Lex Luthor knew the importance of a disciplined mind. As President, there were a thousand potential crises on the horizon on any given day. If he couldn’t block out thoughts of what might be coming, he wouldn’t be able to focus on the thirty pressing issues already on his desk. He had brought this strict discipline into his civilian life, and into his current operation: he had not speculated about the nature of the plans Catwoman was taking. He knew only that they were important to the Justice League. He suspected that they were somehow connected to the Watchtower. He knew, in short, that they were worth having. It was folly to speculate beyond that, to start dreaming up schemes based on a giant IF. It was a waste of time and effort. With a discipline and maturity that distinguished him from common villains, he had been content to wait.
Now, at last, he could set patience aside. Now, at last, he had the coveted plans. Now, at last, he knew the full value of what he had acquired: complete schematics, blueprints, software and wetware interfacing to create a bank of Justice League transporters. If he had indulged in the childish game of expectations, this surely would have exceeded them all. A full bank of League transporters, the possibilities were legion. He could beam a plague down to Atlantis, a nuclear warhead onto Themyscira, a battalion of troops into the Alien’s fortress. And those were only his first fleeting thoughts as he walked to the bar to pour himself a scotch.
While he uncorked the decanter, he considered the identity angle. Two or three of those young fools would certainly have their personal transporters located where it would be a simple matter to deduce their identities. Covert access to their personal lives could produce a devastating series of blows that would not even be recognized as an attack on the League. The arrogance of heroes would certainly lead them to assume such destructive and painful assaults must come from their personal nemeses.
While he poured his drink, Luthor then considered access to the Watchtower itself. Plague, troops, and warheads were options there as well, naturally, but only for a coup de grace. It would be criminal to rush into a fullscale scorched moon scenario simply because he could. He must consider all his options with respect to the Watchtower: infiltrating their computer systems, communications, even the hydroponics garden and trophy room… their arsenal, detention cells, medical and research facilities… personal living quarters… and any other features he had yet to discover in that imposing base.
Luckily, he would have ample time to consider those possibilities while he constructed the transporter.
The bats squeaked overhead. Bruce put a bizarre headpiece over his eyes and adjusted the focus on its protruding lenses. Selina prattled nervously.
“You know, some people think the whole masked bat thing is weird, but I was never one of them. Some people say you’re as crazy as Joker: Bat-car, Bat-cave, Bat-arang… It’s odd. But not me, I never said that. I accept the whole thing. The complete package, right down to plastering the sexy bat silhouette right smack in the center of your chest like a bull’s eye. I love every damn Bat-bit of it. There’s just one thing that I think is weird. Know what it is?”
“I’m sure you’re going to tell me,” Bruce murmured, swabbing her upper arm with disinfectant.
“It’s having the med lab down here. We’ve got at least twenty unused rooms upstairs.”
“In Bruce Wayne’s house,” he graveled, examining the end of a strange-looking, tri-pronged needle.
“Yes,” she agreed. “I know we like to keep Bruce Wayne’s house clear of all Bat-activities. But the thing is, Bruce Wayne’s house is also clear of… how do I put this delicately... wildlife! I’m looking at a live bat right now. See, right through there? Wild animal scratching its chin and drooling, that’s not something I like to see when I’m being prepped for surgery—OW! What was that?”
“That was the surgery,” Bruce said, extracting the needle and swabbing the insertion point again.
“That was it? You’re finished?”
“Finished. The nanite transponder is located right here, between the fourth and fifth layers of skin, and it’s microscopic. Even Clark would have to know exactly where to look and what to look for in order to spot it, so you won’t have to worry about scans.”
“It’s still a leash,” Selina scowled.
Bruce’s lip twitched. He had suspected that was her real objection to the procedure, not the proximity of innocent bats in the cave.
“It’s not a leash,” he assured her. “It doesn’t transmit your location; that would be detectable by any number of scanners. This will just identify you as you whenever you enter a League teleporter.”
“It’s hard to make a leash and collar sound like the good option to a cat, Bruce, but you just managed it.”
“Selina, in two months it will be completely dissolved, I promise.”
“And until then, I’ve got, what, a Justice League secret decoder ring in there?”
Bruce coughed before his lip could twitch again.
“This is where our being on a separate circuit from the rest of the League comes in handy. While any teleporter will detect that device, there are only three units that have any programming directives to respond to it: the one here in the cave, the one in the satellite cave, and the one Luthor is building.”
Selina sighed unhappily, and Bruce kissed her cheek.
“I’ll make it up to you when it’s over, Kitten. Oh, and by the way, stay away from Vault tonight.”
He said it casually, trying to keep any trace of Batman out of his voice and manner. Batman saying “don’t” in any context was a ball of yarn that Selina could never resist pawing.
“Why?” came the inevitable question.
He should have known. Regardless of his tone, Catwoman could sniff out Bat-fun the way he could pass a derelict building and sense if there were criminals inside. He would have to let her in on the plan—and who knew how big a ball of Bat-yarn that would represent in her eyes.
“I don’t know how closely Luthor is keeping an eye on that nightclub,” Bruce said grimly. “It’s only natural that Batman would confront you after that Metropolis episode. So tonight, he’ll show up at Vault and tear the place up looking for you. If he can find you, that would lead to one absurd conversation, one that I’d like to avoid. And one that we can easily avoid having in front of the entire VIP room if I can just beat the location of your lair out of the scum when you’re not around. We’ll leave the rest to their imaginations.”
So far, so good.
Ivy knew she couldn’t just waltz into Bartholomew’s office and warn him about Harley. He would be suspicious of her help, the fool.
But if it didn’t seem like “help,” if it seemed only like she was “making progress” in his twisted view, then she could say anything she wanted as long as it was rooted in the right soil. In Bartholomew’s warped view of the world, people were valued more than plants. If Ivy pretended to consider that perverted notion, he must certainly allow her to talk about the few people worth considering on par with plants.
Then, in considering Harley’s many fine qualities, it would be quite natural for her to state the opposing case. Plants might not be as much fun on a high speed chase with the Batmobile, but plants do not deceive. Just look at what Harley was doing…
Yes, that should do the trick. It was a different kind of seduction: bring the object of desire close enough so the poor wretch could see the beauty of its petals and inhale its intoxicating scent, and then withdraw it. Bartholomew would be so caught up in the reversal of Ivy’s “progress” that he would not suspect an ulterior motive in what she was telling him about Harley.
Father teach: any mission you come home from is good one.
Must write up log. Not be good log.
Could ask Selina.
Will wait. Then leave out extra words.
Begin to understand this “Bad day at office. Boy do I need a drink.”
Constructing the hardware of the physical transporters did not present much of a challenge. Luthor once tried to build such a device for the Secret Society. While the project had failed, he still had the benefit of that copious research. He had read all scientific papers on matter teleportation dating back to the 1940s. When he became President, he had access to even more material, classified material. Although he didn’t have the time to study it while in office, he had made copies of anything that might be useful later.
The transporter hardware completed, Luthor turned his attention to the software on an encrypted disk from the Allman-Freely portion of the plans. He was surprised to see that the engineers used a LexCorp encryption module to encode it—unlike ninety percent of the world that used WayneTech. It made for a very easy crack, although it would have been just as simple without that bit of luck. Lexcorp’s encryption tools were all based on the WayneTech algorithms.
The database of global coordinates which the software drew on, on the other hand, was turning out to be the real headache. A lesser man might have considered the words “insurmountable obstacle” as he paged through the incomprehensible screens of data, but Luthor was far from defeated. Every day when he finished soldering, he took out pad and pencil and resumed decrypting. Finally, at the end of day three, he saw it: two batches of data that simply looked alike. He had been swimming in this accursed data for so long, it had all begun to blur around the edges. And, as a blur, something about these two looked similar… The length of the lines, the patterns of upper and lowercase characters, numerals, and symbols… he tossed out everything else and just concentrated on those two records.
Batman considered Operation: Bad Kitty a minor bookkeeping operation, not warranting an alert to the full Bat Team. Batman and Superman didn’t overlook assaults with k-lasers, robotic tigers, and being locked in a kryptonite-lined vault. Luthor knew that, so the episode represented an outstanding debit that needed a corresponding credit. That’s all his appearance at Vault was meant to be: a checkmark for Luthor’s benefit, just in case he was watching.
Unfortunately, Luthor’s agents weren’t the only ones watching. If Nightwing had been observing the comings and goings at Vault that night, Batman’s arrival would have passed without comment. If it had been Batgirl or Huntress or even Azrael… but it wasn’t. It was Robin, and Robin was bored from too many hours of surveillance, too many nights without Rogue action, and too many solo patrols without the company he’d grown used to. When he saw the Batmobile screech around the corner and pull to an abrupt stop before Vault, his eyes gleamed with anticipation: this was going to be good.
The car had triple parked, clogging the street so that, at best, only a motorcycle could squeeze through. Batman had stormed angrily through the door, and Robin could see the excited flutter of shadows just inside the entrance—Batman slugging his way past the bouncer, for sure! Robin pounded his fists excitedly on his knees in a rapid flutter of anticipation—if only he could hear what was going on inside.
But Vault had even better anti-surveillance measures than the Iceberg. Robin performed another round of knee-drumming before opening the OraCom, relating the situation, and securing Oracle’s agreement that he should swing down in order to “monitor the situation” from inside the building, where his radio would at least get around those blasted anti-bugging measures.
Oracle knew as well as Robin did that Batman didn’t need any help, but she also knew as well as Robin did that whatever was going on down there, it was going to be good. So she put out a general alert and, as the others checked in, she let them know what was happening and the channel to tune in if they were free.
Over the next hour, they heard Batman interrogate Sparrow, Dove, Magpie, Bags Datillo, Blades Shinoda, One Eye Manning, Cottonmouth Pierce, Margot Marceau, Catman, and Cluemaster. They heard him extract four contradictory stories about the location of the new cat lair. And then… then they heard him get the muddy end of a Clayface smackdown, punctuated by the disheartening commentary “Oh, man” from Robin.
Pressed to elaborate, Robin said only “not now, not now, I gotta get him out of there before—Oh, man.”
The com erupted into a crackling-pounding-whooshing they all recognized: it meant the person wearing the open microphone was in motion. Then, they heard one syllable of Batman’s voice barking “Ro-” before an abrupt cut off. Fourteen seconds of dead silence passed, and then Robin’s voice returned...:: Party’s over, guys. Batman’s fine. But he left the club, uh, ‘involuntarily…’ He’s kind of rolled up in… I guess you’d call it a ‘carpet’ of Clayface goo. And I don’t think it would be a good idea if he knew we heard all that. Robin out.::..
Never had Alexander Luthor thought to utter such a hackneyed phrase, but when he reran the first target sample through his theta-four decryption matrix, he saw it. It was still an incomprehensible block of data not resembling any known global coordinates, but the incomprehensible block began with the characters “00TTHEMYS.” The second block of data began “00TKEYST2.” No programmer could fail to see it: 00—some sort of begin line designation, T for transport, Themyscira. Then: 00, T, Keystone—presumably the second of two transport pads in Keystone City.
He had it! He had cracked the coordinates. It seemed to be some kind of proprietary system, probably the work of that nuisance Steel. There might not be a way to blindly translate the system’s coordinates to an ordinary globe or GPS, but that wouldn’t be necessary when he had the rest of the teleporter up and running. In all probability, he would be able to work it out after a few transports, once he saw where the various coordinates landed him. And if he never did crack it, what did it matter? If he could teleport a plague onto Themyscira, it didn’t really matter if he could find it on a map. The inhabitants would be just as dead.
After Batman’s ignominious exit from Vault rolled up in a carpet of cloying Clayface glop, he felt a brief pause was in order to build up suspense. For two nights, absolutely nothing happened. No Batman, no Catwoman, no developments of any kind at the nightclub. On the third night, Matches Malone showed up looking like he’d gone a few rounds with Mike Tyson. He ordered a Tesco and Coke, which meant he was off duty, since everyone knew that Catwoman didn’t let him drink anything but mineral water when he was acting as her bodyguard.
Matches didn’t warrant serious attention from anyone that mattered, but a few henchmen wondered about his bruises. He wore them proudly, which meant he got them from a serious heavyweight. You didn’t parade your battle scars in public if you got them from a ninety-pound kid in a cape or some twirp from the Triads. But Matches wasn’t boasting the way one usually did when they weathered a Bat-encounter. Unless…
At the same instant, four henchmen thought of a reason Matches might be keeping quiet after a back alley fist-dance with Batman, but none of them would ever say it out loud. It was the reason they had kept quiet when they’d walked away with bruises like that… because they’d spilled their guts.
Conversation about Matches Malone abruptly ceased among the few people who thought him worth talking about. Matches himself, unaware he was ever a topic of conversation, had two drinks, played a few hands of video poker, hit on Wren, speculated that she was a lesbian when she turned him down, and left.
All the story needed now was some kind of closing parenthesis. Everyone knew the beginning, a few had a puzzling glimpse of the middle, now if they had a closing image—preferably one that might embarrass Catwoman and therefore wouldn’t be openly discussed—they would all fill in the details on their own and the matter would be quickly forgotten. There had been considerable discussion at the manor on exactly what that closing image was to be…
Lex Luthor was not a sentimentalist or a simpleton. He was not predisposed to see emotion in the face of a dumb animal, but it did seem to him that the white-faced capuchin monkey looked angry. Something about the furrowing above eyes and the shape of the mouth. It seemed to Luthor that if anyone had a right to be angry, it was him, not the monkey.
He had modeled certain aspects of his presidential manner on Ronald Reagan. The man was popular; there was no denying that. He knew how to conduct himself behind a podium, and a politician could get away with a lot if he could sway the mob. But the modeling was confined to those areas where Reagan excelled: photo ops and press conferences. It included stance, carriage, body language, and vocal delivery. It did not include subjecting himself to the indignities of a 1950s film star. It did not include partnership with a monkey. This fidgeting, scratching, screeching simian—that some demented breeder had actually named Bonzo—did not help Lex Luthor feel “presidential.”
Bonzo was necessary, however, if Luthor was to test his transporter. He had wanted to begin with something smaller, an object that would not raise any suspicions if it were found in the destination tube. He tried teleporting a penny, but the system evidently required a certain mass, for it only moved the penny one tube to the left.
Luthor then considered that the system might need living matter to properly activate the chamber, so he tried transporting a spider. That too would arouse no suspicion, even at the Watchtower. They had plants. They had dozens of people coming and going, equipment and water always beaming up from Earth. An ordinary garden spider getting in would be nothing at all.
Unfortunately, the spider, like the penny, disappeared from chamber A and reappeared in chamber B. That’s when Luthor realized it must be mass and volume, not the presence of living tissue, which was the problem. So he was forced to accelerate his trials and go straight to the test subject that most resembled the ultimate human user: a primate. That brought him to “Bonzo,” but so far, Bonzo had brought him only headaches.
Luthor had disabled the incoming teleport alerts, but even so, no hero—not even Plastic Man—could be so addle-minded that they would dismiss a white-faced capuchin materializing at the Watchtower. So he had to find a destination tube that was sure to be unobserved. Luthor calculated that, of the destinations available to him, the Alien’s fortress was the most likely to be unoccupied at any given time. He could magnify the odds by arranging another diversion or simply waiting until Superman was occupied with some naturally occurring and well-publicized disaster.
The target destination chosen, Luthor’s Bonzo problems were far from solved. The little beast screeched like mad if the door to its cage was locked, but he was happy enough to stay in there as long as the door could be opened. It would spend hours opening and closing the door: unlatch—open—climb onto the bars, clinging from the inside—swing until the door was full open—swing back—close door—latch—repeat.
It was driving Luthor insane.
Unlatch—open—climb onto bars, clinging to the outside this time, just for a change—swing until door was full open…
Few moments in the Gotham underworld were as carefully stage managed as Catwoman’s return to Vault. After a week’s absence that saw some ominous portents, anticipation was at a fever pitch. Anything obvious like a black eye or a swollen cheek would be suicide. Her appearance at Vault was, essentially, taking a hit on nineteen in blackjack. It wouldn’t take much to go bust.
So Catwoman’s entrance on the ground floor was the letdown of the year. She seemed her usual self in every respect. Her walk, her easy smile towards those she favored, her contemptuous scowl towards those she despised… and her oblivious passing by of those too insignificant to bother despising. Hugo Strange hunkered over his lager as she walked past his table as if she didn’t even see him. He was used to the slight. Tom Blake muttered an obscenity. And Catwoman offered Sly a fingertip wave as she passed the bar on her way to the stairs.
There was a similar anticlimax when she reached the VIP room. DEMONs and Ghost Dragons didn’t notice a thing. Neither did the Rogues viewing from a distance. It was Jonathan Crane, only one table over, who first noticed some odd pulls around the collarbone of her costume. It was nothing blatant, but when a costume fit so tightly, any little flaw was apt to have an effect. He got up to take a closer look.
“I feared you’d been caught in the rain,” he said smartly, thinking it a brilliant excuse for having approached her.
“It rained?” Catwoman asked, arching her eyebrow.
“Yes,” Scarecrow lied. “About an hour ago. And I know how cats are afraid of water.”
She seemed to consider this (and Scarecrow knew he sounded like an Arkham case even before Catwoman broke out the humoring smile and said “How nice”), but he didn’t care. He’d seen what he wanted and returned to his table, quite satisfied.
He waved excitedly to the Mad Hatter, and as soon as Jervis was in earshot, he whispered the shocking news:
“Finger marks in the leather. Right around the throat.”
“No!” Jervis gasped, wild with excitement. “So it was one of those encounters, was it?”
At last, there was flooding in Montenegro!
Luthor wasted no time rushing from the newswire to CNN, and there he waited anxiously for reports that Superman had been sighted. He had the television set up next to the transport console, so he could begin testing as soon as the wretched Alien started showboating.
Since the fortress must now be empty, Luthor had only to send Bonzo on his way… Put that way, it sounded simple. Except Bonzo was more interested in playing with the buttons on Luthor’s shirt than getting into the transport tube. Then it was more interested in climbing the outside of the tube, sitting on top of the chamber, unscrewing bolts and throwing them at Luthor. The window of opportunity came and went…
Luckily, in Montenegro, landslides often follow floods. This time, Luthor was ready with a leash and choke collar. Before the Alien had pushed back the first avalanche, the collar was on the monkey and the monkey was in the tube! Luthor set the dial for the Alien’s fortress, and at last…
The monkey dematerialized from tube A and rematerialized in tube B.
He tried again. The monkey dematerialized from tube B and rematerialized in tube C.
C into D. D into A. A into B again. Luthor threw caution to the wind and set the controls for Themyscira. The monkey made it as far as tube C. Keystone… C into D. Philadelphia… D into A. Star City… A into B.
By now, it was no longer a matter of fanciful perception, the monkey was angry.
Intriguing. Harley had made more progress with Poison Ivy in a few unauthorized visits than Bartholomew achieved in years of formal sessions. Her methods were daringly unorthodox, but there was no denying the results.
In order to deliver her “warning,” Ivy had mapped out all the attitudes of a sane individual and thought through the ways her own values diverged. She then constructed a plausible path to “get there from here.” In order to pose as a Poison Ivy on the road to recovery, she had unknowingly taken the first steps.
It really was an astonishing achievement, and Bartholomew was forced to admit he had completely underestimated Harley’s potential as a psychiatrist all those years ago.
Of course, he couldn’t really consider sanctioning this kind of guerilla therapy. Sending Harley among the theme criminals as a kind of spy to plant therapeutic time bombs through manipulation? It violated every tenet of medical ethics, and a good few of common decency, not to mention common sense.
Then again, as Harley herself had pointed out, it’s essentially what Patient J had done to her when she was on staff. Might she have put up a better defense if she had a working knowledge of the weapons that would be used against her? Why, a little proactive manipulation of the “Rogue” patients could almost be seen as a preventative measure, like an inoculation…
No rumors spread faster or with more credibility than those unheard by the common rabble, those that only first and second tier Rogues whisper behind their hands: Catwoman’s costume marked with these finger-size indentations, right around the throat. They all knew what that meant, and they all knew the announcement that would follow—which is why it didn’t matter so much that Jervis’s way of saying it didn’t make a lot of sense.
“The old new cat lair is now the new old cat lair, for the new new must go the way of the old new once the Jabberwok has been inside, or even the Ace of Hearts. For you know how it is with flying cards, once one knows, they all know. You can say ‘Oh, but it’s only the Three of Diamonds,’ but if you do, sure as not, the whole pack will be flying in the window.”
Translation: Catwoman was moving again. Superman-size hole in the north wall of the cat lair.
There were only three possibilities:
1. Luthor had made some sort of error installing the special coordinates in the system, the proprietary software was not accessing it correctly, and so, lacking a valid destination, it was defaulting to the next valid coordinates it had: the next tube in the same bank.
2. The system needed a human or humanoid organism to initiate the proper transport operation. A man, Martian, or Kryptonian it would accept; a rambunctious monkey, it would not.
3. Catwoman was pulling a fast one, withholding some vital portion of the data she had stolen in a bid for power or profit.
Luthor felt Hypothesis #1 was… unlikely.
Three hypotheses, but only one definite way to test them. Any of four billion people could act as a human guinea pig to test Hypothesis 2, but only one of them, only Catwoman herself, would also serve for Hypothesis 3. If he used her as a test subject, he would either have the answer when he was finished with her, or he would have eliminated both Hypotheses 2 and 3 and be forced back to 1 as the only viable explanation. Luthor was not such an egotist that he refused to consider that infinitesimal possibility that he himself had made an error, but he would eliminate the far more likely options first.
He would have to bring Catwoman to the center.
To be continued…