“Thanks very much for giving us this exclusive, Batman,” Lois Lane said as she stood in the corridor of STAR Labs in Los Angeles, California. The legendary Dark Knight of Gotham City stood before her, his cloak falling to the floor over his shoulders. As he stood before the plate-glass window, he seemed for all the world like a dark angel standing guard. His usually grim expression was relaxed just slightly, for Lois Lane was a friend. Behind her stood two of her colleagues, Jimmy Olsen and Clark Kent. Batman, too, was flanked by associates, Wonder Woman and the Flash. Visible through the plate-glass window behind them, a familiar form in a blue and red costume lay in a bed, his eyes closed. Lois strained her eyes to see and just barely detected Superman’s chest rising and falling. Golden light poured down on him from a sophisticated-looking lamp device.
“Our pleasure, Miss Lane,” Batman said. “We understand the public’s desire for information regarding Superman. We’re only too glad to provide it.”
“So what happened to Superman?” Lois asked. “Why is he here? What’s going on?“
“I’ll answer those questions in the order asked,” Batman said. “Superman suffered massive injuries in the recent invasion of Earth by several alien species. As part of the first strike against Earth, Superman received a severe beating at the hands of an extraterrestrial assassin named Lobo. (*) He had not fully recovered from those injuries when he led Earth’s heroes into battle to repel the invaders. We were successful in our efforts, due in no small part to Superman’s actions. Following his battle with the alien warlord Mongul, both Superman and Mongul plummeted to Earth from outer space. (*) They crash-landed in the desert not far from here.”
“Wow!” Jimmy Olsen exclaimed. “I always thought nothing could hurt Superman!”
“Superman is one of the most powerful men in the galaxy, Jimmy,” Clark Kent said, “but he is still a man. As strong as he is, he can be hurt by stronger forces. Those are very few and far between, but they do exist.”
“Indeed, Mr. Kent,” Batman said, nodding. “As to why he is here, we tracked his descent to the desert, and his injuries were so severe, we decided it was better to seek treatment nearby than to risk valuable time taking him to his own Fortress.”
“STAR has excellent facilities,” the Flash added. “Superman will receive the care he needs here. He’ll be back on the job before anyone knows it!”
“What course of treatment is STAR providing?” Clark Kent asked.
“I’m afraid that’s classified information, Mr. Kent,” Wonder Woman said sternly.
“Now, really, Wonder Woman!” Kent said, offended. “I know you come from Paradise Island, but here in America there’s such a thing as the First Amendment!“
“Clark!” Lois gasped, scandalized. “Let me apologize for Clark’s zealousness, Wonder Woman. Anything for a story, this one.”
“No offense taken,” Wonder Woman said, nodding.
“I think we’ve got all we need,” Lois said. “Thank you again, Batman, Flash, Wonder Woman.”
“Miss Lane,” Batman said with a slight nod of his head.
“Let’s go, Jimmy, Clark,” Lois said, turning to leave.
“You two go ahead,” Clark said. “An old friend of mine from Smallville lives out here now. I’m going to visit him. I’ll catch a later flight.”
“Sure, Clark,” Jimmy said. “We’ll see you back in Metropolis.” Lois and Jimmy left the room, heading for the main entrance of the laboratory facility. When they had left, Clark Kent turned to the Justice League members.
“How did I do?” he asked.
“A little high-handed,” Batman advised. “I’m not sure our friend would have played it quite that way. Still, it was convincing.”
“I thought Miss Lane gave up trying to prove Clark and Superman are one and the same years ago,” the Martian Manhunter said as his form shimmered and changed from his Clark Kent disguise to his true self.
“One never knows when she might backslide,” Batman said. “Thanks for the ruse, J’onn.”
“My lord Darkseid, there is good news!” DeSaad cackled, entering Darkseid’s audience chamber. The dark lord of Apokolips stood with his back to his master inquisitor, staring out the window at the leaping flames.
“Is there?” he asked simply, his voice like a rusty saw drawn across steel pipe.
“Indeed, sire,” DeSaad cackled, rubbing his hands together. “Your hated enemy Superman lies wounded and helpless in a hospital bed on Earth! He is fair game for an attack that would rid us of him forever!”
Darkseid slowly turned to face DeSaad, his eyes glowing like hot coals. “And do you think that Darkseid attacks helpless invalids in their beds, DeSaad?” he asked coldly.
“Oh, no, sire!” DeSaad said hurriedly, his hands making frantic motions in the air. “No, no, never! I-I never meant to imply that! You are a man of honor, of courage! Such a cowardly act would be so far beneath your magnificence!”
Darkseid regarded his aide for a moment, then nodded once and returned to his study of the window. “Then what is the good news, DeSaad?” he asked.
“Well, sire,” DeSaad said, recovering from his terror, “while you are too regal and honorable to attack Superman in his helpless state, there are many on Earth who are not. And Apokolips will benefit from Superman’s demise no matter who accomplishes it.”
“This is true,” Darkseid admitted. “The Man of Steel has many friends, however, who will protect him.”
“Indeed,” DeSaad agreed. “But he has many more enemies. His friends cannot possibly protect him from them all. Surely one will get through and kill him. It is impossible to predict which master criminal will succeed, but that does not matter. Superman’s doom is assured!”
“Nothing is certain, DeSaad,” Darkseid said. “But we will see.”
“Hey, guys!” Green Arrow said, sticking his head out into the corridor. “The doc wants to talk to us. C’mon!” The archer retreated into the room. Batman and Flash went to follow him. Wonder Woman and the Martian Manhunter lingered in the corridor.
“You know I was brought up on Mars Isle, not Paradise Island,” Wonder Woman said.
“As does Superman,” J’onn J’onzz said, nodding. “But would Clark Kent?“
Wonder Woman shook her head. “I often wonder how heroes who maintain a secret identity keep everything straight.”
“It’s easier when you can read minds,” J’onn said. “You always have the right answers. Come, let us hear what Dr. Martin has to say.”
“Your friend is recovering well,” Dr. Martin said to the assembled heroes. He spoke with a slight Northern accent; it was obvious that California was not his first home. Several Justice Leaguers stood listening to him, Black Canary and the Elongated Man as well as those already seen. “I’ll want to keep him here for at least two days, but he should be fine.”
“Doc, how is it that Superman took such a beating?” Flash asked. “I mean, come on, he’s Superman!“
“Superman’s body is a living solar battery,” Dr. Martin explained. “It absorbs solar energy, channels it for power, and stores it for that use. Like any battery, its charge is exhaustible. The battery that is Superman’s body is so efficient, with such a high storage threshold, that didn’t seem possible. But it does have its limits, and they were finally reached. But we’ve got him on a steady influx of solar radiation, and he’s responding well to it.”
“Can’t we just zap him with enough sunlight to bring him back to normal?” Green Arrow asked.
“That would be risky,” Dr. Martin said. “In his weakened state, trying to feed him too much energy too fast could be dangerous. His body had thirty-some years to absorb the solar radiation that his recent experiences drained out of him. Best that we take it slowly.”
“There’s another problem we have to consider, ladies and gentlemen,” Batman said grimly. “I gave the Daily Planet the news of Superman’s condition and whereabouts, not because I felt it was safe to do so, but because I was sure word was already out. His fall to Earth and crash in the desert was not exactly sub-rosa. Any intelligent person could figure out where he was brought after that and in what state.”
“In other words, he’s going to be a target for every super-villain in the book, from Abra Kadabra to Zebra-Man,” Black Canary said.
“There’s a Zebra-Man?” Elongated Man asked, surprised.
“Right,” Batman said. “So it falls to us to protect Superman — as well as any civilians in the immediate area — from such incursions.”
“Let them come,” Wonder Woman said. “They will not find a friend of Wonder Woman’s an easy prey!” Nubia’s hand went to the scabbard hanging at her belt; with a single pull, she drew a gleaming sword from its sheath, with a sharp metallic sound cleaving the air.
“Hey, that’s some cheese knife, Nubie!” Green Arrow said in admiration. “Can you trim beards with that?”
Wonder Woman grinned at her comrade. “Lift your chin, and we’ll find out.”
“Pass,” Green Arrow chuckled, holding his hands up palms out. “OK, Bats, so we’re on guard duty. I get you. We’re the JLA, right? We can handle it.”
“I hope so, Arrow,” Batman said, looking grimly at his lifelong friend lying unconscious in his bed. “I only hope so.”
“We’re online, Batman,” Hawkman said, striding into the room. Dr. Martin was doing his best to take it in stride; this was Los Angeles, after all. But not only was Superman his patient, the room was rapidly filling with members of the famed Justice League of America.
“That’s good,” Batman said. “You and Ray are sure the teleportation shield will work?”
“Reasonably so,” Hawkman nodded. “It took us six hours to figure out the logistics.”
“Teleportation shield?” Dr. Martin asked.
“Many of our enemies have mastered the science of teleportation,” Hawkman explained. “Dr. Palmer and myself have designed an oscillating wave shield that should block any attempts to teleport inside the facility.”
“Keeps our own people from using the JLA teleporter,” the Flash pointed out, “but it’s worth it.”
Green Arrow peered out the window. “What’s keeping Aquaman with the takeout, anyway? How long does it take to order a dozen submarine sandwiches?”
“If you’re so impatient, G.A.,” Black Canary scolded, “why didn’t you go get the food yourself?“
“Hey, I tossed him for it,” Green Arrow said. “I won fair and square.”
“With a two-tailed coin!” the archer’s fiancée said scathingly.
Green Arrow gaped with astonished eyes and placed his fingers over his heart. “You wound me! Really, you do!” The Flash covered his mouth, stifling a laugh.
“One of these days, I’m going to make Ollie show me that coin,” Aquaman said to himself as he walked toward the STAR facility carrying two large, brown paper sacks filled with food. “I hope Dinah won’t be too upset that they were out of provolone cheese. I–“
A strange sight interrupted Aquaman’s thoughts. He saw a man skulking around the side door of the facility — a man wearing a large brown overcoat about two sizes too large for him and a floppy brown hat.
“Possibly a reporter trying to get pictures of Superman in his bed of pain,” Aquaman said. “Possibly, but I doubt it.” Cradling the sacks of food in his arms, Aquaman walked up to the man in the overcoat.
“Can I help you, friend?” he asked politely. The man muttered something incoherent and made shooing motions with his hand. As he did so, he staggered on his feet. Aquaman smiled knowingly. A drunken street person, probably looking for food. “Afraid you can’t go inside, sir,” Aquaman said, reaching into one of his paper sacks. “If you’re hungry, though, here you go. How does ham and turkey sound?”
The man in the coat made another incoherent mumble and pushed away with his hand in Aquaman’s direction. The sea king moved closer, and his voice took on a slightly sterner tone.
“Look, friend, I sympathize with your plight, but I’m telling you, you can’t go inside.” Aquaman laid a green-gloved hand on the man’s shoulder. The man spun around on his heel, and his hat exploded in a column of violet force that slammed into Aquaman’s midsection, sending him flying across the street.
“Pellud!” Aquaman exclaimed, reverting to an ancient Atlantean expression taught to him as a child by his mother in his astonishment. “What in the world?!” The marine marvel picked himself up and darted back across the street, his sea-born leg muscles propelling him like a thunderbolt. The man had shucked his overcoat now and stood revealed in a purple costume and helmet.
“Had to butt in, didn’t you, fish-man?” the villain snarled. “I only wanted to kill Superman today, but if you insist, the Purple Pile-Driver will send you to Hell ahead of him!”
Aquaman grinned at the insolence. “Go ahead and try, friend,” he invited. Enraged, the Purple Pile-Driver let fly with another violet force-bolt from his helmet. Aquaman leaped over it as gracefully as a dolphin, landing ten feet closer to the villain. Snarling, the villain fired again. Again, Aquaman leaped over it and came down in a perfectly executed arc. This time he stood his ground, arms folded across his chest. “Try again, lavender loser,” Aquaman taunted. “Maybe third time is the charm.”
Snarling, the Pile-Driver fired again. Without moving his arms at all, Aquaman propelled himself up into the air with his legs. The purple force-bolt struck the fire hydrant Aquaman had been standing in front of, punching a hole clean through it. The onrushing column of water struck the Pile-Driver in the face, knocking his helmet clean off, and sending the villain sprawling on the pavement.
Arms still folded across his chest, Aquaman landed on the damp pavement. The Pile-Driver began to stir; in a flash, Aquaman was standing over him, his foot on the villain’s throat.
“Know what’s going to happen now?” Aquaman asked.
“Uh… I’m going to jail?” the Pile-Driver asked.
“Eventually,” Aquaman agreed. “But first, you’re going to explain to my friends what happened to the sandwiches.”