“You understand what you are to do?”
“Of course I do. It ain’t exactly rocket science. Every time someone comes up here with some project, or grant, or something that’s supposed to improve the life of the locals, the locals shower them with gifts of their culture. The visitor takes them back home with them, then disposes of them in some convenient way. This time, the gift will just dispose of the recipient.”
“Don’t make light of this. It took the Zodiac Coalition a long time to find financial backing to strike a blow like this.”
“Yeah, who came up with the bucks for this gizmo?”
“Our new benefactor prefers to remain anonymous. His agent delivered several of the devices, with directions to use them — and I quote — to further prevent the rampant spoilage of our world by mankind’s wasteful sprawl and lack of foresight.”
“You putting that in the manifesto?”
“I already typed up a new copy.”
“You sure this thing is any good? I mean, it looks like some of the native carvings, but it’s so damned small.”
“Kurstin, the agent, he demonstrated one. Believe me, it packs enough bang.”
“Good. ‘Cause it sounds like those wimps in the GWF and WildPeace are going to cave in on this oil deal, but we’re holding the line on it. Mr. Wayne and his companies aren’t making another dime raping the Arctic wilderness.”
“And so, just as we proved with the first oil drilling operation, it is possible to extract oil from the ground and transport it to the coast without harming the environment. In fact, with the additional investments that Wayne Technologies will be making in the area, the indigenous peoples and the native plant and animal species of the Greater Arctic Refuge will be safer than ever before.”
Polite applause followed the remarks by Bruce Wayne, who took a seat at the table in the large tent erected near the proposed pipeline. He sat down next to an older man wrapped in heavy furs.
“Very impressive, Mr. Wayne. I am, of course, very much in favor of this project. After all, it was your company’s medical assistance that saved my wife after she was caught in that avalanche last year. You have helped improve our lives, while allowing us to continue with our own lifestyle.”
A younger man seated on Bruce’s left joined in. “I had not realized how much damage was done during the alien attacks last summer. If it is possible, please pass my sympathies to the families of those lost on the oil platforms in the North Sea. Some of those people came here when the first oil wells were sunk; they were good people.”
“Thank you, Muto. Some of the families are meeting in Gotham next week, so we can make arrangements for benefits and insurance. I will pass along your message.” Turning back to the older man, Bruce added, “And, Iltik, I know I can count on your support. What is your feeling about the other clans?”
“I don’t think you will have very much trouble with them. The only ones who really seem to oppose your plan now are the groups from the lower states, those who think they understand better how to preserve the environment than those of use who live in and with it our entire lives.”
“We run into those people everywhere we go, Muto. Some of them learn, some of them move on to the next cause.”
“Perhaps we should let them join us in the lodge after our meal.” The older man smiled, his creased and weathered face splitting to reveal sturdy, yellowed teeth. “I hope you don’t mind eating of those animals that you spoke of protecting.”
“Iltik, a realistic man knows that we have to protect our resources in order to use them. And, quite frankly, I developed a fondness for elk and caribou during my travels several years ago.”
Three hours later, the feeble rays of a distant sun lit an incongruous tableau. To one side, a cleared strip of land served as runway and parking area for a sleek Learjet plane. To the other side, a structure of lashed poles and draped animal skins was surrounded by several men watching as a tendril of smoke rose from a small hole in the middle of the domed structure.
“I don’t know about this, Bruce. Naked with a bunch of other men?”
“Relax, Matt. Different land, different customs. Among the Inuits, nakedness isn’t a matter of sexuality. The sweat lodge custom is a sort of cleansing of the body and the spirit.” Bruce and his assistant, Matt Walsh, stood in heavy robes and loose-fitting boots, watching as the local men shed the outer layers of their garb.
“We’re ready,” said Iltik, raising one of the skins on the dome. “Once inside, find a comfortable position and relax. The heat will do the rest.” He looked toward the south, where the sky was darkening near the horizon. “We may need to cut our time short, though. A storm is moving in, and your pilot may have difficulty if we wait too long.”
A dozen men filed in, dropping the last of their clothes as they entered. Matt started briefly at the scars crisscrossing Bruce’s back, but then he remembered the stories he’d heard of his boss’ many skiing and mountain-climbing accidents. As most of the Inuit men dropped to their knees and bent forward so their foreheads rested on their hands, Matt sat on the floor with his legs folded Indian-style. He watch Bruce flow, rather than drop, into an easy lotus position. Iltik looked around and waited for each man to nod to indicate his readiness. When all were ready, the older man reached into a bowl carved from bone and took a handful of a fine powder. Wordlessly, he threw the powder onto the fire that burned in the center of the tent-like structure. A bitter aroma filled the air, swirling around those present. The only sound was the faint crackle of burning wood and the muted sound of their breathing.
As Bruce sat there, eyes closed, he slowly became aware of another sound.
Calling his name.
“So, what’s the deal with these two?” Ken Loughlin glanced into the back of the Ranch Rover as it slowly made its way along a snow-covered road.
“You mean you ain’t heard about Zack Moon and Ben Crandall?” asked Sheriff Stew Turner. “Worst pair of killers I’ve heard of north of the forty-eight. Held a family in their home for three months, killed the sons, kept the father alive so he could see what they did to his wife and daughter. Turned out to be a mistake; when they killed the wife, the guy snapped and went totally postal on them. Busted loose and nearly ripped them apart with his bare hands before they killed him. They were too busted up to get away that night, and as luck had it, a friend came by to find out why they hadn’t been into town.”
“Couple of tough customers, eh? That’s why you asked me to come along, I suppose.”
“Just keep a tight grip on that pistol. I slipped some sleeping pills into their lunch so I could load them in here and take them into Juno, but I don’t trust pills that much.”
“Naw, they don’t work so well when ya been taking pills half your life.” The Sheriff and his friend turned in time to see Ben Crandall reach for the Sheriff’s head with his cuffed hands. He reached over the top of Stewart Turner’s head, dropped his arms down, and yanked back with all his strength. Sheriff Turner’s windpipe was crushed under the steel chain of the handcuffs, and the Ranch Rover careened out of control on the slick road.
“You trying to kill us all?” yelled Ken as he brought the pistol up and pointed it at Crandall’s face. “You stupid son of a — ufff!” His words were cut off as the truck slammed into a ditch. Loughlin’s body bent backward over the dashboard, snapping his spine.
“Moon! Come on, get up, Moon!” Crandall slapped Zack Moon with his cuffed hands until the other man stirred. “Come on, man, let’s get out of here — I think I smell gas leaking.”
Awkwardly, they both climbed over the front seat and the two dead bodies. Before slipping out the passenger side door, Ben Crandall rummaged around on the floor, then came up with the pistol in his hands.
“What about the keys?” asked Moon groggily.
“Check the cop’s pockets.”
As Moon walked around to the other side, he stopped. “Forget it, man. This side’s all twisted, and there’s gas running down underneath. You can shoot the chains, and we’ll get the cuffs off later.”
“OK, let’s go. Hopefully, we can find a place to crash or a ride before long.”
“Bruce Wayne. Do you stand ready for trial?”
“Trial? On what charge?” Bruce opened his eyes and looked around. Oddly, he felt no surprise at finding himself standing on the terrace of Wayne Manor, overlooking the grounds behind the mansion. In place of the small round table where he customarily sat with a morning cup of tea and a collection of newspapers, a small dais stood with a single person seated at it — a familiar person, one whose very existence was a trial in itself.
“Please forgive me for slipping into my old ways. This isn’t so much a trial, Bruce, as it is your judgment day.” The shattered face of Harvey Dent looked down at Bruce. “Think you’re ready for it, old boy?”
“Let me get this straight, Harvey. You’re going to judge me?” Bruce’s bemused smile hid a whirlwind of mental activity. It was only a few weeks ago, thought Bruce, that I put Harvey away in Arkham Asylum.
“Not really, I’m just here as an arbiter to make sure both sides of your story stay fair and balanced. I think they are the ones that are going to judge you.” The former district attorney, now known as Two-Face, pointed at the doors leading from the house. Bruce turned, and all thoughts froze.
“Mother? Father?” Bruce barely restrained himself from running to his parents as they stepped out of the house. “How?”
Thomas Wayne smiled, looking the way Bruce remembered from his childhood, but with more gray in his hair and the smile lines around his eyes more prominent. Martha Wayne reached for her son, her dark hair coifed in the latest fashion, fine wrinkles lining her still-attractive face.
“You’re in our world now, Bruce, in a manner of speaking. Not permanently; not yet, anyway.” Thomas Wayne looked up, staring off into the distance. “Thank God for that.”
“Bruce, it’s time for you to take stock of your life. You’ve spent much too long on this mission of yours, dear. It’s time you moved on with your life.”
The elder Waynes split away from each other, taking up positions at opposite ends of the terrace, leaving Bruce in the middle. “You see, Bruce, it’s time for you to demonstrate which aspect of your life is more important.” Two-Face looked over toward Martha Wayne, the unscarred side of his face visible to Bruce. “Your life as Bruce Wayne, billionaire philanthropist and lover to Silver St. Cloud?” Harvey turned toward Thomas Wayne, who now wore a serious scowl as Two-Face’s acid-scarred half-visage was directed toward Bruce. “Or your life mission as Batman, dark avenger of the innocent and protector of Gotham.”
Somehow, in this surreal tableau, the prospect of Two-Face knowing his secret identity did not seem out of place. “Very well, Harvey. I’m ready.”
“Bruce, you have spent almost thirty years on this crusade of yours, since you took that vow on our graves. For the first twelve years, you prepared yourself, and for the last sixteen you have been in near-constant battle. You started out alone, trying to stop those who would leave other children without parents. Since that time, you have worked with others, but have you ever been anything more than a necessary teammate for them? Would they now stand for you, with you, when you no longer share a common cause?” Thomas Wayne pointed an accusing finger at his son. “Or are you now, as always, the perennial loner?”
“And in your personal life, Bruce?” Martha Wayne frowned as she gestured at a row of photographs on a table next to her. “A progression of girlfriends, most of whom were nothing more than props for the image of the idle playboy. Friends and acquaintances who were nothing more than contacts of which you could take advantage. Has Bruce Wayne ever had a friend, a person whom he trusts, and who trusts him in return?”
Bruce turned from one parent to the other, trying to decide which one to address first. Before he could respond, however, other voices spoke up.
“I stand with him.” Bruce looked out into the yard. The familiar face of Lucius Fox stood there. “I trust him with my life, and I value his friendship and trust.”
“The Batman is everything I strive to be as a hero and as a man.” From another part of the yard, Black Lightning spoke.
“If it weren’t for Bruce, I don’t know where I would be. I surely would never have straightened my life out.” Selina Kyle stood in the long indigo dress of Catwoman, her cowl pulled back and hanging at her back. “I’ve loved him as Batman and as Bruce.”
“I owe my entire life to Bruce.” Two voices spoke in chorus from other side of the yard. Dick Grayson and Jason Todd spoke as one, their eyes locked on each other. “He has been my father, without trying to displace my true father in my heart or mind. He has been my mentor, my teacher, my friend, and my partner.”
“Batman is one of the men who inspired me to don this costume.” A man that Bruce barely knew, the one who had taken his name from an otherworldly visitor named Wildcat, stood clad in black.
“There is no man I would rather have at my back or my side.” The colorful figure of Superman drifted down to stand before the terrace. Behind him, the full membership of the Justice League of America, past and present, arrayed itself, all nodding their assent.
One by one, dozens of friends and associates spoke up, joining the crowd. The huge expanse of land behind his family home filled with those expressing their support of, and belief in, both Bruce Wayne and Batman.
“I have stood by Bruce for twenty years, as one who shared his secret and aided in his mission, as a friend and confidant. I have long since stopped being an employee; I am a full partner in his life.” Alfred Pennyworth stepped to the front and center of the growing assembly in the yard.
“Very impressive, Bruce. You seem to have gained far more friends and allies than even I would have thought possible.” Harvey Dent looked out over the crowd and beyond. “But then, some would say that you can best judge a man by his enemies, hmmm?”
On the edge of the crowd, there was a restless stirring. From the woods bordering the yard, dozens of colorful figures started making themselves heard. “Ol’ Bat-ears, here, has never lacked for friends and fellow freaks!” screamed the Joker, brandishing a fish bearing his own trademark grin.
“Even among his enemies, the Batman has earned respect, admiration, and, yes, I must admit,” Ra’s al Ghul looked down into the adoring face of his daughter Talia, “even love.”
“And, for some of us, he has even been an inspiration.” The Scarecrow ripped away his hat and mask, and his costume fell away.
“And for those who don’t feel so, um, inspired,” stated Commissioner James W. Gordon, striding out with a large number of uniformed and plainclothes officers to stand between the assembled villains and the crowd of heroes and others, “we stand with the Batman.”
“Yeah, after all, even a pointy-eared freak like him is a better man than the whole lot of these clowns put together.” Harvey Bullock punctuated his statement by tossing a well-chewed cigar stub at the feet of the Penguin.
“And we stand with him as well. Bruce Wayne is the heart of this city.” The criminals found themselves surrounded by, then trampled under, thousands of ordinary people, faceless in their multitude, yet individual voices ringing out clearly in the cacophony.
“Looks like you aren’t the loner I thought, Bruce.” Thomas Wayne looked out over the land that was once his, surveying the crowd as it faded from view.
“But there is one that we’ve not heard from, son.” Martha Wayne shook her head. “I would have thought she would be among those supporting you.”
Bruce knew of whom his mother spoke, for he had expected her to be there, too.
“That’s because I’m always right here with you, darling,” said Silver, appearing as if from nowhere at Bruce’s side and sliding an arm around him. “I’m a part of you, as you are a part of me.”
“Just as we are a part of you, Bruce.” Thomas walked over to his son, as did Martha, and they each laid a hand on his shoulder. “Just as we are.”
The voice of Thomas Wayne faded, as did the light. As darkness descended, Bruce felt the touch of his parents and his lover lift as well. He once again heard the sounds of several other people breathing and smelled the bitter scent of burning wood and herbs. He opened his eyes and saw the other men in the sweat lodge stirring.
“Whoa, I think I fell asleep.” Bruce turned to see Matt Walsh getting unsteadily to his feet. “How about you, Bruce? This ritual thing do anything for you?”
“You’ve got to give these things a chance, Matt.” Bruce stood up and stretched, one hand reaching to finger the ring that hung from a cord around his neck. “I actually found it rather enlightening.”