Chapter 6: Kitty Ex Machina
“Laser is actually an acronym: light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation.”
Dr. Hamilton droned on, writing the words meticulously on the blackboard and underlining the significant letters portentously. It didn’t seem unusual that the S.T.A.R. Labs scientist was teaching at Smallville High School. All Clark knew was that he was bored. He folded his arms and sat back in his chair, stretching out his leg until his foot just touched the edge of Selina’s chair. He pushed it forward very slowly, pressing her into her desk—until her arm whipped around and smacked his leg away. Somehow, her nails left a painful scratch in his leg. It shouldn’t have been possible with his special physiology, but there was a lot he still didn’t understand about the ways he was different.
Possible or not, the scratch was there and it hurt. He reached down to check if there was any blood, and he saw that Selina had somehow slipped a note into the top of his sock. He slipped it into his palm, and then leaned back even further in his chair to unfold it…
With the omniscience that comes in dreams, he saw Bruce sitting in the row behind him, rolling his eyes. Bruce always thought that Clark overdid the casual routine, so Clark tried to tone down his performance, repositioning in his seat and finding a different casual-but-not-too-casual pose. Again he unfolded the note and furtively snuck a peek.
“You and L, movies after with B and me?” it read.
Clark looked over at Lois, who seemed even more bored with the lecture than he was. He waited until Dr. Hamilton turned to the blackboard again, and then supersped over to Lois and tapped her shoulder, returning to his own desk in the blink of an eye.
“Movies?” he mouthed, now that he had her attention.
“What’s playing?” she mouthed back.
Clark looked down at the note, which magically produced the answer:
“Meowing Purr Purr at the Fed.”
Oh great, a chick flick, he thought. Bruce won’t like that.
“New Lex sequel at the Luthor,” the note offered as an alternative.
He passed this information along to Lois, who nodded eagerly. Then he felt a sharp tap on his shoulder from behind.
“You should probably be paying attention to this,” Bruce whispered, pointing to the blackboard.
“But let’s say we vary the type of radiation used in amplifying the light,” Hamilton droned on as he reached under the high worktable and pulled out a kryptonite rock the size of a coconut. “If we substitute a metal that has been radiated from these local meteor rocks, for example…”
He set the kryptonite on the worktable at the front of the classroom like “Exhibit A.” Clark began to feel queasy. He looked around for some excuse to leave the room, and saw Selina and Lois were now sitting together, giggling about what kind of hot car Bruce would show up in to take them to the drive-in.
“…The rock itself, while carrying the highest concentrations of k-radiation, is useless for reflecting light. But once we use it to radiate a conducive metal…”
A number of metallic objects now joined the kryptonite on the worktable, while Bruce joined Selina and Lois. The three laughed and joked together, oblivious to his plight, while Hamilton set up several additional items as he continued his lecture.
“…While the ‘dosage’ of radiation is greatly reduced, we now have a radiated foil from which we can, of course, build a mirror. Now observe: light amplified by stimulated emissions of kryptonite radiation!”
He switched on a black box positioned behind this special mirror, and a pinpoint of innocent white light emerged. It thickened and intensified as it hit the mirror, and grew thicker and redder as it bounced around the room, hitting every reflective surface from windows to eyeglasses, until it finally struck Clark square in the chest. A sickening haze of warm, viscous heaviness spread through his body. Whenever it came to a muscle, it oozed inside and latched onto his strength, then and oozed back out again, taking his strength with it. Clark felt himself sink to the floor, the classroom darkening around him. It was about to go completely black when he was jolted back to semi-awareness by a loud, violent thud—Batman landing on the floor beside him. He tried to focus on this, and saw black blurs were coming towards them…
Blurs that grew arms and legs as they came closer…
Blurs that wore helmets with letters…
SWAT blurs that bent down and hoisted Batman into a fireman’s carry…
A Batman that didn’t have a utility belt on…
A SWAT blur holding Batman’s utility belt… so a SWAT blur that took Batman’s utility belt…
That didn’t seem right…
That didn’t seem right at all…
All flowers were precious, that was a matter of principle. All flowers were Poison Ivy’s children, and a mother was not supposed to play favorites. Nevertheless, there were a few species she could never quite warm to. Tacca Chantrieri, for example, commonly known as the Bat Flower. For years she had avoided it, telling herself the high humidity it needed to flourish made it impractical for the Gotham climate (although that never stopped her from cultivating the most exotic rainforest orchids in her greenhouse).
Today, Ivy thought it was finally time to put the Bat Flower to good use, and she was considering ways to do so once she was released… when her reverie was interrupted by an absurd voice outside her door.
“Patient Isley, you have a visitor.”
It was Harley’s voice, trying to sound deep and masculine. It was wonderfully funny when she used it for a Batman impersonation and even funnier when she imitated Two-Face, but “Patient Isley, you have a visitor” wasn’t funny at all.
“Harley who?” the voice intoned, like it was a knock-knock joke.
“Harley, what are you up to?” Ivy asked impatiently.
The cell door opened, and Ivy was shocked to see that her friend was all alone.
“Heya, Red!” Harley squealed, entering the cell and flopping down on Ivy’s cot. “What’s shakin’?”
“Harley, how did you get the door open?” Ivy shrilled.
“Cinchy, they still list all the pin codes on the bulletin board in the staff lounge.”
“Good to know,” Ivy noted quietly.
Harley was shifting her weight on the cot.
“These mattresses aren’t very springy, are they, Red? Think we should get some new ones?”
“Harley, what were you doing in the staff lounge?” Ivy asked, refusing to be drawn into a discussion of the bounciness or lack thereof in an Arkham mattress.
“Oh, I just wanted a little sugar fix after lunch. Sometimes they’ve got packets of Swiss Miss in with the teabags in there. I used to like mixing it in my coffee.”
“I see,” Ivy said, meaning just the opposite.
Superman awoke first, a salty vinegar taste in his mouth, and a dull, heavy ache that pulled painfully down his neck into his shoulders. He’d felt this way before, weighed down by the proximity of kryptonite. Maybe not that much kryptonite at the moment. He didn’t feel like he was dying, not exactly. He felt… he felt exactly the way Lois looked that time she was seasick on a Greek fishing boat.
He opened his eyes…
…and saw ceiling. That didn’t tell him much. He already knew he was lying on a very cold, hard floor.
He sat up…
…and saw Batman. His friend was lying unconscious on a hand truck. Clark listened for a heartbeat, first thing. It was there. It was strong. And Clark nodded to himself, relieved. Then he looked around.
He had woken in many such places over the years. Usually, they were quasi-military quasi-scientific quasi-industrial compounds. But given where he and Batman had been before losing consciousness—and that drained feeling that meant he was surrounded by trace amounts of kryptonite—there was no doubt they were still in the Metropolis Fed, in that famous vault five stories below street level.
A glance around confirmed it. They were in a long hallway with cinderblock walls that he could see through easily. Each stall off the main artery held stacks of gold bullion—presumably that’s what the dolly Batman was lying in was meant for, moving the gold. There were more hallways beyond, more stalls and more dollies, but in each direction, the cinderblock eventually gave way to a wall that Superman’s vision couldn’t penetrate. That meant lead, at the very least, and probably lead mixed with something. Probably the walls were the source of that kryptonite drain he was feeling. At the far end of the hallway was an enormous steel cylinder. Looking through it, he could see it turned to open the elevator.
Batman moaned and rolled to his side, then pushed himself up slowly with one arm until he could support himself with the other.
“That was humbling,” he managed before sitting up further. He reached forward and drew a long thin cylinder from his boot. “Here,” he said, tossing it Clark. “UV. It’s not sunlight, but it’s the best we’ve got until we’re out of here.”
Superman switched on the lightwand and drew it repeatedly over each arm, leg, and across his chest, while Batman slid off the dolly and examined the walls and the cylinder.
“None of those robots down here, I take it?” he asked.
“No. I can see through to the outer walls. We’re completely alone.”
“Robotic tigers. He can’t possibly expect us to believe Catwoman was behind that,” Batman growled.
“It wouldn’t have to be Catwoman, it just has to be ‘not him.’ Luthor did use k-laser robots once, circa 1998. And most of my enemies recycle his old ideas and technology. As camouflage goes, it’s actually a pretty good stunt. Something Luthor did before that failed could be literally anyone except Lex Luthor, who would never repeat himself that way.”
Batman grunted, continuing to examine the cylinder. He wedged himself between the edge of the wall and it, and pushed. It didn’t budge. He repositioned his feet and pushed… He shouldered against it and pushed… It didn’t budge. Superman got up to help, positioning himself just next to Batman. Together they pushed… and still the cylinder didn’t budge.
“I was afraid of that,” Superman winced. “Red radiation poisoning from earlier plus the k in the walls, I’m not going to be much use to you.”
“Don’t be so sure. You’re still Kryptonian. Your body can withstand the vacuum and pressure failsafes in the elevator shaft if we can get to it.”
“And how do you suggest we do that?”
Ivy had yet to figure out exactly what Harley was doing in her cell, why she was suddenly at liberty to wander the halls of the asylum unsupervised, or what spawned her mysterious interest in the quality of Arkham mattresses.
Harley herself seemed content to sit on the cot and glance curiously around Ivy’s cell as if dropping in on a casual friend whose home she had never seen before.
“Seems a little sparse in here, don’t it, Red? They let you have up to four personal items. Y’know ‘to create a comforting and familiar healing environment.’ Why don’t you fix things up a little?”
“I am not permitted to have plants, Harley, as you well know. What other personal items would be of interest?”
“I don’t know, maybe some curtains, little chinnoiserie, somethin’ to break up the drab.”
Harley craned her neck, and looked around theatrically, then hunched down and spoke in a hoarse whisper.
“I wanted to talk in private, Red. I need to pick your brain. You’re the best there is at manipulatin’ the male of the species. And I got one hooked, Red. I got Dr. Bart hooked like a slimy old fish on a smiley ol’ fishhook. But I can’t think of nuthin’ else to make him do!”
“Eighty percent of the bank’s security is intended to keep people out, not in,” Batman declared. “In that sense, it’s entirely to our advantage that we’re inside the vault.”
“Unique way of looking at it,” Superman muttered.
“We only have to work around the relatively minor precautions meant to keep dishonest employees from remaining behind after hours and absconding with a gold bar or two.”
“And I can see those controls,” Superman added, pointing diagonally at the steel cylinder. “About four feet that way, there’s an inset panel like an ATM. Probably to make the cylinder turn the rest of the way so we can get to the elevator, because five or six feet beyond that, there’s a full doorway-sized opening. If only we could get it to turn.”
“Unfortunately, that’s almost certainly on a time lock, one that will only be accessible from upstairs.” Batman’s tone and manner changed as he tapped the side of his cowl. “OraCom activate. Private channel metro-one-alpha. Do you read?”
“You can’t be serious. It’s like Luthor stacked the entire table of elements over our heads. Even I can’t tell how much steel, lead, and who knows what is up there but—”
“Private channel metro-one-beta. Do you read? That’s why I installed a special signal booster. Private channel metro-two-alpha…”
“Private channel metro-two-beta. Do you read?”
“You planned on getting stuck down here?” Superman gaped.
“It was always a possibility. Private channel metro-three-alpha…”
“~~~~~andsom~ ~~~avri~~~~itty~~~~~~” sounded in his earpiece.
“There she is,” Batman noted. “Lock in metro-three-alpha, shutdown all nonessential operations, enhance signal, all parameters.”
“B~~m~an~~~~~ad~me~~~st met with Lex and ~~~~m the works, ke~to decrypt~~~~~lans~~~n hog heaven, it was disgus~~~ng~~~~~~sch an obnoxious troll~~~ ~~~ ~~nwa~~~~~~~~ ~~~~~pected you’d be~~~ack b~~ow.”
“We were delayed. We’re trapped in the vault.”
“~~~ault? th~~~~~one under the --~~~~ank? Yo~~~ill there?”
“Yes. We’re going to need you to take out the time locks.”
“Th~~im~~~ocks? In Met~~~~olis? ~~~~~ant me t~~~~~ to Me~~~~li~~~~~~~~~~~~ime locks fo~~”
“Either that, or we’re stuck until the bank opens for business on Monday.”
“Wel~~~ow suppo~~~~~et there?”
“Transport to the Watchtower. J’onn is expecting you. He’ll send you on to the transport station at the Daily Planet.”
“~~~~oing~~~~claim villainess privilege and~~~ay no.”
Ivy was shaking. Her hands were literally shaking. She couldn’t remember ever having such a scare.
Harley may have begun what she was doing as a pose. Her “cure” may have started as a pretense to set up some infantile prank. If that’s all it was, Ivy would have backed it completely. Pranks were a little Jokerish for her taste. If she wanted to make a man suffer, she would make him grovel. She would make him beg on his knees for permission to spurn his family for her sake. She would make him plead to sign over all his earthly possessions to her. She would make him beg to be allowed to water her plants with his tears. But pranks? “Gotcha, HAHAHA,” it really wasn’t her style.
Still, if Harley wanted to torment Dr. Bartholomew simply as malicious fun, Ivy would have gone along with it. But Harley wasn’t doing it for fun. She was doing it because, in her view, Leland Bartholomew had to be punished. Punished for trying to break Harley’s pitiful fixation on that homicidal clown. It was the only worthy thing anyone in the Arkham establishment had ever attempted, and Ivy would absolutely not participate in anything meant to obstruct such a noble goal.
But even that wasn’t the worst. No, if Harley was going to waste her time cooking up some preposterous revenge on the Arkham staff that was only trying to save her from herself, Ivy would stay out of it if that’s all there was to it. She wasn’t about to help, but she certainly wouldn’t take up arms against her poor, deluded friend. But that wasn’t all there was to it. The sustained pose was affecting Harley in ways that could not be ignored. She seemed to be reverting to her pre-Rogue self in ways she wasn’t even aware of: putting in a recommendation for new mattresses, since she was “writing up proposals for purchasing anyway.” Circulating a birthday card for Nurse Chin for everyone to sign, and then rushing back to the staff lounge when they were singing Happy Birthday.
Granted, she brought her slice of cake back to Ivy’s cell rather than remaining to socialize with the staff. But then, as they ate, Harley had reminisced just a little too much about Nurse Chin. How they had been friends when Harley first joined the Arkham staff. Ivy justly observed that, from what she had seen, Chin was one of those people who couldn’t hold on to friends for very long. And that’s when Harley shook her head and clearly murmured “Pamela, tsk tsk. Projecting again.” Then she wiped a dab of icing from her lips and said “Yeah, you said it, Red.”
“It’s been more than an hour since she claimed ‘villainess privilege,’” Superman noted. “You’re sure she’s coming?”
“Fifteen minutes at the Watchtower between transports, figure fifteen more to get here from the Daily Planet, that means she can’t possibly have been working on the time locks for more than half an hour. Give her a chance.”
Superman said nothing.
“How are you feeling?” Batman asked suddenly.
“Like I’ll need to fly into the sun when we get out of here,” Superman breathed. “If we’re stuck in here until Monday, it’s going to be bad.”
“We won’t be,” Batman said, looking up towards the top of the cylinder.
As if on cue, the column of steel began to rotate until the recessed panel Clark likened to an ATM was revealed.
“Kitty ex machina,” Superman admitted, while Batman examined the controls. There was a keypad and a retinal scanner. Superman scanned the surface of the keys.
“The 1, 2, 5, 8 and 9 have the most wear,” he said mildly.
Batman had twisted off the heel of his boot and extracted a thin, plastic case.
“You planned on losing the belt,” Superman noted.
Batman grunted as he took a number of odd-looking items from the black case. There was a pinhead screwdriver, that one Superman recognized. There was a plastic square that looked like the world’s smallest pocket calculator mounted on a postage stamp, with four filaments of wire extending from the top edge. And there was another square of clear plastic, half the size of a fingernail, that Superman could see was embedded with ultrathin wire and miniature microcircuits.
“Can I help?” he asked, while Batman unscrewed a small panel beneath the keypad.
“You already have,” Batman graveled, fastening the filaments on the “miniature calculator” under the panel. “1, 2, 5, 8 and 9, wasn’t it?”
Superman nodded, and Batman touched those numbers on the calculator’s keypad with the head of the screwdriver.
“That could take a minute. 1.9 million combinations if it’s the 9-digit model, 9.8 million if it’s the 10-digit. While we’re waiting…” He inserted the clear square into the retinal scanner. “That will fool the receptor into thinking the reader is transmitting whatever data it sent last, presumably the scan of an authorized employee.”
“What a fascinating trick. Wherever did you pick it up?”
“Exactly where you think I did,” Batman muttered without looking up, “but she doesn’t know, and we’re not going to tell her.” He looked up. “Are we?”
No friend worthy of the name would stand by and let the weed of “Dr. Quinzel” grow back to choke off the vibrant flower that was Harley Quinn. Somehow, Ivy had to stop this ghastly transformation. The problem was that she could only think of two ways to go about it, and both options made her want to vomit.
There was warning Dr. Bartholomew, man and salad eater, that Harley was faking. It offended every fiber of her being. Taking a man’s side against her friend? It was like murdering flowers to make a parade float honoring Batman! And yet, Bartholomew was the seed from which this monster sprouted. Harley was only exposing herself to these dangerous cuttings from her former life in order to teach him a lesson—when of course it was Harley herself who needed the lesson: clown bad. It wasn’t a difficult concept. Harley Quinn was the only person in Gotham who didn’t get it.
Clown bad. That was the crux of Ivy’s dilemma. Because Joker was the only other being she could think of that might offer a solution. Joker was the vilest creature to ever step on a blade of grass, but he had done one thing of value in his worthless life: he made Harley into the woman she was. If the worst happened, if Harley was lost, he would be the one hope to get her back.
That thought made Ivy ill, physically ill. Bartholomew might be a man and salad eater, but Joker was Joker. There was no question which was the lesser of two evils. The problem was that Joker would at least know that the return of Dr. Quinzel was a great evil to be stopped. Bartholomew would think it was a good thing. Ivy wasn’t sure how to work around such blind, all-encompassing stupidity, except with pheromones. In an otherwise rational person, one or two wrong ideas were like a few wilting leaves. You didn’t toss the plant. You talk to them soothingly about what needs to be done, snip snip the bad leaves away, and give them a little extra sunlight to make up for it when it’s over. Problem solved.
But a plant growing in fetid, diseased soil? There came a point where wrong ideas were too fundamental, like root rot, so prevalent at so elemental a spot that its deathly brown must inevitably spread into every stem and bloom and leaf. There is no way to reason with rotting corruption at the source, you can only blot it out with massive inescapable doses of green.
Unfortunately, sustained greening of a member of the Arkham staff while Ivy herself was an inmate was a practical impossibility. There were too many checks and double checks in place, most suggested by that cursed Batman.
Once again, she thought of the Bat Flower. She really must do something about that when she got out.
As Batman predicted, Superman had no trouble surviving the pressure failsafes in the elevator shaft. Within minutes of Kittlemeier’s “calculator” defeating the keypad, the heroes were standing on the sidewalk outside the Metropolis Fed. Catwoman was nowhere to be seen, but Batman hadn’t expected her to wait around and risk being spotted. She was undoubtedly returning to Gotham the way she had come. Rather than risk a reunion during her layover at the Watchtower, he accepted Clark’s offer of “a lift home.”
Reaching the manor, he postponed the logs and went straight upstairs. After any kind of technically illegal but bat-sanctioned activity, Selina was giddy. Tonight’s marathon series of robberies would be no exception.
He found her in their bedroom, a trail of rose petals beginning at the top of the grand staircase… leading into the sitting room outside the bedroom, where the petals were joined by at least two dozen candles… the trail continued into the bedroom itself, where a warm fire roared in the fireplace. Selina lay in front of it, wearing nothing but three batarangs positioned artfully on her sternum like a necklace.
“The Sultan of Juanpur wants his ruby back,” Bruce said dryly.
“Then let him transport to Metropolis and get your vault open next time,” she purred.
He came closer and ran a finger slowly over the batarangs. It was as close as he came to saying thank you, and she took it as such.
“How in the hell did you wind up trapped in the vault anyway?” Selina asked, lifting his hand to her lips and kissing the knuckles.
“You really don’t want to know,” he graveled.
“Was it bad?” she asked, meaning “Any serious danger of dying?”
“Nothing unprecedented,” he answered, meaning exactly that. “How was your evening?”
“Completely unprecedented,” she smiled. “Not the robberies themselves, those were pretty routine. But afterwards, best apri-heist ever.”
“Because no Batman was around to trail you back to your lair and reclaim the Sultan’s ruby?”
“Ah, there’s the ego I know and love. No, my dark knight, what made this homecoming special was Alfred. Oh, if I’d had him back in the day. He waited up and made me scrambled eggs with asparagus when I got home.”
Bruce scowled. For as long as he could remember, scrambled eggs and asparagus were the late night staple at the manor. After the opera, debutante balls or charity galas, there was always a covered dish of scrambled eggs and asparagus, and a basket of ultra thin Parmesan toast. The thought of Alfred staying up to prepare that repast for Selina when she had been out stealing was… bizarre.
“Alfred’s gone to bed, but I can fix you something if you’re hungry,” Selina said, getting up and repositioning behind him to rub his neck and shoulders.
“No thanks. Just keep doing that,” he murmured. It felt wonderful, and neither of them spoke again until she was finished. Then…
“Clark said to say thank you.”
“Naturally. Clark always says thank you, that's how I wound up in the damn League. Your turn.”
She repositioned again, so he could massage her shoulders. Again neither spoke until it was over. Then…
“Luthor happy with the delivery?”
“Another satisfied customer. Go Kitty.”
Bruce’s lip curled into a slow, malevolent smile.
To be continued...