Commander Clark Kent of the Metropolis Aerial Defense Force stood to one side of the City Bridge, just to the left of Lord Luthor's central dias, and scanned the empty cloudscape beyond the great for'ard Glass. The sun gleamed innocently on the white blanket of stratus oven the Atlantic just east of the Louisianite Desert, touched the great sculpted cumulus towers lightly in passing, and brushed its kindly gaze over the gleaming towers of the SkyCity of Metropolis, as cheerful and bright as if it were unaware of the looming confrontation.
It was that confrontation that lurked in the minds of every citizen of Metropolis, and most certainly the minds of every member of the Flight Crew, the Defense Forces, and the Ruling Council. The air on the Bridge was thick with hushed tension, as they awaited the arrival of their opposition. And privately, most of them thought that a dispute over flightpaths, no matter how wide the area or how frequently they were infringed upon, was worth coming face to face with this particular foe. Even only for talks. Because no-one, no-one at all, wanted to see this City in the light.
She was a new City, the Black Lady. Or rather, a very old city that no-one had seen for nigh on twenty years, after she had disappeared during the Great Upheaval, and never been seen again. Then, some three years ago, she'd come back. Not that people had known her for who she was, at first. It had been rumours. The dark City haunting the Nightside, chasing midnight across the dunes of Earth, following the paths of the stars over the waves. The Midnight Wind, crewed by the damned. And then some poor bastard on a cargosailer off the London flightpath had run into her in the dimness, all ablaze with gaslight stars, her seeker spots great white beams of light prowling over the European dystopia, and at her heart, the unmistakable gothic outline of an ediface from the planet's past. Wayne Tower, flying the black emblem of the Bat.
Gotham had come home, from Hell or Hades or wherever she'd been. And now she ruled the Nightside, even as Metropolis held sway over the daylight paths. And sooner or later, they'd had to meet. The Black Lady and the Shining City. It'd been somewhat inevitable.
That didn't make it any more comfortable a thought.
Suddenly, there was a stir over by the radar-banks. The Flight Crew leapt into activity like a flock of startled birds, darting between controls and Glass, hands flitting over levers and brass keys. The Lenseman set the great Longlass on the South Rampart angling six degrees below the horizonbar and thirty-six east along the x-axis, fiddling until she came into focus on the Bridge Glass.
Clark sucked in a breath in awe, and heard it echoed around the room as Gotham hove into view, drifting up through the stratus at a leisurely pace. One of the Flight Crew cast his right hand hurriedly to his temple in the old blessing, and mutters ran around the room.
"Blessed Winds," the Lenseman breathed. "There she is, the Black Bitch. There she bloody is."
"Quiet," Lord Luthor demanded curtly, his voice absolutely level, but even he watched the Glass with a strange glitter in his eye, as Gotham pulled clear of the cloudbank and hung there for all to see, revealed to the light of the sun for the first time in twenty-three years. She was an incredible sight.
A great black spear of rock hung beneath her, a small inverted mountain, where she'd been ripped from the skin of the Earth in the Great Upheaval. Unlike most modern Cities, she'd not removed it or covered it over with a hull, as Metropolis had. The rock glistened wetly with cloudfrost, a proud declaration of origin, its surface pocked and riddled with black holes, girdled around with skeletal girders and vast beams running back into the mountain, to support the Rampart and presumably the oxygen dome, which for some reason had been pulled down for this encounter. Above the armoured belt of the Rampart, now folded and tucked low, were the vast ribbed contrivances that were rumoured to be some manner of Lightsail, larger versions of the solar sweeps that powered the small boats. And above those again, her towers reached for the sky like great gothic fingers, sunlight flashing off the windows like myriad eyes.
Clark leant forward unconsciously, trying to match what he saw with the myths. There, down in the rock, the faint red glow hinted at in the deeper chasms. Those would be the furnace fires of the massive Flight Engines, leading into the central Engine Chamber, its hellish sweltering depths lorded over by the Fox, Gotham's Enginelord.
And there, the Clocktower, an ancient landmark beneath which, nested in a mass of clicking mechanical arms, the limbless Spider watched over her Glasses, her eyes touching every piece of information on Earth, a datacenter supposedly unmatched even by Metropolis' own Planet Center. Though their dataqueen, Lois Lane, might disagree.
And there. Spearing above all else. The City Bridge. Wayne Tower. Home of the Nightlord, Bruce Wayne, who stood beneath the ancient Bat emblem, proud and ruthless scion of the old dynasties. The man who had taken his City from the Upheaval to Hell itself, if you believed the rumours. The man Lord Luthor wanted to challenge, over the petty disruptions to the Lousianite flightpaths?
Clark shuddered. He didn't want to think of the sheer determination their Lord had to have, to even think about that. He didn't say courage, though. He was reluctant to assign any virtue he himself valued so highly to the cold-eyed Lord of Metropolis. He couldn't say why. But he instinctively did not trust Lord Luthor. Not wholly. A fact which did not make him feel any easier about following him into a confrontation with the Black Lady and her hellspawn Lord.
Clark turned from the Glass sharply at the call. A radarsman turned from the banks, and directed the Lenseman to focus the lesser Longlass on the East Rampart down at the Atlantic Ocean. As the Lenseman complied, dividing the image on the Glass, the radarsman turned back to Lord Luthor.
"The Atlantis Tower is rising, milord," he announced. Luthor nodded curtly, and Clark watched the Glass for confirmation.
The West Atlantis Tower rose sedately above the waves, the water pouring in heavy curtains from the boat platforms at her summit, the encrusted emblem of the Sea King standing out proudly on her flanks. King Arthur, accorded Lord of the SeaCities by the Sea Council, had allowed the use of the surface tower as neutral ground for the meet, and had even agreed to stand as arbiter himself. Which only went to prove the absolute gravity of the situation. The combined power of the Nightlord and Lord Luthor warranted direct monitoring by the only other single power that could match and even exceed them. A mishap here held every potential to start a second Upheaval.
As the Tower settled herself to stand some two hundred feet above sealevel, with a groan Clark almost imagined he could hear even from here, Lord Luthor stood up from the command chair. His deputy, Lady Mercy, immediately flanked him, and every man on the Bridge snapped to attention. Clark stiffened into the appropriate stance, and tried not to wince when Luthor cast his cold eye over them.
"Ready the boat," he commanded sternly. "Landing party with me."
Clark fell in behind him as they headed down to the Rampart and the boat-hangar, along with his counterpart from City Defense Force and an honour guard of six men apiece. A party of sixteen men and women, to meet the greatest scourge the Nightside had ever produced. It was just as well he was as good as he was, Clark thought ruefully, or this could be a long and messy day.
As the boat, Lord Luthor's lightsailer itself, swept down towards the Tower, Clark looked up from his automatic scan of the pilot's actions to see a figure standing alone on the Tower's summit, exactly halfway between the two boat-platforms assigned for their use. As they curved lower, Clark approving instinctively of the smooth path the pilot took them down, he could see the long blond hair and green cloak that only one man on the planet wore. The Sea King himself. King Arthur of Atlantis, come alone to greet them. Clark had to admire his confidence.
The landing went smoothly enough, even if he had to restrain himself from taking the wheel from the pilot's hands at a couple of points, and when it was done he favoured the flushing young woman with a smile of approval. The young pilots were getting better and better these days, as people settled into the pattern of life after the Upheaval. Not that he himself was exactly old. He'd been what, ten, when the cities were torn into flight? But then, he'd always longed to soar anyway. By the rigged lightsail he'd illegally modified in his youth, or the boats he'd piloted as he rose to his current position, or the great SkyCity herself. Metropolis had answered so many of his childhood dreams.
He only wished he could pin down the one hole she had left in his heart, so he could fix that too. The nebulous desire for something more, some unnamed thing that he had yet to find.
But that was neither here nor there, and Lord Luthor was disembarking, striding purposefully towards the silent figure of their host with Mercy at his heels. Clark took up the rear, following the guard as they formed up behind their Lord, and kept his peace as their leader made the courteous greetings required of him. King Arthur inclined his head in response to Luthor's small bow, and nodded regally to everyone in the party. Clark, along with Mercy and his MCDF couterpart, clenched his right fist to his left shoulder in a bow, and the guard swept themselves low at the waist. All perfectly appropriate to their stations. Normally, the archaic forms chaffed at Clark, but the regal nature of the man they faced made it feel natural. The King of Atlantis, the most ancient of Cities, demanded no less.
"Your counterpart is late," the King observed mildly, but with a glint of steel behind it. Luthor gave a small, hard smile.
"He is newly returned to our world, your Majesty. Perhaps it is to be expected?" And for all its politeness, the contempt in his tone could not be fully masked. But Clark, with an eye as always on the sky, saw something to break the momentary tension.
"My Lord," he murmured, nodding respectfully to both. "Is that his boat?"
They looked up, to a man, and stared as Lord Wayne's boat swept down towards them. It was surprisingly nondescript. Oh, elegant, fast, undoubtedly the craft of an aristocrat, but at the same time, it could have belonged to any aristocrat. It was a boat to travel incognito in, not a boat fit for a grand arrival at talks with the potential to set the world to war. And yet ... to Clark's expert eye, it was piloted with incredible grace and skill, and just a touch of showmanship. The curve it made over the Tower was tight and far faster than theirs, expertly controlled, and a stall in the forward motion above the far side of the platform set her down backwards in its exact center. A perfect landing.
And then, as the bay door dropped and the Nightside party disembarked, all two of them, they got their first glimpse of the Nightlord himself. Bruce Wayne.
He was quite handsome, actually, as Clark noted with some surprise. He wasn't quite sure what he'd been expecting. A monster twisted by the embrace of Hell, maybe. But Lord Wayne was something else altogether as he strode out over the platform to meet them, with a proud, stern profile, windswept black hair and eyes alive with a fierce blue fire. He was dressed to match the boat, in a simple white linen shirt and black pants, and then the rich sweep of a midnight-blue cloak with his emblem on the catches. More in line with the Sea King's severe style that Lord Luthor's red-and-gold finery. The girl at his side, silent and watchful, was dressed in even more sober black, but the liquid grace of her movements was in itself impressive enough.
The pair came up beside their party and stopped facing King Arthur and Luthor. Wayne assessed them briefly, a tiny smile maybe catching the edge of his mouth, and then ... He clenched his right fist to his left shoulder and bowed before the Sea King. Arthur blinked in surprise, and wary appraisal.
"That is not required," he noted, unimpressed. Wayne smiled.
"But warranted," he replied softly. "Your position commands respect. Especially from skytrash like us, no?"
"Speak for yourself!" Luthor cut in, affronted. Wayne turned to him, and sketched him a bow, exactly as deep as it had to be and not an inch more. There was an oddly ironic air to him as he did so.
"You don't believe the King of Atlantis deserves our respect?" he asked, something sharp and scornful in his eyes. Clark stared at those eyes in appreciation, even as he flinched from the diplomatic pitfall they'd fallen to before the introductions were even concluded. Or started, for that matter.
Lord Luthor clenched his fist, and the party at his back tensed, but all he did was bring it angrily to his shoulder, and bow stiffly before the Sea King. "My apologies, your Majesty," he murmured. "It was the offensive term of skytrash that I objected to, not the statement that you deserve respect. No offense was intended." Arthur, watching them with something Clark thought might be amusement lurking behind those grave eyes, nodded.
"None was taken," he assured gruffly. "Now. If you gentlemen would like to announce your companions, we will adjourn to the Tower stateroom and ... get down to business. Agreed?" Both Lords nodded.
"My deputy, Lady Mercy of Metropolis," Luthor began, before Wayne could open his mouth. The Nightlord smiled slightly, and greeted her with a nod, which she returned with the appropriate bow. "John Corben, Commander of Metropolis City Defense Forces. Clark Kent, Commander of Metropolis Aerial Defense Forces. And my Guard. Not that I don't trust you, Lord Wayne!" He smiled sharply. "I simply bring them everywhere."
Wayne paused in nodding to each man in turn, and returned the smile with one of his own, bright and veiling. "Of course, Lord Luthor. I never thought otherwise." He looked them over, and for a second Clark felt as if his gaze lingered over him, but that quickly passed. Then he shrugged lightly, and turned to the girl at his side. "This is Cassandra Cain. My ... well. You could call her my bodyguard, I suppose. Not that I don't trust anyone, you understand." The smile turned hard. "I simply bring her everywhere." Luthor nodded stiffly as the girl made her bows, and turned towards the Tower doors without another word.
It was obvious they didn't like each other. Clark only hoped that they didn't dislike each other enough to start a war.
The stateroom was opulent, but in a way that echoed more ancient arts than modern trappings. It was an Atlantean Tower, after all, and its interiors showcased the rich greens, smooth turquoises and pale pinks that spoke of the passing of ages and the fluid shifting of the seas. Great bay windows, made of some thick and oddly organic glass, surrounded the stateroom, affording them an incredible vista of the Atlantic to the east, and the Louisianite Desert to the northwest. Clark, for a moment unable to help himself, stepped up to the window to stare out at the two Cities in the distance. The dark and grim Gotham, and the shimmering spires of his own Metropolis. He wondered for a moment how they would compare to this Tower, to an outside view. To this sentinel of the ancient City of Atlantis, the first of cities.
The Tower was old, in a way few things were after the Upheaval. It was beautiful, and calming in its way. But not calming enough. Not for Lord Luthor.
Before the talks even began, Clark felt a foreboding, and as they wore on he grew stiffer and stiffer as he fought to reign himself in. Luthor appeared to take great pains to circumspectly insult his counterpart, in whatever manner presented itself. It was nothing you could call him on directly, but the intent was obvious. It was rapidly becoming clear that, far from inviting him here to discuss the resolution of a few minor issues, Luthor had arranged to meet Wayne with the specific aim of sounding his weaknesses and those of his City, and in order to provoke the Nightlord.
From their expressions, everyone else in the party had been aware of this. The Guard were remote and professional. Mercy and Corben looked almost eager. And there was a clear light of victory in Luthor's eyes. The only one who hadn't known about it had been Clark himself, and the thought sent a shiver of worry through him. Both because it might mean that Lord Luthor intended to be rid of him, but more importantly because he'd not had time or opportunity to warn his pilots that their Lord might well be deliberately steering them into a war. He clenched his fists beneath the table, and fought to keep his worry from his face.
For his part, and on behalf of his City, however, Wayne did not grant Luthor an inch. That was a relief to Clark in that it might deter Luthor, and a worry in that, should it actually come to a battle ... Well. He wasn't sure he'd like to send his lads into Gotham's teeth, not with this man at her helm. The Nightlord's amiable facade slipped slowly as Luthor's intentions became clear, and a hard intelligence revealed itself in its wake. Wayne's blue eyes turned cool and wary, and utterly contemptuous. He played with his facts with all the misleading talent of a magician, giving Luthor no foothold on his City, to Metropolis' Lord's obvious frustration. Gotham remained a mystery.
Finally, Wayne stood, nodding to King Arthur as he did, and faced Luthor coldly.
"Lord Luthor," he said, quietly. "I understand your concerns over the flightpaths. Gotham has a number of other routes available to her. From now on, our path will not coincide with yours. As I explained from the start, your territories are safe, at least from me. As for your other concerns ... I do not deal with warmongers, Luthor. Nor will I ever."
He turned to Arthur, and offered him again the soldier's bow. "I have given Gotham's resolution on this matter. I hope the arbiter finds it satisfactory?"
The Sea King stood, his gaze cold and harsh as winter seas, and nodded. "For my part?" he said, with a hint of warning growl. "The complaint has been addressed, and I am responsible for no other at this time." Bruce nodded, and turned to leave, but the Atlantean halted him. "But Nightlord?" He waited until Wayne met his gaze, then continued in a low, almost absent tone. "The Upheaval damaged my realm as much as yours. I can no longer afford to remain impartial in surface affairs. Remember that."
Lord Wayne held his gaze for a long moment, frowning slightly, and when he nodded a second time, it was with the weighty deliberation of a man accepting a responsibility. Seeing that, the King of Atlantis released him, and he moved towards the door, the girl prowling warily at his side.
And as he did, Luthor came to his feet, and his entire party came with him, the threat obvious in the mass motion. Clark, unprepared, was slower to stand, and froze as Wayne's eyes swept sharply over him, the blue gaze instantly assessing. Unwilling to bow in the face of it, he straightened to meet those wary eyes, and twitched one shoulder in a faint shrug of unease. Something sparked briefly in the Nightlord's eyes, something quickly veiled as he turned to face Luthor's threat, the girl at his side fluidly shifting her stance in readiness. She looked ... deadly.
"My Lord Arbiter?" Wayne said softly. The Sea King came slowly to his feet, and something in the motion echoed with the rise of the Tower herself in Clark's mind, the readying of a massive force. He shifted instinctively to face the threat, ready to get between Arthur and Luthor. Not that he particularly wanted to protect Luthor at this point, but ... it was his duty. To Metropolis, if not to Luthor himself. And he couldn't bear to fail his City.
But the Sea King did not attack. Instead, his voice boomed out in warning. "You are on accorded neutral ground, Lord Luthor!" He shifted a little, squaring his shoulders, and Clark remembered the rumours of his strength. The pressures of the sea, moulding the man into something greater. "Atlantean ground. And Atlantis takes her duties seriously."
Luthor looked between him and Wayne for a moment, calculating rapidly, but with absolute cool. Then he offered a bright smile, and bowed lightly to the pair of them. "My apologies, your Majesty. It was not my intention to appear ... threatening. I merely intended to offer to escort Lord Wayne to his boat, as his party is so small. As a courtesy."
Wayne studied him for a minute, then straightened, adjusting the line of his cloak with a casual air. "I thank Lord Luthor for his offer," he murmured. "But I'm afraid I must decline. I'm somewhat shy, you see. I don't think I could handle the company." He flashed them a false smile of his own, and with a final nod to the Sea King swept out of the room. Clark stared after him, then turned to face his Lord.
Luthor was watching the Nightlord's retreat with that strange glitter in his eyes, and his expression was nothing short of smug. Clark felt a chill skitter up his spine, and repressed a sudden urge to run after Wayne and see if he was alright. He'd seen that expression on Luthor's face before. But there was nothing he could do. Duty demanded that he remain with his Lord, and running to check if their enemy was alright based on no more than an expression ... There was nothing he could do.
After a fraught pause, Luthor turned to the Sea King to offer his own parting bow. But as he turned to leave, a raised hand forestalled him.
"I would be careful, my Lord Luthor," the King of Atlantis said softly. "I would be careful of starting a war with that man. He is more than he appears."
Luthor smiled. "I assure you, your Majesty," he answered with slow satisfaction. "I have no intention whatsoever of starting a war with him. I wouldn't be so foolish."
Which, really, was no reassurance at all.
Clark's shoulders were tense as they climbed towards the boat platform again. Luthor had done something. He knew it. But he didn't know what. So when they stepped out onto the summit of the Tower to see Wayne's boat rising sedately above them, wheeling to curve out towards home, he sighed under his breath in relief.
About two seconds before the boat's aft exploded.