“How long do you figure they’ll be like this, Batman?” Hawkwoman asked.
The room was full almost to capacity with costumed heroes now. Green Lantern had arrived from Oa; the Metal Men, Metamorpho, and Nightwing had come to Superman’s side after dealing with the would-be assassins; Arsenal, Black Lightning, and the Atom had somehow arrived without bumping into a costumed villain with delusions of grandeur.
“Not long,” Batman said. “The effects of Bivolo’s emotion-stimulator usually wear off quickly. We’ll just have to keep them from coming to blows until they do.”
“Yeah, protect this Johnny-come-lately from me,” the Flash said. “I’ll wipe the floor with him!”
“Better not boast too much, Kiddie Flash,” Steel warned. “Beast Boy and Golden Eagle aren’t here to protect you this time!”
“Boys, enough!” Black Canary snapped. “I can’t deal with this! Ollie and Katar finally settled their differences, so I don’t need another running quarrel in the League!”
Hawkman and Green Arrow exchanged glances.
“We did?” Hawkman asked.
“Sure,” Green Arrow said. “Last week, wasn’t it? Thursday, I think.”
“Can’t have been Thursday,” Hawkman said. “I was giving a lecture on neo-Cambrian architecture. Tuesday?”
“Nah, I had fight tickets.”
“Oooh…!” Black Canary cried, exasperated.
The dialogue was interrupted by a soft knocking on the door jamb. The heroes turned to see a slender young woman with horn-rimmed spectacles standing there, holding a piece of paper in her hand. She seemed nervous, intimidated by the presence of so many super-heroes.
“Um, excuse me? M-Mr. Batman?” the woman said, clearly petrified.
“Yes?” Batman said in his best warm-and-friendly voice (which he didn’t do any better than Superman did dark-and-scary). “What can I do for you?”
“Um, I work in the office,” she stammered. “Administration? And, well, we just got a facsimile addressed to you. It doesn’t make a lot of sense, though.”
“Is that it?” Batman asked, indicating the sheet of paper in her hand with a nod of his head.
“Hm? Oh! Oh, yes! Yes, this is it!” the woman stammered nervously.
Batman held out a gloved hand. “May I see it, please?”
The woman grew very flustered. “Oh, of course! I’m sorry, I’m so sorry! It’s just — I — well — h-here you go.” Trembling, the woman handed the fax to Batman. The Dark Knight read it, and his face hardened into a grim mask.
“What is it, Batman?” Zatanna asked. “Bad news?”
“I’ll let you judge,” Batman said. He began to read the fax aloud. “‘Batman: Would a beverage brewed from frozen cockles be poisonous?'”
“Huh?” Green Arrow asked, dumbfounded. “What the heck is that?”
Batman crumpled the paper in his fist. “It’s a riddle.”
“A riddle?” Metamorpho asked. “You mean, like in the Riddler? That kooky crook who always sends you clues to his crimes?”
“Geez, is there a revolving door on Arkham, or what?” Green Arrow asked. “‘Wing, didn’t you and I just put him back there a few months ago?” (*)
[(*) Editor’s note: See The Brave and the Bold: Green Arrow and Nightwing: Are You Ready to Riddle?]
Nightwing spread his hands wide and shrugged.
“So what does the riddle mean?” Aquaman asked. “I’m not used to criminals who send puzzles; it makes no sense to me at all.”
“It’s a play on words,” Batman explained. “Would a beverage brewed from frozen cockles be poisonous? The answer is no, because there’s safe tea in numb burrs.”
“Ouch,” Black Canary said, wrinkling her nose.
“Safety in uh… numbers?” Lead said. “I don’t get it. What the heck is uh… he trying to tell us?”
“Um, I think I know,” Green Lantern said. He stood at the window of the room, looking through green power-ringed binoculars. “Look at this!” With a thought, the emerald gladiator dissolved the binoculars and created a gigantic television screen against one wall. The screen showed the street outside about two blocks down from the STAR facility.
“Great Neptune!” Aquaman cried. The others were equally stunned.
A veritable army of super-villains was marching up the street, shoulder to shoulder. The Riddler was there, of course, as were dozens of others: Black Manta, Weather Wizard, Lightning Bug, Brain Storm, Mirror Mistress, Sinestra, Lachesis, Two-Face, Atom-Master, Jackhammer, Poison Ivy, Fisherman, Doctor Horus, Johnny Reb and Billy Yank, New-Wave, Toyman, Warp, Calendar Man, Multiplex, the Fox, the Shark, and the Vulture, Shadow-Thief, Kryptonite Man, Flamesplasher, Quakemaster, Starshine, Major Disaster, Pinball Wizard, Effron the Sorcerer, Atomic Skull, Mister Freeze, Metallo, Paragon, and many others, all intent on murder.
“Quite a motley crew,” the Elongated Man said. “I’m surprised Cutlass Charlie couldn’t make it.” Aquaman shot him a dirty look.
“It seems our adversaries have decided to pool their efforts,” Batman said grimly. “Apparently, they no longer care which of them gets to finish off Superman, as long as one of them does.”
“Well, what are we waiting for?” Green Arrow asked. “We’re the good guys, right? Let’s get out there and bust some heads!”
“For once I agree with our impetuous archer,” Hawkman said. “We should stop this attack before it has a chance to get started, before anyone gets hurt.”
“Sounds good to me,” Iron said, forming his right hand into a giant hammerhead. “Let’s rock and roll!”
“Should someone stay here and guard Superman?” Wonder Woman asked. “If he is still too weak to fight–”
“I’ll be fine,” Superman said. “What with the teleportation shield Hawkman and Ray put up, and the magic shield Zatanna erected, who can get in?”
“All right, then,” Batman said. “Let’s go!”
“Big mistake, letting Two-Face join their gang,” Nightwing muttered as the heroes left. “Like as not, he’ll defect to our side once the fighting starts!”
Superman watched his friends depart. When they were gone, he turned his attention to the power-ringed video screen Green Lantern had left to watch the battle. He was very fortunate to have such friends.
“Hello,” a familiar voice from behind Superman said, sending a chill down the Man of Steel’s spine.
“Victory is assured, great Darkseid!” DeSaad cried joyfully.
“Oh?” Darkseid asked, packing a lot of menace in that single syllable.
“Most definitely, sire,” DeSaad swore. “Superman’s greatest enemy has penetrated to his convalescence room! All his friends are elsewhere! His doom is imminent! It cannot fail!”
“Can it not, DeSaad?” Darkseid asked.
“I said hello,” the voice from behind said. “What’s the matter, cat got your tongue?”
“Luthor?” Superman asked, every muscle in his battle-wearied body tensing.
“That’s me,” the bald arch-villain said, stepping around from behind Superman’s bed. He wore his green and purple body suit and carried a white paper sack in his hand. “How are you feeling? I understand you took quite a beating.”
“I — wh-what are you–?” Superman stammered, stalling for time. Silently, he marshaled his reserves of strength. He felt his power levels rising from sheer force of will. Still, it was not his normal level of strength. He hoped it would be enough. “How did you get in here?”
“Teleported in,” said Lex Luthor. “Thought you’d have guessed. Oh, what, that ridiculous shield your friends put up? Puh-leeze! I was designing more complex devices than that when I was fifteen! You ought to remember that.”
Superman was silent. His eyes flicked to the power ring screen, wondering if he could expect any assistance. The screen was a morass of colorfully costumed figures locked in combat. No help would be forthcoming.
“Here, I brought you something,” Luthor said, holding out the paper sack. “Chocolate chip cookies, fresh from old man Krausmeyer’s bakery in Smallville. You do like chocolate chip, don’t you? I figured a Boy Scout like you had to.”
His hand barely trembling, Superman reached out and took the bag. A pleasant aroma, nearly forgotten, tantalized his nostrils. “But… Mr. Krausmeyer…”
“Died ten years ago. I know,” Luthor said. “I had to time travel from before I was born to get these. Time travelers can’t change history, but apparently my buying a few cookies didn’t muck up the time-stream any. Don’t worry, I used old currency. Wouldn’t do to have old man Krausmeyer examine a bill that said Series 1981, would it?”
“Luthor…” Superman said, looking his old enemy in the eye, “I know what you’ve come for. Let’s get it over with. I’ll do my best to let you know you’ve been in a fight.”
“A fight?” Luthor said, aghast. “Is that any way to greet an old friend from your home town, come to wish you well on your sick bed? I must say!”
“You’ve sworn to kill me, Luthor,” Superman said.
“Oh, yeah, there is that,” Luthor admitted, his voice suddenly taking on a steely tone. “After all, you destroyed my planet, cost me my wife and son, everyone and everything I ever held dear. So, yes, I was a little miffed. Swore I’d pay you back for that, with quintuple interest. Sure, I remember that now.”
All of a sudden, Luthor’s voice reverted back to its friendly tone. “But not today. No, it’d be too easy now. There’d be no pleasure in this victory. Shooting a super-fish in a kryptonite barrel, it’d be.” Luthor leaned in close, his grinning face inches from the Man of Steel’s. “No, I want you to remember always that I had the chance, and I didn’t take it. I want you to stay up nights with the thought that the man whose life you ruined could have snuffed yours out with a gesture, and he didn’t. Think of that as you recuperate, blue boy. Let it torture you.”
Luthor stood up and stepped away from the bed. “Well, I’ve got to get going. I’ll be seeing you around. You get well quick, hear? I want you nice and healthy… the next time we meet.” In an eye-blink, Luthor was gone.
Superman stared at the empty space for a long, long time.
“Superman’s doom is imminent, eh, DeSaad?” Darkseid growled, his voice rumbling like thunder.
“P-please, great Darkseid!” DeSaad begged. “H-how could I predict? Humans are so irrational, so illogical, so emotional! I-I couldn’t possibly have foreseen this! N-no one could have! Please, have mercy!”
“DeSaad…” The sniveling master of torture whimpered once. “…shut up.” Darkseid’s deadly omega beams blazed forth from his eyes. Before DeSaad had time to scream, his body was vaporized.
Darkseid turned back to his window and heaved a great sigh. He knew, eventually, he would restore DeSaad. He always did. But for now, he wanted peace and quiet.
“Enjoy your respite, Man of Steel,” Darkseid breathed. “It will not last.”