Heatscar, skinsmoke, fleshburn, sweatsteam, breathfire…
Bruce woke with a spasm, gasping at the memory of fire.
But even as his body panicked, something in his mind began to catalogue his surroundings, a part that he’d long ago trained to step back and analyse.
It wasn’t Gotham or the Watchtower, he knew that instantly. He was in a bed in a closed room, possibly in a medical centre of some kind - the sheets were too crisp, the temperatures too cool, and the scent in the air was faintly stringent and tinny - and most likely underground since the walls were cement and the air recycled. He could hear the whirring hum of the circulators working hard, and a more musical hum that was probably the device keeping track of his vital signs.
A quick glance showed no obvious visual monitoring equipment; he wasn’t strapped or tied down to the bed; the door was ajar, and the IV drip-feeding him was within easy reach.
Not a prisoner, then.
His last memory was of...was of…
His last memory was of the cold black of space, of the scarlet alarms that flashed and flared overhead as a power-overload took the Watchtower, of his growled order for everyone to evacuate, of trying to reconfigure the power shunts to give the others time to escape, of fire…
More intense than he’d ever felt, an inferno against his skin, blistering his lips, molten in his lungs, scarring, charring, agonising and ferocious…
Bruce remembered dying in fire.
In his chest, his heart pounded with the memory of death. Nothing ached or hurt – he was whole. The skin on the arm he lifted showed unburned, palely marked by the fine lines of old injuries but without the puckering scars of searing fire.
Footsteps echoed down the corridor, a brisk alert that someone was coming. He tensed, looping one finger into the IV drip line. Maybe he wasn’t apparently a prisoner, but whoever had him wasn’t anyone he knew. That meant caution.
The man who pushed open the door paused in the entryway, studying him with a measuring blue gaze. Some thirty or so years old, his black hair curved loosely over a high forehead and a pleasant, handsome face that seemed vaguely familiar. “So you’re awake, Mr. Wayne. I’m Hawk, your doctor. How are you feeling?”
“Where am I?”
‘Hawk’ nodded, more to himself than to Bruce. “This is the headquarters of the Human Alliance in New York City – such as it is these days. We’ve got quite a network in what used to be the old subway system – not that we’ve got trains anymore.”
“The Human Alliance?” Bruce’s eyes narrowed. He’d never heard of such an organisation before. And its name begged the question – if there was an alliance of humans, then what was the alternative?
Hawk’s mouth twisted as he pulled a PDA-like thing from his pocket. “This is the part where things get a little crazy, I’m afraid. The year is 2107 AD, some one hundred years after you died in an explosion in the Watchtower.”
Shock was immediate and breathtaking – not what was said, but what was implied. They know Bruce Wayne is the Batman. The second shock came a moment later. I was dead.
“Yes,” said the man, watching him with eyes like a summer sky – piercing blue in a tanned face. “You were dead.”
Bruce’s eyes narrowed. A telepath? Or just a good guesser?
Apparently unaware of his thoughts, Hawk continued. “You’ve been brought back by magic, Mr. Wayne. It was the only option. After one hundred years, there’s not much left of a body to regenerate – and merely your body wouldn’t have done the Alliance any good.”
“You assume I’m going to work with your Alliance,” Bruce observed dryly. “And that I’m going to take your words as truth.”
“Yes,” Hawk said wryly, crooking one finger at a metallic ball the size of an apple floating up by the ceiling, “There is that.” The ball floated gently down to shoulder-height, and then projected a small chart into the air in front of the doctor.
The projection wasn’t clear enough to be seen from Bruce’s position in bed, but it seemed perfectly clear to Hawk. “With everything we’ve got on the Batman, we’d hardly expect you to take our word for what’s happening.” He tapped out some numbers and codes into the PDA, and then slanted a sly smile in Bruce’s direction. “Which is why, if you’re feeling up to it, we’ll put you in some street clothes, and I’ll take you up to the surface to see the world for yourself.”
“You’ll allow me to leave?”
Hawk laughed as he tapped the PDA a few more times and dismissed the projector ball – some kind of medical monitor, Bruce supposed. Score one for ‘new’ technology. “Mr. Wayne, given your history and capabilities, I don’t think we have anything that could stop you if you chose to leave. The League’s files on that are very clear – you’re not a tame lion.”
The clothing was…different. The top started as a mesh weave that hung loose off Bruce’s body, then began to tighten, fitting itself against his skin. He tugged the neckline up, rolled it down like a turtleneck, and felt the material adjust perfectly against his body. The waistband of the trousers was programmed to do the same, fitting themselves snugly around his waist. He could loosen it with a little pulling – it seemed that the material ‘remembered’ recent commands.
Interesting. Score another point for technology he didn’t recognise.
None of which had to mean that they were telling him the truth, of course. There were a lot of explanations for this. Hallucinations. Alien technologies. Alternate realities. Closed-communities like Gorilla City or the Themiscyrans.
The Themiscyrans. He paused in his dressing and closed his eyes. Diana. Clark. Dick. Tim. Jim Gordon. Barbara. The rest of the League.
If the year was 2107, then they were probably all dead.
He forced himself to calm and composure, years of practise and training coming to his aid. He ‘knew’ nothing just yet – only what they’d told him. And he had little faith in that and less reason to believe.
The Human Alliance claimed they’d brought him back from the dead. It seemed obvious enough to Bruce that they wanted something from him and would do whatever it took – including telling lies and deceiving him - to gain it from him.
So for the moment he’d wait and watch, observe and measure and consider, but he’d stay where he was.
Better the devil you knew.
When he opened the door, Hawk was waiting outside in an antechamber whose slightly rough brickwork appeared to have been whitewashed over several times, quite thickly. He could see where the old layers had peeled off in chunks, and then been re-sealed with a newer coat. Subterranean, then. And old.
Hawk was dressed in a similar outfit of turtleneck and trousers and talking to a small, pale woman whose eyes widened at the sight of Bruce.
“You didn’t say that he was up!” She said to Hawk.
In spite of the accusation in her voice, the smile that touched Hawk’s face was faint and amused. “I’m taking him upside. He wants to see the world for himself.”
Fear flickered, a momentary alarm that was quickly extinguished. “Did you clear it with Marta first?”
“Of course.” Hawk indicated the door leading out of the antechamber. “This way.”
A maze of corridors and rooms followed, the layout of which Bruce committed to memory. There were no obvious signs of surveillance, although he judged it would be next to impossible to escape from here – they’d put him quite solidly in the bowels of it all.
“The New York subway?”
Bruce had never been one to take the subway – with the billions of Wayne Enterprises at his disposal; he’d never needed to. Batman was another matter. New York wasn’t his bourn, but he’d been there a number of times, and not all his time had been spent on the rooftops of the city. It looked about right – although the obvious shoring up and repainting over wasn’t something he’d ever seen while working in New York.
“The subway closed down eighty years ago. Times were…difficult.” The inflections suggested something a little more than merely ‘difficult’.
“A big one.”
That was all Hawk said as they came out into a larger area, high-ceilinged, vaulted, with various groups of people sitting around and working on assorted things. The scents of people and food were stronger here, less industrial ventilation, more human. It was warmer here than in the corridors, and the in-built ceiling lights cast their shadows in pale hazes as they crossed the floor to another doorway.
Bruce took stock of his surroundings in a single look, then let his eyes rest on the people who looked up at their entrance.
All ages, all body types, all races, most were dressed in patches of dark clothing, much like what Bruce now wore. His eye skimmed across bodies lean from hard times and muscled from hard exercise. Their eyes were similarly hard as they looked up to see who was passing – the eyes of people who’d seen trouble and knew how to handle the unexpected, the difficult, the demanding.
He could believe that these were the survivors of a big war; they had the battle-scarred look of veterans – even the youngest ones among them.
It still wasn’t any proof of what Hawk had told him so far.
As they crossed the room, Hawk answered a few calls from people, brief and brisk; but the gazes of men and women alike rested on Bruce. And what clenched in his gut was the way those wary gazes flickered up to his face and grew awed when they realised who he was.
Whispers grew, and heads turned. People stood up from their chairs to get a better view of him. He kept his expression carefully neutral, but there was no escaping the people watching him.
And Bruce felt naked, stripped of his secrecy and the mask he’d used as both a defence against his psychoses and an attack upon them. It was unnerving. As Batman, he’d been the scourge of Gotham’s criminals and those who’d gone up against the Justice League had found him just as formidable as any of the metas in their ranks. As Bruce Wayne, he’d played a delicate game of deception and distraction, covering it with innocence and idiocy.
Here, he was both. He wore no mask, but the awe and admiration in their eyes wasn’t for Bruce Wayne – couldn’t be for a millionaire playboy.
Hawk glanced over at him, and grinned, a fierce glint of amusement that reminded Bruce of…someone. The resemblance tickled at his memory, refusing to gain purchase, then it was gone, swift as Flash. “You’ll have to forgive us. We’ve never had a legend walk among us before.”
A legend walks among us.
“Do you usually revive your dead legends?”
The words had more bite to them then he’d intended, and he silently cursed the fit of pique that had seized him. Something was wrong with all this, although he couldn’t quite tell what it was. His perceptions didn’t feel right, like there was a splinter in his mind, digging into his comprehension of what was happening around him.
“You’re the first and only.” Hawk glanced at Bruce and the smile was gone, leaving him serious and intense. “I took on the spell of resurrection and reformation myself, performed it privately and without an audience. And only because…” The man hesitated. “I wouldn’t have done it if it wasn’t necessary. Believe it or not, the Human Alliance isn’t in the business of resurrecting old heroes.”
Previously, he’d always been able to keep them separate, compartments that kept him ‘in character’ at any given time.
“Any reason I got lucky?” Bruce asked, casually. But he already knew the answer before Hawk spoke.
“The Human Alliance needs your help.”
Getting outside involved climbing – a lot of it. Which explained why the people down in the cavern were in such good shape. Getting to the surface was a workout in and of itself. Bruce reflected that it was a good thing he was in peak physical condition.
“Tell me about the Human Alliance.” Their voices echoed against the layers of earth, cement, debris, and rubble that Hawk said covered much of what had been street level back in the early 21st century. The Human Alliance had tunnelled down to the old metro station network and turned it into a base of sorts, not unlike the Batcave.
Then again, Bruce had never had to climb out of the Batcave like this.
They’d been climbing for several minutes when he decided he could do with some information about this world that the Human Alliance claimed they’d brought him back in. And to know more about the world, he needed to know more about the Alliance. Up until Bruce asked, Hawk hadn’t offered anything about the Human Alliance, what it was, or why it existed.
That made Bruce suspicious.
Still, the younger man was easy in his answer. “Formed about eighty years ago after the Kryptonian War.”
Bruce paused in his climb. “The Kryptonian War?”
“They came as ambassadors, fourteen Kryptonians, seeking one of their own. They came in peace and we treated with them in the same manner. It didn’t last. We assumed that, because Superman was good, his people would be too.”
“Who died first?”
He’d guessed as much. Lex would have had both the resources and the cunning to fight back – and the unwillingness to see the Kryptonians as good just because Superman was good, perhaps especially since Superman was good.
“If it hadn’t been him, it would have been you,” said Hawk from below. “My mother said that you would have found a way to fight back sooner if you’d been alive.”
“A woman of faith,” Bruce said sardonically. But the pieces of the puzzle were beginning to fall together. He could see the shape of the world as the Kryptonian wars had left it, and he wasn’t sure he liked it.
Hawk didn’t seem to take exception to the sarcasm. “You have no idea,” was all he said. “But if the Kryptonians had come after you, the League would have caught on sooner.”
That shocked him. “They ignored Luthor’s death?”
“Not that. They just…it was made to look like an accident and they didn’t stop to think otherwise.”
Luthor in an accident, just as fourteen Kryptonians descended on the planet? Bruce grimaced to himself as he glanced up the dark corridor. He’d thought he’d taught them to be more critical than that. Sometimes things were a coincidence, often they weren’t.
“The League did what they could against the Kryptonians. It wasn’t much. One by one they were taken out or neutralised. Superman tried to fight them directly, but they overpowered him. They didn’t want to kill him - to show that he was killable might give the other metas ideas. And they’d destroyed all Luthor’s kryptonite. In the end they exiled him, and made the proclamation that for every visit he made to the ‘protectorate’ states under their control, they’d kill ten thousand people – a third of them children.”
Bruce gave the Kryptonians full marks for seeing Clark’s weakness immediately – the people of a planet he’d sworn to protect - and for exploiting it. It would be like Clark to fail to see the bigger picture. With foresight, he’d have claimed himself a protectorate and set up a power-base from which to intrigue against the others and bring them down, one by one.
Of course, trickery and deception had never been Clark’s strength. It was one of the reasons that Clark had needed Bruce.
And Bruce had needed Clark, too, aware that his friend could be what he could not – even as he could be what Clark was not. The two of them had complemented each other – day and night, sunshine and shadows – a peculiar brotherhood of super-man and man, balancing each other out.
Even that hadn’t always been enough.
The passage wasn’t quite so steep now, the upward wormhole turning into a switchback trail - less of an up-and-down climb, more of a hike. And beyond the next turn, Bruce could see the pale of daylight, beckoning him forward.
“How were the Kryptonians defeated?”
“Subterfuge. Trickery. Sacrifice. Someone came up with the idea of poisoning them with kryptonite, over time.”
“You said they’d destroyed all kryptonite.”
“All they could find.” Hawk said. “Which didn’t include the Kryptonite you’d put away in the Omega Protocols.”
Bruce grimaced as turned the corner and blinked at the daylight. So the League had eventually found out about that. He could imagine how they’d reacted to the knowledge. “And?”
“The Kryptonians had gotten into the habit of using humans for…personal services.”
Suddenly Bruce realised the full picture. Had he said the League weren’t cunning? He took it back - every word. “They poisoned the well, didn’t they?”
It was brilliant. And terrible. He had to admire the ruthlessness of the plan, even as he felt revolted at the measures taken. Luthor had done tests on the effects of kryptonite on humans since he’d wanted to see if it would be possible to Superman-proof himself. Much to his dismay, the answer had been ‘not without killing himself with kryptonite poisoning’.
A slow death, and a painful one - although faster than the Kryptonians would have gotten.
“Volunteers only,” Hawk said. “They were told the risks and given the choice.”
And out of all the remaining League, only one of them would have made the decision. “It was Wonder Woman’s idea to use the people to poison the Kryptonians, wasn’t it?”
Clark, John, and Wally were human at heart - brought up human, bred human. Fighters at heart, they’d never have even suggested such a plan. J’onn and Shayera would have stepped back - they’d taken responsibility for protecting Earth by joining the League, but it wasn’t their planet, their people.
Only Diana would have suggested it. Only Diana would have gone ahead with it. Bruce wondered if she’d thought of him as she made the decision that nobody else could even contemplate.
The silence behind him was all the answer he needed, even before Hawk said, “Yes.”
Diana would have accepted the need for subterfuge, even as she accepted the easiest and ‘safest’ way to get to the Kryptonians. And, knowing Diana, she wouldn’t have left it up to others either - she would have taken the measures herself, and done what was necessary.
In some things, she’d always been stronger than either Bruce or Clark.
Bruce didn’t ask the question that was on his lips. He wasn’t sure he was ready for the answer just yet.
“And afterwards, people no longer wanted to be human.”
“It was seen as being weak.” An odd note stained the younger man’s voice. “Geneticists and magicians became very popular as people tried to make themselves or their children into metas. Some succeeded, others failed. What was left of the League stepped in, but by then there were already too many.”
Bruce could see it. People feared the metas, even as they revered them - to fly or have super-strength, to read minds, see the future, cast spells, or whatever it was that they did. It seemed like something that should be envied.
“What was left of the League created the Metahuman Council to rule over the metas, to keep a leash on them. Sometimes it works, often, not so much.” Hawk shrugged. “The Human Alliance was originally developed as a balancing body for humans - and to work with the Metahuman Council.”
“In the last decade, some of the politics came to a head – a splinter group of the Human Alliance declared war on the metas, and certain metas reacted…badly. The resultant small-scale urban wars in the cities fractured our society even further and sent a lot of the human leadership into hiding. Hence the bunker.”
Bruce could see the shape of things ahead – it had been visible in the awe of the Alliance members when they looked on him. A human who’d run with the meta crowd – who was iconic to the humans and respected by the metas of history.
“That’s why you brought me back.”
“We need a leader,” said Hawk quietly. “And you were the first human to ever successfully run with the League. The first and the last - no powers, no magic, no objects of power, no devices. No-one else ever did what you did; no-one else ever developed your skill. You were the best.”
“Because no-one else has the reasons I do,” Bruce growled. “Because it takes everything I have and everything I am to do it!”
He saw the flicker of pity that flashed on the other man’s features, even by the dim half-glow that illuminated the passage. And in that flicker of pity, Bruce saw the truth - that there was an inviolable chasm between when he’d died and when he’d risen again: a hundred years of history, discovery, and humanity.
It hit him liked Clark’s fist in his belly - the loss and death of everything and everyone he’d known. Alfred, Dick, Tim, Barbara, Jim Gordon; Clark, Diana, J’onn, John, Shayera, Wally...
Harder than all those came Bruce’s realisation of the death of the Batman personal which he’d created to hold the anger and rage of a childhood lost, the lens through which Bruce had focused all his energy and obsession with justice and revenge.
“Things have changed,” Hawk said, his expression pained. “A lot.”
Things had changed.
Nowhere was that more clear than in the architecture of New York City.
It looked nothing like the iconic city it had been at the start of the twenty-first century. Manhattan was no longer skyscrapers, much of the city had been rebuilt after the Kryptonian wars, but little of it was as tall or as grand as the earliest years of the 21st Century.
Lady Liberty still stood facing out over the harbour, although her flesh was rusting and weary, pocked with age and dirty with time; but the torch still flamed high above New York Harbour.
“It’s probably nothing like you remember it,” Hawk said as they stood on the west side of the Hudson River, amidst the park that had replaced Central Park as the main greened area of the city. “There was a movement to remake the city just as it had been in its iconic days, but it was overturned. A new city for a new era, the city planners said.”
Bruce stared out across the salty brown-silt waters of the Hudson towards the New Jersey side of the river. “Gotham?”
“Didn’t fare so well. It was one of the few cities that managed to put up a fight against the Kryptonians and it shows. When you died, Nightwing, Robin, Batgirl, and Oracle took over its protection. When the Kryptonians came, Superman claimed it under his jurisdiction - but the Kryptonians considered it a thorn in their side. They starved the population, banished Superman, and took it down in the end.”
His city, turned into rubble. It shook him, twisted his lungs with the thought. He’d belonged to Gotham and Gotham had belonged to him. Without his city, could he even be who he’d been while he was alive?
“The Kryptonians found it and collapsed it. The League had gotten everything out years before - including a great deal of Wayne Manor’s property, but it was a useful hiding spot. People moved back into the Gotham city area, but it’s never been the same.” Hawk turned to look back at the built-up city, risen like a phoenix from the ashes of its past. “Most of the world’s never been the same, although things are stabilising.”
“The situation between the metas and the humans?”
“Okay, so, not that.” Hawk shrugged. “Humanity survives - we might fall into ashes, but we rise again, sooner or later.”
If so, then this time, they weren’t managing to be a very magnificent phoenix.
“What does the Alliance expect me to lead them to?”
“Most of us want just peace between the humans and the metas,” said Hawk, turning around so he was facing the city and the open shops that were set up along the river-front. He hooked his elbows over the railings, leaning back in a moment of relaxation that Bruce guessed was rare for the young man. “Rules for all people, protections and judgements for all. A free and open society, with free and open means for conflict resolution, law, and justice.”
“A pipe dream.”
“Perhaps it is, these days. But dreams are worth dreaming - as other visionaries have proven through our history. There are a few who’d like to see an end to all metas, but that’s not going to happen. The genie is well and truly out of the bottle in that area.”
“And how am I supposed to do this?”
Hawk shrugged, then grinned. “Don’t know. But you were always said to be the man with the plan.”
A long breath shuddered out of him. “You brought me back from the dead for this?”
“Why not bring back the entire League?”
“The spell only works on humans, and the Green Lantern Corps wouldn’t countenance John Stewart. And...you were the Batman.”
“So I was it.”
“You were it.” Hawk shrugged, hesitated, and turned to Bruce. The stance was direct, almost confrontational, but with a set to the shoulders that suggested the younger man was facing him as a child faced an elder, awaiting punishment. “There’s probably something you should know about the Metahuman Council. I told you it was started by the League, but not by whom. Superman was the founder. He survived the end of the Kryptonian wars, although the last battle had poisoned him, too, and he was dying.”
Bruce had figured that Clark would be involved in some way. To give his friend his due, he’d always been a fighter - maybe not a warrior in mindset, but a fighter.
“Superman got things moving - no-one was going to argue against him after all he’d done for us - but it was J’onn who took up the reins when he died. He’s still on the Council, albeit a quieter voice these days. Years of dealing with humans seem to have taken their toll on him. But the current leader of the council is Wonder Woman.”
Bruce had already guessed it. He wondered just how much of the history between him and Diana was public knowledge one hundred years later.
Still, if it felt like last week to him; it had been a hundred years in her time. Bruce wondered how she’d aged - or even if she’d aged. She was human, of a sort, but god-touched, god-made. And the Themiscyrans were long-lived.
“Does she lead the Council or simply arbitrate?”
“She doesn’t know about this either.”
Which begged the question. “Am I an ace in the hole?”
Hawk considered this for a moment, and it was a measure of his control that Bruce couldn’t read him. The man could be very open in some things, easy and pleasant, and then his face filmed over with an opacity that rendered all expression inscrutable. Quite a gift. “You were our best hope.”
“You can’t have had many choices.”
“F...First,” Hawk stuttered, then steadied. “You were our first choice.”
“And you want me to broker peace between meta and human?”
“More than anyone else, you remember what it was like,” said Hawk, calmer now. Expression was back, as was the humour. “Comes the hour, comes the man.”
“And when the man had to be resurrected to make the hour?”
“Well, it wouldn’t be the first time a saviour rose from the dead.” A wry smile gleamed briefly on his lips. “So, will you?”
And that was the question, wasn’t it? Would he?
Bruce stared out over the glittering waves of the river that ran beside a city that wasn’t Gotham in a time over a hundred years after he’d been born. What choice did he have? He’d chosen to become the Batman - to take up the mantle of night and fight in the shadows since the law couldn’t always penetrate the darkness. He hadn’t chosen to die. He hadn’t chosen to be resurrected either.
“I have a question.”
“What’s your name?”
This time, the smile was broad, frank. “Someone’s idea of a joke.”
Bruce stared back out over the Hudson, to the far shore, the way the river of time and space distanced him from the land in which he’d been born, from the city he’d sworn his life to defending, from the people he’d died to protect.
They weren’t his people and this wasn’t Gotham, wasn’t his time, wasn’t his fight, wasn’t his choice. He’d be doing it alone - without support, without encouragement, without anyone to back him up. But how was that different to the first time he’d started his obsession with vengeance?
His friends had fought a war without him; and this was him cleaning things up and sorting things out. Maybe the League as he’d known it was gone, but there were still League members in the world, trying to keep the peace.
In the absence of Gotham, Bruce would do what he could for what remained of the League - for what remained of the humanity he’d represented.
“You knew what the answer would be the moment you decided to raise me,” he said. “Yes. I’ll do it. But my way, not the Human Alliance’s way.”
At Hawk’s arched eyebrow, Bruce smiled, thin and tight, a promise of the fight to come. “As you said, I’m not a tame lion.”