Chapter 5: Mundus Alius
Cats are infinitely adaptable, and Selina accepted quickly enough that she was in an “Owl cave.” She didn’t like the feathered occupants as much as the bats she knew at home, and she decided they better understand straight off what cats did to birds where she came from. So she walked up to the one perched on the stalagmite and stared unblinking into its hostile yellow eyes. She held this cold stare for some time, and then, very slowly and deliberately, blinked.
The owl squawked in alarm at the warning of a feline predator preparing to pounce. That it was coming from a human woman was immaterial; every instinct told it this was the mannerism of a cat stalking prey. The owl squawked again, flapped its wings in a flurry of agitation, and retreated to a far point in the cave.
Catwoman snarled as she turned her head slowly right and left, a low feral warning to any other feathered pests to stay away, Kitty bites.
She then went about investigating this strange new cave. There was only one workstation, and Bruce’s password Thomas—Martha—Justice didn’t let her in. The drawer behind the keyboard where Bruce kept computer disks held a small round mirror, a thin blade like a miniature batarang, and a delicate silver straw. Selina merely raised an eyebrow and closed the drawer, then she proceeded with her explorations. There was a wetbar where the chem lab would be in the Batcave, a wetbar stocked with conspicuously expensive brands… and right next to the vodka and vermouth sat a little pot of pickled ginger. It was the garnish Selina preferred in her martini, and she’d never once seen anyone use it before she introduced them to the idea. Unconsciously, she licked her lips at this subtle, silent hint that, owls or no, her counterpart might have a place in this cave.
The supposition was confirmed almost immediately when a deep, cruel voice graveled “Here, kitty, kitty.”
Catwoman turned—and tried to freeze her features rather than register surprise. A caped, masked figure was approaching from the Batmobile hangar, but it was no “Batman,” surely: The gray feathered cape and the emblems on his chestplate and belt presumably alluded to an owl. The mask was more of a helmet. And the aura of sexy intensity that Batman exuded was replaced by something strangely unappetizing—a feeling Selina couldn’t help but associate with the goggles that covered his eyeslits.
“Owlman,” she guessed aloud.
“Such formality, you conniving alleycat. I guess you heard there was something for you in tonight’s plunder. One day I’ll find out who your spy is. Gordon? Grayson maybe? Then your only cut of the booty will be cut out of his gizzard.”
Selina said nothing but quietly logged the terminology and the general tone—which seemed like Hugo Strange meets Long John Silver.
“Good. Cat’s learning to hold her tongue,” he said, reaching into the belt and pulling out a perfectly ghastly necklace which looked as if it matched the diamond cuffs she wore. “Tonight’s catnip,” he said in an oily voice, holding the necklace up by the tip and dangling it in front of her face like a hypnotist’s watch. “If you please me. What do you think of it, my prize pussy?”
“It’s a dog collar,” she noted flatly.
He smiled wide, revealing entirely too many teeth, and Selina fought the rising nausea. Not only was this Owlcreep not Batman, he wasn’t even Bruce.
“Woof,” he said, turning his back on her and walking towards the workstation. “We’ll start with a drink and a foot rub. Then we’ll see.”
Catwoman raised an eyebrow and considered the possibilities of a cocktail shaker as a blunt instrument.
He sat, and Selina watched in appalled fascination as he took a small packet from his utility belt, took the mirror and miniature blade from the drawer, and (assuming that white powder was the same in this crazy reality as in hers) methodically cut two perfectly parallel lines of cocaine… Selina told herself it was an advantage: an opponent’s reflexes blunted by a chemical high. She told herself that outweighed the shock to her own system watching Batman (or something very like him) casually snorting coke.
Of course, it wasn’t that much crazier than his dangling that necklace in front of her saying “We’ll start with a foot rub” like she was the owlcave slavegirl. Again, she considered the bludgeoning options with a cocktail shaker.
“Take off your helmet,” she suggested coolly. “Neck rub instead tonight.”
“You’ll rub what I tell you, Pussycat,” he growled, as if he was surprised but excited by something. “Make me that drink, and get your talented whiskers over here. I expect you to be creative tonight. Collar has ten times the diamonds in those bracelets you conned me out of.”
Lacking claws, Catwoman picked up the vodka bottle in one hand, the vermouth in the other, and casually smashed them against the side of the bar.
Owlman started at the sound of breaking glass, but sitting as he was at the workstation, he only got as far as swiveling the chair in her direction before Catwoman had lunged at him, holding the one jagged bottle fiercely against his throat and the other between his legs.
“Take off the helmet,” she repeated, adding an ironic, “Please.”
“Well now,” he hissed. “We finally did find a bad girl in there.” He made some sort of deep-throated rumble that almost sounded like a purr. Catwoman realized, to her horror, that he was turned on. “So you’ve given up the feeble tricks with sleeping pills and drugged claws, eh, Kitty? You ready to take me on for real?”
A viciously fast—and viciously hard—backhand sent her hurling across the cave. She easily dodged two attempts to kick her while she was down, and managed to topple his balance on the second just long enough to regain her feet.
“Kitty’s learned a new trick,” he oozed hatefully. “Bout time.”
“You talk too much,” she answered.
He charged—an angrier and more violent attack than Batman had ever attempted—which made it much easier to counter. A simple aikido lead redirected his momentum and sent him sprawling past her. She stepped back and waited for the next assault. It came—angrier than the first and easier still to deflect. Again, she took a step back and waited. Attack and deflect. Attack and deflect. Remaining wholly defensive, she would wait then react for as long as it took. He was obviously much stronger than she—Attack and deflect—and redirecting the force of his attacks, all that strength from all those muscles—Attack and deflect—and no doubt spurred on by the copious amounts of cocaine pumping through his system—Attack and deflect—helped by gravity on occasion—Attack and deflect—Owlman found himself stumbling past her, or onto the floor, time and again.
When she noticed his breathing quickening, she smiled sweetly and meowed, knowing that would enrage him all the more.
“HELLCAT BITCH!” he snarled before the next charge.
“A bitch is a dog,” she noted once she’d led him yet again to the floor.
He rolled over onto his back, now breathing very hard.
“A girl normally loves a man who can go all night,” she purred, “but this is getting really tiresome.” He charged six more times, clearly tiring… until, at last, when he rolled onto his back, he just laid there, panting up at her.
“You won’t get the necklace this way, you stupid puss. You’ll have to come and get it… from my belt…” He paused and licked his lips. “…with your teeth.”
“Tempting, but no,” Catwoman hissed. “Take off that mask. I want to know who you are, and I want to know what you did to Bruce Wayne.”
Owlman’s lip twitched—which was the most horrifying development so far as far as Selina was concerned—but it was an expression of twisted rage, not subdued amusement. Involuntarily, she took a step back.
“Where did you hear that name?” Owlman asked, the voice as warped with hatred as AzBat’s had been.
“You first,” Catwoman challenged him. “The mask—off.”
He charged with a wild, furious cry, and Catwoman coolly stepped out of his way, not bothering with a more complicated defense. Instead, having allowed him to remain standing this time, she stepped directly in front of him. He was shorter than Batman, just enough that they stood eye to eye—at least, they would have if not for those damnable goggles he wore.
“This is no longer a game, Selina,” he said in a deep, deadly voice dripping with menace. “You’re here because you please me. Of all the women I’ve bested, I brought you to this cave to serve me. I let you earn the gems you covet because it amuses me to do so. I’ve grown accustomed to that…” he looked up and down her body, leering grotesquely, “…luscious body and what you can do with it, and it would truly pain me to never have it again. But if you ever use that talented tongue of yours to speak that name again, I will snap your neck like a toothpick.”
Catwoman didn’t flinch.
“So you kill, too,” she noted calmly. “But you’re not stupid, that part seems the same. Has it really not occurred to you yet, you repulsive brute, that I am not your Catwoman.”
He considered this for a moment. Selina could see the gears turning, just like at home with her own Bruce considering a new idea. But the obvious years of cocaine and (who knows what else) abuse had slowed and dulled the process. As if in reaction to her thoughts, his right nostril flared and twitched a few times until he sniffed harshly. Finally, the leering grin returned.
“That would explain the new edge,” he said lustily. “Selina’s tame. You’re not tamed… yet.”
Catwoman smiled agreeably.
“I tell you what, Stud, I won’t use the name you don’t want to hear, you don’t say mine.”
He laughed heartily—which was even freakier than the lip-twitch.
“So… Catwoman… You’ve got game, honey. And you’re actually… ‘bad?’ That does suggest some interesting possibilities… What would you do to get a diamond collar, I wonder.”
She met his eye squarely. “I’d attach a jammer to the Phoenix relay on Cartier’s roof, pop the vent hood over the power conduits, left, down, left, left, down, right and squiggle—drop out in the corridor between the private showroom and the main vault—0010-048-73—diamond necklace. NOW, will you please, in the name of all things feline and furry, take off that fucking mask.”
“Sweet mother, you swear too!” he cheered. “Me-owl, pussycat, we are gonna get on great.”
Karma tapped Selina on the shoulder as the memory of a hundred rooftop come-ons flashed through her mind: all Batman wanted was to grunt-get on with the crimefighting, and she had teased and tweaked and baited him with her endlessly playful propositions. Sensing that grunt-scowl-“enough” was unlikely to discourage this caped cokehead any more than it would her, Selina decided another approach was called for.
“Could we possibly dispense with the foreplay,” she suggested, playing a hunch. “In my world, real men like to skip to the good part.”
It worked. A density shift occurred. It wasn’t like Bruce’s transition to Bat-mode; more like a stand-up comic finishing a set and stepping off the stage. He smiled obligingly—again displaying too many teeth—and gamely removed the mask…
Selina gasped. As she suspected, the face before her wasn’t Bruce, but it was startlingly familiar. It was the image of Thomas Wayne’s portrait over the fireplace in the study.
“Bruce was my brother,” he said seriously. “He and my mother were shot in an alley, while my father, the coward, did nothing.”
Selina took a step back, unable to conceal her shock. “He’s dead?” she whispered.
Owlman nodded, a crazy hate coming into his eye.
“Never saw his eleventh birthday,” he said bluntly.
Selina blinked away a tear.
“So,” he said shrewdly. “You’ll mourn for my brother. We have that in common… Selina.”
“If Bruce is dead, there’s nothing for me to do here,” she murmured, taking a step away.
“Wait! No!” he growled, grabbing her wrists forcefully just as Bruce had done when he gave her the sapphire. “So in your world, it’s me that’s buried on the hill with her, is it? Did Bruce avenge us? Did he become Owlman? Did he find the gunman? Did he kill our father? Did he? DID HE?!”
“If you want answers, let go of my wrists,” Catwoman said calmly but firmly.
In a heartbeat, the crushing pressure on her wrists eased and a gloved hand materialized at her cheek, just as Batman’s once had in a vault long ago.
The moment held, frozen and silent, until that damnable owl returned to its stalagmite with a conspicuously loud flapping.
“It’s okay, Thomas,” Catwoman said kindly. “He couldn’t hit me either.”
“Tommy. Nobody calls me Thomas. Ever.”
“Tommy, then. Goodbye, Tommy. There’s nothing we can do for each other.”
She thrust her knee brutally into his stomach –once, –twice, –three times, then pushed him away and ran towards the main cavern and the oil-burners that represented her link back to reality. Her world, the real world, the real Batcave and the real Bruce. She raced into the circle of cats—
“Comeon-comeon-comeon,” she breathed as Owlman cursed and charged after her.
The whirlpool of color appeared again on the far wall of the cave. It looked transparent at first, but grew larger and more solid much faster than before, the swirling intensity as it consumed the cave was far more powerful, and Selina felt her equilibrium sucked into it…
It didn’t feel like she’d passed out. There was a momentary swoon only
everything was fine.
…well, maybe not fine, she seemed to have a throbbing lump under her mask and as she squinted into the mirror—a mirror which wasn’t in the Batcave that she knew—she saw that it was the old mask from her old skirted costume, and—yep, she was wearing the old costume she’d only tried that one summer—and it had a cape?! And the bump on her head really hurt. There was a calendar on the table and, and…
Okay, her head hurt but, as far as she could tell, her eyes were working fine and the calendar on the table said in was October 1950…
And her head hurt. Boy, did her head hurt… She thought she heard Batman’s voice saying something about amnesia—which was certainly a dumb enough cliché for it to be 1950, but that thought—along with that of turning towards the Batman voice and seeing if he had an owl helmet and a coke habit—got lost in another bright swirl of light…
Okay, that time she did pass out. That definitely felt like passing out. That wasn’t a dimension-hopping vortex light; that was losing-consciousness light.
She breathed again.
She was lying down.
She was still in the cave. The air smelled like cavern and she felt cavechill, definitely… She was laying down and… cavechill on her skin and—
“Oh my god, I’m naked,” she blurted, her eyes popping open in realization.
She peeked under the sheet that covered her. This was worse than the owlcave slavegirl getup! This was—this was—no mask, no costume, skirted, caped, or otherwise—this was flat out NUDE!
Selina gathered the sheet around her and looked up—at a giant penny and a Joker playing card.
“Trophy room,” she murmured unbelievingly. “I’m naked in the trophy room.” She looked around again. The cave was a bit smaller than the one she knew, and she realized with a start that it was the satellite cave under the Wayne tower—but it was a Batcave and that was his monster penny and his gigantic playing card and—yep, right over there was the dinosaur. “He brought me to the Batcave and has me naked in the trophy room,” she murmured. “Cosmic spark doesn’t get you in this universe, Jackass, I will.”
“I was beginning to think you intended to sleep forever,” she heard in a familiar bat-gravel.
But before she could look or respond, another sudden whirlwind of color opened underneath her and began sucking her into its depths…
“Here, you’d better put this on,” she heard as a wad of purple landed on her legs. “You’re lucky I kept one of your old costumes in my trophy room.”
Then the whirling sensation intensified and—
This time, again, it didn’t feel like she’d passed out.
Just that momentary swoon, and then,
everything was fine.
She was wearing the pink sapphire again
—and Bruce’s sweater over her favorite long-sleeve t-shirt.
She breathed again. She was home.
She checked the stalactite. Bats clung to it. And she smiled at them. Meow.
“Remember boys, you’re nothing but flying mice,” she told them with a contented purr, “but you’re better than birds. Meow.”
She found Bruce in the library, alive and well and poring over what looked like a reference book of runes and a thick binder labeled Wayne Foundation #81542: GENEVA PROJECT; STRING THEORY.
“Honey, I’m home,” she murmured lightly.
He looked up, and Selina saw that same estranged look from the study before she’d left. Hell. In her euphoria to be away from the Owlcreep, she’d almost forgotten that unspeakable barrier that still hung between them. Bruce, we need to talk about Zatanna… Hell.
“Doing some light reading?” she quipped, taking refuge in the rooftop playfulness she’d always thrown at his ponderous stonewalling.
“Yes,” he noted, all distant bat. “I wanted to brush up before Dr. Luthor arrives. He really is an astonishingly gifted theorist—”
“Who?” Selina asked, unconsciously taking a half-step back.
“Luthor. If it weren’t for his willingness to pursue the magic angle, I don’t see that we’d ever be able to—”
Bruce’s eyeballs only flickered upward while he remained poised over the book.
“You know him?”
“Lewis. Selina what’s gotten into you?”
“shit,” she muttered, looking down at the sapphire on her finger… and noting for the first time there was only a single baguette on each side instead of three… This wasn’t home. This wasn’t her sapphire. This wasn’t her Bruce. She took the folder from his desk and leafed through it, her mind racing. A few pages in, she came to a curriculum vitae for Lewis Luthor… Princeton, University of Metropolis, Cornell, Fullbright Scholar, Fermi Prize, DESY, CERN… Underneath, there was a photograph. Her feeble joke from that early morning physics lecture echoed in her mind.
So no separate universe where Lex
Luthor has hair?
But there it was: the spitting image of Lex Luthor with a receding but respectable mop of curly red hair.
She set the folder back on the desk
and returned her attention to Bruce.
“When you gave me this ring,” she said cautiously, touching the sapphire like an alarm panel she was only half-sure was deactivated. She looked up quizzically, but he was just waiting for her to go on. “…You grabbed me. You were holding on pretty tight.” This wasn’t her Bruce. Maybe here she could say it to him. “Like you used to.” It wasn’t her Bruce. It wasn’t her Batman. She could say it here. She had to say it. “Like you were afraid I’d slip away.”
“What’re you getting at?” he graveled.
Batvoice. This was no grinning Call-me-Tommy Owlman. This was Bruce Wayne. This was Batman. And she had to say it to him.
“You think Zatanna did something to change me.”
He froze for a moment, staring directly at her. A cold silence passed between them for a few agonizing seconds, and then, he finally spoke.
“What she tried with Dr. Light,” Selina said calmly.
“What she did to that Flash villain in Keystone.”
“I said no.”
“Doesn’t matter what you say, Bruce. You think that’s what happened. You think everything that’s happened with us is based on a lie?”
It was agonizing, those naked searching eyes in the silence, the real human being from the vault, then the cold steel of Psychobat slamming down in front of them. And then, in a blink, the steel dissolved, and that haunted vulnerability was back. Selina felt like she was driving a spike into everything she’d ever loved. But what choice was there? The words were spoken. There was no going back. She could only continue forward.
“The worst kind of lie, too,” she said crisply. “A magic lie.”
“If it’s true,” Bruce said, his voice barely breaking a whisper on the words, then building in Bat-determination, “if it’s not your choice to be with me, then I had no right to touch you.”
She shook her head and emitted a not-amused chuckle.
“You really are a jackass,” she breathed affectionately. “Let me ask you something,” she asked gently. “When did it start with us, the very first spark that was…” she stopped and searched for a way to phrase it “…that was ‘man and woman,’ not ‘criminal and crimefighter?’ In your mind, when was it?”
He looked away and didn’t answer.
“Top of the train station, first night?” she prompted.
“The easy way or the hard way,” he said ironically, half-expecting her to repeat her retort: Why Batman, how hard do you want it to get?
Instead, she responded “Nope. Even before that, for me. First glimpse of that big patch of dark, darker than all the regular night around it… six foot two, two hundred pounds, aura of penetrating intensity… body like mortal sin.”
“That’s just attraction,” Bruce said mildly.
“I would have said lust,” she purred quickly, naughty grin in place.
“Of course you would,” he noted. “But animal attraction doesn’t mean anything.”
“Maybe not on its own, but it’s a start. Bruce, we were never… what logic says we should have been. Not from that first moment. So, next question, when did it go beyond ‘attraction’—when did it start becoming personal?”
He turned back, eyes meeting hers, the Bat-intensity returned.
“Cartier,” he graveled.
“Cartier,” she confirmed. “You brought something out in me that went beyond being Catwoman. ‘Being Catwoman’ with you opened up this whole part of me that I didn’t even know was there. And the kiss, well, that intensified it in ways I can’t even… even now, I can’t…” She threw up her hands. “There just aren’t words for what you do to me. And I wasn’t about to wait around for you to make a gift of it, either. I don’t do that. I take…” She walked up to where he stood and caressed his cheek. “…I took… But I didn’t want it to be this greedy, one-sided grasping. What I got from you… I wanted to give you something back.” She stretched up, her lips dangerously close to his. “Just this once,” she whispered.
“Don’t,” he winced as if in pain.
“It’s always been there, Bruce. Long before Zatanna came along.”
Rather than return the kiss she was begging for, he touched her lips with his fingertip.
“You didn’t stop stealing that night,” he said coldly.
“That’s what you’re planning with Dr. Lei… with Dr. Luthor, isn’t it? You want to see the moment when I stopped stealing. You want to conduct a seeing ritual with Dr. Luthor to touch that moment and see if Zatanna’s magic was involved.”
The whirlpool of color slowed and faded as the cave solidified, and Selina reached out to steady herself on the wall of the transporter tube. Instead, her hand touched the bat insignia.
“Take it easy, Kitten,” Batman’s voice graveled. “You’re home. Give your body time to recover from the transport.”
She looked at him, searched his yes, and checked her ring finger in a panic—pink sapphire. She scrutinized it with a jewel thief’s expert eye: four carat, radiant cut center stone, classic Cartier setting… four prongs, small round diamond about three-quarter carat on each side, followed by three short baguettes—so far, so good.
“Get Dr. whatshisname on the phone,” she said urgently.
Muscles relaxed and uncoiled from her neck down through her shoulders.
“Yes, Dr. Leiverman,” she sighed in relief. “But never mind, it’s not as urgent as I thought. Is Jason around?”
“Jason’s gone to complete some research. Etrigan and Hella are somewhere in the house, upstairs most likely, carrying on like those couples who sneak into the guestrooms during Foundation fundraisers.”
“On our own for the moment then?” Catwoman murmured. “Just as well… We are so screwed.”
“We knew that,” Batman noted.
“We didn’t know ‘Luthor screwed,’” she said seriously. “I just got back from one of the problem worlds. Was identical to this in almost every way. Except Dr. Leiverman was a Luthor.”
“As in Lex Luthor?” Dr. Leiverman asked, astonished, over the speakerphone. “President Lex Luthor?”
“No, his name was Lewis,” Selina answered flatly. “But I saw a picture, and it was Lex Luthor.” Her eyes flashed up at Batman’s before adding, “with hair.”
“How… wonderfully bizarre,” Dr. Leiverman remarked.
“Dr. Leiverman,” Batman cut in, in the businessman-Bruce voice, “I must stress that your politics are of no concern to me. Nothing said here can affect your continued employment with the Wayne Foundation. I must ask you, as a scientist and for the sake of the hypothetical… well, there are many people here who consider Lex Luthor to be… um, well, evil. If he is involved, as you are involved, in some alternate dimension’s version of the ritual we began with Jason Blood—”
“Seeing as the anomalies in your house began with that ritual, that they seem to be centered on the house, yes, I would say that ritual is the key and the involvement of a Luthor counterpart to myself is… troubling.”
“Dr. Leiverman,” Selina put in, “The alternate Bruce Wayne indicated that you, your counterpart, that is, Dr. Luthor, was to conduct the ritual with him, not Jason Blood.”
Batman hit the mute button sharply. “You didn’t mention this before,” he hissed.
“Well, I’ve mentioned it now. There was no Jason involved. No dire warnings or moonstones or witch orbs. You had invited Luthor to the house on your own, not in response to Jason, and I wasn’t to be involved. You wanted me to go shopping. Bruce, it was you and Luthor alone that were going to perform the ritual in that world.”
He stared into the distance, and then very softly, grunted.
“Maybe that’s why Jason could sense it,” he mused finally. “Multiple Bruce/Luthors in multiple dimensions, acting at the same moment. But this world is different. Here it was you and Jason—and Etrigan. You saw ‘it’ in the water, Etrigan sensed something, Jason had those premonitions… We can see it because we’re—” He stopped and took a sharp breath that would have sounded like a laugh in another man. Then he continued excitedly. “What Dr. Leiverman said about the other dimensions not being perceptible to us, it’s all point of view. We were different, just by a few degrees, maybe, but enough that we could see, or sense, that the crisis is occurring.”
“I have to go back,” Selina said looking towards the clock passageway that echoed again with Canary Cry. “One problem world down, but who knows how many still to go.”
“Not yet,” Batman declared. “We rushed into this dimension-hopping. Selina, that’s why I brought you back. It’s all too random, leaving it up to the magic forces to whisk you into whatever reality it wants. It’s foolish and dangerous, and we’re not doing it again. Jason is looking for a way to tether you to the spark so you’ll only jump into worlds that are… pertinent.”
“You brought me back?” Selina asked suspiciously.
“Once I got the tether idea, I had Jason modify the portal so it would bring you back on your next jump. He wasn’t sure it worked, but it obviously did.”
Their eyes met, and Selina remembered his comment that he’d experienced dimensional travel. He had some inkling, perhaps, of the crazy worlds she was seeing.
“You going to get all cocky and arrogant if I admit that I like this idea, that I’m all in favor of the minimize-the-random plan?” she asked quietly.
His lip twitched and it seemed like he wanted to say something, but relapsed into a stoic bat-brood. Then he grunted, and Selina smiled.
“I have to call Clark,” he graveled suddenly. “If Luthor was involved in other worlds, we should find out what he’s been doing in this one.”
To be continued...