Supergirl:

 The Apokolips Agenda

 Part 27

 by DarkMark

It was hard to see the shadows against the blackness of space, but Superboy managed it.

Kal was still getting used to his super-vision.  He had to combine the X-ray vision with the telescopic and infra-red  to do a really complete sweep of the space outside the Monitor’s satellite.

Irrationally, he thought: These things sure don’t look like they did in a comic book.  “Group,” he said, “we’re being shadowed.”

He hoped that sounded heroically brash.

The other occupants of the Monitor’s satellite, Harbinger, Lady Quark, Alex Luthor, Pariah, Beautiful Dreamer, and Zatanna, snapped to attention.  “Caught it before even my mystic alarms could be triggered,” muttered Zatanna, rushing to a viewscreen.

“He’s good,” allowed Alex.

Pariah shot a look at the redhaired man in the golden armor.  “Alex,” he ventured.  “Are you up to this?”

The last survivor of Earth-Three returned Pariah’s look, neutrally.  There were lines on his face.  There was white at his temples.  Alex Luthor was less than a year old.  He had prematurely aged at a horrifying rate, going from infancy to young adulthood during the early Crisis.  Zatanna and some of the other magicians had used their powers to retard his chronal progress, as best they could.  It had worked for awhile.

Now it was obvious that it wasn’t.

“I’m fine,” said Alex.  “I’m up for anything, Kell.”

“Remember our duty, allies,” said Lady Quark, her hands glowing with atomic force.  “We protect D’reema unto death.  Darkseid’s demons must not take her.”

“Ma’am,” said Superboy.  “I want to tell you it’s an honor to work with you.  I’ve read of you, you see, and I know what you went through, believe it.”

She gave him the coldest look he’d ever seen in his life.  “You think you know me from reading about me in a colored paper?  You really think you know?”

Kal had nothing to say.

“Quark, Zatanna, at them,” directed Harbinger.  “The rest of you stand fast.  Superboy, I want you here beside D’reema.”

“Will do,” said Superboy, grimly.  “But shouldn’t I be out there on the front line?”

“Not when it is more important to defend our charge,” she answered.

He looked back at her and D’reema.  “Okay,” he said, and went to the New Genesite’s side.

“Thank you, Kal,” said D’reema.  “I am sorry that my powers aren’t much on the offensive side.”

“Your power is the greatest of all,” said Zatanna, clambering into a transparent space suit and heading for the escape hatch.  “That’s why Darkseid wants it.  And don’t you ever forget it.”

By the time Quark and Zatanna got the hatch open, the shadow-demons were already there.  They flowed against them like black tar mixed with liquid oxygen.  They flowed around them, past them, reaching for the interior where the woman with the Life Equation waited under guard.

There was a blast of atomic force and magic combined and the shadows gave way, flying backward through the opened hatch.

“Cigam dnib eht swodahs,” said Zatanna, within her space helmet.  The magic worked just as well with it on.  Strings of glowing magic energy erupted from her hands, startling even her–-there was no way even she could tell how the magic was going to manifest—and began to weave themselves into a net about the shadow-beings.  But too many of them were outside of its grasp.

Lady Quark was taking care of a lot of the rest.  Her powers sustained her in empty space, and her face was set and grim.  She unleashed her nuclear blasts at such strength that she was blown backwards from the recoil of them, and had to occasionally right herself with a retro-blast behind her.  But the blasts of withering power went where she wanted them to, and where they went, they shattered shadow-demons into a billion bits.  The things were having one hell of a time reassembling themselves, as well, and Zatanna figured that some of them were getting mixed up with their fellows when they did.

She felt the coldness reaching up from behind her and quickly spoke a spell.  “Dleihs mrof dnuora–“ That was as far as she could get before it began seeping in through her space suit.  The coldness hit her and paralyzed her voice before she could manage to say “em.”

For a moment, she knew how her father had felt a few weeks ago, when the Darkness took him during John Constantine’s seance.

Then a burst of light-power, and the darkness shattered.

Harbinger was visible, floating in the void, her right hand still glowing with the power she had unleashed.  Zatanna drew a grateful breath and said, “Em.”  In response, a force-field of light surrounded her.  She hoped it would be proof against the attackers.

Some of the shadows had already gotten inside the Monitor’s satellite.  Several of them were cut to pieces by the defenses the satellite’s creator had set up.  Three of them survived, and started heading for the heroes inside.

In response, D’reema created multiple illusions of herself, all around the chamber where they stood, and projected a camouflage illusion on her real self.  But the things were still coming towards her.  Apparently, she guessed with a twinge of fear, the shadow-beings could see with senses beyond those of ordinary sight.  Her Mother Box was pinging and she could count on it for some defense, but not as much as she’d need.

But she could rely on more than that.

With a snarl, Superboy leaped at the shadows and blasted away with his heat-vision, cutting them in half.  “Take that, ya crummy aliens!  Regards from Earth-Prime!”  He slammed a punch at the severed upper half of one of the demons.  It went right through it without much damage, and he felt as though he’d stuck his hand into the middle of the Antarctic ice cap.

The shadow was reaching right past him.  He whirled at super-speed, dissipating it into flinders.  While he did so, clasping his frozen hand and upper arm under his armpit, he thought: They’re like the Ringwraiths from Lord of the Rings.  Or maybe crossed with them and the Blob.  If they keep reforming, how do we stop ‘em?

One of the shadows tried engulfing Pariah and was blown to bits.

The surviving shadow, at least its top half, was arrowing towards Beautiful Dreamer, its elongated arms outstretched.

It never quite got there.

Alex Luthor was using his power, and a great space-warp was opening in his midsection.

“Kal, hold her and Pariah!” he barked.  Superboy whisked to the task, grabbing D’reema in one arm and Kell in the other, and floating to the ceiling to protect them both.  He felt the tug of Alex’s power, and judged that anybody with less power than him would have a tough time resisting it.

The shadows didn’t seem to have a chance.

They resisted it for a second, then were reeled into the hole in Alex’s body—a quite eerie thing to look at, Kal judged.  The shadow-men tried to hold onto objects within the satellite, without much luck.  Their substance parted and was sucked into the warp-hole, with their severed finger-bits following.  Within ten seconds, the shadow-men were gone, and Alex’s body was whole again.

“Where’d you send them?” asked Kal. “Where’d they go?”

“Elsewhere,” said Alex.  “Get me a helmet, quickly.  I need to go outside.”

“My thanks, Alex,” said D’reema as Superboy set her and Pariah back on the flooring.  “On behalf of all my people.”

Tiredly, Alex smiled.  “Accepted, D’reema, but it isn’t over yet.  Hold the applause.”

Pariah said, “I don’t have a way of fighting against them, unless they attack me.  Could you drop me into the conflict, perhaps?”

Superboy sped back, with a helmet and air supply from the satellite’s supply room.  “Stay with D’reema, Kell,” he said.  “We’ll be back in a minute.  If we get back at all.”

Alex clamped the helmet on his suit and Kal activated the air tank.  Then he grabbed the golden-armored scion of Earth-Three and propelled him out the hatch.  The women were still fighting the contingent of shadows outside, as both of them expected.  Alex looked at Superboy, then pointed at each of the heroines.  Kal understood.

Hoping they would, he let Alex go and collected each of them from behind, flying them to a point behind his partner.  When Luthor saw they were safe, he activated his power.

The shadow-demons who were streaking towards them learned, a second too late, that they would have been better served going the other way.

Their icy, indefinable mass spiraled into the warp in Alex’s body like oil being pumped through a line.  Superboy felt the suction power even where he was, and held out his arms to keep Zatanna, Harbinger, and Lady Quark from being drawn towards it, though he expected they could use their powers to keep back as well.  It took almost a minute.  But once it was through, Alex Luthor had banished the army of shadows to a place even he would have been hard-pressed to find.

Superboy grinned and gave him a thumb’s-up.  Alex returned the gesture.

Kal thought he looked even older than before.

The five of them returned to the Monitor’s satellite.  D’reema embraced each of them in turn, gratefully.  Superboy returned her hug, a tad too enthusiastically.  Zatanna caught his eye and shook her head slightly.  With a bit of regret, Kal let her go.

Lady Quark stated the obvious.  “They’ll be back,” she said.

Pariah nodded.  “Now Darkseid knows where she is.  They have to have reported back to him, even as they fought.”

“Which means?” asked Kal, still standing protectively near D’reema.

Zatanna took off her helmet, sighed, and shook out her long black hair.  “Which means, Kal, that we’d better not be here when they do.  And we don’t have much time to decide on it.”

“I can take this vessel to any universe that still exists,” said Harbinger, stepping towards the control console.  “We only have to decide.  I’ll send a split-self to get word to Kara and the rest.”

“I vote for Earth-Prime,” Superboy said.  “It’s probably the place Darkseid would look last.  It’s my turf, too.”

Alex pointed out, “It’s also the world with the least heroes to defend it.  Should he attack us there, we won’t be able to bring up reinforcements in time, should we fail.  And he will find us.”

“Which leaves this universe, or Earths Two, Four, S, or X,” said Zatanna.  “All of which have their own problems. ...D’reema, what the hell is that noise?”

A pinging was coming from an object Beautiful Dreamer held in her cupped hands.  She was gazing at it almost beatifically, and Kal wondered what it was.  Then he guessed.  After all, FOREVER PEOPLE #1 was one of his favorite issues.

“It is Mother Box,” D’reema said, simply.  “I’ve taken the damper off her transmissions.  She’s telling me that Mark and the family are now on New Genesis.  She senses word of a great battle, but she can’t give details just now.”

The Box was less than three inches square, and Superboy wondered where she kept it ordinarily.  Perhaps it was collapsible.

“You’d hardly be concealed on New Genesis,” Harbinger pointed out.

She looked at Lyla.  “Perhaps the time for concealment is past,” she said.  “If the final battle is nigh, I should stand with my family unit, and they with me.  And all of us with Highfather.”

Pariah said, “Brave words, woman.  But take heed they do not set your footsteps on the path to Hell.”

Alex replied, “The way things have been going, brother, I don’t see any way to keep from heading in just that direction.”

Harbinger looked at the rest of them.  “This is your decision, then?  Are you ready to fight the forces of Apokolips directly, if they come for her?”

“They’ve already come for her,” said Superboy.  “And if the New Gods are on-planet, I can’t think of anybody better to help us fight for her.  Except maybe Superman and Supergirl.”

“All right, then,” said Harbinger, placing her hands on the control mechanism.  “Space-warp activates in five seconds, acceleration begins now.”

The great golden globe left its Earth-One orbit and began hurtling through space, propelled by forces Man would not master for millenia.  Three seconds after its initiation of motion, a contingent of Qwardian Weaponers materialized from a Boom Tube and, marking the satellite with direction finders, began to loose thunderbolts in its direction.

The Monitor’s satellite vanished through a warp that closed before the bolts could reach it.

The captain in charge of the Qward unit swore, wondered what excuse to offer to Darkseid, and then said, “Men, this needn’t be a total loss.  While we’re waiting for follow-up orders, let’s deploy below.  Hook up with friendly forces and put some of those Earthers on the business end of our bolts.”

The Weaponers, their contramatter forms converted to positive matter for their mission, raised their fists and cheered in their communicator units.

Then, on space-sleds, their unit headed towards Earth.

 -S-

The light vanished, and Supergirl and her allies found themselves outside the palace of Highfather on New Genesis.  Several guards aimed their weapons, then stood down as soon as they recognized their ruler.  Their eyes tended to widen when they saw he was carrying the body of Orion.  “Summon our healers,” he said.  Then the gates swung wide, and Izaya led the contingent of them into the courtyard and then into the palace beyond.  Tigra walked beside him, touching the form of her son and refusing to be separated from him.

Supergirl, walking between Dev and Superman, glanced behind her as surreptitiously as she could manage.  Mr. Miracle was carrying Himon’s body, wrapped in his cape.  The yellow mask concealed most of his face, but his eyes were downturned and he made no sound.  Big Barda, taller than him by a long shot, walked close to him and was as grim as a death-goddess.  Between them and the Kryptonians came Bug, Jezebelle, Snapper, Bumblebee, the Human Cannonball, Mal Duncan, Mind-Grabber Kid, and Christopher Chance.  The humans were awed by the sight of New Genesis, but they, too, were subdued.  After Scott and Barda, the Female Furies, Bernadeth, Stompa, Lashina, and Mad Harriet proceeded, two paces behind their friends, offering no conversation themselves.

Bringing up the rear was Metron.  His Mobius Chair hovered five feet off the ground.  Most who knew him were used to his lack of emotion.  But the face he wore now testified to his internal pain and, to those who could judge such things, a rage and lust for vengeance.

But one would have had to know him to detect such things.

The doors of Highfather’s dwelling were already swung wide.  The contingent of heroes filed in.  An attendant approached Izaya, tentatively.  “Sire, is Orion—“

“Not dead,” said Izaya, simply.  “Not yet.”

“Please,” said Tigra, trying to hold back what tears she could manage.  “Leave us.”

“A word, sir,” insisted the attendant.  “You have visitors.  Some from, well, that is—“

Highfather froze him cold with a glance.

When the attendant regained his voice, he croaked, “Some are–-humans.”

The New Genesite ruler barely deigned to notice.  “Then make certain they are well received,” he said.

“Yes, sire.  They have been, sire,” said the attendant, backing away quickly.

Izaya led his charges to the medical chamber several levels below the ground floor.  The equipment, to Supergirl, looked beyond that which had even been available in Argo City, which, in turn, was beyond that possessed by the healers of Earth.  The physicians on duty were not prepared for Highfather’s entrance, and gaped when they recognized Orion and saw his mutilated features and body.

“Attend to my son,” said Highfather, and placed him in a plexiglass half-tube connected to various apparati.

“At once, sire,” said the doctor on duty, and snapped his fingers.  The rest didn’t have to be told what to do.  The body of Orion became enveloped by physicians and nurses.  Tigra stayed near, just on the periphery of the activity, almost close enough to touch her son if he was not being attended to.   Highfather looked on for a moment, then signalled to a nurse.  He gestured towards Mr. Miracle, holding Himon’s body.

The nurse pulled a metal tray from a slot in the wall.  It hovered over the floor as he guided it along with his hand.  Whether it was held up by anti-grav or magnetic repulsion or something else, Kara had no idea.  Wordlessly, the nurse brought the tray over to Scott Free.

“No,” said the master of escape.  He held Himon’s form all the tighter.

“Scott,” said Barda, and lay her hand on his shoulder.

After a long moment, with much hesitation, Mr. Miracle let his mentor’s remains rest on the floating tray.  He drew a long, terrible breath, and then coughed it out, doubling, hiding his features with his arm.  Barda took him by the shoulders and led him to another room.  The nurse took the tray with Himon upon it into another chamber.  Kara saw Metron following its progress with his eyes.

“Holy Rao,” she whispered.

“Easy, Kara,” said Dev, entwining the fingers of one hand with one of hers.

Superman ventured to speak with Highfather.  “With all respect, Izaya.  Your man mentioned humans having arrived here.  Perhaps Kara, Dev, and I might check on them, to verify their credentials.”

Highfather’s gaze didn’t waver from the tube containing Orion.  “My second son is tortured and mindless.  My friend Himon is dead.  You may go, Superman.  When time permits, I will see you.”

“Thank you, Izaya.”  Superman nodded to Dev and Kara.  The three of them left to find a guard.

The other members of the Losers’ League looked towards Snapper.  He felt, approximately, like a civilian at a Mafia funeral.  Tentatively, he stepped up to Izaya.  “Sir,” he said.  “May we–“

“Go,” said Highfather.

Snapper stepped back, then went to his team and led them out the door.  Where they would go, he had no idea.  But they did not belong there, in that room.

After awhile, the Female Furies, Jezebelle, and Bug followed suit.  That left Highfather and Tigra watching over the medicos working over his adopted son and her son.

They stayed there for a long time.

 -S-

Superman, Supergirl, and Dev-Em were taken by one of Highfather’s guards to a large reception room, well-lighted and opulently furnished.  As they approached, Kara took note that there was one huge pair of feet on a table.  Before she could tell him to take them down, they hit the floor.

Big Bear had caught sight of them.  “Fires of Apokolips!  It’s Brother Superman and Sister Supergirl!  And...uh...”

“Dev-Em,” said Dev, and stepped forward, his hand outstretched to stop Big Bear’s charge.  “It’s okay.  You don’t have to hug us.  Really. We know you’re glad to see us.”

“Are we ever!  We didn’t know how you made out against Darkseid.”

“We did fine, Big Bear, but Orion and Himon didn’t,” said Superman.

“Orion?”  Big Bear’s countenance fell.  “And...Himon?”

Supergirl nodded.  “Orion’s been hurt, Bear.  Himon is dead.”

“Oh.  Great Source.”

“Is your family with you?”

“They are.  More besides, too. Come in and let’s get reacquainted.”

Mark Moonrider met them at the door and shook their hands.  “It’s good to see you all again.  How is D’reema?”

“I left her in the hands of Harbinger and Superboy,” said Kara.  “She should be–“

“Superboy?”  Superman looked at his cousin in astonishment.  “Great Krypton, Kara, what are you talking about?”

Dev asked, “Wait a minute.  You mean, you brought the kid forward in time?  Doesn’t that make a paradox?  How is it that Kal’s still here, if you did?”

“He’s not Kal, Dev.  Leastways, he’s not the Kal of this Earth.  He’s from Earth-Prime.”

“You mean, Ultraa’s Earth?” asked Superman.  “They’ve produced a...well, a counterpart of me?”

“‘Fraid so, Kal.  He’s a nice kid.  You’ll like him when you meet him.”

Superman shook his head.  “I certainly hope so.  This thing is getting crazier by the minute.”

“Do they have a Supergirl there, too?” asked Dev.

“Not yet,” she said.

“Rank discrimination.”

“Shut up, Dev.”

The five of them went in and saw the new guests of Highfather.

Serifan, cowboy hat still perched on his head, was amusing himself lassoing the backs of chairs with a lariat he’d improvised from a curtain cord.  Vykin the Black sat impassively in one of the chairs about the long ceremonial table, his hands clasped to the large Mother Box that rested before him.  Both of them looked up and acknowledged the presence of the Kryptonian trio.  Besides them, Rac Shade and Mellu sat side-by-side, talking, while Jennifer Morgan and Amethyst were busy teaching each other various spells with sisterly giggles.  Nightmaster, sword slung at his side, was inspecting a book he’d copped from the library shelf in the room, trying to make sense of its alien script and looking over the ornate illustrations.  He looked up and saw the three newcomers.

“Supes,” he said.  “Great to see you.”

“Likewise, Nightmaster, and all the rest of you,” responded Superman.  The combined crew of Supertowners and Earthlings began getting up or turning towards their visitors.  “What’s new on your end?”

“We’re waiting for what comes next,” explained Big Bear.  “So far, all the action has been on Apokolips.”

“The chickens are about to come to roost, though, I’m afraid,” said Kara.  “Just a feeling I have.”

“Probably a pretty good one, Kara,” allowed Dev.  “Darkseid didn’t seem to me like the kind of bloke to take what we gave him without answering back.”

“Is Highfather back?” asked Serifan.  “Can you tell us what went on at Apokolips?”

“To begin with, Himon is dead,” said Superman.  “And Orion, for all purposes, is a vegetable.”

Silence.

Finally, Vykin said, “Tell us about it.”  So they did.

Afterward, grimness swept the features of the four Forever People, and the Magic Squad didn’t look any too encouraged themselves.  “Orion will be saved,” declared Vykin.  “And Himon will be avenged.”

“If there’s any way to do it, we will,” avowed Moonrider.

“But one question must be answered, Superman,” said Shade.  “If Orion’s mind truly held the Anti-Life Equation, and if he has come to us mindless...then what has become of the Equation?”

“I don’t know,” admitted Superman.  “If Darkseid had it, we’d all be his personal zombies by now.  If he’s stolen Orion’s mind somehow, he must not be able to get at the Equation that easily.”

“But if he’s in possession of it,” said Mellu, “then it won’t be long before a being of his power can grasp and use it.  So why are we still here?”

Dev looked up at her, wearily.  Supergirl said, “Because we are tired, and because we’ve just been in a battle, and because we needed to get Orion to medical attention, and because Himon just died.  Next question?”

“Our apologies, Supergirl,” said Moonrider.  “But even given that, we only have a limited amount of time to strike back at Darkseid before he gains control of the Equation.  Where is—“

Kara snapped, “If you’re asking about D’reema, I left her in good hands.  Trust me.  Can you?”

“With who, Miss Kara?” asked Big Bear.  “We have to know.”

Supergirl gave him a look of annoyance.  “With the Superboy of another Earth, and Zatanna, a sorceress, and Harbinger, and several other heroes.  Now, if you’ll excuse me...but you’ll have to excuse me.”

She stalked off.  Most of the heroes looked at each other.  “Kara,” called Superman.

She didn’t answer.

Kal turned towards her, but Dev blocked her.  “Let me, Kal,” he said.

“All right,” said Superman.  She was already out the door.

Dev heard Kal speaking to the others about battle plans as he caught up to Kara.  She’d covered a decent amount of ground after going through the door, forcing him to use his X-ray vision to track her.  He found her leaning against a wall in a deserted corridor.

“Go away, Dev,” she said, not looking at him.

“Do you really want me to?”

“I’m very tired and I don’t even want to make love.  I just want to be alone.”

He put his hands on her ribs and said, “Can’t we be alone together?”

She turned like a fury and smacked him across the cheek.

Dev looked at her and massaged the place where she had struck him.  Her eyes were edgy, fatigued, and she was breathing heavily.  She looked like a soldier who had been pushed several inches too far.

“That’s the second time you’ve done this, love,” he said, with a bit of ice.  “The next time, I may just decide to give it back.”

“Oh, Dev, oh, Dev, oh, damn it...”

She grasped him with both arms and buried her head in his chest, weeping.

He drew a deep breath, let it out, and sat both of them down on the floor with the wall to his back.  Anyone passing by outside was warned away with a stern look.

“I’m sorry,” she said.  “I’m just very, very tired.”

“I understand, pet.”

“I’m tired of fighting all the time.  I’m tired of saving the universe all the time.  I’m tired of not having enough sleep and hopping through universes on the red-eye and...oh, Rao, I’m just sick of it.  I’m sick of it all.”

“Don’t blame you,” said Dev.  “This isn’t my usual milleu, either.”  He nuzzled the top of her head.  “That feel okay with you?”

“Feels good.” She sighed, exhaustedly.  “I acted like a bitch in there, Dev.”

“You did.  But you could have acted a lot worse.”

“Sometimes, Dev...sometimes I just wish I was a 14-year-old kid in Argo again.  Happiest times of my life.  Just me, mother, and dad in the old hometown.  Place I could understand.  People I could understand.  I love Kal, I love you, and I’ve got my parents back, but oh...”

“Don’t you think I miss Krypton, too?  Don’t you think I wish I could go back sometimes and...well...maybe have it to do over again?  And maybe get it right, instead of being a delinquent?  Don’t you...”

“Dev...”

He steadied himself with an effort.  “Don’t you think I miss my dad, Kara?  I never got to make good with him.  Never got to...the last time I saw him was when they separated us, Kara.   And I never got to see him.  Rao, I never got to see him again.”

“I know, Dev,” she whispered, hugging him tighter.  “I know.”

“You don’t know,” he said.  “You can’t.”

“Maybe not in all points, Dev,” she said.  “But everyone of us who’s left, everybody who survived...we know.  We have that in common.   It’s our bond.  Our curse, but our bond.”

“Sometimes...sometimes I think your cousin is the most bonded of us all.”

“In some ways,” she said.  “In some ways, both of us are more Krypt.  We lived among our people till we were teenagers.  He left when he was three.  He was raised an Earthman.”

“Yes,” said Dev.  “But he knows the Krypt ways.  He’s one of us.  And he’s a good man, Kara.”

“So are you,” she said, snuggling against him.  “He knows that, now.”

“I hope so.  Do you want to go back, or go somewhere else?”

“Dev...I just want to...”

He waited for her to finish the sentence, but it didn’t happen.  Gently, he brushed her hair back from the side of her face.  Her eyes were closed.  Her breathing was gentle, and regular.

In a few moments, she began to softly snore.

Dev looked up and saw Superman standing nearby, looking at them, tentatively.  After a moment, he understood.

Kal indicated to Dev that he should follow him.  He picked up Kara gently, trying not to disturb her sleep.  The three of them flew down the corridors, over the heads of startled New Genesites, until they found what amounted to the guest rooms of Izaya’s palace.  A guard let them in without much fuss.  Dev lay Kara on one of the beds, a circular one with a beige covering, and pulled the cover over her up to her neck.  He thought about taking off her boots, but decided it would probably wake her.

At the doorway, he looked back at her.  She looked quite peaceful.  “Damned if I don’t think it’d be a good idea for all of us, El,” he said.

“If you want to catch a few, I’ll wake you up when the time comes,” Superman said.

“I’ll go back with you and apologize on her behalf.  Then I’ll find a sack and hit it for awhile.”

“She needs to apologize herself.  But I think they’ll understand.”  Pause.  “Dev.  I think you’re good for her.”

“Thanks, El.  I think she’s good for me, as well.”

Wondering if he really needed to hear that, Superman headed back towards the conference room.

 -S-

“What in hell are you talking about?”

The speaker was the warden on Earth-2's Rikers Island Prison.  It was one of the number of penal institutions on that planet modified to handle super-powered criminals.  Personnel and administrators there pulled down high salaries, and earned every dime of them.  They were no strangers to super-heroes or super-villains.  But what the young adults of Infinity, Inc. were advocating sounded, to Warden Willis, utterly nuts.

“It’s a tradeoff, sir,” explained the female Wildcat.  “The Huntress said that if we’d arrange for you to free her husband, she’d give us the means to access their headquarters.  That could bring this war to an end.  It’s worth the risk.”

Willis, an armed guard standing beside his chair, looked out at the coterie of costumed people and wondered how in hell he’d ever gotten into this business in the first place.

“The Huntress is in custody right now,” he said.  “We put her in lockdown when you brought her in.”

“We know, sir,” said Star-Spangled Kid.  “But we did make the deal.  We also don’t have the access code needed to get up to the villains’ satellite.  We need her cooperation.”

“Villains.”  Willis snorted.  “Why don’t you call ‘em perps, or criminals, or something more realistic than that?  Round here they’re just numbers.  No matter what name they had on the outside.”

“It’s a tradition, sir,” said Obsidian, standing by his sister, Jade.  “Super-villains.  It’s what they’re called in the business.”

Jonni Thunder, the white-dressed, Thunderbolt-harboring detective who had come along with Syl Pemberton for the ride, said, “Look, Warden.  This has been done lots of times, when the circumstances warrant it.  We’re not talking about letting out the Wizard or the Thinker here.  These two are just some 50-plus humans.  They want to be together again–“

“Which they can be, for conjugal visits,” said Willis.

“–and she says she’ll go straight and try to get him to do the same,” Jonni finished.  “It’s not much, but I believe her.”

“And we need those access codes,” said Power Girl, sitting on a wooden chair and dangling one leg over the other.  “Even I don’t know where to find Lex Luthor and company.  Things are getting desperate, Warden.”

“We need to get her cooperation, sir,” said Nuklon, the inhumanly tall mutant.  “It’s not exaggerating to say several Earths may be at stake.”

Northwind said, “I think I can say this on behalf of my fellow Infinitors, sir.  If this proves to be an unwise decision, if the Sportsmaster and Huntress return to crime, or if her information proves to be useless, then you can rely on Infinity, Inc. to locate them and return them to jail.  It will be our responsibility, and we will fulfill it.”

“But they’ll still be out of jail until you do,” said Willis.  “If you manage it.”

Silver Scarab put in his two cents plain.  “If you think either of those two could last five minutes in the ring with Infinity, Warden, let ‘em out right now and we’ll demonstrate.  While we’re sitting here jawing, the JSA, the Law’s Legionnaires, and all the rest of the heroes on this planet are doing what we need to get back to.  My girl Fury is on Paradise Island helping out the Amazons.  We’ve got I don’t know how many Earths’ worth of bad guys to fight, and if this can help us fight them, we need to do it!”

“He speaks the truth, Warden,” put in Dr. Midnight.  “Even I can see that.”

“And, with no pun intended,” said Hourman II, “time is running out.”

Warden Willis glanced at Harvey, the guard.  The latter’s eyes said “No”.

He pushed a button on his intercom.  “Yes, Warden?”

“Draw up release papers for two prisoners.  Carl Creel and Paula Brooks.”

“Creel and Brooks, sir?”

“Yes.  That’s an order.  Thank you.”  He thumbed it off.  Then he looked at the ten heroes in his office.

“If this goes sour, it won’t be just my butt in a sling.  That’s a promise.”

 -S-

On Earth-One, in Metropolis, the bad guys were winning.

Dr. Fate and Doctor Mist tried for a flanking maneuver against Mantis and his legions.  The warrior of Apokolips was standing arrogantly atop the Daily Planet building, which had long since been evacuated.  Others stood nearby him: the Mirror Master, the Tattooed Man, Chronos, Captain Cold, and Kite-Man.  They tried to conceal the appearance that they’d all rather be somewhere else.

“Come to me, Fate,” rasped Mantis.  “Come to me, Mist.  Let me show you how immortals die.”

Fate spoke briefly to the mage of Kor.  “I’m going to try negatively charged magic, Mist.  It’s a trick I used once against an enemy who could absorb anything I threw at him.  If it works, and he ingests it, it may negate him.”

“As you will, Fate,” said the African sorceror.  “But beware the magic and the power of the Green Lanterns he has already absorbed, along with all the rest he has taken.”

“Draw his attention,” said Fate.  Mist, obediently, formed fireballs in his hands and tossed them at Mantis.  Sneeringly, the energy-absorbing villain held out his hand.  A shield of green force came into being, and the balls of flame rebounded harmlessly from it.

Fate, diving in from above, let loose golden thunderbolts from his gloves.  They leaped the gap between himself and Mantis, and surrounded him in a blinding aura for a moment.

Captain Cold took the opportunity to level a few ice-blasts at the two heroes, and the Tattooed Man touched his arm and caused a picture of a cannon to leap into being and fire a broadside at them.  Fate shielded the both of them with a field of golden power from the cold-bursts.  Mist caught the cannonballs in his arms without difficulty, and made the villains scurry for cover by lobbing them back in their direction.

Then the aura faded, and Mantis stood, raging.

“Even this power, I take from you, Fate!” he shouted.  “And I throw it back at you...thus!”

The negative magic burst forth from his upraised hands and struck at Fate and Mist.  The latter cried out in pain, and the former, though silent, contorted in agony.  Both of them wavered, then fell from the sky.

Both of them were abruptly caught by Owlwoman and the Seraph, two of Mist’s International Heroes.  The lot of them had been standing by, waiting for action.  Now Jack O’Lantern, the Wild Huntsman, the Rising Sun, Dr. Light, Sunburst, Godiva, Green Fury, Icemaiden, and the Olympian hurled themselves at the villains atop the Planet building, from a green platform provided by Jack O’Lantern himself.

Mantis knocked them all out of the sky with a swath of stolen power.

Below, Tina of the Metal Men looked up and called to her partners, “Nets!  NOW!”  Even as she said it, the lot of them, Iron, Gold, Lead, Tin, Mercury, and herself reformed their malleable robot bodies into safety nets, telescoping upwards while their bases remained firmly on ground, and caught the falling heroes and heroines.

Nightwing, holding binoculars to his eyes, yelled, “Titans!  Cover their retreat!”

“Your wish, Batboy, our command,” said Cyborg, jetting forward on a borrowed jet-pack.  With him were Raven, Starfire, Speedy, Changeling, Jericho, Kole, and a trio of old-line members pressed into service: the Hawk, the Dove, and the Golden Eagle.  Wonder Girl, Aqualad, and Aquagirl were elsewhere, and their absence was felt.  But nothing could be done about it.  A contingent of villains boiled out of the buildings nearby, and the Titans gave battle while the Metal Men got their charges to safety.

Nightwing was used to his old mentor’s comings and goings.  But even as it was, he barely had time to turn towards the Batman before the latter spoke.

“Not going well, is it, Dick?”

The younger manhunter shook his head.  “Our version of the Battle of the Bulge, I guess.  How’s your group doing?”

Batman pointed a glove.  “We’ll soon know.  Geo-Force is spearheading a rear action over there.  I have hopes for them.”

Solemnly, Nightwing said, “Hope they’re justified.  The Titans are doing all they can just to keep our side from getting plastered.  If only we had Kal, or Hal, or Kara, or some of the rest.”

“We have Fate, Mist, and others of their caliber,” said Batman.  “They’re not doing much better than we are.  Mantis is the key, but as long as he has that power...”

Dick didn’t like it when Batman didn’t bother to finish a sentence.  “What about the JLA?  The ones we’ve still got, that is?”

“They’re fighting,” said Batman.  “Just not so obviously, in some cases.”  Then, before he could speak again, his attention was drawn to some barely-perceptible streaks visible in the afternoon sky.  Visible, and, unless he was mistaken, approaching at high speed.

Two pairs of binoculars went to two pairs of eyes.  Batman’s hand immediately went to his belt and activated a radio.  “Geo-Force,” said a voice from its speaker.

“Geo, this is Batman.  Qwardians closing from above.  Weaponers.  Alert the team.  Get them out of there ASAP and retreat.”

“Acknowledged,” said Geo-Force.  Then there was the noise of an explosion, and the circuit went dead.

Nightwing wanted to swear, but held himself in while in the presence of Batman.

For his part, Batman’s hand went to his chest emblem and slapped it a certain way.  The Justice League communicator came on.  “J’onzz, code 1/4/7,” came a voice from Batman’s belt radio.

“Batman, code 24/x/70,” said the Gotham Guardian.  “J’onn, the Outsiders are under attack by Quardian Weaponers.  Thunderbolt men.  They need help.”

“They will have help,” said the Martian Manhunter.  “The League will save them.  What sector?”

“Financial district.  Get them out, J’onn.  But—be careful.”

“Understood.  Farewell.”

After J’onzz went off, Batman pressed a certain area of the JLA signalling device.  This was designed to send a message to individual members.  As long as the recipient was in the same universe, he would get the signal.  This time, he was calling Superman.

The signal, even through sub-space, would take some time to get to its destination.

Nightwing, kneeling on the building roof that held himself and Batman, opened another radio channel.  “Titans Tower,” said a female voice.

“Harlequin, this is Nightwing,” he said.  “Things are heating up here in Metropolis.  Badly.  Can you spare anybody in New York?  Over.”

Duela Dent, long past her hero days but still volunteering to coordinate communications, answered, “I don’t know, Wing.  Things are still pretty heavy over here, last I heard.  But I’ll put in a call and see what can be done.  That be all right?”

“It’ll have to be,” said Nightwing.  “Get back to me on this.  And thanks, Duela.”

“You’re welcome.  Out.”

As he recalled, the Challengers, the Forgotten Heroes, and the Doom Patrol were striving to hold things together in New York, with some help from that Roman-costumed beefcake guy who called himself the Son of Vulcan.  He ventured a look at Batman.  The masked man was standing there at roof’s edge, seemingly as impassive as a statue of Lord Nelson.

“Think this might be our last stand?” he asked.

Batman, looking out at the sight with his binoculars, took his time about answering.

“We’ll know soon enough, Dick,” he said.

Then all either of them could do was wait.

 -S-

“So.  What the hell do we do now?”

John Constantine lit another Silk Cut off the tip of the last one he’d been smoking as he spoke.

“Wish you wouldn’t do that, John,” said Baron Winters.  “Those things shorten your life.”

Constantine turned on him.  “Oh, yeah.  As if anything else around here was gonna lengthen it!  Bloody hell.”

“No need to use that kind of language around the boy, John,” said Madame Xanadu, sitting cross-legged on Winters’s drawing-room floor and placing Tarot cards in a pattern.  “We’re all under stress around here.”

Tim Hunter sat at Winters’s long table, to which Constantine had brought him once before a week or two ago, and tried not to fidget.  All that he had seen in the time since then had matured him considerably.   But he still felt like a little kid in the presence of major-league ballplayers who had just asked him to take over for one of their heavy hitters.  They said he had potential.  But he didn’t know that he’d get old enough to realize it.

“Dr. Fate’s out there fighting,” he said.  “Isn’t there something we can do to help?”

The Phantom Stranger bestirred himself.  “We have done much to help.  Already those whom I gathered together have accomplished their mission.  Fate, Mist, Zatanna, Ibis, Isis, and the others of our brotherhood on the Earths are battling valiantly, and, in many cases, effectively.  But such is not our burden.”

“Then what is?” said Tim.

Dr. Occult looked up from below his hat.  “Tim. Don’t speak out of turn.”

“Maybe you can tell me what it is to speak in turn,” said Constantine.  “The Spectre’s dead.  We’ve got this crazy block war going on across at least four Earths–“

“Five,” said the Stranger.

John’s finger stabbed out at the man with the shadowed eyes.  “And you’ve got all the power you’d need to help stop it!  Maybe even to take out Darkseid, damn it to hell and gone. And all you do is stand around here and act like Bernard Montgomery, instead of bein’ out there with the troops!”

“John,” said Dr. Occult.  “Sit.  Down.  Now.”

“Nuts to you,” groused Constantine.  “Nuts to all of this.  I’m ready to quit this gig, go home, and wait for somebody to solve the friggin’ Equation and be done with it.”

“Even when you yourself may be the cause of salvation?”

Constantine blinked.

The others stood and looked at him.  Tim did so with incomprehension.

“Now what’re you yatterin’ about?” said John.

“I must contact a number of persons in a number of places,” said the Stranger.  “One of them is our ally, the Swamp Thing.  I will undertake that.  But another one is the one whose mind was lost in your campaign, John.  And you, and one other, must go to set things right.”

“I’ll go,” said Tim, suddenly.  “I’ll go with him.”

Constantine said, “Don’t volunteer yet, Tim boy.  Who’s the ‘other’, Stranger?”

“I must go to Metropolis and collect her,” said the Stranger.  “From the midst of the battle.  I shall return.”

“Okay,” said John.  “Open channel D.”

The Phantom Stranger swirled his cloak about himself.  When its motion stopped, he was no longer there.

Tim Hunter said, “I still want to go with you, John.  You’ll need somebody else.”

“Don’t be too sure you want to, kid,” said Constantine.  “This guy went all Jiffy Pop in the head from what I did to him.  He ain’t quite together, by a long shot.  But what of him is, doesn’t like anybody on our side.”

“Then you will need somebody.”

“He will have somebody, Tim,” said Dr. Occult.  “The Stranger goes to fetch her.”

“I don’t care,” said Tim.  “He’ll need me, too.”

Without a word, Constantine walked out of the room.  Tim Hunter followed him, though Madame Xanadu called to him.  He caught up to the trenchcoated man in another room, looking through the window at the afternoon Washington rain.

“I’m going, John,” he said.  “No matter what they say, I’m going along.”

“Suit yourself, kid,” said Constantine, not turning around.

“John,” he said.  “I’m sorry I couldn’t save the Spectre.  I know that’s got you down.”

“You did what you could, Tim,” said John.  “And that’s not who I was thinkin’ about.”

“Then who?”

“Zatanna.”

“Oh.  Miss Zatanna.  Right.  I understand.”

“Not really, you don’t.  She’s out there, somewhere.  Somewhere.”  Constantine turned to Tim, with a neutral expression on his face.  “She’s usin’ the Craft to fight.  The way I can’t do.  I’ve gotten into the most disgustin’ habit of praying lately, Tim.  I’ve been prayin’ for her.”

“I’ll pray for her, too, John.  I will.”

“Thanks.  I appreciate that.”

A pause.  Tim said, “I could tell when I met her, John.  I could tell she meant a lot, very much a lot, to you.”

John Constantine gave Tim the most sentimental look he had seen on the man, up to that point in time.

“She was the greatest piece I ever had, Tim,” said John.  “A man does not forget that, and still call himself a man.”

 -S-

“Report,” said Darkseid.

The nervous attendant clutched his board with both hands.  “Power still down 80 percent, Great Lord.”

“And being restored at what rate?”

“It will...it will take 48 hours, my lord.  No more than...”

Darkseid looked at him.

“36.  36 at the outset.”

“You will be held to that.  What of the report from the hospital you received?”

“It was...it was acknowledged that one of the invaders, the Supergirl, I believe she is called, intruded, interfered with an operation, and, according to the report we received, saved a life.”

Darkseid mused.  “We need good physicians, especially in a time like this.”

“Oh, yes, certainly, Great Lord.  In a time of war, all doctors are needed.”

“Choose the least important nurse and guard and kill them.  Before the entire staff.”

“At once, Great Lord.”

Darkseid’s eyes, so hard to read, became even more distant then.  “72 hours,” he said, to no one in particular but himself.  “72 hours.  Dismissed.”

The attendant did a fast fade.  Darkseid, after a moment, got up from his throne.  Kalibak tried to follow.  His father turned, sharply, and Kalibak stood stock-still.  Then Darkseid left the room.

Mongul was still being dug out of one of the fire-pits.  It served the idiot right, in Darkseid’s estimation.  How he had ever managed to carve out a galactic empire, Darkseid would never know.

At least power had been restored in the capital of Apokolips.  At least the mind of Orion resided where it should, within the brain of Darkseid.  It was resisting his intrusion.  But within 72 hours, it would be broken down, searched, reassembled.  It would give up its secrets.

It would give up one secret.

The Anti-Life Equation.

Before that, matters still had to be taken in hand.

Darkseid stepped into an anti-grav lift and went five levels below the ground.  He then went to another chamber, did not bother to acknowledge the guards who opened the portal before him, and hardly noticed the terror that the scientists on duty around the great hollow cube exhibited when they saw him.  There was a long waldo protruding from the wall of the cube, and in its grasp was a red metallic ring, jointed like a wristwatch band.

This would be dangerous.  But hardly more so than the operations he had undertaken up to this point.  One more thing had to be accomplished, even in the waning hours before victory, to insure such an outcome.

He could do it.

To the man in charge, Darkseid said, “It is ready?”

The scientist said, “Yes, Great Lord.  For your hand.”

Without a word, the lord of Apokolips went to a control board and did things.

Inside the cube, a whirl of lights became visible.  The power required for its operation strained the emergency generators of the city.  The being at the controls looked on impassively.

And then someone materialized within the cube.

A bald man, with a mustache and a look of ruthlessness.  He wore clothes of a kind not seen on either Apokolips or New Genesis, and he seemed disoriented.  But his wrist was pent in the red band on the end of the waldo, and he seemed unable to break away.

The grey-faced tyrant looked up at him and spoke.

“Jax-Ur,” he said.  “Welcome to the service of Darkseid.”

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