Bruce Wayne and Matt Walsh emerged from the lodge into a world of white. “Storm’s moving in fast, Mr. Wayne. We need to get off the ground.”
“Thank you, Ed. Let’s make sure they get the lodge broken down and get back to their settlement.” Bruce glanced at an object in his pilot’s hands. “What’s that you’ve got?”
“One of the locals asked me to give it to you. Said it was a good luck totem, or something like that.” Ed Martin handed the carving to his boss.
“Hmm. I don’t recall much about carvings or symbols for the people up here,” Bruce mused idly as he walked toward the plane. Matt Walsh was well ahead of him, rushing for the warmth of the plane’s cabin. Bruce walked more slowly, watching with admiration as Iltik’s people quickly rolled the skins and wrapped up the poles that made up the lodge. It took less than five minutes for them to completely disassemble the small structure, during which time the pilot was warming up the engines on the jet.
“Sir, you really should get on the plane and get dressed.” Ed Martin looked pointedly at the long, heavy white robe Bruce wore. “Mr. Fox will have my hide if I bring you back to Gotham with a case of pneumonia, and I think we’re about ready to take off.” He turned and walked toward the plane, followed by the billionaire. “Give me three minutes for the final check-off, all right, sir?”
“Whatever you need, Ed. You’re the pilot, not me.” Bruce climbed the steps to the plane, then turned and looked back out over the snow-covered plain. No trace remained of the lodge or the tent that had been erected earlier.
“Help! Is there anybody there?” The voice came from just beyond the area that had been cleared for the plane. Through the wind-driven snow, Bruce could just make out a person on their knees, waving their arms.
Bruce reached for the intercom. “Hang on a moment, Ed. There’s someone out there; I’m going to check on it.” Without waiting for a reply, Bruce bounded back down the steps. Just past the cleared area, the snow had drifted a few feet high. The person seemed to have fallen into a depression that was masked by the snow. “Don’t worry — I can help you,” said Bruce, reaching with his hand.
“Yeah, I figure you can, buddy!” Bruce started at the unexpected reply, his internal alarms all sounding at once. Some instinct made him straighten and twist to one side, before his ears registered the gunshot from behind him. Instead of striking the center of his head, the bullet creased his skull. The mighty warrior within struggled to maintain consciousness, but darkness enveloped Bruce Wayne, and he dropped to the ground.
Zack Moon climbed to his feet and bent over the prone form of the billionaire. “Help me get this robe off him, Ben. I’ll put it on, and you can follow behind me into the plane.”
Ben Crandall stood from his hiding place in a snow bank and pointed the gun at his partner. “No, I think I’ll be taking this trip solo,” he said, firing twice into Zack’s chest.
Moments later, a tall man clad in a white robe climbed onto the plane and pulled the door closed. He looked around and spotted the intercom box. Pressing the button, he coughed a couple of times then spoke with a gruff voice. “We’re ready to go.”
“Yes, sir,” came the voice of Ed Martin. The engines whined as he turned the plane into the wind and started down the short stretch that served as runway. Rising winds buffeted the small plane as it rose into the air, climbing quickly.
Ben Crandall looked around the cabin. “Wonder why he was running around in nothing but a robe?” he asked himself, looking for other clothes to put on. “Not that I’ll miss that jumpsuit from the jail.” He spotted the door leading to the center cabin of the plane and locked it as he removed the robe and started pulling on a pair of boxers he found on one of the seats. “Guy has nice taste in clothes. Can’t say much for his taste in art, though.” Ben picked up the sculpture Bruce had received from his pilot. “Strange stuff. What the hell?“
Ben dropped the carving as two portions of it popped open, and he could feel something like air blowing from it. As the highly compressed gas expanded, he watched as a tiny port on the carving opened, and a small flame appeared. It was the last thing Ben Crandall ever saw, as the gas ignited in a rapidly expanding fireball that blew the plane apart in midair.
High above the Earth, a piercing siren split the air in the satellite headquarters of the Justice League of America. A slender, dark, feminine hand reached out for the switch to silence it, then stopped.
“Gods of Olympus!” The hand moved to another button and pressed it. “Justice League priority alert, alpha-double-omega! Repeat, alpha-double-omega! All available, report now!”
One by one, with only one exception, the members of the Justice League reported in. All of them waited for the others to report before Wonder Woman gave them the details. When she did, three of them spoke up immediately.
“I can be there in a few minutes.”
“I’m teleporting up now; send the coordinates to the teleporter to relay me there immediately.”
“G.L., J’onn, I’ll meet you there. Everybody else, get to the satellite, and we’ll update you as soon as we can.” There was a screech as the bearer of the JLA communication device took off and quickly exceeded the speed of sound.
Three minutes later, three figures converged in the midst of an Alaskan storm. “Lantern, full sweep, air and ground.” Superman turned in midair, scanning the air with a combination of microscopic, infrared, and telescopic vision. The Martian Manhunter did the same, searching with senses no human could begin to comprehend. An array of glowing emerald instruments materialized around them, twisting and turning to survey every cubic inch of the stormy air. Two hundred yards to the north, a glowing green duplicate of the Wayne Industries jet formed, moving toward the trio. As it approached them, its approach slowed.
“I’ve picked up a slowly fading infrared trail, and the ring is amplifying it to show the plane’s last moments.” Green Lantern’s brow furrowed in concentration.
A bulge appeared near the back of the plane, the skin of the plane cracking apart. Jets of flame shot out of the cracks and from around the door, spreading to engulf the plane. As they watched in fascinated horror, they saw the windows of the middle cabin burst from the fuselage, then the cockpit window burst forward out of the plane, followed by the pilot and copilot still strapped in their seats. The plane was consumed from the inside out, steel, plastic and aluminum vaporizing as the fireball exploded from the interior of the plane.
“Great Rao!” said Superman.
“Great Guardians!” muttered Green Lantern.
“By the Fire Pits!” added J’onn J’onnz. “Nothing could have survived that.”
Superman looked down, his eyes squinting in a manner familiar to his teammates. “The only thing I see on the ground is shattered Plexiglas from the main windshield.” Looking up, the others could see tears forming at the edge of his eyes, then he straightened and reassumed his customary, confident tone. “Hal, we need to know what did this. See if you can gather up any air samples for analysis later.”
“Kal, are you all right?”
“As all right as I can be, J’onn. Just on the off-chance, could you try doing a mental scan on the ground? Maybe, just–“
“Kal, I understand that you feel it necessary to keep any slender thread of hope alive. However, keep this in mind: this was Bruce Wayne’s plane. He flew on this plane to its last landing place. He was scheduled to fly back to Seattle on this plane. The plane took off when scheduled, and, if you look down at the site where the plane took off, you will see only fading traces of heat from those who were there earlier.” The Martian Manhunter directed his own gaze toward the improvised airstrip twenty miles away, as did Superman. To their enhanced senses, one spot glowed warmer than the rest. “Bruce mentioned the ritual he was to take part in. Apparently, they merely buried the fire involved.”
“I have the air samples.” They turned to see Green Lantern with a pair of large green Tupperware bowls floating in the air behind him. “There’s something here I can’t identify; we’ll have to turn Firestorm and Ray loose on it.”
“We’d best report back to the others, then,” said J’onn sorrowfully.
“You take care of that. I have to go to Gotham.” Without another word, Superman turned and accelerated toward the east.
Painfully, he woke up, shaking his head to clear it, and stopping abruptly as he felt the ragged knife-edge of pain in his skull. He dug his way out of the snow-filled hollow in which he lay and got to his feet, struggling to stand as the wind slammed at him from first one direction, then another. He looked down and realized he had no clothes, then spotted a shadow under the snow. Thrusting his hand down, he pulled up a single-piece garment of dull gray. He pulled it on and looked around for anything else he might use. Not realizing there was another body under the snow ten feet away, he shrugged with a confused look on his face and started walking. With the snow blasting at him, he started walking in a direction that an unknown instinct directed for him.
As the storm’s full fury struck, Bruce Wayne wandered toward the southeast. Not knowing why, not even knowing who he was, he was walking toward home.
It would be a long journey.