#82: The Widening Gyre (Part 3) Dec 23, 2018 7:10:26 GMT -5
Post by Charlie on Dec 23, 2018 7:10:26 GMT -5
Please read Checkmate #7 before continuing with this issue!
Over a decade ago, Gotham City had been caught in the hottest summer in then-recent history when the Joker first reared his ghoulish head.
No one knew where he came from, not for sure, anyway. Years later, his origin stories were in the multitudes… hitman for the mob… a mob boss himself… some nobody… the devilish Red Hood… a demon… a ghost… a dead man… no one quite knew the truth of the Joker. His fingerprints were burn scars and tissue damage, his dental impressions warped and twisted.
There was no record of that kind of blight in any database across the globe-- and many had checked since.
No. There was just the Joker. Not yet the Clown Prince of Crime. Not yet the Harlequin of Hate. Just the Joker. And a scheme. An intention. A plan to poison every man, woman and child in Gotham City with the same toxic chemical mix that twisted whatever he was before into whatever he was now.
And on one oppressive, sticky night, after a series of horrific murders spread across the preceding weeks, atop the concrete reservoir bypass system that overlooked Gotham City, he went to war with the vigilante known only as the Batman.
Before he was the Dark Knight. Before he became the Caped Crusader.
Just the Batman. Against the Joker.
And of course, Batman won. Could there be any other result? The first battle in a long, never-ending war. The Batman won, and the Joker lost, just as it should always have been.
In the immediate aftermath, the Joker laughing through broken lips and chipped teeth, he simply said, “Oh, I think I’ll keep you, Batman. I think you and I could do this forever.”
And while not entirely true…
…Those words still haunted Bruce Wayne until the moment the Guardian put a bullet in the Clown Prince of Crime’s brain.
Issue Eighty-Two: The Widening Gyre, Part 3: “A Matter of Accountability”
A Checkmate Crossover!
HoM / FLINCHUM
In-between the rain and the smoke, the odor of electricity and ionization hung in the air-- the telltale signature of the Justice League’s old teleportation systems.
With that, the Guardian knew he was no longer alone.
Knowing full well what was about to come, he pulled down the hood of his jacket and then shrugged off the coat, allowing it to crumple to the floor, where it was immediately joined by the puddles and garbage that slicked the concrete of the alley’s floor.
Behind him, the last of his emergency bunkers was burning, every trace of his life up in flames. Smoke funneled out of the open door, and churned up into the rain clouds, grey mixing together with grey.
Silently, a black shape dropped down from the fire escape and landed in front of him.
“Harper,” roared the shape.
The Guardian sighed, and said, “Batman.”
“I’m here to take you in.”
Unclipping his shield from where it rested on his back but not strapping it to his arm, the Golden Avenger replied, “I think we both know that’s not true.” He raised his fists, and took on a boxer’s stance, ready for what was about to come. “So, what are you waiting for?”
Apollo and the Midnighter had come too far to be put off by a few stern words and an overt and in no way veiled threat. But that’s what Henry Bendix had thrown their way, via a holographic projection-- a threat, a promise, a bout of severe violence regardless of whatever came next.
“You’d think that all the cages we’ve been rattling, it’d be a while longer before we finally tracked you down,” said the Midnighter, walking around the hologram, noting where it had been projected from in the wall, looking the man who called himself their ‘god’ up and down.
“Having you two out in the world is bad for business, and my business is booming. I think it’s time we put an end to this teen rebellion and put away childish things. I think it’s time for you to die.”
“You’ve been trying that since you found out we got out,” said Apollo. “And nothing’s stuck yet.”
“You were on deep freeze for a good long time, boys. I thought it a kindness to allow you your moment in the sun, before I stamped you out like the insects you are.”
“Stamp away, you mad bastard. I’d chew through metal and bone to tear your weaselly spine out from wherever you claim to keep it,” replied the Midnighter.
“Such vim and vigor. It’s a shame you had to go this way. Don’t you remember? You’re early models. Version nothing point nothing. I had such a long time after you to make improvements. Want to meet your younger brother?”
With Bendix chuckling loudly to himself, the metal door behind his projection shunted open, revealing a seven-foot-tall-and-change blonde naked man. Green light blossomed from behind his eyes, illuminating his grim face from the dark recesses of the room he stepped out from. He opened his mouth, and in a thick, German accent, gravelled, “Man is something that shall be overcome. What have you done to overcome him?”
“Kicked him really hard in the balls,” replied the Midnighter, patting his night-stick into his open hand. “Want me to try that on you, ###hole?”
He threw the night-stick forward with enough force that it would embed itself in a human skull, wet and squishy bits coming out the other side, but this time it simply bounced off whatever forcefield this looming, nude figure projected, and skittled to the ground.
The new arrival looked at where the nightstick landed, then up at the Midnighter. He smiled then, and it was horrible. Like he’d never smiled before and was approximating it from an alien’s second-hand account of what one should be. “What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not an end.”
“Oh,” said Apollo.
Bendix continued, “Meet the Prophet. One for a new age. The age of humanity taking back what’s rightly theirs-- ours-- the world. Ascending the evolutionary ladder one well-earned step at a time, not relying on the superhuman population to keep us warm and safe, when they themselves will be proven to be the ones who endanger both themselves and the world. We will not wait for them to smother us in our sleep. No more shall Homo Sapiens fear the genetic fluke that is meta-humanity. He is the first of many. And he will kill you both. Goodbye, my boys. I wish we could have spent more time together.”
His projection vanished, and then it was just Apollo and the Midnighter, facing off against the looming presence of the Prophet, who was slowly trudging toward them, his eyes glowing an unearthly emerald.
“Man is a rope…” he started.
“My fight computer can’t see through that forcefield,” growled the Midnighter.
“…Tied between beast…” continued the Prophet.
“Who ever said killing Bendix would be easy?” asked Apollo.
“…I think I did. Multiple times,” offered the Midnighter.
“…A rope over an abyss…”
Apollo smiled. “We’ve been through worse. Together. Let’s do this.”
HALL OF JUSTICE, METROPOLIS:
“The way I see it, you’ve got a big problem,” said Etta Candy, Bishop to Steve Trevor, the White King of Checkmate, and currently heading the group sent to investigate the death of the Joker.
“I think we are well aware of the problem we are currently experiencing,” replied Wonder Woman.
These two went back years, but it had been some time since they’d been in the same room together. The room they currently occupied was the vast holding area beneath the Hall of Justice, where the Guardian had put a single bullet in the skull of the Joker, freeing those mad brains of his to pour out the floor in a pool of blood and bone fragments. Checkmate Knights and Pawns worked the scene while Hawkman and Wonder Woman watched, aware of the scrutiny they were under.
Thomas Jagger, White Knight, had just ordered the corpse of the Joker out of the room, and the team escorting the body bag out was followed by Doctor Light, who had only hours ago rejoined the team, and was not experiencing the severity of this situation along with the rest.
Etta shook her head dismissively. “You think it’s as bad as one of your own executing a criminal in your custody? C’mon, Di. You know it’s a lot worse than that.”
“How so, sister?” asked Diana.
“You got found out. The footage is out in the world, and it’s bad. But you got found out. Doesn’t matter if this is the first time, or the latest, you folks killed somebody, and that’s something that shouldn’t ever be the case. Now the world’s asking questions. Gonna be a long, dark night of the soul. Lots of questions asked. Not just by the authorities, but by the public. The United Nations…”
“The actions of the Guardian do not represent the Justice League in this,” said Wonder Woman. “Etta, you know me. You know what I stand for. The Guardian… he did this himself. Without our sanction. We cannot stand behind his actions.”
“I know that, but who else does? Really? Are you going to be fast enough, even with the speed of Hermes, to get in front of this? Because once that cycle starts going, it’s hard to get ahead of, and its hell to put a stop to,” said Etta.
Hawkman had enough. “You! You claim to be her friend, but you’re spewing poison!”
Diana shook her head, saying, “Hawkman, stand down, this is… she isn’t wrong.”
“No! She is so far from right it causes my stomach to turn. This was not the Justice League. This was one man. A father who lost his daughter. Who lost his whole family. This is a man pushed too far, farther than anyone can expect to be pushed without snapping. He did what all of us have considered at one time, and he will face the consequences of those actions, but do not drag Wonder Woman into this! Do not drag the Justice League down! The truth will out!”
“Didn’t you kill a kid once, Katar Hol*?” Etta asked, pointedly.
*Back in Justice League #39
Hawkman froze, taken aback by her question. “You… that… that’s not the same thing.”
Candy stepped forward and didn’t stop speaking. Behind her, Tommy Jagger rounded the trio, well aware of the buttons his boss was pushing. “You got pushed so far that you killed a child. I read the file. Checkmate has access to all your mission logs, that’s part and parcel of the United Nations mandate that allows us to keep the world safe, same as you. Doesn’t matter why. Doesn’t matter he was going to detonate and kill a town, whether he wanted to or not. You did it. You got pushed so far that snapping a child’s neck was the only option you could see. You think the world doesn’t look at you different for it? Your team? You did what you had to do, same as the Guardian, and did you ever get punished for it?”
Diana took a step between them. “Etta, that’s enough. Hawkman was cleared by the international courts for his actions--”
Katar interrupted his friend. “I carry the weight of my actions with me every single day. Same as the Guardian will. Same as we all do. I did what was required of me. And your… words today… they prove one thing to me.”
“Yeah? And what’s that?” asked Etta.
He leaned in close, and hissed, “Wonder Woman may claim to see the good in all people, but by the Seven Devils of my people, she was wrong when it came to you.”
THE CAVE, GOTHAM CITY:
“Batman? Bruce, are you--”
From one of the many secure and secret tunnels available to the Dark Knight’s ‘allies’, Superman had arrived in the Cave, his eyes unable to focus thanks to all the lead embedded in the stalactites and stalagmites that lined the space. To some, it might have caused a sting of distrust, but the Man of Steel knew better. They existed in a world where bizarre clones and malevolent Kryptonian criminals-- that had escaped the death of their world thanks to the ghost dimension they’d been imprisoned within-- were a threat they’d all faced at one time or another. He couldn’t blame this man for being prepared for the worst-- or perhaps, the inevitable.
“Sir, I’m afraid Master Bruce is not on the premises… could I take a message?” asked Alfred Pennyworth, looking across the vast space that separated the air in which the Man of Tomorrow floated, and the metal platform that held the vast cray computers situated on the largest wall of the cavern.
There was somebody in the chair in front of the computer, and with a flash of X-Ray Vision, the Man of Steel confirmed her identity-- it was Angie Spica, the Engineer, working away in silence.
He landed on the platform and approached the pair. “The Joker’s death-- it’s been released to the public-- and I can’t hear Batman’s heartbeat. I’ve listened for it across the world, but I can’t hear anything. He’s either incapacitated, or--”
“--Masking it from you,” said Pennyworth.
Because he knew. Clark could tell. Alfred Pennyworth-- the man who raised Bruce Wayne from a boy into whatever it was he ended up today-- wasn’t worried. He had a live link to Bruce’s cowl, he was the voice in the vigilante’s ear, guiding him where necessary. And even though he knew the answer, he asked the question anyway…
“But why, Alfred? Where is he?”
“I’m afraid I am unable to divulge that information. If Master Bruce has chosen to not reveal that to you, I must honor his decision. I cannot betray his trust. I’ve disabled the link between the cave and his cowl, so you won’t be able to track him from here.”
The Man of Tomorrow looked over to the teleportation pad on the far side of the Cave. “If he left using that…”
“Scrambled,” said the Engineer, turning to face him. “I checked the log when I arrived and he wasn’t here. Wherever he’s gone, he’s wiped any trace.”
Superman put his hands on his hips and sighed. “Damn. Damn, damn, damn.”
“I know. He’s up and left, and Checkmate are swarming the Hall of Justice,” said Angie.
“And that’s why you’re here?” he asked.
She returned to front facing, watching the near incomprehensible-to-Clark information scrolling across the monitors that were mounted on the walls. “Yeah. I’m trying to figure out how that happened, and I didn’t want Checkmate breathing down my neck along with everything else. Our security systems are top notch. I should know, I helped revamp them. They’re Martian psychic wetware, combined with Kryptonian crystalline redundancies. Batman… Blue Beetle… your friend John Irons… they all had a hand in putting this together. And somehow… the footage leaked.”
“If you’ll excuse me, I need to see to Master Timothy upstairs. This has been quite stressful on all of us, and I’m hoping that I can tear him away from the news and get a hot meal inside him.”
“Of course. Thank you, Alfred,” said Angie.
“I wish I could be more helpful to you both, but this is Master Bruce we are discussing. Our trust goes beyond what you might expect from the situation.”
“I may not like your decision, but I respect it, Alfred,” said Clark. He gently patted his old friend on the shoulder, then once Pennyworth was gone, he turned back to Angie. “So, what do you think it all means?”
“The leak? It shouldn’t have been possible. Have we been hacked? Did our firewalls drop? How did the information get out? We need to know, or this could get bad to worse in no time at all.”
“Worse?” said Superman, his brow furrowed.
“The footage that was released showed Ja-- the Guardian enter the holding cells and ended with the execution. Didn’t show the before or after. But you know what happened before all that. When we first locked that giggling freak of nature up in there. We know what he said. To Batman. We know.”
Superman nodded. He felt ashamed that he didn’t put two and two together before now. “I get it,” he said. “Worse is an understatement.” Before he could continue, his ears piqued up-- a volcanic eruption in Italy! Mount Etna was about to blow! “Angie, I have to go, but keep me informed-- you have my communicator frequency--!”
*Justice League #80
The Joker smiled, his shattered smile even more horrific in its present state. They’d not had a chance to put the muzzle on him yet, but it was coming-- and just before Wonder Woman could attach it, he said, “Say it with me now, folks: Bruce. Wayne.”
Diana had heard him say it before, at the bottom of the sea, but hearing those two words coming out of his mouth, the tone of it, the way he made it dance from one end of the room to another, it shook her to the core.
“Bruce Wayne is Batman,” the Joker continued, giggling.
The Dark Knight stepped forward and asked the one question that had been on his mind since he heard his name coming out of the mouth of the monster that haunted him. “How long have you known?”
“Oh, it all depends on my mood, I think. Sometimes I know. Sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I care. Sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I use it to stab at you. Like I stabbed at your heart when I filled your fiancée full of bullet holes*… what is it? Six years now? Gosh. How time flies. And how long since we first danced in the pale moonlight, atop Gotham Dam…? Ten? Longer? Yes. Longer. Eleven or twelve. Sometimes I remember. Sometimes I forget.”
*Check out Nightwing #1
“And now what?”
“I think enough is enough. I’ve kept your secrets. You’ve done nothing for me. I told you before, I’m done with you. It’s over between us. Yes, I backslid. I’m allowed to! But I see clearly now. When I’m out of here-- and I will be out of here-- I’m going to tell everybody. Bruce Wayne is Batman. Then what?”
“You’re mad. Certifiably. No one will believe you,” said the Engineer, her voice raising to counter him, but faltering as she spoke.
He grinned. “Oh, you shiny cherub, of course they’ll believe me. I’m the Batman’s greatest enemy. Why would I lie? They’ll believe me. And then you’ll never be safe, Bruce. Harvey Two-Face already hates your new beau after the way she treated him last time he was on the streets*…”
*Justice League #49
Wonder Woman said nothing. She kept her eye on her lover, on Batman, unsure of what he might do as they let the Harlequin of Hate spew his venom.
“…Killer Croc will eat your butler up, stiff upper morsel after stiff upper morsel. Nom. Nom. Nom. Scarecrow will play his usual games with your adopted boy, and I imagine Bane will enjoy breaking your oldest over his knee. Then there’s the women! Does that leggy redhead of yours still prance around Las Vegas? I could send Clayface after her. Tell him to wear her Commissioner daddy’s face while he does his nasty, slimy stuff to her. Does your other boy-- the one who took my mask and made it look all nineties edgy-- still sulk around anywhere but Gotham? Harley and Ivy could sure mess up a boy of his diminutive mental stature. What about you? You’ll be too busy running from those you vowed to protect or ending up locked up with the same scum you helped put away! Oh! Come to think of it-- maybe we can share a cell! Hahahahahaha!”
Anger bubbling up inside him, Batman took a step forward, but Superman intercepted, and said, “Everybody upstairs. We’ll discuss this in the meeting room.”
Usually, the Dark Knight would lead with tricks. Gadgets. His first move was always intended to be his last, ending a fight before it could start. But he went head first at the Guardian, fists flying, and the audacity-- and ferocity-- of the opening volley took the Golden Avenger by surprise.
The first blow drew blood, smashing open the Guardian’s nose, but the second punch was caught, and Harper bent the Dark Knight’s wrist back, showing his superior strength immediately.
“You don’t need to do this,” he said, bending the vigilante’s hand further than it was designed to go. A statement. I’m stronger than you.
The Caped Crusader kicked his foot out at the shield-swinging soldier’s knee with enough force that it would have shattered a normal man’s kneecap, but instead Harper buckled, released his opponent’s hand, and was immediately greeted with a series of punches to the stomach, and then an uppercut to the face.
He staggered back, but didn’t drop, and then drew his shield from his back.
Batman was already on him. He managed to get between body and shield, expand the distance, and then he slammed his palm against the interior of the weapon. The Guardian managed to kick forward, catching the Dark Knight in the chest and sending him flying back-- but he didn’t realize a concussive charge had been stuck to the shield, and it went off in such a way as to spin the Golden Avenger upwards and then back, slamming his body into a dumpster, and the shield across the alleyway.
The Dark Knight rushed over, a black thunderbolt, and then began to unload on the Guardian. He threw punch after punch, and for the first few impacts, Harper managed to keep his guard up, his wrists protecting his face from most of the damage.
But then as the Caped Crusader landed more blows, Harper’s guard slipped, and he was being pummeled, his face absorbing more and more damage, and the Dark Knight showing no sign of stopping, until--
--With no precursor or forewarning, a series of deafening explosions shook the buildings on either side of the warring men, and then a thick, clinging fog screen stretched out from either side of the alley.
The Dark Knight pulled his cape over his head, activated the re-breather filters to slip down from its hidden compartments inside the folds of his cowl, and then pressed a button on the inside of his glove that sent a set of state-of-the-art lenses over his eyes, so he could see through the now pervasive darkness. He dismounted the Guardian, who quickly rolled to the side and made a beeline for his shield-- he was shaking off the beating he received, but moved groggily, wiping the blood from his mashed mess of a face.
The Caped Crusader’s in-suit Airborne Trace Detection Hardware detected high doses of meta-suppressants and tranquilizers in the air-- someone was trying to knock him out, but before Batman could accuse the Guardian of being involved in this change of the state of play, the Dark Knight watched his now gas-masked opponent's reaction-- the same short, sharp chord of bodily shock he himself had exhibited, then the same accusatory posture toward the Caped Crusader.
No. This was a surprise to both, and they gave each other space to calculate their next moves-- and figure out who was moving against them.
"James Harper, you are under arrest," emerged the distorted voice of a woman from the dense, glomming fog screen.
Even with his lens flicking through all available spectrums, he couldn't make out where the woman was physically, though his sonar detection painted a shape of the scene that became visual when he landed on the right mode in his mask. Whatever the fog was, it blocked heat and light from functioning properly; in addition, it prevented sound from travelling accurately, so sonar was useless after a certain distance.
They'd been ambushed, they'd been trapped, and now their options were becoming more and more limited by the second-- then Batman's ears piqued up as the wide-spectrum audio pick-ups in his cowl's pronounced ears picked up the sound of a suppressed shot from above-- he dove for cover, but then heard then the sharp clang of the Guardian's shield as the projectile was deflected with authority.
"I'm… I’m not finished yet!" barked the Guardian.
A series of suppressed shots, a dozen-- two dozen-- three!-- and the Dark Knight watching from cover as the Golden Avenger dodged the majority of what turned out to be tranquilizer darts through sheer athletic ability, and the rest with a defiant stroke of his shield.
Even though he was hunting this man, this fallen hero, he couldn't help but be impressed by the acts he was able to undertake.
"Ceasefire!" shouted another distorted voice.
A tall woman, her face obscured first by the fog, and then by something else entirely that confused both the Dark Knight and the Golden Avenger, stepped forward, and her appearance set the two men on edge.
Her face was a swirl of flesh and distortion, like the center of her face was a whirlpool pulling her features in. She didn’t have eyes, or a nose, or even a mouth, but they could hear her speak, even though her voice sounded modulated. Whoever she was, her identity was obscured, and Batman knew of only half a handful of ways that was technologically possible.
Her uniform identified her enough though. Obsidian armor with gold inlay along the limbs and around the joints. On the shoulder-- a black chess piece.
“Checkmate,” growled Batman.
“Die, you naked bastard!”
Apollo slashed at the Prophet with the heat of the sun, beamed directly from his beautiful blue eyes. The forcefield separating the combatants sent the beams slicing through the walls nearby, and the Midnighter had to avert his own eyes to prevent himself from going blind.
For a moment-- a fleeting flash of a moment-- the Midnighter's fight computer booted back up and he could see the Prophet's every intention. He could see every move the enhancile was about to make.
The creature had his catcher's mitt hand clamped around Apollo's throat, the emerald glare in his eyes was intensifying-- clearly, he was about to unleash his own bastardized version of heat vision.
By the time the Midnighter threw a shuriken toward the sweet spot between their opponent's eyes it was obvious that the villain was well aware of what was coming. His forcefield went straight back up, his emerald eyes dimmed, and he reluctantly released Apollo.
There was silence, an opaqueness, and the Midnighter couldn't see the future of the fight anymore... but he was beginning to put things together.
"Oh, you clever son of a bitch. I get it now, I get it," he whispered. And that wasn't all. He could taste the radioactive nature of the energy coming from the villain’s eyes. The particularization in the air changed composition, and the implants built into the Midnighter’s nose and mouth meant he could taste the alien tang that came with radioactivity. What was the Prophet built for? What did Bendix truly have planned for his own Übermensch?
The Prophet was a few steps away from the pair, and no matter what Apollo threw at him, he was shrugging off the solar energy blasts and pummeling blows the Sun King rained down on his muscular body.
The forcefield was in full effect, displacing whatever the pair could throw at them. That's why, when the Night's Bringer of War next spoke, it came to such a shock to his lover.
"Apollo! Break off! Search the facility for Bendix!" he ordered.
"What? And leave you with this guy? You said it yourself, you can't--"
Interrupted mid-sentence, Apollo ducked a searing blast of emerald energy that shot straight out of the Prophet's eye sockets. The intensity of the blast melted the flesh around the rhetoric spouting villain’s eyes, revealing silver implants above his cheeks and forehead. The metallic glint that exposed the truth of his identity.
This was no man. For all Bendix's talk of his creation being the next step in human evolution, he was just another cybernetic enhancile, more robot than man, if there was any man left after Bendix's mad science bastardry was performed on him...
"I've got this now," said the Midnighter. "I can see right through him."
Apollo nodded once, and then vanished down the hallway, flying at top speed. If the Night's Bringer of War said he had the situation under control, who was the Sun King to doubt, even though mere moments before they'd been dancing and somersaulting around the Prophet, hoping not to get caught by those hands, or those eyes. He went to work now, doing what was asked of him, praying the the love of his life survived the results of his defiance.
"I like your forcefield. Very strong," said the Midnighter.
“I will make company with creators, with harvesters, with rejoicers: I will show them the rainbow and the stairway to the Superman.”
"Yup, I get it, Friedrich Nietzsche is your go-to. I wonder if Bendix left you room for improvisation? Or if he just uploaded a hundred-year-old book into your head, and set you loose?"
The Midnighter dropped his baton. He shrugged off the shuriken he had tucked up his sleeves. They landed on the metallic floor with a metallic clunk, and he held his hands up, seemingly in surrender.
"Come on, then. If you think you're hard enough."
“You must be ready to burn yourself in your own flame…”
The Prophet surged forward fearlessly, the silver circles of exposed cybernetic parts around his eyes causing the emerald aura to intensify as he doubled up the strength of his radioactive vision.
“…How could you rise anew if you have not first become ashes?”
He picked up the Midnighter by the shredded lapels of his leather trench coat, hoisted him up, and was about to incinerate the face of the Night's Bringer of War, when instead, Bendix's Übermensch received two thumbs sharply in the eyes, shattering the lens built into his head that allowed him to project his deadly vision. He cried out-- confused-- like a wounded animal, or lost child-- and released the Midnighter immediately.
Under what was left of Übermensch's flesh, lines of emerald radioactivity were leaking, and the Night's Bringer of War smiled, knowing he'd landed his decisive blow as intended, shattering the projective hardware embedded in his enemy's head, and causing a feedback loop when the intended radioactive release couldn't escape as intended.
The leather-clad superhuman didn't waste a moment. He pulled a retractable bo-staff from inside his coat, jammed it down the gagging throat of the Prophet and then began to lever-- lever-- lever-- until the Übermensch's head popped off his shoulders, and rolled down the corridor.
With a pop and a fizzle, the Prophet's melted into slag as the Midnighter walked away, grinning like a wolf.
Apollo returned to the scene, surprised by the sight, and then asked, "How?"
The Midnighter rolled his shoulders, and replied, "His forcefield. He had to drop it to use his radioactive vision. When it did, I could see his future. I expedite it's arrival."
"Horrifying," Apollo said, barely disguising how impressed he was.
After grabbing his baton, the Midnighter picked up the discarded shuriken, and pocketed them. Waste not want not. "No sign of Bendix?"
"There's a lab downstairs. The corridor the Prophet came from led all the way down.”
Midnighter grimaced. “Bendix played us-- when he was talking via projection, that headless #### over there--” He gestured to where the Prophet’s head had rolled to a stop, “-- Must’ve been making his way up.”
Apollo nodded in agreement, “Bendix was buying himself time. Throwing everything he had here in our way."
"Then there must be an escape hatch or something in his laboratory. He might not have gotten far. C'mon," said the Midnighter, as the pair descended deeper into the complex.
HALL OF JUSTICE, METROPOLIS:
Satisfied that they’d collected all they could, Tommy Jagger led his team of Pawns and Knights out of the bowels of the Justice League’s headquarters and ascended the numerous stairwells until they reached the teleportation room. Wonder Woman was still with them, but Hawkman had gone with the evidence, waiting for Checkmate to leave.
Etta cleared her throat and then looked to Diana. “We’re going to need all your security logs. Not just the ones leaked to the press today. Everything.”
“I’m afraid that’s not possible,” replied Wonder Woman.
Etta chuckled, and said, “Seems like it really is. Someone managed to pass an incriminating chunk of footage to the media, I’m thinking it’ll be easy enough for you to send the rest to Checkmate.”
Diana shook her head. “Providing Checkmate with that footage would reveal sensitive information that cannot be allowed to leave the Hall of Justice.”
“Yeah? Have you been executing other members of the so-called super-villain community, Diana?”
“No. No we have not. In all things but one, the Justice League are transparent-- and that includes our actions inside these walls and out. We have been pushed to severe action repeatedly, but all in the name of keeping humanity safe. You’ve read the statements and debriefs made after every crisis this team faces. You know the lengths we’ve had to go to protect the world.”
“I’m acutely aware of the lengths, that’s why I’m pushing as hard as I am, Diana. Because I know how far you’d go to save the world, I know how you’d scratch and claw to make sure that humanity falls. That’s why I’m asking these questions.” She sighed and shook her head. “And the one? The exception?”
“I will not allow information that could compromise the identities of anyone who wears a mask in the course of keeping the world safe.”
“You…” Etta started. “The Joker…” She paused. “He knew, didn’t he? That sick bastard knew Batman’s identity. And now he’s dead. Killed by the Guardian. That’s… convenient, isn’t it?”
“Nothing about this situation is convenient, Etta. Nothing. A good man did something terrible, and now we’re being looked at like we’re all responsible-- like we all pulled the trigger in unison.”
Tommy Jagger cleared his throat, and said, “Bishop, erhem, excuse me; ground transport is loaded up with evidence collected. Local PD have begrudgingly dispersed the crowds outside, but there’s still enough of a mob for overwatch to be concerned.”
Etta turned away from Diana, and said, “But overwatch are in position?”
“Yeah. All the way to the airfield. As long as nobody plays silly buggers, we’re five-by-five,” he replied.
“Good. You’re leading the convoy?”
He nodded. “Wish we had your counterpart here to listen out for any bad thoughts, but I think we’ll be fine.”
“Keep all comm lines open. Good luck, Tom.”
“Luck doesn’t come into it,” he replied, heading toward the back entrance of the Hall of Justice, where the convoy awaited.
Diana watched in silence as the Checkmate operatives exited using the teleportation booths, travelling to some confidential location that their systems were locked out of tracking. Finally, Etta Candy was the last woman in the room with her, and it was at this point that Diana finally spoke up.
“What happened to you, Etta? You were never this callous. This cruel.”
“You were never this damn reckless. Your boy Harper killed a prisoner. Doesn’t matter who that prisoner is, you broke the trust. That’s sacred. Irreplaceable. You’re soiled goods, you and all the Justice League under the roof.” She pointed at the Lasso of Truth latched to Wonder Woman’s side, and then held out her hand. “The fact you can’t see that, the truth, breaks my heart. But it’s our job-- my job-- Checkmate’s-- to police the situation. I gather the evidence. Report back to the United Nations.” She gestured again to the lasso, and then opened her hand up pointedly, her eyes widening. “Are you listening to me?”
Wonder Woman’s forehead was lined with confusion, but she tentatively unlatched the Golden Perfect, and then inched out a handful of the unbreakable, truth-manifesting thread. Etta took what was offered, and a silence fell between the pair of old friends. A silence that spoke volumes.
“I’m doing my job,” she said, her words limned with the truth, “Do you understand?”
Diana pulled the Lasso of Truth back and re-latched it to her side. Her hands now free, she said, “We’re done. You and I. This is the end.”
Etta smiled. “Good. You’re not above the law. Diplomatic immunity, United Nations sanction, all of the above and more, you’re not above answering for the crimes committed in your name.”
“Leave. Now,” ordered Wonder Woman.
Etta stepped on the teleportation pad and shook her head as she began to dematerialize. “Oh, how the mighty have fallen.”
THE CAVE, GOTHAM CITY:
“Oh, that’s weird. That’s really weird,” mumbled the Engineer.
“What’ve you got?”
Angie jumped at the voice, and turned to see Robin standing there, leaning over the arm of the chair to look at the information she had pulled up on the screen. “Holy sh-- sugar! Holy sugar! Jeez, you stealthed right up on me there, kiddo.”
Robin looked at her, his eyes slits, but then they widened, and he smiled broadly, “Just doing what I was trained to do, miss.”
“Miss? Ugh. Call me Angie. Ang. Whatever. Don’t call me miss,” she said.
“Okay, Angie-- but what’ve you found?” he asked again, motioning to the screen.
She nodded and returned to looking at the data she’d managed to locate. “Ah, well, I’ve been trying to figure out how the Hall of Justice’s security footage was leaked. It shouldn’t have been possible, and there’s no paper trail, either physical or electronic. That said, I’ve found remnants of a command key that’s been scrubbed from all the servers. Again, it shouldn’t be possible.”
“A command key? Someone wrote a hack to release the footage?” said Robin, rubbing his chin.
“Yup. Inserted directly into the League’s database. From inside the Hall of Justice’s restricted areas. From the server room itself.”
“Doesn’t that narrow down who it could have been? You have to be a Justice Leaguer to gain access to those areas, right?”
“Correct, but we sent out a summons to every active superhuman in the hero community yesterday when the Joker’s rampage was underway. We suspended the usual restrictions, because we need every active body we had available inside, ASAP.”
“Does that mean a rogue could have gotten inside? Slipped in with the rest?” asked Robin.
The Engineer shook her head. “No. Those same remnants, I found an active Justice League ID. Someone on the active roster snuck in. But it’s a mess. I won’t be able to recompile it.”
“Damn. Yeah, I can see from what you’ve recovered, the data’s completely fragged. You’re lucky to have even knitted together what you did.”
“It’s convenient though… if they could scrub it so effectively from the servers, how could these fragments remain…”
Robin nodded. “I know what you mean, but beyond that… does this mean what I think it means?”
“I think so. A member of the Justice League leaked the footage to the media. Could’ve been the Guardian, but I know him. I don’t think he has it in him to do this kind of thing. That limits who it could’ve been, if everyone is who they say they are…”
“Who else could it have been?” asked Robin.
“…Batman. It could’ve been Batman,” she replied.
*Justice League #52
Ares’ war fever had pushed the world to the brink, but thank heavens for the Justice League, because they were there to help save the day. Batman and the Guardian had journeyed to Bialya, to confront Colonel Rumaan Harjavti and put an end to his military’s movements against Kahndaq. They’d worked together tentatively, with each other at a distance, but they’d achieved their goal, and now they were in the calm after the storm, two men stood upon Laputa, the Justice League’s island headquarters, tense words exchanged between them.
Batman had tortured Harjavti. The Guardian had intervened, and they’d nearly come to blows. He’d broken the small bones in the despot’s hand, with the promise of breaking more unless he did what was asked of him, and that meant the two heroes were at loggerheads. The moment had passed, but now they spoke, like men, and neither of them knew what the end result would be.
Batman spoke first. “You should know I don’t feel the need to explain myself-- ever. What I do, I do for the good of the team, and by extension, the good of the planet. When I’m operating with the Justice League, that’s the scale I consider.”
“Torture is never acceptable,” said the Guardian. “As a means to an end, never.”
Batman said nothing.
“The war fever had us. I wanted to tear Rumaan’s face off, and you could have killed him, but you didn’t, so we’re in the green. But you think you’re the only one who thinks in terms of end of world scenarios in this team? I do too. But that’s the scale I always consider. The many over the few.”
“There are no acceptable losses in the Justice League. No concept of collateral damage. If we lose a life in the pursuit of justice, then we’ve lost that war. Every. Single. Time.”
“You brought me on because you’re the greatest team of super-humans this world has ever seen, but you’re also the damn well scariest. We have PR nightmares every six months. How easy was it for Kobra to turn the media against you when we first started interacting*?”
*Justice League #38-44
Once again, Batman said nothing.
“And then Stormwatch not long after, they sought to undermine the League yet again in the eyes of the public*, and while that didn’t stick, just like the first time around, doesn’t mean it’s not becoming apparent that it’s an easy option. Because what’s scarier than a group of super-humans with their fingers on the trigger? Now, I do my damndest to keep the world safe, just like I did when I ran with the Global Peace Agency, just as I’ve done these past few months, but that doesn’t mean working with you people isn’t the biggest, scariest job of my life. There are no easy decisions. No small fights. The scope of this is massive, the fights-- the wars we have-- are epic in scope. Hell, we fought a god today, a god and his damn war machine. But if we don’t work harder-- respect each other-- then we don’t have a chance in hell to win these battles. The Justice League can’t simply be, there’s more to it than a bunch of folk making nice on an island and flying off into battle every other month.”
*Justice League #46-48
“I don’t have to defend the concept of the Justice League to you. We both know there’s accountability for every single thing we do.”
“Accountability? Where’s the accountability, Batman? Tell me that!”
Batman turned away from the Guardian and headed back inside. “There’s you.”
And Bruce had meant that. He had meant it when he said that the Guardian could be the moral backbone of the team, holding them accountable when nothing else but their word and humanity’s goodwill would. He had meant that then, but now, with the blood on the Guardian’s hands… had the Dark Knight made a mistake?
Even though her face was wholly obscured by the swirling optical illusion projected around her head, the lead Checkmate operative’s uniform was emblazoned on the left shoulder with an insignia resembling a black chess piece, and on the other shoulder, a number-- putting the two pieces of information together, Batman had a name for this newcomer-- Black Knight 1.
“Yes, Checkmate,” she said. “And as you well know, Checkmate has jurisdiction here.”
“I’m not ready,” whispered the Guardian.
Batman shot him a look. “You’re done.”
“I’m not here to get in the middle of a dick measuring contest, Batman. Harper is coming with us. He’s wanted for the unsanctioned execution of the Joker,” said Black Knight 1.
“I don’t think so,” the Dark Knight replied.
A team marched quickly up behind Black Knight 1, all wearing the same armor, all with their weapons drawn. Both Batman and the Guardian were now in the crosshairs of a dozen laser sights, belonging to Checkmate agents. Above them, their weapons aimed down from the rooftops, were even more agents. They were penned in. They had the higher ground. Batman and the Guardian were in the kill box. This could go badly very quickly.
Her face obscured by the same technology utilized by Black Knight 1, another agent-- Black Knight 2, according to her uniform insignia-- held up her empty hand, while lowering keeping her pistol in the other. "Stand down, Batman. Please. This investigation is no longer under Justice League jurisdiction. Contact the Hall of Justice. They’ll confirm it."
"He's coming with me--!" repeated the Dark Knight.
"I'm afraid we can't allow that," said Black Knight 2. “You have to understand our position. The world had seen what he did. You can’t deal with this on your own. The Justice League has to be held accountable.”
“Batman… for what it’s worth… I am sorry,” said the Guardian.
“Shut the hell up--!” barked Batman.
“No,” said Harper, shaking his head solemnly. He then locked eyes with the Caped Crusader, and continued, “I’m sorry you didn’t pull the trigger first. But like I said: I’m not done yet. I’m not finished. Door.”
An orange portal opened beside the Guardian, and he stepped through in an instant. Batman cursed and dove for him, but it snapped shut before he could reach the Golden Avenger. As the smoke from their arrival began to fade, the alleyway was filled with twitchy Checkmate agents, as well as the Dark Knight-- but not their quarry.
“You… let him… get away,” the Caped Crusader hissed.
“Oh, no, we did not,” replied Black Knight 1. “If you’d have done what you were told, we’d be back at base drinking coffee and exchanging war stories, but no--”
She kept talking, but Batman didn’t hear her. Instead, Alfred’s voice crackled into the vigilante’s cowl, his hushed voice saying, <Master Bruce, the Justice League have been trying to contact you-- I know you told me to initiate a comms blackout, but Mistress Diana has told me to pass on this message: Do not engage Checkmate. There’s more going on here than first appearances suggest. Sir, I repeat: Do. Not. Engage. Checkmate. Do you-->
Silently, Batman disconnected his cowl communication array. An interminable, ceaseless rage was building in his chest, something he hadn’t felt in some time. The world was vibrating with his anger, and everything was crystal clear and high-definition. He stared at the Checkmate operatives arranged against him, and then bellowed, “You let him get away!” And then he made the biggest mistake he could have.
TO BE CONTINUED IN CHECKMATE #8
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