In the back compartment of the snowcat, Thomas and Preston sat huddled in the darkness. When they left Isolation, Mick Rory estimated that it was going to take half an hour to get through the storm and the drifts on the wind-blasted Alaskan plain that lay between the settlement and the cliff that provided a semblance of shelter for the orphanage. Ten minutes passed in silence as the treaded truck sloughed through the snow.
“I know who you are.”
Lost in thoughts of how they could feed and shelter sixty newcomers in Isolation, Thomas barely heard Preston’s quiet statement. He looked up. A faint shaft of light shone through a gap in the door connecting the back to the driver’s compartment, illuminating Preston’s face. “What did you say?”
“I’ve been trying to figure out why the hell Bruce Wayne, one of the richest men in the world, would be in this Godforsaken hole, pretending he’s lost his memory.” The thin, aristocratic-looking man shook his head. “But now I know you’re not faking it.”
Thomas shook his head as if to clear it. “I don’t understand. If I’m who you think I am, what makes you sure now?“
“There’s a bunch of kids in danger. Bruce Wayne wouldn’t be riding out in a storm like this to save them, not with his resources. At least, not without calling in a couple of high-tech rescue teams and maybe the freakin’ Justice League as well.”
Thomas blinked, feeling that something about Preston’s explanation was right, but that something else was missing. “How — how do you know this? How do you know me?“
“We were friends, I guess you’d say. For a while, anyway. That was all I wanted in life, to live that kind of life.”
“What do you mean?“
“I wasn’t born like this.” Preston gestured at his face. “This isn’t the face I was born with. I had all the money I could ever need, but I looked like some sort of freak of nature. Years ago, I saw this guy on the news, called himself Clayface. I heard that he gained the ability to mold himself into anybody or anything, because of some underground pool of strange chemicals. I figured if he could do it, so could I.” Thomas thought he saw Preston shrug. “Sounds insane, I know. And maybe I was. It took two years, but I did it. I made myself into the man you see before you — literally.”
Something about Preston’s story sounded familiar, and Thomas thought there was more to it, but he couldn’t put his finger on it. There wasn’t time to think about it, though: the door to the driver’s compartment opened.
“Guys, we got trouble. Vince is out here with a couple of his boys on snowmobiles.”
“What are we supposed to do now?” yelled Preston as he, Thomas, and Lori scrambled out of the snowcat.
“Keep them occupied. Let Mick get through!” called Thomas as he quickly examined the oversized pistol Mick had given him. At the back of the pistol was something that looked like the igniter wheel on an old cigarette lighter. He recalled Mick’s comment: One minute — that’s all you got in here.
Lori jumped down from the door of the cab, pulling a more conventional pistol from inside her coat. Sinking past her knees in the snow, she took aim at one of the four snowmobiles circling them and fired. The driver jerked upward and fell back off the snowmobile, landing face-up in the snow. “One down.”
Thomas noted the gunshot and felt a jolt like lightning to his soul. “No killing!” he called, without understanding why.
“Hell with that, Tommy, they’re gonna kill us if they can.” Lori started tracking a second snowmobile but ducked as she saw a muzzle flash in the hand of its driver. The bullet struck the door behind her with a loud SPANG.
Preston waded out into the snow, leaping ten feet in a bound. He jumped into the path of one of the snowmobiles, a mere ten feet in front. The driver grinned under his helmet and twisted the accelerator. His grin opened into a scream as Preston gripped the front grill and one of the skids and lifted the snowmobile up and over his head, hurling it thirty feet through the air. As he did, his coat came open, revealing a dark blue and silver costume underneath.
The fourth snowmobile came at Thomas. Through the clear visor of the driver’s helmet, Thomas could see Vincent Speach’s face. Thomas brought the pistol to bear, aiming at Vincent’s chest. Just before pulling the trigger, he lowered the muzzle. A stream of liquid fire shot out, striking the front grill of the snowmobile. The front end exploded, sending chunks of metal flying in all directions. Speech flew upward, landing several feet away.
Behind him, Thomas heard another gunshot. He turned to see Lori tucking her pistol back into her coat as the remaining snowmobile came to a halt near her. The driver was standing in the snow, holding his shoulder. “Come on!” called Lori, climbing on the sled.
Thomas turned to see Preston leaping toward the snowcat and climbing up to the door. “Go on ahead with Lori. Start getting them ready!” he yelled before opening the door and climbing inside.
“Over here, Anik! Can you reach us?”
“I don’t think so, Sister. My leg is caught.” A boy strained to pull his leg free, tears pooling in his eyes as he felt a tearing at his foot.
“Hold on, son, I’ll get you free,” said a low male voice. A beam of light cut through the darkness, stopping on the timber that lay across Anik’s leg. A gloved hand reached down and wrapped a leather belt around the timber. Anik heard a grunt, then felt the weight on his leg start to shift. “Move quickly,” said the man as dust and dirt obscured the light. The boy scrambled toward the nun who waited for him. She gathered him into her arms and lifted him up.
“Bless you, sir, whoever you are!” Sister Mary Veronica called over her shoulder as she carried the boy out of the ruins of the orphanage’s kitchen.
“Is everyone accounted for?” called the stranger as he let the timber back down slowly.
“He is the last one. Everyone is gathered in the smokehouse!” As she moved out through the doorway, Thomas eased himself around a large section of the collapsed roof. Twenty feet away through trampled snow stood a small shack with a tin chimney sticking up from it. From the front of the collapsed building, he could hear the engine of the snowmobile sputter and die. He had told Lori to circle the orphanage to see if anyone was caught outside. Looking up, he saw a cliff towering high above. Normally, it sheltered the orphanage from the prevailing winds. Now it was trapping the winds and snow as the storm blew directly at it, magnifying the storm’s effects. Keen eyes and an instinct for details that he wasn’t even aware of noted the ledge projecting out about thirty feet up. Snow had been accumulating on it. He didn’t like it.
Lori came around on foot. He pointed up. She looked up and saw what he was pointing at. “How long do you figure before they get here?” she asked.
“Shouldn’t be long. You go inside. I’m going to keep an eye on that.” He motioned toward the smokehouse. “Have them ready to evacuate as soon as I give the word.”
For ten minutes, Thomas paced in the snow, keeping a path clear from the smokehouse door to a spot that he gauged to be large enough for Mick to turn the snowcat. When he saw a flash of light on the cliff, he turned and saw the large craft making its way toward him. He switched on his flashlight and waved it. When the lights on the snowcat flashed, he knew he’d been seen.
“Bring them out,” said Thomas, leaning in through the door of the smokehouse. As the snowcat ground to a stop, people streamed out of the smokehouse. Thomas took the hand of the first one and directed the others to clasp hands as they came out. He led them out to the snowcat as Preston stepped out and climbed up into the bed of the converted truck. As they started passing children up and over the rails, a shot rang out.
“Damn it, Thomas, I told you, you ain’t bringing these brats into my town!” Vincent stood at the back of the trailer, his coat and hood crusted with snow. In each hand he brandished a pistol, bringing both of them to bear on Thomas. “Knew you were trouble when you showed up.”
Something in the back of Thomas’ mind recognized the situation on an unconscious level, and his hand went to his belt. There was nothing there but the fire-shooting pistol Mick had loaned him, and he knew it wouldn’t be safe to fire that over the head of the children. Looking down, he saw a heavy brass crucifix hanging on a chain around the neck of one of the nuns. “Pardon me, Sister,” he said as he pulled it free and let the chain slide through the loop at the top of the cross and fall to the ground. A quick flick of the wrist, and the crucifix was embedded in Vincent’s right wrist.
“Yarrgh!” His hand came up, and the gun went off as he reflexively squeezed. Before he could recover, he was laid low by a flying tackle. A fist slammed into his face, and his left hand was seized in a vise-like grip.
“Thomas!” He turned away from Vincent to see Lori pointing up at the ledge. Cracks were visible along the bottom, and over the wind he heard the sound of rock cracking apart.
“Get them all in — now!” Thomas stood, dragging Vincent up by the front of his coat. “Happy now, Speech? You might well have killed all of us!”
“Bruce — I mean, Tom! I need heat!” Thomas glanced at Preston, who was shedding his coat to reveal the blue and silver armor underneath. “I can stop that — or least delay it for a few minutes, but you’ll have to warm me up first!”
Grabbing Vincent’s guns and shoving them into his belt, Thomas threw the leader of Isolation as far over the side of the snowcat as he could and drew the flame pistol. “Are you sure about this?”
“Use as low a stream as you can, and try to keep it moving over my body,” said Preston, leaping down into the snow and spreading his feet. Thomas activated the pistol and let the flame play lightly over his companion’s body. As he watched, Preston’s head seemed to melt, then flow upward. The body armor sagged as a brown column of flesh grew out of the collar, reaching upward. Thomas watched in amazement as he tried to keep the flame moving over the strange form as evenly as possible. Ten feet, fifteen, twenty, twenty-five. From somewhere in the mass of fluid body matter, Preston’s voice issued in a long moan. “Caaaan’t reeaach!” it said, even as it stretched the last few feet. When it made contact with the bottom of the rock ledge, it seemingly puddled in reverse, spreading out several feet. “Kiiilll the flaaammme!”
Thomas released the trigger even as the flame was sputtering and dying for lack of fuel. “Good God,” he whispered. “Clayface.” Seeing the form stretched out above him, memories came flooding back into his mind, memories of facing this man in a burning building in Gotham City, memories of fighting Clayface as the Batman. (*)
[(*) Editor’s note: See “The Coming of Clayface III,” Detective Comics #478 (July-August, 1978) and “If a Man Be Made of Clay,” Detective Comics #479 (September-October, 1978).]
“Thomas, come on! We’ve got everyone aboar — oh, my God! What is that?” asked Lori.
“It’s Preston. I’ll explain later. Get Mick to pull back so he can let go of that.”
Lori relayed the message into the cab, and the snowcat started to move away. As it did, Bruce heard a loud snap, then a second. The ragged brown column of flesh was shattering in the extreme cold, and the rocks above were starting down. As the ledge broke away, Bruce saw Vincent Speach stand and start running toward him, only to disappear under an onrush of rocks, ice, and snow.
Bruce laid an arm across Lori’s shoulders. “Gone? I’m sure of it. Clay — Preston could shift his body, but that kind of violent injury to it? Not a chance.” As they moved under the tarp on the moving trailer, he added in a low voice, “And he knew that all along.”