Chapter 8: Hands-on Karma
While I’m not clear on all the intricacies of the history, I know that Martian Manhunter is more than just another member of the JLA. Those inclined to be a little rococo with their metaphors have called him the heart, the conscience, and in one case, the “central nervous system” of the Justice League.
However you want to phrase it, he’s respected—a lot. He has the kind of pull that only comes from being quietly right over many years, not spouting off on every subject or taking a hard line on every opinion. When he finally does put his foot down, it means something; it has weight and mass. It has the calm, silent force of a thousand conversations where one or another of them had prattled like a fool and he sat there, patient and understanding, knowing whatever it was they were saying was terribly important to them, but mindful of it’s true (in)significance in the greater scheme of things.
But he’d spoken now, and he’d done it for us. He’d stood beside Batman and said No, this is not how beings of honor and integrity use their powers. He’d spoken firmly and finally. After a speech like that, the matter was done with: The Justice League does not do this. The only one who could have challenged the finality of J’onn’s declaration was Superman—and he wasn’t saying a word. Diana looked at him. It wasn’t an appeal exactly, but she seemed to know that he was the last chance to dispel that aura that the final word had been spoken, the decision was made and the discussion concluded.
And Superman did not say one word. He just looked at Bruce as if there was no other person in the room.
The meeting adjourned, and I turned to Jason.
“I have a special power of my own,” I mused. “On any given day, I can tell Alfred to make leg of lamb a la Pennyworth. Do you think it would be an unscrupulous abuse of power if I rewarded a speech like that by inviting J’onn over for dinner?”
Jason raised an eyebrow.
“Since I myself am eligible to receive some expression of your gratitude, Selina, I would certainly not condemn using Mr. Pennyworth’s estimable culinary skills to do so. In all my years assisting Batman and the full Justice League, I can’t recall anyone making such a delightful suggestion. It’s been quite a while since I’ve had a really good leg of lamb.”
I grinned, assured him he would be on the guest list, and forwarded Bruce’s message that once the League meeting broke up, Jason should show me Zatanna’s apartment. He seemed to listen for a moment, then slowly laid his hands back down on the table beside the bowl holding the Water of Avalon, and he looked up at me, his eyes glowing faintly red. As I laid my hands back down over his, that whirling malevolence felt stronger than it had before.
“Etrigan is nearer the surface?” I asked, although there wasn’t any doubt; I could feel him there, fiery and cruel.
“Yes, he is here,” Jason said dully. “This isn’t vengeance, Etrigan. Batman is about Justice, not retribution.” He paused, and I felt that malice surge into me, as if Jason had a fever and the heat of it coursed out of his hands and into mine. It pulsed halfway up my forearms while Jason went on talking. “Because she needs a serious lesson in every action having a consequence,” he was saying, “She tends to forget that fact most of the time because she can get away with it.”
The whirling fire surged again: Etrigan was answering Jason, and I started to feel the fiery hatred had a rhythm to it, like poetry, almost like music. And the music wanted the same thing I did: to hurt them, to see them suffer, to taste it like rich fruity wine.
Jason was apologizing for the delay and pointing my attention back to the bowl. His voice seemed more distant than it had before. We had chatted easily while we watched the League meeting; it was like watching television. But this time the image forming in the bowl seemed more real, more present, than anything in the room with me. It was a simple apartment, plainly furnished, with a bare brick wall dominated by a large theatrical poster advertising ZATARA: The Master of Magic and several smaller framed photographs of various costumed heroes. That room was more real than Jason’s sanctum or the table, the bowl or the water. There was a woman in the room, more tangible than Jason or the warmth coming from his hands. She was wearing blue jeans and a tight black T-shirt pocked with yellow stars and moons. She sat alone at a small table, finishing her dinner. It was Zatanna, and I could feel her as if she was the one whose hand I was holding, linked in some magic ritual, and it was Jason we were passively watching hundreds of miles away… I could see right into her.
She stood up to take her dishes to the kitchen—or at least she thought she was going to stand… but she didn’t. She just stopped—and I could feel it, I could sense her confusion—she couldn’t move. She tried again, but for some reason her body wasn’t responding. She tried to speak, to call out a spell to free herself, but even her mouth, even her tongue, wouldn’t budge. Panic tickled, just the slightest touch of it was starting to rise in her, that first little blip of fright, I could feel it. I could taste it—a rich, fruity wine—she was starting to panic—and then this growling voice came from the shadow in the corner. I closed my eyes, just for a moment, to savor the sound…
“Interesting fact about the brain…”
God, I love that voice.
“…While voluntary motor function is controlled in the motor cortex, located at the back of the frontal lobe, involuntary motor function is controlled deep in the brain stem. By shutting down the motor cortex as well as various pieces of the parietal lobe, you can effectively paralyze a person—rendering them completely immobile—while still allowing the base biological functions to continue.”
Batman stepped out of the shadows and into her direct line of sight, slowly approaching the table where Zatanna sat motionless.
“The heart continues to beat,” he said, “the lungs continue to breathe. Sweat, blood pressure, body temperature, blinking, swallowing—everything continues to function normally. Cognitive function remains as well—the person is still perfectly aware, able to perceive their surroundings and interpret external stimuli. Essentially, the fully functional consciousness remains untouched inside a perfectly motionless body—a mind trapped inside a physical prison.
“While medical science has yet to develop a drug or toxin to perfectly achieve this effect, a powerful enough telepath—a Martian, for instance—is capable of reaching into the brain and shutting down these motor control centers with no lasting effects.”
Batman reached the table and stared directly into her eyes.
“This isn’t revenge. This is about facing the consequences of your actions. As a practitioner of magic, you are no doubt aware of the Rule of Three: any negative action you perform against another will be revisited upon you threefold.”
He pulled out the chair across from her and sat, his eyes never leaving hers. His face tightened into an angry scowl as he affixed her with that glare that could extinguish the sun.
“You stole twenty minutes of my life. I’m taking an hour of yours.”
He leaned back in the chair, crossing his arms across his chest while still maintaining that death glare. Neither of them moved; Zatanna because she couldn’t, Batman because he wouldn’t. He just sat there, staring and hating. The tension and animosity filling the room was… delicious… it pulsated with every pounding heartbeat in Zatanna’s ears… I could taste it, like rich fruity wine. I sat there too, watching them, listening to that music.
At the end of an hour, Batman rose silently and left.
And I remembered I was sitting in Jason’s magic room, holding his hands, looking into a bowl of water from Avalon. My heart wasn’t racing, but it was beating just a little harder than usual. My face felt flushed. And my breathing was just a little deeper and faster than normal.
“That was a rush,” I heard myself saying.
“It wasn’t my place to interfere,” Jason said. “The choice was yours, Selina. I hope you enjoyed your dance with darkness as much as Etrigan did.”
Bruce says with magic there’s always a price. Maybe I had enjoyed what he did to Zatanna a little too much. Maybe I’d let the darkness into my heart, just a little. Having my thoughts and feelings so intertwined with Jason, and therefore Etrigan, during something that emotionally charged, it was probably inevitable. And if that was the price, for me, of using magic this day in this way, then that was the price. I wasn’t going to whine about it. It happened. I had touched evil, and now I’d just have to live with that.
Everything still felt the same when I got home, at first, anyway. Alfred said Bruce was back, so I went straight down to the cave. He was at his workstation like nothing had happened. I felt this incredible urge to kiss him so hard and so long, to hug him so tight—then he wheeled around and glared at me not that much friendlier than he’d looked at Zatanna.
“My hero,” I said sincerely, ignoring the death glare. “You were wonderful.”
He grunted and went back to work. And I realized it hadn’t been a hostile glare, just the usual one since this Dr. Light thing came out. In my euphoria, I’d forgotten he was shutting me out.
“You were wonderful, Bruce,” I repeated softly to his back.
“The meeting will be at Dick and Barbara’s,” he graveled. “As soon as Nightwing and Robin get back from Bludhaven. I’m going on patrol directly afterwards, so you’ll have to go in costume if you expect to ride in with me.”
“Meeting?” I murmured. “I think I skipped a page somehow. What meeting?”
“Black Canary has to make full disclosure before the Birds of Prey and the Bat Team if she expects to continue—I thought you were watching.”
“I was, I knew about that part, I just didn’t… Bruce, I’m not ‘Bat Team,’ I’m not one of your little trained minions. Why do you want me there?”
He swiveled his chair around and looked at me for a long minute.
“You don’t have to be if you don’t want to. I assumed you would… for Tim at least, you two’ve been so… This is going to be hard on him, on all of them. I thought you would want to be there.”
“Sure,” I said casually. “I’ll go. Just give me a minute to change.”
So I went to see Black Canary stand before all her Gotham teammates and confess how she’d been a part of this secret group inside the Justice League that took it upon themselves to change Dr. Light’s personality, wound up lobotomizing him, and used magic against Bruce when he discovered them and then wiped his memory of it.
I don’t know what was wrong with me, I felt so detached from it all, from all of them. When we got to Dick and Barbara’s, she was all keyed up about her hunt for Calculator, and Dick and Tim were full of news from their adventures in Bludhaven. They were all about to receive a gut punch. They didn’t know it, and I did. And I couldn’t work up any kind of feeling at all.
Huntress and Azrael arrived together, which seemed strange at first, but I figured they were both equally uncomfortable coming to a meeting like this, especially there. Then something interesting happened: Huntress eyed me up and down like… well, like a criminal. I almost laughed. It felt good. After all this time with Bruce, she was the first of the “Bat Family” that didn’t accept me straight away because he had.
Then Black Canary arrived with Batgirl—I wondered if that was coincidence or if Bruce arranged it, a variation on not leaving Superman alone in the cave. I suspected that none of those four would be allowed in Gotham without an escort for a very long time.
Canary made her little speech. I wasn’t exactly listening. By this time, I’d heard it all so many times… at the Iceberg, from Superman, at the Watchtower… about eight versions altogether, not counting the nightmares. So I didn’t listen very closely. I just watched the others. I watched Tim especially.
I’ll admit I’ve had a soft spot for the kid. He’s been through a lot. And he’s another one that could have turned into Psychobat Junior when Bruce and I started up. He could’ve made things hard for me, but he didn’t. So maybe it was gratitude for that, or maybe I’d bought into the whole “Bat Family” packaging a little bit after I moved in with Bruce, started to feel this collection of cops in capes really were family. Or maybe I just liked the kid, I don’t know. But sitting there watching the color drain out of his face while Canary got to the part about Batman, I knew all that was over. I felt nothing.
“Dinah.” It was Barbara’s voice, not outraged but quietly bewildered.
“How could you do something like that?” Dick, more of an edge than Barbara, angrier.
Tim is a nice kid and he’s been through a lot. And it’s not fair that life keeps piling it onto him lately. But I couldn’t work up an ounce of sympathy, sitting there, watching it all unfold. All I could think was that Tim Drake was Robin. He might become Batman one day or he might find some moniker of his own as Nightwing had, but one day he and Cassie and Superboy and Kid Flash would be the new Justice League. He was going to end up one of them, that’s what Bat Family meant, right? Little crimefighters become big crimefighters.
And why should I care anyway? He was nothing to me. It’s not like he was my kid or anything. Hell, he wasn’t even Bruce’s kid. He was just—
He stormed off towards the kitchen. It reminded me of the way Bruce had left the cave in the middle of the talk with Superman. He wasn’t being dramatic or throwing a tantrum, he just needed some time on his own to process what was happening.
Dick was angrier than I’ve ever seen him. He even snapped at Barbara when she stopped him going after Tim.
“I screwed up,” Canary was saying. “We all did. It was dumb, we panicked, we’d just seen someone we knew and loved raped before our eyes. Some had blood in their eyes, and the rest of us were too off-balance to stop them from… it went out of control so fast.”
“This stinks,” Dick said, still standing but evidently giving up on the idea of following Tim. “We’re supposed to be satisfied that the Justice League settled this themselves and we just decide whether or not we personally trust you enough to work with you again? Okay, fine: I say no way in hell. You stay away from me, from Bludhaven, from Tim, an’so help me, any of you even think about laying a finger on Bruce again, you’ll find out there are worse things than a pissed off Batman on your tail.”
“I can be trusted, Dick” she stressed, quiet and emphatic.
“I wouldn’t trust you to walk my dog,” he spat, then turned to the rest of us. “The rest of you should make your decision quick, so I can throw this person out of my house.”
I would have gladly changed places with Dinah at that moment. Because I wanted out of that room and away from all of them—when it occurred to me that no self-respecting cat stays in a place if they’d rather be elsewhere. So I left, not knowing if any of them would notice or care.
It was a little early for a prowl. The afterparties were still going on following the big fashion shows. The stretch in front of the Four Seasons was littered with limousines and couples parading their bling. I spotted a diamond bracelet that looked to be in the mid-six figure category.
Then I felt this shift in the breeze and my peripheral vision picked up a flutter of red. I turned to look and there he was: Superman, hovering.
“You realize a felony burglary charge is 8-10 years,” quoth Earth’s Greatest Hero.
“And you realize that coming into his city unannounced is playing three card monte with Fate,” I countered. “So let’s dispense with the banter, Spitcurl. What do you want?”
“I want to talk to you,” he said, dropping the caped crimefighter tone.
“I kind of figured that much,” I mentioned, “seeing that you’re hovering three feet off the rooftop I’m standing on.”
“What were you looking at down there, Selina?”
“I think you know.”
“The chandelier earrings?”
I clicked my tongue, disappointed. “The bracelet,” I told him. “Really, I don’t know what kind of rubes pass for jewel thieves in Metropolis, but the diamond bracelet is the only thing down there worth following anybody home for.”
“Noted,” he said flatly. Then he started to say something but stopped awkwardly.
“No, I wasn’t going to go after it,” I announced. “Lord knows I could, and frankly I’m in the mood for a little flutter. But I happen to value what I have with Bruce, and so I’m not going to wreck it. See how that works?”
He shook his head, not ‘No, I don’t understand,’ more ‘I can’t win’—which is a realization all dog-people have to make sooner or later where cats are concerned.
“Come fly with me,” he said abruptly.
“You make it sound like a dare,” I told him, nodding my agreement. “Once a month, I like to accept a dare from a man in a cape.”
I didn’t manage to breathe before we were out of Gotham airspace. He hadn’t gone nearly that fast when he took me to the Fortress of Solitude or brought me back. But this time, the jolt of air breaking across my face as he headed towards the river made it all but impossible to inhale or even open my eyes. Then I felt us slow to a more comfortable speed, and I popped my eyes open to see that we’d just passed over the Beacon Avenue Bridge. Before long, we were over the ocean, and he turned south, following the coast for a while… Then turned again so we flew over land—some beautiful horse country, around Virginia was my guess… Then farms, small ones and then bigger square ones… another turn, another one of those sprinting-out-of-Gotham bursts of speed where I couldn’t breathe or open my eyes, and he sat us down at a magnificent waterfall in, as nearly as I could tell, the middle of absolutely nowhere.
“Thank you for flying Air Clark,” he said with what women who like that sort of thing call boyish charm.
“What’s so special about this waterfall?” I asked.
“Nothing much. It’s a nice spot is all. City girls miss out on the beauties of nature.”
There’s a look Batman sometimes had when he’d find me on a museum rooftop. It was perfectly obvious why I was there, but if I quipped about it being a nice night for a stroll or something like that, he’d turn on this sternly unamused glare that clearly wanted to skip over the foreplay and get to the point. I did my best to recreate that expression now, and judging by the wry grin from Superman, the one that always seems to proceed “you two are so perfect for each other,” I succeeded.
“We needed a private place to talk,” he said, coming to the point at last. “And I wanted to see if you would trust me now, after all that’s happened.”
“I trust you not to drop me into San Francisco Bay,” I told him honestly. “That’s not really the same thing, is it.”
He dropped his head and let out a sigh. At first, it looked like defeat or even shame, but then I realized he wasn’t hanging his head, he was glancing down at his own chest.
“Sometimes people forget that it’s an ‘S’ for ‘super,’ not a ‘P’ for ‘perfect,’” he remarked coolly. Then he raised his head back up and his eyes locked onto mine, just as they had in the cave after I’d mentioned his parents. “It was a mistake. I should have told Bruce and I didn’t. It was a judgment call, and not an easy one, but I made a choice. And yes, I will admit now that I chose poorly. I’m sorry, Selina, I truly am. And I’m fully prepared to handle the consequences of that decision.”
I didn’t know what to say to that, so I fell back on the obvious.
“I’m not the one you need to be apologizing to,” I said gently.
“What Bruce and I have to settle, we’ll settle our own way. We will settle it. I know that because I know him. Like I know he has more protocols, like I know the first time you two switched off this morning he went and put that ring in his belt. I do know him, Selina, and I know we’ll find a way to resolve this between us, because he’ll see the need to work towards that as much as I do.”
I had my doubts that any of them “know” him. I don’t really know the part of Batman that he gives to the League, but I know him. I know the whole man, and so I know what a tiny sliver of him it is that they see. They see that one miniscule fragment, and they think they know him? I really had my doubts. But I kept them to myself. Superman had brought me all this way to say his bit; the least I could do was listen.
“But I don’t really know you, Selina, and I do… I do feel that you and I have to settle this between us. I’ll admit I was taken aback this morning when you were there in the cave and inserted yourself in the middle of… I mean, when I saw that you knew all about it. I couldn’t imagine why he would have told you, why you were involved at all, but, well, then this afternoon after the League met, I went home to Lois. I realized if the situation were reversed… If she perceives anything as an attack on me, heh, I’d rather face an army of Brainiacs than—”
“You really should stop doing that,” I interrupted quietly. “That comparison, me and Lois, it’s not valid. I am not Bruce’s wife,” I told him firmly. “I’m not going to be. Ever. Can you understand that? You think you know him? He will never be able to take a leap like that, and if he would,” I shook my head slowly to indicate no. “People get married to start a family, Clark. And any child of his is going to wind up in a mask on a rooftop, it’s practically a given. And I’d be fine with that, that’s my world as much as his. But little crimefighters have a way of growing up into big crimefighters. And if you think I’ll see any child of mine in that League of yours, you must not be paying attention.”
“Because of one mistake?!”
“All it takes is one goddamn mistake when he can DIE, you moron!” I heard myself screech.
He looked down again—not at the S on his chest this time.
“This morning you talked about my father,” he said finally. “One of the things he taught me, when I was just about Tim’s age, is that there’s more to being ‘human’ than biology. Selina, all I can do is the best I can do with the gifts God gave me. I am capable of making mistakes. And it’s my curse that if I do make a fatal error, it’s people like Lois, and Bruce, and my father, and you that can pay the ultimate price for it. It’s not an easy truth to live with, but I have no choice. I’m a man, Selina. I can lift the earth behind Wayne Manor and make a waterfall twice as high as this one if you want one. I can fly up to Maine to bring Alfred a lobster. I shave with my heat vision because no razor will cut through this stubble. But I don’t automatically know the right thing to do. I have to grapple with a tough call just like you do, and at the end of the day I can make the wrong one. Does that really cross me off the list of people fit for your children to know?”
“Fair point,” I said.
“I care about him too, Selina. Don’t think that I don’t because, in this one instance, I was willing to risk my relationship with him to protect the League.”
I couldn’t suppress the sad laugh welling up inside. I hadn’t felt like this since having to explain the word ‘pheromones’ to AzBat.
“It’s not your friendship with Bruce that you fubar’d, Clark,” I said, constructing the simplest sentence I could to convey the point. “It’s Bruce’s friendship with you.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I know… You’re ‘selfless guy.’ If you lose a friend for the good of the League, then that’s the price you have to pay. That’s not the issue here.”
It really did feel like talking to Pheromones that night. I wasn’t sure why.
“Look, if I’d gone for that diamond bracelet back in Gotham, do you think that would be just another Friday night burglary to him?”
“Because of the bracelet, or because I was the one that took it? It’s the same thing here. He trusted you. He trusted—for him that’s… And now it’s gone. And I don’t know if we’ll ever get it back. You wanted to know why I was so pissed at you this morning, well that’s why. You didn’t just risk your ‘friendship’ with him, you jeopardized a part of him that was fragile and precious—the part of him that trusts—because you thought something was ‘bigger’… bigger than this one obligation, this one personal connection with the man who can die.”
“Nice to know my concerns are so amusing,” I remarked.
“There’s a certain irony, that’s all. When the League found out about you two, your relationship, we worried that if it went sour, the fallout could wind up hurting us.” He started laughing harder; if I didn’t know it was impossible, I might have suspected SmileX. Then he pulled himself together and shook his head. “God, the way you love him, Selina… I’m going to go on making whatever comparisons to Lois I see fit. Deal with it.” He started chuckling again. “We thought his involvement with you was going to bite us… Instead, it's the fallout from his involvement with us that’s affected his relationship with you. As I recall, that day in the Watchtower, Bruce took off his mask, looked each of us in the eye, and swore that his personal life would never affect the League, but if it did, he would take any action we saw fit, even so far as resigning. And they call me ‘Superman.’ Well, if I’m to have anything approaching his integrity, then I have to do the same. Whatever you see fit, Selina, tell me what I can do to fix this.”
Again I didn’t know what to say.
“You already apologized, Clark. And you can’t give me back the part of him that’s… lost in all of this. I’m not saying that to be hurtful, it’s just the truth. You can’t take that look out of his eye, that gnawing fear that if he was wrong trusting your judgment, who else is he wrong about? What else is he missing?… Go back to Gotham, make your peace with him as best you can. I won’t make any trouble for you.”
“But you won’t forgive and forget. No, that’s not good enough, no deal. You accept my apology, fine. But apologizing isn’t enough, I want out of the doghouse. What will it take to get there? I suggest you come up with something, it’s a long walk back to Gotham.”
It was my turn to chuckle, although I’m not at all sure he was joking. By laughing it off, I wouldn’t have to find out. I thought about what he’d asked… and after a minute I came up with something.
“Okay, I’ve got one,” I said at last. “Remember, you asked for this—you pushed for it—so no ‘SuperPout’ if you don’t like it. You’re on the hook.”
“When you go back to Gotham, when you talk to Bruce, you will not mention, cite, or in any way allude to the protocols.”
“See, I figured you’d want me to press some coal into a big diamond or something,” he hedged.
“I have no problem getting diamonds,” I told him. “This is what I want, erase the p-word from your vocabulary.”
“You know the Eye of Krypton is the largest gemstone in the world.”
“I’m living with a billionaire, and I can get into Cartier’s vault in four and a half minutes. Do we have a deal on the protocols or am I hitchhiking back to civilization?”
To be continued...