Webster Hoyt. Frighteningly enough, he was our best choice - the one applicant who made it into the Yes pile. In retrospect, we probably should have screened our applicants a little better to start with, but for the most part, we didn’t really know what we were looking for. Thus, we ended up with Webster Hoyt. Hoyt’s background was impressive enough: Public Relations Masters degree from American University, 3 years in the PR office of the Democratic National Committee, PR Director for Platinum Pictures and, most recently, personal Press Agent for a handful of Oscar-winning actors. His connections to both Washington and Hollywood gave him a unique perspective of the business and a distinctive style. Little did we realize, however, that it was his "unique style" that would cause so many problems in the long run.
The first few weeks with Webster’s services went fairly well. Many of us did personal interviews, public appearances, debate panels, etc. Webster actually managed to get us involved in the fascinating and well done program on the History Channel called the "History of the Superhero", which some of the others disliked due to its inclusion of "both sides of the argument" -- but to me, that was one of its strongest points. Sure it had its downsides -- including a few interviews with a couple of "journalists" whose ignorance about us is only overshadowed by their lack of knowledge of the human condition in general -- and its occasional inaccuracies in some personal histories, but all in all it was an entertaining and delightful program.
Anyway, things with Webster were going pretty well. Then, all hell broke loose. Quite literally. I know I mentioned the Imperiex thing before, but perhaps I should go into a little more detail…
Every few months or so, some intergalactic ne'er-do-well gets the idea that he can increase his popularity and status in the universal hierarchy by taking over a planet with a slightly "advanced" society (read: moved past the "Rocks & Sticks" era). Apparently, Earth is a prime target for these wannabe dictators. So periodically, we - as the "defenders of the planet" - have to deal with these so-called "invasions" from a being or a species that considers itself superior to the human race. This is not to diminish the battles we've had - some have taken a long time, extreme amounts of power and considerable resources to defeat. Take the Mageddon incident; certainly one of our hardest battles to date. Imperiex, however, did not fit into this category. The only reason the Imperiex thing took longer than a few hours to resolve was a matter of sheer numbers.
But it wasn’t the battle that caused us so much trouble this time around, it was the aftermath. The Press response was a laughable array of misdirection, misinformation and out-right lies - nothing new for us. It was, however, the first real demonstration to Webster exactly what we had been dealing with. The whole situation also gave a voice to quite a few of the detractors out there, elevating relative nobodies like Leon McKinley to a national stage.
Good or bad, Webster did rise to the challenge, which kept him out of our hair (and our weekly meetings) for a while. If only it had happened sooner, things with Arthur may have gone a bit differently…
Arthur grumbled as he made his way toward the conference room door. Another week, another damn meeting. Never mind that they had been getting longer and longer in recent weeks, thanks to that ridiculous press agent and his 1001 ideas for a "bold, new League…"
He paused just outside the door and breathed a heavy sigh. The door to the conference room hissed open and Arthur’s hand immediately went up in front of his eyes, blocking them from the unusually bright light suddenly spilling out from the doorway. It had taken many years for his eyes to become accustomed to the brightness of the surface world but really bright light still bothered him.
"What the fu…"
"Aquaman!" came Superman’s overly-chipper voice. "Thanks for coming. Please, come. Sit."
Two things immediately registered in Arthur’s head as his eyes slowly adjusted to the lights. One: Superman’s voice. It was light, happy, almost cheery - not the bordering-on-condescension and disappointment that was the norm whenever someone arrived late for a meeting. Two: Clark had called him "Aquaman", not "Arthur". Once his vision returned, he immediately recognized why. They weren’t alone.
Arthur slowly made his way to his chair, glancing cautiously around at the collected mayhem. The overwhelming amount of light had obviously come from the great number of large bucket lights attached to poles, all focussing toward the meeting table. Scattered about the many poles were men with shoulder mounted cameras, headphone-wearing men carrying long metal poles with what appeared to be fur-covered microphones, and a spattering of younger men and women frantically running around trying to keep the jumble of cables from tying around each other. Just outside the forest of light poles and cables there was a series of tables and crates covered with console boards, television monitors, and various other pieces of electronic equipment Arthur was certain were brought in merely for looks. Behind the small crowd of engineers at the consoles were two individuals - a younger woman in a smart business suit, adorned with a headset and clutching a large clipboard, and Webster Hoyt.
In the center of this maelstrom of activity - and the apparent focus of attention - was the JLA conference table. Arthur cast a confused glance around the table, noting the strange postures and facial expressions of his fellow Leaguers. Were they… posing?!
Arthur grabbed the top of his chair, about to pull it out to sit, then noticed the absence of not only Batman, but Batman’s chair as well. He spun suddenly, turning his attention to Webster Hoyt.
"What in Hades is going on here?!" he bellowed, stepping toward the mass of components. The young woman next to Hoyt scribbled on her clipboard.
"Uh…" Webster stuttered as he came out from behind the control center, moving in an erratic pattern which Arthur noted was his attempt at avoiding the cameras. "Aquaman!" Hoyt greeted, as if nothing were out of the ordinary. "Thanks for coming. Please have a seat and we'll get the meeting underway…"
Arthur eyed the man critically for a moment, then responded in a deceptively calm voice. "No, Webster. I want to know what in Poseidon’s name is going on here…"
"Oh this stuff," Hoyt gushed, motioning flippantly to the assembled camera crew. "This is nothing. Just try to ignore it. We're merely… trying something out…" He began to lead Arthur back to his seat, even pulling it out for the Atlantian to sit. Arthur simply stared at the man, then glanced around the table again, looking for a little help, support or confirmation from the amassed group. Clark’s friendly glance began to shift into that urging, stern stare he used to signify his disapproval while under the public eye.
"Aquaman," Superman urged, motioning toward Arthur’s chair. "Please…"
" 'Please'? 'Please'?! 'Please', what…" Arthur paused, catching himself before calling him "Kal" - or worse, "Clark" in front of a room full of cameras. Instead he opted for a rather frustrated "… Superman? Please try to disregard the 30 extra people in the room, the overbearing amount of light and heat coming from these lamps or… oh, say the eight goddamned cameras following our every friggin' move?!?"
"Seven, actually," Diana interrupted, motioning to the seven cameramen about the room.
Arthur pointedly glared at the empty spot where Batman’s chair normally sat then turned toward Wonder Woman and spoke through gritted teeth. "Is that really the discussion you want to start right now…"
"Aquaman," Superman interrupted before the thrown gauntlet could be picked up, "I realize this has caught you a bit off guard, but all of this was cleared at the beginning of last week’s meeting."
Touché, Boy Scout. Arthur scowled a bit, noting to himself that Superman’s credo obviously now included Truth, Justice and Passive Aggression. "Fine. Then can somebody just appease my idle curiosity and explain to me exactly what in Poseidon’s name is going on here?"
"It’s a reality show!" beamed the casually unflappable Webster Hoyt, still standing beside the Atlantian. Arthur’s head slowly turned in the Press Agent’s direction. "A what?"
"A reality show," Webster repeated. "You know, reality TV. A show on television…"
"I know what television is, Hoyt," Arthur growled.
"Of course! From it’s humble beginnings from shows like Cops and The Real World, Reality TV has exploded onto the viewing market. It’s the biggest thing to hit television since… The Beatles on Sullivan!"
Arthur stared flatly at the now animated agent - it was becoming increasingly obvious exactly who was responsible for this grand idea.
"And with the League’s 12 to 25 demo in such abysmal shape, this seemed like the perfect opportunity! It'll be like nothing that’s ever been seen before! The social interaction of Big Brother and The Real World combined with the pulse-pounding real action of Cops! The prestige and celebrity of The Osbornes plus the adventure and excitement of Survivor! A larger-than-life cast involved in larger-than-life situations! An intimate look into the world of Superheroes! It’s actually bigger than Reality TV! It’s Surreality TV!!"
Finished with his pitch, Webster Hoyt smiled broadly and clasped Aquaman’s shoulder. Aquaman glanced down at the offending hand, then up to the agent’s face. "So you're going to be filming the meetings?"
"Well, not just the meetings," Webster chuckled. "We'll film you guys hanging out in the Rec Room, the Monitor Womb, a few shots around the Tower, things like that. Plus, we'll try to get in a few scenes of you guys in action. I mean, an hour of just the weekly meetings would get a bit boring."
Arthur shot a disgusted look in Superman’s direction. "You don’t say…"
"Besides," Webster continued, releasing Aquaman’s shoulder and heading back toward the production area, "we've decided on the feel of the show, but the seven of you have complete control over the final editorial process. Nothing will be shown that hasn’t been pre-approved."
"So we'll have these damn cameras here for the next, what… six weeks or so, monitoring our every move… ?" Arthur continued to stare at Superman, but the question was directed more at Webster.
"Months, actually," Webster replied. "Six months or so should give us enough…"
"What?!" Aquaman spun toward Hoyt, aghast. "Six friggin' MONTHS?!? Are you shitting me?! Are you…" he turned back to the table, "…is he…" then back to Hoyt, "…are you fucking SHITTING ME?!? Six MONTHS?!?" Fuming, Arthur stalked toward the production area. "Of all the bass ackwards, ridiculous… you know, I've put up with a LOT of whaleshit over the last few weeks - the press conferences, the public appearances, magazine and newspaper interviews - ALL of it. But this?! This just takes the fucking flounder! Never mind the invasion of privacy and the abject stupidity of it all, but we're practically handing a Triton-sized portion of fodder to every two-bit detractor and wannabe activist in the WORLD! I thought the idea was to combat all the negative whaleshit floating around out there about us, but instead, you seem to be intent upon bending us over the conference table and begging for us to take the shafting of the fucking century! And what the fuck is she writing?!?" he ended, noticing that the well-dressed woman standing beside Hoyt was scribbling furiously on her clipboard.
"Relax, Aquaman," Hoyt coaxed calmly. "She’s just taking notes for the censors…"
"The.. ?! I… " Arthur stammered. Later, Kyle would swear to Wally and Eel that he actually saw smoke pouring out of Arthur’s ears.
Arthur finally collected his wits enough to respond, but before he could unleash a torrent toward Hoyt that would have no doubt caused the poor production director’s pencil to catch fire, Superman zipped across the room and placed a calming hand on Arthur’s shoulder.
"Aquaman, leave the young lady alone. She’s just doing her job. Please, come sit down and we can discuss this later."
The two men traded stern stares for an excruciatingly silent moment, then Arthur finally relented and stormed back to his seat, fuming. As they sat, Webster leaned over to the young woman and spoke in hushed tones. "What did I tell you. He’s like the love child of Ozzy Osborne and Simon Cowell! He'll single-handedly insure success in the…" he stopped suddenly, noticing that Superman, Martian Manhunter and Aquaman were all staring at him intently.
He mentally kicked himself for failing to remember that three of the League members had super hearing, especially the one he was just talking about. A weak smile crossed his face and Arthur turned a whole new shade of red. The Atlantian seemed poised to leap out of his seat when a loud, shrill alarm filled the room. The cameramen and production crew all started looking around frantically, but the Leaguers, Aquaman included, all immediately focussed their attention to the large view screen. The screen flicked on, displaying a real-time satellite video feed - and the large ship quickly approaching.
Steel’s voice suddenly cut through the room. He was, as usual, sitting monitor duty during the meeting and he had monitored the ship’s progress until it’s destination was undeniable. He relayed what little information he had to the rest of the League.
"Large Incoming Object. Motion and movement indicate a vehicle of some kind. Classification and Origin: Unknown. Rate of speed: Approximately 1200 km/second, decreasing steadily. At current rate, it will be entering Earth’s orbit in 6 minutes, 37 seconds."
The League rose to its feet and all eyes watched the screen for a moment, then turned to Superman.
"Lantern," the Man of Steel directed, pointing to Kyle. "Run intercept. We need possible intent and threat assessment…" He barely got to the end of the sentence and Kyle was already out through the air lock and on his way.
Another small screen popped up on the display, this one showing a large red triangle - indicating the incoming ship - and a small green dot - indicating Green Lantern’s flight path. Everyone in the room watched the display in silence.
J'onn turned his gaze to Superman and the two exchanged a silent moment. Superman nodded once then looked back to the screen. J'onn took a step to the side so that Webster Hoyt was now in his direct line of sight.
"Webster," the Martian called across the room. "Kill the cameras."
"Wh-what?" Hoyt responded. "Are you kidding?! This is perfect stuff!"
Before J'onn could reiterate his point, Arthur swung around to face the agent again. "He said turn them off! NOW!"
Suddenly, Kyle’s voice filled the room. "This is Green Lantern of Sector 2814. Please identify yourself!" All eyes returned to the screen where Kyle floated in front of the now stopped spaceship. After 15 seconds of no reply, he tried again. Still no answer.
"Superman, do you read?" Kyle’s voice called out again.
"Loud and clear, Lantern." Superman replied.
"I’m getting no response, here. And the Ring is picking up some really strange energy signatures. Nothing I've ever seen before…"
"I am Imperiex!" the loud voice boomed from out of nowhere. "This planet now belongs to me. Do not attempt to oppose me or you will be destroyed."
A large blast of energy fired from the hull of the ship, slamming into Green Lantern and sending him hurling away. The ship immediately continued its journey toward the planet.
Back in the Watchtower, the Leaguers all shifted slightly, poised to spring into action. Superman held up his hands, motioning for them to wait a moment.
"Lantern, do you read?" the Man of Steel called out. There was another tense moment of silence, then finally Kyle’s voice again filled the room.
"Ow! Sunnuva… Yeah. I’m here, Supes. Sorry, I didn’t even see that coming. I’m fine, just knocked the wind out of me. It’s moving on, though. I’m in pursuit."
"Stay on them, Lantern. Try to delay them as much as possible. Help is on the way…" Superman instructed, then turned to J'onn about to send the Martian out to help when there was a slight popping sound and all of the camera crew’s lights suddenly flickered off. The overhead lights flickered as well, but did not go out. The television crew began to look around in confusion, as did many of the Leaguers, save for Superman and J'onn.
The two aliens recoiled slightly, both blinking furiously. They squinted as they glanced around the room, noticing that none of the others appeared to be affected. However, all of the TV monitors and camera view-lenses were showing nothing but stark white screens. Once the initial jolt of the lights going out passed, the TV crew noticed the screens. The production crew behind the consoles immediately began fiddling with input controls and cabling; cameramen started playing with the settings on their lenses. The whole crew seemed to be a flurry of motion as they tried to determine the nature of the problem.
Diana, however, noticed her two teammates squinting and looked questioningly at Superman. "What is it?"
Superman’s squint lessened as his eyes began to adjust and he looked to J'onn for confirmation before replying. "Infrared light. The entire room is filled with it…"
"How?" Wonder Woman asked and was immediately answered by a familiar growling voice coming out of a darkened corner behind the production crew.
Wally knew, from instinct and experience, what that voice meant: Don’t question, just do. That same voice had saved his ass more times than he could count, so he didn’t even think twice. Within a second and a half, all seven cameramen found themselves bereft of their normal shoulder burdens, their hands holding nothing but air and the now-disconnected video feed cables hanging limply on their shoulders. Wally was instantly back at his position at the table - which now held seven identical cameras, all lined up in a neat row. Most of the crew, however, was looking toward the corner behind Webster Hoyt’s shoulder as a dark, menacing figure strolled out of Urban Legend and into the room.
Webster’s eyes went wide as saucers as he looked directly into the face of the being he had been repeatedly told did not exist. He stared in awe and shock as Batman strolled directly toward the conference table, his cape brushing over the side of the sound board. Batman touched several buttons on a device in his belt and the Infrared lights turned off, followed almost immediately by the sound board shorting out, thanks to the small device he had just planted on it.
The League, decidedly unfazed by the new arrival, returned their attention to the display screen. What they saw was Imperiex’s ship, grasped in the talons of a gigantic green-construct mechanical bird attempting to pull the ship backwards, away from the planet. One glance at Kyle told them all that he was able to slow the ship’s progress, but the strain was getting close to unbearable. Superman again looked to J'onn and the Martian phased from view, instantly flying out through the wall and rocketing toward his teammate.
As J'onn approached, about 20 small pods launched from the hull of the ship, heading straight toward Earth. J'onn immediately changed direction and zoomed off toward one of the pods. Inside the Watchtower, Batman called for Oracle over the comm lines.
"Already on it, Boss." The floating green holographic head popped up over the conference table, startling most of the television crew. "Going by the energy signatures, the units do not appear to be weapons of any kind, but rather probes. Information gathering drones. Still, from this far away, once they enter the atmosphere…"
Nothing else needed to be said. Meteors crashing into the Earth cause enough damage; there was no telling what these probes would do. No one in the League understood that more than Superman.
"Oracle, estimate impact areas and forward them on to the team as soon as you can. For now," Superman glanced around the table, "we do what we can to stop these things from touching down. And Oracle, call in the reserves."
As Flash, Plastic Man, Wonder Woman, Aquaman and Superman all made their way toward the teleporters, Batman moved over to one of the built-in consoles on the conference table and activated his communicator. Oracle’s digital global map suddenly popped up on the view screen - with several flashing dots already appearing as estimated landing sites.
"Heaviest concentration seems to be Northern hemisphere - North America, Europe and Scandinavia. Considering the ship’s relative position and current trajectory of the probes, those are the most logical places," Oracle relayed.
"Superman and Plastic Man, concentrate on North and Central America," Batman instructed, calculating his own impact estimates at the same time. "Wonder Woman, focus on Europe. Flash in Scandinavia. Aquaman," he paused for a moment, checking his own figures against Oracle’s, then continued, "the percentages are against you. A large number appear to be headed toward the Mid-Atlantic. J'onn?"
"Go ahead, Batman," the Martian replied, searing through space in pursuit of one of the probes.
"Handle the one you're after then get down and help Aquaman as soon as possible. I’ll be there shortly…"
"Uh, guys?" Green Lantern’s voice broke in on the CommLink. Batman immediately switched the view screen over to the satellite image again just in time to see the large bird-construct dissipate. The ship was now stationary, but what concerned Green Lantern (and now Batman) more was the next wave of 30 pods detaching from the hull and heading off toward Earth. Batman ignored the wave of gasps from the crew around him and focussed on the readings on the console.
"Contact the JSA and The Titans…" he paused, watching yet another 30 probes fire off from the hull. He set his jaw, then growled, "Call them all. Every team, every hero, every person we've ever had contact with. Drag the net, Oracle. Bring them all in. Batman out."
Batman punched the console, then raced toward the teleport tubes. Just as he finished entering the coordinates for the Batcave in the control pad for Tube #1, Tube #2 flashed to life and Ray Palmer, a.k.a. The Atom, stepped out.
"Ray, go relieve Steel in the Monitor Womb. We need his hammer more than his brain right now."
Ray nodded, heading toward the Monitor Womb. Batman grabbed his arm, scowling. "And tell him to get those damn tourists out of the Conference Room."
In the PR world, it was generally a good idea to avoid the phrase "bad day". Webster Hoyt preferred thinking of his time in terms of "Good days" and "Not So Good Days". This day easily fell into the latter category. It had been a week since the Imperiex "invasion" and what should have been a major victory for the JLA on so many levels had already turned into what could best be described as a "Universal Shafting". The JLA - plus every man, woman and child who ever wore a costume, it seemed - had successfully routed the invasion in less than 3 days. That was the upside. The downside was the stack of newspapers currently sitting on Hoyt’s desk, staining his elbows with black ink as he sat with his head in his hands.
"I… I just don’t understand it…" he muttered to himself as he stared down at the headlines.
USAToday: Heroes Try.
Washington Post: Luthor Wins the Day!
L.A. Times: Prez Says: Not on MY Watch!
Gotham Post: President:1, Metas: 0
"Sir?" the young woman spoke tentatively, knowing that normally the best course of action was to avoid Webster on his "Not So Good Days". Webster looked up from his hands to see his secretary standing in the doorway to his office.
"What is it, Laura?"
"The guys from Jackhouse Productions are here to see you…" she replied, glancing nervously back over her shoulder. The board operators from the TV crew stood around the lobby, their faces marked with nervous anticipation.
Hoyt took a deep breath, collected the newspapers and set them off to the side. "What’s the news?" he asked her, standing and pulling his suit jacket off the back of his chair and tossing it on.
"I don’t know, sir," she replied. "They said they wanted to speak to you directly."
"Wonderful," Webster muttered under his breath, then straightened himself up and added, aloud, "Please, send them in."
She nodded respectfully, then disappeared from the doorway. A few seconds later, the production crew members strolled in, the lead engineer carrying a video tape case. Webster shook their hands and offered them a seat.
"So," Webster said, sighing perhaps a little too heavily as he sat back down in his own chair. "What have we got, John?" he asked the head engineer.
The crew members glanced nervously back and forth, most of the looks resting back on the lead engineer. He glanced back to Webster, his jaw lightly clenched. Webster couldn’t tell if it was nervousness, anxiety or anger.
"Nothing," John replied and Webster immediately recognized the face as barely-concealed anger.
"Nothing?" Webster repeated, confused. "We should have at least some useful footage. Maybe not enough for a show, but at least for a pilot or a test tape or a demo or… something?!"
"Yeah, that’s what we thought too," John explained. "Until we got back to the office and found this in the box of tapes." He tossed the video tape case up onto Webster’s desk. Externally, it looked like any other production videocassette case - hard plastic case with white sliding lock up the spine. This one, however, had made a rather heavy clunking sound as it landed on the desk. Just as Webster reached to pick it up, the box hummed and he recoiled as if it were a snake. He instantly noticed strange wavy color patterns appearing on his computer monitor, warping the screen slightly.
Yelping in panic, Webster batted it off the desk with the back of his hand. "What the hell is that?!?"
John calmly reached down, picked up the tape case, opened it and set it on Webster’s desk, away from the computer screen. Webster looked down at a strange device inside the case: a small metal box surrounded by what appeared to be lead casing, flanked on each side by large metal rods with copper wiring wound around them. The humming had stopped and Webster’s monitor had mostly returned to normal, save for a slight discoloration along the side closest to where the device had been sitting.
"Wh-what…?" Webster prompted, staring down into the tape case.
"As near as we can tell, it’s a very powerful, localized electromagnet," John explained, a palpable disgust in his voice. "Triggered by a small, almost imperceptible switch next to the slide-lock, it’s set to discharge once every 60 seconds or so." Webster looked up at the engineer, still confused. "In effect," John explained, "it’s a miniature bulk eraser."
"And it was in the tape box?!" Webster was genuinely surprised. How did a bulk eraser get in the.. Then he remembered. The one person who had walked right past the open tape boxes on his way to the conference table. The same one who had secretly disabled the entire sound board as well…
"That son of a bitch!" Webster pounded his desk with an open hand. He never imagined that such dirty, under-handed tactics would be used by anyone in the Justice League. He had somehow found himself the newest member of an elite club normally reserved for Gotham Rogues: the Screwed by The Bat Club.
"There was one in the audio stock box as well, designed to look like a standard DAT tape," John continued, glad to see that Webster was as upset about all of this as he was.
"But we ran a lot of tape? Isn’t there anything?!" Webster asked.
"No more than 3 seconds of continual footage on any of the tapes. It’s all completely worthless."
Exasperated, Webster thanked them for coming and hustled them out, agreeing that his firm would be covering any losses stemming from the short-out of the boards. He re-entered his office, Laura quick on his heels. He sat back down, disgustedly taking stock on exactly how "Not Good" his day had gone. The reality show idea was ruined before it even started. On top of all that, the League had lied to him about Batman. Not only did Batman exist, but he was at the meeting the whole time - with the ability to sabotage the entire process. This just wouldn’t do.
He glanced over at the papers again, shaking his head slowly. That inescapable moment of self-doubt crossed his mind, then disappeared as realization struck. He was Webster Hoyt, dammit! He had faced far worse press than this back when he worked for the DNC! He saved Platinum Pictures from public disgrace (and complete bankruptcy!) after the CEO was discovered with an underage male prostitute in his car! He had single-handedly molded the career of no less than seven Academy Award winning actors and actresses - all of whom were as nutty as loons! This would NOT bring him down!
He realized that his major uneasiness over what he was now terming the "Imperiex Affair" wasn’t the bad press against the League so much as the positive press for Luthor. His guys (and gals) had battled for 3 long and difficult days only to have Luthor steal the limelight with one shot from this massive LexCorp cannon… that he just happened to have… right in front of the conveniently placed Press Corp…
"LAURA!" Webster shouted for his secretary.
"Yes?" She replied, already standing right beside him. He jolted at her voice, obviously unaware that she had been standing there the whole time.
"Oh, there you are. I need you to get me someone from the Daily Planet on the line. Anyone from the newsroom will do…" Webster pulled a notepad out from his desk drawer and immediately began scribbling notes as Laura headed out toward her desk.
"Wait," he called after her, stopping her just as she reached the door. She turned to regard him as he tapped his pencil gingerly against his temple. He paused, then pointed toward her with the pencil. "Who’s that reporter at the Planet? The one with the obvious contempt for all things Luthor?"
"Could you be a little more specific, sir?"
"The bulldog." Webster snapped his fingers as if that would help jog his memory.
"That doesn’t narrow the field down much, sir."
"Oh c'mon… you know… the pretty one…"
"No! The woman!"
"That’s the one!" he cried, a smile crossing his face for the first time that day. "Get me Lois Lane."
Lois walked out of the kitchen holding a sandwich in one hand and a drink in the other and plopped down on the sofa. She had just taken her first bite of sandwich when the curtains by the window fluttered open with an all-too-familiar whooshing sound. Three seconds later, her husband strode out of the bedroom, clad in a white bathrobe and his customary spectacles.
"Hi, honey. I’m home" Clark called, chuckling as he kissed her gently on the head and sat on the couch next to her. He never tired of jokingly using that line when he came back from a mission and she never tired of giving him the same disgusted look for it. He picked up the newspaper she had left for him on the coffee table, sat across from her on the couch and began to read.
"So," Lois interrupted, a playful tone in her voice. "I got an interesting phone call today."
"Oh?" Clark asked from behind his paper.
"M-hm," she nodded as she took another bite of her sandwich. "From Webster Hoyt."
Clark dropped the paper and stared directly at her. "What?"
"Oh, yes. Hoyt called me. Said he had the story of the century," she said dramatically, mimicking Hoyt’s own voice before rolling her eyes.
"Webster Hoyt?" he asked. "That Webster Hoyt? The League’s new Press Agent Webster Hoyt?"
"The one and only," she smirked, taking another bite.
"Oh," she said nonchalantly, taking another bite of her sandwich. Clark simply watched her impatiently as she slowly chewed the sandwich, reveling in the suspense she was holding him in. She slowly, methodically picked up her drink and took a long sip then paused again to dab the corners of her mouth with her napkin. Clark sighed. "It seems," she continued finally, drawing it out as much as she could, "that he has some information regarding Luthor and the Imperiex thing. Says he has proof that Luthor had foreknowledge of the whole thing."
"What?!" Clark spat incredulously.
"Oh yeah! Knew about the whole thing," she chuckled between chews. "May have even helped plan it!"
"Lois," Clark replied, trying desperately to keep the ‘super' out of his voice. "You can’t seriously be thinking about… I mean, you can’t…"
"Hey, it’s a possible story, Clark."
"Oh, give me some credit, Smallville! I’ll check it out and if it’s nothing I’ll drop it. But if it holds any water, I’ll check it out myself and report on it. That’s what we do. We're reporters. We report the News."
"This isn’t news, Lois," Clark stated flatly. "It’s political. And you know that as well as I do."
"Maybe," Lois conceded. "But if this is the shot that cracks Luthor…"
"This won’t crack Luthor and you know that too. This is conjecture and hearsay at best; outright lies at worst. Even if there’s a shred of truth to any of it, there is no way that there would ever be enough evidence to make a case - or a story. Don’t do it, Lois. Please."
"Why not," she asked, the humor starting to leave her voice.
"Because… it’s career suicide. You print this story, Luthor immediately retorts, piling on mountains of evidence to the contrary. You get branded as the conniving journalist who’s out to up her sales by attacking the President and Luthor gets labeled the innocent victim of a nasty smear campaign. I know Perry has stood behind you on the tough stories before, but I’m not sure he could protect you on this one."
"It wouldn’t be the first time for that, Clark. I can handle…"
"No, Lois. I don’t think you can. You know Luthor. If there is even the slightest bit of truth to this, his covered tracks will have covered tracks. And if he thinks that you came even marginally close to having something real on him, he'll hold you up before the entire nation and label you everything from a liar and a hypocrite to a traitor. Even if he knows there’s nothing to this story, he might do it anyway, just out of spite! He will not stop until he guarantees that you won’t be able to get a job working for the Auto Trader."
They sat for a long moment, matching stare for stare. Lois finally broke the silence. "You know, this whole overprotection thing stops being cute and starts getting annoying after a while."
"Lois, it’s not…"
"Yes it is, Clark. And I did a pretty good job of protecting myself long before you ever showed up. And since when did we start giving a damn about retaliations over something we wrote? Last I checked, we were members of the Press and therefor Constitutionally allowed to print whatever the hell we wanted to! And I’ll be damned if I’m going to withhold a story for anyone. Not for the President of the United States - and certainly not for Alexander Luthor!"
"Lois, after his stunt this week, Luthor’s approval rating is at 82%. 82%! Now is not the time to take him on…" Clark pleaded lightly.
"Bullshit! Now is the perfect time to take him on!"
"Lois, listen to me," he said, taking her hand and speaking in a calmer, more rational voice. "If there’s a story here, then you're right. It needs to be told. But you and I both know that this isn’t big enough to take Luthor down for good. I promise you, Luthor’s day will come. And when it does, you will be the one to report it. That’s the only way it'll work. But you won’t be able to do that if you lose your job over something as trivial as this. We need you to be around when the big story breaks. I need you there. So I’m asking you, please. Don’t do this now."
She stared at him a moment longer, then sighed. "And if Hoyt’s story is true?"
"Then I’ll review the information, I’ll do the groundwork and if there’s enough to go with, I’ll write the story."
"So I just sit back and let you take the bullet for me? You're right, Clark - it’s extremely possible that Lex will do all those things you mentioned. I’m supposed to just let you get hung out to dry instead of me?"
He paused for a moment, then smiled. "I already have a day job," he added with a wink.
A wicked smile momentarily crossed her lips. "Are you just trying to scoop me, Smallville?"
Their conversation was suddenly interrupted by the phone ringing. They stared at each other as the phone rang a second time, not wanting to break the conversation just yet. Finally, she slowly withdrew her hand from his. "Go answer the phone."
He smiled, got up from the couch and answered the wall phone in the kitchen. Back on the couch, Lois could barely make out what he was saying.
"Kent Residence… Oh! Hello Tim!… Really? Well congratulations. Best man, huh? Big job." He chuckled for a moment, then continued. "Uh-huh… That’s great… Sure! I’d be glad to help out. What do you need…"
There was a long pause. Lois wasn’t completely sure, but she could have sworn she heard a Bat-like grunt coming from the kitchen. Then, the phone was abruptly hung up.
Point/Counterpoint with Mathew Christopher
© GNN: Headline News Network.
Show: The Imperiex Crisis
Stacey Martin: You seem to be conveniently forgetting the hundreds of times that the JLA, the JSA, the Titans and all the rest have fought and sometimes even died protecting all of us from danger of this magnitude. And worse!
Leon McKinley: No, Miss Martin, I’m not. But need I remind you of the events of just this last week? That when all the chips were down, it was one man - one normal, non-superpowered human with the plan, the dedication and the ability to end this crisis once and for all. And that man is the President of the United States.
SM: So you see Luthor as the real hero here?
LM: Yes, I do.
SM: And what of those superheroes that fought and died protecting the innocent lives of the people of this country and of the world?!
LM: Casualties of War. I see them just as I see the hundreds of men and women of the United States military that lost their lives fighting for the exact same cause. These superheroes see themselves as soldiers - and sometimes soldiers die. That’s the cost of doing battle. I refuse to elevate the loss of one life above another simply because someone decides to put on a brightly colored costume and call themselves "Super". In fact, the real difference between the brave and honorable military men and women who were injured or killed and those superheroes that died during this conflict is that military soldiers are enlisted and sanctioned by the US Government, acting under the guidance of their Commander in Chief and under the rules of International Law. These superheroes seem to think that they operate above the law. While their efforts and their intentions may be noble - which I question, in fact - what they're doing is illegal!
SM: That’s not entirely true, Mr. McKinley. The Superhero community is sanctioned by the Office of Meta-Human affairs - an official part of the President’s Cabinet. And Secretary Waller has made some major in-roads during this administration…
LM: Amanda Waller has as much control of the Superhuman population as Mr. Christopher here has control over this Network. And while I applaud her efforts, most of her "achievements" have been strictly political. And quite frankly, it seems to me that putting someone with such direct ties to the superhero community in charge of watching over them is…
SM: Watching over them?! The whole idea of that cabinet position is to foster relations between the Superhero community and the government and citizens of the United States - to act as an intermediary. Not to hold them under the government’s thumb…
LM: Well, those "fostered relations" didn’t do a whole lot to save the hundreds of thousands of innocent American citizens who lost their lives in cities like Topeka and Lafayette last week…
SM: Wait a minute, are you holding Secretary Waller, the US Government and the superhero community responsible for the actions of an invading marauder?! That’s preposterous!!
LM: I’m saying nothing of the sort, Miss Martin. But I will ask you this: Why is it that we seem to have to deal with these "alien invaders" on such a regular and constant basis? Never mind the repeated attacks on innocent citizens by the crazed lunatics of this world, what is it about this planet that seems to attract this constant attention from malicious beings? And could it possibly have something to do with the amount of supposed power that some of this planet’s inhabitants possess?
The Daily Planet sat in the middle of the JLA Conference Table, it’s front-page headline screaming up at the League in bold, black letters:
By Clark Kent
The discussion had started from the moment the meeting had commenced. The arguments had been volleyed back and forth across the table for close to an hour. Each League member, it seemed, had his or her own take on the situation.
"I just don’t think this is the kind of tactics that we really ought to be taking," Diana protested. "While I appreciate that something is being done, is this really the message we want to be sending?"
"In all fairness, this isn’t the League’s reaction. It’s the Daily Planet’s reaction. This was an editorial piece in a national newspaper. Outside of the eight people in this room, Webster Hoyt and, apparently, Clark’s wife, no one else can make the connection between this article and the Justice League," Batman, actually in attendance (especially since Webster Hoyt wasn’t), replied.
"I think Diana’s primary concern is that this sets a dangerous precedent," J'onn retorted. "If Webster goes this far right out of the chute, then what’s to stop him from going farther later down the road? And should we continue to let him use these… negative tactics all in the name of promoting us?"
"Hold on," Superman interjected. "We're dangerously close to infringing on the Planet’s First Amendment rights here. The only reason we would have had any control over this in the first place is because I wrote the story. As far as 'later down the road', we may not have any chance to control what’s written…"
"All the more reason to put our foot down with Hoyt now," Diana reasoned. "Tell him that we don’t want our promotional push involved with this kind of smear campaign."
"Regardless of our personal feelings on the article," Wally offered, getting into the conversation, "it was at least somewhat effective. And isn’t that what we hired Hoyt for in the first place? To enhance our image?"
"That’s true, Wally," J'onn countered, "but that doesn’t mean we give up complete control over what that image is."
On and on it went, each Leaguer offering their own side of the argument. During the discussion, there were two voices that were markedly silent. The first was Kyle, who spent the majority of the conversation with a strange combination of confusion, concern and steadily growing ire on his face. His thoughts had little to do with the topic at hand and more to do with planning how exactly he was going to leave the meeting with his dignity intact -- considering he had discovered about 10 minutes into the meeting that someone - no doubt the Scarlet Jackass beside him - had Super Glued his ass to his chair.
The second (uncharacteristically) silent voice was Arthur. Normally the most vocal when it came to matters involving Webster Hoyt, Arthur leaned back in his chair and simply watched the discussion with a strangely stoic expression. Truthfully, his mind was elsewhere. Vulko had approached him earlier in the week to express concern that there was growing dissent amongst the Kingdom of Atlantis regarding their King. It seemed that a steadily growing number of citizens were upset over the amount of time he spent away from the city - that he appeared to be more concerned with the happenings of the Surface World than with his own people. It wasn’t helping matters that he was starting to feel the same thing in himself…
"Arthur?" Diana repeated, shaking him from his private thoughts. He glanced up at her, unfazed by the seven pairs of eyes currently focussed in his direction.
"What are your thoughts on the matter?" Diana prompted, obviously intent on bringing him into the discussion.
"Who cares," he grumbled flatly.
"Who cares?" Diana replied, taken aback. "We do, Arthur. At least we all should. This matter concerns each and every one of us…"
"No," Arthur interrupted coolly. "This matter concerns each and every one of you. I, quite frankly, couldn’t give two shits less about this."
Diana recoiled in shock. "Arthur! How can you say that?!"
"Just like this," Arthur growled back, pointing at his mouth as he repeated slowly, "I couldn’t give two shits less. In all honesty, Princess, I find this whole thing laughable. We spent four months wrestling with this whole decision, pouring through applicant after applicant to try and find one person to assist us with what several of you considered to be a huge public relations downfall, then, when we finally hire somebody - asking them to lend their professional expertise to our cause - you get your Star Spangled Panties in a bunch when they don’t do it the way you want them to! It’s ridiculous! We hired the guy and now we want to undermine the job that he’s doing?! Either leave him alone and let him do the job we hired him to do, or let him go and deal with it yourself. Either way, I really don’t care!"
"Arthur?" J'onn looked at his friend, genuine concern etched on his brow. "Are you alright?"
"No, J'onn. I’m not," Arthur replied. "I’m pretty friggin' far from 'Alright'. What I am is sick and tired of this. All of it." He glanced around the table, looking at each of his fellow Leaguers in turn. "What in Hades happened to us? How did we wind up here? We used to go out and do our jobs because it was the right thing to do. We used to put our lives on the line on a daily basis, fighting for what we believed in simply because we felt we were right! Now all we do is second guess ourselves at every turn. And worse, we're letting everyone else on the planet second guess us as well! We used to champion the cause of Truth and Justice, now we kowtow to the Court of Public Opinion! How did we go from 'We pledge to protect you from all threats, foreign and domestic' to 'Is this okay with you'?! Where did we go wrong?!?"
The other Leaguers all traded questioning glances, Arthur’s words hanging in the air like a rumbling thunderhead.
"Well, I’m just sick of it." Arthur finally broke the silence with a tired voice. "I’m sick of coming to this meeting every week and getting nothing accomplished. I’m sick of us constantly second guessing ourselves. I’m sick of every discussion turning into an full-blown argument. I’m sick of the political in-fighting, the off-handed comments and the secret decisions. And I’m sick of putting my life on the line for an entire planet full of people who can’t seem to even extend the gods-damned common courtesy of giving us the benefit of the doubt."
"And I’m sorry," he added, sliding his chair back away from the table and standing, "but I just can’t do it any more." He turned and walked toward the door.
"Arthur?" Superman called after him. "Where are you going?"
Aquaman turned and looked the Man of Steel directly in the face. "I’m sorry, Clark. Do I need to spell it out for you?" He strolled back to the table and grabbed the folded up newspaper. Holding it down on the table with his right hand, he used the tip of his harpoon-hand to gouge and tear a series of letters into the paper. Once finished, he tossed the paper across the table to land right in front of Superman, then turned and walked out of the conference room.
Superman stared down at the torn paper in front of him and read the jagged, scrawled words:
To be continued...