“Alfred! Get down here!”
The voice over the intercom was nearly hysterical, something Alfred Pennyworth had not heard in Wayne Manor in a very long time. As quickly as he could, he made his way to the elevator hidden behind one of the pantries of the mansion’s huge kitchen. It dropped quickly to the base of the shaft, and the door was only partly open when he saw the large screen of the Batcave’s central monitoring station. The display was one he helped his employer design, but one he had hoped to never see.
“What does this mean? All carriers lost: Assume condition terminal?” Jason Todd stood before the terminal, which displayed a global map with a red glowing spot over Alaska. There was an enlarged map of a portion of Alaska, with a glowing green trail overlaid on it, terminating in a red dot.
“Dear God.” Alfred moved to the station, taking a seat and typing at the keyboard. “Nothing from the plane, nothing from his League device, nothing from the belt unit.” A video screen came to life, showing a grainy black and white image. Near one side of the image, a darker spot was visible. The screen flickered as the satellite image was replaced with another, showing the plane a little farther to the right. A third image showed the plane with a gray nimbus around it, and a fourth showed only the front portion of the plane. A final image showed nothing but a gray cloud in place of the plane.
“I can give you images from the JLA monitors, but the result is the same.” Alfred and Jason turned to find Superman standing behind them, a grim look on his face. Jason’s head dropped as tears started flowing down his cheeks. Alfred’s face went slack, and he started to slide from the chair. “Alfred!” Superman sped forward and cradled the frail body of the older man in his arms, his eyes playing over the butler’s body. “Great Krypton! He’s having a stroke!“
“It pains me to say this, but all of the evidence suggests that Batman is dead.” The Martian Manhunter stood before the assembled membership of the Justice League of America. “Unlike the Flash, he did not die in his heroic identity, so we must carefully consider how to handle this situation. There is far too much potential for damage to others if his identity is revealed, so the League will have to cover for him. At least for a time.”
“There’s no chance of error, J’onn?” asked Aquaman.
“Not from the looks of this stuff.” All heads turned toward a video screen displaying Ray Palmer in the satellite’s lab. “I’ve never seen anything this volatile. I ran a simulation, and I think this gas, when ignited, would vaporize titanium.”
“Well, Batman doesn’t take part in every case the League tackles, so it won’t seem odd if he isn’t seen with us for a while.” Green Lantern’s voice was morose. “We’re not short-handed, so we can help cover Gotham as well.”
“I don’t think that will be an issue,” said Hawkman. “Batman has been building up a team there that can handle almost anything.”
“Speaking of which, what about Nightwing?” Heads turned toward Green Arrow. “After all, he was Batman’s whatayacallit — protégé for years. Is he going to step up to the bat and take over for Bats?”
“Ollie, it’s a little soon for that, don’t you think?” asked Black Canary.
“Hey, if I kicked off, I’d like to think that Roy would do it.”
“Man, I thought it was tough assuming the Atom’s identity. I can’t imagine what it would be like to take over for Batman!” Adam Cray, the second man to bear the name of the Atom, shook his head.
“We’ll have to let the Outsiders and the New Titans know as well.” The Flash was jotting notes in a blur on a notepad. “And I think Batman had some kind of connection with those guys in England, didn’t he?”
“You mean the Paladins, I presume. Yes,” said Nubia, “he and their leader were friends. I shall also contact the Global Guardians.” Wonder Woman’s beautiful features were marred by grief and worry.
“Nubia, I can see you are disturbed by all of this.” Zatanna stepped up to the dark-skinned warrior and laid a hand on her arm. “You did all that could be done, notifying the League. From what J’onn and Green Lantern have said, there was no way anybody could have helped him.”
“I know, Zatanna, but I am not comfortable with it. I am not accustomed to such a feeling of helplessness.”
“How long do we have until news of this event is public?” asked Firestorm. “The media is gonna have a field day with it, you know.”
“I have already received broadcasts making mention of a plane crash in Alaska,” said the android named Red Tornado. “Apparently, the North Warning radar system was tracking the flight when it exploded.”
“You picking up FM or AM, Reddy?” asked Green Arrow.
“Actually both, as well as various short wave frequencies and both VHF and UHF television signals.” Red Tornado tipped his head in a curiously human-like gesture. “Is there anything wrong with that?”
In the Tenderloin district of Gotham City, rows of townhouses stood side-by-side with one-of-a-kind boutiques and eateries. This section of the city was home to artists, performers, writers, and other eclectic types.
And one head librarian.
In a century-old rowhouse on Finger Street, Barbara Gordon fussed over a skillet of pierogies. “Why are you doing this, Babs? Sure, Dick has that whole Romany-slash-Ukranian thing going on, but that doesn’t mean you have to try to cook like his grandmother, does it?” She raised one hand to wipe the perspiration from her forehead with the back of her wrist. “Though I have to admit, they smell good.” Her conversation with herself was interrupted by the doorbell.
“Come on in!” she called.
“Barbara, whatever you’re doing, let it drop.” Dick Grayson’s voice had a tone that she had never heard before. That, and the grim look on his face, did not allow for any argument. She reached for the knob to turn off the burner as she asked what was wrong. “It’s Alfred. He’s in the hospital.”
“Oh, my God. What happened?“
“Jason says it appears to be a stroke,” said Dick as he handed her a jacket from the rack near the door. “He’s at St. Daniel’s in the intensive care unit. But there’s something else going on.”
“What do you mean?” asked Barbara as they left her home and climbed into Dick’s black Porsche.
“He said that Superman took them to the hospital, and that there’s something bigger going on. We’ll pick up Silver on the way.”
As he started the car, the radio came on. “The FAA has not yet confirmed reports of a plane going down in Alaska. Sources report that military radar was tracking a private plane that suddenly disappeared from the radar screens. Listeners will no doubt remember that events like this started six months ago, shortly before the alien invasion that we suffered through this past summer.”
“Dick, you don’t suppose…?”
Dick Grayson made no reply, except to press harder on the accelerator. They stopped at the Infantino Conference Center long enough to pull Silver St. Cloud out of her preparations for the following night’s events. Within moments, they arrived at St. Daniel’s, leaving the car in a spot reserved for members of the hospital’s Board of Directors. They rushed in and were met by Jason Todd and a tall man clad in a suit and tie.
“Clark! What’s going on? How’s Alfred?” asked Dick as Clark Kent quickly ushered them into a small chapel. A miserable-looking Jason stayed by the door.
“It’s early, but they think it was a minor stroke.” The look of relief on the younger man’s face caused a stab of pain in Clark’s heart. “Dick, his stroke was brought on by a shock.”
“Oh, no, that plane crash on the radio! Was that–?” Silver couldn’t bring herself to finish the question.
Clark nodded his head. “I was there. There — there’s nothing left.” He looked at the young man he had watched grow from a reckless daredevil child into a stalwart hero, the young woman who reminded him so much of his late cousin, and the lovely, older woman who had won the heart of the man Clark long believed could never find happiness. “Silver, Barbara, Dick, I — I’m sorry. If there’s anything I can do…?”
Jason walked in to come over next to Dick. Barbara and Silver pulled them both into their arms, and together they knelt on the floor. The chapel was silent, save for the sobs of four who were like family, and the mightiest man on Earth stood watch, unable to ease their grief despite all his power.
“Gotham City is in shock this morning as news of the death of Gotham’s foremost citizen spreads throughout the city. Authorities are mystified as to the cause of the explosion which obliterated the plane bearing Bruce Wayne, a Wayne Industries project manager, and a two-man crew. Reports that the Justice League of America was on the scene have not yet been confirmed.”
Lucius Fox stabbed at a button on the remote control, silencing the television. Standing, he walked to the window that overlooked downtown Gotham. “Dammit, Bruce, after last summer, I’ve been getting an ulcer worrying that you’d get hurt or killed running around in that damn cape. Now, you get killed on a damned business trip, and I’ve got to keep everything together here. That witch Ryder is already circling, ready to pounce and grab up anything we don’t have a firm grip on.” He took off his glasses and wiped them with a handkerchief. “You said Dick was ready to take his place in the business. I hope you were right, old friend.”
“Douglas, have you heard?”
Dr. Douglas Dundee had just stepped from the shower to hear his phone ringing. “I’m sorry, Leslie, I was on duty at Gotham General until two this morning, and I slept in. What is it I should have heard?“
“It’s Bruce. He’s, oh, I can’t even bring myself to say it.” Leslie Thompkin’s voice broke, and Dr. Dundee could hear her crying. He walked over to a small television on his dresser and turned it on. As it warmed up, and he flipped through the local stations, he heard bits and pieces of a news story.
“Leslie, are they saying Bruce is–?”
“Yes!” Leslie sobbed. “Bruce is dead!”
“Perhaps. Bruce has faked his own death before, though I wouldn’t expect you to be aware of that. This could part of a ruse.”
“Somehow, I don’t think so. I’m going to go check on Silver, just as soon as I can pull myself together.”
“I’ll see how Dick and Jason are doing, then I’ll meet you for lunch.”
In an unusually hushed office in midtown Gotham, a phone rang twice, to be answered by an attractive blonde woman dressed in deep red. “Thank you for calling Wayne Industries. This is Cynthia. How may I help you?” Several heads turned toward her: the switchboard was routing all regular calls to an answering service as the company tried to come to grips with the loss of its owner. Cynthia Morningstar lowered her voice as she spoke. “Yes, of course it’s you, Nathan. There are only three people who have this direct number, and one of them is dead. The third one isn’t likely to be calling me right now, either.”
“So, any idea what happened?” asked a deep baritone at the other end of the line.
“You probably know better than I do. Massive explosion, all the agencies are trying to figure out why. Could have been the oil deal, could have been an accident.”
“Just so long as you weren’t involved.”
“Are you kidding? I was looking forward to tarnishing his halo a little. I’ll just have to settle for his boy wonder protégé, instead.” A low chuckle at the other end of the phone line gave her pause. “Something funny about that?”
“If you only knew, my dear Miss Morningstar, if you only knew.”
It had been dark forever, but somehow he felt comfortable in the dark.
It had been cold forever, but somehow he knew how to ignore the discomfort.
It had been snowing forever, but somehow he knew the direction in which he wanted to go.
What he didn’t know, however, might have filled volumes.
Inexorably, he walked forward, his feet seeming to find the best path through the snow by instinct.
The roar of the wind filled his ears, so he couldn’t tell when he first heard the other sound. It was a loud, rattling hum that blended in with the thrumming of wind-borne snow. When it registered on his consciousness, he raised his head up to look around. Behind him, he saw a dim glow. He stopped walking and waited. The noise grew louder, and the glow grew brighter, until he could make out the boxy outline of a vehicle coming through the storm.
“–like it’s nineteen-ninety-ni — Whoa! What the heck?” The driver of the snowcat yanked back on the drive lever, disengaging the large treads under the back portion of the converted truck. Putting the vehicle into idle, he opened the door and hung out over it. “You’re gonna freeze your tail off out here, mister! Come on, get up in the truck!”
The man who climbed up into the cabin was coated in a layer of snow that crumbled away as he climbed. He stood on the running board and swatted great clumps of snow off his body before climbing in.
“Jeez, what the hell are you doing out in this weather, guy? Only a damned fool would be out walking in this!”
“I — I don’t know.” It was the first time he had spoken since he woke up. Even his own voice didn’t seem familiar. “Something happened, I don’t know what. I don’t seem to know much of anything.” He turned and looked at the driver, confusion in his eyes.
“Here, have some of this to warm up your insides.” Seeing a worried look on his new passenger, the driver smiled as he lifted a thermos bottle up from under the seat. “Coffee, strong, black, and hot as only my own jug, here, can keep it.” He drove with one hand and both feet while he deftly unscrewed the top, placed it on the seat, and poured the top full of black coffee. “You take cream or sugar? Hope not, ’cause I don’t have any.”
The freezing man took the cup and poured it down his throat, heedless of the hot temperature. The driver filled it once more, and the freezing man sipped at it this time. “Thanks. Don’t know how I usually take it, but right now it tastes like heaven.”
Before starting up again, the driver reached behind the bench seat and pulled out a couple of blankets. “Here, wrap up in these. I keep them here in case I have to spend the night in this thing.” He watched as the dark-haired man pulled the blankets over himself, forming a sort of cocoon. “By the way, the name is Mick.”
“Glad to have met you, Mick.” The other man frowned. “I — I’d give you my name, but I don’t even remember that.”
“Well, you’ve got some ID, don’t you? A driver’s license or something?”
As the snowcat lurched forward and resumed its trek through the snow-blasted tundra, Mick’s passenger made a quick check of his clothing. “Nothing, not a — wait a second.” Reaching under his shirt, he found a ring hanging on a black leather cord. He pulled it out and held it up in the dim light of the cabin. “There’s some engraving in here. Looks like a name at the end. Thomas.”
“Thomas, eh? Don’t have anyone named Tom at Isolation, so I guess we can call you that. Vinnie figures the place is small enough, anyone shows up with a duplicate name better plan on changing it.”
“Isolation? Is that a town?”
Mick let out a snort. “That would be a bit much. Isolation is a collection of old mining shacks and some new shelters that Vince Speech added after coming there about six years ago. He found the old mining settlement when he was helping lay the oil lines, and word has it he came back after killing someone down in Washington. Over the past few years, a couple of folks who wanted to avoid official notice have found their way there. I’m on my way back with this month’s supply run. Nothing between here and there, Tom, so you might was well sack out until we get there. Short of a major disaster, won’t be anyone leaving Isolation for the next four weeks, including you.”