Nerves were fraying in the Rio flat. The case was growing cold, and though cat burglars, journalists and detectives all had to cultivate patience in the course of doing their jobs, none of them had to like it. Tempers grew short, and everyone came to despise the sight of that beach outside the window. It was Clark who finally said it out loud: the case in Rio was cold and the tendrils that still had a warm, steady pulse led away from the city. It only made sense to follow, for now. Oracle could hack the C&C so Bruce could monitor the city’s traffic cameras and other data—in addition to monitoring Demon’s chatter from Gotham, as he had been doing since the cell was first discovered. Clark added the last part when the first was met with a somewhat hostile silence, but he sensed it wasn’t going to be enough. This was compromise, and Bruce was always suspicious when that was suggested. He’d have to sweeten the deal:
“And of course, I’ll fly through a few times a week,” he added cheerily. “Nothing easier. You always said what an annoyance it was: Demon’s attachment to those 18th century methods and how it made it hard to trust the data. The only reliable method being to get in the Batwing and check it out in person, and the thing you resented most of all about Ra’s al Ghul was his forcing you to leave Gotham for that kind of thing.”
“Subtle, Clark,” was the only verbal response, but the lip-twitch said he had his friend’s agreement—which, had he but known it, he always did. Joker was still free, whereabouts unknown. Mad Hatter was free, whereabouts unknown but there was a forty-percent chance he had a hideout in Brooklyn. Hugo Strange and Maxie Zeus were both due to be released. And Harvey Dent was still missing. Bruce was as anxious to get home as Clark was, but he never turned his back on the chance to test Clark’s bargaining skills—his baffling lack of bargaining skills, despite abilities that made him a walking lie detector. It was the psychology that fascinated. Clark wasn’t stupid, he could certainly learn if he wanted to. It just wasn’t a skillset he valued, Bruce supposed.
So Bruce and Selina returned to Gotham where Batman could resume his nightly patrols; Clark and Lois to Metropolis and their jobs. Once a week, Superman arrived at the manor to fly Bat and Cat to Metropolis for a working dinner where new information was shared and theories were proposed, refined and discarded.
Lois’s interest centered on Demon’s surveillance of the press and the possibility of an attempt to poison them when they returned to cover the Olympics. Clark considered the games themselves, the size of the crowds and potential loss of life. Selina followed the money, resuming her interest in Demon’s assets and adding Luthor’s money laundering to the equation. And Bruce’s focus was everywhere, but his time went primarily to the tech divisions and the troubling implications of a computer virus.
It all came together at the ninth dinner, when Lois very politely (in her view) waited until everyone finished their lasagna and passed on seconds before outlining her latest poisoning theory.
“The key has to be in that record of all the hotels where the press are staying. You can’t possibly hit all the restaurants they’ll eat at, no matter how regular their habits are. You’d need to have a man in sixty kitchens with as many waiters in the dining room to get to the specific person you’re after, or else you’re going to wipe out twenty or thirty people trying to get at just me and Jimmy. But if you sent a basket of fruit to their room like a welcome gift...”
“Lois, when has anyone been that happy to see reporters come to town? You wouldn’t be suspicious of a gift like that?” Clark asked.
“I’m getting to that; that’s why they tracked everybody on a crew,” Lois said, like an accomplished poisoner. “Jimmy’s basket comes from Madley at the Trib. Mine comes from Sarah, Pete’s comes from you.”
“You’d be good at this,” Selina noted, and Lois said she’d been kidnapped by enough villainous talent who liked to pass the time talking about themselves that she thought she could plot with the best of them.
Clark worried more about the Opening Ceremonies, the sheer density of humanity in that stadium. If it was the target, the number of lives endangered… Bruce added that it wasn’t exactly a cross-section of the public, either. It was only the very wealthy who could afford to attend an Olympiad in person... Lois returned to her poisoning idea. Maybe the goal was to cut a swath through the rich and privileged of every nation, rather than the press. Or the athletes…
Only Selina noticed the sour face Lois made as she spoke, and as soon as the women were alone—Clark had taken Bruce into his den to see a new something-or-other—she asked about it.
“It just doesn’t seem like they’re listening sometimes,” she said. “I hear the words coming out of my mouth, but it’s like it only goes into their heads as a jumping off point. My idea is never considered the way I introduce it, it’s always grafted onto something of theirs.”
“Maybe that’s why I don’t like anybody’s ideas,” Selina said. “I keep trying to change them too, bring them into my world, my way of thinking just so they make some sense.”
“How so?” Lois asked. She also refilled Selina’s coffee, and reached into a side table for the special chocolate she only got out when the men left. They each broke off a square as Selina continued.
“Okay, like your idea: As a cat burglar, I can’t get past what’s the prize? If Demon kills a bunch of sports reporters and their tech crews, what does that get them exactly?”
“Well, let’s start from the other side,” Lois suggested. “You’ve been playing cat and mouse with this Gang of Six since Falstaff. What type of prize would they go for? What do these guys actually want?”
Selina took a deep breath and gathered her thoughts.
“Officially, on paper, big picture,” she said, “Ra’s al Ghul back on the throne, to serve him and deliver the world he so wants to rule. Unofficially? I think they just want to hold it together. I mean, I’m not the best judge because I never bought that whole dog and pony show. I always thought Ra’s and Talia and their Ninja Kickline were PR run amok. Believing Your Own Bullshit: 10, Actual Threat Level: 3.”
“And nothing you saw when you pushed them financially changed your mind,” Lois noted. “Is that confirmation bias, or…”
Selina shook her head.
“Based on what I’ve seen since Bruce handed them over, I think what the Gang of Six most wants is to not be the guys on whose watch Demon died.”
“And what does Lex want?” Bruce graveled as his shadow stretched ominously towards the women from his position in the doorway. Clark was with him, and there was no telling how much they’d heard.
“He loves doing that,” Selina said, gesturing to the silhouette like an annoying insect. “Are there really people who find it terrifying that light doesn’t pass through your body?”
“And she loves evading the question,” Bruce noted. “I’ll repeat it: What does Lex Luthor want?”
“Money,” Lois said brightly. “All the money.”
“Only as a means to an end,” Clark corrected. “It’s not what he can buy, it’s what he can—”
“Control,” Bruce cut him off softly, the corner of his mouth curling ever so gently into the subtlest of smiles. “With Lex, it’s always control. The bigger LexCorp is, the more people work for him and the more he can treat as badly as he wants while they treat him with deference and respect. The more he owns, the more lives his decisions can affect. The richer he is, the more he can buy and the more businesses and politicians will be dependent on his patronage.”
“Of course, it’s about power,” Clark said.
“Only as a means to an end,” Bruce intoned, echoing Clark’s earlier words. “It’s about fear. With Demon, it’s fear of death. Ra’s is obsessed with his own, and his minions with the organization’s. But Lex, Lex is afraid of life. He’s afraid of what might happen. What might happen next if he can’t control everyone and everything, afraid of people and how they’d treat him if he’s like everyone else. On both sides, it is about fear.”
“I don’t buy it,” Lois said. “Nothing with Luthor is that small.”
“No, he’s right,” Clark said, studying Bruce. “It doesn’t mean the threat he presents is small, quite the opposite. Luthor is a man who can change the world. His reach is global. His reasons are… life-sized.”
“Oh, like your jealousy of Lombard,” Lois teased with a loving smile.
“I am not jealous of Steve Lombard,” Clark insisted.
“The Man of Steel,” Lois announced. “Can lap the sun, spike a football a thousand miles into the earth’s crust and be sitting innocently back at his desk before anyone can notice he’s gone—jealous because his wife’s investigation just happens to take her into the vicinity of an old flame.”
“Lombard is the Planet’s sports editor,” Bruce explained. “He and Lois were dating about the time Clark joined the paper, and they were rivals on and off for a time.”
“And as Lois said in Rio, I won. She married me. I have no reason to be jealous, this isn’t about that. I just think—Selina is shaking her head. You’re shaking your head.”
“I’m sorry, Clark. World’s leading expert on heroes who lie about their feelings, badly.”
“Lois, I’ll take a little more wine,” Bruce said casually, offering his glass.
“Surely,” she smiled and poured.
“I can’t lie,” Clark said, assuming the crossed-arm ‘I’m Superman’ pose meant to end the discussion.
“It appears that you can,” Selina insisted.
“Look, sports news isn’t news-news, I get that,” Clark said. “But there is a level of credulous simplicity that no newsman should be capable of. Every day, Lois takes her yogurt, salad, or break time coffee over to his desk and shows an improbable level of interest in his work. A reasonably intelligent adult should be suspicious. In a few weeks, she’s become an expert on the coverage of global sporting events.”
“In my opinion, Clark is right,” Bruce said considering the contents of his wine glass thoughtfully. “This man is a fool if it doesn’t occur to him that you’re either doing research for a story or else bucking for his job.”
“Oh, bigger than his job,” Clark scoffed. “His job is ‘Do I send Hockley or Gleason to cover the Metros game?’ With what’s on Lois’s desk right now, the spreadsheets she’s put together after pumping Lombard for a week, we’re talking about coverage of global-audience sporting events across media: Which 24-hour sports network sends a forty-man team and which can only manage eight for wrap-around and buys the detailed game coverage from a local carrier when it’s an English-speaking country and an Australian carrier when it’s not.”
Bruce’s eyes narrowed. He looked at Lois.
“Whose broadcast center is in North Carolina and who is in Bludhaven?” he said, running with the thought Clark had begun. “Who is transmitting to a wholly owned network satellite and who rents time from GE or Sony or Wayne?”
“I’d like to see what you’ve got,” he graveled.
Fourteen weeks on the Gotham Times Bestseller List. Clark’s book Strange Bedfellows had remained fourteen weeks on the Gotham Times Bestseller List and was widely credited with taking down the Luthor administration. His wife had two Pulitzers. They were the undisputed power couple of print journalism and here they were, queued with “The Paps” at the Rio airport where a black SUV was pulling up to receive the latest newsworthy arrivals.
“Clark,” Lois murmured, pursing her lips. “About this whole B v S thing. You don’t think there’s just the slightest possibility that Bruce is having the teeniest bit of fun at your expense, do you?”
Clark watched as the doors opened from the private customs station that had been set up for processing arrivals of the private planes and their celebrity passengers arriving for the Olympics. A lackey came jogging out and checked the license plate of the SUV and driver against the information on his clipboard.
“No,” Clark said, reasonably sure he was telling the truth as the lackey pointed aggressively at the line of photographers like they were animals crowding the gate at feeding time. “I think he’s playing the best cards he has, like always.”
“Do we know who it is?” an Australian beside him asked, repositioning his camera as the lackey ushered them back. “I heard Brad Pitt. I heard Rihanna. I heard Mark Zuckerberg.”
“It’s Bruce Wayne,” Clark said flatly as the doors to the customs station opened and, rather than making a mad dash for the SUV, Bruce and Selina posed for the paparazzi, arms around each other’s waists and waving with their free hands. The moment everyone’s attention shifted their way, Clark sped over to the Demon agent assigned to observe Wayne’s arrival, delivered an incapacitating neck chop and returned to Lois’s side before the first shutters were clicked. Lois snapped a few pictures with the gadget Bruce had provided, and then pretended to check the results while it tagged the devices and uplinks of all the reporters around them. Clark scanned the wild matrix of infrared and ultraviolet crisscrossing around them.
“Ready?” he heard Bruce whisper.
He took another few seconds to memorize the pattern, and then he relayed the question to Lois. When she nodded, he tapped his commlink twice and Bruce and Selina started to move. They hurried to the SUV without acknowledging the press who continued to shoot video and snap pictures. The moment the doors closed, Clark fired a quick burst of heat vision to explode the pellet on the SUV’s front tire. There was a loud crack, a muted cry that was presumably Selina inside the vehicle, and the cameras resumed with renewed gusto. Lois had relocated for a better angle now that the story had changed. She snapped another picture, but beyond that, her whole manner had changed. She was no longer on the scene in an undercover capacity to help Batman and Superman. She was covering a story as it unfolded and had no eye for anything else. Clark watched her, as well as the new pattern of signals shifting and reshifting as a team of airport security arrived to form a human shield around Bruce and Selina as they returned to the customs station. The press was cleared, but Clark had already left to watch from a distance. He continued to study the throbbing mass of signals surrounding the reporters like a disturbed hive.
In time, the sabotaged vehicle was pushed away and a limousine pulled up to take its place. As Bruce and Selina were driven off, an airport spokesman went out to update the press, and Lois related the official story to the group when they reconvened at the flat.
“A blowout,” she said dryly. “Looked like a big dramatic happening for about four seconds and then turned out to be a non-story. Security let us go right up to the SUV and verify it with our own eyes. The tire blew. At the curb. No sabotage, no security breach, no one was hurt. The airport guys couldn’t even spin it to a puff piece about how well they handled it: ‘Look, our system works,’ because it was such a non-event that boasting would make them look stupid.”
“But you went through the motions of filing the story,” Bruce prompted.
“I did,” Lois said, like he owed her. “I called Perry right after and told him it was just a test run, so at least he didn’t think I’d lost my mind.”
“And?” he pressed.
“And it’s a gateway,” she said grimly. “Changing gears from a celebrity puff piece to a breaking news story went through three different desks at the Planet, brought a second system online, Rodriguez notified the local TV news we partner with that we had a reporter on the ground. They told their network, who quickly had their news desk in Washington on stand-by. MSNBC, CNBC, AP and Reuters were all lining up in the chain by the time I made an ass of myself and said ‘oops, false alarm.’”
“And we’re just print news,” Clark added. “You can see from the uplinks your tracker captured that there were six television stations there, only two were covering it live until the blowout when it started to look like real news. Within five seconds, they were all connected to a satellite, and one of the original two changed satellite signals when it went from puff piece to live breaking news.”
“That’s it,” Bruce and Selina said together, which made Clark grin from ear to ear, Lois bite her lip to squelch a laugh, and Selina cede the floor with a hands-off gesture. “That’s how they’re going to do it,” Bruce continued solo. “Demon probably had some idea of taking hostages to demand Ra’s al Ghul’s release. That’s more in keeping with their mindset: the M.O. of terrorists forty years ago, not crippling the world’s computer networks with a virus.”
“That would be Luthor’s twist,” Clark said. “Demon’s attack causes the world media to shift from sports coverage into news mode.”
“And that somehow releases the virus into their systems? Is that even possible?” Lois asked.
“If those LexCorp cameras all over the city are more than cameras,” Bruce said, looking at Clark.
He shook his head.
“They may be. I wish I could say they were doing something after the blowout that wasn’t happening before, but it was the opposite.” Clark said. “There’s sort of an out-of-phase fizzle going on around them most of the time, like a heat distortion, and after the blowout, it was gone.”
“A listening mode,” Bruce said. “A listening mode was suspended but whatever it’s meant to trigger didn’t happen, possibly because it isn’t in place yet.”
“Well it better get in place soon; the opening ceremonies are tomorrow,” Lois noted. “They’re running out of time.”
“So are we,” Bruce said grimly.
As if to punctuate the remark, Clark’s phone trilled—one, two, three, four times—with an incoming alert before Lois’s joined in an octave higher. They each looked at their phones, then at each other and mirrored each other’s eye roll.
“Luthor’s plane en route from Metropolis,” Clark explained.
“It was meant to be quiet, no press,” Lois added. “Until your arrival was a thing. Now not two hours later, his flight plan is leaked. Astounding.”
“He is so much fun to annoy,” Selina grinned. “I don’t know why you guys don’t do it more often. Bruce, you never just sat back and wondered ‘what else can I make him do?’”
The rest of the afternoon was spent laying out the plan for the following day, with a quick break while Superman flew out to pace Luthor’s plane as it approached the Rio airport. He listened in until he knew he’d been sighted and the sighting reported to Luthor, then he flew back to watch the arrival on television with the others.
“He knows I’m here,” Clark reported.
“Oh we know,” Lois laughed, while Bruce merely grunted. “Just look at that plaster smile.”
“There is a definite ‘had undercooked duck for lunch’ quality,” Selina observed. “Which is a surprise. I would have had you down as ‘bad oysters,’ Spitcurl.”
“The important thing is he knows you’re here,” Bruce said. “As of this moment, it’s more important to him than it is to us that the Demon attack fails, as long you’re the one to stop it. It’s the switch from a sporting event to breaking news that’s going to trigger his real plan, and now that he knows that story can be a Superman sighting, he won’t be able to resist it.” He turned abruptly to Selina and added “Yes, I have considered ‘what else I can make him do.’”
“Show off,” she whispered.
“C’mon, we have a dinner reservation,” he graveled.
They returned to the hotel where they were now officially checked in, and where Bruce suspected Luthor would decide to have dinner. They made an entrance like Mr. and Mrs. Jetsetting Fop, and sure enough, saw they had been downgraded to the second-best table while Luthor sat with head of state dignity at the one Bruce had reserved. Bruce selected a seat where he and Luthor could most easily glare at each other, and then proceeded to ignore him, giving Selina his full attention while she draped herself over his arm between courses and played with his tie.
“If he’s able to eat while watching this, he’s the real alien,” Selina whispered in his ear.
“Eating maybe, but I don’t give his digestion the best odds,” Bruce whispered back, and she gave a coy laugh like he suggested skipping dessert and returning to their room.
Before long, Luthor finished his meal, rose and approached their table on the way out.
“I understand congratulations are in order,” he said, oozing good will. When Bruce made the murmur politeness demanded and Selina flashed her ring, Lex feigned surprise. “Oh you thought I meant your engagement,” he laughed. “No. Well, congratulations on that as well, but I meant on your obvious recovery from that awful episode in Gotham. That, eh, museum exhibit, such a travesty. Of course we in Metropolis are used to the menace the Alien represents. It’s too terrible when he inflicts himself on other places that are naïve enough to welcome him.”
“Actually, Lex, I believe it was the Scarecrow behind that. What’s his name, dear?”
“Jonathan,” Selina offered.
“Yes, Jonathan,” Bruce said, as if such trivia often slipped his mind. “Jonathan Crane. Completely psychotic. A sick, dangerous man. All populations of a certain size have their share, sadly, and there’s no telling what a really damaged mind might seize upon. I guess there’s just something about Superman—the Superman artwork that is—that got under his skin.”
“Quite,” Lex said dryly. “Still a horrible episode.”
“Oh very much,” Bruce replied. “We’re very lucky that Superman was on hand or it could have been much worse.”
“Really? I would have thought his appearance made it exponentially worse,” Lex said curtly.
“Oh, I really don’t think so,” Bruce said, turning to Selina who murmured that, no, in her opinion there would have been far more injured without Superman—and he got a lot of the injured to the hospital faster than they ever could have been otherwise. That’s true, Bruce agreed, waiting for the ambulances to arrive... Lex stood there for about a minute watching them agree with each other, when he cleared his throat.
“Selina, my dear, a pleasure to see you again,” he said as if reclaiming the floor to say goodnight and be gone.
“Always a pleasure, Lex,” she said, meeting his eyes. It wasn’t a long exchange, but it lasted long enough for the two villains to dismiss the socialite and the industrialist, for Catwoman to silently compliment Luthor on poaching her wounded Demon, and for Luthor to preen. She mustn’t be so greedy, he teased. After all, she’d had a good feed and it wasn’t even her kill…
At that point, their silent exchange had lasted as long as it could with Wayne sitting there as a non-participant; the exchange with him had been verbal. So Lex changed gears.
“I have a vulture fund,” he announced, his smile transformed from ironic to sincere without moving a muscle. “You’d be a natural. Adversity is opportunity, after all, the business cycle’s ups and downs depend on which way you hold the chart. And I’m sure you have some old funds lying around that you can be more adventurous with after the… happy event.”
He nodded his goodbyes and left. They watched him go in silence, and then turned to look at each other.
“He has a vulture fund,” Selina said blandly, and Bruce raised an eyebrow. “I think Catwoman was just invited to the grown-ups table.”
Marco was typical of the nighttime security for the Metropolitan Command and Control Centre the night before the opening ceremonies. He wasn’t the best of the best; the top men were scheduled at the stadium tomorrow. He wasn’t the best; the top tier not sent to the stadium would be patrolling this same route at the C&C but on the day shift while the games began. The Operations Room would be fully staffed and the Sit Room packed with the brass from the federal, civic and military police and reps from the armed forces. Marco was at least two years from that kind of security detail, but he was no slouch. The preguiçosos were sorting out drunk tourists in Loco-Pacabana tonight.
Not that the slackers couldn’t do his job tonight. The building had been fully staffed until two a.m. monitoring the hot spots. Since three, there was only a skeleton crew inside, and whatever the tourists and athletes might be getting up to elsewhere in the city, absolutely no one had come near the urban command center. Marco was spending the final minutes of his shift watching a pair of stray dogs humping outside the gate. The boredom ended with a vibrating beep from his watch. Finally he could get back to the barracks, crash for a few hours and maybe get up to catch some of the opening ceremonies on TV.
He was just swiping his ID when a military truck pulled up outside the gate, the back door opened and Miguel’s head popped out.
“Colonel sent a pick up,” he called out. “Just in case anybody had the idea of grabbing us off the street as we’re leaving, taking our uniforms and IDs to get in tomorrow. Crazy, right? But hey, it’s a ride back.”
Marco couldn’t argue with that. An extra half-hour off his feet was nothing to complain about. He clocked out and joined Miguel in the back of the van—where the flash of a bang stick was the last thing he would ever see.
The minions Naramoon and Pi’mifz drove the two trucks full of fresh produce from the Mercado Municipal to the Olympic Stadium. They produced the paperwork and badges for themselves, their cargo of colorfully fresh fruit, and the additional men riding in back who would do the unloading.
The papers were in order, but the guard was still curious why the fruit hadn’t been brought in days ago with the rest of the show pieces and props… Fai’gal, known to his fellow workers as Paolo, readied a shuriken to take the guard out while making eye contact with Mir’dang who would eliminate the other non-Demon workers… It’s fruit, Naramoon explained to the guard. It would hardly look fresh and pretty on the stage if it had been rotting in some dark hallway for a day and a half, would it? As it was, the boss had them come in at four a.m. to load these trucks, so he could hand-pick the most vivid oranges, pears and grapefruits to be in the show.
The gate opened. The trucks rolled through, and Fai’gal’s shuriken was quietly returned to his pocket.
Bruce and Selina joined the other VIPS queuing like ordinary mortals to pass through the security check before entering the stadium. Lois stood in a similar queue for the press. Though she thought she’d arrived early enough to avoid the wait, so did all her colleagues. Superman hovered above the stadium facing the city so he could easily keep an eye on both. Periodically, he zipped to the right where the new angle let him look beyond the stadium into the favelas rising up the hills. Periodically, he zipped the other way where he could look past the stadium to the Cidade Novo district and the C&C. And periodically, when Bruce’s Justice League comm alerted him, he shot above the atmosphere where he could look up at one of targeted broadcast satellites and down into the stadium from the same vantage point.
Ca’chasa the assassin gave a respectful nod, and the men he met—the Third Fang and the Fifth—reacted as differently as two men might. Ca’chasa, adept at sizing up men and judging the impact on his mission, quickly noted the difference: The Third Fang smiled graciously and gave a more abbreviated nod, like a lord acknowledging a bow. But Fifth Fang almost shuddered with embarrassment. They were all but minions of Ra’s al Ghul, after all.
Ca’chasa thought it best to announce, with all respect, that he was servant to the Gang of Six in every way, but today he was their guardian and protector. For their safety, they should be prepared to follow his lead and take his orders. If they were displeased, they could have him flogged later when the mission was complete.
Fifth Fang looked relieved. Third gave an accepting nod like he appreciated the logic of it.
“English only from this point on,” he declared.
“I was told French,” Ca’chasa said uncertainly.
“French is the language of diplomacy,” Fifth Fang declared like a man who’d been overruled but clung to the certainty that he was right. “The statement has been prepared in French and I have memorized it, just in case.” The emphasis on the final words were clearly directed at Third, who shrugged like it did no harm to let the silly ass come along.
“With the press of all nations here, it makes no practical difference,” he said as one long bored with the subject. “I could make the declarations in Portuguese if we wanted, and the minions of the world media are set up to translate to their native tongue on the spot. However, the language favored by Atlantis is English, and as that nation holds our sovereign lord, it only makes sense to speak to their king most directly.”
“Ah, I see,” Ca’chasa nodded, daring a smile and a light chuckle. “It is the language of the Justice League as well, and the Detective. It will give him much annoyance.”
“That is not a proper reason to consider,” Fifth muttered, though Third clearly enjoyed the joke.
“I think that aspect will certainly give The Great One added enjoyment when he views the video of his liberation,” he preened. “The language of the Detective.”
Through security, Bruce and Selina took their seats long enough for Lois to point out to the GCN cameras where the most famous Gothamites were sitting. They and the surrounding stations happily shot some test footage, lining up their angles for later when they would cut away from the opening ceremonies to the famous faces in the crowd. Bruce knew from experience that once they had his image, at least one station or photographer would use it later when the story changed to give the impression they’d shot it at the critical time, giving him an alibi while Batman was busy elsewhere.
The loudspeakers crackled, and the crowd’s lively murmur quieted to hear the announcement that the ceremonies would begin in five minutes. It was met with cheers and applause… and a grumble on the comm from Lois.
..:: Nothing’s called in yet? ::.. they all heard her ask, to which Superman answered no, nothing yet.
“If Lex doesn’t take the bait, we really are in for it,” Selina whispered.
“He will,” Bruce replied, while Superman reiterated over the comm that if a tip came in too soon or anything was discovered too early, the stadium’s own security might shut it down themselves, quietly and invisibly without starting a panic. Lex had to know that. He had to make sure the Demon plot was revealed at a point where only Superman could save the day, and do it publicly so his appearance made news.
The one minute announcement was met with more excited cheers, rhythmic clapping, and at least half of those seated pointing a camera or phone at the field, at the torch, at flags, at others in the crowd or at themselves. Bruce gave Selina a perfunctory kiss on the cheek and whispered ‘I love you’ before slipping away. The music grew louder as the giant screens counted down the seconds to the official opening.
“Cinco!” the crowd roared with the final numbers…
“Quatro!” loud enough to be heard over the music…
“Três!” and the tiny bursts of pyro…
“Dois!” that delighted everyone except Lois and Selina.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, sounded in Portuguese, Welcome to Rio de Janeiro and to the games of The 31st Olympiad.”
The guard at the gate thought nothing of it as a military van came to a stop at the island of palm trees across the street rather than queueing to enter the C&C parking lot. A tall, thin man got out in a uniform identical to the guard’s apart from an awkwardly large earpiece that looked more like half of a studio headset protruding from his cap (and nearly forcing it off.) While he adjusted and readjusted hat and earpiece, his colleague got out in the same uniform without the burden. The van drove off and the two men approached the gate.
“Another one,” the second man said, flashing a manila envelope covered with signatures and rubber stamps, with the ID of a Miguel Gadanha clamped on top under his thumb. His thumb did obscure the photo, which was the kind of casual happenstance a good guard noticed, even in a fellow uniform. Gadanha’s colleague was very clearly holding up his ID however, Marco Borba, name and photo clear as day, although in his case his continued troubles holding his earpiece in place without losing his hat was keeping his hand in the way, blocking most of his lower face.
“Another what?” the guard asked.
“Update. Something. For Colonel Ferraz, from the stadium,” Gadanha said like a man who’d made three of these trips since breakfast.
Before the guard could reply, there was a sharp report like a backfire from the direction the van had driven off. Any suspicion of Gadanha and Borba vanished as both men snapped into hyper readiness, their attention drawn from the guard, the parking lot and the C&C, and focused entirely on the van where their buddy had driven off.
“You go; I’ll deliver this nonsense,” Borba snapped, grabbing the envelope from his colleague.
Gadanha ran off at a crisp, military double-time while Borba faced the guard with a questioning shrug that said ‘C’mon, it’s no time for bullshit.’ The guard answered with a grudging nod that twitched to the side, indicating Gadanha should run that way around the gate. He did, still valiantly holding earpiece and cap as he approached the door in another crisp double-time. The guard watched long enough to see the ID scan at the door, and as the glass doors slid open, he returned his attention to the parking lot, thinking there were clearly worse postings he could have drawn today.
Safely inside, the figure bearing the ID of the late Marco Borba transformed, eyes alight with psychotic triumph and echoed by lips that pulled back into a smile of eager menace.
By the time the honored athlete took his place at the giant key that would begin the opening ceremony, Batman reached his position outside the stadium. Three sections of the parking lot had been cordoned off to form a compound for the mobile command centers about which Colonel Ferraz had boasted. Each was housed in a long, black trailer with a miniature satellite dish on its roof, a camera on a telescoping arm, and a pair of armed guards from the military police.
He wasn’t alone. Less than sixty feet away Mercy Graves was in position studying the sightlines... studying the guards’ movements… They weren’t decorative, but they were clearly there to be there, extra bodies just in case, as much as to keep an eye on a trailer full of equipment. They were there to keep an eye on the crowd more than a lot of surveillance gear… and they were absolutely not there to keep an eye on each other. That would make this easy.
Mercy waited for the window when the other guards were occupied, and she approached the first set with the stern gait of a private security ego whose charge is far more important than whatever pissant thing you’re guarding (which was of course true, in her opinion.)
“So where’s my escort?” she demanded in English, because it was certainly these peons’ job to understand Mr. Luthor’s staff, whatever they might speak. “My escort,” she repeated, grabbing the nearest guard’s baton in a flash of an overhand grab, seizing the other’s upper wrist and flinging them into each other with a sickening crack as they knocked heads. The one on her right she flung backward, wrenching his baton free to smash the left guard’s neck and then turning back to crush the right’s wrist as he pulled his gun, and finishing him off with a swing across his gut.
..:: 2.1 seconds::.. Superman observed on the comm. ..:: Have to admire her technique.::..
“Too loud,” Batman said disapprovingly. The other guards hadn’t heard the negligible scuffling of the fight, but he himself would have considered it too audible to call a successful takedown in open conditions with the participants so exposed.
The next phase he would admit was handled better. Mercy waved in two men in jumpsuits carrying a good sized crate which, despite its labels and apparent weight, did not contain a LexCorp generator. They set it where it would block the view of the other guards, loaded in the unconscious men, unzipped the jumpsuits revealing identical uniforms and took their place.
..:: That’s only one of three, ::.. Superman noted with an uneasy catch in his voice.
“You have time,” Batman replied. “Do what you need to.”
Fai’gal felt a strange… something, almost like a super-fast breeze, just for a fraction of an instant as he turned from unloading the final bale of fruit, his wrist-blade unsheathed to eliminate the men he’d worked with for months at the Mercado Municipal. Except… they were nowhere to be seen. Emilio, Dalton, Chaz, they were there just a second ago…
…A second later, they were waiting on a hill outside the stadium as Superman flew in with four workers from the other truck.
“I apologize for startling you,” he said, reciting his prepared speech in Portuguese. “You were in serious danger and there wasn’t time to explain. Don’t be alarmed. The cable car station is right over there to get you home, or you can stay here and watch what’s going on at the stadium and I’ll come fly you back later to get your trucks. Just do not attempt to return to the stadium yourselves. Please wait until I come for you.”
By the time Superman returned, Mercy was slamming herself into the final guard, who had somehow managed to draw his weapon while she flattened his partner.
It’s bizarre just standing here letting this happen, he thought as she brought both her hands down onto his forearm with a powerful overhand chop, grabbed his arm as soon as the gun dropped, and spun him around to smash his face and chest into the side of a tall server crate.
..:: 1.5 seconds, ::.. Batman reported while the final pair of non-descript but obviously Luthor agents took the guards’ place outside the last trailer. ..:: She’s gotten faster but no quieter. If the men inside weren’t occupied doing their jobs, they could have easily heard something,::.. he concluded.
Superman circled wide around the stadium to get a better view of Mercy moving away from the trailers and back towards the stadium… and the stream of signals connecting the mobile units to the Command and Control Center… while keeping his primary focus on the crowd.
“Looks like she’s heading for the southwest entrance,” he told Batman.
..:: Keep an eye on her.::.. came the curt gravel.
Despite the size and scale of the panorama and the challenge scanning minute focus points within it, Superman found a spot where he could easily keep an eye on the crowd, track Mercy through the walls of the stadium’s backstage labyrinth, and still follow Batman’s assault on Luthor’s replacement guards. It wasn’t necessary to watch, but once he assured himself that no other aspect of the mission would suffer, it wasn’t something he could miss. Bruce could be so insufferably cocky: a 2.1 second takedown of two armed professionals in the vicinity of four others wasn’t impressive because it wasn’t silent enough. Now he was going to do exactly the same thing: the same number of men in the same positions, same sightlines and environmental conditions. He would have to be—
Superman blinked. One man was already down. Batman, who wasn’t at all camouflaged in broad daylight, had just stepped into position behind him, clamped both hands over his mouth as he pulled him back and put him out with a pressure point—without his partner hearing a thing. Granted these were Luthor’s men who were more accustomed to… well, to Superman’s style of attack, but before he could even complete that thought the second man was down and being dragged to join the original guards inside the generator crate.
“And I forgot to time it,” Superman announced to the wind.
Luckily he had another chance. Superman scanned the stadium crowd once again and checked on Mercy’s progress while Batman got into position. He started counting as the Dark Knight reached a point just four feet behind the two men. This pair was so close together, ‘silence’ wasn’t a factor. There was no way Batman could avoid taking them both at once. In under a second he was in the space between them, on an angle facing the one on the right, aiming a blow at his lower back with Batman’s own back leg set to sweep the guard’s legs out from under him a split second after the punch—the move spinning Batman around to be facing the man on the left, fist lined up for a brutal blow to the jaw. While Left fell back from the hit, Batman delivered a final chop to Right to make sure he was down and out (unnecessary, as it turned out) before finishing Left with a brutal right-left combination.
“Six?” Superman whispered, finishing his count. He couldn’t believe it was an appallingly slow six seconds, almost three times Mercy’s record… when the sonic batarang returned to Batman’s hand. Not only had all four remaining guards been taken out in those six seconds, Superman realized he hadn’t even noticed when the batarang was thrown.
“Mercy is inside, heading for the end of the field where the performers enter from,” Superman announced rather than admit he’d witnessed the takedowns.
..::Then here we go,::.. Batman answered. ..::It has to be going down now.::..
Mir’dang came round the corner, having presumably taken care of his men. Fai’gal asked how it went and Mir’dang offered a nodding grunt. Were he not preoccupied with his own mystery, Fai’gal might have recognized his own uncertainty mirrored in Mir’dang. As it was, both men regarded the massive wagons of fruit, loaded with dragon’s breath and placed on their marks to be rolled in with the dancers twenty nine measures into the next number—the mission was accomplished. Their personal failure to tie off a loose end didn’t affect the ultimate objective. The mission would still be a success, but they personally would face an inquiry if they spoke up. It would be best to keep quiECK.
A punch like a 5-lb weight being swung by a dervish slammed into Mir’dang’s face while a kick like a Clydesdale’s landed in Fai’gal’s stomach and lifted him inches off the ground. Before either man could process what happened, let alone regain their balance, they were finished off by mirror image blows to the right and left sides of their necks. As they fell, Mercy Graves removed the brass knuckles from her right hand with a silent, anguished ‘ow.’ She stepped over her latest victims, ripped off their access badges, and looked around.
“There are no bodies,” she reported into the mic that arced from her earpiece. “I don’t get it. They should have left a trail we could find and report. There’s nothing here.”
..:: You’ll have to think of something,::.. the voice in her ear replied.
Ca’chasa expected to find at least two guards outside the mobile command unit, possibly as many as six. He explained to Third Fang that the more guards he had to eliminate, the longer they would have to wait. With two, they could go in early, but with six, there was a greater chance of being discovered. They should wait until the explosion had actually occurred, then swoop in to take over the feeds and broadcast their demands.
Third Fang didn’t like the idea, not at all. Luthor’s technological chicanery might seize the airwaves, but that meant nothing without guns to the heads of the real men on the ground working the equipment! Fifth Fang agreed, though he was milder in his language, satisfied with mere knives to their backs—not that it mattered, he added calmly. Since there was only one guard to eliminate, the point was moot; they could move now without delay.
Ca’chasa found that suspicious. All the intelligence pointed to two men stationed at each of the three mobile units, six guards in total. If only one was visible… the Fangs didn’t want to hear it. All his efforts establishing his authority would be undone. He’d told his charges that going in depended on finding few men, and they could see there was only one… He took a half-moment to prepare himself, then went forward to slice his blade into the lone guard’s gut.
“Tell the truth, Lois, do you get grabbed by bad guys so much as a way off the sidelines? Because this is so boring, I don’t think I can stand it.”
Oracle had set up a separate channel for Selina and Lois to talk privately without the men hearing. Since she was watching at home—both the live network coverage and her unofficial hack of the Rio C&C—she was also sitting in on what was now a three-way call.
“Selina, don’t dis the sidelines,” Barbara said. “Sometimes you have to make your own fun, that’s all—enough with the dancing! Light the torch already and bring on the athletes!”
“I thought you liked the drummers,” Selina noted.
“I liked their very muscular arms,” Barbara cooed. “Lois, are any of the television crews nearby? You said the GCN guys like you, can you get them to do another close-up on that drummer with the biceps like twisted French bread?”
Lois laughed, looked around the media tent for an easy ask and passed on the request; Barbara squealed, and Selina muttered that she wanted some action. Then Lois squealed as a hand clamped over her mouth and she was, once again, grabbed by a bad guy.
In the server room at the Rio C&C, beads of moisture formed on the channel of cables carrying the feeds from a particular bank of cameras, giving the impression that either the room or the cables had gone especially cold. Periodically, a bead of the condensation that might have been water but wasn’t dripped onto a red and green box clamped to a bundle of six cables…
“Relax,” Mercy said, spinning Lois around to see her attacker before easing her hand from her mouth. “Look, you don’t like me, I don’t like you, but you are press and I don’t want to get blown up and none of those guys are going to listen to me.”
Lois said “Cat, I’ll call you back,” as if finishing up the call, and then touched her earpiece, switching her comm back to the main channel where Superman and Batman could hear. “Okay, Mercy, I’ll listen to you. What’s on your mind?”
“The security down here are a lot of Latino shitheads too obsessed with machismo to do their bloody jobs,” Mercy began. “When you write up this story, make sure that gets mentioned.”
“Top paragraph above the fold, you’ve got my word. Now what’s going on?!”
Mercy shoved a pair of access badges into Lois’s hand.
“These are fakes,” she lied. “From the Mercado Municipal—and no one will listen to me—from the Mercado Municipal, the food market—a fruit merchant, the big prestige fruit merchant—at the Mercado Municipal—Fake!—Now look out there, right on the left side middle of the field, there’s like a ton of fruit out there from that stupid harvest dance or whatever it was supposed to be. And here’s a couple of fake employee badges from the guys who brought it.”
Lois ran back to the GCN cameramen she’d befriended, with Mercy in tow.
“Lee! One more favor,” she blurted. “Can you give me a close-up of—”
“C’mon, Lois, fun is fun, but I’m going to get in trouble,” he said.
“Before was fun; this is real,” she said with calm emphasis. “All the fruit still on the field from that harvest dance thing, give me a close up on that.”
He did, and almost immediately his show director squawked in his ear.
“Boss is asking why, and I really don’t know what to tell her,” Lee complained.
“Tell her it’s glowing,” Mercy said, pointing to the small, black and white image on the face of his camera. “Tell her to take a look and see that it’s glowing, like it’s been sprayed with phosphorous or something, and you don’t know why. Ask her if she doesn’t think that looks like something that maybe somebody should look into!”
Lee moved his head back from the viewfinder to study the image Mercy was seeing. He certainly didn’t see anything like that on the tiny screen, but she was so confident. He reported it all the same:
“Lady here thinks it’s glowing… Like it’s sprayed with phosphorous. You see anything like that there?”
While Lee’s boss and her associates debated the possibly-glowing oranges, a few others around him noticed what was going on and pointed their cameras away from the action on the main stage. Someone thought there might be a grenade hidden in some of the fruit, while others pointed out the spot he was worried about was a shadow and the bundles would have been thoroughly inspected coming in. More and more cameras pointed towards the still wagons and barrels heaping with fruit as if expecting an unscripted continuation of the performance there.
“You know what, I think it might be smoking,” someone blurted, while someone else thought the smoke was left over from the earlier pyro but returned to the grenade idea, suggesting ordinary legit-looking fruit could maybe be filled with gunpowder. Several people thought there were trained dogs that would sniff out that kind of thing, and even if none of them had seen any dogs today, they must be around… More than one voice called out that it should be checked on.
“Looks like you did it, you’ve got your…” Lois said, turning to Mercy and finding the other woman had gone.
Third Fang was sure he’d seen the guard double over as Ca’chasa stabbed him and then lowered him to the ground before waving them in to take the trailer. Fifth Fang wasn’t so sure. There were two silhouettes that clashed, certainly, then they disappeared behind one of the mobile units and an arm emerged that was probably waving them forward but could have been waving them back. He really couldn’t tell, but Third Fang was charging in so he had no choice but to follow if he didn’t want to be left behind on the mission that would return Ra’s al Ghul to power.
It was a short run across the parking lot where the mobile units were parked, though they were fully exposed from several directions and the sightlines of multiple cameras. They charged up the stairs and into the mobile, where two men wearing headphones sat before six monitors, a laptop, radio and a set of walkie-talkies.
“C&C says another television station is cutting away to the oranges,” the first said in Portuguese. “This one’s Canadian. They’re speculating what’s going on there… Get a close-up on that. Should we send someone out there? I don’t want to start a panic, but—”
“They’re speaking French,” the second man cut him off. “It’s crossed into French, the story is spreading anyway—Oh no, no, no. They’ve got it up on the Jumbotrons in the stadium now. Who did that?! If the crowd starts to think it’s not part of the show, we could have—”
“Excuse me,” Third Fang said, touching the tip of his dagger to recess just behind the first man’s right earlobe. “You could have, indeed. You will have, in fact. I would beg you not to move, or all these consoles will be sticky with your blood, and that will make it difficult for your colleague to do his job.”
Fifth Fang opened his backpack and withdrew a video camera bearing the tag Rochina-15 and a small, folding tripod. He set this up quickly and hastily tilted it to frame Third Fang. He unpacked a small desktop flag and a rolled banner with the emblem of Demon which he placed behind Third Fang. He returned to the camera to check the shot and then adjusted the flag when Third Flag barked “It will suffice!” Fifth grumbled that Third was a cretin who had no appreciation for the fact that history was being made, and if he had no grasp that these were the images in which that history would be recorded, he should leave such matters to the men who did.
Rather than saying it openly, he shoved the second operator from his chair and searched the laptop for a port in which to insert the USB that would plug the camera feed into the system. He was soon rewarded with the image of Third Fang, standing before the Demon banner, perfectly framed on the laptop screen.
Less than twenty yards from the Demon Fangs, the door to the second mobile unit burst open and Mercy fired a tranquilizer dart into each of the operators before they could turn to see what happened. She slid a similar USB into the waiting laptop and punched a button on the keyboard before the operator was fully out. She dragged both men to the far end of the trailer where they would be completely out of sight, and only then did she open the door to admit Luthor.
“Efficient as always,” he said, a casual head-pat to a favored dog. Mercy remained standing but indicated the seat in front of the laptop for Luthor. “Camera in the laptop has captured the wall behind you without your sitting there, it will substitute a green screen for everything that isn’t you, and the bunker will fill in the LexCorp seal…” She punched a key. “You’re all set.”
“Excellent,” Lex added, tossing the dog a biscuit. “And have our hapless allies made their way online?”
“They should be,” Mercy said, her eyes riveted on the monitors as she typed feverishly. “The men I’d left out front are gone. I assume it’s their handiwork.”
“Savages,” Luthor said under his breath.
Two of the screens before him suddenly flickered and feeds from the other mobile appeared. The first was a carefully framed shot of the minion Luthor knew as “The Third Fang of Six.” The other was an oblique angle of him and his colleague from the camera built into the laptop.
“Do we have sound?” Luthor asked.
..:: There ::.. Fifth Fang said in distorted stereo before Mercy cut the audio from the second camera. ..::As soon as the switch is thrown, every screen in the stadium will be ours, the feed from all the surveillance cameras in the city will be overwritten with this one.::..
“Close enough,” Luthor chuckled.
..:: And the news cameras? ::.. Third asked. ..:: Those also.::.. came the reply.
Mercy looked at Lex in disbelief, and he shrugged with theatrical helplessness. ‘What was I to do? I had to tell them something,’ his look said.
“All stations online. The virus is ready to deploy,” she reported with a smile.
“Good,” Lex said dryly.
“And this is the background Metropolis has loaded to appear behind you onscreen,” she said, sending the animated graphic to the laptop.
Luthor raised a critical eyebrow. It was a little elaborate, like the ones on satirical news shows, but he liked the way the arched letters at the top suggested a halo behind his head.
“Satisfactory,” he pronounced. “With luck, we won’t have to use it. I don’t intend to be seen unless our Demon friends manage to get their message out. If this day can be the Alien’s alone, I would not interfere, but if they pull focus from him, I will have to show my hand. I won’t have a gang of presumptuous goatherds putting their stamp on things. All the time I’ve lost repairing the damage done by that odious Talia, I will not have the first months of this effort wasted having to reeducate the public about the irrelevance of fanatical peasants and their cult of—”
..:: No,::.. Fifth Fang said, pointing to a monitor that showed a close-up on the rigged oranges, melons and grapefruit.
..:: So they found it, there’s nothing they can do now,::.. Third Fang said contemptuously as the noise coming from the stadium took on the rising anxiousness that foreshadows panic. This was it. They had won. That much Dragon Breath in proximity and agitated by the vibrations of the music and the crowd, it was only a matter of time—and that not minutes but seconds. No power on earth could prevent its explosion now, and then—
..::Not that, him,::.. Fifth said as Superman flew gracefully into the stadium and the music ground to a halt.
Though he could have overheard Mercy’s appeal to Lois or any of the confused murmurs among the cameramen, Superman waited until the first beats of alarm began rising in the crowd. Then he descended swiftly and made a full sweep circling the field at the eye level of the top row of spectators. Showboating, Luthor would have said, but in those few seconds, everyone in the crowd saw. They all knew he was there, they knew the situation was known, whatever it was. They still didn’t know what was happening, but the most powerful man in the world was on the scene to take care of it. The growing threat of a panicked stampede died, just like that.
“It’s okay, folks!” the Man of Steel announced, his voice echoing powerfully around the stadium. “Remain calm. Everything is under control. We’ll have the show ready to resume as soon as possible.”
“Break in, quickly,” Third Fang said as Superman piled three of the wagons into a precariously balanced load and flew them out to sea. “If Superman is seen, the reporters, they will be reporting the story, yes? There is no explosion dispersing the dragon and no stampede, but Superman is there, they know something is happening. So they will report that and Lex Luthor’s measures to hijack the broadcast will be in place. Quickly, before he returns, put my face on those screens so I am seen by everyone in the stadium.”
He cleared his throat and he appeared in a medium close-up on each of the monitors in the trailer, and an extreme close-up with a racing counter on the laptop. He cleared his throat again and began:
“Citizens of the world,” he paused and glanced furtively at the monitors, saw his own eyes looking peculiarly off to the side on each screen, and then peered intently straight into the camera and began again. “Citizens of a world that dares hold the great Ra’s al Ghul prisoner, today was but a demonstration,” he improvised. “Over 2,000 kilos of the deadly powder called Mushussu’s Breath was brought into your midst. Ground from the spores of the deadly Mushussu Tree, this powder was known to your forefathers as the Breath of the Red Serpent, a substance so deadly that a mere handful blown into the wind could fell armies. We have given you your lives this day, given them as a demonstration that your lives are ours to give. Gratitude alone would compel a civilized people to accede to our demands, but we know many of you are not civilized. Take it then as a warning. We can strike you down at any time. We will if the mighty one Ra’s al Ghul, light of the East and terror of the West, is not—.”
“Oh, stop, stop, stop,” Luthor said, entering the trailer with two fingers pressed to his eyebrow as if massaging a headache. Mercy stood with him, pointing a gun and looking bored. “No one is listening,” he explained with a condescending smile. “I was going to let your signal display in here to keep you from doing any harm while SIEVE was launched, but unfortunately, due to some cost-cutting they did with these mobile units, that meant that you were tying up my screens at the same time. And I really can’t allow that. What I have to monitor is important.” And, he thought privately, I feel myself getting dumber every minute I listen to you.
“We have an agreement,” Third Fang barked as his eyes darted from Luthor to the barrel of Mercy’s Walther PPK/S and back to Luthor.
“We did,” Lex admitted. “But the Alien showed up so promptly, the worker bees of the media are already reporting his appearance. So exciting for them, so newsworthy, the Alien in all his colorful showboating glory. SIEVE will already be infiltrating their networks and—ARRGH!”
Third Fang had rushed Mercy as Fifth flung a shuriken into her wrist, Third bumped her hand from below, knocking the gun free where he caught it in both hands, and pointed it at her sideways with his right. In virtually the same instant, Fifth spun to punch Luthor, Luthor blocked with surprising speed and strength, which Fifth countered by biting.
“ARRGH!” Lex cried, his free hand on the madman’s forehead trying to push him away while Fifth’s teeth clamped down harder on the outer part of Luthor’s hand just below the knuckle.
Third pistol-whipped Mercy, who fell back into one of the empty console chairs while Lex was forced into the other.
“Now,” Third said, tossing the gun aside as a weapon unfit for a Demon of his rank and drawing his dagger to point at the center of Luthor’s forehead. “You will please to put my face on the screens out there for all the world to see, as agreed.”
Luthor chuckled. “No,” he said. “That is not possible. But if you allow me to get on with my work and see that SIEVE is deployed, all the world can still think it happened.”
“What are you talking about and what is this sieve?”
“Synchronous International Emergency Valuation Environment,” Lex said with an oily grin. “It’s a virus that will slave all the world’s media channels, from the satellites to the broadcast centers, affiliates and connecting networks, so I can block, rewrite, filter or otherwise ransom the news from now on. You will have made your speech just now, if I wish. That’s what can be reported everywhere from the Daily Planet to the BBC to Le Figaro, Al Jazeera, the Gotham Post and the Times-Picayune. You will have murdered hundreds, or thousands, got the solemn word of the King of Atlantis himself that Ra’s al Ghul will be released.”
“But… he didn’t,” Third Fang pointed out.
“I say he did. Which will make him look very bad when it doesn’t happen. There will be protests in Cairo, hunger strikes in New Delhi, rioting in Kuala Lumpur.”
“You really think you can achieve this?”
“It’s what the news will say. Does it matter if it really happens?”
“This is pointless. We know we can’t trust you,” Fifth Fang pointed out. “You will not keep your word.”
“I may, if it suits me,” Lex said. “Virtually any city but Atlantis will be brought to heel if they want news to flow freely to their fire departments, police and hospitals, so every nation can be compelled to pressure Atlantis into freeing your master. And even if Atlantis is content to resist the entire surface world, Aquaman will not find it pleasant remaining in the Justice League if his obstinacy allows Gotham and Metropolis to burn. The opportunity to drive that wedge into the central axis of the Justice League is what attracted me to your situation, Third Fang. Now, it’s time for you to remove your pointy stick from my face.”
Mercy had risen, pulled the shuriken from her hand, and held it to Third Fang’s throat. While she corralled the two Demons in the front of the trailer, where the original operators appeared to be bleeding out, Luthor removed the Demon’s USB from the laptop and replaced it with his own.
“Now, let’s connect with the bunker and confirm that the SIEVE deployment is complete,” he said, condescending to touch the keyboard with his own hands and muttering to himself as he typed. “Superman’s appearance is being reported everywhere, good, good. I don’t want to tax the centrum while the system correlation protocols are in effect taking all that data representing all those news alerts into the cynosure, but those operations are exclusively in the core. There should be enough processing free in the polestar to seize the C&C, and once we’ve shut out their ability to bother us here, we’ll see about clarifying what the Alien really did here this afternoo—”
He was interrupted by a roar of tearing metal as the back wall of the mobile unit was ripped open to reveal Superman in an irritated hover and Batman standing with an impatient scowl.
“You do know I can hear you?” Superman asked smugly.
“Late, as one might have expected,” Luthor said smoothly. “The digital age version of ‘the airwaves’ are mine, Superman. Were you prepared to fry me where I stand, it wouldn’t halt the super-computer three times the size of a football field which has become the intersect of all news-related data, globally.”
“You sure?” Batman asked in an ominous baritone.
Luthor hated having to turn from the Man of Steel to check the laptop screen, but the sheer force Batman packed into those two words made it involuntary. He couldn’t be sure without—
“No, but, that’s impossible,” he sputtered, offended pride coiling into nausea as he heard himself utter the cliché.
“Show him,” Batman ordered, and Superman shot an alternating pulse of heat and cold across the parking lot which, just for a brief second, revealed a honeycombed mesh of invisible waves circling the stadium and radiating outward. “Call it a counter measure, uploaded onto the gadgets of everyone who passed through the security screening,” he explained as Luthor abandoned his position at the mobile screens and stepped down from its platform for an unrestricted view. “Creating a protective mesh that prevented your virus from transmitting. The media reported their stories, the satellites broadcast the signals, without being infected or transmitting the virus. SIEVE never launched.”
“Then what’s that?” Mercy said, pointing to the monitors where lines of blue text overtook the screen from left to right, each character flickering wildly like something from the Matrix decoding before their eyes. Some characters, still ever-changing, glowed brighter while some darkened, until an image took shape behind the text. A pale face—video of an extreme close-up of an unnaturally pale face, from the top of the eyebrows to the bottom edge of the chin. In between, a sickeningly familiar smile…
“Hi!” the Joker said, a bizarre mechanical voice distortion doing nothing to conceal his identity.
Lex ran back to his original position, looking at the display in horror as the blood drained from his face to produce a deathly gray.
“Hi, hiiiiiiiiiii, hi, hey, ho, heeee,” Joker went on. “This is silly. I sound like I ate Darth Vader.” He coughed a few times, evidently found a button, and resumed in his normal voice. “Hahhaha—better! Let the games begin!”
“Joker,” Batman snarled, as the text began to fully decrypt, revealing such phrases as Why did the chicken cross the road? and What’s the deal with airline food?
“Joker,” Superman whispered, as the camera shot slowly zoomed out, revealing a confusing mass behind him…
“Joker,” Luthor wheezed, as the small patches of decrypted text began to fade, ever so slowly…
“That’s me!” Joker said brightly. “So, I’m sitting at home, minding my own business, when my best girl Harls comes around with a sack of White Castles and the news that Lexxie is reaching out to the psychology types, snarf…”
“He’s at the C&C,” Batman and Luthor realized at the same moment when the image behind Joker clarified enough for them to see it was this very camera shot playing on the 80-screen video wall in the Operations Room Selina had dubbed ‘Mission Control meets Bond Villain wet dream.’
“Go,” Batman barked, and Superman was gone in a blue-red blur before Joker finished snarfing.
“Those are the Eggo McMuffins with letters after their name that actually think—get this—they have some understanding of the human mind, HAHAHAHA! Isn’t that a riot? So anyway, he reaches out to Hugo Strange and Johnny Crane, and they naturally thought she’d have got the tap too, but when they asked her, she knew nothing about it. Hee hee.”
“My god, those crazies talk to each other?” Lex said incredulously.
“Something you should know about the ladies, Lexxypoo. They get all kinds of bitchy if they think they’ve been left off a list, you should—oh, here we go. Enough small talk. Superman is here to take me in. Boy, he is a fast one, Batsy! Little hard on the walls, it seems. This is why they can’t have nice things in Metropolis…”
Joker stood before the glass wall of the Situation Room as he chattered, with the Operations Room clearly visible behind him. It made an impressive visual for interviews, as the architects intended, the video wall that normally showed the feeds of the many surveillance cameras throughout the city, but now had only a 4x4 blow-up of his personal Joker-cam. The vid screen image was seen turning disconcertingly from the camera as he turned to greet Superman. From his new vantage point, Superman could see what the camera could not, the rows of consoles on the Operations Room floor where a hundred workers would normally be busy manning their stations. Now, it was deathly still. Most had fled, but eight weren’t fast enough and were sprawled in their chairs with hideous death grins.
“You’re done here, you maniac,” he began, but Joker shook his head grinning and held up a cylinder the size of a PEZ dispenser with a single silver button on the end that his thumb depressed like a dead man switch.
“Now, now, never rush the punchline,” he said. “You can punch me in the face, here and now, preventing me from pushing the shiny little button, that one right there on the keyboard, that will unleash the LexCorp Super-virus to all the satellites, and then you can pop me away in Arkham where I will be unable to inject a few laughs into the daily news that it so desperately needs-HAHAHAHAHA! But if you do that, I’d probably let go of this button and then all those orphans in that mine up the river would go poof, or boom. Poof or boom, and then… Oh my, he left.”
Joker directed the last words back to the camera, and back at the decimated mobile trailer, Batman was applying pressure to the still bleeding operator’s knife wound. He glared hatefully up at the screen and that victorious grin as the Joker counted down:
“Cinco, Quatro, Três, Dois, Um!” and then, eyes shining into the camera with ecstatic joy, he touched the button on the keyboard releasing SIEVE into the world.
To be continued...