One of the reasons I don’t enjoy chess? The endgame. At some point in the midgame shuffle, after so much probing, trading of pieces, and battling it out for an extra pawn, the balance of power tips. The final result is then a foregone conclusion, at least on paper. There is nothing left but this pointless chasing and maneuvering until you get the doomed king trapped in a corner: menaced where he stands, menaced on all sides, with his own pawn blocking his only square for escape. It’s a snooze. You might think a cat would like the idea. The outcome of the classic cat and mouse contest is a foregone conclusion too, nine times out of ten, and we enjoy that. Maybe mice are just intrinsically more interesting than chessmen; I don’t know. But I can say from personal experience that, winning or losing, I put the end of a chess game right up there with a big turkey dinner, a lullaby, and a snortful of chloroform.
The chess players in my life obviously disagree. Eddie likes the endgame because (and I’m quoting) “No ace routs Brainiest Ed.” I shared this with my traveling companion, who I had dubbed Brubu. It was Batman inside the Atlantis spy corps’s holographic shell, and while it might reproduce Ubu’s physical appearance perfectly, I had seen its brow knit with all of Bruce’s figuring-out-the-new-gizmo expressions while he got it up and running. After that, no matter how much it resembled Ubu, I kept on seeing Bruce. Particularly now, since I was talking about Eddie.
We were in another plasma sub, heading for the surface. Aquaman had the fish searching around Kapheira, and they’d found the elevator system Ra’s set up to get his people and prisoners into the sea base. I’d been chatting to get Brubu’s mind off the fact that he wasn’t driving. Normally, he could have piloted the sub just fine, but from inside the prototype Atlantis hologram, it was “an unnecessary layering of unfamiliar technologies.” Too many unknown variables, risk multipliers, etc. So the control freak gets to sit in the passenger seat next to Kitty. I know he hates that kind of thing, so I was doing my best to lighten the mood. You can’t go too far off “the case” at this point with Batman; he likes to stay focused. Usually I like breaking his focus, but that’s my fun. This was an anti-brooding exercise for his benefit, so I stuck to Ra’s-adjacent subjects like chess. Going up to the surface in a sub just to come back down in an elevator, it was the kind of tedium you find at the end of a chess game, and I said as much.
“No ace routs Brainiest Ed?” Brubu repeated with a scowl. “That’s an anagram for?”
“Bean counters are idiots,” I smirked.
“He’s referring to the academic chess players’ attitude that there comes a point where you have to accept the inevitable and resign the game once you realize your position is untenable.”
“Right. If you’re down four pawns, both bishops and the queen, you’re screwed so…”
“So you concede. But Nigma prefers to play on, because resigning ignores the possibility of your opponent making a mistake.”
“Or a lot of mistakes,” I corrected, “which in his experience they’re inclined to do. Let’s face it, present company excepted, most people Eddie takes on are a lot dumber than he is. No matter what their technical advantage, if he keeps them dancing long enough, they’ll screw up.”
“I’d think you’d feel the same,” I guessed. “I mean, forget chess. Real life, if you played the percentages, we would all be dead years ago. You, Eddie, Hagen, Joker—even Kitty packing the old eight-life advantage. We all know from personal gun-in-your-face experience that a foregone conclusion on paper is no such thing in reality.”
“Y-yes,” Brubu agreed, “and no. Chess is a war game, and playing an almost certain loss through to the checkmate is the equivalent of making an enemy burn every farm and kill every peasant in the kingdom. Of course they may still make a mistake before it comes to that, but at what cost? A wise king will sometimes surrender, make peace for the good of the kingdom, knowing in a year or two circumstances will change, there will be opportunities to reclaim what’s lost.”
“Okay, nice metaphor, but the actual game stops at the board’s edge, right?”
“Says the jewel thief on an undercover mission to take down Ra’s al Ghul?”
Selina never had a chance to find out what that last remark meant. The sub had reached the surface, and from that moment on, Bruce was gone and Ubu would remain in character until the mission objective was complete. There were no guards to take out on the platform, and nothing but buttons and levers inside the elevator. Ubu was stoic, and Catwoman was… unsatisfied.
From Bruce’s POV, it was a fine performance he was giving. It was Ubu as Batman had always seen him, a few steps from Ra’s al Ghul’s side: serious, watchful, disciplined, and alert. As the elevator descended, Selina couldn’t help contrasting this Ubu with the one she’d ridden down with earlier. She decided that it wasn’t out of character for her to give Batman an acting note. After all, the real Ubu had tried to strangle her four times in their earlier trip to the bottom. If this was that Ubu, she would get even by tweaking his nose. So… acting note as nose tweak:
“You’re doing a lot better this time, Ubs,” she said with a teasing smile. “Last time we approached crush depths, you were positively green.”
“Silence, woman,” he snarled. Then, under his breath, he added “Last time, I was the one in chains.”
Despite this internal pep talk, Ubu’s pallor whitened and his rigid, disciplined expression wavered momentarily. He snuck occasional peeks at the ceiling…
Tmcra’s panel alerted him as soon as the elevator began its descent, but he let it reach the bottom of the shaft before taking any action, so that those inside, if unauthorized, would have no hope of reaching the surface when ejected. Only when the pressurized car reached the receiving chamber did he check the receiving docket. He knew from the beginning of his shift that no arrivals were expected, but he followed the prescribed procedures all the same. Confirming that no arrivals were scheduled, he flicked on the camera to demand authorization—and saw Ubu.
Ubu required no authorization, for every DEMON down to the lowliest pit-stirrer knew that Ubu’s word was only a half step from Ra’s al Ghul’s own. The doors were opened at once—and Tmcra noted the bodyguard’s imperfectly concealed dread. He noted it without judgment, for he shared it. Officially, a man had no past before DEMON. He had no country, no family, and no name but the one The Great One bestowed on his unworthy head. But even so, there were those whose non-existent pasts included water, and those that knew only sand. The ones from sand were… honored that they could add overcoming abject terror to the services they rendered in the DEMON’s name. And they all recognized others who were equally honored.
Tmcra’s colleague H’qai offered to take Ubu’s prisoner to the brig, but Ubu refused. He announced her status as though she were a person of some interest to the Demon’s Head: The Feline Consort of He Whose Name Must Not Be Spoken. A prisoner such as this must be delivered to The Presence without delay.
Tmcra accepted the statement at face value, but once Ubu and the prisoner had left, H’qai snickered.
“Any time there is a prisoner from Gotham, they wind up escaping,” he said cynically. “And that one is the Illustrious Ubu’s alibi. He wants to make sure The Great One sees her, in the flesh, before she can get away.”
Arthur had shown us schematics of Kapheira before we’d left Atlantis.
Well, “schematics” is a bit generous. What he showed us first were more like oil paintings, artists’ renderings from the days when Atlanteans actually used this place as a military base, and a few sketched floorplans that were so old and faded that you could barely make out the lines separating the base from ocean, let alone marking off hallways or individual rooms. I could feel Bruce seething. Mount Psychbat was about thirty seconds from erupting when Arthur laughed and said “But it isn’t every day we have the World’s Greatest Catburglar working for us, and I thought something flashier was called for. So I had the historians use the data from those pictures to make up this.”
He stepped through an archway into a room out of Star Trek. In the center, on a raised platform, was a three-foot hologram of Kapheira, a 3-D model we could slice open, rotate on any axis and view from any angle.
“World’s Greatest Catburglar is duly impressed,” I said kindly. And then, sensing that Arthur only started with the oil paintings to needle Bruce, I added, “This is almost as slick as the holograms in the Batcave.”
So anyway, thanks to Arthur, we’d gone in with a fairly good idea where Ra’s would have set up his throne room, and that’s where Brubu was taking me now. Strategically speaking, there were about twenty war rooms that would have made better sense, but this is Ra’s we were talking about. If he has a weakness (and at last count, he had eighty-seven), it’s that kink for set dressing. He doesn’t care about practical or strategic, he wants something Ra’s-worthy. In Kapheira, that was the top tower with a wide port view of the whole base.
We were less certain about the location of the brig, which was our priority for freeing the hostages. I knew Brubu didn’t want to stay too long in one place or get too chatty with any one minion, so we left the elevators as soon as we could, and he stopped the next minion we passed in the halls.
“I was obliged to go topside before the prisoners were installed,” he said brusquely. “Which location was finally decided on for their storage?”
It was a bold move, just flat out asking that way. If he was disguised as anyone less than Ubu, it might not have worked. But given the disguise, and a certain knack Bruce has for being bossy and domineering in the most casual circumstances, we got our answer. The prisoners were in the West Tower, Level Three.
We went on our way towards the probable throne room… when the lights went out.
Batman was too experienced to be “pleased” or “satisfied” at this early stage. The mission was proceeding as expected, and they were roughly one minute ahead of schedule as far as learning the location of the brig. It was nothing to begin congratulating themselves over—and, in fact, a less mature crimefighter who did indulge in self-congratulation at that moment would have had his thought interrupted by a tell-tale buzz a split-second before the lights flickered out.
It did not escape Batman’s notice that the buzz began when he’d walked exactly six paces into a hallway in which there were no other minions, no doors, and no sightlines from the hall they’d just left. He shifted his weight to deflect the attack sure to come, but was startled when it came from four-degrees off the expected angle. It was—ouch—just off enough that his shifted balance worked against him, and rather than hurling his attacker over his shoulder using the thug’s own momentum to propel him into the floor, he wound up…
“Ho, ho, ho. Now I have a scimitar.”
Losing his weapon.
“Yippie kay yay, He who triumphs over death and grave.”
Before Batman could process this development, he was tackled at the waist. Propelled forward and towards the floor, he registered several details in the split second it took to twist out of the new attacker’s chosen trajectory and backhand her into the wall:
- the second attacker was
female, about Selina’s height, and had some training
In the second it took to turn back and intercept Tim’s coming attack, he noted that Tim was wearing a similar mask…
And a block later, that Tim had finally recognized his fighting style…
They sparred for a few seconds while Tim’s partner, who must be Dr. Meadows, picked herself off the floor and (presumably) looked for an opening to mount a fresh attack. In this leisurely period, Batman noted that Selina was smirking, and that, while the hallway seemed free of cameras, Tim was not calling off the attack. That meant they were either maintaining the charade for watching minions or for Dr. Meadows. Either way, he couldn’t drop the hologram until he could talk candidly with Tim.
Rather than wait for Meadows to make her own move, he gave her an opening and defended with the snapback punch normally reserved for bruisers, pulling back for momentum and channeling the full weight of his body into the throw, then shifting the forward motion upward the split second he hit her jaw like snapping a wet towel.
Down she went… and in some guilty recess of Bruce’s mind, he decided the Foundation would underwrite her research for the rest of her career.
“Thank you,” Tim said hoarsely. “First freedom I’ve had for days.”
“It’s safe to talk?” Batman asked.
“Oh yeah, these four halls see almost no traffic. That’s why I picked them to, uh, make our move… rescue Cat. The surveillance and tactical has been really easy. Demon 101, they’re doing everything like they always do. The hard part has been convincing E.J. that we’re just that lucky: finding food unattended, isolated minions to pick off, power drops n’ stuff.”
“This isn’t your first escapade?” Batman graveled.
“No. Upside: I found an alternative to the Trekkie. Die Hard.”
“I figured,” Catwoman chimed in. “Ho, ho, ho, now I have a scimitar?”
“Yippie kay yay,” Tim answered, waving the scimitar at her.
“Okay, I know I shouldn’t joke,” Tim said, “but you have any idea how many times I’ve heard the ‘oath of loyalty’ in the last few days.”
I could feel for the kid, but Brubu obviously didn’t.
“That mask isn’t the best idea, considering,” he graveled.
“Well that would be the Dread Pirate Roberta’s idea over there,” Tim said, pointing at Meadows’s limp form. “I don’t think you appreciate how nuts that woman is, and how challenging the last few days have been.”
“Actually I can,” Brubu said grimly. “Even in an empty hallway, the two of you taking on Ubu was far from prudent.”
“We figured Catwoman would help,” Tim murmured.
“Enough,” Brubu barked. “We now have four operatives instead of the planned three. When Meadows wakes up, you’ll brief her on her part. Now, here’s what we’re going to do…”
Tmcra returned to his station with a grilled seahorse impaled on a skewer.
“You want?” he asked H’qai.
H’qai nodded, but rather than handing it over, Tmcra flicked the seahorse off the end of the skewer with his thumb. H’qai caught it and, as he munched, he saw Tmcra wrap the end of the stick in a napkin and run it along the ridges of his keyboard.
“Not again,” H’qai grumbled.
“M’twa and F’gar always eat at their stations,” Tmcra complained. “I don’t like the crumbs under the keys.”
“Like it matters,” H’qai said, shaking his head. “They have anything else down there? Starfish? Crickets?”
“Chuanr. Scorpion. Broccoli.”
“I might go down later.” H’qai said.
“You shouldn’t eat at your station,” Tmcra sniffed.
The only answer to this blatant hypocrisy was a meaty thud. Before Tmcra could turn to look, he found himself in a boa hold. He just managed to glimpse H’qai’s unconscious body before he himself fell to the floor.
As soon as the elevator was taken, Batman touched a button on his utility belt, and a second on the hologram control. The first sent a pulse to the two OraComs within range; the second sent a signal to Atlantis…
With Tim’s help, Dr. Meadows slipped in among the other scientists and began quietly spreading the word: the rescue was coming, be ready to move…
Aquaman smiled wickedly. His part in this Batman-Demon endgame was the kind of clash he loved. If it wasn’t a duty, it would be a pleasure. If it wasn’t a crucial diversion, he would do it just for fun. Batman claimed he would need ten minutes, eleven maybe, twelve at the most, but Arthur knew he could keep it up for hours if necessary…
Catwoman smiled too, but it wasn’t a wicked smile like Arthur’s. It was a sublimely contented smile. Using her criminal expertise to help Batman, if there was any richer cream, she couldn’t imagine what it might be.
Okay, it wasn’t exactly stealing. Opening the keyhole for the Atlantean shock troops wasn’t exactly your high-grade B&E on Fifth Avenue, burgling Tiffanys and coming away with something sparkly. But it was like opening a safe, a very large, rock, tulip-shaped safe.
Step 1: get to the
Step 2: getting into the tulip. I won’t sugarcoat it. I had to contort. I had to suck in, I had to stretch up, and at one point, I had to do this thing with my hips that should only be done around a stripper pole—by somebody else’s hips around a stripper pole. But I got into the center of the thing, and after that, it was just a matter of matching these carved marbles from Atlantis with the corresponding symbol…
Batman disabled the Ubu hologram and took a deep, satisfying breath as the lumbering bodyguard vanished, revealing his normal shape and costume. The disguise had been effective as far as it went, but now that he had to take out the phalanx of minions guarding the scientists, a different mode was called for. He needed to become proactive, a predator…
“Thermal imaging lenses engage,” he ordered softly, and at once, the lenses snapped into place inside the cowl, allowing him to see the heat signatures of men moving behind solid walls. One advantage of the Atlantean base: built into the side of a mountain as it was, there were countless outcroppings from the original cavern walls extending over the man-made ones. They weren’t as smooth as a Gotham gargoyle, but they were more plentiful. Batman grappled up to the largest one to scan the area from an optimal vantage point.
As he counted up the minions, Batman’s lips eased into a thin, satisfied crease that, in another man, might have passed for a smile. As well trained as DEMON agents were said to be, they shared one trait with the common street thug: they seldom looked up. He watched their movements for several minutes, noting the patterns: where they walked, how quickly, and where their blind spots were as they moved. As in Gotham, as soon as he gleaned their patterns, he could predict which man would soon be isolated.
When he identified one, he leapt down quietly, crouched, and at the ideal moment, took the minion down with a silencing chokehold…
His Majesty, Orin, by the Grace of Poseidon, of Atlantia, Pacifica, and Dominions beyond the Reefs, King and Defender of the Seas, Duke of Poseidonis, Sovereign of the Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of Pontos… breathed.
“Valerina,” he said with a hauteur his aide had never heard before, “place the call.”
Valerina took a long, deep breath herself. The mechanisms before her had not been used in over six hundred years. She swallowed, and painstakingly placed the first power stone on a raised pedestal until the symbol cut into its surface began to glow. Then she removed it and set it into the recessed bowl in the com panel marked with the same symbol, and with a delicate white hand, she began charging the next power stone.
Batman grimaced. The last minion managed to bite him as he placed his glove over the guy’s mouth, which didn’t slow the takedown or do his hand any actual harm, but it had torn the glove and exposed bare flesh. Another bite, while unlikely, could bring more trouble than it was worth. A new approach was called for.
He’d picked off about a third of the guards, which was not enough to risk free combat, not in a DEMON compound where they could summon a hundred reinforcements. He needed to continue thinning their numbers silently and unobtrusively. He hoisted this last minion, the biter, up to another outcropping big enough to hold him, and draped him over it… Just in time. The pudgy one was just coming around the corner. Batman leapt from his perch, using his cape like a glider, sailing straight for the guy’s chest. Swinging both feet forward, he slammed into the minion, knocking him out cold. Once again, he grappled up to the outcropping with an unconscious minion in tow.
Normally, Batman would allow the remaining henchmen, guards, or thugs to find their colleagues unconscious. It spread terror and led them to make stupid mistakes. But not here. Not with DEMONs. If any one of them sounded the alarm, it could bring a hundred minions from throughout the compound. A hundred extra minions between the scientists and the elevator. No, he had to keep picking them off quietly.
Perhaps he could hide under that floor grate…
Step 2-1/2: scraping. This place was ancient. There were rings of recessed egg shapes inside the tulip, each carved with the Atlantis equivalent of a rune. Theoretically, all I had to do was place the carved marble-gems from Atlantis into the recess with the same symbol. Except the niches were encrusted with dried slime and who knows what. If I didn’t have claws, I would have been screwed. As it was, it still slowed me down. Painstakingly scraping this corroded rock gunk until I found the symbol.
That brought me to Step 3, at last, placing the first marble-gem. The rune on the stone and the rune in the recess both started to glow as they came into contact, which I interpreted as the first “click” finding a combination. Back to step 2-1/2, scraping away at the next recess. One down, five to go…
This time, the best part about getting the safe open wasn’t going to be getting anything out, but what would be coming in…
Batman hung inverted on the zipline from one of the higher outcroppings, like an oversized version of his namesake. He waited silently until the tall minion was directly below him, then zipped down, grabbing the man by the throat, and zipped back up to his perch. A nerve pinch put an end to the struggling, while Batman wrapped several lengths of Batline around the minion’s feet.
Thus secured, Batman lowered the minion to dangle upside down in the path of the remaining guard, who naturally rushed to see what had happened, what that minion-garbed man-size cocoon was hanging in the middle of the hallway. As soon as the conscious guard was directly underneath the unconscious one, Batman cut the line, dropping the latter onto the former…
Ra’s al Ghul examined an antique globe, squinting at two islands in the Pacific.
“Palau or New Guinea?” he mused. “New Guinea or Palau?”
Before long, his scientists would have produced their first fuel alterative. Since it was supposed to be mined from the ocean floor, he wanted a spot far from his present location. So, should his shield corporation be located in Palau or… No, Palau became a little too chummy with the United States after World War II, and was a little too chummy still for his liking. While Ra’s intended to sell to other countries first, there was no telling at what point exactly the Detective would interest himself in a developing technology on the far side of the world. In Indonesian-controlled Misool in the Raja Ampat province of New Guinea, it would be considerably harder for him to glean information to connect an emerging energy consortium to DEMON.
Ra’s smiled contentedly at the globe, when the light in the room changed abruptly as a panel on the wall, that he had not even recognized as a viewscreen, suddenly sprang to life. A royal crest of seashells held aloft by dolphins filled the screen, which then, abruptly, was replaced by the scowling visage of Aquaman.
::Ra’s al Ghul,:: he pronounced with a commanding air Ra’s found annoying. ::You are trespassing on the sovereign waters of Atlantis. Anything short of immediate withdrawal will be deemed an act of war.::
Ra’s al Ghul smiled. This was the kind of confrontation he liked best. Master to master, king to king.
“You noticed our imperial presence sooner than we expected, King of Atlantis. Your position, though it comes sooner than anticipated, is, nonetheless… expected.”
The Demon’s Ego swelled to fill the grandeur of the occasion, matching wit and wills with a monarch who ruled four-fifth of the globe. The contest would be gratifying under any circumstances, but today Ra’s had every tactical advantage, the position he liked best when addressing any opponent of any rank.
“Your position is clear, concise, and well presented,” he declared smugly. “My position: this base is mine. It has my troops all over it, that makes it mine.”
::By what authority, the tip of a sword? You’ll find that carries no weight down here, Demon’s Head. The rule of LAW applies under the seas. My law. Atlantis law.::
“Unenforceable ‘law,’” Ra’s sniffed. “Which is to say, a quaint local custom, like a folk dance performed at peasant weddings. It is the inevitable error of the inherited monarch: mistaking authority that fell into your lap by genetic accident for true power. The admirable design of this base is such that taking it by force is a practical impossibility. Your claims of ‘law’ are therefore meaningless. You are not in a position to make demands of any kind. You may, of course, tender a request, king to king…”
::King to… BECAUSE YOU SIT YOUR ASS ON A VELVET CUSHION?! You don’t know the first thing about leading men, Ghul, let alone ruling. A school of bluefins has a better understanding of leadership, a lead tuna is born with a better grasp of the job than you.::
As Orin railed on, Ra’s caught an unexpected flicker of movement in his peripheral vision. Not wishing to appear distracted, he shifted his weight and twisted his shoulder forward, as if adjusting his cape. That gave him a momentary glance at the strange movement, which turned out to be nothing more than…
:: Against three pods of killer whales controlled by an alien intelligence… ::
:: So don’t think any so-called leader of ‘minions’ can intimidate me. ::
Strolling into his throne room.
:: Pitting each man against ten tons of Brainiac-controlled orca, with nothing more than a shield and a sea-spear… ::
STROLLING into his room with the studied casualness of a… of an actual CAT wandering around looking for amusement.
:: Compared to ordering a dozen brainwashed drones against one man with a utility belt. ::
:: And losing every time, I might add. ::
The look on his face was priceless—what little I could see of it, anyway. At his best, Ra’s looks like he’s covering some serious acid reflux. When he actually does have his nose out of joint, not a pretty picture.
:: I’m talking about what it MEANS to be a leader, Ghul, the tacit obligations that go with the ‘sir, yes, sirs.’::
Arthur had obviously built up a head of steam. Which was the idea, of course, but I think he’d transcended the role he was playing, and now he was just riding that wave of righteous-crazed hero indignation.
:: My men know their lives aren’t put in danger to gratify a whim or make a point, and that’s why I command their loyalty and respect. I don’t give a damn what a trumped up prawn like you thinks about kings and kingship— ::
Ra’s, in a fit of grandeur befitting Shatner, swished his cape and turned to the side. From Arthur’s point of view, I’m sure it was supposed to look menacing, sort of Dracula ala mode. From my angle, it just seemed like he didn’t want to look at me. Which meant the real diversion was working. Meow.
:: You’re not as good at this as I thought you’d be, Ghul. After the first exchange of bellows, you fall back into huffing and making faces. I don’t think you have the stuff to speak for a kingdom. ::
Arthur’s part was great, as far as it went, but even with Ra’s ego, there were limits. Holding his attention in a king-to-king bluster-off might be enough when it was just Batman picking off minions, but once I’d opened the keyhole and aqua troops started storming the base, it was iffy. A king-to-king bluster-off alone probably couldn’t hold his attention, but trying to keep up appearances in a king-to-king bluster-off while the hated arch-nemesis’s girlfriend wanders around your throne room… Even now it makes me laugh. If he wasn’t such a creep, you’d almost feel sorry for him.
It didn’t really matter what I did while I was wandering, so to amuse myself, I looked for the swords. Bruce has mentioned that, hype aside, the one thing that actually does distinguish the hairdo from other villains is that Batman never gets to punch him in the face. Joker, Two-Face, Scarecrow, Hatter, eventually they all reach the end of the line, the henchmen are all lying on the floor, and Batman gets to take out his righteous crimefightery anger on their teeth. With Ra’s, every damn time when it gets down to just the two of them, it’s fencing! Batman would love to punch him in the face, but no. Ra’s gets up, out come the swords, and everybody’s on the deck of an 18th Century pirate ship. So it occurred to me that, since I was right there in the throne room, it would be a nice gesture. Early birthday present for Bruce: find the swords, lock ‘em away in a drawer, and just this once, Ra’s al Ghul, the self-proclaimed greatest Bat-foe, gets to find out what it really means to take on Batman and lose. Hee hee.
:: Which means you’ll never be able to hold on to anything you ‘conquer,’ Ghul. Oh, I’ve seen your type before, dozens of times. Going to redefine the world and decree everything to your liking. This is this, and that is thus, because I have declared it to be, the end. A high tide later, nobody even remembers you. And all your decrees and declarations are nothing but a rancid puddle of sand. ::
Finding the swords was no problem. Cat burglar’s instinct. I knew they had to be in easy reach of the throne, so he could be posed in all his “Ah, there you are, Detective, how pleasant to see you again” pomposity. So I wandered over to the throne, which brought two more magnificent cape-swishes as Ra’s seemed determined to hide me from Arthur…
:: Atlantis could surrender right now, Ghul, and it wouldn’t change a thing. In two migration cycles, you’ll be gone. In four you’ll be forgotten. In ten, it’ll be as though you never existed. ::
…and there they were in a jewel encrusted footstool that was too low for anyone sitting on the throne to rest their feet. It had no business being there unless it was a box for something.
Ra’s was doing his best to ignore the defilement of his throne room by the infidel feline abomination. He could not allow a mere woman to inhibit his performance in front of a rival monarch. He simply had to maintain an appearance of… sword. She was… she was sharpening her claws on the blade of his… this was intolerable.
:: I don’t feel I have your full attention there, sir,:: the viewscreen scoffed. :: I would think that with something as important as this discussion that your full attention would be on the task at hand. I see now the kind of ‘leader’ I'm dealing with. ::
Catwoman let out a low whistle, and Ra’s flung himself forward on what he assumed to be the mute button.
“Look, it’s not my place to say,” Catwoman shrugged as the screen went dark. “But if you let him get away with all that pontificating on a first encounter, that’s going to define your relationship. I mean, c’mon, Ra’s. We’re talking about Justice League heroes here. You don’t break their rhythm when they start laying down the law that way, you’re always going to be the overhyped goatherd that let Aquaman take him out for a ride.” She smiled pleasantly, and then pointed to the panel behind him. “I think you hung up on him.”
Ra’s sputtered, but before he could say more, the viewscreen hummed, and once again King Orin scowled down on the throne room.
:: I see, so that is how you play things, eh, Ghul? That is the best answer you can muster when your sham philosophy is challenged and your paltry intrigues are exposed for the sorry efforts they are? I begin to think Batman and the Justice League have been giving you too much credit over the years. ::
“Hairdo,” Catwoman agreed in a barely audible sing-song.
:: Egregiously overestimated, that will be your epitaph, Demon’s Head. My armies will make short work of this little invasion of yours. You can expect them at the gates any minute now to wipe you from the ocean floor. ::
“Door’s open!” Catwoman called out happily. Then she whispered confidentially at Ra’s, “that’s where I was before I came here. Doors are my specialty,” and concluded with an impish wink.
:: Although truthfully, sending an army is overkill for an outdated cliché like you. One well-trained squad will do. One squad of my best men, kicking in the back door and taking you right there in the throne room. ::
On cue, the doors opened and two lines of elite Atlantean Cetea marched into the throne room, weapons drawn. As the first pair reached the middle of the room, they fanned out slightly, as did the pair that followed and the pair following them, forming a perfect arrowhead formation by the time the first two reached Ra’s al Ghul. As the last two separated, perfectly framed at the very end of the line stood… Batman.
Catwoman stretched out luxuriously on the lush sofa in the diplomatic quarters she shared with Batman.
“You look happy,” he noted with a liptwitch.
“Oh I am,” she purred. “So far, for a girl used to coming away with Catherine the Great’s emeralds at the end of the night, crimefighting has been a bit light on the perks and prizes. This was new. Seeing Ra’s face at the very moment of ‘checkmate?’ Meooooooow. That’ll hold me for a while.”
“It’s much more than checkmate,” Batman said seriously. “In the past, Ra’s has always holed up in these third world principalities or old Iron Curtain states where it’s impossible to arrest him. The local law enforcement is either too inept to hold him or too corrupt to even try. But here…”
“Here, ‘local law enforcement’ is Arthur,” Selina smiled, completing the thought, and Batman nodded. “So unlike when you catch up to him in East Turduckenstan, it doesn’t end with shutting down his plot against NATO. You got to actually haul his ass into a jail cell to pay for his crimes like any cheap thug.”
“I sense mockery in the choice of words,” Batman said, raising an eyebrow under the mask.
“Some phrases will never trip off my tongue, Lover. But where Ra’s is concerned, I do support the sentiment. He was going to blow me up, he kidnapped sixty people and murdered one of his own in cold blood. I don’t want to see him get away with that: ‘Oh, no harm done,’ and we all just pretend it never happened. No way, not good enough, not even close. I want to see him punished. Partially because I’m a villain at heart, I hate his guts and I would enjoy seeing him suffer. But mostly because if we make an example of him, then maybe we don’t have to do this again three years down the line.”
Again, Bruce’s lip twitched. She was more of a crimefighter than she knew, and he would have told her so if only she’d take it as a compliment. Since she wouldn’t, he just kissed her cheek and told her to finish packing.
He said I could take a plasma sub to the surface and return to Gotham with Tim and the scientists, or go back with him in the teleporters. Now, I’m no fan of the Justice League, but a ten-minute layover at the Watchtower with Bruce versus a slow boat to Gotham with Mr. Manure Methanator, “just one Foundation grant away from making jet fuel out of pig poop?” No contest.
Valerina walked us to the transporters—by way of the detention area being reoutfitted for a new, long term resident. She said Atlantean jail cells were opulent by surface standards, but with King Orin strolling in a couple times a week to “adjust the pressure settings” personally, Ra’s was in for a rough couple of years.
“His Majesty has told me of an ancient surface ruler, a Julius Caesar, who would shame his defeated foes with gestures of mercy and friendship when he had every right to order their deaths. This is the course of punishment King Orin has decided upon for Ra’s al Ghul. Atlantean law does consider his crimes a capital offense, but the king has never handed down a death sentence and says he will not consider breaking the precedent for that… what is the term… ‘hairdo?’”
I could feel Batman’s eyes on me, so I avoided them and changed the subject.
“Well, I certainly agree with that,” I said brightly. “Death is really too good for him. But living the rest of his days as a pet poodle when he used to be a man, that’s a punishment that fits the crime, in Ra’s case at least.”
We were approaching the teleporters, and I knew Arthur was waiting there to meet us when I heard his laugh.
“A pet poodle, eh? That’s good. I wish I’d thought of that. I went with ‘Clemency is the prerogative of a true king.’”
“That’s good too,” I winked. Batman glowered, like he always does when I wink at other heroes.
“Plus, once a week, an attaché will visit him in his cell,” Arthur stated, in a brisk moving on/summing up tone. “To talk about how he learned about Kapheira’s existence in the first place.”
“To Atlanteans, every conflict is a learning experience,” Valerina explained. “This crisis passed without casualties, but if there had been Atlanteans injured or killed, we would owe it to them to learn all we could from the experience.”
Batman’s head pulled back suddenly, as if he’d been physically struck.
“You know, that’s one thing Ra’s has never done,” he murmured. “Learned from his mistakes. You’d think anyone who’s lived that long would… but no.”
“I imagine that’s what makes him a hairdo,” Valerina said happily.
We said our goodbyes, and I could tell there were a few telepathic exchanges going on behind the verbal ones. When we were home in the cave, I asked Bruce what it was about.
He told Arthur he should hang on to that new assistant. She “had a lot more going on than the previous ones.”
And Arthur said… Ditto.
“I’m sorry, Professor. I’m not dropping any classes, but I am definitely changing my major. Science just isn’t for me.”
“Tim, you haven’t declared a major,” Professor Milpini said mildly.
“I know, but you and my advisor had me on a science track, picking all these electives that would dovetail into an applied sciences major, and I’m just saying I’m not doing that anymore. My next elective is going to be a history of American film.”
“Tim, this is a mistake. You’re making a very rash decision based on a, a one in a million happenstance. Scientists do not routinely get kidnapped by international terrorists.”
“Yeah, I get that, Professor. But what I saw of Dr. Meadows and some of the others, I just don’t think it’s my thing.”
“But you have a real aptitude!” Milpini cried.
“A history of American film,” Tim said happily, reading through the catalog of freshman seminars available exclusively to honors students.
“To have delivered a paper to the junior symposium your first semester!” Milpini wailed.
“Or maybe Introduction to Journalism,” Tim read eagerly.
“An honorable mention as a freshman. Invited to the senior symposium and introduced to the very researchers you footnoted…”“Hey, look at this one—the Sociology of Superheroes. 3 credits. Afternoon lectures, I’d get to sleep in. And no prerequisites.”