“Wow,” Lex Luthor said in amazement, looking all around the huge cavern. “The famous Batcave! I figured it’d be impressive, but I never dreamed–! Hey, what’s with the dinosaur?”
“Long story,” Batman muttered. He had been silent since they reached the Batcave, unchallenged and ungreeted. In this strange, harsher reality, he did not dare ask where Alfred was. Purposefully, he strode to the rear of the cave. The others followed him. When all five stood on a small platform, indistinguishable from the rest of the floor, Batman spoke a single word.
Recognizing his voice pattern, the platform began to descend. For long minutes, it sank. Five minutes. Ten. Fifteen.
“Geez, how far down we going?” Oliver Queen wondered aloud.
“I know,” Luthor said. “For the past three minutes I’ve been looking for the initials A.S. carved on the wall. Has to be here someplace.”
“Funny,” Batman muttered, with no trace of humor in his voice.
Finally, the platform stopped. A door slid open before them, and the five walked into a dark room. Barbara Gordon shivered from the cold. Batman strode forward, unhesitating, knowing exactly where he was going.
The box that held his prize was different than the one in his own Batcave. This one was yellow in color, and when it opened to Batman’s fingerprint lock, he found the interior lined with genuine leather — proof against this Batman’s allies. The precautions had worked; what Batman sought was within.
The Flash looked around the communications room at all the familiar faces — familiar, yet somehow different. Harsher. Grimmer. What was the right word? Deadlier. That was it. Even the Elongated Man’s laughing countenance had been replaced by a sour frown and haunted eyes. Metamorpho was there, apparently a full-time Leaguer in this world, as were Ragman, Katana, and Nightwing. No sign of Superman, though.
“Welcome the conquering heroes,” Hawkman said, ushering the Flash and the Atom into the room. “Wally, Adam, and Arthur captured Jefferson Pierce tonight. Arthur’s taking him down to the holding cells now.”
“Didn’t have to rough him up too much, I hope,” Metamorpho said of his old Outsiders comrade.
“Well, Black Lightning was never one for going quietly,” the Flash pointed out. Metamorpho nodded at the truth of this.
“Where’d you get him?” Nightwing asked. “Was Ba — were any of the other rebels there?”
“Read all about it in my report,” the Flash said, sitting down at the console. His heart ached; this was his best friend he was deceiving. And yet it was not his best friend, not the Dick Grayson he knew. He had to keep reminding himself of that.
The Flash’s crimson-gloved fingers hesitated over the keyboard for a moment. Then he turned to Nightwing. “Uh, D-Dick,” he stammered, “this is embarrassing, but…”
“You forgot your password again?” Nightwing finished. “Geez, Wally! It’s B-A-R-R-Y-A-L-L-E-N! How hard is that?”
“Oh, right. Thanks,” the Flash said, his fingers clacking on the keys.
“Approaching holding cells,” a mechanical voice sounded. “State your name and business.”
“Arthur Curry, with a prisoner,” Aquaman intoned. The steel doors hissed open.
“Hey, Aquaman!” an armed guard said, smiling. “Got another one, I see! Hey, I know him, he was whatsisname, Black Vulcan?”
“Lightning,” Aquaman corrected. “Got a cell ready for him?”
“Always,” the guard said, checking a computerized list. “Lessee, you guys finally caught Chronos last week, and he was just taken to Antaeus yesterday, so Cell 8 is open. Guess his time ran out, hey?”
Aquaman forced a chuckle at the joke. “Cell 8 it is, then. Open it up for me; I’ll keep the prisoner in line.”
“Roger that,” the guard said, turning and walking down the corridor of cells. Aquaman had to repress a shudder as he saw the prisoners. He recognized a few former costumed heroes; there was Jack Ryder, and over there Buddy Baker. There were two or three costumed villains as well, awaiting transfer to Antaeus with a look of stark fear on their faces. Mostly the cells were filled with faces Aquaman did not recognize, probably ordinary men and women who had never worn a costume. Remembering the stark terror of the boy they had caught in the act of stealing food, Aquaman wondered what their crimes could have been.
“Cell 8,” the guard announced, stooping to place his electronic key against the lock-plate. “Last stop.”
“For you,” Pierce acknowledged as Aquaman snapped the chain on his handcuffs with a twitch of his green-gloved fingers.
“Huh?” the guard asked. “What do you aaahhh!” Pierce felled the guard with a sub-lethal jolt of electricity. Aquaman picked up the electronic key; it was of Thanagarian design, technology Aquaman was familiar with from the workings of the JLA Satellite. In a few moments, he had it set to open all the cells with a single push of a button, which he did to the astonishment of the prisoners.
“Anyone who would be free,” Aquaman announced, “follow us!”
Amidst the cheers of the prisoners, Aquaman grimly prayed that Wally and Adam had done their part.
“We had planned a full-scale search of the city for the rebels’ hidden base,” Hawkman was saying. “Pierce’s capture, of course, changes things. Once he tells us where their base is, we can take them out quickly and efficiently.”
“You’re taking it for granted that he will tell,” Firestorm pointed out.
“He will,” Hawkman said with chilling confidence. “We have to get the information quickly, though. Queen is no fool. He’ll know that Pierce will talk, and as soon as he realizes we’ve got–”
The Thanagarian’s statement was cut off by a loud, shrill klaxon cutting through the room like a blade. “The alarm!” Hawkman cried. “The cells have been opened!”
“That’s impossible!” the Elongated Man swore. “Aquaman was down there! There’s no way–” Ralph Dibny’s voice stopped when the alarm suddenly died, as did the lights, the glare of the computer screen, and the background hum of the air conditioner.
“This can’t be happening,” Hawkman whispered harshly in the darkness.
But it was. The Flash smiled grimly to himself in the shadows. He had done it. Lex Luthor had months ago prepared a computer worm, a coded program that would destroy the Justice League’s computer system completely and utterly. All he lacked was a means of introducing it into their computers. The Flash had provided that. Luthor had transcribed the code onto a memo card that he had shrunken down to a fraction of a centimeter, using technology he had learned from Brainiac in their partnership days. The Atom had secreted the card on his person and whispered the code into the Flash’s ear as he sat perched on the speedster’s shoulder; the Flash had typed it in under the guise of entering his report on Jefferson Pierce’s capture. The computers in JLA Headquarters, and everything they controlled, were dead; and the worm was spreading to everything else controlled by the JLA nationwide, prisons and watchtowers and reeducation centers. Soon all would be chaos.
“Get these lights working!” Hawkman cried out. “Get maintenance in here! Now!”
“Can’t call ’em,” the Flash said. “Comm is out.”
“Are you a speedster or not?” Hawkman demanded. “Run down and get–”
Suddenly, the doors burst open. “Eat this, turkey!” Pierce cried, launching a sizzling lighting bolt at Hawkman. The winged wonder barely had time to bring up his wing to deflect the bolt. By the light of the bolt, he saw the massed prisoners behind Pierce, as well as who was standing next to him.
“Aquaman?” Hawkman whispered, in stark disbelief.
“Better believe it,” the Flash said. A crimson blur suddenly whipped around Hawkman’s startled form, and the next thing he knew, the Flash was standing next to Aquaman and Pierce, holding his wings and belt.
A tense silence hung in the air for a long moment. It was shattered by Hawkman’s cry. “Justice League — attack!”
“Can’t you make this thing go any faster?” Oliver Queen demanded from his seat behind the pilot’s seat of the Batplane.
“Afraid not,” was Batman’s terse reply. It was a short hop by jet from Gotham City to New York and JLA Headquarters, but they had no idea what was going on there. For all they knew, their comrades could already have been discovered, or worse.
“Wish there were some way of contacting our friends,” Green Lantern said, the forced inaction getting to him.
“You and me both, ring-slinger,” Lex Luthor said. “I’ve tried a million times to come up with a communications frequency the League can’t hack into, but even with Allen and Palmer gone, they’ve still got some of the best minds on their side.”
“Damn it!” Queen cried. “If we only knew what was going on!”
Hawkman’s cry of attack went unanswered for the shortest moment. His companions were still stunned by the apparent betrayal of Aquaman, the Flash, and the Atom. The moment’s hesitation was all Aquaman needed to fire the opening salvo. His mighty-muscled arm hurled a brown paper sack at Firestorm, the most dangerous member of the group currently present. The sack exploded against the young man’s chest, and he was instantly covered in a shower of white powder. Firestorm and those around him began coughing out the dust.
“Powdered milk!” Firestorm sputtered through the cloud. “He doused me with powdered milk!”
“So what are you waiting for?” Hawkman snarled. “Get them!”
“I can’t!” Firestorm cried. “This stuff is organic! I can’t use my powers through it!”
“I see why you insisted on stopping off at the kitchen on the way up,” Pierce said to Aquaman.
“I don’t know what’s gotten into you, Arthur,” the Elongated Man said, “but I’m not letting you do this!” And with the launch of a rubberized fist, the battle was joined. In sheer numbers, the sides were about evenly matched, but the freed prisoners were fighting to remain free, hero alongside villain, against those who had imprisoned them. The battle was fierce and quick. Within minutes, Aquaman’s forces stood near victorious; on the JLA side, only Hawkman, Metamorpho, and Cyborg remained standing.
“How could you?” Hawkman snarled at Aquaman. “You know we’re doing what needed to be done! I almost expect it from West and Cray; they were newcomers, not true League! But you, Arthur! You’ve been with the team longer than I have! I thought–”
Aquaman refused to listen. He told himself he could never turn into what Hawkman and the others had become. But deep down, he knew he had not lived through what they had. He could not swear that he would not react as they had.
“We about done here?” Pierce asked. Many of the prisoners had fled during the battle; a few, mostly those who had been costumed heroes before their capture, remained.
“Not yet,” a basso profundo voice boomed from the doorway. The rebel heroes gasped in horror; a wicked grin crossed Hawkman’s face. A tall, powerful figure stood in the doorway of the room where the battle had taken place. The costume was different from the one Aquaman and the other-dimensional expatriates had known; the bright, brilliant blue was replaced by flat and lifeless black, while the familiar red and gold shield emblem was gone entirely. The face was almost the same, except for the eyes and the ghosts within.
“This ends now,” was all Superman said.
“Estimated time of arrival, seventeen-point-six minutes,” Batman said into his communicator.
“Roger,” Green Lantern responded.
The five extra-dimensional heroes were on their way to their self-appointed mission. The Batplane, which Batman had summoned by remote control from his counterpart’s Batcave, was on its way to Arkham Asylum with a full payload of air-to-ground missiles. The Atom rode with him, more as an observer than a participant. The Flash and Aquaman were headed for Belle Reve Prison with a similar objective. Green Lantern was ringing his way to Superman’s Island, high in the sky.
These men had seen horror on their world. They were determined to prevent that horror from striking this one, even if it had to be circumvented with a greater horror.
“Why have you done this?” Superman asked simply.
“Done what?” the Flash snapped. “Decided that the League has to be better than who we fight?”
“That’s the kind of pacifist talk the League spouted for years,” Hawkman snarled, “and what happened? Do you remember 12-11?”
“Superman, the computers are out,” Cyborg said. “Some kind of virus! Everything’s down! And it’s probably spreading to–”
“Virus,” Superman said. “Only one man could create a virus that could take down our computers.”
“Luthor,” Hawkman hissed in surprise. “I hadn’t thought of that! Have you turncoats thrown in with Queen and Luthor?!”
“Enough,” Superman said. “It was the hardest decision of my life to turn my back on everything my father taught me and become the kind of guardian this new world needed. The support of my friends is all that got me through it. If you’ve decided to turn back now, Arthur, Wally, Adam… it’s too late.”
“It’s never too late,” a familiar voice from high and behind said. All heads turned in the direction of the voice.
“No,” Superman whispered. There, at an open window, stood Batman, his right arm hidden beneath his cloak. Behind him Superman saw Green Lantern, Lex Luthor, and Oliver Queen. “No, Bruce. Not you, too.”
“I’m afraid so, Clark,” Batman said. “You can’t be allowed to continue this. I’m sorry. It ends now.”
A tear trickled down Superman’s invulnerable cheek, but his expression did not waver. “I’m afraid you’re right, Bruce,” he said. “It ends now.” And crimson fire lanced from the Man of Steel’s eyes.