#83: The Widening Gyre (Part 5) Mar 28, 2019 12:09:31 GMT -5
Post by HoM on Mar 28, 2019 12:09:31 GMT -5
Please read Checkmate #8 before continuing with this issue!
Issue Eighty-Three: The Widening Gyre, Part 5: “Countdown to None”
A Checkmate Crossover!
HoM / RIMMER / BOWERS
THE CAVE, GOTHAM CITY:
There was a traitor in the Justice League.
There was no other conclusion left to make. The work the Engineer and Robin had done, mining data, looking through log after log and parsing out answers from binary language mysteries, and this was the sole conclusion they could come up with.
There was a traitor in the Justice League and Angie had no idea who she could trust.
As she looked up at the information unspooling down the vast screens linked to the Cave’s computers, Angela Spica frowned, distracted by more personal, earthly concerns. She tapped the screen of her cell phone impatiently, as her calls once again went to voicemail. She’d been trying to contact her boyfriend Victor Stone-- the cybernetic superhero and former Teen Titan known as Cyborg-- for hours now, but he wasn’t picking up.
There was a traitor in the Justice League and right now Angie quite definitely needed her boyfriend to tell her everything would be okay.
Victor had resigned from active membership of the Justice League the day prior without explaining why to her, and then within minutes of his departure, the Joker had been murdered by the Guardian*. He’d missed one of the most traumatising events in the history of the Justice League-- the execution of one of their greatest enemies and the subsequent release of that footage to the world at large-- and now he wasn’t returning her calls.
*Justice League #80
The only reason she didn’t suspect him of being the one who leaked the footage-- because that’s how her mind had to work now-- was because he deactivated his membership as he teleported home. But where was he now? Where was he when she needed him more than ever*?
*Whatever happened to Victor Stone? Justice League Presents: Cyborg #1, out later this year
“Okay, where even are we?” she murmured to herself, ignoring the look Robin shot her when he heard her talking to herself.
Someone on the active roster of the Justice League had inserted a rogue command key into the Hall of Justice’s servers and used it to leak the footage of the Guardian executing the Joker.
Someone had betrayed the sanctity of the team.
During the open house at the Hall of Justice, when the call went out for all-hands-on-deck as the Joker's nanite plague washed over the world, all the security restrictions usually in place had been dropped, to allow everyone who needed access to get into the team’s Metropolis-based headquarters.
At that time, someone had used their Justice League security codes to access the mainframe, allowing them to do something at a later date. Who knew what their intentions were? But less than forty-eight hours later, they’d used their access, their one-and-done command key, to steal security footage. It had just been plain luck that they'd inserted this back door prior to the Joker's execution at the hands of the Guardian. Good luck on their part, the worst kind of luck for the rest of the team.
Angie regretted her last words to Robin. He’d asked, “Who could it have been?” and she’d said the only answer that came to mind: “…Batman. It could’ve been Batman.”
"This is bad, isn't it?" whispered the Boy Wonder. Angie had half-expected Tim Wayne to get in the way or to get on her nerves, but Batman’s adopted son and sidekick had ended up being a great help during her electronic investigation. The massive Cray computers situated within the Cave were directly linked to the Hall of Justice's computers and firewalled off to prevent anything that might infect the latter impacting the former. They'd been able to rebuild enough of the security logs, and now they had their conclusion. She couldn't have got there without him.
"Yyyyup," replied Angie, running her hands through her thick, brown hair.
'Bad' was an understatement. Initially, her suspect pool had been massive. There had been dozens of superheroes on site during the entirety of the Joker's attack. Dozens of, if not close to a hundred, potential traitors. But before she could even begin to unpick this tangled knot of a situation, they’d recovered remnants of an active Justice League ID and that meant the prospective villain of the situation had been reduced to one of eight:
Batman - He had been on-site at the Hall of Justice during the preparations to take on the Joker, working with Cyborg and the assembled psychics to activate the mind link that allowed the dozens of superhumans the Justice League had gathered to push back against the Clown Prince of Crime’s machinations. He had ample time and opportunity to sneak into the servers and plant the command key. He had the means and opportunity. Motive? His nemesis was murdered by someone he thought was a teammate. Would he leak the footage to ensure the Guardian didn’t escape justice?
Doctor Light - Kimiyo wasn’t even officially part of the team during the Joker’s attack, but she had worked alongside Angie for the majority of it, before returning to the fold of the Justice League in the aftermath. That didn’t matter. The fragments of code Angie and Tim had managed to locate belonged to an active member of the Justice League at the time of the Joker’s death. Though thinking about it, Doctor Light hadn’t been back to the Hall of Justice throughout the crisis, had she? After Kimiyo helped put an end to the New Arkham breakout attempt with Angie, Mera had recruited her to help cancel out the solar-powered walking dead that the Joker’s nanites had created. Could she have found the time to return to the Hall and plant the command key? She was a physics professor among other things, so she certainly had the brains, but Angie couldn’t figure out a motive. It couldn’t have been her.
The Guardian - Harper had betrayed everything they stood for. Murdered the Joker. And yeah, sure, Angie understood why. She didn’t know what she would have done in his position. That said, he didn’t have the kind of smarts required to create the command key, but he surrounded himself with smart people-- that’s how Angie ended up working for, and later with, the Justice League in the first place. Who knows what he might’ve picked up? He was in New York for much of the crisis, and when he returned to the Hall of Justice, it was after the Joker had engineered the death of his entire family. He had the opportunity, but not the means, and certainly not the right kind of motive… right?
Hawkman - Katar had been with Harper in New York. Same as Firestorm, for that matter. He returned with them after Mister Miracle collected the group from the hospital. So, he had the opportunity, but the means and motive weren’t exactly there, but how would Angie even know? He was a space-cop. A cosmic detective. Yeah, he might run around flapping his wings and waving his mace, but he had a brain in that thick skull of his, and access to alien technology. But why? Why would anyone leak the footage?
Firestorm - Lorraine and Martin were the odd couple in the proceedings. Just as Katar and James had been in New York, so had they. Lorraine always struck Angie as unsure of her place on the team, while Martin was the more proactive of the two. He was certainly smart enough, but computer science wasn’t his speciality. He had the intelligence, but not the know-how. But again, he worked at Hudson University, and had the means to figure out how to create something along those lines, didn’t he?
Mister Miracle - Angie simply couldn’t see Scott Free being responsible, but he was an alien god, wasn’t he? Who knew what morals a god incarnate held dear? Who knew what the death of his wife had done to him? Mother Box was more than capable of hacking into the servers, but the command key wasn’t the act of a god-computer, was it? Or maybe it was the act of a god-computer hiding the fact that it was the act of a god-computer.
Superman - Well, that’s not going to happen, is it? She didn’t know much about Superman, he’d been part of the team before she joined as the scientific advisor, and his return was the same as Doctor Light’s-- in the aftermath of the Joker crisis. It was Superman, for crying out loud! It couldn’t be him. But then again, the Man of Steel believed in Truth and Justice, and what was more truthful than sharing the footage of the murder that took place in the team’s basement?
Wonder Woman - Truth. It came down to truth. Wonder Woman was the team’s embodiment of truth, and if she had done it, she would have been upfront about being the leaker. No, Diana was the one member of the team that Angie was 100% confident hadn’t been behind it, but then maybe that was a misdirect-- maybe it had been Diana, and she wasn’t the paragon she was always made out to be? God! All these questions, and no answers!
No. Wait. Nine. Angie was a suspect too. She was a superhero now, she was a member of the Justice League. “Oh, Jeez, this is really bad,” she finally said.
“No kidding,” replied Robin.
Nodding at Tim’s words, Angie began to consciously take control of her breathing. Originally, the nanites in her blood were designed to control her severe depression. She didn’t want to medicate because the side-effects always hit her so damn hard, so she instead-- like the good little mad scientist prodigy she was-- programmed tiny little robots that she injected into her bloodstream to keep her brain chemistry straight. One of the symptoms of her depression was anxiety. Manic episodes. And she could feel mania creeping into her brain right now, and she knew that she needed to concentrate on the robots in her bloodstream, so they released the right chemicals in her brain to set her straight. Breathing helped. But still, it left her uneasy, and she hated feeling this way.
Before Angie’s manic investigatory episode had kicked into overdrive, Wonder Woman had sent word to the disparate members of the team, scattered during Checkmate's investigation into the Joker's murder, to come back together at the Hall of Justice as soon as possible. There was more to the situation than initially met the eye. They needed to debrief and figure out a way to move forward. Something about a UN vote?
Realising the scope of the problem, Angie suddenly shook her head and began to glance around agitatedly. "Batman's still off the grid. We need Batman. He'll know what to do. Yeah. He'll know what to do." It couldn’t have been him. He couldn’t have been the whistle-blower. It didn’t track. He was the World’s Greatest Detective, so of course, he’d know how to move forward. It couldn’t have been him. No. No way. She exhaled heavily, then muttered, “Yeah… he’ll fix everything…”
"I'm afraid that may present a problem, Miss Spica," said Alfred Pennyworth, emerging from the shadows of the Cave and making his way toward the pair working at the computer. "I've been in contact with Master Bruce, and he has engaged a Checkmate team, even though I informed him of Miss Diana's instructions."
"You've been talking to him? You told Superman communications were impossible between you!" said Angie.
"During my days treading the boards, I always did pride myself on my ability to convincingly perform any role. Lying is simply an extension of that."
"...You lied to Superman," said Angie.
"I did what was necessary. But regardless, Master Bruce has now cut off all communications, and that is no longer a lie I have to keep telling. He is refusing my attempts at making contact. Cowl camera and suit mics are also deactivated."
"Where is he? Do we know?" asked Robin.
"Yes, I have his last location logged. I've programmed it into the teleportation booth because I think--"
There came a noise, like a crackle of electricity within the depths of the Cave, that caught the trio's attention. The teleportation pad situated a few platforms down from their position was suddenly populated by the haggard figure of the Dark Knight, hunched over and breathing heavily.
"...Looks like he saved us the trip," said Angie.
"Master Bruce...?" started Alfred, as they headed down one of the small stairwells that connected the numerous cavernous plateaus across the Cave. Angie held back, unsure of her place in this gathering. The Cave was a sacred place to the younger members of the Justice League. She was welcomed here by Alfred, tolerated by Bruce, and encouraged by Tim, but still, it was the Bat Cave. She was just... glorified IT support, wasn't she? Sure, she had powers now. Powers she was still feeling out, powers she was discovering the extent of. Who was she to the Bat? To his family and friends?
Staggering slowly forward, the Caped Crusader met them halfway. When he looked up at them, his mouth was twisted into a pursed frown, and when he pulled off his cowl, he revealed a rueful expression. "She knew. Somehow, she knew," he finally said.
"What? What happened?" asked Robin.
"The Checkmate operative. In the alley. She said... she said... June 2nd."
"Oh. Oh, my," murmured Alfred, his stiff upper lip suddenly giving way.
"Uh, I'm so sorry, but, umm, what's the significance of that?" asked Angie.
"Yeah, I... I don't know either," admitted Tim.
Alfred placed a steadying hand on Bruce's shoulder and sought permission to share the truth with a look. Bruce gave him a nod, still looking lost, and the loyal manservant to the Wayne family looked to the Engineer and Robin, and said, "June 2nd was Martha Wayne's date of birth."
His voice barely above a whisper, Bruce added, "Whoever that was... she knew my mother's birthday, and that means... she knows who I am. Someone in Checkmate knows who I am."
LEAVING DETROIT, MICHIGAN AT ESCAPE VELOCITY:
By no means had Henry Bendix intended to be cornered. The Detroit facility was supposed to be a brand-new staging ground for Stormwatch 2.0, but the pair of first-generation super soldiers he’d built were tenacious enough to track him down before he was fully ready, and not even unleashing his newest experiment, the Prophet, was enough to slow them down.
That said, he’d managed to reach his escape hatch, he’d managed to clamber into the cockpit of the stealth-rocket, and now he was careening toward safety-- or at least, he thought he was.
He could see the light approaching on the rear camera, and he damned himself for not adding any defensive capability to the rocket. Within seconds, Apollo, illuminated by his solar-powered aura, had caught up with him, and he simply tore the front hatch off, exposing Henry to the elements even as the craft kept flying.
“Going somewhere?” asked Apollo, a smug smile on his face.
Bendix grimaced as the so-called Sun King’s eyes flashed, and the malevolent scientist felt the skin on his face tingle as he was exposed to intense rays of sunlight. The control panel in front of him fizzed and crackled, and suddenly the rocket was in freefall, no power to the engines, and he knew that his number was nearly up.
He pulled an energy weapon from his belt and Apollo crushed it before Bendix could pull the trigger. He then continued to squeeze, causing the bones in the old man’s hand to pop and grind, though it wasn’t like Henry could feel such a thing.
A few moments later, Apollo allowed the rocket to land back where they’d both launched from, back in the now hollowed-out ruin of a building located in Detroit’s Rivertown Warehouse District, by the harbour.
Midnighter was waiting, tapping the flat edge of a long knife against his palm. “Long time no see, Bendix.”
“Get it over with, you sick pair of freaks!” spat Bendix.
“Rude,” noted Apollo. He yanked Henry from the cockpit and cast him across the ground, the old man kicking up dust and debris as his body skipped across the ground like a stone would on the surface of a lake. He came to a sudden stop against a half-demolished wall and groaned as he tried to push himself up on all fours.
“No, it’s really not as easy as that,” said Midnighter. He stepped down on Bendix’s hand, finishing the job that Apollo had started in the air.
Bones ground into dust, but Henry simply looked up at him, smiling through bloodied teeth. “You think you pair of fairies can hurt me? I’m Henry Bendix! I built you! I made you what you are! I--”
“Oh, I see them now,” said the Midnighter, leaning in close, his blue eyes wide as he looked his creator over. “You’ve installed some kind of tech into the folds of your brain to control the responses your nervous system receives. No pain unless you want to feel it. Very interesting.”
Bendix’s eyes furrowed. “I hollowed you out and filled you with greatness. You wasted the opportunities I gave you.”
Apollo’s eyes sparked up again and he took angry steps forward. “You betrayed us! Brainwashed us then sold us to the highest bidder! You didn’t fill us with greatness, you filled us with programming and enslaved us to your sick friends!”
“You were defective. Too much moral backbone. Couldn’t cut that out of you,” replied Bendix. He then looked the Midnighter in the eye, and said, “Extirpate!”
The Midnighter frowned. “Is that one of your verbal triggers? Bendix. Didn’t you figure it out? We had all that muck washed out of our heads when we got free from the sick #### you sold us to. But let me help you anyway.” He punctuated his point by stamping on the back of Bendix’s ankle, shattering the bone and causing his foot to twist the wrong way. “Yes. That’s much better.”
“What do you want from me? To torture me? Make me suffer? It doesn’t matter. I’ve set something in motion that can never be stopped. Stormwatch is rising. Soon, my organisation will spread from one coast to the other, erasing the inhuman scourge of the metahuman population. They’ll destroy everything, and then America will be pure again. Great again!”
“Ah, shut up for a minute,” said the Midnighter. He turned to Apollo and said, “We’ve never measured how small a point your solar vision can focus down to, have we?”
“No, we have not. Why?” asked Apollo.
“Because I can point-- let me show you--” Midnighter hoisted Bendix up and held his throat tight with the crook of his arm, quietly choking the man with his bicep, and then pointed to various places on the man’s bloodied scalp. “--I can show you where to focus your vision to render the implants inert. Obviously, if you don’t go small enough, you’ll melt his grey matter, and while that’s fine, I have plans for him, and I don’t want to see him lobotomised just yet.”
“You want me to perform brain surgery with my eyes?” said Apollo.
The Midnighter shrugged. “Yeah. You’re a miracle worker. My miracle worker. And if Superman can do it, surely…”
Apollo’s eyes slowly began to shine as a smile formed on his lips. “Well, when you put it like that…” Light crackled around his irises. “…Say no more.”
HALL OF JUSTICE, METROPOLIS:
One of these people is a traitor, thought Angie, as she followed Batman through the Hall of Justice. She’d not told the Dark Knight about everything they’d found during their work in the Cave, and she told Robin she’d take care of it before the day was through, but how did she even broach a subject like that?
“Hey, are you guys okay?” asked Doctor Light, joining the pair as they headed toward the meeting room.
Batman didn’t say a word. He looked at her, made a quiet noise that was not quite a grunt but nowhere near polite, and then turned his attention back to the floor in front of him. Angie never took him as some kind of shoe-gazing mope, but right now, with that date ringing in his ears, he wasn’t operating at his usual capacity.
Kimiyo looked baffled, then leaned over to Angie. “…Was it something I said?”
“We’re all having the worst possible day and Batman… well… I think he’ll share all when we’re all together,” replied Angie. None of that was a lie. Of all the suspects on her list, Kimiyo was at the bottom, purely due to her lack of access during the crisis. But still. Who can you trust when the Justice League has been compromised? “Are you okay?”
Hoshi nodded slowly. “I’ve just been back home. Checkmate being here… going through all our stuff… I needed a shower. And Ted is still…” She sighed, shaking her head at the thoughts going through her mind. “We share everything, or at least, we did. Ever since he started working for this weird think tank…”
“The government’s superhero research group?” offered Angie.
Instantly, she realised her mistake-- Kimiyo hadn’t told her about her boyfriend’s new job, nor had Blue Beetle himself. No, in fact, a few weeks ago Bruce had asked her to assist him in some digging when an organisation known as the ‘Dead Letter Office’ kept cropping up during some routine investigations. A group requesting data from scientific organisations and other esoteric groups about metahumans and the like. It wasn’t hard to track the source to Ted Kord, and the rest was elementary.
“Uh… yeah. How do you know about that?” asked Kimiyo.
“I told her,” said Batman, defusing the situation for Angie before she could talk herself further into the hole she’d dug herself without thinking.
“Are you checking up on him?” asked Kimiyo.
“He called me for a consult before all this*,” said Batman
*Back in Justice League #75
Doctor Light was taken aback. “He… he reached out?”
Batman said nothing, instead, the trio was suddenly in the Hall of Justice’s main meeting room, where the rest of the Justice League were waiting. Wonder Woman looked toward Batman, but he wouldn’t let her catch his eye.
Angie touched Kimiyo on the arm, drawing the heroine’s attention, and asked, “You don’t think he would reach out?”
“You know why he left the team. He felt betrayed*. He’s not… he’s not even mentioned the job to me, other than the broad strokes. And he’s reaching out to Bruce now? I’m just… I don’t even know what to think right now. If you find anything out… if you get told anything that I don’t… you’ll share it with me… won’t you?”
*Justice League #63
Angie nodded. “Sure. I mean, of course. He’s your boyfriend, right?”
Kimiyo chuckled, shaking her head as she said, “My weird, frustrating, boyfriend. Yes. To think, I moved from Japan to America, and now I’m a cliché.”
Angie squeezed Kimiyo’s hand, and the good doctor returned the favour, before the pair took their seats, ready for the meeting to convene. Along with the three latecomers, assembled were Firestorm, Hawkman, Mister Miracle and Superman. This was the smallest the team had been in some time, but they were more than capable of dealing with any threats that might come the world’s way in the interim.
Taking the lead, Wonder Woman stood at the head of the table, hands pressed against the cold metal surface as she looked around at her teammates. “This video was sent to news outlets a few minutes ago. They’re holding it, due to a Checkmate gag order, but it’ll leak soon enough. Either anonymously via the internet, or a news agency will want to have the exclusive, and the rest will follow suit.”
Diana gestured in front of her, and then the Guardian’s face appeared as the video footage began to play:
“My name is Colonel James Harper. I am an operative of the United States military on secondment to the Justice League. You may know me as the Guardian. During my career as a soldier, I have held every possibly rank attainable in the United States Army. I have always done what I believe to be right, and that means my actions are predicated on a moral code, not on what’s coming from the top of the chain of command. That also means that my time as a General was short. I accept that soldiering is not benefited by men such as myself, but I would not change a single thing in my career protecting the sanctity of this country, and by extension, the world.”
“Are we able to trace this?” asked Hawkman.
“Unfortunately not, it’s completely wiped of any identifiable information,” replied Superman.
“Yesterday I betrayed all the values I vowed to uphold in the name of one thing: Revenge. You might think it right. The man I killed was responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands. He extended the suffering of millions through tainted medical treatments. He gave people with cancer and other ailments a new lease on life, then cruelly snatched it away. I killed the Joker. But I did not kill him for those crimes. No, I killed the Joker because he slaughtered my entire family. I acted as judge, jury and executioner because for too long that monster has been given free rein to do the same. I have no regrets for my actions. I would not change a single thing.”
“That said: This was not an act compatible with the values of the Justice League. I have seen the news channels. The opinion pieces. I have seen this framed as the Justice League going too far. Overstepping their boundaries. But that is so far from the truth. The Justice League had nothing to do with this. What I did, I did whilst acting under my own cognisance. I did it for myself. I have sullied the Justice League with my actions, and I know I am being hunted by them so I can stand trial. I am willing to hand myself over to the authorities-- or if preferred, the Justice League-- but I must ensure the safety of this country-- this Earth-- before then. I am currently destroying caches I have established across the country so that any weapons I have collected across the years cannot fall into enemy-- or unsuspecting-- hands. Once this is complete, I will hand myself over. I am sorry for the pain I have caused my friends. But I hope that, in time, you will come to understand why I did what I did. Thank you for your time.”
“My God,” murmured Firestorm, Lorraine’s voice at the fore.
“He’s not gone mad then,” offered Mister Miracle. “At least there’s that.”
“He didn’t exactly sound not-not-mad,” offered Firestorm.
Mister Miracle shrugged. “The thing is, he’s not exactly making enemies. Did any of you catch Jack Ryder’s show last night? He’s been running a poll, getting peoples’ opinions, and they’re overwhelmingly in favour of Guardian’s actions. It’s crazy.”
“...We were busy,” said Hawkman.
“Oh, by the Source I get that, but I had to do something while Checkmate were rifling through my boxer drawer…” said Mister Miracle.
“And on that topic,” started Wonder Woman, “Checkmate took the Joker’s body into custody. They took a full three-dimensional recording of the crime scene. I refused to provide the security recordings before and after the incident.”
“Why would you do that?” asked Martin Stein, his voice emerging from the female Firestorm’s mouth. “We’re in a precarious position as is, did you not see all those damned opinion pieces last night? What the world is saying about us?”
“The Hall of Justice is a safe space. We’ve all used each other’s names freely in our previous headquarters, and this one is no different. That, and the fact that the Joker’s final diatribe was a threat aimed directly at Batman’s civilian identity… real name included. If we had released the footage, then numerous trusts would be broken.”
“I… I hadn’t even thought…” murmured Martin.
Wonder Woman smiled, but it was one of resignation, not of happiness. She continued, “From this point forward, I propose that no private identities be used within these walls, or in any situation in which we are gathered unless complete privacy is guaranteed. We must do everything we can to protect the sanctity of the Justice League, and that means there are changes we must make to how we operate. We still have the Engineer’s nanotelepathic link, so in the field, we can communicate silently, and if needed, we can use that while here as well.”
“That only makes sense. Seconded,” said Superman.
“Thirded,” added Hawkman, raising his hand flippantly. No one could argue, and with three votes…
“…Motion passed,” said Wonder Woman.
Angie shuffled forward in her chair. “I can process the footage. Not edit. Not make overt changes. But I can process it, and add a… uh… a filter, I guess? Something that will blank any mention of secret identities or whatever? Blur mouths? It’s not great, because we’re still open to criticism, but at least it’s out there. At least then, they’ll see there was no, uh, collusion? And the only thing we’re holding back is our privacy?”
“How soon can you do that?” asked Wonder Woman.
“I’ve actually… well, you all know I’ve been looking into something from the Cave in Gotham, trying to figure out where the leak came from, but with all these weird powers I got from the nanotech in my blood, I’m able to multitask like a lunatic. I’ve already written the algorithm. I just need to run it through the footage.”
“Good work. Please do that as soon as possible,” said Wonder Woman.
"Good grief. Look at us. Is this what it's like now?" asked Superman, looking around the room.
Hawkman leaned forward. "What do you mean?"
Superman shook his head. "Don't get me wrong, I never thought this job would easy. But I-- we-- have these abilities, the capacity to do more than others, so we do the right thing. This is about doing the right thing, isn't it? And now we're having to walk this tightrope. I didn't think it would come down to this."
"What did you think, Superman?" asked Batman.
There was a note of accusation to his voice, and Angie could understand why. It was never easy for the Dark Knight. He broke the law every which way. Vigilantism wasn't suddenly legal in Gotham, after all. But he had a line that he never crossed, and that meant he had the begrudging respect of the police department. He had allies in the fold too but to the Average Joe patrolman? Some of them still shot on sight. And some of them were corrupt enough that taking down the Bat would win them one hell of a bounty from the Gotham underworld.
Superman shook his head. "That we'd have the world's trust by now. Irrevocably, I mean. It's been five years, almost. Five years since the Apokolips invasion*. Since we defeated Darkseid and seven disparate forces for good united to become something more. Five years of protecting the world, saving it, and yet... it's a house of cards, isn't it? One thing goes south, and it all comes toppling down.”
*He’s referring to our first ever crossover event “The Apokolips Imperative”, which concluded in Justice League #0
“This isn’t five years ago. People have short memories,” said Mister Miracle.
“I appreciate that. But we give so much. I wouldn’t have it any other way, of course. But we’ve fought gods and monsters. We’ve held the line when no one else could. And it doesn’t matter when it comes down to it. I heard what Checkmate did when they were here. What was said. I couldn’t help but listen in when I was plugging Mount Etna. Wonder Woman, your old friend, Etta Candy… she was downright cruel. There was no goodwill there. It makes me sad to think about it.”
Wonder Woman opened her mouth to reply, but only managed to say, “There’s…” before hesitating. “It’s not the best situation to be in, I admit.”
Pointedly, Superman tapped his finger on the table. “We need to bring the Guardian in. We need to hand him over to the police. Not Checkmate. The Special Crimes Unit here in Metropolis. Maggie Sawyer was upstairs, wasn’t she? Before she got turned away by Candy and the rest? No one will trust us if this gets swept up by the government. We need transparency and accountability.”
“Agreed,” said Wonder Woman.
“Now, Engineer-- have you uncovered anything regarding the identity of the leaker?” asked Superman, turning his attention to her.
“…Before this continues, I have something I need to say,” said Batman, interrupting the Man of Steel and cutting the Engineer off before she could even open her mouth. Angie swallowed hard but welcomed the reprieve-- she didn’t want to be the one to tell the Justice League that there was a traitor in their midst.
"I went after the Guardian. He got away," said Batman.
Hawkman did a subtle double take, a hint of surprise and maybe a dash of outrage in his voice as he said, "You went after him without us?"
"Of course he did," said Superman. He almost sounded amused, but Angie appreciated that this pair had known each other the longest of all the heroes in the Justice League. The nonsense that Superman had seen Batman pull across the years, even before Apokolips, even before the formation of the team. Was the Man of Steel capable of being surprised by the Caped Crusader anymore?
"And you're fine with that?" asked Firestorm.
"I don't care what any of you think--" started Batman.
Superman cut him off. "But you should. You really should care. He clearly got away from you. That went without saying. If you had him, then we could hand him over to the authorities. He could be tried for his crimes. But that's not why you went, is it?"
Batman said nothing. Angie looked away, uncomfortable with the silence emanating from him. She caught Wonder Woman's eye, but couldn't decipher the expression the Princess of Themyscira was wearing.
"You went there to punish him, didn't you? To let off some steam. Because he just shattered the foundation of how you work," said Superman.
"Kal, I don't think that's fair," said Hawkman, carefully using the Man of Steel's Kryptonian name, a matter of public record. "The Guardian betrayed all of us."
Superman didn’t relent. "But he didn't murder the man who killed your family, your friends, did he? He killed the Joker. Something Batman could never do. And I don't know about the rest of you, but I've heard what they're saying. The world. I know that they think The Guardian was right."
"Is that what you think?" asked Batman, pointedly.
"No. Never. What the Guardian did goes against everything I hold dear as well. There's always another way," said Superman.
"Not always," snapped Hawkman, tersely. Angie knew why. Katar had left the team under a shadow of guilt and shame when he was left with no other choice but to snap the neck of a child to prevent the deaths of an entire town*. He couldn't handle the guilt then, and it still pained him now. There wasn't always another way. He'd learned that lesson in the worst possible manner.
*Justice League #39
"I... I remember what you went through, Katar. The Guardian betrayed a trust. All our trust. But he also betrayed the foundation that Batman is built on. And that's taken its toll, hasn't it?"
"I went there to bring him in..." said Batman.
Wonder Woman's eyes widened ever so slightly. "Don't lie."
He looked over to her. "...I'm not lying. I went there to bring him in. But it's true, Superman is right. I wanted to hurt him. He did something I... something I could never do." He tapped his fingers across the meeting table, contemplating his next words, then turned to Angie. "Your censorship code. Whatever you're calling it. Can it run live?"
"I don't see how that's relevant--" said Superman.
Batman shook his head once and didn't look away from the Engineer. "Well?"
"Of... of course," said Angie.
"Please upload it to our security systems now, because I have something I need to say," said Batman.
Angie looked to the others, but Wonder Woman was the only one to acknowledge what he said. She gave a terse nod in the Engineer's direction. Angie closed her eyes. Her brain wasn't a computer, not like Cyborg's. Interfacing with the Justice League's systems wasn't exactly easy, but she had an advantage. She spread her hands across the meeting table and allowed the nanotechnology that swam through her body to extend outwards, so a console formed where previously there had only been cold metal. She typed as the keys appeared, putting the finishing touches to the advanced code, then uploaded it. Now, whenever someone's name was spoken aloud it would be replaced with silence, and any cameras catching the movement of lips would be obscured. It was an inelegant solution to a horrible situation, but it would work. She knew that much.
"Done," said Angie. She tapped something else into the console and then allowed it to recede back into her digits. "I've also created a cone of privacy across the meeting room. Anything said here stays between us. Guaranteed privacy, like Wonder Woman requested."
Batman nodded once, then slowly stood up from his seat. He cleared his throat and began.
"I said it before. I'll say it again. The Joker was a monster. There are no two ways about it. He slaughtered and laughed his way across Gotham City, and now, the world. And he always got away with it in the end. Always. You'd think one of the pot-shots taken at him by grieving parents, by police officers who'd finally had enough, that they'd succeed, but the bastard had a preternatural ability to survive. And you know what he would do when he survived those assassination attempts? He'd sue. He'd drag his attackers across the coals, through the courts, stuck in his cell in Arkham and making the world worse every single second he existed within it..."
The Dark Knight paused.
"...He murdered my fiancée. Some of you know, some of you don't. It fractured my family. I pushed Nightwing and Batwoman as far away as possible*. They were Robin and Batgirl at the time, and I pushed them away. He nearly killed them, too. He murdered my fiancée and my best friend, and it nearly ruined me. But I never took his life. I came close. The anger... the anger I still feel about it, it sometimes becomes unbearable. But I never killed him. And now the Guardian did the one thing I could never do. And it's tarnished us. It could ruin everything we've built here. So, yes. I went there to bring him in. But I also wanted to hurt him."
*The event that led to the launch of New Outsiders and Nightwing when the DC2 first launched!
"There's something else, isn't there?" said Wonder Woman.
Angie always marvelled at Diana's ability to discern the truth of any situation. To see through the walls people put up, the masks they wore, and uncover the truth. She had been in a relationship with Batman long enough now to see past his obfuscation, and she had no compunction about calling him out on it publicly.
Slowly, Batman looked over to the Engineer, then back to the others. "Checkmate interrupted us. The Guardian used the Doors to escape. I lashed out at the Checkmate agents."
"Oh, great, so you're starting a war with the government?" came Martin's voice from Firestorm's mouth once again. He was quickly followed by Lorraine's voice, "Professor, be quiet," she said. Angie always struggled to get her head around the mechanics of their situation. "Sorry," both of them said in unison, though clearly for different reasons.
Batman continued. "There was one agent left standing. A woman. I don't know who she was, but she... she said something to me. It snapped me out of my anger. Pulled me back from my rage. It shouldn’t… it shouldn’t have gotten so far.”
“What did she say?” asked Mister Miracle.
Batman took a deep breath, and Angie saw pain flash across what she could see of his face. He was usually a lot more composed than he was right now, and it unnerved her. The Dark Knight finally said, “She said my mother's birthday."
"…Oh, boy," murmured Superman.
"Yes. Someone in Checkmate knows who I am. That means I have to assume that the entire organisation knows who I am. Unless I find out who that woman was, that's the supposition I'm working under."
"Do we have any idea who it could be?" asked Mister Miracle.
Angie watched Batman consider the question, before he quietly replied, “No. There aren’t many people I let into my life, and those I have in the past… the majority of them are dead.”
“How do we figure that out? How do we get to the bottom of this?” asked Hawkman.
“I handed her a communications device. If she makes contact, I’ll meet with her. I’ll find out the truth. One way or another.”
“You’re not meeting her alone,” said Wonder Woman.
“I… all right. I accept that. It wasn’t just a communications device though. It was a biometric scanner. Performs low-level biological scans imperceptible to modern detection. The longer she has it, the more I’ll know. It’ll take time… the more powerful the scanning, the more likely it was to be detected. But I--”
<ALERT! ALERT! INCOMING MESSAGE FROM SLABSIDE PENITENTIARY! HIGHEST PRIORITY!>
“--Hh,” murmured Batman.
“Put it through,” said Wonder Woman.
Shilo Norman’s frantic voice boomed over the speakers, “-- Guardian! He’s here! He’s looking for-- he’s looking for somebody! He’s headed to the Undying Block! Ah, god, he… he got me good…” There was a sound, like someone swiping all the possessions off the surface of a desk, and then silence.
“Shilo? Shilo?” shouted Mister Miracle, his chair clattering to the ground after he abruptly stood. “Dammit! Shilo!”
Angie knew there was history there-- when Scott Free arrived on Earth, he studied under Thaddeus Brown, the original Mister Miracle. Shilo Norman was the great escapologist’s assistant, and when Brown retired, Shilo and Scott went on the road together, until the latter’s New God heritage caught up with him, and he was pulled into the Apokolips invasion*.
*Detective Comics #9
After that, Shilo went on to become a security advisor for metahuman restraint, before becoming the warden of the Slab*, while Mister Miracle returned to his people before returning to Earth and becoming an active member of the Justice League.
*Justice League #41
When there came no response to Miracle’s pleading shouts, he pulled his Boom Tube projector from his deep pockets and held it up. “We have to go. Now.”
Wonder Woman nodded. “Carefully. Superman and I will fly to the location, the rest of you on the ground. Contain the Guardian. Prevent him from escalating any situation he might be in the middle of. We have to take him in. We have to hand him over to the authorities.”
There was a bustle of activity, Mister Miracle feeding the coordinates for the Slab into the Boom Tube projector via silent, almost prayer-like communication with his Mother Box, but Angie was frozen in place, a thousand thoughts rushing through her brain.
“Engineer, what’s wrong?” asked Hawkman.
“The Slab. My dad’s locked up in the Slab,” replied Angie.
Hawkman made a low, growling sound. Unease? “Do you think Harper might be there because of that?”
“I… I don’t know. But my dad… he’s been writing me letters. I’ve been dodging calls from some doctors he’s been seeing, too. I… I don’t… oh, man. He tried to kill me. Twice. He-- he tried to end the world! He’s a monster, but he’s my dad! He hates me, but I don’t know if I can ever hate him back! Even after everything.”
She looked at Katar, wide-eyed and visibly shaking. At the end of the day, and she knew this, she was a scientist. A human woman filled to the brim with bleeding edge technology that let her do superhuman things, but beneath that, she was a human, and that meant this life, with mad scientists trying to end the world but ending up actually being your father, was alien to her. It terrified her. And the thought of confronting her father in his cell, of seeing him after everything, it scared the ever-living crap out of her and admitting that didn’t make her feel any better.
Noting her discomfort, Katar placed his hand on his friend’s shoulder and quietly said, “While mine aren’t genocidal killers, I understand fractious relationships with parents. Kendra made me read a book of poetry. She thinks I’ve too many sharp edges. I don’t think she’s wrong. But there was this one line in a book she gave me, one verse that always stuck with me: 'They fuck you up, your mum and dad. They may not mean to, but they do. They fill you with the faults they had and add some extra, just for you.' My father is one of the world’s greatest heroes, and they don’t even really know he exists. What’s one Hawkman, let alone two? And my mother? She’s a galactic empress who’s exiled me from our home world because of*… well, let’s not walk down that memory lane. What I’m trying to say is… it doesn’t matter how bad it gets. How much of their shadow you’re stuck in, or how much they hurt you… they’re your parents. And unfortunately, for better or for worse, that carries weight, even when we don’t want it to. I may not look it, but I’ve been around for more years than most, and I’ve seen a hell of a lot and I can say with some confidence that you’re an amazing human being, Angie. One of the best.”
*Justice League #3-5
“You don’t normally say so much, Katar,” said Engineer, rubbing the corner of her eye, wiping away the tears that had started to well there. Before he could object, she threw her arms around him and squeezed a hug out of him.
He grunted awkwardly but didn’t object. “It’s so when I do, it means more. Now get off me and let’s go end this.”
SLABSIDE PENITENTIARY, NEW JERSEY:
Shilo Norman had been reviewing security features, that familiar voice in the back of his head telling him to check and double check the safety precautions installed across the entirety of the prison. There were plans to install further cell tethers across the lower cell blocks, beyond the metahuman wings, and that would mean moving inmates into a different wing for a period of time. That always led to unrest amongst the prison population, but he wondered how long he could hold off on such a thing. Maybe they could install the tethers cell-by-cell, to reduce the impact?
The tethers may have been built using New God tech, but they were the exclusive brainchild of Shilo Norman. If any inmates left their cells without authorisation, the tether would yank them back, a momentum-deferring field pinging them painlessly against the wall of their cells. It had prevented numerous incidents at the Slab, but the U.S. meta-correctional system had been slow on the uptake of his advancements. If they’d been installed at Belle Reve Penitentiary in Louisiana a year or so back, it might have prevented massive damage to their installation when a power outage led to riots*, but that was a whole other kettle of fish…
*During the events of DC2 Most Wanted #1-5
“Don’t trigger the alarm,” came a quiet voice behind him. Ignoring the instruction, his hand immediately reached for the button under his desk that would send the whole prison into lockdown, but his wrist was yanked up, and his chair spun around to face the Guardian, who looked like he’d been through a war. There was blood scabbed to the side of his face, though the wounds that caused it had healed. His uniform was scorched and shredded, and his helmet was dented in places. The only thing left relatively pristine was his shield, but even that was covered in what appeared to be a thin layer of ash and unbuffed scorch marks.
“Norman. Do as I say and then this can be over fast,” he said.
“Wh-what are you doing here?” asked Shilo.
“I have unfinished business. I’m wrapping it all up before I hand myself in,” replied the Guardian.
“Why here?” Shilo pressed.
“Because of who you have locked up. Because this whole place is full of monsters, and it’s time I took care of that,” said the Guardian. His gaze fell behind Shilo, to the banks of monitors that fed the warden’s office a live feed of each wing of the prison. “Where is Angelo Spica?”
Shilo shook his head vehemently. “You can’t think I would tell you that. Not if you’re threatening what you’re threatening. I won’t let you kill these people.”
“I know the odds are stacked against me. That I won’t get as far as I need to ensure I leave the world better than I found it. But I can at least make sure that bastard never hurts his daughter again. I owe her that.”
“You’d kill your friend’s father? Are you that unhinged?!” shouted Shilo, eyes desperately casting about the room for some way to escape, which was ironic considering his younger years.
The Guardian’s eyes shifted and focused on something on the screens behind Shilo. “Ah. Undying Wing. You moved him into a cellblock with the worst of the worst. Fitting.” He took a step back and said, “Door,” and a portal opened behind him, ready for him to step through the same way he stepped in.
Before he could step through, Shilo grabbed at his arm. “Don’t! The technology used to keep that wing secure is delicate! Your teleportation tech is alien, it might cause irrevocable damage!”
“Maybe this whole place will come down on all our heads. That would be fitting,” replied the Guardian. He levelled a punch squarely at the cluster under Shilo’s jaw that sent him sprawling across his desk. With that task done, he stepped through the portal, leaving Warden Norman unconscious in his office.
Except, Shilo wasn’t unconscious. His eyes fluttered open and he groaned as he pulled himself back. He’d always been able to take a punch, but that one was diabolical. He pushed the alarm under his desk and then typed something into his computer. He looked up as the lights flickered off and on over his head, then reached for the Justice League communicator they’d left him in case of emergency. If there was ever a time to use it, it would be now. Eyesight fading, the world turning black, he started talking, hoping the Justice League would get here in time…
After overt threats of brain surgery without anaesthetic and after travelling over two hundred miles northeast of Detroit, across the Canadian border and into a small city in Ontario, Apollo threw Henry Bendix to the snow-ridden ground, and gently lowered the Midnighter so he could survey the scene.
“After all your talk about protecting the sanctity of America, of keeping the country safe from metahuman threats, your secret base is in Canada?” The Midnighter kicked Bendix hard in the ribs, careful not to break anything, but with enough force to leave a mark. “Your hypocrisy knows no bounds, Henry.”
“You wanted your lives back, this is the place. This is where I keep my memory tower,” said Henry. He moved to continue forward without them, but Midnighter grabbed him by the back of his neck and yanked him to the ground. “What are you doing?!”
“I know when you’re lying, Henry. Remember that. I can see the different kinds of stories you tell in your head thanks to the fight computer you helped install up in mine. Don’t #### with me. Don’t even think it. Because I can #### you faster than you can #### me, y’hear me?”
Bendix made a noise, and the trio continued forward. They’d landed at the coordinates Bendix had provided under fear of permanent damage to his mind, and the vast, empty lot didn’t look too impressive on approach. When they got closer, Apollo’s ability to see beyond the standard human spectrum came in useful, and it became obvious that just because something wasn’t visible, didn’t mean it wasn’t there.
“It’s Skywatch 2.0. Still growing. I found its larval form when I was a younger man and kept it on ice until I needed it. I do that a lot when I find something interesting. This was a sentient techno-organic entity, whose mother I had to kill to stop it from engulfing the eastern seaboard. It’s growing to spec,” Bendix had explained. “My early years were filled with such wonderment. Working with Team One…”
Midnighter had slapped the mad bastard on the back of the head, hard enough to pull him from his youthful recollections.
“Another lifeform you’ve enslaved? You’re not making your chances of surviving this any better,” said Apollo.
“No matter what happens, you’re going to kill me. I may as well provide you with what you want. You’re the heroes of this story, after all,” said Bendix.
“I don’t like your tone,” said the Midnighter.
Bendix shrugged and then clicked his tongue erratically, the series of sharp noises causing a hole in space to appear-- an entrance into the invisible ship that was growing on the empty Mississauga lot. The trio entered, and immediately they were taken aback by the size of the room they’d entered. It didn’t have the same dimensions as the space outside, and it caused the Midnighter’s brain to throb, the fight computer in his head not prepared for the sudden jump in sensory input. Apollo kept his eyes squarely on Bendix, the crackle of solar vision around his irises an ongoing threat to the Stormwatch leader’s safety.
“Bigger on the inside. A tesseract construct. Handy when you have a vast collection like myself,” explained Henry.
“Enough talk. Give us what we want,” said the Midnighter, his teeth gritted as he tried to function through the pain being inducted into his head.
Bendix sighed and said aloud, “Gormenghast, raise the memory tower.”
The floor of the space shifted, and a twisting stump of a platform raised up. There was a flicker of cerulean light and a holographic representation of an actual tower appeared, with many locked doors and sealed windows.
“Are you sure you want to see this?” asked Bendix, reaching into the tower.
“I will hurt you more than you have ever been hurt, Bendix. Even with those systems installed in your head. Give us our lives back,” spat the Midnighter.
Bendix nodded and clicked his fingers within the tower, and information filled the air around the pair of super soldiers. “Your lives. Electronically preserved. My gift to you.”
“Quiet,” said Apollo, his eyes tracing the words in the air as he saw a photo of himself as a much younger man, short-haired and wide-eyed with wonder. Family photos, and then a military record, information scrolling and scrolling and telling a life story he never could have guessed at.
“As you can see, in another life you were Andrew Pulaski, United States Marine Corps Captain,” said Bendix, the corners of his mouth twisting into an amused smile. “And you volunteered to take part in the Stormwatch Zero program.”
The Midnighter finally adjusted enough to the new dimensional parameters of the space they’d entered to take in the information displayed and began reading his life story. How his father had been a hero in World War II, and that Bendix had worked alongside him years later, and seen the potential in the Midnighter as a young boy to follow in his father’s footsteps, powers and all.
“You… you mother######...” growled the Midnighter. He spun around, having read enough, and focused his intense anger on the man who’d ruined his life. “You… I’ll kill you…”
“Oh, I thought you’d dislike that, Terry,” said Bendix, chuckling. “Yes. I faked your death when you were only twenty-two! Let your parents mourn for you, even though the body they put in the ground was a fake. Then I put you in cold storage like I do many other oddities and persons of interest. Your brain was the perfect shape for what came later. You were my crowning achievement.”
“My God, your father…” murmured Apollo.
“Oh, yes. What a man,” said Bendix. The Midnighter reached for his throat, but his hands passed through the mad bastard. “You really need to pay more attention. This is my home, you stupid boys. As soon as I stepped inside, my dear Gormenghast apparated me to safety and replaced me with a simple hologram. But I said I’d show you the truth. Shame you won’t--”
Apollo slashed at the memory tower with his solar vision, then bundled the Midnighter up, the pair bursting through the skin of the ship and out into the cold Mississauga air. The tear they’d made on the interior and then exterior of the vessel Bendix was calling Gormenghast sealed up with a pop, and then Apollo saw the entire vessel swirl and warp away, leaving the pair alone in the Canadian lot, their heads filled with new information, but even more questions
“Andrew and… Terry? Was… was that true, do you think?” asked Apollo.
“I don’t know. I really don’t know,” replied the Midnighter.
“If it is… then your father… he’s still out there… still a hero…” said Apollo.
“I don’t know what to think, love. I don’t. Let’s… let’s find some shelter. It’s been a long night. I need to wash the stink of blood and gore off me,” replied the Midnighter, as he stuffed his hands into his pockets and headed into the city.
SLABSIDE PENITENTIARY, NEW JERSEY:
The Guardian stepped through the portal he'd opened, exiting the warden's office and entering the well-lit corridor that separated the two sides of the Undying Wing, the specially built cell block-- formally known as Cell Block A-- that housed the long-lived offenders who plagued the world at their worst moments.
The entire space was utilitarian in its blankness. Every surface was white, and there were no bars on the cells, only the thick, plastic walls that acted as a transparent separation between the in and the out. Harper could feel the tingle of a forcefield across the surface of the division, another incentive for the inmates not to attempt an escape.
Currently, there were three occupants in the series of state-of-the-art cells, namely the mysterious immortal killer known as Kenyan-- who had murdered the businessman and entrepreneur Jacob Marlowe, perceived by the pale-skinned and black-lipped agent of chaos as being an agent for an alien invasion*.
*Justice League #42
Unfortunately, it turned out that his motives for the deed weren’t the symptom of larger insanity-- Marlowe was later revealed to be a Kheran, just like the Justice League’s now deceased comrade Majestic*. That said, Kenyan hadn’t aged since the start of the 20th century, and his killing spree leading up to and just after Marlowe’s murder was legendary. It wasn’t like he was innocent in all this.
*Justice League #46-48
Who else occupied a cell? Further down, there was Vandal Savage, who had been arrested by the Justice League during an adventure that revealed the existence of Lord Majestros to the team*.
*Justice League #45
Upon further interrogation, Savage had bitten his tongue off and refused to explain how the Kheran Warlord had ended up in his basement, hopped up on drugs and locked away from the world, and when they bought the Martian Manhunter in to find out the truth-- they accidentally allowed J’onn J’onzz’s evil twin Ma'alefa'ak, who was posing as his brother at the time, to wipe the information from his mind instead*.
*Justice League #59
And finally, Angelo Spica, the mad scientist formally known as the Engineer, who had sought to force humanity's evolution by using his nanotechnology as the instigator*.
*Justice League #71-74
There were other cells that stood empty. Set aside for the likes of General Immortus, Ra's Al Ghul, and any other ancient threats that might one day rear their heads.
When the Guardian arrived, there was a shift in the pressure of the air. A change in the atmosphere. Vandal looked up from his sparsely populated cell, placing the book he was reading down by his side. Kenyan was already standing next to the impenetrable glass that separated him from the outside world, his ink-black lips curled into a curious expression that could best be described as a smile, but as the man was an enigma, you couldn't be entirely sure. Both men said nothing.
Guardian walked toward Angelo's cell and found the scientist sat on the edge of his bed, head in his hands. "It's time," said Harper.
Slowly but surely, Angelo looked up. He looked older than the last time the pair had been in the same room together, a side effect from the complete removal of the nanotechnology from his body, perhaps. His once heavily sun-kissed skin was pale, hair grey at the roots and his eyes… there was something missing in those once terrifyingly predatory eyes of his. He nodded slowly, then said, "You're here to release me?"
Without replying, Harper reached his hand toward the unbreakable plastic that separated the cells from the corridor and pushed his index finger against the surface. Ripples flowed outward from where his digit touched the forcefield, and a soft, low ping emanated from the contact point.
"Well? Has my release been granted? I was expecting it any day now," continued Angelo. He stood, and straightened his white jumpsuit, ironing out the creases with the flat palms of his hands. “And is Angela here? My daughter? Is she waiting for me?”
The Guardian's brow creased, and he murmured "Door", allowing a small portal to open in front of him. He reached out tentatively, and his hand passed through and arrived in the cell with Angelo. He nodded to himself in acknowledgement of his success. The portal extended in size and he grabbed the scientist, then with one yank, Angelo was pulled from the confines of his cell and into the corridor, where Harper allowed him to skid across the floor and bounce off the forcefield of the empty cell opposite.
"What-- wh-what are you doing?" asked Angelo, as he looked up at his attacker.
"Ending this. If I'm going away, I'm not leaving the likes of you alive to be a threat."
"I don't understand! The warden said the governor looked at my case-- that my imprisonment was unconstitutional! All I want to do is make the world better, for everyone! For my daughter!" pleaded Angelo.
There came a knock from the cell behind Harper. He turned and saw the psychotic caveman Vandal Savage leaning forward, his hands behind his back, his mouth close to the partition in front of his cell.
"Hello, James. Your friend there isn't a well man. From what I've been able to glean from the doctors’ visits, the removal of the nanotechnology from his blood has rendered him quite human. And it appears he had a predilection toward dementia being held at bay by all that mad science he filled himself up with. Half the time he's crying about being locked up without a trial for something he didn't do. The other half he's wondering when his daughter will come to visit. Apparently, she's not returning his calls..."
“Your tongue grew back then, Vandal?” growled the Guardian.
“Oh, you know me, James. Nothing keeps me down for long. I’m a damned, ancient medical enigma after all,” replied Vandal, a mad gleam in his eye. He abruptly turned away and headed back toward his bunk, but before he made it or the Guardian could reply, the lights in the Undying Wing snapped off, plunging the entire cell-block into darkness. He raised his shield and felt the tingle on his skin fade. He didn't swear out loud but he knew what that meant, and it would lead to nothing good.
The forcefields across the cells had snapped off. There was a low rumble, and the plastic walls began to grind downward, and suddenly the occupants of the Undying Wing were free. Vandal Savage. Kenyan. Two of the deadliest men alive, and they were confronted with the Guardian, who was running on nothing but anger and fumes. That wasn't all.
Above them, in the rest of the penitentiary, roars of freedom were resounding, as the cell doors keeping the inmates confined were suddenly clanking open. Suddenly, the once-inescapable Slab-- named because the only way you'd get out early was cold on a mortuary slab-- had just been fractured, and the Guardian was the cause, and at ground zero, just as Shilo had forewarned.
"Well, this is interesting," mused Kenyan, looking casually down at his black fingernails as he crossed the threshold of his cell. He bobbed his head up to look at Harper, then asked, "Care to dance?"
"You first, I do insist," said Vandal, gesturing for the lithe, alabaster-skinned immortal to take a step forward, and therefore throw down with their opponent first.
The Guardian said nothing. Before he moved to engage either of the immortals, he looked down at Angelo Spica, the man who'd twice tried to murder his own daughter, Angela; the man who'd tried to end the world on his own terms instead of bettering it; the man who was now wracked with mental illness and seemingly had no idea what was unfolding around him.
Wordlessly, the Guardian looked at him, taking all that into consideration, and then took his sidearm out of its holster and fired two shots at Angelo's chest, then one that went straight through the mad scientist's head.
"Oh, wow, that's cold," said Kenyan, grinning.
The man died instantly, just as a Boom Tube opened up behind the Guardian and the Justice League emerged, just as Superman and Wonder Woman arrived on the scene outside, ready to bring the Slab's impromptu riot to a halt.
Newly arrived, Angie Spica watched as her father expelled the oxygen from his lungs, as blood spray stained the walls behind him, as he slumped inward and died just outside his prison cell, with the Guardian holding the weapon that did the deed.
“D-dad?” whispered Angie.
She didn't know how to feel, or what to do, but when Kenyan silently made a move and dove for the Guardian's back, she screamed and raised her arm, the silver surface flowing forward and twisting her limb into a new configuration-- that of a sonic cannon, similar to the one used by her boyfriend-- that she used to blast the assassin toward the back of the Undying Wing.
"Help the others secure the prison," Batman directed the team. "Engineer and I will join you once we're done here."
As the others scattered, headed up the stairwell that led to the rest of the Slab, the Guardian simply said, "Door."
But nothing happened.
"Door!" he repeated, his voice raised.
Same again. He looked around, confounded, but the Engineer shook her head and took several steps forward. She tried not to look at her father’s corpse, but the image captured in her mind’s eye would take an age to fade from memory.
"You… you think I was going to let you pull that trick again? I've cut you off from the portal tech. Took me long enough, but I'm in control now. You're not going anywhere. Not anymore."
Batman shot a look toward Vandal Savage, who held his hands up as if to say he wasn't involved and watched as the immortal caveman took a few steps back into his cell and passively sat on his bunk. Kenyan, meanwhile, was pulling himself up, black blood dribbling from his lips, a sinister smile plastered across his face. Good. That gave the Dark Knight something to punch.
Meanwhile, the Guardian held up his shield. “I’m so sorry, Angie. I didn’t want you to see this.”
Angie was incredulous. "What did you expect? It… it was always going to end like this. You put yourself on the other side of the line. You… you should have turned yourself in. I could have understood if you’d done that. But you ran. And now this? What… what were you even thinking?”
She couldn’t understand. This man… was her world. He’d saved her from her father’s first rampage, helped her get a job at the Global Peace Agency, taken her along for the ride when he joined the Justice League. He’d given her the keys to a whole new world, and she simply didn’t understand why he was doing what he was doing.
"…He was a monster. And I… I… I couldn’t let him hurt you again. You’re…” He suddenly looked like the old man he was under all the super-soldier enhancements. He looked frail and weak and like the saddest man alive. “You’re the only family I have, Angie, and I’m… I’m so, so sorry.”
"Family? James... you were more of a father to me than he ever was. You were always there. Always supportive. But look at what you've done. You need to surrender, and maybe, just maybe, we can salvage something from this. But you have to do that now."
The Guardian looked down at his hands. Looked across the ground to where the elder Spica lay dead, then locked eyes with the Engineer once more. “Angie, I--”
Before James could reply in full, Batman plunged a taser into the back of the Golden Avenger’s neck and held it there, allowing electricity to wrack the super soldier’s body. Harper cried out, unable to control his body, then fell to his knees as the Dark Knight held the taser in place, a grim expression on his cowled face. Behind him, Kenyan was bound, and Vandal Savage had resumed reading his book while on his bunk.
“Batman! What are you doing?” shouted the Engineer.
She had nearly talked James down. Nearly had him surrender. The look of shock on Harper’s face as Batman attacked him, the way he seized up and shook, it was absolutely mortifying, but as he lay smoking on the floor, Batman looming over him, she knew that the threat was over. They had him. But at what cost?
She shook her head, then asked again, “Answer me! I-- I could have--”
“It’s over,” said Batman, cutting her off. “It’s over,” he repeated, quieter this time.
SPECIAL CRIMES UNIT HQ, METROPOLIS:
Stripped of his uniform, his shield, and everything else ensconced upon his body when he was taken into custody, James Harper sat in the tombs of the Special Crimes Unit’s headquarters.
Power dampening lights pulsed down on him, and the war computer in his head felt dull and heavy in his skull. It still worked, of course. He could see where this was going. He could see every direction left for him to take, and many of them ended in darkness like he was heading into the deepest, blackest tunnel, and there was no end of the line.
And even if he were to escape, and not die, and to somehow make it out of Metropolis alive, he’d be hunted every step of the way, always looking over his shoulder, always second-guessing his actions.
He’d made his bed. Now he had to sleep in it.
“I’m sorry it’s come to this,” said Angie, standing on the other side of the holding cell’s bars.
“Don’t be. This is on me,” said James.
“But it didn’t have to be. I don’t understand why you went this far,” she said.
“I told you why. It was always going to end like this,” he held up his chained wrists, “and what good can I do behind bars? How can I protect those I love, or even the world, locked up? I had to clear the board. I had to take as many threats down with me before I’m locked up forever.”
Angie shook her head. “Forever? Before the Slab… you killed one man. You’re functionally immortal. You’d have been behind bars, but out on good behaviour in no time at all. No one wants to lock the guy who killed the Joker up forever… they want to pin a medal to his chest. But you ran. You ran and made things so much worse.”
Harper sighed and scratched the back of his neck, where the burn marks from Batman’s taser had already begun to heal. “You should go. I’m about to be processed and sent to Stryker’s Island. I don’t want you here for that.”
“You’ll be in protective custody,” said Angie.
“And I’m sure I’ll be fine,” he replied.
Angie hesitated. Looked away before turning back. “You shouldn’t have killed my father, James. It shouldn’t have come to that.”
“I’m sorry. But I wouldn’t change anything,” he said.
“That doesn’t make it right. Did you think I wouldn’t be able to protect myself? To save myself from him if he ever got out? I’m not some damsel in distress. I’m not the victim. I’ve done more, achieved more, seen more than I could have ever dreamed. Because of you. But more, because of me. You shouldn’t have done it. And you shouldn’t use me as the reason why. It’s on you. And you have to live with everything that entails.”
He said nothing, and she nodded at her own words. She was about to depart when one last thing crossed her mind. “Did… did you leak the footage?”
“…No,” he replied.
She nodded again. “Okay. Thank you.”
“…You believe me?”
“Well, you’ve never lied to me, James. I don’t see why you’d start now. I’ll visit you tomorrow. And we don’t have to talk. But I’ll see you tomorrow, and every day after. Okay?”
“You don’t get to tell me what to do. Tomorrow. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Upstairs, Superman and Wonder Woman discussed the case with Captain Maggie Sawyer and her second-in-command, Lieutenant Lupe Teresa Leocadio-Escudero.
Maggie said, “Checkmate have requested that we transfer Harper into their custody. Thankfully, I spoke to the governor, and he escalated it all the way to the top. The President himself stepped in and made a formal request that we keep this local. It happened in Metropolis, so that’s where Harper’ll be tried.”
“You’d think Checkmate would have their hands full after what happened at the United Nations*” said Lupe.
*You haven’t missed anything-- yet! Look out for Checkmate #9, out next month
“Convenient it happened at the same time as the Slab riot,” noted Superman.
“Oh? What do you mean?” asked Maggie.
“Just thinking aloud,” said Superman.
“Do you think the Guardian’s video will have an impact on the trial?” asked Wonder Woman.
“I think it’s going to be the trial of the century,” said Maggie. “In the worst possible way.”
“Well, we’re only a few blocks away. You shout and we’ll come running. I’ll be on hand for the transfer to Stryker’s,” said Superman.
“Thanks, guys. This is messy. Messy as all hell. But it’s over now. It’s done,” said Maggie.
“No need to thank us. We’re just doing our job,” said Wonder Woman.
The pair of heroes departed, taking to the skies above Metropolis silently. Instead of heading back to the Hall of Justice, they went higher, and then in the opposite direction, far from prying eyes or those who might listen in.
“Are you okay?” Superman asked.
“To be honest, I feel betrayed. I never thought we’d be put in this position,” said Wonder Woman.
“There’s a fracture now. I don’t know about you, but I can see it. In the foundation of the team,” said Superman.
“I do. But we need to pull together now, more than ever. Because the conversation I had with Etta*… it wasn’t what it seemed**… and I need to tell you about it now before things get any worse.”
*Justice League #82
WAYNE MANOR, GOTHAM CITY:
Bruce stood at the edge of the lake situated at the back of his vast estate, watching the water ripple in the gentle Winter breeze. Soon the cold would break, Spring would arrive, and Gotham City would enter a new phase of its life cycle. The criminal element would come out of hibernation. New criminals would try their hand at rising to the top. Usually, that led to the old guard smashing the upstarts into a bloody pulp, and the Dark Knight would be the one picking up the pieces.
He was wearing a long, grey coat, and his hands were buried deep within its pockets. The collar was turned upwards, covering the lower part of his face, and he could see his breath cloud the air in front of him as he took long, meditative breaths.
There was a pattern to his world. Cycles within cycles, wheels within wheels. Gotham was a machine, and he was just one component, making sure it turned in sequence. When pieces were taken out of circulation, the machine would grind and spark, and something new would emerge to take its place. Other components might warp and change into new shapes, and the knock-on effect would lead to more changes, more transformations. He remembered when the old criminal families were wiped out and the super-criminals ascended to prominence. Gangsters became henchmen. Crime bosses were slaughtered or simply gave up. More the former than the latter.
The shape of the world that was Gotham City changed in cycles, and with the Joker dead, he didn't know what shape it was going to take in the coming days, weeks and months. Minute for minute, the reality of the city he called home would warp, and the final form it took was a mystery to him.
"Alfred said you'd be out here. Brooding," said Diana
She approached her boyfriend from the cobbled path that led from the rear patio of Wayne Manor all the way past the various flowerbeds that the Wayne family butler maintained out of passion more than duty until it doubled back on itself at the lake bed.
"…Sometimes it’s easier to process my thoughts in the open air. Not cooped up underground," he replied.
She came to a stop beside him and his hand slipped out of his pocket and intertwined with her fingers. She squeezed ever so slightly, an act of comfort and warmth, and then took a step closer, so their body heat radiated into each other and was generously shared.
"We need to talk," she said.
"I understand," he replied.
"You shouldn't have gone after James alone. That was a mistake. This could have ended much sooner if you hadn't let your anger get the better of you. It nearly compromised everything."
He opened his mouth to reply, but instead of saying anything, breathed out slowly, and again watched his breath materialise in the air before him. "...I know."
"It had to be said. But I didn't want to do so in front of the others. I understand the extenuating circumstances. I know what led you to that decision. I understand, Bruce. I do. But after everything we've done together, even before we began this relationship, I would have thought you could have at least come to me. Or Kal. We're not people to keep at arm’s length. I would come to you if my world was ending, and I have, time and again. Again, I hoped you would do the same."
"I should've. I'm sorry."
Diana sighed. She moved even closer to Bruce, and wrapped her arm around his body, pulling him into her. "You thought I was going to break up with you, didn't you?"
"...Well, yes," he said. “But then again… I’m a pessimist by nature.”
"That’s a lie, and you know it. You’re the most optimistic man alive. And don't be ridiculous. We're adults and that means we must communicate if we want this to work… if we want to be together. And Bruce, I want to be with you. If we called it off after a disagreement, then it devalues everything that came before. We’re worth more than that. So much more."
"Most of my relationships end after a titanic argument and an elaborate death trap," admitted Bruce.
Diana smiled. "Was this an argument?"
"No. Not at all. I think that's the most surprising part of it because god knows I deserve a slap in the face," he said.
"At least you know you made a mistake," she said.
He took another breath, and she could see his eyes search the surface of the lake for answers. Instead, he turned to face her, taking her hands fully into his own and holding them to his chest. "...You know it's always been different with him. With the Joker. Not due to some ridiculous forbidden romance, or our enmity being the only thing keeping us both going... but he… he made me want to be a better man."
Diana watched him search for the words and stood silently while he did so. She held his hands close to her heart, rubbing her thumb against the back of his palm encouragingly. He looked up to the sky, almost laughing before he continued.
"God, I know how it sounds. I do! But for all his evil, I wanted to be the counterweight. I want to do good. It’s why I started all the programs at the Wayne Foundation… the reason I created all the scholarships so that kids in this city have a chance to be more than their circumstances… I don’t… I don’t want my legacy to be Batman. I don’t want my legacy to be violence. I want to be the kind of man my parents would be proud of, and that means striving to be the best I can be, and do the best I can, every single day. And it’s so exhausting, and sometimes… you don’t see the difference you make, but you have to keep trying… I have to keep trying.”
“I understand. I do,” said Diana. She leaned forward and began to kiss Bruce on the cheeks, releasing his hands and cupping his face as she moved to kiss him on the mouth. “Why do you think I love you?”
“I… sometimes… I don’t know,” Bruce replied, resting his forehead against Diana’s as their lips parted. “I don’t deserve someone like you… I don’t…”
Putting her finger to his lips to quieten him, Diana said, “I’ll be the judge of that,” before resuming their kiss, and the two melted into each other as the winter winds began to die down, and a warmth began to spread through the air.
SALAMANCA, NEW YORK:
As Midnighter watched the sleeping Apollo, the only sound between them the shallowing breathing of the Sun King as he dreamt, he contemplated their situation. The curtains of their hotel room were opened wide, and the blond man’s body glistened hypnotically as it rested in the mid-morning sunlight, and it was almost a distraction if it wasn’t for the fact that their entire world had been flipped upside down.
Night time activities meant Apollo would need longer to recharge the day after, so until they needed to move on, Midnighter would let him rest, let him do his solar-powered thing, and that would be that.
They had stashes of money and clothes across the country. Salamanca was the closest they had to Mississauga, so they dug up their cash and fake IDs, booked themselves into the best available room at the Seneca Allegany Resort & Casino, blew off some steam the only way they knew how outside of breaking some heads, and then Apollo crashed out. And deservedly so, too.
Unfortunately, Midnighter was stuck in a bit of a loop. As he gently stroked Apollo’s head, all he could think about was the fact that he now knew his name but had no idea what it meant to him, nor what he could do with the information.
According to what was shared by Bendix-- information they had no way of verifying at this point in time-- his real name was Terence ‘Terry’ Harper and he was born on February 1st 1946.
According to the official records, in 1968 Terence died when the car his friend was driving lost control and they smashed through the barrier on the side of the freeway. Momentum careened the car violently into the side of a bridge, and the vehicle went up in flames*. No survivors.
*As recounted in DC2 Christmas Special 2016, "Christmas Eve and Hospital Food"
Bendix had staged the accident. Abducted Terry. Placed him into suspended animation until the mad science bastard was ready to begin his experiments. Until he was ready to begin emulating the war computer designs installed in Terry’s father’s brain for use in Terry’s own.
Terence Harper was the Midnighter.
Terence Harper’s father was the Guardian.
And from the looks of the news-- currently muted with subtitles streaming across the bottom of the screen-- that information wouldn’t do him any favours moving forward.
HALL OF JUSTICE, METROPOLIS:
James had said he wasn't behind the leaks and Angie believed him. But that didn't mean that was the end of it. His admission didn't dilute the suspect pool, it just made her surer that it was one of the 'heroes' she had to go to with whatever evidence she collected. So that meant she still had to know for sure.
With the rest of the team returning to their homes, and with time finally on her side, as there were no longer any crises demanding the team's undivided attention, she decided to try one last thing before presenting her findings to the group the next day.
"Yeah, if only everything wasn't so god damn terrible..." she murmured to herself.
The doctor’s reports regarding her father were spread out in front of her, and they painted a sad picture of the final days of Angelo Spica.
Without the nanites keeping the channels of his brain clean and clear, without the regulation of his internal chemistry keeping everything in working order, he'd descended into dementia, with one doctor noting symptoms of Alzheimer's disease in their diagnosis.
In his rare lucid moments, Angelo elucidated on the thinking behind injecting himself with the nanite fleet all those years ago. He knew what was coming his way with age. His own father-- her grandfather-- had suffered from severe mental illness as a young man that led to him taking his life. Devastating anxiety and crippling depression had led to early onset dementia, and then he'd put a gun in his mouth and that was the end of that.
"Sound familiar?" she asked herself, tapping the side of her head with her fingertip, as she read about her father's medical history.
How had she missed this information? Oh, because when her father went and broke bad and mad, he deleted everything about himself and his father-- and his father's father, and his father's father's father-- from the world. He'd scrubbed recorded history clean of their family name and their history of mental imbalance.
She read how the nanites were designed to regulate brain chemistry, same as Angela's. She had got the idea from him, of course. Anything to help keep her on an even keel. But instead of putting his brain straight, his nanotechnology twisted him. Corrupted his thinking. The Engineer-- as he quickly declared himself-- wasn't him, it was his shadow self, the dark side of his mind given unfettered access to the rest.
The nanites broke him into pieces, and the fractures were all that was left in the aftermath. A broken man with near unlimited technological power. Removing them, as the Justice League had in the climax of their battle, had pulled the blinders from his eyes. He was himself again.
When the psychiatrists showed him what he had done as the Engineer, Angelo Spica had broken down crying. That wasn't him, he said. But it had been. The absence of his true self. Leaving behind only the shadow. Exposing the rotten parts of himself all metallic and shiny to the rest of the world.
The Guardian hadn't killed the Engineer. James had murdered Angelo Spica. A broken old man who had no true idea of the scope of his crimes. He'd murdered someone inverted by the nanotech poison he thought would make him well again.
Angie sniffed then began to nod at the thoughts beginning to build in her head. She knew what her father was before he infected himself, and she knew what her father was afterwards. This was about being present and being absent.
She typed something into a console she projected out into the world and then downloaded the encrypted Justice League membership IDs. She couldn't see the contents-- only each individual member could-- but she had the information, and that was enough. She'd been tinkering with a way of inputting the information without accessing content from the servers, but still activating the appropriate connections that would indicate if the ID she used was the one responsible for leaking the content.
She headed down to the secure server room and accessed the room with her personal codes. The door hissed open, and she marvelled at the vast amalgam of technology installed within. Martian psychic software. New God processors derived from Mother Boxes. Atlantean cooling systems. Kryptonian crystal processors. Even algorithms taken from the operating systems found within Green Lantern power rings. A true composite of everything each member of the Justice League brought to the table.
"Let's get this over and done with then," she sighed. The main access terminal was based in the back of the server room, and it was here that whoever had broken the trust of the team had accessed their data. There was no physical evidence. No video footage. Someone on the team had snuck in and done the unspeakable. Now it was time for her to find out who.
She applied her bespoke programming patch to the terminal, ready to receive and interpret the command IDs she was about to upload. It would tell her, very quickly, which ID was the one behind the leak. It would tell her the name of the traitor.
She input her own details first. Waited a second. Nothing.
"Okay, so it wasn't me. That's a relief," she said.
Over the last few hours, she'd begun to fear the worse. Maybe she'd gone mad, as her family history suggested was in the cards. Maybe she'd suffered the kind of catastrophic personality split that ruined her father. But no. She was still the master of her own destiny. And the thought removed a massive weight from her psyche.
Then onto the next ID. No result. Thank God for that. Another. No. Nothing. Onto the third... and that was a negative. The suspect pool was narrowing every minute. Maybe she could get used to this detective thing? She had the right kind of mentors in place, after all. The fourth returned nothing. Maybe she'd gotten it wrong? Maybe there was no traitor. Wouldn't that be strange? What then? Okay, onto the next.
"C'mon, c'mon," she murmured, and again, nothing.
No one was guilty. No one was the traitor. Still more to go, though. The sixth ID was input and returned no result. She cracked her neck, impatient.
"Please just let this be over," she said to no one in particular.
Onto the next-- and an alert immediately sprang up. A positive.
"No", she whispered, disbelieving what the evidence told her. "No no no no that can't be right."
This was the ID. This was the member of the team responsible for leaking the information. For accessing the servers when they shouldn't have, and that meant... what did it mean? What did--
--She was suddenly thrown forward without any warning, every molecule of her body suddenly zapped by an invisible force that caused her to cry out in pain. She slammed into the console then slumped to the floor, any strength in her legs absent, any bodily control sapped by whatever hit her. She pushed the nanites in her body to do something in her defence, but instead of protecting her, they began to slough out of her pores, began to leak out of her in thick, globulous waves, until she was strewn across the ground, utterly debilitated, utterly defenceless, a thousand different questions rushing through her mind, a hundred different kinds of pain addling her body.
Behind her, a figure stepped out from the shadows. Contemplating Angie's prone body, this shadowed person said, "I didn't think it would be you who made the connection, but it makes sense. You're much smarter than anyone gives you credit."
Deliriously, Angie tried to focus on the source of the voice, but she felt cavernously empty. The nanites weren't just a suit of armour that covered her body, when she absorbed them into her body, they had taken the place of her blood*, and right now she was going into organ failure without the nanites to regulate, well, everything.
*Justice League #74
"I'm sorry, of course, but it had to be done. The opportunity to chip away at the Justice League in favour of my grander plans couldn't be passed up, could it?"
The figure knelt next to Angie, removed a small tubular device from a pocket, and pushed it against the congealing pool of nanites suspended in grey liquid. Within a few moments, the nanite-blood was sucked inside and contained within a transparent tank, and Angie was twitching as she descended into toxic shock.
"No, not yet, not yet," said the figure. She tried again to focus, to make out the details of the figure’s costume, to discern the voice and who it belonged to, but she was dying, she knew that, she knew everything was fading and fading fast. What good would it do even if she managed to recognise this person?
Beside them, a tear in space ripped open on cue, and the figure pulled Angie through, so they were in another space completely-- a massive space full of men and women that paused to watch the scene unfold. She couldn’t make out details, just shapes, spirals, and an encroaching darkness that threatened to overtake her existence for the final moments of her short life…
The figure handed the container full of nanites to a passing somebody, who then hurried off to parts unknown. Angie could barely see now, her field of vision blurring to grey, coiling tightly to white. She was dying. This was it. This was the end. And she couldn't fight back, or speak, or do anything to stem its oncoming tide.
"I don't want you dead, Angie," the figure said, as Angie was hefted up. She felt lips whisper against her ear, and the last thing she remembered hearing was, "I want you here for what comes next. I want you here when I end the world."
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