of interest. If he wasn't combing through the news, he was picking apart schematics stolen from a competitor. He couldn't remember the last time he had read a book for entertainment, rather than because he thought a case might require him to know the trivia of its contents.
He didn't know where Clark Kent fit into the grand scheme of the things he read. There was no great urgency, in theory: if Clark had ever really been a threat, he wasn't one now. Bruce still found himself picking through the archive of Clark's juvenilia whenever a spare moment presented itself, on his phone or a laptop or the cave mainframe. The more he read, the more he found to relate to his other reading about Clark.
Nothing had happened to Clark's Daily Planet bylines when he died. The Planet archives still measured out his three years there in unenthusiastic puff pieces about sports and local culture, and the stiffest, most perfunctory writing about Superman that Bruce had read anywhere. Every so often there would be an article about crime or government—from what Bruce had sussed out, these occasions represented Clark filling in for some more senior writer—and then the language would become concise and vivid; Bruce could see why Clark had been hired, though not quite why he'd been kept on.
Bruce identified exactly one article on which Clark's editor had given him free reign, a long piece about incremental thefts from cargo ships unloading at the Metropolis docks. In the print edition, it had been buried in the back of the financial section, because no one cared about million-dollar thefts taking place five hundred dollars at a time. It was a sound investigation, extensively researched, with deductive leaps in the right places and the switch from desk- to legwork only slightly too early; Clark presented every turn and setback with rigor and self-effacing honesty, but also the pacing and tension of a writer who had once wanted to be a novelist.
Bruce devoured it. Then he went looking for more.
Clark had a few credits between his departure from the staff of The Smallville Torch and his hire at the Planet—enough to get him hired, but nothing compared to his teenage output. Bruce went back to Lois Lane's article. Clark had spent his breaks from college and the decade after graduation on the go, looking for evidence that he was not alone on Earth; maybe he had been too preoccupied with his identity crisis to write. But he had also been using a lot of aliases during this period.
The first twelve positives Bruce's search algorithm gave him were false. He was ready to give this up as a flight of fancy—or, at best, a needle in a haystack—when he opened lucky number thirteen, and read:
There are two states on the ship: uneasy proximity and breathtaking solitude. Silences are cavernous. I soon wonder if an embed with these insular shark biologists can work. Maybe I'll return to shore with no story to show for myself.
I flee the silent mess hall for the silent deck. The night sky presses down. I find metaphors in its vastness.
Morning brings an argument with the captain about scheduling. There are regulations about the lengths of shifts and the shortness of breaks. Exhaustion is already sinking its fingers into the crew. It's an overstep, but I have nothing to lose.
A junior researcher offers me a cigarette at the railing an hour later. What I mistook for insularity was the frostiness of a troubled expedition. I'm about to get my story.
There he was. Bruce would know Clark anywhere, now.
He kept looking. There were more; many more, and who knew how many others he missed. Mostly in periodicals, but Clark had a couple of anthology credits under his most prolific alias. He gave the impression of a man who was, actually, quite bad at keeping his head down. Comparing his body of work to a timeline of his movements painted a picture of Clark traveling from backwater to backwater, following rumors of potentially-extraterrestrial strangeness, only to embroil himself in the first local drama or mystery that presented. Throw in the moments of heroism or retributive temper in which he'd betrayed his superhuman abilities, and it was amazing he'd remained undiscovered until Zod's arrival. Bruce did some supplemental research: three of Clark's investigations had led to prosecutions, and one had caused the overturn of a ten-year-old guilty verdict.
That had been his article about the court-martial of Lieutenant Alex Marks, in which Clark used the word maneuver four times. Bruce caught himself smirking at the workstation in the cave. Clark's failed mnemonic haunted Bruce, surfacing in his mind during conversation or making his pen hesitate over a memo pad. He wondered if it had followed Clark too, the way the contexts of some of Bruce's own breakthroughs forever dogged the heels of the knowledge he'd gleaned from them. Or maybe the spelling of that word had become second nature to him; or maybe he'd never gotten the hang of it at all. This was the age of spellcheck. Clark had had options.
Clark's fiction was terrible. About averagely terrible for the science fiction of a teenage boy, Bruce thought, but difficult to stomach all the same. It wrote Clark's fears large, in the bombastic language of teenagehood: abandonment; rejection; pursuit by government agents; monstrous transformation; terrible discoveries about oneself. Every now and again there would be a phrase or an image that cut Bruce unexpectedly, a foretaste of the writer Clark would become, but then it would be back to self-important raygun silliness and the anxieties of a lonely alien.
The nonfiction had more and subtler things to say about Clark's future than the fiction did. He was already profoundly bothered by corruption and by the helplessness of others; he was already given to inserting himself into situations before he knew the whole score. He was drawn to the same sorts of people. He profiled a classmate for the Torch, and was enchanted by her intellect and her determination to turn every conversation into a jousting match instead of a passive interview; ten years later, a minor figure in a missing persons case on the Cook Islands grew beyond his role because he fascinated Clark with his ability to flip an interview on its ear.
None of this would surprise Martha. Clark's many noms de plume and the things he published under them might, but perhaps her son writing under assumed names would not be a pleasant revelation for Martha Kent, née Clarke. In any case, the discussion about Clark and aliases and why he would have wanted to obscure his tracks during this period was so tied up in his nature, his species, that Bruce wasn't certain how to broach the subject without tipping both his own hand and Martha's.
He kept looking; he kept finding new articles, kept cross-referencing them with what he'd taken from the Kent house. As the date of his brunch appointment with Martha approached, it loomed in his mind like an upcoming exam for which he had not done the reading, until he found himself waiting in a cafe with one of Clark's articles on the screen of his phone and an increasing certainty that no great insight would be coming to him in the next twenty minutes.
When she arrived, Martha announced her presence before she had quite reached Bruce's table.
"Would you like to explain yourself, Bruce Wayne?"
"Almost certainly not," Bruce said, and only then looked up.
Martha was wearing a suit, a French twist, and carefully calibrated makeup. She hung her massive purse on the back of the chair opposite Bruce's and sat. "Wayne Agricultural bought that place down the road that rents my fields."
"Not really. What bought them is some manner of slow-food co-op that Wayne Agricultural funds via a shell corporation, as though I wouldn't do the five minutes of research to find out who was actually paying me rent."
"What's slow food?"
"Did you miss the part of our conversation where I told you I wouldn't have your money intruding on my life because you feel bad about what happened to Clark?"
"I have very little control of what Wayne Ag does, Martha. The way the company is structured, it's actually hard for me to get in a room with the decisionmakers over there."
"They tripled my rent!"
"Holy sh— Wait, that's good, right? They pay you. And then they grow that ... whatever that tall, leafy—"
"It's corn, Bruce."
"That's what corn looks like?"
Martha gave Bruce a long stare. He pocketed his phone.
"Is the rate this co-op thing is paying you higher than their usual?"
"Not according to the literature," Martha said reluctantly.
"I don't think I see the problem, then," Bruce said. "They get a service they must be paying any number of people for already, you pocket a little extra money."
"Maybe you need the diner job less, and end up with some free time."
Martha was silent a moment. "Bruce Wayne, you crafty son of a—"
"Anyway, how are you, Martha?"
"If you wanted to throw money at this project of mine, there are simpler ways."
"We have some government contracts, and some our direct competitors, LexCorp included, have formed a coalition to push back against you. I prefer my conflicts of interest to be a little less obvious."
"As long as it's about legal matters."
"Do I strike you as a sentimental person?"
"Bruce," Martha said.
He picked up one of the menus from the table and put it in her hands. "The eggs benedict are excellent here."
Downtown Metropolis traffic almost stymied Bruce's attempt to drive Martha to the courthouse. This was the right city for a flying man to make his home: there was certainly no percentage in trying to navigate it at street level. Martha seemed to be enjoying the Aston Martin, at least.
She hadn't brought Clark up again. Bruce had at first thought Clark's name hung unspoken over the conversation, in the same way Clark's absence had been an almost physical participant in his conversations with the metahumans he was—well, trying to gather under a single banner; but over the course of brunch he had begun to think Martha had not come to talk about Clark at all. She was a recently bereaved parent; Bruce didn't have to wonder if Clark was ever far from her mind. But maybe she really did want to talk about legal matters and the holidays just past and Smallville gossip, and was not simply waiting for results on Bruce's analysis of her son's writing.
"Ugh," she said at one point, twisting her napkin until the paper tore. "I went to school with this judge, and he was just about insufferable back then too. Bet you a nickel that if I don't dodge him all day, he'll corner me to gloat about how he's a judge and I married a farmer."
Maybe she had, in fact, just wanted to see a friendly face in Metropolis.
Now she was getting out of the car, shifting her weight on those uncomfortable shoes she'd prophesied over their first meal together, pulling a face. She shouldered her purse and smoothed her hair. Bruce closed the passenger-side door behind her and leaned on it.
"You're sure you can make it back on your own," he said.
"What am I going to do, Bruce, make you take me back to the Park-and-Ride?"
"That's exactly what I'm offering."
"You're sweet," she said, and leaned up to kiss his cheek. "And a little controlling. I'll be just fine."
"Well, call me if you need—" Behind Martha, Mercy Graves was walking up the steps of the courtyard with a tray of Starbucks cups in her hand. Her heels rang on the stone; the crisp winter daylight spangled her hair.
"Something wrong?" said Martha, taking a half-step back from him.
"Just recognized someone," Bruce said; he relaxed his expression, softened the outline of his shoulders a little.
Martha's brow unfurrowed, and she half-turned to follow his gaze. "Say no more. My God, I don't know how she can walk in those. I'm practically dying just in mine."
Questions of comfort aside, they were just as excellent as the pair of shoes Bruce had complimented her on at the library benefit. A man with a bad haircut had come down the courthouse steps to meet Graves. Bruce knew his face from a press release: Cameron Kerr, LexCorp's interim CEO. He took one of the cups from Graves and sniffed it. If the two of them just stayed outside long enough for Bruce to get back in the car....
"Not like that," he said, straightening. "She was Lex Luthor's personal assistant."
"Oh," Martha said, suddenly frosty.
"I thought she'd been caught in the Capitol bombing."
"Oh," Martha said again, more slowly.
Time to change the subject. Martha had enough happening in her life without Bruce putting thoughts in her head a possible metahuman who may have been under Luthor's nose all along. "Anyway," he said, strolling back around to the driver's door, "call me if you change your mind. I'm heading out of the city, but I can arrange a car for you."
"Arrange a car," Martha muttered. Behind her, the conversation between Graves and Kerr was turning into a walk-and-talk; she paced him up the steps. "Metropolis does have taxis, last I checked."
"Have you taken one? Awful. Understocked bars, seat heaters never work." Bruce opened his door. "Call me," he said, making the universal hand sign. "Let me know how things go. I'll be out of town the next week or so, but I might be able to swing past Smallville on my way home, if you'll have me."
"Of course. Business?"
"Oh, no, just going deep-sea fishing." Graves had stopped to look at something on her phone, while Kerr preceded her into the courthouse. A draft from the door rearranged his already dubious hairstyle for the worse.
"How do you 'swing past' a landlocked state on your way back from a fishing trip?"
"Money," Bruce said.
Martha laughed; Bruce got back into the car. She stooped to wave to him through the passenger-side window. Bruce kept up the mask until she had turned away, then yanked open the compartment in his footwell. He couldn't see into it from the driver's seat, but he passed his fingertips over a half-dozen batarangs, a taser, three types of smoke capsule cradled in molded foam—there. The binoculars.
They would take a moment to warm up and a moment to cycle from night vision to thermal. Graves was texting, but still absentmindedly walking up the courthouse's wide white stairs. Martha would beat her to the door, at this rate.
At the point where their paths brought them closest to each other, Martha faltered. Bruce exhaled through his teeth.
Graves noticed Martha's hesitation. The two of them exchanged a few words, both smiling, and then Graves trotted up the stairs to get the door for Martha. Bruce held the binoculars up—far enough from the passenger-side window that they could not, he hoped, be seen from the sidewalk—and watched their black screens, waiting for picture to return. The door swung open. Martha stepped through. An indicator light flickered; Bruce mashed the switch for infrared. Graves stood framed in the doorway for a moment. There would be heat pouring out, muddling her outline, if the fucking binoculars would only show it. The door began its swing closed.
In the last instant before the bulk of it blocked Graves from view, the binoculars' eyepieces came alight. Bruce wasn't sure what he saw, if there was a moment when Graves was onscreen before all there was to see was the cold door with its faint rim of warmth, and the bright silhouettes of pedestrians.
"Damn it, Martha," Bruce said, and closed his eyes for a moment. He paired the binoculars with his phone, dumped the three seconds of video he'd taken to it just in case, and turned them off.
Maybe it didn't matter. Barry's temperature fluctuated all over the place, but under thermal imaging, Diana just looked like an ordinary woman; even if Graves was a metahuman, the binoculars might not have given Bruce anything conclusive. And maybe she wasn't. Maybe she was just extraordinarily lucky, or she'd known about the bomb and had surreptitiously left. This could all be for nothing. He'd just have to snoop into her medical records, maybe surveil her home.
He texted Alfred, Start media & digital workup of LexCorp employee Mercy Graves, and put the car in gear.
Arthur Curry was a big man who dressed to look even bigger. Handsy, also.
"I thought I'd made myself clear last time," he said, holding Bruce by the lapels.
"This is a separate issue." Bruce's shoes dangled a foot off the ground. He preferred Curry shoving him against walls; having all of his weight hanging from the armpits of his parka like this was unpleasant, and it wouldn't hold up indefinitely. Next time he'd aim to confront Curry indoors again, instead of on a dock, with the cold clear sky stretching away in all directions, and the slumbering bulks of moored ships providing a low, creaking soundtrack for their conversation. "I accept that you feel no sense of responsibility to the world and the lives of its inhabitants—"
That would definitely have gotten Bruce slammed up against a convenient vertical surface, if there'd been one around.
"—but you're the closest thing I have to a contact in Atlantis, and I need information."
"I don't care. Stop dropping your whatever they are, sound bombs, on my reef."
"Did the fish complain? I'm still not sure how this works."
Curry's growl sounded essentially like a human growl.
"If you'd respond to your texts," Bruce went on when there was no verbal reply, "I wouldn't be here at all, and I definitely wouldn't be chumming the water with loudspeakers just to get your attention. They make waterproof phones now, you know."
"I don't remember giving you my number."
"That's not the kind of thing that stops me."
"Not that I've noticed. Do you have insight into Atlantean technology or not?"
"Invent your own shit."
"I'm not here for R&D." Bruce reached into his pocket. Curry didn't react to his movement at all: he wasn't concerned about Bruce drawing a weapon. He didn't come off as a particularly trusting man, or even the sort of person who could loathe someone while also understanding when they would or would not pull a weapon on him, so he was either cocksure, some degree of invulnerable, or both. He'd also been holding a large man aloft for several minutes without so much as wavering. So: very strong, high fatigue threshold.
It would have been very impressive, if Bruce hadn't personally gone up against Superman.
Bruce unfolded two photographs. By his third trip to the Fortress of Solitude, it had been in sufficient repair for Jor-El to project security recordings. The eye of a digital camera made no distinction between solid objects and Kryptonian holograms.
The first photo showed the nanite cloud, just emerged from whatever cranny of the genesis chamber it had introduced itself into when it compromised the ship's systems. It looked like Luthor's hardware modifications had given it a free ride in, but there was no video between the ship's crash and the system-wide wakeup the intruder had caused when it scoured the database, so it was hard to say. Jor-El didn't fully understand it and Bruce wasn't sure he wanted to.
In the second, the cloud had assumed the shape Jor-El had described to him: a spindly humanoid with a bizarre headdress, surrounded by floating cubes and spheres. The SWAT team that would take Lex Luthor in was just visible, entering via the same walkway that Bruce had taken into the chamber. They were wearing helmet cameras, but all of the ones that should have caught footage of this phenomenon had mysteriously failed. Bruce's digging suggested this was a legitimate induced malfunction, not an internal coverup. In a moment—frames was apparently not the operative word, with Kryptonian recording technology—the cloud would disperse again.
Curry grimaced. "What is that?"
"That's what I came to ask you. Atlantean tech couldn't do this? The shapes don't mean anything to you?"
"There. We aren't tickling for fish here, Curry. You don't have to make everything difficult."
Arthur Curry threw Bruce into the ocean.
Bruce could land at Gotham-Metropolis International at six AM and spend a full day getting back into the usual routine, talking to familiar people in familiar places, but not be properly home until that first breath of the cave's air, redolent of wet rock and metal and trapped exhaust—and yes, he would admit it: guano. The battle against mildew, too, was constant. He'd known these would be issues when he'd made an active, inhabited cave his headquarters. He sat at the main terminal, stretched his legs out, and exhaled.
But for the perpetual thunder of the water, things were quiet. Either Alfred had retired for the night or he was out, though he had left a couple of sandwiches and a flask of coffee at Bruce's desk. While he ate, Bruce uploaded his notes and findings from Curry expedition number two to the mainframe, and sorted them. Curry hadn't complained about Bruce prying into his magical undersea business this time, meaning it probably hadn't occurred to him that Bruce didn't have to eschew gathering data with a given underwater drone just because he was also using it to be obnoxious.
The first item in the Curry file was also the first evidence of his existence Bruce had seen: the video of him knocking out the camera on a submersible. LexCorp had scrounged up a little more on him; not enough for Luthor to identify Curry, but enough to kickstart Bruce's search. Diana's file hadn't required any pursuit after the Doomsday Event. Barry had seemed like he wanted to be discovered.
It was just the last file that stymied Bruce: the young man, inexplicably still alive with most of his body chewed away by amputation or disease; the floating cube that rebuilt him.
The floating cube that rebuilt him.
Bruce opened the fourth file and watched the video again. The young man screamed until it shattered the desperate resolve of—his father. Bruce strongly suspected it was his father. End of clip. He watched it again. The cube, whatever it was, did not much resemble the ones that had orbited the figure in the Kryptonian ship. The rippling of its surface suggested not a swarm of very small machines, but a mass of geometric objects churned by the demands of whatever luminous, crackling engine animated them.
There were a lot of things in this universe. A cube wasn't an exotic shape. Bruce could line a Rubik's Cube up next to the cube from this video and the cubes from the ship, and an uninformed observer might assume all three were related.
Very little to go on, but still too much to ignore.
Mercy Graves' file was sparse after the Capitol bombing. Up to that day, she had led a perfectly normal digital life, and nothing Bruce had stolen from LexCorp led him to believe she bore more culpability for Luthor's behavior than any of the other people who had continued quietly cashing their paychecks while he spiraled out of control. The three people who'd been seated nearest her in the Capitol were dead—two on the spot, one six hours later in Metropolis General. Graves had also been admitted there, only for her records and all information about her discharge to be lost in a mysterious power outage. After that, nothing for months, until about eight weeks ago, when normal activity had resumed on her Facebook without fanfare. And then, today, she had gotten the door for one Martha Kent at the Metropolis Court of Appeals.
Possible extranormal restoration to life and/or physical function, possibly by a cube from, possibly, space would be a fun hypothesis to run past Alfred. If there was anything missing from Bruce's day-to-day, it was withering sarcasm.
Bruce spent twenty minutes flagging connections. He reopened a couple of avenues of investigation into the matter of the young man and the cube and, what the hell, gave his face recognition algorithms another crack at the footage. Then he hesitated. The job directly in front of him was as done as it would get tonight, and any further work he accomplished this evening would mean opening or re-opening one presently closed can of worms or another.
He pulled up one of his Kent files instead.
Clark had spent some time covering the shipping news for a small Catalan paper, a daily rag for the coastal village where he had fetched up in his travels. Bruce had been working his way through it with a combination of machine translation, guesswork, Spanish, and the patchy Occitan he'd picked up for an undercover job ten years ago. It was workaday stuff, just a writer putting bread on the table, but Bruce thought he was brushed-up enough now to tackle the one longer piece Clark had published in Catalonia.
It was an exposé about human traffickers who had been using Clark's little town as a stopover. Of course it was. Bruce rubbed his face with both hands and fought a smile. Clark Kent.
Three arrests, per a followup in a larger paper that had picked up the story and actually known what to do with it. Bruce went back to Clark's article, and found his mouth twitching again a page later. It stood to reason his big break would come like this. He looked at his watch. It would be ten in the evening in Kansas; late, but maybe not too late.
Martha picked up on the fourth ring. Her voice was soft around the edges, drowsy, but she didn't take him to task for calling at an unreasonable hour; she must not keep a farmer's schedule anymore.
"How's the fishing?" she asked after the salutations, then tried to keep Bruce from hearing her yawn over the phone. "Catch anything?"
"Oh yeah, a big one. Ornery." He was reasonably sure Martha wasn't talking about fish any more than he was, and perilously curious what she had thought she was asking. "We talked about me stopping by on my way back, but I thought I'd make sure that was still on the table."
"Of course it is. Are you heading back—tonight, I guess?"
"No, I'm in Gotham."
He heard her laugh into her hand.
"I'm not sure you understand anything about how other people travel, Bruce Wayne."
"Dinner? I could take you out."
"Why don't I cook again?" said Martha.
"I'd like that."
They were both silent a moment.
"Well," Martha said, "I should be getting—"
"I've been reading through—" Bruce hesitated. He wasn't sure he'd ever used Clark's name with Martha, as though that might be overly familiar. "The binders you gave me, as well as some of, ah, your son's published work."
"Oh, my goodness," Martha said. "I suppose I shouldn't be surprised you actually did read them."
"I'm not sure if you know that he published quite a bit while he was abroad, sometimes under pen names."
"Oh yes, he'd send them to me. I have a whole scrapbook of them."
Bruce was silent. He pinched the bridge of his nose.
"Bruce," Martha said after a moment. "What did you do?"
"Let's just say I have access to a lot of programmer man-hours," Bruce sighed. "And a mostly complete bibliography of your son's work, now."
"It may surprise you to learn that in this world, there are, sometimes, simple ways of going about things."
"Most of the ways involve paying someone to do it for you."
"And if you do it that way enough times, you forget how to just ask? Is that what you're getting at?"
"Maybe," Bruce said. "The foreign language articles, did he ever translate them for you?"
"A few. And my French is okay. Why?"
"Anything in Catalan?"
"I'm not—oh, that awful business? He wrote to me about that, but I was never able to read the article. Why?"
"I thought you might find this interesting. This is my fourth day on the roof," he read. "I've found the pattern in the comings and goings from the warehouse across the street. I may be able to get inside unobserved. Timing is everything.
"I send another call from my editor straight to voicemail. This is also the fourth day of my unannounced sabbatical from the shipping news. And from green vegetables and changing my clothes. I'm thankful my mother will never read this."
Martha laughed at the first sentence, then grew quiet; Bruce heard her muffle a pained breath with her hand. At the end she laughed again, wetly, and failed to hide the sound of her sniff.
"That boy, Heaven help me," she said, very softly. "Well, if you can't raise a son who wears clean underwear and sticks his neck out, raise a son who does one or the other. Thank you, Bruce."
"My pleasure. Sorry to keep you awake. I'll see you tomorrow. Around seven?"
"Make it five, and I'll put you to work."
"Seven it is," Bruce said, and hung up, gently, to the sound of Martha's laughter.
When summer began to cool, Bruce got his hands on a Wayne Construction vehicle and drove down to Smallville.
Martha was in the garden when he arrived, transferring sprouted plants from a tray to one of the vegetable beds. She sat back on her haunches to watch his approach, while the dog ran out to greet him; Shelby paced him down the driveway, bouncing impatiently.
"She's figured out you're a sucker," Martha called when Bruce opened his door. "Stop giving her table scraps."
"It's nice to see you too, Martha," Bruce said, climbing out of the truck. He made for the back gate, but stopped to pet Shelby before she died of anguish.
"Maybe if you'd mentioned you were coming, I would've had time to put my manners on. What's this about, Bruce?"
"You seem unusually suspicious today."
"You're driving a semi that looks like it's full of something expensive that you're going to force me to be rude by declining."
"So you're getting a head start on the rudeness?"
"Oh, for pity's sake. Come here."
She met him halfway, and took off her straw hat for a moment so she could hug him without hitting him in the face with it. It was probably as much consideration as he merited. He let his arms hang at his sides, as he usually did during Martha's displays of affection.
"Nice to see you, Bruce," she said. "Now, what's in this damn truck?"
Might as well get this out of the way now. "Lumber," he said. She followed him back around to the rear of the truck, and as he talked, he raised the gate. "Some equipment. Shingles."
"Bruce Wayne," Martha said. She'd never tried to mother him, for which he was grateful, but there was definitely a tone associated with her deployments of his full name. "The very first time I ever spoke to you, what did I tell you about that barn?"
"That a tornado hit it," Bruce said.
"Don't play dumb with me. I told you that the barn was fine just as it is, and I would not have you charging in here and trying to fix things with your money."
"I was actually going to use wood."
"I know you heard me tell you not to play dumb," Martha snapped. This was a little more fire than anticipated.
"I'm not," Bruce said. "I know for a fact that the barn leaks, I can hear it. I employ thousands of construction workers; I could have sent a repair team if the object was to throw money around. I'm here as a regular visitor to your home who is irritated by your fucking barn, with a truck I already owned and some leftovers from a cabin I just had built in the Adirondacks, to do you a favor that any moderately competent acquaintance with some free time could do. Are you going to fight me on this, or are you going to let me fix your goddamn roof before it drives me insane?"
Shelby had hopped up onto the bed of the truck and was investigating the pallets of materials inside. Martha watched her with a frown. "You just happened to have shingles lying around that match the ones on my old barn?"
"I admire your barn."
"You just finished complaining about my barn."
"Imagine how much I'm going to like it after I fix it."
"And I'm expected to believe you also just happen to know your way around roof repair?"
"YouTube tutorials," Bruce said.
Martha gave him the long look that meant she couldn't quite decide how much he was bullshitting her. "It's not just the shingles and wood, Bruce. This is a lot of work to put into a barn no one's actually using anymore. You'd pay as much for a repair crew's hours as you did for parts."
"I'm independently wealthy. I don't draw a salary. Technically, my time is worthless."
"I don't know why I ever think you won't just have an answer for everything."
"Can I get to work now, or am I going to need to talk you into this some more?"
Martha sighed. "Have you had lunch?"
She also made lemonade, and after she'd concluded her business in the garden and wiped down the kitchen counters—he could see her through the window, watching him more than the counter she was scrubbing—she dragged a pool chair out to the lawn and settled in with a book and drink to "keep him company", or rather, spectate.
Per Bruce's reconstruction of events, the culprit was the same female Kryptonian who had later faced off with Clark in a Denny's. She had traveled straight down through the roof of the barn, through a loft that was essentially destroyed by her passage, through the floor, and into the cellar, where the craft in which Clark had arrived on Earth had been hidden for most of his life. Clark had sacrificed that spacecraft in the Black Zero event, though Bruce supposed it wasn't completely unreasonable to imagine there might be some scrap of landing apparatus or entry shielding or other indecipherable alien nodule lying around.
The cellar would have to wait. It became clear to him quickly that this would not be a one-day job, and after making such a fuss about it, he probably couldn't justify leaving the roof for last. Fine; to the extent that this exercise was about reconnoitering the Kent barn at all, he was more intrigued by the loft, anyway. On the lip of broken boards that still projected from the wall, there stood an empty bookshelf and, near it, a tattered poster for The Abyss.
Clark would have been six when it was in theaters. He was probably also the only person who could have emptied the bookshelf without a production, after the destruction of the loft; the stairs were gone. This made sense: this dusty aerie, away from the farmhouse, which was closing on a century old and telegraphed every footfall to all of its inhabitants. Clark must have loved this place, and he had lacked the wherewithal to fix it himself.
Bruce was surprisingly annoyed to have to walk out of the barn, instead of grapneling to the haphazardly patched hole in the ceiling and climbing out.
The roof was a repetitive and time-consuming job, but mindless. Martha plied him with food and drink and hassled him about taking breaks, as though he were doing something immensely strenuous and dangerous, rather than moving across a stable surface in increments, doing simple work with his hands, while a breeze cooled the back of his neck. It was the most relaxing way to spend most of a day on a roof that Bruce had yet experienced.
Martha drifted away a few times to answer phone calls or handle some chore that had arisen, but mostly she read her book, and she watched. Prurient appreciation may have been a factor: this was the first time she'd seen him in a T-shirt, and he sweated through it quickly. Another reason why he was glad she'd never tried to mother him. He hadn't thought to ascertain, early in their acquaintance, whether she wanted to be taken to bed, and he suspected the practical answer was no anyway, but her eyebrows certainly did rise when he stretched. The brim of her hat admitted pinpricks of sun that chased each other across her face as the day progressed toward evening.
When the light failed him, Martha ushered him inside, put a gin and tonic in his hand—this one had actual gin in it—and then shooed him straight back out of the kitchen. Bruce shrugged, and wandered for a while, but he had exhausted the avenues for snooping in the Kent house months ago. He ended up on the living room couch instead, where Shelby immediately jammed as much of her body into his lap as she could.
Clark had maintained a social media presence that verged on bland: just enough content to keep him from looking like a Luddite, not enough to reveal anything about himself. His Facebook was sparse; he used his Twitter mostly to promote other journalists' articles and to publicly fact-check hypocrites in a way that suggested either a great deal of free time and determination or a watertight memory—and either way, considerable bloody-mindedness. Bruce had pulled the metadata on all of his public photos once, and found not a hair out of place. No photo taken in a place where Clark ought not to have been, no two photos taken in too-rapid succession in places too far apart for Clark to have traversed the distance by normal means.
There was a picture Bruce always thought of when he sat on this couch, with this dog. It was just a selfie taken with a dog, like the million similar photographs that overflowed from every nook and cranny of the internet. Clark was wearing a threadbare Royals shirt and Shelby had gotten distracted by the camera in the midst of trying to stick her tongue in his ear. He looked happier than Bruce had ever seen him in life. Even smiling for the cameras after a rescue, he hadn't lit up with delight like that.
Bruce had no idea what the fuck he was doing here. This was a life, and he was in it. He had no illusions of occupying the space Clark had vacated—even if that could be done, Bruce was not the man to do it. But there must have been a space adjacent to Clark's, because he thought he found himself in it now, like they might sit at opposite ends of this couch or pass each other in the halls of Clark's childhood home, and Bruce would know—what? Not the shape Clark cut here or the sound of his tread; not the immediate physical reality of him. But how he'd think, what he'd say.
He would say: You tried to kill me. You supplied the weapon that caused my death. It was only my mother's name that stopped you from driving it into my heart, and now you're her emergency contact.
This couldn't go on. Bruce should tell Martha what he had done, how things had gone on that last day, and he should leave. Right now. He had never been anything other than an interloper here, and that it had taken him so long to see it was grotesque.
Martha appeared in the kitchen doorway with her depleted glass in her hand. "All right, I've stopped feeling guilty about making you work some more. You can make the next round."
She held her glass out and rattled the ice.
"Shelby, up," Bruce said, and went to join her.
The house creaked and sighed to itself in the night. Bruce lay awake listening to it, watching the mobile above the bed turn slowly in the breeze through the window. The gold paint on the rings of Saturn gleamed at irregular intervals in the dark.
Clark's bed felt empty around him. He turned, put his face into the pillow, then turned again before he could think about its smell or lack of smell. He didn't spend time in this room, on his visits. What went on downstairs, or outside, or back in Gotham, was more than enough sentimentalizing without Bruce also hovering pointlessly in this museum of Clark's belongings.
He also couldn't sleep here. Bruce rolled over in place again, and was ready to give it all up for a lost cause and move down the hall to the guest room when Clark pushed open the door and walked past him, barefoot, into the bathroom.
Bruce lay still, barely breathing. Clark's presence could not be benign. It might appear that way at first, but it would always turn. Clark would peel away his own skin to reveal jags of bone and an alien grimace, or the red glow would come up behind his eyes like a visual shorthand for his rage, or he would drag Bruce by his chained wrists over a field of bones—always some new torment, some new death.
He seemed to be getting in the shower.
The practical limit on paralyzed terror arrived soon enough. Bruce slipped out of bed and crept to the bathroom door on his own bare feet. Clark's room did not have an attached bath, so it was the bathroom at the lake house: glass and stone, rectilinear shapes. The air was humid and cool, and the slate tile was wet, but Clark was not here.
Bruce touched the damp side of the shower door. He should be looking for shed hair, shed skin: Kryptonian DNA.
Later. He needed to find Clark.
Martha would be asleep in her own bed, with Shelby stretched out on top of the covers. Which meant—there. That footfall. Clark. He'd gotten past Bruce somehow.
Bruce walked back out into his own bedroom. There was someone in the bed, a shoulder and a spill of long hair, picked out in pink and gold by the dawn just breaking over the lake. Still wet from the shower, Bruce pulled something to wear out of the bureau and headed past the bed and out. He descended into the cave with his cape snapping behind him.
Clark was the first thing he saw here, pale and motionless on a monitor. Clips leapt back to life as Bruce ran the cursor over them. Zod punched Clark amidst the burning wreckage of Metropolis. Superman shot across the sky at such speed that a vapor cone formed around his feet. The deck of a ship rolled under Clark's boots. The launch tower at the Baikonur Cosmodrome blew and a tiny airborne silhouette darted into the conflagration just in time. Clark lay on a bale of hay in the loft, staring out the window at the night sky with a book forgotten on his chest.
Analytics flickered at the corner of each clip. Time of day, make and location of camera, the speed of the target relative to nearby objects, projected strength. Clark welded a girder on a collapsing bridge with searing beams from his eyes: heat, brightness, falloff, burst duration. Clark played peekaboo with Shelby on the floor of the living room: ability to moderate displays of strength, capacity to empathize with Earth life forms.
Bruce knew all of this. He had seen all the things Clark could be, all the horrors, and he was ready. He took the spear from its case and drove it into the floor of the abandoned GCPD building; he activated the signal, transfixed the night sky with light, and he waited at the center of his web of traps. Clark would come for him here, where he was most prepared. He would come with unstoppable violence and unappeasable fury.
Rain lashed Bruce and he shivered; he was still wearing only the workout pants from his dresser. The haft of the spear was slick in his bare hand. The armor—how could he have come here without the armor?
There came a sound from below him, the grinding of a stone being moved. Clark. He'd eluded Bruce again, while Bruce stood amid his useless traps, inside his useless perimeter.
Back down into the building, into the wreckage from their fight. Bruce stepped over bent and shattered steel plates and a broken grapnel line. Shards of stone cut his feet. He thought he heard the scrape of Clark's breath in the dimness, but he searched until he found himself re-treading his own bloody path through the edifice the two of them had shattered, and there was nothing of Clark to be found. Clark wasn't coming. He was already gone.
Fine. If Clark insisted he be hunted, Bruce would hunt him. Out into the cold yellow day, with his weapon in hand. Like the previous times he'd been here, it took weeks, had taken weeks, of planning and negotiation to arrange the trade for the rock. The difference was that this time, Bruce already had his own kryptonite, and he knew the ambush was coming. None of his planning or engineering had worked in Gotham, but in the sand-scoured desolation of this future things went off without a hitch, and he nearly laughed as he was carried away by the soldiers with their S-shield patches and the buzzing things that came down out of the sky.
He broke the chains they put on him. If kryptonite could cut Superman, it could cut mere steel.
Whatever structure lay aboveground here whistled and rattled in the wind, but behind that sound, Bruce could hear Clark: he was down here, somewhere, in this softly-lit warren. The hem of Bruce's coat stirred up clouds of sand as he searched. It took hours—weeks—planning and negotiation—no, just hours, but Bruce grew parched and the spear grew heavy in his hand as he stalked Clark through the empty halls. It was less and less the sound of his step Bruce heard and more the sound of his presence, like the unearthly, impossible noise of the World Engine that had ushered him into the public eye: the sound of impending devastation. It drew Bruce forward, downward, inward to the heart of this place, where he knew Clark would be waiting to enact his retribution.
He found something else. In a deep chamber full of golden sun lay the capsule that had brought Clark to Earth, as curvilinear and bizarre as any other remnant of Krypton. Bruce pulled off his cowl to examine it, but while the sound of Clark was all around him, a warning like thunder, he knew he would not find Clark here. He touched the interstellar cradle that had brought an impossible war to Earth, then grapneled up to the hole the female Kryptonian had left in the ceiling. He climbed out of the cellar and into the barn.
The light was the same here, gentle but heavy, like something he could take in his hand and eat. Jor-El was up in the loft, just opening one of Clark's books. Bruce launched himself up there with his grapnel and slammed Jor-El against the bookshelf by the lapel of his elaborate coat, ready to snarl Where is he, tell me everything you know, but Jor-El was less solid than the light was, and the image of him popped like a bubble in the face of Bruce's violence. Bruce stumbled against the bookshelf, and by pure happenstance pulled that rigged book every hideaway had. The shelf swung open like a door.
The spear clattered from Bruce's numb grip when he saw where the door had taken him. He backed up against it, but there was only ever one way out once he was here. The only option was forward, to place the fistful of mismatched flowers he'd gathered outside in the vase between the crypts of Thomas and Martha Wayne. Jason rested to their left, in the next space, the space that should have been Bruce's. Alfred was not here yet, not this time. And Clark was not here at all. This pursuit had been fruitless, one dead end and false lead after another, because its entire premise was false.
He hadn't caught Clark because he couldn't, and he never would. He might defeat him; he might kill him. But he would never ensnare him.
The epiphany woke him almost gently. He stared at the ceiling of Martha Kent's guest room for a long time before he realized Clark was sitting on the edge of the bed.
Bruce jerked up onto his elbows with his heart in his throat. Clark was sitting with his hands folded in his lap, looking out the window; his hair was still damp from the shower. He turned when Bruce's movement caught his attention, and the terror of what his face might show, or be, spurred Bruce's pulse even faster, but—there was nothing. Not even a troubling nothing, the faceless awfulness of the period after Superman had become a figure of hatred and fear, but before anyone in the media had gotten close enough to capture what he looked like. No wounds or decay; no rage from the heavens. Just Clark, looking at him silently, with one side of his face set off from the dark by a rime of moonlight.
He reached for Bruce. Finally; here it was. He reached for Bruce's throat, for the delicate apparatus of speech and the arteries that supplied the brain and the column of fragile human bone that held it all up. He reached for Bruce's throat but took him by the chin instead. His hand was warm and smooth. They looked at each other.
He leaned in to kiss Bruce's forehead.
No. No, not that. Bruce would take any suffering Clark cared to mete out, any punishment for his carelessness or his lack of insight. He would recraft his life, again, around atoning for that mistake. Forgiveness he could not accept.
He angled his head up sharply just before Clark's lips connected. They met his own instead, but Clark kissed him all the same, with the curvaceous mouth in his carved-statue face, with his hands in the sheets and in Bruce's hair and on his skin, with unrelenting force and impossible sweetness, and such a current of desire ran through Bruce that he woke a second time in the guestroom bed, panting and drenched in sweat.
Bruce made sure the truck was securely inside the barn, left Martha a note about some invented emergency, and had a car out to pick him up by dawn.
He got some work done on his laptop and, when that wasn't enough, tried bribing the driver to give him the wheel. Apparently this car company had policies about that, and she stuck to her guns well enough to merit hiring her out from under them. She spent most of the drive in the back seat, playing Minecraft on his computer.
Half an hour out of Gotham, he was negotiating a traffic snarl in a not-especially-legal fashion amid a cacophony of horns, and some restless upwelling in his chest made him immediately call Alfred about rescheduling all of today's appointments. He'd finished assembling the last lot of exotic substances the Kryptonian ship required weeks ago, but hadn't yet made the trip up to the Arctic with them; enough dilly-dallying.
Connecting his new driver with human resources ate up half an hour. She seemed surprised by his follow-through.
"Why take the offer if you thought it was bullshit?" he asked her.
"You weren't going to let it go," she said. "I like video games better than arguing with rich guys."
The HR rep who was handling her paperwork went still; the set of his mouth wavered ever so slightly. "Fair," Bruce said.
Loading up the Batwing's towable module took almost an hour, of which he spent a solid twenty minutes also deflecting Alfred: multitasking. The flight north would be hours, but he had a satellite hookup and plenty to do. This was better than going in to the office would have been, maybe better than working from the cave; the constant forward motion slowed that uneasy gnawing that had driven him into the Batwing in the first place. He activated the autopilot and, in the light doze upon which his dreams never intruded, made up a little of the sleep he'd missed. He finished the work he'd started in the car and sent Alfred a passive-aggressive email about it. He made some notes in the Mercy Graves file, which he had been neglecting due to her complete failure to do anything clearly sinister other than be alive and whole when she probably shouldn't.
An alarm notified him of the final approach, and he took over piloting. The sky was clear, but the wind was up; visibility fell as he descended, until he flew through billowing whiteness. Ridges of ice and rock heaved briefly out of the whiteout like the backs of great animals. He'd made this trip enough times that he now counted the landmarks out as he passed them, only to stumble to a mental halt when he reached the last of them and it wasn't there.
Bruce swung the Batwing around and lost more altitude, until the ground came into view. The spine of ice that had curved around the Kryptonian ship looked like it had been pushed over by some enormous hand, and in falling, had crumbled and spilled like sugar. The ship had cut a vast U shape out of the drift, but the drift in turn had engulfed the aft third of the ship. As Bruce descended, what he'd taken for an optical illusion, an eye tired of endless rolling white imposing patterns where there were none, resolved into the swoops and frills of Kryptonian architecture, wrought in snow and ice. It spread outward from the ship like the pattern of growth in a petri dish.
A walkway now curved—of course it curved—from the forward door of the ship to a flat, recessed area. Bruce knew a landing pad when he saw one. As he approached, his downdraft blew off a layer of snow to reveal his own insignia etched into one side of the pad, and on the other, something clearly derived from the part of Diana's breastplate that resembled both an eagle in profile and a pair of stacked Ws.
For God's sake.
Bruce set the cargo module down on Diana's side of the pad and disengaged it, then landed on his own and spent a few minutes with his seat fully reclined for space, negotiating his way into his cold weather layer. Diana had only been here the once, but if Jor-El was going to lay out a welcome mat for her specifically like this, maybe Bruce should try talking her into being the primary liaison for ship-related business. It certainly represented less sartorial inconvenience for her than it did for him.
One of the ship's floating robots had come out along the walkway to meet him while he was suiting up. It hovered while he opened the cargo module—probably observing, but these things lacked even an obvious camera to indicate what they might be looking at. Bruce found them wholly inscrutable. They were the only element of the ship that offered a comfortable looks like ... for Bruce's Earthly frame of reference, but what they looked like was the sort of orchid that mimicked insects to fool them into pollinating it by trying to mate with it. Bruce was already sick of looking at this one.
Nonetheless, it hovered like a faithful retainer. Hmm.
"Hold this," he said, and offered it a case of neodymium. He had no idea if the social engineering principle of getting away with things by acting like he had every right to be doing them worked on robots from other planets, but this was as good a time as any to find out.
There was a pause. Maybe the robot was hesitating. Maybe it was thinking. Maybe it was ignoring him and he was standing in the snow like an idiot, holding a box of rare earth out to an indifferent alien artifact while the wind made a game attempt to remove his face from his body.
The curved plates of the robot's exterior flared and realigned, and from beneath them emerged two sinuous many-jointed limbs with the slightly flattened ends of a cuttlefish's feeding tentacles. Great. Just what Bruce had wanted. He fought the impulse to recoil as they extended toward him.
He felt a tug on the box. The tentacles hadn't connected with it—they curved in the air, six inches away from anything they could actually grip and pull on. But the tug came again, so Bruce let go, and the box floated from his grasp at the center of a double spiral of extraterrestrial metals.
"Wait," he said immediately. "Let me have that." He couldn't quite make himself reach into whatever field the robot had generated around the box, but he held his hands out expectantly anyway.
Bruce was probably just imagining that there was a dubious quality to the robot's hesitation. It looked like an industrial sculptor's interpretation of a Georgia O'Keefe painting; it couldn't emote. It placed the box back in his hands—at first so lightly that he could hardly feel it through his gloves, but once he got a grip again, it let him take the full weight.
"Pick that up instead," he said, pointing at the open cargo module.
The robot paused again, then wavered slightly in midair like it was making up its mind about whether to approach the module. Its tentacles flexed and relaxed. At last it moved past Bruce, to hover in a loop around the module. The robot came to a halt, and Bruce thought it might simply be unable to follow his order, but as he watched, all of the boxes and crates and bottles inside the module relaxed as the compressing force of gravity eased its grip on them. They jounced loosely against each other as the module rose into the air, but inertia kept them from floating away.
The idea that the robot was looking at him expectantly was an anthropomorphization Bruce refused to entertain.
"Good," he said, and grimaced. It wasn't a dog. Whatever the etiquette was for interacting with them, that almost certainly was not it. "Thank you," he tried instead, which seemed, if anything, worse.
The robot remained as impassive as ever. Bruce gave up and led it back along the walkway toward the ship.
The new ice structure rose up on either side of him as he progressed. It curled away from the forward door of the ship like calligraphy, and rose from its scarred back in fragile translucent spires. The outskirts had the rhythm of any pricey landscaping job: that tall twisting object served the function of a sculpture or a tree; that curve was a place to walk; that arch, a place to pause. Closer to the ship, there was more enclosed space than open. Covered plazas, some actual rooms, all clear and glittering. He had no idea what their function would be even if there were people here to use them. Probably just to walk through and be impressed by. That was what most of the rooms in Wayne Manor had been for.
The one unchanged thing was Jor-El, who waited for him just inside the doors like he'd done on all of Bruce's previous visits.
"Welcome," he said, as Bruce approached. "What word of my son?"
Of course he did. It was always the first thing out of his mouth.
"Care to explain this?" said Bruce, pointing, rather than answer.
"The maintenance presences are settling in here. I believe they thought Kal might like this."
"Do you remember our conversation about keeping a low profile and not drawing attention to the ship?"
"I remember that you said you could scrub evidence of it from satellite images because your company owns or maintains most of the satellites in question."
"I did," Bruce said reluctantly. "That's not a reason to flaunt your presence here."
"I'll ask them to add a canopy. That should make the ship less visible overall, not more."
Bruce knew when he was beat. He shrugged and stepped up into the ship.
"Welcome back, user Nightwing," it said.
Jor-El was looking past him, at the robot toiling toward them with its load. "And my son? I take it he's not with you."
"He's fine," Bruce said.
"Will I see him soon?"
"I'm not privy to his schedule."
"It's good of you to assist him, but surely this is something he could do himself?"
"I don't make Kal-El's appointments for him. He's extremely busy. You knew how much responsibility he'd have when you sent him here."
The Jor-El hologram looked past Bruce again, and seemed to speak from light-years away. "Is he well, at least?"
Bruce was almost inured to that dropping of the stomach that tended to come at about this point in the conversation. They did this dance every time, and either Jor-El always bought it or he was too polite to let on that he knew Bruce had been keeping the death of his son from him.
"He's fine," Bruce said again. "Wouldn't it be simpler to shut yourself down and wait for him to visit? Do you experience boredom?"
"Not exactly, but I still spend long periods inactive. The guiding presence rouses me when someone approaches. Which, so far, has meant only you."
"Right. Well, this is the last of it." Bruce half-turned to wave his hand at the cargo module. "What is the genesis chamber looking like at the moment?"
"Much improved. It is recently drained; it should be possible for you to search it now."
"I need to get something out of my plane, in that case. Can you handle this?"
The robot had just deposited Bruce's cargo module on the walkway that led inward from the door; Bruce gestured at the module again, and couldn't have said whether he had directed his question at Jor-El or at the robot. It was Jor-El who answered.
"Yes," he said. "As always, thank you. The repairs have made existence considerably more agreeable both for me and for the other shipboard presences."
Bruce grunted acknowledgement and got out. He crunched his way back along the path to the new landing pad and popped the canopy on the Batwing. If Diana or, God forbid, Barry had been along, he would have made a point of bringing something stylishly black and forensic-looking with him just in case, but it was just him and some artificial intelligences, so the hand vacuum he kept under the pilot's seat would do. He checked the battery, wiped normal plane dust off of the exterior, and put in a new bag. Time for some glamorous detective work.
Jor-El was still standing in the doorway when he returned, and the cargo module was not in evidence. Bruce should have made it clear he was going to need that back. He'd worry about it later. For now, he followed Jor-El down the winding gullet of the ship.
Structural repairs seemed complete, and Luthor's stopgap platforms and scaffolding were gone. The first order of business had been making the ship airtight, but as long as its only inhabitants were some antigravity robots and the holographic interface of an AI, the concerns of Earthlings who had to walk everywhere apparently came far down the list of priorities. Bruce could see the scars where new construction—he both wanted and dearly did not want to think of it as growth—abutted the ship's scuffed and tarnished original surfaces, but the terrain of the ship's interior was now mostly unbroken.
It must now look roughly as it had when Clark first found the ship on Ellesmere. If he had been to the genesis chamber, maybe he had placed his feet where Bruce was walking at this moment. Maybe they shared this space like they had shared Martha's couch, asynchronously, never touching.
Never touching. God, his hands—
"Is something wrong?" said Jor-El.
Bruce had walked a few steps with his eyes shut, and his feet had faltered in this only half-familiar corridor. "No," he said, and picked up his pace.
There was a simple way to verify Clark's path through the ship.
He'd never come here, however briefly—and it was always as brief as he could manage—without thinking of it: the ship's recording of Clark's visit, which could tell Bruce so much about what Clark thought of his heritage and his past. Jor-El had projected an image of the intruder in the damaged genesis chamber for Bruce to photograph; surely he could project Clark as well. And now that the ship was repaired, that hologram of Clark could move through it just as the real Clark had, without passing through obstructions like a ghost, without edits that would break the illusion.
It would be the closest thing to seeing him alive. Closer than a dream.
Bruce needed to finish up here and leave immediately.
The doors of the genesis chamber unfolded like petals as they approached. Bruce hesitated again on the threshold; restored, it didn't look much like he'd imagined. The console that had formerly risen from the pool now stood at the end of the walkway, which proceeded straight and level to the center of the room: all as expected. But beyond it, not much past arm's length, an unanticipated wall of glass or something glasslike bisected the chamber. Ropy structures hung vertically in murky fluid on the other side—the light made it blue, but Bruce thought it was colorless, and opted not to contemplate why it had been yellow before. Indistinct tentacled shapes sculled through this artificial kelp forest: the robots from the pool. Confronted at eye level, they were bigger than Bruce had realized.
"If I don't find anything useful in here, I'll need samples from inside that chamber, or whatever filtration system you use for the liquid," he said, and didn't look too closely at the prospect of taking a dip with those robots, amid the entangling artificial vines of the chamber proper. Even in full dive gear—well, he'd cross that bridge if he came to it.
"I can arrange that," Jor-El said.
Bruce nodded, crouched at the edge of the walkway, and vaulted off, down to the floor of the antechamber. It looked like any other backstage or utility area down here, modulo the abdominal cavity aesthetic of Kryptonian architecture: masses and pipes and narrow curved buttresses, all with a contiguous surface. No seams except where it had been repaired—Bruce was finding that though he could see the repairs, they were too smooth to feel through his gloves—but plenty of nooks and irregularities. He turned on the hand-vac and set about inserting its nose into each of them.
Jor-El watched this process with his hands folded, as impassive as any of the robots. It still wasn't clear to Bruce whether he sincerely did not have the ability to vacuum his own ship, if there were some more advanced Kryptonian way to do this that Jor-El was withholding to be an asshole, or if there were some more advanced Kryptonian way to do this that Jor-El was withholding because he'd gathered that Bruce would still have opted for a hand-vac that Alfred had probably bought at Home Depot. It wasn't even black.
Either the hologram of Jor-El was solid enough to cast a shadow, or a projected one was part of the simulation. Bruce moved into it as he worked, then out, like it was any conventional shadow. The light here was blue, not golden, and it didn't rest upon the two of them like the soft weight of a blanket, but Bruce experienced a moment of involuntary recollection anyway: emerging from below ground and looking up to see Jor-El; the crisp sound of a page turning in Jor-El's immaterial hands. And behind that, like the water behind a collapsing dam, was a torrent of remembered impatience. Where was Clark—where had he fled to—how long and how far and how deep would Bruce have to search to find him and confront him and—
"What's the actual function of this tank?" asked Bruce over the sound of the hand-vac, with a suddenness that half surprised even him.
Jor-El seemed closer to full surprise. "It's a genesis chamber," he said.
"I picked up on that. And it does what, make potable ... whatever Kryptonians drink?"
"Water, and no. Kal didn't tell you?"
"Let's assume that if I have to ask you about something, Kal-El hasn't explained it to me."
Jor-El hesitated. Surely one day he would ask outright: what are you keeping from me. Is my son, in fact, dead. Bruce hadn't decided how he'd respond to a direct question about it. For now, he could hope that Jor-El was simply incapable of arriving at that thought independently. Maybe that degree of catastrophization was outside the ability of the sort of man who would fling his own child into the void, to be raised by aliens, rather than accept that the death of their planet meant Clark's death too. Maybe there was always some farther sanctuary, to Jor-El's mind.
"The genesis chamber creates life. Not just Alexander Luthor's abomination; for the last few centuries before the fall of Krypton, it was only from them that new Kryptonians were born."
The nodules that swelled from the vertical objects in the chamber took on new implications. "You aren't planning—"
"Krypton is dead. I have no more intention of reviving it on Earth than my son does." When Bruce just eyed him, Jor-El folded his arms. "This chamber is impossible to prime without genetic material that only Kal carries. I couldn't abuse it if I wanted to, and he seems to have earned your trust. Somehow."
It was difficult to mistrust a man too dead to betray anyone. "So Kal-El came out of one of these," Bruce said.
"He is the one exception. The only Kryptonian in a very long time created through random genetic recombination, and born into the arms of his parents, not of a robot."
"Is 'random genetic recombination' how most Kryptonians talk about sex?"
"As a matter of fact, yes. It was profoundly taboo."
"Sounds fun. Mandatory contraception, or no sex whatsoever?"
"This is rather personal."
"No sex whatsoever. What made you and—"
"Lara," Jor-El supplied, with such softness and longing that the sound of it stopped Bruce cold. He thumbed the hand-vac's power switch convulsively, like he'd been caught using it in a church, and its wheezing hum cut out. The ship's background noise had more in common with the cave's than with any Earthly machine's: a distant liquid susurration.
"There's no AI of her," he said into this silence.
"There was no time," Jor-El said. "Creating an imprint requires many months' worth of neurological data. We were sure one of our other efforts would bear fruit, that our plan to send Kal away if the worst happened would never need be enacted."
The hand-vac rattled when Bruce shook it. He had probably collected enough to justify taking a moment to look through it. "Why random genetic recombination?"
"We thought Krypton had lost something precious. Spontaneity. Self-determination. Tenderness." Jor-El's voice came from impossibly far away and soughed through Bruce like a wind. "We hoped.... Well, we succeeded, beyond our wildest dreams. I only wish Lara could see him."
"So, Clark...." Bruce let the sentence die unfinished. An answer couldn't be worth the cost of admitting the question fully into his mind.
What did it matter, anyway.
"Yes?" said Jor-El.
Bruce just grunted and climbed the side of the walkway. Covering everything in curved ridges did make spaces conveniently traversable. He hauled himself up and to his feet, then removed the bag from his hand vacuum.
Apart from the floor, there was no level surface to work on. In his limited exploration of the rest of the ship, Bruce had yet to see anything that looked like a worktable or even a place to rest a dish of food. The console came to a rounded-off point. Bruce had no idea how Kryptonians functioned.
This Earthling would have to make do. From his belt he produced a pair of scissors with which to slit the bag open, then a pair of forceps for sorting through its contents. Mostly particles, mostly tiny. Most of them could probably be safely ignored, though he'd sift and examine them later, somewhere with a table. For the time being he let the ship's sensors do the work. "What's this?" he would say, holding up something of sufficiently uncertain origin with the forceps, and Jor-El would say, "Metal filing," or, "A scrap of atmo filter," or, "Human hair, probably yours," or, "That is a very small pebble," until he came to a miniscule furled object, like a ball of discarded foil, and Jor-El hesitated.
"Well?" said Bruce.
"I don't know," Jor-El said.
"I don't know."
"I need more detail."
"The ship can perceive that object visually. Otherwise, it may as well not be there."
Bruce was out of hands. He placed his find back down on a stretch of clean white vacuum bag, then put the forceps in his mouth and fished for a gem loupe. On closer examination, the object looked something like a grey cabbage rose or a crumpled handkerchief, a few millimeters across. It did a very convincing impression of anonymous detritus, except insofar as Bruce had never seen anything quite like it.
"Have you encountered anything else you can't read? Could this be a component of the robot hive?"
"At the time it was on the ship, the ship itself was so badly damaged and so thoroughly compromised it would have had difficulty distinguishing that pebble from a tissue sample."
"So, maybe." Bruce considered Mercy Graves: as inert to metal detectors, X-ray and pressure plates as any normal woman of her general description. He'd dismissed her as alive and walking thanks to LexCorp guilt money rather than probably-extraterrestrial intervention after the fourth time she'd gotten through TSA without so much as a hiccup. "Are you able to speculate about how something like an electromagnetic metal detector would react to this?"
"To do so, I would need details about the state of human technology that you seem reluctant to divulge."
Bruce executed some intricate choreography to get the possible nanite into an evidence baggie without dropping anything, then resumed his survey of the vacuum bag's contents. There were two more of the small ruffled artifacts, and quite a lot of pieces of Kryptonian detritus that he should have a look at just in the name of staying informed about what was happening on his planet. He bagged the objects of high interest individually and the rest together, and tucked it all into pockets inside his cold-weather layer.
"That'll be all. Is that robot finished with my cargo module?"
"It's by the door."
Jor-El followed Bruce out of the genesis chamber and through the twisting halls of the ship. The experience was almost indistinguishable from walking down a hallway with a living, present person, and if Bruce hadn't known, he might have been fooled: Jor-El displaced no air, but his shoes even struck sounds off the metal of the walkway. How proximate would they have to be before the illusion fell apart, before the lack of warmth, of breath, was impossible to miss? If it were Clark—if he wanted badly enough to be fooled—
As though he had plucked Clark's name in Bruce's thoughts—Bruce's pulse jumped guiltily—Jor-El said, "Will you ask my son to visit?"
Oh good, this part of the conversation.
"I can ask," Bruce said.
"Thank you," Jor-El said, and walked in blessed silence for a moment. "Whatever is keeping him away," he said when the moment expired, "tell him, please, that it doesn't matter. Tell him he is loved here."
Bruce closed his eyes. "I'll make him aware."
The question of whether an AI could actually grieve had dogged Bruce for some time now. He certainly did not consider Jor-El a fully living being; if a situation somehow came down to saving either Jor-El or a real person, there would be no contest, and he doubted it would trouble or surprise Jor-El to know that. Did that make his simulation of grief not actually grief? Jor-El's impression of a man wistful for his dead wife certainly seemed—if anything, quite a bit more believable than Bruce had come here prepared to deal with. Bruce imagined Jor-El would be equally convincing as a father in mourning.
Bruce couldn't do it. He should; he should get it out of the way. He should make sure the information wouldn't leak to Jor-El through some other means and make their interaction difficult. He could not. He had one thing in common with Jor-El, and he couldn't bear to have two.
"Thank you," Jor-El said again. Bruce nodded rather than trust his voice, and walked on.
His new driver took him back down to Kansas the next weekend. The plan was for her to leave and for Bruce return to Gotham at his leisure in the Wayne Construction truck, but of course Martha insisted on feeding her and winkling out the full story of her hiring. Martha had a decent poker face, but Bruce had no illusions about her not finding the situation hilarious.
Plenty of daylight remained when she had finished tormenting him in the medium of his own employees. He devoted most of that day to the loft, and to trying and failing not to think. That happened everywhere now, though. The thought of Clark assailed him as he entered the barn, and he was briefly certain that coming back so soon had been a mistake. But it had followed him through meetings and galas and the brutal nights of Gotham too, and if it was going to catch him—it was always going to catch him—he might as well let it happen here, in a place that resonated of Clark.
He still dosed himself before he bedded down that night. There were dreams he ought not have in Martha's house.
The loft was finished before noon the following day. Bruce stood on it, with the light pouring in around him through the open window, and felt no satisfaction. Martha had given him a photo to work from: Clark and a dark-haired girl, both of them perhaps fifteen, sitting on blanket-shrouded hay bales with mugs of in their hands and waving down over the bannister at the photographer. The angle had given him the dimensions of the loft and the placement of the staircase, but it also showed a corner of the bookshelf, the film poster that was still on the wall, part of a sawhorse table with the wing of a model plane projecting off one end. Clark's actual bedroom had a lower square footage.
Bruce had worked without disturbing the poster, and once there was a surface for it to stand on, he'd hauled the bookshelf back up where it belonged with one of the pulleys he'd brought for moving lumber. There were old bales of hay around. There were blankets. He could perform the full ghoulish exercise of refurnishing this place to match that photograph and still not achieve that feeling he'd skirted and then fled in the Kryptonian ship, of placing his feet where Clark's feet had been, his hands where Clark's hands had been. He stood now at a latitude, longitude and elevation he was sure Clark had occupied many times, but on a stretch of floorboards that would mean nothing to him.
This place had been important. It had been part of Clark; it had been an extension of his home. But it had been destroyed, and Bruce could not revive it.
As he broke down his equipment, he considered just leaving. Martha didn't care about the state of the barn, and wouldn't mock him any more than he could endure if he abandoned this project before the cellar door was fixed.
Curiosity decided him. He had to at least look around.
He pulled up the plywood that lay over the worst of the damage and winched the shattered doors open. Sunlight crept down the ladder with him. A discarded tarp and a patch of the dirt floor relatively free of door fragments and hay—it got everywhere—showed him where the capsule had lain for most of Clark's life. Bruce shook out, then folded, the tarp, and cast about on the floor around it, in case there was some scrap of extraterrestrial metal around that he ought to be containing and cataloguing. Nothing his naked eye could see.
The space stretched away into the dark around him, probably to the extent of the barn's footprint. Against the near wall, though, stood a set of shelves heaped with notebooks and detritus. It looked like it had begun as a graveyard for broken appliances, but a new purpose had taken it over. Surveying the wall above it, Bruce could guess when. It was festooned with paper, mostly maps—not local maps but maps of the world, or of faraway places. Geological maps. Star maps. And between the maps, newspaper clippings, photographs, academic articles. Celestial events. Breakthroughs in biological research. Declassified documents about nuclear research and the Russian space program.
Pen scribbles marked out the thoughts of the archivist—the archivists, plural. Bruce recognized Martha's handwriting immediately, but he knew the other one as well, from the insides of book covers in the living room, from the back of the photo of the loft. Jonathan Kent. He ran his fingers along the margin of a yellowed tabloid article, where a disagreement played out between these two hands.
He'd imagined this place as another shrine to Clark, a piece of his life trapped in amber like his bedroom or the Kryptonian ship's record of his presence. It was certainly about Clark, he had motivated it, but this place belonged to his parents. As much as the albums of photographs or the scratches on the kitchen doorjamb labeled things like 4'3"—11 yrs were, this was a chronicle of the raising of Clark Kent. It was a record of two unprepared people inviting someone into their lives who they did not and could not fully understand, and striving desperately, with every tool at their disposal, to know him well enough to be good to him.
"Don't snoop, Bruce," Martha's voice said from above him. He looked up to find her standing at the edge of the cellar doorway, holding a half-empty glass of lemonade.
There wasn't a good response to that, and she didn't wait for one. "Come on up, lunch is waiting." Her silhouette withdrew from the rectangle of light above him.
Bruce poured a bottle of water over himself, toweled off, and joined her on the lawn, where she presented him with his own glass of lemonade—he'd drunk more of the stuff in the six months of their acquaintance than in the preceding four decades of his life—and a sandwich. He stretched his legs out in the folding chair she'd set up for him, and waited for her to follow up. Bruce might interfere with Martha's finances, but he didn't have a history of poking into her personal business. Either way, her coming upon him in that cellar had surely done irreparable harm to their polite fiction that Bruce was not Batman and Clark had not been Superman. She'd be bound to say something.
She didn't. She ate her food and marked up a document with a red pen. When she rearranged the pages, Bruce saw part of a title over which Martha had scratched Interstate Compact for Sending His Honor Directly to Hell.
"I see things are going well," he said. Martha looked at him quizzically; he tugged out the sheet he'd seen the title on, and she laughed.
"I forgot I did that. We won't go to court with that name. Probably."
"This is the judge you went to school with?"
She nodded, and sipped her lemonade like she wished it had alcohol in it. "He's fighting us on the formation of a commission. A law can just sit inert on the books, and that's good enough! Why create an agency to enforce it when local law enforcement is fully prepared and equipped to handle mad scientists tampering with alien artifacts, probably! It went so well last time! It'll be something else next, probably even dumber."
"Hm. Stalling for time?"
"Only in the limelight. This is the biggest case he's presided over and he's lapping up the attention." Martha uttered a vast sigh and picked up her sandwich again. The two of them ate in silence for a while.
"I'd like to take more of Clark's notebooks with me this time," Bruce said into the quiet, steeling himself. This would bring the conversation back around to the cellar. "Maybe some of his personal journals."
"Of course. I'll put a box together while you're working." Martha licked her fingers, uncapped her pen, and returned to her paperwork.
"Thanks," Bruce said, nonplused, and the afternoon stretched out before him like untroubled water.
"Thanks to the perceived power of our strategic vision and the strength of our leading indicators—"
The buzz of Bruce's phone interrupted him. Martha's vibration pattern. It would have to be. Only a few numbers went through when Bruce's phone was set Do Not Disturb; one would never call Bruce, and most of the rest were in this room, suffering through his keynote.
He reached into his pocket and sent her to voicemail. "—Wayne Enterprises continues to significantly outperform our highest-growth peers."
His phone buzzed again about fifteen seconds later. Bruce's voicemail greeting was a gruelling thirty-second recording of him making an idiot of himself at a party, which meant Martha had hung up without listening to it and called him again immediately. All right. She wasn't just trying to reschedule brunch.
"And now," he said, "our president and managing director, Lucius Fox, will take you through Q3/18 growth in detail."
Lucius gave Bruce a look from the wings that could've curled the ears on the Batsuit. He still came out to meet Bruce halfway, and he was all smiles the moment the stage lights hit him. If Bruce hadn't been the culprit, he would never have known Lucius had just been stuck with a presentation he wasn't prepped for.
"Mr. Fox," Bruce said, still on mic, and shook Lucius' hand. In his pocket, Martha's vibration pattern cycled a third time. She'd go to voicemail again on five.
"Mr. Wayne." Lucius squeezed back just a little too hard, but let himself be ushered toward the podium. Bruce shot a wave and a grin out to the roomful of half-asleep investors, and hurried offstage as his phone buzzed a fourth time
He had to cut through a baffled cluster of chief officers and personal assistants to get somewhere that offered privacy, but at least there was plenty of that to be had. The East Gotham Conference Center had led several other lives before its current incarnation, and backstage of the main theater was a warren of interconnected rooms full of shapes sinisterly concealed under drop cloths. Bruce hit Accept on his phone as soon as he was clear, just before buzz number five, and strode into the dimness
"This is Bruce," he said, having upgraded Martha from the customary curt Bruce Wayne several months previous.
No reply was forthcoming. Bruce repeated himself—still no response—then stopped to listen. He heard the rustle of fabric near the microphone.
"Martha," he sighed. "Did you butt-dial me?"
Still nothing. Bruce was just about to lower the phone and hang up when the character of the soundscape on the other end opened up. Something had altered the phone's surroundings dramatically—such as Martha taking it out of her pocket. "Martha?" said Bruce again, and gave it another moment
Someone spoke on the other end, but not Martha, and not into the phone. Male voice, adult, forty or above. Metropolis accent, maybe, but all Bruce caught was the word bathroom. It was a question but, from the intonation, rhetorical.
"I guess not," he heard Martha say, half uneasy laughter, half trembling tension. She was much more audible than her interlocutor: the phone was on her, maybe in her breast pocket. The change in the ambient sound had probably been her moving into another room.
She was also terrified
The man with Martha said something else Bruce couldn't decipher, and she replied, "I'm not even on the defense. 'Glorified mascot', remember? It doesn't matter what I—" She cut off with a gasp.
Had he struck her? Grabbed her? He was speaking again, closer but lower. Still indecipherable, but Bruce knew what a threat sounded like.
The shortest route back to the parking garage would take Bruce past a lot of people who would expect schmoozing, financial palaver, or sex. He scanned his mental map of the building and headed for a side door
"Think about what you're doing, Spencer," Martha said rapidly. "Assault looks a lot worse in the papers than ex parte commu— Let go of—"
She broke off again, and the first jolt of adrenaline hit Bruce's bloodstream. He could still hear her on the other end, breathing fast, frightened but alive. There was no one in this part of the building to witness or question his urgency, so Bruce ran flat-out through the last drafty caverns of the old backstage and down a maintenance hallway, to a door that let him out into an alley.
"I will do no such ..." Martha began. What stopped her this time was not violence—whoever this Spencer was, he hadn't shaken or hit her. She just trailed off, which meant, probably, that she had seen something that made her reconsider the rest of her sentence. He had shown her something. "Lead the way," she said coolly.
The pedestrian door of the parking garage was a quarter of the way around the block. Bruce took the stairs three at a time. As he crossed the concrete floor, his phone went silent against his ear; it had paired automatically with the car, and when he jerked open the door he found the cab already full of Martha's fast shaky breathing.
There was a murmur of voices in the background now. Somewhere public. If this conversation had begun in the courthouse—a private room there: an office?—they wouldn't have had time to exit, moving at a speed that wouldn't attract undue attention. A public hallway, probably. The car's sound system gave Bruce more detail than the speaker on his phone had, but Martha's phone was doing its job and excluding most of the ambient noise; a cellphone was close to the least suitable listening device for this scenario.
Bruce docked his phone, then turned the ignition with one hand and yanked a tablet out of the compartment on the door with the other. While the tablet warmed up in his lap, he negotiated his way out of the parking garage with just enough decorum not to break the exit gate.
"Of course!" said Martha over the car's speakers, suddenly cheerful. Bruce caught a third party's voice, a younger man. If she was signaling to him that she was a hostage, Bruce couldn't tell. "Oh, we went to law school together," she went on, breezily. "Oh yes, I bet."
The fucking judge.
A traffic snarl engulfed Bruce as he exited the garage. Forward motion was impossible for about five seconds, which he used to text Alfred his reason for ditching the meeting with one hand and do some research with the other. J. Spencer Larson, associate judge of the Metropolis Court of Appeals. Divorced twice, domestic violence charges quietly dropped by his second ex-wife. Issued some tactless bluster during Bruce's crackdown on judicial corruption in Gotham a decade back via the Metropolis Gazette, which he appeared to use as his personal mouthpiece
Bruce should have paid him a visit years ago. Bruce should have paid him a visit weeks ago, when Martha's complaints about his malingering had raised a red flag. She'd seemed so dismissive, and he'd let it go. Fuck.
Martha said something to low to catch, but he heard the challenge in her voice: she wasn't talking to the third party anymore. Bruce needed better ears on the scene. As he jammed himself into traffic—and then back out, down an empty alley where he could drive more than five miles an hour—he opened the remote bug interface on his tablet.
The volume meters for all of his Kent bugs showed only the low blips of an empty farmhouse's soundscape, as he'd feared. Every time Martha went to a thrift store there was some new purse to surveil, and Bruce had been sure all along he was missing a few. The GPS on her phone was the next step, so Bruce tried turning up the gain while he was in there anyway. The ambient sounds swelled, but a cell phone mic could do only so much. That erratic ticking in the background was probably Martha's heels on a hard floor, captured dully by a mic turned for human voices.
This situation's saving grace was that Martha had, a few months ago, finally responded to Bruce's urgings that she trade up from the shitty and difficult-to-jack flip phone she'd had before. And she was at least exactly where she was supposed to be, a moving dot inside the same courthouse where she'd asked Bruce to pick her up around noon. Bruce checked the phone's camera, but it gave him only blackness.
The first intersection Bruce hit was clogged with traffic; he inserted himself into it with extreme prejudice and was nearly T-boned for his trouble. In the hurry-up-and-wait of morning rush hour, it would take close to half an hour to get back to the cave, and then he'd have to suit up. Was that his best bet? Metropolis, at this speed, was more like an hour, longer if the bridge was bad. The situation Martha was in right now, he could stumble into as Bruce Wayne and pointedly misunderstand until it was defused, but who knew what things would look like in an hour. Who knew what they would look like in ten minutes. Larson was taking her out of the building, probably moving her to another location.
The Bat, then
The background noise changed again, and the sound of Martha's heels stopped; Bruce caught an attenuated ding that might have been an elevator. A long silence followed, broken in the middle by a tension-relief cough from Martha. The ding again, and Martha said through her teeth, "If you're going to drag me the whole way, you could at least not pinch."
Larson didn't answer aloud, but Martha's low grunt told Bruce what he thought about that. The car's elaborate Cabasse speaker system teased as much richness and realism out of this low-fidelity transmission as it could; Bruce was awash in Martha's little sound of pain. He squeezed the steering wheel and goosed the engine for the few hundred feet of freedom this alley offered before the next intersection. The sewers might be faster than this.
Another elevator chime; Martha's heels, on a different surface this time; a flat hoot, probably a car being unlocked remotely. A parking garage, not outdoors.
"You're kidding," Martha said. "I've never even driven an automatic."
Larson must have been crowding her; his voice just barely passed the threshold of decipherability. "I can't exactly drive with a gun in my hand. Your other option is tied up in the trunk. Decide quickly."
Silence from the phone. Even lacking a personal experience with abductions as extensive and detailed as Bruce's, Martha had to know what an idiot mistake Larson was making here. There was so much she could accomplish behind the wheel of Larson's car, even if he had a gun on her. She might not need Bruce at all today, if she was attentive and lucky.
The silence unspooled, longer and longer. Surely he would have heard a struggle by now if Martha had, for some reason, opted for the trunk; this must be the silence of hostile compliance. But Bruce did not relax until he heard a door slam, an engine start, and Martha's voice again: "Where to?"
He slapped his own steering wheel in triumph, then held down the horn and barged his way through the last of the traffic that stood between him and the expressway out of town.
"How long?" said Martha, just as Bruce fishtailed into his parking space at the lake house.
Larson was more audible in the close quarters of his car. His response to this sounded like a grunt and probably was one, not a word compressed into that shape by the phone connection.
"How long have you been in LexCorp's pocket?" said Martha. A crack in her voice put the lie to her bravado. "Is it just this case—did they contact you special for it? Or has this been going on a while now?"
LexCorp. Well, Bruce had known he wouldn't like the answers to any of his questions. He hurried into the house and through the cave's biometric locks, shedding parts of his suit as he went. Out of the car, with the phone to his ear again, he was no longer bombarded on all sides by the sound of Martha's fear.
"... explain myself ... dried-up hick who hasn't ... law in three decades," Larson said, faint and muffled.
"Well, that's a first for you," Martha said.
If Bruce spoke through the phone loud enough for Martha to hear, Larson might hear as well, and he would lose his one tiny window on the scene—not to mention, probably, the luxury of GPS. He'd considered sending her Morse code messages via the buzzer on her phone, but that carried the same risk of discovery, and Bruce wasn't sure she knew Morse code in the first place. He would just have to hope that she knew her call had gone through, that he'd picked up, that he'd interpreted it correctly; that he was coming for her. He'd have to hope she knew that if he had saved her once when she was a perfect stranger to him, more a name than a person, he would stop at nothing to do it again.
Still, the temptation to tell her to stop fucking antagonizing her kidnapper was substantial.
He held his phone in his teeth while he yanked off his dress pants and yanked on the sweat-wicking underlayer of the Batsuit. Martha's voice resonated through the bones of his skull.
"Why not hand down the verdict LexCorp wants, and call it a night?" she was saying. "I thought you were just enjoying the attention, but if they're paying you, what's the point of stalling? You could get us on federal sovereignty any time you felt like never showing your face in Metropolis again."
"Just drive the fucking car," Larson said, loudly enough for each word to come through. "Do you not see me with a phone in my hand? Jesus."
"I thought everyone could talk while they text nowadays," Martha said.
Bruce paused with a zipper half-zipped. She might legitimately think that. It was the sort of thing that both Clark and Lois Lane would do; add Bruce, and you had a significant proportion of Martha's sample of smartphone users with type A personalities. She might also be passive-aggressively signaling to Bruce that she knew he was listening. Either way, useful information: Larson could be bringing someone else in. Probably either his contact at LexCorp, someone he thought could make the problem go away, or both.
Larson's reply was another grunt, and Martha didn't try to draw him out further. Bruce zipped and buckled himself into the Batsuit as quietly as he could without slowing down, and tried to listen. How engrossed was Larson in his phone? Was Martha capitalizing on his distraction? Bruce heard her catch her breath once, but that could have been anything: a stray thought, an erratic driver.
He was just pulling on the cowl when Larson snapped, "Hey! What do you think you're doing?"
"You told me to take Fourteenth—" began Martha, in a trembling voice. Bruce winced around the phone in his mouth. If she'd been able to play this off—well, no matter now. He paired his phone to the suit and stowed it on his belt
"Slow the fuck down," Larson said. "Do I have to tell you what happens if we get pulled over?"
This was such an obvious opening that Bruce half-expected more impertinence from Martha, but she held her tongue. The gun may have come back into play. He hurried through the quickest possible version of his gear check as he crossed the cave, and vaulted into the cockpit of the Batwing.
"No more talking," Larson was saying. "No more speeding. No gesturing out the window. No eye contact. No detours. The trunk is still very much an option. Now, drive."
However much Bruce imagined her to be gritting her teeth, Martha did as she was told.
Larson was just hauling Martha out of the driver's seat when Bruce got eyes on them from the nearest roof. Martha lacked, or had lost, the obsessive focus on the weapon itself that many people displayed at gunpoint: she looked Larson square in the face with poisonous anger as he shoved her against the side of his Buick and thrust a roll of duct tape into her hands. The only other movement in the alley was a loading bay door slowly rising on its monitor, and a trickle of runoff from this morning's half-hearted drizzle.
"What—what is—what am I supposed to do with this?" said Martha, first faintly from below, then over the cowl's earphones a half-second later.
"Put it over your mouth," Larson said, stepping back from her; he held his pistol at arm's length, leveled at her face. He was Martha's height, with a powerful build gone round with age and a mostly grey beard. "No one needs a running commentary."
It had been clear since practically the moment Bruce had picked up the phone that this scenario involved a gun. Larson had referred to it outright. Bruce still wasn't prepared for the sight of Martha staring into the barrel of it. Violence welled up in him like a scream; he found himself poised to vault the parapet, with no memory of crossing the intervening space. This was his window. Larson had no idea he was here. Whoever might emerge from that loading bay and what that situation would require was a question for after Martha was safe, and after Bruce had visited upon Larson, all at once, all of the things his conduct had earned
He stopped himself just before he leapt. Taking a gun away from Larson would be trivial. Taking his gavel away would be harder. Larson's reputation and LexCorp's money versus the word of a retired farmer from Kansas was not good odds. Bruce could put a halt to this, but if he wanted to end it, he had to wait, and hope Martha would forgive him.
How long since he had last bothered to have this fight with himself? It almost felt good.
Martha had paused just long enough to convey incredulity, and was now tearing off a length of duct tape with her teeth. She smoothed it over her mouth.
"Turn around," Larson said, stepping close again to snatch the tape from her hands. He must have realized his mistake immediately, but with Martha's judgmental eye turned away, he was free to perform the awkward choreography required to get his pistol into the waistband of his pants one-handed, then rip another few inches of tape off the roll. Jesus Christ, Bruce should break some of Larson's teeth just for making him watch that.
The route had rung a faint bell when Larson fed it to Martha, but Bruce hadn't had a free second in which to pursue it. Now that he was here, he knew the place: Six blocks of disused textile warehouses joined by elevated breezeways, which the press release had claimed would soon be a new research park. LexCorp had bought this section of the warehouse district early last summer to help deflect the conversation away from their PR messes and toward all the new jobs they were bringing into the city. This was old Metropolis, where a little of the artful brick- and ironwork of the nineteenth century lurked at the feet of the city center's steel-and-glass monoliths.
The warehouses' tall windows were blacked out from the inside. LexCorp had brought in demolition equipment, put up warning signs, strung barricade tape, but made no progress toward anything approximating the artist's rendition of the park-to-be, which would have looked equally at home in a press release about a Mars colony.
Bruce knew this trick as well as anyone. Embark on a project and then forget about it, and let everyone else forget about it; transfer talent from it to something so exciting they would never bother to look back. Vaporware was common as dirt. He would need to break in here at a later date
This particular alley was two lanes wide but unmarked, in the fashion of industrial backroads meant more for loading and unloading than for transit, and clogged at one end with dumpsters and forklifts. The one thing LexCorp had done was infest the area with brand new closed-circuit cameras; Bruce identified three with a view of Martha and Larson. One sprouted from the brick of the warehouse he stood on, practically right below his feet, covering the same loading bay door that had begun opening upon Larson and Martha's arrival. They were at the edge of the camera's field of view right now; if they moved toward the door, they'd be squarely in the center.
Martha watched the door rise while Larson taped her wrists together, and knew before he did that someone had emerged. She must have stiffened; Larson looked up and yanked her to him by her bound wrists. In this posture, holding Martha gagged and bound, he could easily have been mistaken for a competent kidnapper by an uninformed observer.
Such as the new arrival, a man with a tattoo on his neck and two fingertips amputated at the first knuckle. He had several weapons on his person, not concealed with any great care, but none in his hands.
Larson seemed taken aback by the newcomer, but tried to bustle Martha past him. "Where is she?" he said. "Inside?"
"No," the man with the missing fingertips said, "wait out here. She'll be back up in a minute." He held up his disfigured hand to halt Larson, who shrank back, dragging Martha with him. The newcomer was as indifferent to Martha's situation as could be expected of someone who was probably a mercenary. LexCorp clearly had a fruitful relationship with that community.
She would be up. Bruce would have to look into whether there was something interesting beneath this place, a sewer junction or—well, this was unlikely, but a sinkhole full of resurrection chemicals would explain a lot. While Larson and the mercenary were preoccupied with each other, he slipped over the edge of the roof and, hanging by one hand, adhered a data leech to the CCTV camera. Its indicator light came on almost immediately; he'd need more equipment than what he'd brought from the Batwing to take a look at the feed, but it was getting something.
A few seconds of footage might be enough to convict. Bruce could drop down now, knock out Larson, neutralize the mercenary, and have Martha out of here in under five minutes. But if whatever was going to happen here was indeed going to happen in this alley, it might give him something on LexCorp or Mercy Graves that could serve as a wedge, at least, if not bring the entire thing down.
Martha would understand. She'd want that too. She had been resourceful and self-possessed thus far; she could do this.
Bruce hauled himself back onto the roof and hunkered down behind the parapet before someone could spot his silhouette. Morning, however grey, was not his natural habitat.
"You're kidding," Larson said from below. "Does this look like something that can just wait? What is she even doing in this shithole?"
"None of my business, but if it's higher priority than ... whatever this is," the mercenary said, "you should probably assume it's important."
"Maybe you don't understand," Larson said. "This woman broke into my office. If I hadn't come in just then—she was reading my email. She could have blown this entire thing open."
"Okay, man, I don't really know who you are, but shouldn't you password-protect your computer if it's got sensitive emails on it?'
Surely Larson couldn't let that one go, but no diatribe was forthcoming. "Miss Graves," he said instead, in a voice gusty with wasted air.
Bruce raised his head enough to watch Mercy Graves emerge from the loading bay, in a smart black suit and a pair of spike heels that clicked and glittered against the cracked asphalt. Behind her came two more probable mercenaries and Cameron Kerr, whose hairstyle had not improved since Bruce had seen him on the steps of Metropolis' appellate court. In Bruce's research he had seemed purely decorative, not the kind of man one brought along for nefarious underground doings at an abandoned construction site
"Mr. Larson," Graves said, in the same voice she used for telling drunk jackasses where the bathroom was. "I said we would be here all day, not that we would be at your disposal. I— This is Martha Kent."
While all eyes were on Martha, Bruce crept across the steep roof of a breezeway, to the warehouse from which Graves had just come. Another camera covered the mouth of the alley from a bit of moulding on the corner of the building. He didn't have to risk being spotted for this one; he descended by grapnel just around the corner, and the bulk of the structure concealed everything but the hand he reached around to slap a second leech in place.
"Yes," Larson said. "I texted you. The thorn in our side?"
"Oh," said Kerr, "is this woman from the press, then?" He had what was probably meant to be a received pronunciation accent; it was so clearly fake it was hard to tell, and so bizarre that Bruce wasn't sure what real accent underlay it.
"There are a lot of thorns in my side, Mr. Larson," Grave's said, ignoring Kerr. "I'm afraid I was thinking of a different one. Excuse me, Mrs. Kent."
Bruce leaned out into the alley as he ascended, just enough to keep an eye on Martha. Graves was peeling the tape from her mouth, no more roughly than necessary; Martha cringed her way through the process, but once the tape was off she relaxed fractionally and said, in a voice that was not far off level, "Hi, Mercy."
"I wasn't expecting to see you today, Martha."
One other camera had a view of the action here: the first one, above the loading bay door, which looked down on approaching people and vehicles. Bruce returned to the roof above it, hunkered down, and considered the angles. Martha and the rest were square in its field of view, but it was a non-starter. The principle that people seldom looked up had carried Bruce far, but expecting every member of a group of seven to miss a black shape hanging a few feet above their heads in broad daylight was pushing it.
Except. This camera would give him footage of Larson's face.
"Don't tell me you two are friends," Larson said.
"We're in the same place frequently," said Graves. "It costs nothing to be civil."
"Well, that's adorable. What are you going to do about her?"
Fuck it. The situation might blow up sooner than Bruce preferred, but breaking nearly every jaw in a thirty-foot radius of his present location had always been on the agenda. He wrapped his cape around his arm to keep it silent and out of the way, then unholstered his grapnel again and set its hook in the edge of the roof. A distraction would help, but most of the possibilities his current loadout offered would alert the mercenaries that a rescue was in progress. Unless...
"What am I going to do about the problem you created, then escalated?" said Graves.
"Let's not pretend getting rid of inconvenient people isn't within the realm of your expertise. We're standing arms length from three of your flunkies who are probably war criminals.
Startled laughter bubbled from Kerr. "War criminals?"
The line to Martha was still open, still echoing the conversation through Bruce's cowl. He fished his phone out of his belt, paired it to Martha's, and remotely activated the vibration motor—first low, far too low to be heard, then slowly higher.
"Not to accuse you of not being a figurehead," Larson was saying, "but you must know the sort of people you hire."
A little jerk of Martha's head told Bruce she had felt her phone going off. The first direction she looked was up.
Bruce shut off the vibration on her phone and raised his hand, half to catch her attention and half to quell any outbursts inspired by the sight of him. She spotted him at once, and for a moment she just gaped; then she squeezed her eyes shut and took a long, trembling breath
"Of course I do. We select them for their brutality. You." Kerr swanned over to one of the mercenaries with an imperiousness that would have sat better on royalty than it did on a cardboard CEO with a shitty haircut. His voice curled with amusement. "Tell me about your war crimes."
When Martha opened her eyes again, Bruce pointed at the camera. Her gaze followed the line of his finger, and he saw her understand.
Larson looked at Graves disbelievingly; Graves' head moved like she was rolling her eyes. No one paid Martha any mind. Of course she would be jumping and gasping in this scenario. She was a hostage, surrounded by an asshole with a gun and at least three actually dangerous people
"Anyway," Mercy Graves said. "I'm more interested in talking about the realm of your expertise, Mr. Larson. I've been led to believe that it includes rendering decisions from the bench."
"What's that got to do with anything?"
Martha took another, more purposeful breath. Her eyes were on Graves now. Bruce vaulted the parapet and rested poised to descend, braced away from the wall with his feet.
"Mr. Larson, we paid you for a verdict. Not for a protracted relationship. Not for you to bring your problems to me when I've made it clear to you that I'm busy. I don't see why I should extend myself for you."
In the furious pause that followed, Martha tipped her head back and laughed a long, throaty laugh.
That got their attention all right.
"I just got it," Martha gasped, and laughed again. She cut off with a gulp when Larson shook her by the wrists, hard enough to rattle her teeth.
"Shut up," he hissed, at the same moment Graves said, "Got what?"
Bruce glided down the side of the building in silence, paying out his grappling line as slowly as it would go. One storey, two. Martha had the complete focus of everyone below him.
"My own joke!" she said. "I was just needling you about getting run out of Metropolis, but that's just it!"
"Quiet," Larson tried again. "I had her mouth taped up for a reason," he said to Graves
"You don't need a reason to gag a hostage," said the first mercenary, freed at least briefly from Kerr's attentions
"The moment you find against us, you're persona non grata in Metropolis," Martha went on, ignoring them both. "Lex Luthor hurt Metropolis too much. Everyone in the city is ready to breathe a sigh of relief when the compact stands. Everyone in the city wants anything that'll reassure them nothing like the Doomsday Event will happen again. Take that away and you're finished. Forget higher office. Forget your op-eds."
"I told you to shut the fuck—" began Larson, raising his hand. Martha flinched from him, and Bruce nearly released his grapnel—he'd land on Larson too late to prevent this blow, but one would be all Larson got.
Mercy Graves was closer. The swing of Larson's arm stopped dead where it met her hand. In those shoes, she towered over him, but she was slighter and her center of gravity was higher; he tried to yank himself free of her grip, and her arm moved no more than a statue's.
"Holy shit," breathed one of the additional mercenaries she'd brought with her, a clean-cut man in a suit that was lumpy with concealed weapons. Only Kerr seemed unimpressed; it stood to reason he'd be in the know, if he was here in the first place.
"Let her finish," Graves said.
The camera was between Bruce's feet now. He affixed the third data leech to it and held his breath while he waited for the indicator light to come on, though the combined spectacle of Martha and Graves might keep him unnoticed for longer than he'd banked on.
"You—well, he," Martha said, and trailed off. Bruce glanced down to find her staring, not unreasonably, at Graves. Then she took a deep breath and squared her shoulders
"Forget the law, you've never given a damn about that. Being a criminal is fine because it's secret. But the moment you become a traitor, everyone will know, and no one will ever listen to you again."
"Let the fuck go of me," Larson said to Graves, twisting his arm uselessly
"You've been like this since school," Martha said over him. "I could've told you forty years ago how this would play out, because you've always been a cowardly, good-for-nothing windbag, and the only reason anyone's ever tolerated you at all is that you're such a clueless boor, it's easier to let you talk yourself out and laugh at you later than it is to tell you to shut your fucking trap."
For a moment there was silence. Bruce, halfway to the roof, halted his ascent to keep the quiet growl of his grapnel taking up its line from being heard.
"This is interesting," said Graves. She released Larson's arm and he shrank back from her, pulling Martha with him. "I had been assured there were strategic and procedural reasons why Mr. Larson couldn't deliver a verdict immediately."
Martha laughed richly.
"I take it that's not the case," said Graves. She produced a phone from inside her bolero jacket and dialed a three-digit number. From this distance, Bruce couldn't hear it ring. "Hello!" she said, in a pleasantly artificial phone voice. "I'd like to report a kidnapping."
"What do you think you're doing?" said Larson. Graves held up a silencing finger, and one of the mercenaries snickered.
Larson shoved Martha aside and advanced on Graves. That lasted all of half a pace before her detail closed around her; he backed off at once, hands raised defensively. Kerr watched without interest, like he was perfectly aware Larson represented no threat to Graves. Martha stumbled but kept her footing; she was a good yard from Larson now and getting farther, sidling away while no one was paying her mind. Perfect.
"Both of them," Graves was saying into the phone, "but not well. The kidnapper brought his victim to one of my company's properties and is being detained by security. Mercedes Graves. It's a LexCorp construction site, at—"
"You can't do this," Larson hissed. "We'll both be implicated."
"I don't know what you're talking about," Graves said. "You brought this woman here and tried to broker a deal. Now I'm doing my duty as a citizen." As she spoke she looked straight at Martha, whose posture went very straight, as though that might prevent her from looking like she had been trying to sneak away. She hesitated, then gave Graves the nod. Graves put her finger over the mic on her phone and added, "Someone cut that tape off her." The third mercenary produced a knife from her boot; Martha flinched a little when she approached, but allowed her wrists to be cut free.
"Yes," Graves went on, into the phone, "one J. Spencer Larson," and then, over the sound of Larson's cursing, "I don't know what the J stands for. The intersection of Finger and National. It's partly blocked by equipment, so approach from the south. Yes, thank you. Please hurry."
"Listen, we don't have to do this," Larson said. He was leaning toward Graves with his hands extended, like a prisoner grasping through the bars of a cell, but as long as he hadn't moved his feet, the other two mercenaries seemed content to block rather than restrain him. "There's still plenty of time for me to get out of here and I can still give you what you want. Just call off your dogs—"
"Excuse me?" said the second mercenary.
"—and tell the cops this is some sort of mistake—Martha Kent stole your phone and used it to incriminate me—"
"Very creative, Mr. Larson. But you seem to be under the impression that this is a negotiation. We were finished the moment you showed up here today."
Larson lowered his hands to his sides and took a step back. His head was down, but not bowed, not quite. There was still tension all through his frame, and calculation in the movement of his eyes. This was not the posture of surrender, but of a man sizing up his opponent for one last round. It would've been a great time for Graves' people to restrain him, but they didn't know he was armed.
His weight shifted. Bruce let his cape slither off the crook of his arm and hang free around him. The gun reappeared at just the moment Bruce expected. He dropped; the friction of the line paying out at top speed made the grapnel snarl and rattle in his hand. Larson had barely had time to take aim at Graves when Bruce snatched her up and ascended again.
She gave a yell of what seemed to be perfectly genuine surprise and punched him, sloppily but hard. Metahuman hard? Rebuilt from a charred stub by an alien nanite cloud hard? Certainly bruised-ribs hard. It might have been more interesting to let this play out and find out if she was bulletproof as well as unnaturally strong, but Bruce couldn't risk it. He clipped his grapnel to her belt and left her hanging while he descended to the pavement.
A bullet glanced off Bruce's shoulder. Through the suit, it hit like a baseball bat, or Graves' fist; he'd have another bruise. All three mercenaries had swiveled toward him upon his arrival. The third one had shoved Martha behind herself, and the first two, startled in the midst of drawing on Larson, had drawn on Bruce instead. It was open season now that they could fire on him without hitting graves. Beyond them, Larson was legging it back toward his car. Kerr jogged a couple of steps after him like he was thinking of making a citizen's arrest, then seemed to think better of it and gravitated back toward Graves.
Bruce activated the electromagnet on an EMP grenade and lobbed it underhand down the street. Mercenaries one and two hurled themselves out of its path; it rolled between them unmolested, picking up stray nails and metal scraps from the asphalt. A second bullet ruffled Bruce's cape harmlessly: mercenary two, the clean-cut one, who had fetched up against the brick face of the warehouse. He'd recovered faster than his coworker with the missing fingertips, but he couldn't find the center mass in the dark, rippling outline of the Bat.
He lost his grip on his gun when Bruce kicked his hand; the weapon sailed into the air. Bruce pegged Missing Fingertips in the face with a batarang to buy himself a moment, then closed with Clean Cut. He was quick in close quarters, didn't fall for the forearm block that would have impaled his hand on Bruce's gauntlet fins. Bruce head-butted him, then wheeled him around to put his shoulder in the path of the other merc's next bullet.
Bruce caught Clean Cut's gun as it descended, and threw it at Missing Fingertips' groin hard enough to double him over in agony. He was probably nearly as done as his screaming compatriot was, but Bruce rammed the second mercenary into him like a battering ram anyway; the two of them went down in a heap.
The grenade rolled between Larson's fleeing feet. He was just yards from his car now but the grenade was moving faster, skittering and bouncing over cracks in the pavement. When it rolled under the fender of Larson's Buick, that great mass of ferrous material drew it up from the ground, to adhere to the car's undercarriage with a clang.
Missing Fingertips was still in the fight enough to give a yell when Bruce pulled his new restraint device from his belt. It did, in fairness, look a lot like a nail gun. Bruce found an appropriate spot and drove a long, flat-headed spike through both mercenaries' clothing, into the asphalt. "You've got to be fucking kidding me," Fingertips spluttered, through the blood from his coworker's shoulder. Bruce put another spike through one mercenary's sleeve and the shoulder of the other's jacket, and a third through a deliberately alarming location on the legs of their pants.
Larson's car chirped while Bruce was doing this; his driver's side door opened and closed. Bruce holstered the restraint gun and pulled the tab in the empty slot on his belt where the grenade had hung. It delivered its payload with a faint electrical crackle. The overhead light in Larson's Buick went dead, and the grenade dropped back to the street, spent.
The third mercenary had drawn on him, but never fired her weapon; it was pointed at the ground between them. Martha's fingers dug into the biceps of her dominant arm with a force Bruce knew well—she might have had difficulty raising her gun even if she wanted to. Over the mercenary's shoulder, Martha met Bruce's gaze with a warmth and relief and certainty that cut through all their months of dancing around Bruce's identity.
He looked away before she could blow their cover. Away and up: Mercy Graves turned slowly above them on Bruce's grapnel, like a possibly-cybernetic chandelier. She'd wound her hand in the line, maybe to manage her rotation, maybe because she was thinking about climbing it; either way, that should have hurt, but she watched Bruce with an impassive face. Kerr stood below her with his hands in his pockets, watching her spin.
Bruce looked at the mercenary again, as he readied his backup grapnel. She looked back.
"Do I have business with you?" said Bruce.
"I don't think so," the mercenary said.
"I'll be checking up on this woman later. You want her to be unharmed."
"Of course I fucking do, she's a scared old lady."
Bruce whirled away before Martha could catch his eye again, and fired his grapnel. The backup was loaded with a masonry piton that sank neatly into the brick of a cornice down the street. He hit the retract trigger and caught air. There was an art to this, but he had refined it down to reflex long ago: pulling his knees up to control his midair orientation, releasing the grapnel just at the apex of the desired arc. The wind pulled his cape out to his full shadowy breadth, and he came down boots-first on the hood of Larson's car with a force that dented the steel and spiderwebbed the windshield.
Larson watched the descent with his mouth agape and his fist raised to pound on his unresponsive steering wheel. The impact jarred him back to sensibility and he went for the door, but the locks were as dead as all the other electronics in the car. Bruce activated the cutting torch in his right gauntlet and watched terror contort Larson's face.
The gun was still in Larson's hand, but he didn't remember it until Bruce had cut through the hood and begun ripping out engine components and electronics. It came up shakily between them like Larson hardly believed what he was about to do, like he no longer believed in the gun itself as a talisman that could grant him victory. Bruce shattered the windshield, then Larson's hand.
For a moment, with the vise of his fist clamped around Larson's ruined fingers and the weapon they held, Bruce felt the shape of the gun in his own hand. The very gun Larson had threatened Martha with; the gun he'd shoved into her face in a run-down alley, completely assured of his power over her, of his right to do it. Larson thrashed in his seat and shrieked with pain. It would have been trivial to drag him out of the car, through the glass teeth of the broken windshield. Bruce didn't carry the brand anymore, but his cutting torch was still at the ready.
The first strains of a police siren swelled under Larson's screaming. It hadn't been five minutes yet. God damn it. If the Gotham PD had a response time that short, Bruce wouldn't have spent two decades doing their job for them
He reached down into the exposed guts of the car for its event data recorder, and tore it free. Larson seemed to barely see it when Bruce held it up to his face, and he probably had no idea what it was in the first place. This gesture wouldn't mean anything to him until every visit his car had made to a LexCorp property was being dissected in the local news. For now, it was enough that he knew Bruce had something on him, and understood that it was only the first of the things he would lose.
Bruce released Larson and tucked the EDR into his belt just as red-and-blue light invaded the alley. He fired his grapnel again, and was gone.
It took almost twenty minutes of hustle to loosen the police station's grip on Martha by a fraction. She'd been in an interview room for close to two hours by then, and when some uniform let her into the breakroom where Bruce awaited her, she looked bedraggled and relieved. Bruce had seated himself dead center, a charcoal-and-black wool-silk silhouette under the fluorescent lights; he was the first thing she saw, and he got to watch delight break over her face. He stood and she rushed into his arms.
The reality of her safety finally slotted into place in his mind. He'd spent the flight to Gotham and then the arduous drive back into Metropolis internally fulminating about all the ways the Metropolis police department might mishandle or mistreat her: she was an out-of-towner, she had recently kicked up quite a lot of legal fuss in the city, and who knew how deep Larson's or LexCorp's influence might reach.
She was fine. She was hugging him fiercely enough to bother his bruised ribs and half-laughing wetly into his neck; he held her and felt her shake.
"I came as soon as I heard," he said into her hair. "You're all over the news. There are probably simpler ways to cancel brunch, Martha."
Martha laughed again. She pulled back from him a little and smoothed her hair. "Lord, it's good to see you. I never know if you're going to pick up the phone."
"The phone?" said Bruce. "You called me?"
She glanced at the door. "You know. Let's not be silly about this anymore."
The uniform had vacated, and Martha couldn't know this, but Bruce's quick bug sweep had turned up nothing. Theoretically, nothing stood in the way of this conversation but Bruce himself. "I lost my phone in a pool last night. Did you call me from here?"
"No, I called you from the courthouse when—why are you acting like you need to be told this?"
"You called me in the middle of a kidnapping? Why me and not 911?"
Martha gave him a long look. "Well, it all worked out in the end, because by sheer coincidence the Gotham Bat was in Metropolis and showed up to save me. Again."
"The Bat! Was he nice?"
He wouldn't have gotten away with it if she hadn't been so exhausted. Martha threw up her hands. "Tell me there's food in that bag."
Bruce retrieved the paper bag from the table where he'd been sitting, and put it in her hands. "I couldn't keep up with what was in this sandwich. It's huge. Alfred considers you a good influence and would prefer you got abducted less."
"He's right about at least one of those things. Thank you. And him." She unfolded the top of the bag, then hesitated with her hand halfway inside it. "You have that conference today. I suppose you've only got a few minutes, but they gave me half an hour to take a breather and freshen up."
"I was thinking about dinner later, somewhere quiet," Bruce said. "And I can see about transportation back to Smallville for you, or a hotel room."
Martha let out a breath, and some of the tension left her shoulders. "A ride home sounds wonderful. Do you need to run right away?"
"My schedule's clear," Bruce said, and pulled out a chair for her.
Local news kept Bruce entertained while he waited. The LexCorp spin doctors got out in front of the story almost immediately, and it was looking like a PR coup for them until Alfred leaked the stolen surveillance footage to the press. Mercy Graves and Cameron Kerr made their entrance in the station lobby an hour later, looking like they were there as a courtesy and not as persons of interest.
Perfect. Bruce hadn't counted on running into Graves again today, but he'd prepared for it. He pocketed his phone, felt for the lump in his cuff, and politely elbowed his way into their small army of lawyers and security. These were decorative types with earpieces and very few visible scars, the sort of muscle one brought to a police station while the mercenaries handled the black research sites. The outer layer of them stopped him, until Graves looked at him through the press.
Nothing yet. Maybe he wasn't close enough.
"Mr. Wayne," Graves said. "I thought you had a shareholder conference today.
The security bubble expanded until he was standing in it with the two of them. "A friend of mine is here. It's as good an excuse as any to duck out of a meeting. Did you hear about this? She got abducted."
Graves' eyebrows made a break for her hairline. "I'm sorry to hear about that."
"She seems okay. I don't think we've met," he said, and offered his hand to Kerr. "Cam Kerr, right?"
"A pleasure," Kerr said dubiously, and shook. "I have no idea who you are."
"This is Bruce Wayne, of Wayne Enterprises," Graves put in.
"Guilty. Are you two here to make a deposit or a withdrawal?"
"You're thinking of banks," said Kerr boredly, "not police stations."
It wasn't a joke, but Bruce chuckled heartily anyway, and offered his hand to Graves. Her grip felt perfectly human, at first. She expected him to shake, but when he bent to kiss her hand instead, she tensed, and he felt her tendons move like steel cables under the skin.
Still nothing. Damn.
Bruce gave her unsubtle bedroom eyes as he straightened; she looked back at him in barely concealed disgust. "If you'll excuse us, Mr. Wayne, we have a lot to take care of."
"Of course. Hey, you're new in town, right?" he said, clapping Kerr on the shoulder. Kerr looked at Bruce's hand like it was a dead animal. "Give me a call sometime if you want the tour."
He finally felt it then, as his hand fell from Kerr's arm, and as Mercy Graves turned away from him. Back at the cave, he had slipped a metal capsule into a compartment in the cuff of his suit jacket. He used these capsules to protect tiny scraps of paper or microchips or pills; this one contained one of the nanites he had recovered from the Kryptonian ship.
As the distance between himself and Graves grew, something brought the nanite back to buzzing life. He pressed his hand against the capsule to silence it, and as her entourage flowed around him and at last left him standing alone in the lobby of a Metropolis police station, he watched her go, with an alien machine rattling between his wrist and palm.
Martha pursed her lips and let out a sigh that lasted nearly fifteen seconds. Bruce busied himself fiddling with his GPS, but when he judged her to have melted sufficiently into the passenger seat of his car, he said, "I got us a private room at the Lafayette."
Martha hesitated. "Oh."
"All right, where would you rather go?"
"No, no, I'm sorry, Bruce. I've always wanted to go to the Lafayette."
"Martha," he said.
She rubbed her face. "Now it's me being silly."
"You can put it in the GPS and I'll just drive there blind."
"That's even sillier. It's just a diner. Clark took me there a few times, and ... it was nice."
Bruce had barely thought about him all day. It might have been the longest he'd gone without thinking about Clark in a while. On a normal day his absence beat like a moth's wings around the edges of anything that didn't wholly occupy Bruce's attention. He had to fight not to catch his breath as the knife slipped back between his ribs.
"Can you give me directions?" he said levelly
It had that chrome exterior that was, in cities other than Metropolis, strictly the purview of self-consciously retro diners, and a pink neon sign: BIBBO'S DINER. They had just missed the dinner rush; a couple of parties filed out as Bruce hunted for a parking space.
"Is that Martha Kent I see?" A stocky man rushed out from behind the kitchen partition the moment they were through the door, whipping off his stained apron. It took everything Bruce had not to clothesline him when he went for Martha; he was just going for a hug, and she seemed pleased to see him. "My god, your picture was on the news just a minute ago."
"Everything's okay, Bibbo," Martha said. She squeezed him and stepped back. "Just shook up, is all."
"You keep getting in these scrapes, I won't be able to hire you out from under that disgrace you work for in Smallville. I got a business to run here, Martha."
"There's bad news, Bibbo."
"He finally burned the place down? That ain't bad news."
Martha laughed. "No. Well, I don't know, I haven't been that way in a bit. I quit."
"Just means I don't have any competition. Unless you got something to do with this," Bibbo said, sizing Bruce up in approximately half jest.
"Oh—oh, no, it's not— Bruce was a friend of Clark's. He picked me up from the station."
"Well, any friend of Clark's," said Bibbo, and extended his hand.
Bruce shook it. The nanite had gone quiet once Graves was thirty feet from him; he didn't expect it to rouse again for Bibbo, but he wasn't about to turn up his nose at confirmation that it had indeed been Graves, not the proximity of any human or the act of shaking hands. "Nice to meet you. Do you have a quiet spot? It's been a long day."
No further activity from the capsule. Well enough.
"Yeah, yeah, of course," Bibbo said. "You want to be out on the floor, or you want somewhere extra quiet in the back? Breakroom's empty at this hour."
"We wouldn't want to be in anyone's way," Martha said.
"Nah, it's no trouble. Just don't get into a fight over the remote. Come on."
The breakroom was a small space with a table low enough to bump Bruce's knees and a refrigerator encrusted in novelty magnets; it smelled like coffee and air freshener. Bibbo poured water and passed out incongruous cloth napkins, took their orders with a flourish, and swept out.
"See," Martha said, unfolding her napkin. "You aren't the only one who can get a private room in a restaurant."
"Consider me put in my place," Bruce said.
"Clark was here all the time," she went on, idly twisting the napkin back up. "You must've figured that out, sorry. He had a lot of sleepless nights when he moved to the city, said this place reminded him of home. Which Bibbo considered a personal insult, naturally. Oh—" Tears stood in her eyes; the cylinder of fabric in her hands creaked under the force of her grip. "I don't get like this when I'm just talking about him anymore, I don't know what's—"
Bruce reached across the table and rested his hand on Martha's wrist. The two of them watched her hands relax by degrees. When he could do it without prying her fingers open, he took her hand and rubbed circles on her palm with his thumb. Martha's face crumpled, then smoothed; she covered her mouth, then her eyes, with her other hand.
"This is normal," he said.
She laughed the wet laugh from the police station. "You have a funny way of looking at things, Bruce."
"Voice of experience. Stress brings things back in ways you don't expect. It doesn't stop, but you learn to manage. I'm not telling you anything you don't know, but it can be hard to remember in the moment."
Martha pressed her knuckles against her mouth and looked at him with her brimming eyes. Her hand turned in his grip and closed around his own. "Thanks."
He rubbed her hand in silence, until a waitress arrived with their drinks and Martha's appetizer. She seemed as fond of Martha as Bibbo was, and Martha was quick to reassure her that she was fine, that the news had made it look worse than it had been, that Larson would see jail. Bruce let this go on for a few minutes, until he could see it wearing on Martha; then he shifted in his seat to draw attention, and made himself offputting. The waitress was gone within ninety seconds. He made a mental note to tip her to within an inch of her life.
"Was that necessary?" said Martha, but he could see her untensing again.
"I ... have something on Clark," he said, rather than answer.
"I learned something. It might not be news to you, and I might be on the wrong track."
"Is this—Bruce, when I gave you those notebooks, what I said about Clark— I wasn't giving you an assignment. You're—we're friends. Besides, you already— Did you think—"
"No," Bruce said quickly, "I didn't. It's there if you want it. Or you can bring me up to speed on what's been happening in Smallville. I noticed you have new neighbors."
"You haven't been there in two months. I don't know how you 'notice' these things." She dredged a piece of fried zucchini in her marinara and sighed. "Well, now I have to hear it.
Here it was. Bruce rubbed his jaw and let his eye wander over the magnetic letters on the refrigerator. They were scattered among photos, slogan magnets, air plants, notes, all in no particular order; they spelled nothing. He could make the word nacre if he tried very hard.
"Clark wrote a profile of a classmate for the school paper," he said at last. "A Lana Lang. I think the same girl was in the photo you gave me when I asked about the barn."
"Oh, yes, Lana! She's in Europe now, I think. Her mother moved away a few years back."
"Clark's personal writing indicates he had feelings for her," Bruce said.
Martha hesitated. "That was clear at the time," she said gently.
"I'm not done. In 2009 he wrote a long-form piece about a missing persons case in the Cook Islands."
"That young couple, right? With all the conflicting stories?"
"Just terrible. What's this got to do with Lana?"
"Do you remember Clark's liaison?"
"The young man who showed him around town? What was he, a—doctor?"
"Nikau Murphy. A coroner. He receives more page time than the nominal story. Clark seems to be using it as an excuse to write about and spend time with Murphy after he determines that the story is a dead end."
Martha was beginning to tear up again, and Bruce almost stopped there. She got the idea. That should be enough. If he proceeded, she'd see through to his motives; she didn't need that today. But—
He'd come this far. It might put paid to whatever ideas she had about him being a noble person or a good friend, but he'd been on this trail for so long, and he didn't know how to let it go.
"Clark writes about Murphy much the way he wrote about Lang," Bruce went on. "In both cases there's a motif of the interviewee trying to use Clark's questions to draw him out about himself, for example, which is a type of repartee he seems to enjoy. The ... progression of his attitudes toward them is similar. So is some of the language."
Martha wiped at her eyes with her knuckles. "So, you think...."
"I don't know of Clark displaying an interest in men otherwise, so I may be mistaken. I had planned to bring this to you for corroboration in a less charged context."
"I ... hadn't realized that ... that type of thing mattered to you," Martha said
It was gentler than he deserved, but there it was. Bruce closed his eyes. Did he have a compelling reason to lie? What face was there to save? Could he, in any case, even possibly play this off?
"It hasn't been an issue before," he said.
"I guess that's how you kept it out of the tabloids," Martha said, then grimaced. "I'm sorry. That's not fair. And I don't actually read, um."
Bruce shrugged. "That's the reputation I cultivated. I know what they print about me."
When he looked at Martha again, she was looking away from him—half hooked by the welter of color and images on the refrigerator, half staring into the theater of her own memory. "Clark brought a friend home with him over spring break one year," she said slowly. "A lovely boy, very thoughtful. I think he wanted to be a civil engineer. He didn't look at Clark the way Clark looked at him, but ... I did wonder."
"You weren't sure?"
"I wish I'd pressed him about it, but Clark could be so cagey about anything that made him feel different."
"Well. I'm sorry this is the way you're learning it, but the records point to your son falling in love with a man, on Rarotonga in the Cook Islands, in the spring of 2009. I don't know if it was reciprocated. But he seemed—happy."
"I'm so sorry, Bruce," she said, and Bruce almost recoiled from it physically.
"Need to comfort you about my son's death, I know. I'll be sorry if I want to. If the two of you had the chance—well, I would have been happy for you both."
There would have been a thousand obstacles even if things hadn't gone the way they had, not least of them the package from a jeweler delivered to the Kent farm almost concurrent with Clark's death. And if things had gone any other way, Bruce might never have arrived at this point in the first place. He was, as always, trapped under the weight of his own mistakes like a man caught in an avalanche.
"Thank you," he said with difficulty.
The tears were back. Martha scrubbed at her eyes again. "God, I never even met this—Nikau? Nikau. Clark barely mentioned him. I guess I know why, now."
"The article goes into significant detail about him," Bruce said.
"I'll have to look it up when I get— Is that the phone you lost in the pool?"
"Of course not." Bruce hid most of the phone's functionality with a few taps of his thumb, then rifled quickly through his bookmarks. Martha took the device from him gingerly, though he'd seen her use her own smartphone with perfect confidence on more than one occasion.
"We're just about to eat dinner, Bruce. I'm not going to read at the table."
"I can assure you it's more interesting than anything I have to say."
"Don't be silly. Anyway, it's rude."
"I don't care."
Martha snorted, and he saw her waver. "I don't want to bore you."
"I don't get bored."
The reason for that was usually meditation, mental exercises, or preoccupation. On this occasion, as he sat and ate the sandwich Bibbo brought him, it was watching Martha Kent meet and discover and be surprised by her lost son, one last time.
For one vertiginous moment of his final approach, Bruce was sure the Kryptonian ship was gone. The ridge of ice that had once sheltered it, only to be demolished by its maintenance robots for building material, was back, and much larger; it extended the length and breadth of the area where the Fortress of Solitude and its surrounding structures had once been. Bruce experienced an instant of unreality, one dream-logic breath of fury and loss, before he remembered the canopy that Jor-El had promised him. This must be it.
Bruce lost some altitude and swung around to the side where the landing pads had been. Sure enough, there was a hangar door there, tucked beneath an overhang. From above, the new mountain was indistinguishable from a natural feature of the landscape, but there was a limit to how much a doorway to a huge space with a meticulously level floor could look like a cave entrance, and the robots had barely bothered. Drifts of snow suggested this structure had been here a while.
He put down on the pad with the Bat insignia and sat for a while with the engines off and his hands resting on the controls. This volatility wouldn't serve him in there. Nothing had changed about the Jor-El situation, and it would do no good to let on that anything had changed about Bruce.
When he was sufficiently locked down, he zipped up his parka and climbed out of the Batwing.
It was barely darker inside the artificial ice cave than it had been outside, though the light here was less cutting than the white arctic sun. Instinct told Bruce to expect electric lights when he looked up, but the illumination was not coming from the ceiling; it was sunlight, coming through it, conveyed by columns of glassily clear ice and scattered by their faceted ends.
Kryptonian fabrication technology was really something.
The ice structure that surrounded the Fortress stretched up to meet the ceiling. Light traveled down into its swoops and curves; the approach to the ship's door was now a walk through soft rainbows and pockets of brightness. Bruce had been too aggravated last time to notice, but it was the sort of thing that had come up a lot in Clark's youthful stabs at science fiction. Maybe the robots had been right. Maybe he would have liked it.
Jor-El answered the door with the usual questions about how Clark was and when he could be expected to visit, and accepted Bruce's deflections with the same dubious equanimity he always did.
"I need to see your recording of Kal-El's visit to this ship," Bruce said, when they'd dispensed with the song and dance.
"What brought this on?" said Jor-El.
"I need to verify some things."
"If you tell me what they are, I can answer your questions for you."
"Are you rescinding your offer?" Bruce's voice turned his edge of panic into irritation. Had there never been any recordings at all? Had they been destroyed, somehow, in the course of repairs? Had he spent every moment in this place fighting the pull of a possibility that had never really existed?
"I'm trying to be helpful," Jor-El said, and sighed. "Where would you like to begin?"
Bruce's mental picture of Clark wasn't wrong. He had trained his memory to retain faces; he could have drawn front and side views of Clark accurate enough to make a positive identification from, good-enough amalgams from all the photos he'd scrounged, the footage, their three in-person meetings. All the facts about Clark's appearance lined up squarely in his mind.
None of it captured what it was like to see him.
Maybe he got closest in his dreams, where Clark would grip Bruce and come away with sweat or blood on his hands, where his face would be lit or contorted by emotion, where he had weight and warmth. That Clark had a vitality video could not convey, something Bruce had thought might be a wishful invention of his sleeping mind, but recognized at once in this projection. Bruce could hear him breathing, when they drew near to each other. Transfixed like an animal by a headlight, he almost let Clark too close, then hurried to distance himself before the image could walk right through him.
Clark fumbled his way to command of the ship. One of the robots, possibly the one Bruce had given the last batch of repair materials to, slashed open Clark's sleeve with its tentacle: unlike other artifacts of Krypton, these things couldn't harm him. Bruce didn't notice that Jor-El had vanished until he reappeared, just a glimpse to lead Clark deeper into the ship. Could the ship not project more than one instance of a figure, or did showing this to Bruce require Jor-El to relive it? What was the difference between simulating and experiencing, for someone who was a simulation himself?
Lois Lane's involvement was familiar from her article, but Bruce saw it this time as Clark must have: she was injured and hyperventilating when Clark found her in the entryway. She stilled when he spoke to her, the first time he had spoken on the ship, the first time Bruce had heard Clark's voice like this in two years now, directional and crisp and issuing as though from a living throat.
Bruce turned away. Clark was just cauterizing a wound, but it still seemed too intimate to watch. Maybe if Clark hadn't later planned to propose to this woman—but as it was, something had started here that was none of Bruce's business.
Clark vanished when he exited the ship with Lane in his arms, and reappeared empty-handed a few minutes later. He reached the bridge only after many hesitations; Jor-El would appear to lure him onward, but then Clark would encounter some new feature of the ship and stop to look at or touch it.
He wiped dust from the glasslike window of an empty capsule. He drummed his nails on a bulkhead and the projection provided an echo. His eyes tracked; Bruce could see what he was looking at, follow his discovery of the ship not just from room to room but from instant to instant. His eyelids would dip when he was thinking. His jaw would work. He approached new things in a particular slantwise way, half wary and half eager, with his head canted.
He was so real and so present that the urge to reach for him was almost too great to master, but when Bruce came close enough to count the strands of his hair or see the region of brown in his left iris, he could tell also that Clark had no smell, that his breath did not disturb the air. Like Bruce had once imagined, there was an optimal remove from which to watch Clark, where the limitations of Kryptonian technology would not compromise the illusion of life. But from that distance, he was such an achingly believable presence that for fractions of a second, here and there, Bruce could forget that Clark would not momentarily turn to acknowledge him as though they were both alive and in this place together. Bruce could hardly breathe for looking at him.
"I can accelerate playback through this section," Jor-El's voice said from nowhere, once Clark had reached the bridge and, after several false starts, coaxed the ship into the air. "Kal says very little between his timestamp and landing."
"No," said Bruce, crouched on the floor five feet from Clark, watching him fit his fingers gingerly into the grooves of controls that looked more like brain coral than the user interface of a machine. It was as far as Bruce trusted his voice.
"As you like."
Jor-El, this memory of the memory of Jor-El, reappeared after Clark landed the ship. Bruce had always seen Clark in Jor-El, but never appreciated how clearly father-and-son they were. They circled each other slowly; they mirrored each other's soft voices; they enthralled each other.
Clark was full of questions. Jor-El must have burned to know what kind of life his son led, but he let Clark interrogate him—expecting, probably, to see Clark again, to have time for his own questions then. They were at it for hours. Bruce trailed them through the ship like a ghost in reverse, the one solid presence there, tethered to Clark by death. Jor-El's answers were predominantly old news; Bruce hung instead on what Clark asked and how he asked it. Smiles would steal over Clark's face at small revelations: his Kryptonian name, the careers of his parents.
His voice took on a deeper hush when he asked, "Why am I so different from them?"
That was the wrong question and Clark knew it. He was born an unthinkable distance from Earth, in different air, under a different star; the right question was about how he came to be anything like a human at all.
It was the wrong question, but it was the question Clark Kent, this lonely, wistful man, would inevitably have asked.
The image of him dissolved in stages when he stepped back out through the door; the red hem of his cape went last, taking the only color on the ship with it. Eighteen months from that moment he would meet Bruce, and Bruce would fail in every respect to be the human being that Jor-El had just told Clark could exist, if he only provided the inspirational figure Earth needed. For an instant, before he crossed the threshold, the illusion of him was so complete—the slow undulations of his cape; the light that glanced off his jaw; the expression of a man steeling himself to step into a new life—that Bruce nearly rushed forward to catch his arm, to pull him back from that future. He clenched his fists until his gloves creaked. He stood where he was, and he watched, and Clark was gone.
"Recording ends," Jor-El said, reappearing beside Bruce. He was identical to his past self, but this version looked at Bruce with his holographic eyes, not through him. "Kal has not returned since then."
Bruce had no idea what his own expression might be doing. His face could usually be relied upon to revert to a neutral scowl when unattended, but he doubted there was any part of himself he could count on at the moment. Certainly not his voice. "Thank you," he said, clipping the words off carefully.
"Have you learned what you hoped to learn?"
"May I ask what it was?"
"It's not important."
Jor-El considered him. "Have I very much misread the nature of your association with my son?"
"No," Bruce said automatically.
"Excuse me, then."
Bruce took a fast, chest-rattling breath and said, "I need you to delete everything I just watched." He turned away immediately rather than watch the reaction to that.
"May I ask why?" said Jor-El. His illusory footsteps followed Bruce toward the door Clark had left this ship through, three and a half years ago, two minutes ago.
"Security concerns," Bruce ground out.
"It doesn't matter. Scrub the data as thoroughly as you can."
"No," Jor-El said, so bluntly that it momentarily drew Bruce up short. He had one hand on the lip of the door, and if Jor-El had spoken an instant later he might have caught Bruce in the midst of vaulting down from it. "Not without direct authorization from Kal."
"You won't be getting it."
"Will you please tell me why he refuses to come here?"
"Because he's dead," Bruce said, and dropped down to the ice.
Jor-El's silence answered a question Bruce had nurtured all along: he could be shocked. Maybe he could be devastated. He could be, at least, tongue-tied; Bruce made it ten paces before Jor-El called after him, "Wait!"
Bruce ignored him. This wasn't how he'd planned to burn that bridge, but it would do. If the ship's sensors were useless for analyzing the nanites from the intruder, he wouldn't need to come here, so he would never be tempted to do again what he just did. With luck, he wouldn't need an ancient library full of information about hundreds of alien worlds any time in the near future.
"Wait," Jor-El called again, "please wait! What happened to Kal?"
One of the robots pulled up on Bruce's right, and hovered along beside him as he trudged toward the Batwing. He half-expected it to drag him bodily back to the ship for questioning, but all it did was follow him, as though to entreat him to return just by its presence, or—or as though to keep him company, on the long crunching walk through this citadel of ice.
He could do this, but not if coming here to watch the recording of Clark was on the table. The dreams were enough. They were too much. They were consuming. The prospect of coming here whenever he pleased, to dwell in the illusion of a living Clark, would ruin him.
He could do this. He could encompass this and let it settle into his bones, as he always did. Loving the dead was where he excelled.
"What do you know about these trucks?" said Diana. She was sitting in Bruce's desk chair with her legs folded. Debriefs with Diana always entailed some ambiguity about whether she was asking questions to hear the answer, or because she was playing a private guessing game about what the next slide would be.
It was a four-up of photos of the trucks, scraped from a traffic cam a few blocks from the site of the Larson incident, which was as close as he'd managed to get before the place had been completely denuded of evidence and then bulldozed.
Point for Diana.
"Ordinary tractor trailers, three Peterbilt, one Kenworth. Paperwork in order. Each travels to a different LexCorp property, where we can assume they're unloaded, at which point this becomes a shell game. Suspensions indicate loads of, respectively, four and a half tons, six tons, four tons, and the last one appears to be below its empty weight by a ton and a half for reasons that aren't immediately obvious."
Barry straightened. He had been leaning against the railing that overlooked the Batmobile, trying to appear casual and unembarrassed despite showing up in uniform for a meeting that Bruce had attended in a suit and Diana in Jeans. "So it's carrying an object with negative mass."
"Possibly. Or something allowable under the laws of physics may have happened." Bruce advanced to the next slide.
"You said this has something to do with robots from space that fixed a dead woman. I don't think negative mass is an unreasonable hypothesis under ... you know, the circumstances." Barry gestured at himself, then at Diana.
"Well, you're welcome to pursue it. For now, this schematic indicates how to remove roughly a ton of weight from a Peterbilt 579 fitted with a twenty-five-foot steel shipping container. This truck is probably a decoy, but the extremity of the modifications raises questions I don't have answers for yet. In any case, vehicles of all types move between LexCorp facilities frequently. Whatever was housed at this site could be in any of them now, or a list of other places that grows by the day." On the next slide, dots picked out an expanding network of locations in Metropolis, in the state, in the country, in the world. "It's functionally gone until we gather more intel."
"Bruce, how is your friend?" said Diana. Bruce's hand hovered above the Page Down key.
"She's fine," he said. He skipped a couple of slides. It didn't particularly feel like scoring a point. "Recovered. She testified four days ago."
"I saw the coverage. She's a fierce and lovely woman."
Bruce half-smiled, despite himself. "I'll tell her you said that."
"Is it weird if I ask why you of all people are buddies with some random person from Kansas?" asked Barry, and Bruce felt his face stiffen again. Diana looked down at her lap. "All right," Barry said, "that's a yes."
"I knew her son," Bruce said.
"Oh. Sorry. So he's—sorry. Uh."
"Anyway," Bruce said. "With Larson off the bench, the hearing on November second will be presided over by a Judge Denise Edgerton, who appears clean. The good news is that whatever LexCorp just hid will almost certainly be illegal as of then, which gives us recourse within the law when we have more. The bad news is that it will also be dubiously legal for the two of you to operate on either side of the bay as of that date, and the number of states where that's true may grow quickly." He gestured at the current slide, a map of states likely to throw their hats in the ring first. "The law calls for the formation of an enforcement agency, the Interstate Commission for Special Crimes. How aggressively they'll come after our type of activity will depend on which of several candidates are in charge. Dossiers of each are in your email now."
"Will Martha have a hand in choosing?" said Diana.
"No. She doesn't have that kind of pull." Bruce hit Page Down a final time and the screen of the cave's workstation went black. "Any further questions?"
"Can you also send me the stuff about that one truck?" said Barry.
"Already done." Bruce had sent select information to an email address he'd uncovered for Arthur Curry, as well. He chose to assume Curry loved that.
"I'm good, then. Sorry to blow out of here, but I've gotta—"
The wind of Barry's departure stirred Bruce's clothing. He pinched the bridge of his nose; Diana laughed.
"I have things I must attend to as well," she said. "But before I go, do you know what's happening to Kal's ship?"
Bruce's gut clenched. "What does that mean."
"I visited a few days ago," Diana began.
Jesus Christ. "Is this a regular occurrence?"
"The robots made me a landing pad. They're sweet. And the ship knows so much about the cosmos. Jor makes beautiful moving sculptures of it."
"You've been going up there ... to watch movies?"
"You should come sometime. I ask because it was sealed when I visited on Tuesday."
"I thought you might have arranged this, for security," Diana said.
"No. It may be—in mourning."
"I told the Jor-El AI that Clark was dead. So you can stop pussyfooting around that, if it's been trying to grill you every time you go there. Assuming you can get inside again. Had anything else changed? Any damage to the structure around it? Any suggestion it might fire its weapons?"
"Jor wouldn't do that. He has a complete respect life and freedom."
"'He' is an artificial intelligence residing in a ship sent here by a former interstellar imperial power. I'm not prepared to make assumptions about his moral code or what might set him off."
"So you told him his son was dead, but didn't stay to find out exactly how upset he was or what he might do?" asked Diana, standing up out of Bruce's desk chair.
"I was...." Bruce didn't have an end for that sentence.
"It's hard for you to talk about Kal," Diana said, and he looked away from her. She smoothed his lapel the way she did when he was being foolish and small.
"Thank you, ah, for respecting that I preferred to keep this under wraps."
"I don't think your circumspection is always wrong."
"You thought I was being an asshole."
"That too. What would you like me to say to Jor, if I'm able to speak to him again?"
"Whatever ... you think is appropriate."
"Very well." Diana leaned back and looked at Bruce, so graceful and composed that he didn't recognize this moment for a hesitation until she leaned in again and kissed his cheek. "I'll tell you something I learned from that story you're always asking me for. You don't have to bear his body forever, Bruce. Let his death be his triumph, not your failure. Let him make you better, and then let him go."
She walked out of the cave. Bruce stood for a long time at his desk, seeing nothing.
Martha's ringtone rattled Bruce, mercifully, from a dream. He groped at his nightstand until the second round of vibration reminded him his phone was in his pocket, then squinted at the lock-screen clock. On a normal night, she would have been in bed an hour ago. Bruce didn't have normal nights, but this was one of the less-likely times for him to be asleep, and she knew that. Probably one of her insomniac spells.
He could hear her sobbing voice before he raised the phone to his ear. "... buried him," she was saying. "I buried my boy, Bruce, oh God, how could I do that? I put him in the ground all alone—"
"Martha," Bruce said, and swallowed hard to get the edge of automatic panic out of his voice. "Are you hurt?"
"He's been alone all this time," she wept. "My little boy who loves the sun, I put him in a box in the ground like I wanted to forget him—"
"Where are you? Are you having a nightmare?"
Martha hiccuped into the phone like something had startled her. "Oh God I can't hear him anymore. No, no, oh no, Bruce, I didn't make it." She was crying so hard now that Bruce could barely decipher her. "It was too late, he could have been trying to get out for hours and I was too late—"
Understanding ran through Bruce like cold water. "Where are you, Martha?"
"I have to go I have to get him out—"
"Don't hang up the phone," Bruce barked. He wasn't sure it had worked until he heard her ragged breath: she hadn't dropped the phone, he had just shocked her silent. "Martha, step back from the grave."
"If he's down there," she said, a few clear words before her voice collapsed back into tears, "I have to ... I have to...."
"I know." Bruce had fallen asleep across the covers in most of a three-piece and one shoe. He hauled himself to his feet and cast about for his missing wingtip. "Let me help you. You called me so I could help you. For me to do that, you have to get thirty feet back from the grave and wait for me to get there."
"I can't just leave him down there," Martha sobbed.
"You're not leaving him. You're waiting for help." Fuck his second shoe. Bruce kicked off the one he was wearing and yanked a new pair off the shoe rack. "I'm coming, I promise you, I am on the way to you right now and I will be there in one hour, but if I'm going to help him, you have to be safe. Clark needs someone to come home to."
Something got through. Bruce heard the breath shudder out of Martha. "I'm going to find a shovel," she said, in a voice that trembled at the edge of composure.
"Please don't. Please just wait—"
A beep announced the end of the call.
"Fuck," Bruce said. He threw his phone down on the bed, shoved his feet into the fresh pair of shoes, then snatched up the phone again and barreled out of the room.
Bruce didn't question what he was doing until he'd pulled the canopy of the Batwing closed. He felt a moment of dislocation, seeing the rumpled sleeve of his dress shirt juxtaposed against the instrument panel.
Those things didn't belong together. His mind did this, crafting new terrors from parts of his waking life not meant to coexist. He'd been dreaming—what had he been dreaming—something about Clark, something that hadn't fully formed yet, something that would end one of two ways. Maybe he had half-woken, then lapsed back into a new nightmare—Martha, weeping, and—
Martha was never in those dreams. Martha belonged to the waking world, under the endless brilliant skies of Kansas, among the glass towers of Metropolis. Martha was bright and gentle and didn't intrude on his sleep.
The flight to Smallville was an hour, less if you could take the acceleration. Bruce did it in forty-five minutes.
He dropped down out of a furious black cloudbank, into wind and blowing leaves. Martha was a foot deep in Clark's grave; when he played the Batwing's spotlights over her, she looked up from her shoveling with her hair whipping around her face, and he caught the shine of tear tracks.
The slope near the grave offered no sites where landing wouldn't knock over a half-dozen headstones. Bruce put down on the closest access road instead, not far from Martha's truck. As soon as the engines wound down, he felt it: a deep thrum, a powerful impact that traveled up through the landing gear and the hard surfaces of the cockpit. This was how Martha had known to dig.
Clark was pounding on the inside of his coffin.
Cold, wet air invaded the Batwing when Bruce popped the canopy; it tasted electric, anticipatory. For a moment, his legs wouldn't hold him, and he stumbled more than climbed down to the ground. With effort, he organized his limbs into a run. The beat under the ground came up through the soles of his shoes, confoundingly arrhythmic; it was slowing, hesitating, petering out. Clark was tiring.
Martha was not. Bruce saw as soon as he reached her that her hands were already raw from the handle of the spade she'd found, but she didn't stop for his approach. The Batwing's headlamps, still trained on the grave, lit her unforgivingly.
"He starts and stops," she said, sniffing, and drove the shovel blade into the dirt with her foot. "He'll start up again in a few minutes, loud as ever, but then he'll get like this for a while, and then he'll get quiet. He's so weak, I'm not sure he can hear us up here. I think he—" Her voice wavered, as she flung her shovelful of soil onto the grass. The wind dragged clots of earth from the pile. "I think he thinks he's alone."
Or he didn't understand the sounds he was hearing. Or it wasn't Clark at all, but some phenomenon localized around his grave. Even if it was Clark ... it still might not be Clark.
Bruce closed his hand on the haft of the spade. Martha tried to yank it out of his grip, but that was a fight she wouldn't be winning. "Don't—! There's another shovel under that tree, but Bruce don't you dare—"
"I'm not tagging you out. I need you to get off the grave, because I'm going to hotwire an excavator."
Martha's breath hitched. Thunder muttered in the distance. "Oh."
"You called me so I could help you," Bruce said again, with every particle of gentleness his life had left in him.
Relief crumpled her expression. Bruce couldn't take it; he pulled her to him so she would hide her face in his shoulder. The force of her sobs shook both their bodies, and her attempts to control them only compressed and intensified their violence. He found himself pressing his hand to her back as though he might need to stop her from flying apart. As though that were in his power.
Even here where it was most intense, the pounding underfoot had subsided almost altogether; when it began again with renewed vigor, the two of them sprang apart. Surprise loosened Martha's grip, and Bruce was left holding the spade.
"What are my odds of convincing you to go sit in the car?" he said, tossing the spade to the ground at the base of the nearby tree.
"Fuck you," Martha quavered, wiping her eyes with the back of her hand. "How can you ask me to—"
"Clark may be the most powerful being ever to walk the Earth. And now he might be disoriented. He might be unwell. He might not recognize you. It's possible the last thing he remembers is a fight. Martha—" He took her by the shoulders, and felt the same pounding that rattled his own bones reverberate to him through her body. Her eyes flinched a little with every beat, like each one was a fresh pain, and he wondered if she could see that it was doing the same thing to him. "If he accidentally hurts you, he'll never forgive himself."
Her expression wavered. Almost there. Bruce held her teary face in his hands.
"I'd do anything in my power to protect either of you. Let me bring Clark home to you."
Martha almost lost it again, but she squeezed his forearms and sucked her breath in hard, and turned away, at least, toward the truck and the modicum of safety it offered. Bruce ran in the opposite direction, where the roof of a promising shed showed over the crest of a hill studded with headstones.
The excavator was faster than a spade, but it wasn't fast. At least it was self-propelled, not the towable variety; but it was a flimsy open-air John Deere that puttered along at an infuriating speed and wobbled on its caterpillar treads when he took it over grass. There was nowhere to put the displaced earth but on top of the grave next to it: Jonathan Kent, 1951-1997.
Clark's knocking thundered up into Bruce's body throughout, a heartbeat the size of the world.
Martha watched from the car—not inside it, but leaning against the door, with her cardigan pulled tight around herself and both hands over her mouth. Good enough. If Clark was going to pose a danger to her that distance from the grave, a mere ton of metal wouldn't save her.
The inside of Bruce's head was just the hiss of dead air, or a cacophony so loud and so comprehensive hearing was impossible. He was handling this wrong. He should have imaged the ground before he even considered digging, to give himself an idea of what to expect. He should have engineered a quarantine of the entire cemetery, and arranged for Martha to be safely at home, or on another continent. He should have asked Diana to be here.
He should have brought the spear.
He'd done none of that. He had traveled in a straight line to where Clark was, to where Clark might be, without an instant of preparation or planning, forty-five minutes in the air with his heart in his throat and a thunder in his ears. He didn't even have his utility belt.
A rising wind yanked at his clothes; the first drops of rain rattled like a handful of stones through the leaves of the tree near the Kent plot. A splash of color between the roots had caught Bruce's attention while he was maneuvering the excavator into position, and now he couldn't stop glancing at it: the familiar pair of tall sunflowers, weighed down against the tuggings of the wind by the handle of that second spade Martha had promised. She'd brought flowers for Clark. She had probably been on a perfectly normal evening drive when this all started.
The hole was four feet deep, a ragged bloodless wound half-filled with the harsh lights of the Batwing and the excavator, when the floor of it began to bulge.
The character of the banging had transformed as Bruce had dug, as though—as though a lucid mind were tracking the progress of the pit by the way the sound changed. The vibrations sent dirt waterfalling back to the bottom of the hole, where it jumped with each impact. In all that turbulence, the bottom of the pit flexing upward might have been an illusion.
Bruce unloaded the current bucketful of dirt onto the pile, with all the speed this toy of a machine could muster, and jammed the bucket back down into the earth, hard—and through the controls of the excavator, he felt Clark push back at him.
The next two loads of dirt were interminable, breathless. Then Bruce saw it again, a skyward distention of the bottom of the hole that, this time, could not be mistaken or denied. A murmur of thunder disguised whatever cracking of wood there might have been to hear, but there must have been, for the earth to rise so much; loose dirt rolled and bounced away from the central mound, and the packed soil beneath cracked and split. Bruce staggered out of the excavator's seat and to his knees at the edge of the grave, as though to drag Clark from it bodily, as though with his own hands on Clark's person he could do more good than he might through a metal intermediary.
"Bruce?" called Martha from the truck. He was vaguely aware of her breaking into a run. "Clark?"
Clark's reentry into the world showered Bruce with dirt. He came out of the coffin in an explosion of it, slammed at speed into the side of the hole, and fell scrabbling back into the mess of broken wood and torn fabric at the bottom. Bruce saw dirt in the curls of Clark's hair, saw for an instant one wild blue eye in his grubby face, saw the remains of the suit he'd been buried in. Then Clark shot into the air, straight up into the starless, angry sky—
—and a long speak of lightning came down from the heavens to transfix him. For an instant he was a silhouette against that terrible brightness, and then he was tumbling back to the ground with an impact Bruce, though deafened by thunder, felt through his knees. The sky opened at last, disgorging so much water so rapidly that it hit more like a slap than like rain; Bruce was soaked to the skin before he could draw breath.
He did hear Martha's cry of, "Clark!" but suspected it was not the first time she had screamed that.
She was already on her feet and running, but Bruce was closer. Clark was a still form, lying with his limbs at odd angles, and even in this downpour Bruce could see the smoke coming off his charred clothing. But he stirred as Bruce closed in on him, the same confused movement of his head and arms that he might have made when unexpectedly woken, and as Bruce skidded to his knees in the grass, he saw Clark's chest hitch with a breath. His eyes were closed, but his brow was furrowed.
They were inches apart. Bruce was unprepared, unarmed, unarmored—and Clark was alive.
Bruce forgot every reservation, and reached down to touch Clark's beloved face.