Outside the makeshift television studio, Batman crouched in the shadows. Inside, he could hear the Joker’s mad howls of laughter and shrieks of delight as the votes came in.
What sort of sick, demented people are responding to this? he asked himself. Which is the sicker mind? The one that sets up a hotline for death, or the one that calls in to vote for death? He shook his head as he worked on an electrical panel.
Moments later, the Dark Knight made his way through an overhead duct, snaking his way over the control room to the main studio floor. Below, he knew that he had about three minutes before the Joker would start to get very upset about the results of his call-in poll.
In the studio, the Boy Wonder stirred on the floor.
“Ahhh, I see the daring daredevil of the diaper set is back with us!” screamed the Joker. “So glad you could join us, Robin! As you can see, things aren’t looking so good for Mommy Dearest. Such a shame, isn’t it?” The crazed clown bent over, his face mere inches away from Jason’s, a mock frown trying to bend the corners of his permanent grin downward. “Such a shame you can’t do anything about it, isn’t it? Hee-hee-heee-haaa-haaa-HAA-HAAA-HAAA!”
All of a sudden, Robin’s hands emerged from under the folds of his cape and clapped together. The capsule in one palm suddenly burst from the impact. A cloud of smoke exploded forth, directed by the young boy’s cupped hands directly into the Joker’s face.
“Wha? Ack! Gag!” The Joker staggered back as Robin leaped to his feet and unleashed a flurry of punches and kicks against the harlequin of hate. One blow after another connected with the pale-skinned killer, driving him to his knees. “Somebody! Help me!”
A crowd started to close in around the combatants. Just as a few of them got close enough to strike, a section of the ceiling exploded above them. Plaster, fiberglass, and shattered wood cascaded down, and within the mass a dark shape was visible. It never seemed to reach the ground, erupting in a series of martial arts moves that sent one foe after another crashing to the floor.
“Take him down, Robin! I’ve got your back!” The voice was calm, controlled, and just loud enough to make itself heard. But to Robin, it was like a trumpet call, spurring him on to greater efforts as his fists drive into the Joker’s face and chest until the dreaded clown was unconscious. Robin straightened up and looked around, surveying the studio.
“Need any help there, Batman?” he asked.
“Any you can lend, son,” he replied, tossing a burly cameraman into a crowd of people rushing down from the audience.
Less than five minutes later, Batman and Robin were the only ones left standing in the studio. Robin looked up at the tote board. “Hey, looks like the Joker’s plan fizzled anyway!” On the board, the number of callers favoring death stood at 375, while those opposed had climbed to 892.
The roar of a motorcycle echoed through the caverns, growing louder and louder until at last a splash of light appeared in the largest open space in the cave complex. Photoelectric sensors triggered the ceiling lights and the exhaust system, which had shut down when no activity was detected in the caves over a twenty-four-hour period. The lights revealed an array of complex equipment rivaling the laboratories of the FBI and any premier scientific lab, in addition to a mind-boggling array of strange souvenirs. However, aside from the lights and fans, all of the other equipment was still.
The black motorcycle pulled up alongside a similar red one and stopped. Its rider disembarked, pulling a featureless black helmet from his head. The face underneath was young, yet careworn; the hair, jet black. He wore a scalloped mask that matched the blue, gray, and gold uniform that he wore. He glanced around, a slight frown on his face.
“Access code: Haly. Maroni. Koriand’r,” he said, in a loud voice. Immediately, he heard the sounds of dozens of computers and communication consoles coming to life. Screens flashed to life, and data from hundreds of sources started scrolling across them.
The dark-haired young man smiled. Nightwing had come home.
“One heck of a homecoming! I’d think that by now, Alfred would be on his way down the steps. Wonder where everyone is?” He pulled a small duffel bag from under the seat of his motorcycle and walked over to the dressing room to change. “Somehow, I doubt that Bruce has kept any of my street clothes here.” He looked around and found that there was, indeed, a couple of pairs of jeans and chinos, along with shirts, underwear, and socks, in a locker marked with a silhouette of his mask. He grinned, whistled an old circus tune, and started changing.
“No, it isn’t that I didn’t think you could handle it yourself. I just wanted a little insurance.” Bruce Wayne cocked his head to one side as he spoke, hoping that young Jason Todd would accept his precautions as just that, and not as a sign that he didn’t have faith in his ward.
“I know, Bruce. But you know what really feels good?” asked the redheaded boy.
“We didn’t need it!” Jason smacked a fist into the palm of the other hand, wincing at the painful reminder of his all-out fight with the Joker. “Damn! If only we could haul that sorry clown back to Gotham with us!”
Bruce stood up and walked over to a window overlooking the palace grounds. “I’d rather we didn’t. The last thing I want is to be locked up in a plane with that murderous fiend. One slip, and all chaos would break loose up there,” he said quietly, looking out the window. “Let the military transport him. They have the authority to ensure that he is completely sedated for the whole trip.”
“It would appear, sir, that is not going to be an issue.” Bruce turned to see Alfred Pennyworth entering the room. “Prince Fahid has just been in touch with Quraci officials. It would seem that they view your removal of the Joker from the bounds of their nation to Saudi Arabia as an act of aggression. They are demanding his return, lest they declare war.” The Wayne family retainer stood with a look of distaste. “The Prince respectfully requests that we allow him to turn the Joker over to the Quraci consulate.”
Bruce turned to Jason. “You put him down, son. Your call.”
“There’s no decision to make, is there?” Jason turned to Alfred. “Tell the Prince to let the Quracis have him. With any luck, maybe the Joker will take it into his head to kill off their government.”
Bruce clapped a hand down on the teen’s shoulder. “As much as I regret it, I think you’ve made the right choice. We can capture people like the Joker, but it’s up to the government to handle it after that. Otherwise, we run the risk of becoming just as bad as the villains we fight against.”
“Very well, Master Jason. Oh, and sir? We have a visitor.”
“Who is it, Alfred? Send him in.”
“Not here, sir. I took the liberty of installing an upgrade to the Batcave security system. It called the satellite phone about an hour ago with a message indicating that Master Dick had arrived. He has gone up into the Manor now,” Alfred related with a smile on his face.
“Wonderful! Jason, let’s get things gathered up. I’ll have Natalia transported to the jet.” He stopped to consider for a moment. “You know, you’re the one who brought the Batplane all the way over here. You should be the one to fly it back,” he said with a mock-serious look on his face.
“Yes, sir! Whatever you say, sir!” replied Jason, snapping his hand up in a salute.
They flew back in formation, the Batplane flying just above and behind the Wayne Enterprises corporate jet. Unknown to Robin, there was a control box in the Learjet that could be used to fly the Batplane by remote control all the way back to Gotham, if necessary. Bruce Wayne kept an eye on a flight display for any sign of fatigue or sustained inattention on the part of his young ward, ready to take control of the modified Phantom jet if it became necessary.
He never once reached for the controls.
In the other plane, several emotions were tugging at Jason Todd for attention. On the one hand, he was thrilled at the trust the Batman had placed in him. On another, there was a nagging fear that the other shoe had yet to drop. After all, he had only worn the costume of Robin for a short time, and his impulsive trip halfway around the world could have been disastrous. On yet another hand, there was the relief at finding Natalia Knight alive, though this was tempered by concern for the woman who had yet to regain consciousness. Lastly, there was the anxiety of returning to Gotham, knowing that his predecessor, Dick Grayson, was awaiting their arrival at the Batcave.
“Why am I so worried about it?” he said to himself somewhere over the Atlantic. “After all, we worked together pretty well in the New Titans. Whenever we’ve met up, he’s told me that he’s proud of the job I’m doing as Robin.”
The only answer forthcoming was from a small voice at the back of his mind, a voice which taunted, Because Batman belongs with his first and only partner.
Meanwhile, on the Wayne Enterprises jet, a voice came over the intercom system. “Excuse me, Mr. Wayne. This is Pete Trannel, the pilot. We’re going to be delayed a bit. There’s something happening in Metropolis, and we’ve been advised to give it a wide berth.”
“Superman must be having another face-off over the city,” Bruce said to his faithful butler. “Let’s see if there’s anything about it on the radio or television.” He picked up a remote and tuned to the Metropolis GBS affiliate.
“–continuing our live coverage of the aerial dogfight between Superman and an unidentified assailant. Witnesses so far have been unable to shed any light on the reason for the mysterious being’s assault on the Man of Steel. We take you back to live coverage with Steve Lombard.”
“Umm, thanks Clar — uh, whoever. As you know, we first spotted this menace out at Metro Stadium. We’ve been following him into the city as Superman has tried time and again to stop this gleaming, metal menace with no luck. Now, wait, he’s turning away from Superman and, oh my God! It’s gone! The whole building, it’s gone!” (*)
[(*) Editor’s note: See Superman: Planetary Matters.]
Bruce and Alfred sat in stunned silence as the GBS cameraman focused in on the smoking crater that, seconds before, was the Daily Planet Building.