“Don’t worry, Batman. We can handle things while you’re gone.”
“Of course you can, Kirk. I wouldn’t ask if I didn’t think you could. There’s one other thing I’d like you folks to look into while I’m gone, though.” Batman glanced over the printouts scattered on the desk in front of him.
“An open case you need wrapped up?” asked Batwoman from her end of the conference call.
“No. I had a bit of a brainstorm the other night. Check with Gordon about getting the use of the new lighthouse dome assembly. I did some checking on the technology that Mister Freeze uses for his freeze-ray. I think that a large-scale version could be built and used with the lenses set into the dome to–”
“Hey, I see where you’re going! Kirk, you and I should be able to rig this up, right?” asked Rory Regan, the strange avenger of the night known as Ragman.
“That’s what I’m counting on. I’ve drawn up some rough plans to start with. I’ll have them dropped off at the Museum, Kirk.”
“We’ll do what we can,” replied Langstrom. “Good luck, Batman.”
Two hours later, a sleek Learjet streaked into the sky from Gotham International Airport.
“This is certainly a switch, Alfred.”
“Very true, sir. Usually, you are flying home on a Wayne Enterprises jet after wrecking one of your more specialized craft during a mission.” Ever the loyal servant, Alfred brought a bottle of mineral water and a glass to Bruce’s seat in the cabin.
“Sit down, Alfred. You’ve been up as long as I have, if not longer.” Bruce indicated the seat across from him.
“Thank you, Bruce. It has been a long day, and night, and day, I suppose.”
“Exactly.” Bruce stood and reached up into the storage compartment above the seat. “That’s why you and I both are going to take advantage of the transatlantic flight to catch a little shut-eye. I left instructions with the crew to wake us up a half-hour before we land in Lisbon.” He tossed a blanket and a pillow to Alfred, then found a set for himself.
“Lisbon, sir? Wouldn’t Jason be more likely to fly to London for refueling?”
“Not if he checks the list of arranged fueling areas I keep prepared for the Batplane. The Wayne Industries airfield south of London was heavily damaged during the Crisis and hasn’t been repaired yet. Lisbon is the best bet for a flight to Qurac.”
Alfred reclined his seat, arranged the pillow, and unfolded the blanket over himself. “Very well, then, sir. I’ll see you in Lisbon.”
Several hours later, thirty miles northwest of Al Mubarraz, Qurac, a black jet aircraft circled under the normal scanning area for the nation’s radar systems. With the star-ridden night sky overhead, the plane was visible only as a silhouette to anyone on the ground.
“Nothing around here for miles, except for those tents. That must be where she’s being held. No place to land, though.”
Robin flipped through a stack of pre-punched computer cards until he found the one he wanted. He took it from the deck and slid into a slot on the plane’s control panel. Lights flickered, then a row of indicators glowed green.
“There. Now, when I punch the autopilot, the plane will fly to the USAF airfield in Cypress and land itself. Unless, of course, someone shoots it down first.”
Quickly checking the contents of a backpack, Robin donned a parachute and wrapped the pack’s straps around one arm. He pressed the stick forward, bringing the plane as low as he could safely fly it over the desert on the next pass. He leveled out and gauged his distance from the encampment. When he felt his position was right, he pulled back on a lever next to his seat.
The cowling of the cockpit slid back on well-lubricated tracks, breaking the seals that held the cabin’s pressure steady. Robin didn’t have time to feel the rush of air before the seat thrusted upward, propelling him out of the plane. A detached part of his mind noted the seat dropping back into the plane and the cowling sliding back into place. The rest of his mind was focusing on timing his flight and pulling the ripcord on his chute when he reached the peak of his arc in the sky. Too bad the Air Force gave up on that idea! he thought as the chute billowed overhead and he began his slow descent. Between the navigational computer and the reusable ejection system, they could save a lot of planes and pilots.
His calculations were proven to be correct, as he touched down a mere forty yards from the encampment. His descent, however, had not gone unnoticed. No sooner did Robin free himself from the parachute harness, then there was a blaze of lights at the encampment. He stared as the true nature of the tents and other structures became apparent. Sweeping floodlights illuminated garishly painted canvas. Plywood signs displayed oddities of all types, and booths filled with stuffed animals and decorated mirrors stood empty.
“Great! A circus!” exclaimed Robin, surveying the sight through binoculars. “I’m out in the middle of the freaking desert, and there’s a freaking circus.”
He put away the binoculars and started walking toward the tents. Already, he could spot figures emerging to meet him.
“That’s right. Send out the clowns.”
“Ah, there you are, sir. I take it we will be arriving in Lisbon shortly,” Alfred said as he stood by the door to one of the plane’s washrooms.
“Actually, if you look out the port there, you may see the southern coast of Greece,” Bruce replied as he shaved.
“Greece? My word, sir, I–”
“Don’t worry, Alfred. I specifically told the crew not to disturb you when they woke me. I figured you needed the rest more than I did.”
“I suppose I did. Was there any word about Master Jason?”
“He stopped there to refuel, as I thought he would. And the Batplane landed at Cypress about thirty minutes ago — without Jason.” Bruce emerged from the washroom, patting his face and neck dry. “I’ll be suiting up shortly and transferring to the cargo compartment. From there, I can jettison and drop into the area.”
“Where should I have the pilot land the plane to await your word, Master Bruce?”
“I placed a call from Lisbon to Saudi Arabia. Prince Fahid el Akhar is more than happy to allow us the use of his airfield for a couple of days while Bruce Wayne is in sensitive negotiations with the Quraci Foreign Minister.” Bruce grinned. “So, Alfred, have you kept your acting skills polished up?”
“Of course I have, sir!” said the butler, feigning insult.
“Good, because it wouldn’t do for the Prince to realize that I am playing on his goodwill. The pilots, of course, know that Batman slipped aboard disguised as Bruce Wayne in Lisbon and will play along as well.”
“Not to worry, Master Bruce.”
A scant hour later, the Wayne Enterprises corporate Learjet crossed briefly into Quraci airspace. Almost immediately, the small nations air defenses were activated, and a trio of jets were scrambled. Before they came within visible range, a flurry of radio messages were exchanged, and the Quraci officials were convinced that the incursion was the result of a minor malfunction in the jet’s navigational computer. Its flight path was adjusted, and soon the jet was on its way to Saudi Arabia.
Unseen by the Quraci radar systems was an ultralight aircraft that slipped out of a briefly opened cargo bay door on the jet.
High atop the Wayne Industries building, a strange trio labored over a stranger device.
“OK, Man-Bat, just a bit to the right!” A thin figure dressed in rags gestured to the grotesque figure flying above him, bearing a large glass and metal assembly. “These lenses are the last thing to go. Now, down, down.” He reached up to steady the assembly and align it with the mounting pins below. A smile was just visible through his cloth mask as he fit it into place. “That’s it!”
“Thank God!” came a guttural reply from the transformed Kirk Langstrom. “That thing weighs close to four hundred pounds, Ragman.”
“You’ve done good, Man-Bat. Take a rest while I hook up the control panel,” said a soft female voice. On the far side of the large device, Batwoman worked with a small torch and pliers, connecting a switch panel and a bank of digital readouts to control ports on a mini-computer. “The frequency variations that are going to be needed by this thing are way beyond anything a human mind could handle. It’s all going to have to be computer-controlled. Give me about a half-hour, and we can try a test run with it.”
Man-Bat dropped to the roof and reached for his belt. From a secured pocket, he took a small capsule and popped it in his mouth. This triggered a metamorphic reaction; his form shrunk and contorted until the monstrous half-man/half-bat creature was gone, and a mild-mannered museum curator stood in its place.
“Thanks. I can use it. Any coffee left?”
The Ragman walked over with a large Thermos jug and a cup. “Here ya go, fella. You look like you could use it.”
An hour later, the Man-Bat was once again soaring over Gotham, surveying the results of their test.
“Adams Boulevard is cleared, Batwoman, along with Novick Parkway and the west district. Good job on programming that thing — the trees, gardens, and shrubs are still here, but the swamp growth has all withered away from the cold. The grass isn’t in such good shape, but that’s about normal for the end of winter, anyway,” he said into a radio transmitter.
“Good. I’ll talk with the mayor and the commissioner. Thanks to those officers who volunteered to be in the test area, we know that we don’t have to evacuate parts of the city while we clear the plant growth left behind by the Swamp Thing. With their approval, we’ll have the city cleared in two days!”