METRO INTERNATIONAL NEWS NETWORK... BREAKING NEWS: BATMAN IS NOT FRENCH... OIL RIG EXPLOSION IN NORTH SEA... OR MAYBE NOT... OIL RIG EXPLOSION IN CASPIAN SEA... MADE YA LOOK, NOT REALLY... OIL RIG FIRE IN NORTH SEA, GUESS THAT ONE WAS REAL AFTER ALL... HAHAHAHA...
It was War Time at the Daily Planet. Perry looked like he’d aged twenty years since Thursday; Lois like she’d aged ten, though nobody wanted to say so. On what used to be a relatively quiet desk between Perry’s office and the assignment desk, the smaller of two monitors beeped signaling an incoming news alert. On the second beep, the animated screensaver flickered to reveal a complicated screen where a shared spreadsheet kept the DP staff constantly updated on the stories slated for the next issue. Above this were two windows where hundreds of bulletins came into the system each day from AP and other wire services. The nonsense like lottery numbers and the return of the McRib were supposed to be filtered out before reaching the city desk. The rest displayed on a narrow menu on the left, coded yellow, orange or red depending on their significance. By Perry’s edict, the system had been jury-rigged so only alerts graded orange and above beeped. This was to prevent staffers muting the sound, which they invariably did after the ninth or tenth piece of yellow-tagged fluff.
“I got it,” Lois and Jose Moreno said together, the junior reporter rising an inch or so from his chair before Lois’s savage “It’s my turn, I said I’d get it” made him stop.
“Lois,” Cat Grant said in a gentle tone that was all but unknown from the brash columnist—and which made Lois turn on her with such ferocity that, had she been a super-powered Kryptonian, one could easily imagine a blast of heat vision frying Cat on the spot.
“It’s my turn,” Lois intoned with dangerous calm. “When it’s my turn, I do my job. I’m here to do my job.”
“Okay,” Cat said kindly, and walked away, the barely perceptible pause as she passed Jose’s desk the only hint of a rebuke.
Without turning, Lois imagined them meeting each other’s eyes with that horrible… patience. Guilt and shame slithered in her stomach. Nobody was upset with her. She’d behaved horribly and all any of them could do was be kind and patient and look at her with pity. With admiration even, because she was here at the Planet in their hour of need. Any normal woman would be with her husband, after all. But she was here at work and helping however she could—when they’d let her. She had to keep fighting to do her job because Jose and Cat and Jimmy and Lombard—and even Perry occasionally—kept trying to do things for her so she wouldn’t have to bother. And Jimmy kept leaving her pick-me-ups he probably couldn’t afford: flowers, a novelty mug filled with lollypops, a stuffed bear with a balloo—Oh hell.
One dead, eighteen injured in a series of shootings across Metropolis’s South Side and West Side since Friday…
A news alert like that should certainly be red, but in the Jokerized SIEVE-infected system, it naturally came in yellow while the winner of a crawfish eating challenge in Star City scored red. Lois upgraded the shooting to an orange, which used to mean a developing story that might go red, now it meant a red that had not been confirmed. She dialed her contact at the 19th Precinct and, while she waited, she deleted the crawfish story. A minute later, she was relieved that Hill denied any of the sixteen shootings in the article had taken place, though relief was quickly replaced by guilty annoyance. Hill asked about Clark’s condition and how Lois was holding up, and then said he and everyone at the 19th were praying for him.
Lois marked the news alert false and forwarded it to Wayne Tech, then she walked past Perry’s door to say she was taking a break and would be back in ten minutes… even though nobody expected her to announce it, given the fragile state she was supposed to be in.
She went up to the observation deck, and even though there was zero chance Superman was in earshot, she whispered her complaints to the wind: “Clark, this is the dumbest idea you ever cooked up, you and your friend, the other master of the ID game.”
No shopping spree or exclusive interview could make up for this insanity—and it was insane. With Joker at the helm of a Luthor-built system to sabotage news and emergency information, Superman was busy. He was going to be busy 24/7 for the foreseeable future. The whole Justice League would, but the whole Justice League didn’t have an alter ego who worked at the Daily Planet. Of all the newsrooms thrown into chaos by SIEVE, the Daily Planet felt especially vulnerable. Even with Joker in charge, Luthor had built the thing, and the first hours of its operation saw a dozen stories hit the news wires that Luthor had presumably arranged beforehand: stories claiming Perry White was arrested for cocaine possession, that Lois Lane denied accusations of the Pulitzer Prize committee that her nominations were payment for sexual favors, that a warrant had been issued for Clark Kent for violation of the Espionage Act, that Kent had fled the country with stolen government documents, and that a petition calling for a congressional probe of the Daily Planet had already received 600,000 signatures. With each new development, more and more outlets were realizing the wire services were corrupted, and only a single Murdoch paper in Australia ran the final story that the Kent exposes that plagued the Luthor administration must be reevaluated in light of recent events.
By that time, new stories were popping up that were obviously more Jokerish in origin, such as the epidemic of exotic pet escapes in Gotham City. Amidst sightings of a macaque monkey, a bobcat and an eleven-foot anaconda, revisions and corrections of the Daily Planet story started to appear: Perry White’s arrest was for possession of lemon meringue pies made with unpasteurized eggs. Lois Lane’s Pulitzer was payment for party favors, not sexual favors, specifically Day of the Dead piñatas smuggled in from Mexico when she interviewed Acrata. Clark Kent was wanted for stealing secret government research on the correlation between hemorrhoids and inactive hair follicles.
Unfortunately for everyone, the false news became harder to identify after those opening volleys. Every newsroom felt the strain, but the Planet was especially paranoid, having been targeted so pointedly in those first hours. Perry had called for all hands on deck, and there was no way—no way at all—Clark could dash off whenever he wanted to ‘meet a source.’ Compounded with the increased demands on Superman making it impossible for him to appear as Clark at all, it seemed like there was no other way but to make Clark disappear for a while. Bruce suggested a lie that dovetailed perfectly into what was known about the Olympics: Lois and Clark were covering the ceremonies, Superman did appear and dispersed a threat. It was perfectly plausible that Clark was the one person exposed, that he was quarantined in a hospital in Rio undergoing treatment… It solved Clark’s problem and Superman’s—and the Justice League’s and the world’s... It even allowed Lois to return to work and do all she could to save the Planet and keep real news flowing in Metropolis.
She just had to make her peace with everyone’s sympathy.
BREAKING NEWS: LAST MINUTE NEGOTIATIONS COLLAPSE, WALKOUT OF AIR TRAFFIC CONTROLLERS IMMINENT… LABOR SECRETARY ASSURES PUBLIC ONLY AIRPORTS WITH THE LETTER H IN THEIR NAME WILL BE AFFECTED…
The fire was out. The oil spill contained and the crew of the oil rig safe, although they weren’t having a terribly pleasant time as they waited for the official transport sent from Norway to bring them home. Aquaman was waiting with them and, when Superman left, he was just glaring as if they were personally responsible for drilling in the North Sea. It wasn’t fair, and another day Superman would have stayed to smooth it out. What a luxury it seemed now: time to linger after a crisis and see that everything was settling as it should. How many days had it been since he took that luxury for granted.
“Rig is done. What’s next?” he asked, and the Justice League communicator crackled before the answer came.
..::You know there’s a limit to how much salt water and heat these things will stand,::.. an unexpected voice replied, and Clark shook his head. Plastic Man had been in the Monitor Womb when the oil rig exploded. If Diana had relieved him, that meant he’d lost track of time... again.
“Evening, Princess,” he said, forcing a smile into his voice to cover his surprise. “I’ll give it a few hours to dry out, and if it’s still acting up at the end of the shift, I’ll be up to replace it.”
She didn’t buy it, and with an almost maternal firmness told Earth’s mightiest hero that he’d find himself locked out of the Watchtower if he tried.
..:: There’s also a limit to how many double shifts you can give yourself, Kal. I know you took the oil rig because of the fire, but it’s out now. J’onn is covering your spot out there, I’m up here. Go home and get some rest.::..
“But—” he began, only to be cut off with a curt ..::Now.::.. before another burst of staticky crackling indicated the channel was closed.
Home and rest were the last things he wanted. If he went back to Metropolis, there would certainly be crises he could help with, but being in Metropolis, Lois would find out and her urging wasn’t as easy to deflect as Diana’s. He could go to the Fortress and not be bothered. There he could monitor as much of the world’s news and emergency channels as the Watchtower. There was just the risk of picking the same crisis as the League and getting in each other’s way.
Without realizing, he shifted his hip, changing course almost a minute before his mind crystalized the thought that his body already decided on: he could go to Gotham. There would be just as many crises there, and Bruce would be the last person to insist on home and rest when there was work to be done. He called in his approach before entering Wayne Manor airspace, though he doubted anyone would care if that alert went off right now. Rather than take his usual route straight to the cave, he landed on the helicopter pad near the south lawn and walked to the house like a neighbor dropping in for a chat. Alfred was waiting on the terrace like it was the most natural thing in the world—but Superman could see the exhaustion in his eyes, and immediately he felt guilty.
“How’s it going, Alfred? How’s everybody doing?” he asked.
“The situation is as one might expect, sir. The Joker’s approach to Gotham news differs radically from that of other places. He is amusing himself manipulating both, but…”
“But Gotham is Batman’s city,” Superman sighed.
“And home to a great many people he knows personally. That has sparked a number of stories reflecting his likes and dislikes, one imagines. ‘Hugo Strange killed by vending machine’ and so on. On the surface, these stories present less difficulty as the most obtuse can recognize their fabricated nature. There is no danger of them siphoning off emergency services from real crises even when the systems are linked. But there is a danger that a slandered party may react, and when that party is a Killer Croc...”
“Yes, I can imagine,” Superman interrupted. “But I really meant how’s it going here, in the house. How is Bruce doing, and Selina? How are you holding up?”
“The day is not without its challenges, sir, but this household has never shrunk from a challenge.”
“That’s a very diplomatic answer, now how about an honest one?” asked Earth’s Mightiest Hero.
“You know Master Bruce, sir, what is there to say? The city is in crisis and he would prefer to give it his full attention, but the Joker is inflicting himself on the world stage. Batman is the recognized expert on the Joker’s pathology. His expertise is being sought by everyone. All his time is spent evaluating the news alerts submitted, to say nothing of conflicting data corrupting the emergency systems…”
“Meaning he doesn’t have time to eat and sleep, let alone patrol as Batman,” Clark noted.
“Quite, sir. One believes he resents the latter much more than the former.”
“That sounds about right.”
BREAKING NEWS: HOSTAGE CRISIS AT WORLD SUMMIT OF NOBEL PEACE LAUREATS INTENSIFIES AS JUSTICE LEAGUE DUFUS SHOWS UP AT WRONG HOTEL AFTER INACCURATE NEWSCAST… “OOPS, MY BAD,” SAYS CNN’S WOLF BLITZER.
...Arts & Leisure
Superman was surprised when Alfred bypassed the door to Bruce’s study and the clock entrance to the Batcave. Instead, he went straight to the kitchen and the elevator in the butler’s pantry, which held a second surprise of Catwoman in full costume riding up with a tray of food.
“No luck,” she announced stoically when the door opened and then acknowledged him with a brief “Oh hey, Spitcurl,” before continuing. “I’m sorry, Alfred; I told you, you have an exaggerated sense of my abilities. You see the way things are now and forget the years before I moved in. Historically, this is how it works: I tempt him; he says no. I sweeten the offer; he says no again. I flash the claws, make a threat, he blows me off. I pull out all the stops and come at him with something that… that I’m not going to say in front of delicate Smallville ears but I guarantee you would make any rational, red-blooded, heterosexual man drop to his knees and thank the Living God he was a red-blooded heterosexual man. He grunts and goes back to what he was doing.” She turned to Superman and added “That’s what we’re back to: Meow-No-Repeat. The score is 78 to 3.”
“An admirable record, Miss Selina. You’ve achieved his eating an entire omelet, taking a nap and having a six minute conversation while eating a pork chop with a knife and fork rather than gulping one of those odious seaweed concoctions with his eyes glued to the computer screens. And I believe your victories have now expanded to four,” Alfred said, peering at the tray. “It appears he ate the soup.”
“No, that was me; I skipped breakfast,” Selina said. “C’mon, Spitcurl, I’ll walk you down. He’s waiting for you, but I want to talk to you first so we’ll take the long way.”
Clark was used to the feeling that everything about a visit to Wayne Manor had been foreseen by its owner and to deviate from the expected path was a bit rude. Today as always he played along, but it was slightly more unnerving with Selina sliding her arm through his and pointing to the kitchen door. By ‘the long way’ she evidently meant outside, across the grounds and in through the Batmobile entrance.
“I guess this is going to be a long talk,” he guessed.
“Nah, not too bad,” she teased. “I just figured you like having these chats outdoors, so why not. Sunshine, fresh air, it’s nice.”
“It is,” he agreed cautiously. “By ‘these chats’ you mean… delicate subjects. ‘Speaking truth to Kyrpton.’”
“Asking for some truth from Krypton in this case. Look, Joker might be driving this thing, but the virus and the AI supercomputer-intersect-whatever that’s coordinating its data were all made by Luthor as part of a Luthor-plot. And there’s one thing you, me and Lex have in common: Batman has our number. He’s spent considerable time figuring out how we think, playing out what-ifs and working out a response. The big difference is that people like me and Lex look at it as a cost of doing business, where people like you and the League—”
“Resent being treated like criminals,” Clark said while Selina finished “Get your collective panties in a bunch.”
“This is leading to a question?” Clark asked, assuming his cross-armed Superman pose that had never once impressed anyone in Gotham. But today, Selina softened a bit. She was finally getting to her delicate subject, he supposed.
“I know more about Luthor’s resignation than I did a year ago,” she said. “But it’s still just pieces of a puzzle, and I haven’t quite got the whole picture. I’d like your piece. Bruce intimated that there was tension between the two of you, enough that barely-related topics like the tech divisions are still a sore subject.”
“The White House press corps is like a village. There’s always a buzz in the room, usually two or three that blow over before they can become a full-blown rumor let alone actual news, let alone news that sticks. This was different. This was building the way stories form outside Washington. In a little under forty-three hours, reporters who’d covered the White House for decades went from laughing in disbelief to saying ‘Kentgate’ with a straight face. And speculating if this is what was leaking to the press, what on earth was being said behind closed doors?
“Still, when the word came—resignation at 11 tomorrow—everyone who knew Luthor, i.e. everyone in the League, knew it just couldn’t be. Luthor Resign? Luthor? Lex Luthor doesn’t give up. Ever. Which meant he hadn’t; he had to have been forced into this. It was checkmate, it had to be. We couldn’t see the rest of the board, the chessmen or the other player, but it was a checkmate.”
“And everyone knew who the other player was,” Selina noted with a hint of pride in her voice.
“Of course. Which meant, happy as we were about the result, we’d just seen a Batman protocol in action. It made a lot of people uncomfortable. Including me.”
“I see,” Selina bit her lip thoughtfully.
The guilt that had shadowed Clark since his arrival, and the unease that had been building since he stepped outside with Selina, gave way to a burst of understanding. He suddenly saw it, all of it:
“Bruce never envisioned Luthor using his Demon connections to have me killed,” he said as realization dawned. “He had evidence prepared to move once Lex committed a criminal act, and the attempt on my life would have fit his catch-all plan. But he must have had a number of more specific plans geared to more likely transgressions, right?”
“And something like this would have been at the top of the list,” he continued. “A sophisticated AI program engineered to control the news and—”
“No, not quite,” Selina interrupted. “A sophisticated AI engineered to monitor communication in data streams, see how people were talking about events and evaluate. Reshape it when it didn’t fit Lex’s agenda. Spin the news, but not making it up wholesale like what’s going on now. Bruce gave Lex credit for a lot more subtlety, and more patience.”
“Well that makes sense,” Clark said. “When he was riding high as POTUS he was more patient, and more disciplined. It’s all the reversals since then that made him rash.”
“The point is, the plot that Joker stepped into is markedly different from what Bruce foresaw. This is literally deciding what the public sees.”
“So Batman’s response scenario needs work,” Clark said.
“Yes, the protocol is a big head start, but it needs… what you said, ‘work.’ I don’t know how much, how many hours… which we don’t have. He won’t take time to sleep, do you know why? Because Joker has to, at some time, and that’s the only ‘exploit’ he can see. For a few hours each day he can get ahead rather than straining to keep up.”
“Well that’s just typically Bruce,” Clark said angrily. “The fact that he’ll be exhausted, thinking less and less clearly while Joker gets a good night’s sleep—”
Selina just shook her head wearily, and Clark guessed that he wasn’t saying anything she and Alfred hadn’t thought a hundred times.
“What do you want me to do?” he asked.
“I have no idea,” she admitted. “Go in there and, I don’t know, be super?”
BREAKING NEWS: HELICOPTER CRASH ON VERMONT-NEW HAMPSHIRE BORDER UNRELATED TO DISPUTE OVER MAPLE SYRUP TARIFFS, SAYS GOVERNOR… STILL ACTIVATES NATIONAL GUARD AS TENSIONS ESCALATE… SHOTS FIRED AT RELEASE OF NEW JAMES PATTERSON NOVEL, SUSPECT IN CUSTODY HAS TIES TO OXFORD COMMA EXTREMISTS…
...Page Six and Three Eighths
Be super, Selina said. When he reached the main cavern, the first thing Clark saw was Bruce rubbing his eyes, and the text on the central workstation screens was magnified. What was the super-solution to Batman being stubborn?
The guilt returned, churning in his gut like the first moments of kryptonite exposure. This was his fault: what Gotham was going through, Metropolis… Everywhere. Because he made a bad call. He was there. Joker never should have been able to launch that virus. He was there, he should have stopped it, instead…
He found himself looking at the spot where Selina told him off once about a bad judgment call as she saw it, and he found his mind was back on the path they’d walked from the house. That throwback to their talk at the waterfall where she’d also been… honest… As angry and hurt and betrayed as she felt about the mindwipe, she had been frank and honest and spoken Truth to Krypton. He thought back angrily at how she hadn’t done it today. Where was her indignation now? He’d let Joker do this. He had. Gotham and the world were at that madman’s mercy and it was killing Bruce… who had got up from his workstation and walked off to the gymnasium.
Changing his focus to see through the wall, Clark could see him getting a pitcher of… something from the mini-fridge. He poured it into a glass, which did nothing to help Clark identify it. It was a clotted, vividly green, mostly liquid… something. It was what Clark imagined a kryptonite smoothie might look like. At least it solved the problem of how to announce himself. Superman went to the workstation and waited so it would seem like he’d arrived while Bruce was getting his… snack.
“What is that?” he asked, pointing at the glass without further greeting.
“Kelp, coconut oil and turmeric,” Bruce said.
Rather than share the kryptonite smoothie observation (or his suspicion that a k-smoothie might be preferable) he asked how it was going and Bruce said “I’ve been expecting you.”
Clark said he stopped to talk with Alfred and Selina before coming down, but Bruce said “No, I meant I’ve been expecting you for days.”
“There were fires to put out,” Clark said coldly.
“Yes,” Bruce graveled. “One in particular. Clark, Joker knew it was a Luthor scheme he was hijacking and that meant it was a near certainty he’d be facing you. He’s insane, but he’s not delusional. He knows what he is: an amoral psychopath, but an otherwise completely mortal human. He knew he wouldn’t be able to BANG-flag Superman in the face, and there’s no ‘fun’ beating you with a crowbar. You’d just stand there while the crowbar shattered. The only way to beat you was to get in your head, and that’s what he did… Orphans in a mine, explosives and a dead man switch, it’s perfect. His mission is accomplished; he got away. He’s probably forgotten all about it by now. But on your end, he’s still in your head.”
“You do know that profiling everyone you know is rude, right? Taking apart all of your friends as they’re seen by all of your enemies—”
“Not all my enemies; Joker is a special case. And ‘rude’ or not, I’m not wrong. You’re been beating yourself up for days taking double and triple shifts with the Watchtower—”
“Selina is walking around in costume at one in the afternoon because she figures purple leather, whip and memories have a better chance of getting you to eat lunch,” Clark announced.
“—because you’re focusing on what happened in Brazil and not why.”
“Bruce, you’ve been working around the clock too; you don’t get to tell me—”
“Because it’s Joker. I’m working around the clock because it’s Joker, and I know what my limits are, and I know what has to be done. It’s not because I won’t slow down to keep from facing the guilt.
“Clark, you have to see what really happened in Brazil. Put yourself in Joker’s head: You’re a smart, unpredictable and completely amoral psychopath, who is otherwise a completely mortal human, and you're challenging a physical god with a decent ordinary man's moral compass. This is what you do: orphans in a mine, ha-ha-ha-ha, Superman will have no choice but to go up-up-and-away to save all those kiddies from the barbecue pit and that gives you time to launch your virus and escape.
“Joker beat you because he knew how to fight you. Don’t you see that? It’s not that he did it, it’s that he knew how. He can see where you live, what your values are—Clark, the Joker can see it. Forget the museum exhibit and man-on-the-street interviews in Bangladesh, the most viciously amoral psychopath alive looks at Superman and sees that this guy values life above all else. Nobody outside of Hollywood sees a monster.”
Clark’s lip twitched.
Then he glanced at the cave entrance.
“I’m going to step outside and do a quick buzz around your rivers. Make sure everything’s okay in the city. Let your people see a cape during the day, one that has a little color in it.”
Bruce tried to stifle the puffy-grunt that passed for a laugh in the Batcave; he hated laughing in the Batcave…
“Then I’ll come back,” Clark went on with a growing grin. “We’ll start over, pretend I’m just getting here. Try this again.” He turned to go, and then turned back pointing at Bruce’s glass. “You should not drink that,” he advised. “That can’t possibly be good for you.”
BREAKING NEWS: HOMELAND SECURITY WORKING WITH LGBT COMMUNITY TO RECLASSIFY TERROR ALERTS. NEW COLORS UNDER CONSIDERATION INCLUDE LAVENDER, BURNT UMBER AND TURQUOISE.
…Business and Finance
Oh, that Harvard thing, 2 dead but they were landscape architecture majors so it doesn’t really matter.
Superman returned to the Batcave as if the first visit never happened, and once again he asked Bruce how it was going.
“Well enough,” Bruce replied. “He likes the word ‘chatter.’ It’s been an ongoing issue for the world’s counterterrorism units. All these news reports that one agency or another is picking up increased chatter. It’s certainly plausible that groups are maneuvering to take advantage of the situation, but it’s all-but-impossible to distinguish between real intelligence indicators and reports he’s made up as ‘the first line of a joke.’”
“A joke?” Clark asked.
“An arms supplier got a shipment of AK47s; government agents seized all but five. As they hunt for the rest, it sets off a roman candle at each location to mark the fifth anniversary of a murder he finds particularly funny, like candles on a birthday cake. This morning, we finally ironed out the algorithm to rate the reported indicators. The first hour of results are… encouraging.”
“That’s wonderful,” Clark said. “So you won’t have to personally evaluate those case by case anymore?”
“It shouldn’t have taken this long,” Bruce said darkly. “At first, I just needed a critical mass of false reports, but there was an outlier: an abnormal number involved Italy and Norway… Oh, speaking of Norway, the oil rig, was that real?” Clark nodded, and Bruce picked up where he left off. “So, Italy and Norway, the consultants couldn’t accept that it wasn’t significant. I tried to tell them it was random: a soccer game catches his eye or Harley brings home a cheese platter, it’s random chance. And when a fixation is random, it can disappear at any time. He cares one day and the next, he won’t even remember… Listen to me.” Again, he rubbed his eyes. “I’m rambling.”
“When was the last time you slept?” Clark asked.
“I already have two of them trying to handle me, Clark, I don’t need a third. I go through there, twenty minutes of deep meditation under the stalactite is as good as five hours sleep.”
“What can I take off your hands that frees up five hours for you to sleep the usual way.”
“Nothing. You’re not in Joker’s head the way I am. I have to do this myself. If there was another way, I’d be doing it—and if there was a way to free five hours, I certainly wouldn’t waste the time on a nap. There’s this—” his stopped uncharacteristically and clicked is tongue as if to cover it. Clark could tell that Bruce realized too late he was speeding towards a verbal trap and changed course. The change of subject was clumsy, for Bruce, but would have seemed natural enough in anyone else. “It probably sounds silly to you, but there’s this public... Wayne Tech is providing the central communication base for all the world’s news and emergency centers to send suspicious content for Batman to evaluate. Wayne Tech is. Bruce Wayne should certainly make an appearance—I should have done it already—but it’s an hour and a half minimum away from here.”
“Oh that’s no problem, send Selina,” Clark said, abandoning Superman’s manner for the easy tone he’d use to pitch Perry. “She’s the perfect face to put on it. As Catwoman, there’s a known association with Batman that doesn’t need to be spelled out. It reiterates why Gotham is the hub for this without saying anything explicit that might set Joker off. A simple photo caption is much more likely to make it past whatever he’s doing to block stories involving Batman.”
“Yes, it is,” Bruce said thoughtfully.
“You see, it’s all about finding the right spin,” Clark concluded, trying not to lay too much emphasis on the final word.
Bruce’s eyes narrowed.
“She told you,” he said flatly. “Damn her.”
“You were about to tell me yourself, Bruce. Because you haven’t slept in how many days, you slipped up and started to say it, and then covered—covered very clumsily for you—with that bit about a public appearance at Wayne Tech. I doubt she’s doing much better. If you don’t think her judgment is the best right now, consider your own. Bruce, if you have a head start on this in the shape of an old Luthor protocol, tell me what it’s going to take to get you working on it fulltime.”
Bruce scowled as he stared at the chest emblem.
“Tae-Vrroshokh,” he said finally.
BREAKING NEWS: SUPREME COURT RULING EXPECTED TODAY IF CAN’T HURRY LOVE WAS BETTER THAN SOME DAY WE’LL BE TOGETHER.
... Related stories
Dick maintained the old Batcave discipline: he was in costume, but he didn’t put on the mask until he was ready to fully become Nightwing, and before he could do that… he went into the back room Barbara called her study where she was still setting up her core Oracle station for the night. He pulled up the side chair to sit opposite her, and waited for her to give him her full attention. Then he touched her thigh tenderly.
“Say the word and I’ll stay,” he said earnestly.
“And what would you do if you stay?” she asked pointedly.
“Rub your shoulders,” he offered. “Make you tea. I saw Alfred sent over a bag of the good stuff.”
“His contribution ‘to the war effort,’ as he put it,” Barbara grinned. “His special blend, and—huge compromise—he still doesn’t approve of bags, but he knows they’re easier for my set up here so he made up these little silk sachets that work the same way. He is allowing me to defile his sacred tea with convenience—so I don’t need you. The shoulder rub I’ll take when you get back.”
“Okay,” Dick said, leaning in to kiss her cheek before he put on the mask. “I still want to stay for the takeover.”
His eyes had that gleam… For later, they said. And Barbara’s lips curled into that secret smile. He was thinking this was going to be a turn-on. She adjusted her glasses and placed her finger on the scanner, bringing the OraCom online… He was probably right.
..:: Watchtower, standing by,::.. Wonder Woman said on the top right side-screen.
..:: Lantern, standing by, ::.. chirped Kyle Rayner as the screen beneath it sprang to life.
..:: Fortress of Solitude, ::.. Superman’s voice boomed from the speaker under the central monitor as the screen above displayed his emblem in a slow-rotating circle and the lower right side-screen divided into a four part grid with Flash, Kid Flash, Superboy and Supergirl smiling up at her. ..:: We’re all here, standing by, ::.. he concluded.
“Dramatic pause, you know he’s got to go last,” Dick whispered as Barbara squelched a laugh and swatted behind her chair to clip his legs.
..:: Batcave, ready on your mark, Oracle, ::.. came the familiar gravel as the double row of screens on the left briefly displayed the bat emblem and then broke down into a matrix of data, news and camera feeds.
“Acknowledged, Watchtower, Lantern, Fortress and Batcave. OraCom taking over,” Barbara said, blocking the Batcave as she added “The Age of Oracle has begun, a benevolent dictatorship, firm yet fair.” She brought Batman back on the channel before continuing. “Superman, Superboy, Supergirl, Flash and Kid Flash are mine, out of League rotation until you’re advised. Watchtower, if Superman arrives where you have someone on-site, they are to back off and not interfere, but notify me so I don’t have to assign anyone for clean-up when he moves on.”
Nightwing gave Barbara’s arm a squeeze before he left, while in the Batcave, Bruce waited to hear the Watchtower acknowledge the handoff. As soon as Oracle’s alpha status was confirmed, he muted the OraCom and dialed in another system. The Daily Planet logo appeared briefly, then Lois’s face in a corner video-conference window, while the rest of the screen displayed a computer desktop.
“Alright, Lois, just take a couple of deep breaths,” he advised. “Stay calm, concentrate, the first three or four, we’ll go slow. By the time you’ve done six, you won’t even be thinking about it.”
“And this is based on what?” Lois asked after the first deep breath.
“Years of training sidekicks,” he said. “Now, start by disabling the filters the Daily Planet has jury-rigged so you see all the current news alerts, no matter how clearly false. Sort by the probability that they are false. Then use your best judgment picking from the center.”
“And you want a fifty-fifty mix of true and false, special attention to anything that resembles the Rio Gambit on a global scale, special attention to anything that hits the hero nerve, yes?”
“Fifty-fifty to start, we’ll refine that as we go.”
“You got it,” Lois said excitedly.
Batman muted her while she selected the stories, and turned his attention to the purple light blinking on a side screen and touched the button beneath it.
“Wayne Tower, you heard?” he asked curtly.
“We heard,” Selina answered, the ‘we’ indicating Lucius was there, as expected. It meant discretion was needed, but that was a small price to avoid exposing the Batcave system to the world’s networks. And Clark was right about Selina being the face to put on it: Wayne Tech was Gotham, she had open ties to Batman and ties to Wayne. He couldn’t have planned it better if it was a protocol.
“Batman, we’ve got three clusters dedicated to this project,” Lucius explained as a layout of the servers appeared on the viewscreen. “This one will interface only with you, receiving data in scrambled pulses. Between pulses, we sever the connection to keep you isolated while this cluster connects to the other two, similar to the airlock on a space station.”
“I may have mentioned paranoia was a thing,” Selina put in.
“The next cluster is dedicated to analyzing the flagged news alerts for patterns and markers, and the last will be breaking down the data as you requested and feeding it to this Kyray.”
“Thank you, Mr. Fox. Miss Kyle… well done,” he said, and muted them to check on Lois. She’d picked her first news alert, sent it to Oracle, and now that Oracle had dispatched Superman to the first location in Nova Scotia, Lois was, predictably, second-guessing her choice. He told her to breathe, relax, and start on the next one, then he opened the channel to Kyle.
“You’re ready?” he asked.
As on the day of the Man’s Reach opening, Kyle stood in the alley courtyard on Museum Row, beside him, a giant breaker box made from lantern energy, though today it pulsed from a pale dim mint to a deep vivid neon green. The stage was gone, but a circle of small holographic boxes surrounded the space, no longer attached to TV screens but floating seemingly of their own accord.
“Ready as I’ll ever be,” he said uncertainly. “It’s trickier with all the communication satellites in orbit, but I was up there half the night getting a really clean visual from all angles. Clear image in my head, I think… I think I can do this.”
He flipped the switch and, as before, the boxes were activated. This time it was words like SHOOTING, RIOTS and AVALANCHE that sprung forth and, instead of bouncing out to the street, they clustered around a globe of light similar to the one that had graced the main arcade. Over the course of three minutes, Kyle concentrated and the globe became more complete. Topographic detail started to form, then the satellites appeared, and then, finally, the words POWER OUTAGE, INDUSTRIAL ACCIDENT, TRAIN DERAILMENT, FLOODING and BLIZZARD over Nova Scotia.
“Arrrgh,” Kyle growled in frustration, and Batman held his breath.
“C’mon, Rayner, you can do this,” he whispered.
Kyle closed his eyes, the satellites circling the globe flickered out for a minute, but then the floating words over Nova Scotia shrunk down to one green dot and four red ones.
Batman breathed a sigh of relief as the satellites returned, the globe began to rotate slowly, and a new red dot appeared over Newfoundland.
“Green is a confirmed news alert, red are verified false?” he asked.
“That’s right,” Kyle said.
“Lois, what was the last story you sent?” Batman asked.
“Helicopter in distress over Newfoundland, possibly crashed by now.”
Batman’s lip twitched, and for the first time he opened his Justice League channel.
“It’s was a fake. Oracle should have logged it by now. I’m heading for an overpass collapse in Ontario.”
Batman couldn’t prevent the lip twitch from stretching into a full smile.
“Roger,” he said, and then opened the channel so everyone heard him tell Kyle: “You did it” and Kyle heard the chorus of cheers from every station.
Over the next hour, the globe began filling in with red and green dots while the keywords denoting gunfire, hurricanes, earthquake and so on bobbled underneath the spinning globe, growing in size and brightness the more alerts they represented. Over the next five hours, as the dots grew denser, the Central Cluster at Wayne Tech identified commonalities and signatures to the false stories. Batman told Lois to adjust her news alerts to focus on certain markers. Whenever Superman found a news alert that was real, he overrode the instinct to act and moved on to the next, knowing Superboy or Supergirl, Flash or Kid Flash would be there in seconds to do the job.
Knowing didn’t make it easier, and the chatter on Batman and Superman’s private channel focused more and more on check-ins.
“That landslide in Kathmandu?” Superman asked. “I think Wally was still in Manila when I left, and the population is so dense in that area.”
“Oracle knows what she’s doing, Clark. Conner took Kathmandu; Bart, Mumbai; Kara, Dkaka. They all did fine; and O says half the time the Red Cross is on the scene within minutes of your going. She informs the locals as soon as a story is confirmed, you know that.”
“I know. That doesn’t make it easier to leave when I know something is really wrong down there.”
“Maybe not, but we need to keep up this pace. If you can’t keep it at thirty or more false stories an hour, we can’t reverse engineer the false signatures.”
“I know,” Clark repeated. “Crack the signatures and you can identify and filter out the bad alerts without crossing your fingers, restoring accuracy to the global networks. It’s still hard.”
“And the sooner we can ID the false alerts automatically, the sooner we can pinpoint their origin. One of the things that hasn’t changed from the original protocol: there has to be a supercomputer driving this thing, approximately three football fields in length. The sooner we find it, the sooner you can fly through it, smash the inevitable tastefully-furnished bunker at the far end, and punch Joker in the jaw.”
“You’ve given a lot of thought to this,” Clark noted.
“Down to the LexCorp clock on the wall and Luthor’s favorite brand of scotch at the bar. I’ve had five hours sitting here to picture it.”
“Well, I would offer you a piece,” Clark said with a smile, “But you took out Scarecrow on your own, so…”
“Hold,” Batman said suddenly.
It was a tone Superman knew; there was nothing quite like it. Something had happened that Batman did not anticipate. It was never a good sound, but when Joker was involved…
“Clark, I have some… good news. This is going to go faster than we thought.”
BREAKING NEWS: HOWLER MONKEYS AT SAN DIEGO ZOO TAKE TO TWITTER FOR 36 HOURS TO EXPRESS OUTRAGE AT NEGATIVE REVIEWS…
Superman flew high over Gotham to avoid being seen, when he spotted Catwoman’s Lamborghini leaving Wayne Plaza. Feeling more hopeful than he had in some time, and since there was no tactical reason to remain unseen, he dropped to pace her at street level and with a perky “Need a lift?” he hoisted the car and ascended again, heading north. In under a minute, he set her down in the museum’s nearest parking lot.
“You’re in a playful mood,” she noted, getting out of the car.
“With good reason, and you were obviously heading this way,” he said.
“You can see him scowling from here, I assume?”
She spoke as they turned the corner into the alley courtyard, and while Batman normally had her full attention whenever she encountered him, on this occasion she noted Green Lantern first. It was the first time they’d seen each other in costume since Selina Kyle became Kyray’s public patron, and she looked him over now with an approving smile.
“Suits you better,” she said dryly.
“I think so too,” he agreed, and then turned to the Tae-Vrroshokh globe and quickly pointed out the tweaks to the one they’d seen previously in the artwork.
“…Broadcast centers and satellites,” he concluded. “These were the hot spots spreading the virus that let Luthor’s thing hijack all those networks in the first place. But that’s not why they’re important now. Check this out.”
He touched his ring to the edge of the globe and the green lights representing verified news alerts faded, the red ones began to pulse and thin filaments began connecting them to each other, to the broadcast centers and satellites. Batman took up the narration:
“Now that it’s getting a constant stream of all the alerts SIEVE is putting out, we have a complete picture of how its data is running through the networks and the backscatter should very quickly determine the origin point.”
Superman looked at him critically.
“You said it could take four days to reach this stage. Two days was your best case, two solid days identifying thirty-plus false alerts an hour. How could you possibly get here so fast?”
Batman’s lip twitched.
“Even in Joker’s hands, this is a Luthor-engineered AI operating on a Luthor-built supercomputer. And you left people stranded in Manila. It’s an AI, it registers a Superman sighting, and then Flash—not Superman—is rescuing people a few miles away. I should have realized a system built by Luthor would have to include subroutines to connect those and generate a story: Superman is leaving people to die in crumbling a Philippines slum. Then the landslide in Kathmandu…”
“So you had true stories as well as false with its fingerprints,” Catwoman whispered.
“More than that, we could anticipate it. We knew where Superman was heading next, so we knew just what to look for if a story turned out to be a true one…” He turned to Superman and said, “After all Joker’s insanity, it was so simple. Luthor, he’s so predictable.”
As if on cue, the filaments connecting news alerts to networks intensified in certain areas began spawning new lines of colored light, as if they were light-spiders spinning a web with laser pointers. The spawning was sporadic at first, until one of the orbiting satellites was over the west coast of the United States, then more and more of the web-lines were seen bouncing off it to form a small shape on the border between California and Nevada.
“Is there a way to magnify that?” Batman asked.
Kyle thought about it.
“Well, this isn’t exactly HD video, but it’s not like I haven’t seen enough movies where that’s done. So…” He looked off to the side as if visualizing something, then pointed his ring to the globe. A square of Nevada expanded to cover most of North America. What had looked like a skin mole on the border was now filling in with a distinct shape: a long thin rectangle stretched from west to east, with a round protrusion in the south, to resemble an overhead view of the White House. To the north, a narrow diagonal connected it to another large four-sided shape that was something between a rectangle and a rhombus.
Batman took out a palm unit with the plans for a baffling installation with labels like: SIEVE Core, System Correlation Protocol, 1-34 Interior Vault Power Supply, SIEVE Interface. He held it up to the globe so everyone could see: rectangle, bulb, connecting corridor and rectangle-rhombus. It fit the shape perfectly.
“This was my rough outline for the system Luthor would have to build, from the original protocol.”
“You just happened to call it SIEVE?” Kyle asked.
“I updated it, obviously,” Batman said.
“Your rough outline includes the Interior Vault Power Supply?” Catwoman said.
“I added that last night, when you were asleep,” he graveled.
As a married man, Clark winced in anticipation of the death scowl that would bring and the retribution it promised, but Catwoman almost seemed to smile.
“Jackass,” she breathed.
“Well, we know where he is,” Superman said, changing the subject. “It’s a Luthor facility so it will have serious anti-Superman defenses. This won’t be a solo job.”
It probably wasn’t Luthor’s intention when he put the SIEVE installation so close to Nellis Air Force Base, but the location created a host of needless complications for the Batwing. To save time and reduce variables and risk, Batman opted for an ultralight glider and parachuting onto the grounds, an approach he hadn’t used since the Lhomme operation with Catwoman. That produced a final pang which he squelched as he neared the target. She was more experienced at this type of infiltration and maybe should have been included, but it was a Joker operation, Harley was probably on the premises as well, and Catwoman was supposed to stay out of it when Rogues were...
In any case, there was no more time to think about it as the GPS and timer sounded as one. Batman allowed the automated system to take over, sending it south where Clark was waiting for it. He leapt out, noting four K-lasers he would have to disable—but missing the fifth until it pivoted and shot a beam of dim green at his parachute. While the chute didn’t catch fire, it was sufficiently jostled to make the landing fast, hard and painful.
In the plus column, it was only an automated system. In Luthor’s day, there would be eight to ten armed guards and someone monitoring the lasers; the whole place would be on alert by now. Instead, there were only the Smilexed bodies of Luthor’s guards—the parts the coyotes hadn’t found, that is—left and forgotten where they fell.
As if that wasn’t enough of a flag to raise over the former Luthor base to indicate the change in management, there was a sign post with directional arrows pointing to Parumph to the east, Funeral Mountains to the west, Coyote Chow to the north, and just in case the last wasn’t enough of a signature, Gotham to the northeast with a tiny drawing of a bat-emblem being stepped on by a clown shoe.
Batman disarmed the lasers, one by one, and did a quick scan before Superman joined him.
“There’s nothing else out here,” he said once Superman landed. “What’s inside past the lead and what might be underground is conjecture, but if the SIEVE layout is what I showed you—and from a technical standpoint, I can’t imagine it being anything else—then his options for anti-Superman measures are limited.”
“So no robot tigers with kryptonite-laser sights?”
Batman’s lip twitched.
“No robot tigers. Staff, on the other hand…”
Superman looked at the building before them, at the ground to the left and right, then hovered, looked again and lowered slowly.
“Well, I can’t hear a thing. Heartbeats or servers or… anything. That’s expected. Sonic mesh. But I can’t see anything either, and that’s stranger than I can describe. A block that size under our feet, a shape that size covered in lead-based paint, it should stick out. But it… just doesn’t.”
“Camouflage, Clark. A solid impenetrable shape, of course you’d notice. But break it up, apply the lead paint in a camouflage or fractal pattern, and your brain does what everyone’s does, recognizes the natural variance and tunes it out, even when you know where to look and what you’re looking for.”
“Nice to know you’ve given it so much thought,” he muttered. Then he looked at the rotting remains of a LexCorp guard. “You really think any of the people are still alive?”
“Six technical staff, minimum, maybe as many as ten. Joker would need to keep them alive. Luthor would also have an unknown number of service staff. Their survival would have come down to a whim, but I’m betting he doesn’t have Harley cooking for twelve people.”
Batman made his way to the northernmost end of the installation, firing an EMP into whatever systems he passed through as he went but cursing that he couldn’t go straight for the SIEVE core. For the safety of the LexCorp personnel, Clark’s eyes and ears had to be the priority. He’d deployed his own sonic mesh, and had rigged his wrist unit to identify the fields of highest resistance. It was an imperfect system, but it had finally brought him to the source of Luthor’s mesh…which an explosive gel-tab had now neutralized. He disabled his own mesh and spoke into the air without activating the Justice League comm.
“That should do it,” he said quietly. “You should have no trouble—”
..:: Hearing you,::.. Superman interjected over the comm. ..:: Your heartbeat, northwest about thirty yards. Two much farther northeast, probably Joker and Harley in the bunker. Your six techs are scattered in the west end of the big rectangle and that makes it four service people in what I’ll assume is the kitchen.::..
..:: It’s okay, I just found how he’s keeping them here. They all have ankle monitors and are strapped with these dual packs of—::..
“Explosive, orange and blue? He’s had that idea for a while now. He was originally going to use them in beer hats.”
..::I don’t even want to know how you know that. I was just going to run them out of range, break off the anklets my way and throw the explosives into the sun, unless you have a preference. ::..
Batman grunted, and made his way to the SIEVE core, scanned and performed a quick visual inspection. As soon as Superman gave the all-clear, Batman gave him the bad news:
“As expected, Lex has ample defenses built in that are targeted to you specifically. I’ve located thirty-eight reservoirs with maybe a golf-ball size quantity of kryptonite dust. So if we try to destroy it with an explosion…”
..:: Or if I use my body, flying through like his last underground base, I’ll pay for it. Lucky we’ve got another way.::..
“Correct, the strategic EMPs will shut down the core until it can be safely dismantled, and the k-dust is all here in the core, so there’s nothing to prevent you taking out the side wings your way. That’s the data storage, any remnants of a working system won’t be good for much without that.”
..::I sense a ‘but’ coming.::..
“Like Joker’s dead man switch, there is a disinformation blitzkrieg queued in the satellites and possibly other infected systems, set to go off if SIEVE severs contact. Typical Luthor Scorched Earth fallback—”
..::But now that all the newsrooms are running normally, and filtering out the SIEVE-generated news alerts, how much harm can it do?::..
“Theoretically, not much. But that’s a guess and I’ve got no contingencies in place if we’re wrong.”
..::I can live with the lack of protocols. Next?::..
“Luthor probably had a weapon of last resort to throw at you if you reached the bunker, and it’s in there now with Joker.”
..::Noted. If he’s found it, if he recognizes it for what it is and if he can figure out how to use it. It’s more likely, he’s geared up for you.::..
Batman grunted. Superman grunted. And the facility erupted into a series of electrical crackles from the SIEVE core and the thunderous creaking of server rooms and plaster crumbing from Kryptonian barrel rolls until—
..:: WAI—NO!::.. Superman called, at which point the connection exploded into a cacophony of wind, the wince-inducing impact of the Man of Steel hurling his body through a wall with his comm still on, a confused sputter that might have included a Harley scream being abruptly cut off, and a shocked intake of breath that was definitely Clark, perhaps the first “yeh” of the word ‘you,’ and then another unfathomable rumble of wind, heavy slamming and movement before the audio cut out.
Batman ran to the bunker as fast as he could given the debris from Clark taking a more direct route. He reached the bunker and could see through the jagged Superman-sized hole. Joker was alone, dusting himself off as he got up from the floor, holding a misshapen knife with a smear of blood on the warped blade and scorched handle.
“What did you do?” Batman said, though it wasn’t a question. The smell of singed metal told him what Clark had done in response, taken with the absence of Harley… it was obvious to anyone who understood how Joker thought.
“What’s it matter, it sent the big blue twerp away. Now we can talk!” His eyes gleamed with mischief and he giggled as plaster dust from a second Superman-hole in the ceiling sprinkled down and danced in the shafts of godlight. “Quick, before he gets back. You’ll never guess what old Lexy left sitting in the desk to deal with him, and it can be yours, my batshit friend, if you’ll jus…”
He trailed off as the sunlight was abruptly blocked, Superman’s shadow falling over Joker as the Man of Steel lowered slowly and ominously. Batman noted the smudge of blood on the emblem, confirming his hunch about Joker’s strategy.
“He cut her wrists,” Superman said, indicating a long, diagonal cut up his own forearm. “She’s going to be fine. Didn’t have to go all the way to a civilian hospital, the Air Force base had a mobile medic station a few miles out so…” He trailed off and studied Joker. “Not that you care,” he observed, and Joker giggled, shaking his head.
Batman studied Joker’s path to the desk, but apart from thinking through the block if Joker made a move, he was content to stay out of it. This was Clark’s show.
“I’ve about had it,” Superman declared with that menacing edge that was wholly unique: a good man who had simply been pushed too far.
“Oooh, and what happens now?” Joker said with mock-horror through that sickening grin.
“There isn’t going to be any more getting me to leave by putting third party lives in danger.”
“Oh really?” Joker laughed. “How’s that? You going to kill me?”
Again, it wasn’t a question, and Joker’s broadly wicked smile expressed his confidence in the answer. The Man of Steel did not kill, period. Joker’s certainty didn’t waver, but his smile did as he saw it mirrored and then exceeded by Superman’s own. A smile of really… disturbing proportions.
“No,” Superman said with more menace than even Batman could pack into a single syllable.
“Perhaps I should go,” Batman suggested in as close to Clark’s easygoing everyday twang as he could manage.
“No need,” Superman graveled, then paused for a heartbeat so each drop of venom packed into the words could register before he dashed forward in a blue-red blur that circled Joker and then disappeared through that hole in the ceiling, taking the mad clown with him.
Batman looked around, shrugged, and then casually checked the desk. He opened it carefully and found—as he suspected—a booby trap set to eject SmileX gas from the desklamp and nothing at all that could be used against Superman.
He shrugged again. It was an anti-climax, to be sure, as he packed up the SmileX trap and then resumed the dismantling of SIEVE via electro-magnetic pulse. He had just finished, and was about to begin securing the globes of kryptonite dust so the whole place could be demolished, when Clark returned.
“That took quite a while,” he noted.
“We made a few stops on the way to Arkham,” Superman grinned.
“You gave me the answer. ‘Get inside his head.’ At first, I was stumped. There’s just nothing that clown seems to care about. His own life and physical comfort mean nothing to him. Beat him up, he’d take it as a victory that he could get under my skin, right? He certainly doesn’t care about Harley or anyone like that. There’s no cause he believes in. So if somebody wanted to back him into a corner, force him to do something the way he used me, there’s really no way to go about it.”
“There is one,” Batman pointed out. “The joke. He would do almost anything if he saw it as the punchline to the ultimate joke.”
“Well, it might be that, but I got there by another route: there’s no one he cares about, no cause he believes in, but he really does hate you.”
“Ah,” Batman’s lip twitched. “Yes, there is that.” Then his eyes narrowed. “Clark, what did you do?”
“I’m afraid you’re going to be very popular in Gotham for a while.”
“We started off visiting all the police precincts. I may have intimated that you sent me, having noticed the damaged brick or the graffiti or the problem with the entrance gate when you were patrolling. I fixed things up, shook some hands, and just did what I could. Polished the gargoyles if they had any.”
“You polished gargoyles?” Batman asked incredulously.
“It wasn’t easy with Joker tucked under my arm, but once I got the idea of using the back of his jacket like a rag…”
“Oh my god,” Batman said, touching his glove to the front of his cowl as if massaging his forehead.
“I think it will photograph well,” Clark observed. “And naturally I didn’t want to give all that attention to the police and fire stations without letting the neighborhoods benefit, so I fixed anything I saw that could be done quickly—apartment buildings and basketball courts, schools, what have you—and just let them know I’d be back if it was going to take more time. So Gotham is already much better off than it was yesterday, with more improvements to come, at a cost to nobody. I figured that would make you happy—Joker thinks it will make you happy and that made him miserable, so…”
“I see,” Batman said, forcing a smile.
“I’ll also be back tonight, and every night this week, to help with the street crime and whatever comes up. That should help you catch up after the time you’ve lost on all this.”
“What about Metropolis? Don’t you have just as much catching up to do there?” Batman asked.
“I can do both,” Clark winked. “I’m Superman.”
Superman’s final act of sticking it Joker by making Batman happy was perhaps the most diabolical. Having flown Batman back to Gotham, he returned to Arkham Asylum where, having captured the Joker personally, he expressed a natural curiosity about his cell and all the security measures in place to keep him there. The Arkham staff, star struck and eager to impress, gave him a complete tour. They naturally drew attention to everything they did right, and hurriedly did all they could to fix anything that was less-than-perfect before it could be noticed.
“It’s not a permanent improvement,” Clark said modestly when he returned to the manor. “But I’m cautiously optimistic that they’ll be running at peak efficiency for a couple of weeks anyway.”
Selina had insisted he come back to the house for a celebratory dinner, and Clark could tell by the subtle glances at the window something was going to happen. After the sun had set, the glances were directed at her watch instead. After about five minutes, her manner changed.
“I don’t want to rush you,” she said, ringing for Alfred to clear the plates, “but eh, ‘dessert’ is going to require some participation.” She beckoned with a playful finger, opened the French doors and stepped out onto the terrace.
“This was Lois’s idea, with a little input from Richard Flay, Lucius Fox, Kyle and Alfred. But you should consider it from all of us. From Humanity with love.” She pointed to the sky. “Up.”
He looked quizzically, and she gestured in a shooing motion with her fingers. “Go.” She urged. “Up.”
He looked back at Bruce who shrugged helplessly, and Clark looked down at Selina, then up at the sky, and then took off.
“How far?” he called down.
“You’ll figure it out!” she yelled.
He rose, and saw Gotham glittering across the river, perhaps a bit darker than usual, and then darker still… and darker still. He rose higher and saw that, the mild glow of traffic was practically all that distinguished the city from the river from Bludhaven beyond that—which was also suspiciously dark. Superman rose higher still and saw all the cities and towns in North America, glittering like dim jewels beneath the clouds, with spider webs of connecting light leading to surrounding areas. Some had no spokes but gleamed like distant galaxies as the world rotated beneath him, he saw a series of them suddenly glowing brighter. Gotham, Bludhaven, Philadelphia, Boston that had all been so dark, were now gleaming like stars… More and more, clusters of light joined them. He flew over the ocean, and saw Iceland… Greenland… Europe pocked with miniature galaxies of light. Africa, not just the cities, but long lines like a highway tracing the Nile and the Congo. Asia lit up next, and with it, a crackle from his Justice League comm.
..:: Clark, I imagine you’ve gotten in the habit of tuning out ambient news since SIEVE launched,::.. Batman predicted, ..::And you probably haven’t thought to listen in now. Apparently, the first thing broadcast when reliable media connections were restored was to ask people saved by Superman or who knew someone that was, to turn on their lights tonight at… well, right now. This is how humanity sees Superman, and how everyone who matters would like you to see us.::..