Batman and the Outsiders:

 Dance With the Demons

 Part 20

 by DarkMark

Selina Kyle was overjoyed to see Bruce Wayne entering her room, opening his arms, coming closer to her bed...

Then he wasn't there at all.  A real bummer, to be sure.

"Bruce?", she called out.  "Are you here, Bruce?"

The door opened. Alfred stepped inside, quickly, followed by Daphne and then Jason.  The butler took her hand and felt her pulse.  Normal, but...she felt so warm.

"It's Alfred, mistress Selina," he said, a trifle louder than normal.  "Daphne and master Jason are with me as well."  He nodded to Daphne and pointed to a thermometer in a holder.  Wordlessly, the blonde woman took it out and handed it to him.  Jason grasped Selina's other hand.

Selina closed her eyes.  "I'm hallucinating, aren't I, Alfred?  I was seeing Bruce.  Should have known it'd be an illusion."

"Don't talk that way, Selina," insisted Jason.  "Bruce'll be back.  You'll see.  If there's anybody that can get help for you, it's him!"

Alfred said, "Open your mouth, Selina.  This is a thermometer."  She obeyed, and he stuck it in the corner of her mouth.

Daphne Pennyworth felt Selina's forehead.  It was sweaty to the touch.  She was not a nurse, but she didn't have to be to note the woman's high temperature.  She also noted Selina's odor, as little as she liked to admit it.  The medicinal smell came out in her sweat.  The smell, God help them all, of poison.

Watching her, Alfred noted the telltale trembling of her hands.  Fever sign.  He could almost tell what the reading would be without taking the instrument out of her mouth.

"How much more time do I have," said Selina, around the thermometer, "before the last-minute rescue?"

"Mistress Selina," said Alfred, "shut up."

 -B-

The drill that emerged from Kobra's mountain formed itself into two multicolored individuals, with a host of heroes following, some flying under their own power, others supported by Looker's levitation abilities.  They quickly saw the Titans standing by their aircraft on the field nearby, and, per Batman's instruction, floated over to them.

Nightwing watched his old mentor and the rest of his team descend to the ground, then stepped forward with a grin.  "It's great to see you back, Bruce."

Batman laid a strong hand on his former aide's shoulder.  "The same for you and yours, Dick.  How is Selina?"

"Don't know," said Nightwing, sobering a bit.  "Dr. Dundee gave her a whole blood transfusion.  It's said to have improved her chances."

The Masked Manhunter searched Dick's eyes, knew from them that his wife was not yet out of danger, and drew in a deep breath.  "Then we'll just have to improve them some more, won't we?"

The other Titans and Outsiders were greeting each other individually but quickly.  There was still a job to be done.  "Apparently the Batplanes were taken inside," said Batman.  "Looks like we'll have to go back in and get them."

Cyborg said, "Just let the Titans Reclamation Company give you a hand, Bats. We'll make sure the cobras are out of the cockpit."

Metamorpho said, "As long as you can keep up with the old men, junior," and turned himself into a gas.  He wafted himself back in the direction of the mountain.

Gar Logan offered, "‘Wing, doesn't this seem kinda counterproductive?  I mean, they've just put a whole lotta effort into getting out of that place, and now they want to get back in?"

Starfire looked at him.  "Think we can fit them all in our planes on our laps?"

"Uh.  No," he admitted.

"Then let's go help!"  The gold-skinned girl shot into the air with a brownish-red afterburn trail coming from her.  Changeling turned into a green eagle and followed.

Looker said, "Any of you who can't fly, get close to me.  But not that close, Faraday!"

With a bit of effort, she hauled herself and the non-flying Titans and Outsiders into the air again.

 -B-

It was always unnerving, even if you were a super-villain, even if you had seen the deed before, to see a man materializing out of thin air before you.  That was what Dr. Arthur Light and the phony Helen Jace saw when Kobra stepped out of the very short space-warp his teleportation device had created, into the office in Markovia where both of them were standing.  He was wearing a business suit and carrying a briefcase, but both of them recognized him instantly.

Before they could speak, he said, "You will refer to me as Mr. Adams.  What of the plan?"

Dr. Light, wearing a grey suit, a false beard and mustache, and dyed hair, swallowed and said, "The Justice League should be arriving within an hour.  Everything has been prepared."

"Everything?" said Kobra, smoothly.  "Given your record of failure against the League, I tend towards skepticism."

Clayface glanced at her partner and saw him fighting back rage.  If anyone less deadly than Kobra had said that to Light, the old super-villain would have probably taken him down with a pocket laser or something.  Light took a steadying breath and said, "The device, Mr. Adams, will perform as designed.  I think you can be assured of that."

"We can rely on your own genius, I am sure, Lor--", began Clayface, still using her Jace voice.

Kobra shot her a look.

"--Mr. Adams," she corrected herself.  "Just as certainly as we can hope to be spared by the survival measure."

He knew the implications of what she was saying.  It was a gentle barb against him: Since you helped design the atomic tunnel, we can rely on it to work, can't we?  He needed these two, for the moment, or he would have turned her into real clay on the spot.

"The operation is in your hands, at this point," said Kobra.  "But if you fail--you will be in mine."

Light and Clayface were silent.  That was good.  He maintained silence himself, touched a device in his belt, and faded from their sight.

When he reappeared, he took in the more pleasant sights of a Gotham City penthouse apartment.  That he was able to maintain such a base here was a slap in the eye to the Batman, who had no knowledge of it.  He ventured a smile.  It was not luxury such as he possessed in his lair, but it would do.

The fall of a bare foot on a marble floor prompted him to turn his head.  Eve was there, clad in only her green bikini, and as desirable as ever.  She had been coordinating such things in Gotham that had needed to be done.  From what reports he had gotten, she had performed admirably.  The heroes had been kept busy, and their forces were still divided.

"One welcomes your presence, Lord Naja-Naja," she said, "with the anticipation of a successful conclusion of events."

"There will be time for such duties shortly, dear Eve," said Kobra.  He sat his briefcase down and loosened his collar.  "For now, I require a diversion."

Another woman, sitting motionless in a corner of the room, watched as Eve bit him lightly on the neck, as a snake will do to its mate in foreplay.

They both knew she was there.  But neither one took much notice of Melissa McNeil, who took little enough notice of herself.

 -B-

The Cobra Cultists that the Outsiders and Titans met within the hangar deck of Kobra Mountain greeted them with bullets, rays, and other weapons which could take out a regiment or two.  Batman and company knew a half-hearted response when they saw one.  Taking them out with sonic bursts, halo-power, increased gravity, solidifying crystals, and good old fashioned force was a mercy to their foes.

Batman pointed towards the two Batplanes which the Cobras had, standing beside the various other aircraft.  "Rex, Rainie, check them out.  Tail to nose."

"Will do, Bats," said Metamorpho, as he and Element Girl turned into gas.  The two alchemical wraiths penetrated the two black metal craft and gave them an inside-out inspection for any devices Kobra might have secreted within.  A few minutes later, they emerged and assumed humanoid form once more.

"Everything appears okay," confirmed Rainie.  "Ready to ride?"

The Batman nodded.  "As soon as we can persuade one of these defanged Cobras to show us the controls for opening the hangar door.  Unless you know, Faraday."

Talia spoke up.  "I know how, Batman.  I have been within this lair long enough to know."  She stepped to a bank of instruments against one wall with a control chair nearby.  Nightwing watched her, and silently looked towards his old guardian.  Batman shook his head gently, and favored Katana with a glance.

The she-samurai was at Talia's back in an instant, her sword unsheathed.  Talia, startled, looked up at her.  "What are you here for?" she asked, her hands on the door controls.

"To make certain all goes well," said Tatsu.  "Not all of our foes are unconscious."

Talia looked at her for a second, then bent back to her task.  A relay was thrown, and part of the mountainside opened up.  The outer air and sunlight streamed into the hangar.

Batman addressed the Titans.  "First off, many thanks for your aid.  We're always impressed by your abilities and teamwork, and not the least by Nightwing's leadership.  But we've got at least one more stop to make before our joint venture is over.  You need to return to the Titans' craft, and I hope it's well-fueled.  We're all headed for Markovia."

Geo-Force clenched his fist, wrathfully.  "There is no more time for talk, my friends.  My homeland will survive, even if I must pull every piece of it back from the void with my bare hands."

Nightwing turned to his teammates.  "You heard the man, people.  Let's head out and kick the tires.  And get on the horn to the JLA."

 -B-

King Gregor of Markovia was there to meet the Justice League of America as they arrived at the airport of his small nation's capital city.  It was a most unorthodox arrival.  Some came in a plane piloted by Wonder Woman, a craft so transparent it could not be seen except where the light glinted off of its edges.  Others flew in a more conventional craft, with a blue-starred shield bearing the three letters "JLA" on its fuselage.  Two flew in under their own power, and for Gregor, these were the most impressive ones.  Superman and Green Lantern, the ones of whom he had read since his childhood--one of them, the ur-hero from whom all others had arisen; the other, a galactic knight with the power of the gods in that small thing which encircled his finger.

It was true that knowing Batman and his brother Brion's band was exciting, but having the chance to meet this group of heroes was a thrill akin to holding a power wire in one hand, and surviving.

There had been some quandry about what to have the official greeting band play in their honor when the heroes touched down.   After all, no one in their state department could verify that the League had an official song.  That had to be an oversight, and he was going to offer them the services of one of Markovia's greatest composers while they were there.  He had floated the idea of having the band play "Hail to the Chief," but the American ambassador had let him know, gently, that such would be a large faux pas on his part.  And really dumb.

He'd even gone through what interviews were available with League members to see if any of them revealed their musical tastes.  About all he could find was that Green Lantern once expressed a love of Dixieland jazz, and that Superman's tastes were quite eclectic.  No help there.

Finally, the committee in charge of such things had settled on the American national anthem.  So that was what they played, as Superman, Green Lantern, Wonder Woman, Green Arrow, Black Canary, Aquaman, J'onn J'onzz, Zatanna, Elongated Man, Hawkman, Hawkgirl, Red Tornado, Firestorm, and Steel assembled on the landing field, and awaited the presence of the royal escort.

King Gregor was poised to stick one leg over the booth in which he stood, leap to the pavement, and rush out to greet them solo, his hand outstretched.  One of the ministers stopped him.  "Your highness," he said, "dignity."

"Be damned to it," said Gregor.  But he did use the steps.

He noticed Dr. Helen Jace's car pulling up to the area, and was glad of it.  Somebody had to be able to explain the blasted tunnel, after all.

 -B-

Most of the members of the Bat-Squad were dozing.  They had to sleep when they could, very often, and had long learned the technique of catnapping.  But Helena Wayne was awake, fueled by coffee and Caffedrine, and was keeping vigil by the bedside of Selina Kyle Wayne.  The others in the room included Alfred, Jason, Daphne, and Julia.

"Dr. Dundee is on his way," said Julia.  "He wants us to move her back to the hospital."

Alfred sighed.  "Do you think it would do much good, Julia?"

She looked at the sleeping form of Selina.  "I don't know, granddad.  She did want to be here, at the end."

Helena leaped to her feet.  "This isn't the end!  She isn't dead yet, dammit!  Not like...like..."

The butler put his arms about her quickly, restraining her.  He put his mouth to her ear.  "Mistress Helena, caution.  Remember..."

He felt her shake, both from the tension of her emotions and from her sleeplessness.  "Alfred, I won't see her die.  I just won't."

Jason tried to embrace them both, and settled for holding on to Helena's back.  Julia and Daphne looked at the three of them, and then back at Selena Wayne.

The woman in the bed seemed to be struggling with every breath.

 -B-

The assemblage of heroes was filing into the imperial palace, which, like that of most such nations, seemed a bit large for the size of the country it occupied.  Steel, who hadn't been in such a place since starting with the League, marvelled at the decor.

"Ralph, if they throw in a free lunch with this, I think stayin' with the League was a darned good idea," he said.

The Elongated Man nodded.  "Of all the new ones, I think you'll fit in best with our original crew.  And don't worry, lunch comes with the package.  Dinner, too."

Firestorm looked towards the two of them.  "I'm leary of this accelerator.  Reminds me of what happened to me when I got these powers for the first time."

Zatanna, who had been one of the four members to serve in the old, new, and reunited JLA, held Ronnie's hand comfortingly.  "That was in a nuclear reactor, you said.  This isn't supposed to be quite the same thing.  But if something goes wrong, we've got the power to handle it."

Superman gave them a sobering look.  "Don't ever make that assumption, Zatanna.  Even with all the powers we command, there are many forces beyond our reach.  Even I can't afford to be arrogant."

"Sorry, Kal," said the sorceress.  "But I think you'd agree that if something untoward does happen, we're the people best qualified to take care of things.  Wouldn't you?"

"Arguably," said Superman.  "But the speed with which we recognize a problem and act on it--that's paramount."

"Oh, Kal, ease up a bit," said Wonder Woman, examining a tapestry as they passed by.  "This is just a diplomatic thing, after all.  Still, I don't know...the ‘vibes', as Donna might put it, don't seem altogether right."

Green Lantern appraised the scene.  "As long as we can get this thing taken care of in time for the wedding tomorrow.  That's all I ask.  And I'd better receive it."  He paused.  "Modora's far enough away.  If Sonar turns up, I'll bounce him on his ear."

Black Canary, her arm entwined with Green Arrow's, said, "You're not the only one getting hitched tomorrow, GL.  But speaking of weddings, has anyone heard from Bruce and Selina lately?"

Superman shook his head.  "Let me check."  He bent his head and looked at the floor.  The others realized that he was looking straight through the floor, using his x-ray and telescopic visions in concert, staring straight through the Earth itself...and in the direction of Gotham City.

In a few moments, he exhaled.  Green Arrow asked, "What's it look like, Supes?"  Dinah's fingers tightened reflexively in his gloved hand.

"Not so good," said the Man of Steel.  "I'll keep checking on her.  If  it gets much worse...you'll have to carry on without me."

"Without two of us," promised Zatanna.

 -B-

The three planes were airborne again.  Plastic Man, in the Batplane which Batman flew, reflected gratefully that this time, nobody had to watch King Faraday.  Without getting out of his seat, he stretched his neck in a loop that made Talia's eyes bulge, and stuck his head into the cockpit.

"So we're just leaving the Cobras as is?  Without doing anything?"

Batman, piloting the plane, said, "Nothing we can do at present.  We don't have time or, possibly, manpower to take on everyone in the mountain.   The danger at Markovia is much more imminent."

Plas nodded.  "Plus," he said, in a low voice, "I'll bet you don't want a scene like they pulled back there, with all the killing."

Batman said nothing.

"You think the JLA are already in Markovia?" said Plas, changing the subject.

"That's just what I intend to find out," said Batman.  His hand went to his utility belt and activated the Justice League signalling device concealed therein.  Once the acknowledgment was received, he had a number of options as to how to respond.  He chose to take a tiny microphone from a belt pouch and tune his communicator to the proper frequency.  "This is Gotham," he said into it.  Plastic Man watched, interested.

A voice came back from a belt speaker.  "Gotham, this is Metro.  What's your situation?"

"Your situation is more important," said Batman.  "Listen carefully.  The supercollider is a deathtrap.  Kobra built it.  He's going to try to use it to wipe out Markovia.  His ultimate objective is to threaten the world with it."

Superman's voice came back.  "Understood.  I'll dismantle it right now."

"No, Kal," snapped Batman.  "Listen.  Any move made on the device could cause him to prematurely trigger it.  Can you use your vision on it?  Check for emergency triggers."

There was a pause.  Then the Kryptonian's voice was heard: "You're right.  The way he's got this thing set up, it'll go off if we make a move on it.  Maybe Zatanna and GL could bypass it, or even Firestorm."

Plastic Man's jaw tightened, hearing the news.  If Superman, Green Lantern, and the other Justice Leaguers were helpless to destroy Kobra's machine, what use would the Outsiders be?  Even the Titans weren't in the JLA's power class.

"Too much of a maybe," said Batman.  "If you play it out until they're ready to make the demonstration, and then crack down, you'll have better luck.  That is, if you can pretend not to know anything about this till then."

Superman said, "This is cutting it awfully close, Gotham.  Are you sure that's how you want to handle it?"

"Only other thing I could reccommend is to locate Kobra.  Any evidence of him in your vicinity?"

"None so far," said Superman.  "But now that we know, we'll be looking.  Discreetly.  There's only four hours between us and the event."

Batman said, "Time enough for us to get there.  Delay a bit if we don't show up.  Handle it yourself if we're not in time, though."

Superman said, "Gotham.  Are you sure you want to come here?"

Batman said, "Why do you ask?"

"I've had a look at your wife, from a distance.  She's fighting, but...I'm not sure how much longer."

Batman's hands grew tight on the steering yoke.  Plastic Man didn't dare make a move.

"We can handle things here," said Superman.  "Perhaps it'd be better if--"

"We're coming," said Batman.  "Out."

 -B-

Helena had awakened the others and all of them, Barbara, Dick, Kathy, Betty, Jason, and Karl, were there in the room, some of them standing against the wall for lack of space.  Karl was kneeling at Selina's bedside, holding her hand, talking to her nonstop about his sister, hoping for a response.  Because of this, Daphne and Julia had to be kept outside the room.  Helena was lying with her head on Selina's stomach, occasionally crying.  Alfred had his hand on Selina's wrist and was checking her pulse.  It was still there, but not as strong as it had been.

The place still stank of her medicinal sweat and Alfred had to swab their faces and hands every so often with disinfectant, to make certain the poison didn't enter their bodies.  If one of the family had to die tonight, it was best not to take any more with her.  His granddaughter and niece were keeping him supplied with washcloths and buckets of water.

He felt tired.  Unbelievably tired.  He wanted to go to his room and do nothing but lay on his back and pray.

When had he first set eyes on this woman?  Even he wasn't certain.  He had seen the pictures of her in the newspapers and in the telecasts.  Through Masters Bruce's and Dick's accounts, he had gotten to know Catwoman as well as any of the other felons Batman and Robin sought.  Yet, even then, he knew the strange effect the woman had on master Bruce.  A dangerous effect, to be sure.

Yet, he had precisely the same effect on mistress Selina.  And he had not known of it, because he had not encountered her as they had.  Still, master Dick had said once, "Don't tell Bruce I said this, Alfred, but Catwoman's probably as sweet on him as he is on her."  Perceptive lad that he was.

All through that time, he had hoped for the master to find a wife.  Someone reliable, like Miss Vale, or Miss Kane.  Even Ms. St. Cloud had been such a great possibility, for a brief time.  If only she had not severed the ties with the master so quickly, of her own accord...  Ah, well.

Yet the master was always attracted to the dark woman, the femme fatale.  To the Catwoman.  To Talia.  To Poison Ivy.  To Nocturna.

Well, of those four, the best had won out.  Finally, Selina Kyle had turned her back on the thief's life and meant it.  She redeemed herself with heroic deeds, even though she did once threaten Vicki Vale in a jealous rage.  The Catwoman, who had once rubbed elbows with the Joker and Penguin, now associated herself with the Batman and his allies.  Even the public had accepted her change for the better.  And with her agreeing to wed master Bruce, it seemed as though many stories--including motherless Jason's, and that of an old English butler--were about to be granted a happy ending.

Except, he ruefully admitted, that Batman's life was sadly lacking in happy endings.

He had to be strong.  He had to be strong for just a little while longer.

Alfred sighed, stepped towards Jason Todd, and cradled the boy's shoulders in his hands.  "Master Jason.  Perhaps you'd care to wait outside for awhile.   The exposure to her sweat can do you no good."

"‘M not leaving, Alfred," said Jason, holding back his tears with a mighty effort.  "Go ‘way."

Dick Grayson the Elder said, "Don't talk that way to Alfred, son.  But...is he all right?"  The last was addressed to the butler.

"Physically, at least, yes," said Alfred.

"Live, Mama," sobbed Helena Wayne, pressing her chest to Selina's.  "Please live.  Please don't leave me again."

Barbara Gordon didn't even think of correcting Helena, of saying that this was her mother's counterpart.  She just remembered a time in which Helena had fought the woman she now wept over.  Barbara had been along for that case, and so had the Batwoman.  A Batwoman who, unlike the Kathy Kane in this room, was no longer with them.

Betty Kane moved to comfort Barbara as the redheaded woman began crying.

 -B-
In the New Titans' plane, conversation was more subdued than it had been on the way up.  The group had hardly seen the action the Outsiders had faced.  But knowing what was at stake now made it hard to lob jokes, even though Gar Logan and Victor Stone tried.  Kole and Jericho were seated side-by-side, communicating intimately with signing.  Raven was keeping to herself.  Wally West was silent, looking out the window.  Starfire figured that he was thinking about the Flash, wondering about the weird apparition they had seen during the Crisis: a being in a Flash suit who had screamed about the end of everything, degenerated into bones in crimson clothing, and disappeared.

The girl from Tamaran went to the cockpit and crouched beside Nightwing.  "Dick?"

"What's on your mind, Kory?" murmured Nightwing, not unpleasantly, but not taking his eyes off the view through the windscreen.

"Do you suppose we'll always have to do this sort of thing?"

He turned his head to look at her, briefly, sympathetically.  "I hope not.  We need lives of our own.  Even as much as I love the group."

"Does it distract you for me to be here?"

"No.  I love it."

"That is good.  Xh'al, Dick, I must ask you something in secret."

"Ask away."

"Bruce's wife is dying, in Gotham City.  Yet, he insists on leading our charge to Markovia.  Why cannot he leave the fighting to the rest of us?"

Nightwing said, slowly, "Because that's the kind of guy Bruce is.  Don't doubt the love he has for Selina, Kory.  But--"

She rested her golden hands on the back of his seatrest, holding her head close to his.  "What sort of man will leave his wife to die and go out to battle, Dick? What sort of husband can that man be?"

"Ah, hell, Kory," sighed Dick.  "As many years as I've known him, it's still hard for me to explain the guy to an outsider.  Look.  Bruce has the greatest ability to compartmentalize of any individual I've ever, I mean ever, known.  Like he has these little Rubbermaid jars he puts a problem in, when it won't do him any good to fret over it.  He might seem cold at those times, or might not display what you, or even I, might think is the right sort of emotions.  But he's...working on it, inside.  He has to do it that way, in order to keep on functioning.  There's no other way he can.

"Put it this way.  For years, Bruce and I were into some of the nastiest parts of one of the nastiest cities on the East Coast.  Murder, drugs, robbery, prostitution, theft, larceny, arson.  Name the crime, we got some perps that did it.  We saw--terrible things, Kory."

"I have seen terrible things in my life as well, Dick," said Kory, placing her first two fingers of her left hand on his neck.  "I have suffered terrible things, as well.  At my sister's hands, at the hands of her allies."

"Yeah," he said.  "We all know about the torture.  I'm sorry, Kory.  Really sorry it happened. But...well, this stuff that I'm talking about, Kory, let me finish.  We had to see all that, get our hands in the mess, beat up the guys responsible, pack them off to the cops, and then Bruce had to go to work the next day at the Wayne Foundation and I had to be at school.  We had to be Mister Normals.  Had to bury all that stuff away.  So, yeah, I learned how to compartmentalize, too.  But not like Bruce.

"I did my stint in college, got into a lot of cases there, but Bruce was still in Gotham, still doing his thing just about every night.  I think the city got even nastier, and he didn't have anybody to fight beside him then...just Alfred, for backup troops.  He teamed up a lot with Kal, and he had his JLA gigs and managed to run into another hero that needed help almost every month.  But he always prioritized.  Always took care of the big business first, and then he got back to the smaller things.  Usually, he handled both sorts of things okay.  When the little business had to suffer, then it did. That was the price he had to pay, for being Batman. But there was nobody else who could do it.  And he did."

Koriander shuddered.  "So...what you are saying is...Batman is seeing the big business as the saving of Markovia, yes?"

Nightwing said, "Yeah."

"And...the smaller business is..."

"Yeah."

Despite herself, she hugged Nightwing from behind, taking care not to pin his arms as he steered the plane.  "Dick, promise me something, I beg of you.  Promise me that I and the children we have, Dick, will never be the smaller business.  Promise me this.  Please."

"You've got it," said Dick, without hesitation.  "No matter what, Kory...you and our family will be the biggest business in my life."

She relaxed.  And as he piloted the plane, Dick Grayson hoped that his words would never someday, somehow, prove him liar.

But there would be time for that after Markovia.

 -B-

In the afterglow of a tantric coupling, Kobra reached out his bare arm and grasped his personal communicator from a white bedside table.  Eve made no sound as she snuggled sleepily against him.  He punched up a set of numbers which connected him to Markovia.  "Yes?" came Dr. Light's cultured voice.

"Adams," said Kobra.  "Report."

There was a sound of hesitation on the other end of the line.  "The League is in the city.  They should be on their way here directly.  I believe Dr. Jace has already met with them by now."

"Have you heard from her?"

"Not yet," conceded Light.  "But the League has had little contact with the, er, other Doctor Jace.  I believe the matter will be concluded satisfactorily."

"Can you manage to keep yourself hidden from their sight till the operation is complete?"

"I believe so, yes," said Light.  "Don't worry, I'm no more eager for them to recognize me than you are."

"Light," said Kobra.  "There are ways of dying which make facing one of my namesakes look like paradise indeed.  You do understand that I cannot be avoided, do you not?"

"I am given to understand that, yes."

"If you fail me in this matter, Light, I promise that you will not avoid me.  For you, the light will be extinguished...but I will allow it to dim for a very long, harrowing time.  Am I understood, Light?"

"Quite understood, Lor...Mr. Adams."

"I will be waiting, Light," promised Kobra.  "I will be watching.  Out."

He switched the transmission frequency to that of his mountain lair.  "Report," he said, without preamble.

"Lord Naja-Naja," said a gasping voice.  "We are abashed.  The Batman and his comrades have escaped.  Many of us have died in their wake.  The mercenaries have left, as well.  All is chaos."

A terrible glare came into Kobra's eyes at that moment, so that even Eve saw fit to scurry to her side of the bed.  "The damage?"

"An untold amount of our warriors, dead," said the Cultist.  "Perhaps over fifty.  Perhaps a hundred.  We have not estimated, Lord Naja-Naja...many were buried in lava."

"I see," said Kobra.

"The Batman's band fought their way out, in the company of some other costumed ones," said the man.  "One who was green and shaped like an animal, another who was a woman and of golden hue, another who could run faster than an afrit, another..."

"That is sufficient," said Kobra.  "I know who those others were.  What else?"

"Lord Naja-Naja, the daughter of Ra's Al Ghul is also among them."

For a long moment, Kobra did not say anything.  "Willingly?" he said.

"It would seem to be so," acknoweldged the Cultist.  "Lord Naja-Naja, what must we do?"

"You must tend to the wounded, bury the dead, and await my decision," said Kobra.  "Is it known where the Batman and his party were headed?"

"Some who served in the hangar deck area, Lord Naja-Naja, said that the devils mentioned Markovia."

"I see," said Kobra.  "As I said: await my decision."

"Oh yes, most wise Lord Naja-Naja," the Cultist verbally grovelled.  "Oh, yes--"

Kobra cut him off in mid-obeisance.  He barely noticed Eve, who was lying warily at the outer edge of the bed.  It was not, he told himself, much beyond what he had expected.  He knew that, given what he had seen, the Outsiders would free themselves.  But a hundred of his own men?

Even he did not think that the samurai-woman could have taken so many.  The lava flow was Geo-Force's work, to be certain.

Well.  What next?  Intervene personally by teleporting to Markovia, a difficult thing given the distance?

No.  Either Light succeeded, or he failed.  If the latter, he would die, and other black-hole machines could be built.  If the former, he would still die, but the message Kobra had prepared would be broadcast shortly thereafter, and the world would be his, or face destruction.

However, there was still a stroke to be played in Gotham City.

The woman he had been paid to kill was still alive, barely.  He could make certain of such, and see those of the Batman's household who surrounded her killed as well.  What would the Batman come home to then?

Of course, it would cause the insipid Justice League to vow further vengeance on him, which, in their terms, meant just physically punishing him a bit and turning him over to whatever authorities they preferred.  But he had avoided them for years, now, and could do so for as long as he wished.

Batman would be enraged, a titan of vengeance, but made reckless, and more easily dealt with.  Especially if a trap were laid at the same time.  Of course, the shock might well break him, and that would be even more delicious.

The choice was there. The dice must be thrown.

He decided, regretfully, that a general must sometimes delegate responsibility to his men. And pray he had made the right selection of people.

Kobra selected a third frequency, and then spoke again.

"Strike Force Three," he said.  "Prepare an assault on Wayne Manor."

 -B-

The Justice Leaguers were very intent on examining every cog of the great atomic accelerator tunnel, it appeared to the Markovian government men.  At each step of the way, one of them, either the Wonder Woman or the Hawkman or the one who had a head of fire or the green man or someone else would stop and ask for a complex explanation of what this or that component did.  Dr. Jace seemed a bit perturbed, but would usually smile and nod to one of the scientists who accompanied her.  "I'm sure he can tell you about that," she would say.  And he did.

When one or the other of them offered an autograph to one of the dignitaries, another would say, "Hey, you aren't going to settle for just one of us?"  Or words to that effect.  And the paper would be passed around till it was covered with signatures, like a prize soccer ball with the names of an entire team on it.  Truly, the Leaguers were gregarious to a fault.

King Gregor was flattered by the chance to be accompanied by the likes of Superman and Wonder Woman, who were only too happy to provide him with what Brion called "war stories" of their exploits.  At the same time, he noted that, more than once, a glance seemed to pass between those heroes, and he wondered if more was in the air than he perceived.

He also wished that Brion could have managed to make it, along with Batman and the rest of the Outsiders.  But he understood the reason why.  The caped man was searching for the one who had harmed his friend, the Catwoman.  Under the circumstances, it was hard to understand why the Justice League had not accompanied them.  But he was sure the Batman could handle such things himself, with his own team.  After all, they had done well enough in Markovia, several times.

Dr. Jace was appearing a bit impatient, despite herself.  "Now, I think we can retire to the observation area and begin the test, if you agree, King Gregor."

Gregor, flanked by his guards, said, "Well, if Dr. Jace insists--"

Aquaman, who was spraying himself with water from a plastic bottle, raised his other hand.  "Just a moment, King Gregor.  I'm a former monarch myself, and I wouldn't think of asking Dr. Jace to perform the test without showing our appreciation for what she and her crew have done.  In fact, I insist on it."

"You insist on--" began Gregor, looking at the amphbious hero in confusion.  Dr. Jace looked apoplectic.

"Why, I insist that Dr. Jace be treated to a meal with us at the finest restaurant nearby," said Aquaman.  "The League can pay for it, and we'll accompany her.  And the rest of her staff, as well.  And Your Majesty and his party, of course.  What do you say?"

Superman sidled up beside Aquaman.  "Arthur, that's a great idea.  I know we've just had lunch, but I think the rest of you can put away some more coffee and cake.  It's a great way to show our appreciation of Dr. Jace, after all."

Dr. Jace said, "But--the test--"

Wonder Woman said, "Oh, don't worry, dear.  The test can wait.  For my part, I can put away a lot more than coffee and cake.  What about some of that stuffed lamb's stomach your area boasts?  I haven't had any yet, and I'm dying to."

Black Canary nodded in agreement.  "Me, too, Princess.  And Green Arrow has just insisted that I get the recipe for it.  Haven't you, hon'?"

The archer's jaw seemed to veer floorward for a moment, but he corrected its course.  Or so it seemed to the king, at least.  "Oh, you know it, Pretty Bird.  Ain't nothing this archer looks forward to after a tough night in Star City than--" He swallowed.  "--stuffed lamb's stomach."

King Gregor looked at his entourage.  "Well, it is a bit irregular," he admitted.  "But, if you all insist--"

The green man from Mars stepped directly in front of him.  "We do, King Gregor," he said, without smiling.  "We absolutely do."

The king turned to one of his advisors.  "Call Misha's and tell him we're coming."

Dr. Jace didn't look any too pleased at getting a free lunch.  Some people, Gregor decided, knew nothing of gratitude.

 -B-
Dr. Dundee knew when he entered the room that he was in a chamber of death.

The woman was comatose, surrounded by so many of Bruce's friends, but not by Bruce.  Damn him.  Even though he was the Batman, damn him.

"She needs to be in a hospital," said Dundee.  "Let me call for an ambulance."

Alfred looked as though he was back in World War II, but his gaze was steely.  "No, sir."

"Alfred!"

The others in the room, Helena, Dick, Barbara, Jason, and Karl (Betty was outside with Daphne and Julia), shifted their attention from Selina to the doctor and the butler.

Alfred stood his ground.  "We have all the medical equipment you could require in the Batcave, Doctor.  Mistress Selina wished to remain here, and we will honor her wishes."

"You do not have the trained personnel," Dundee snapped.  "Being a combat medic is not the same thing as being a doctor, or a specialist.  We have facilities that your blasted Batcave doesn't contain.  The matter is settled, Alfred, I'm calling for an ambulance."

"Doctor." Alfred's hand went about Dundee's arm, and the doctor was amazed at how much power the old man had.  "Examine her first, and then see if a hospital stay would do her any good."

"Let go of my arm, please," said Dundee.

"Let him go, Alfred," said Grayson.  "Doctor, the reason she's here is because, first, she wanted to be here, even at the end, and second, when Bruce gets back from the mission, the first place he's going to come is here.  With the antidote."

"If there is one," Dundee asserted.

"There is one!" said Helena, raising a tearful face from Selina's breast.  "Don't let me hear you say there isn't!"

Dick Grayson the Elder continued, "He'll be coming here, and I can't guarantee we can contact him on the way back to tell him Selina will be at Gotham General.  The delay might be critical.  If Batman gets the antidote, he'll be coming back here."

Dundee finally got Alfred to let go of his arm.  "Let me take a look at her.  And if you've got blood analysis equipment in the Batcave, get it ready."

Reluctantly, the Bat-Squad members separated themselves from Selina.  Dr. Dundee made his examination, took a blood sample, and had Barbara and Jason run it down to the Batcave for analysis.  He took a vial from his bag (sometimes his colleagues kidded him about acting like a house-calls doctor, but it came in handy) and administered a stimulant to Selina.  Then he read her vital signs again.

As if the stench of her sweat wasn't enough indication already.

The phone by her bedside lit up on a button which indicated it was an in-house call.  Alfred took it, then handed the receiver to Dundee.  The physician spoke briefly: "Yes?  You're sure of that.  All right. Thank you."  Then he gave it back to Alfred, who hung up the phone again.

Karl Kyle broke the silence.  "Well?"

"Well," Dundee said, "I still think she should be in Gotham General. But I don't know that we could do a hell of a lot more for her there.  I'll stay.  Was Selina a member of a church?"

Alfred said, "She attended First Episcopal with Bruce, Doctor.  The minister assures me that he and a goodly number of his congregation have been offering prayers in their behalf."

"Good.  That's probably the only thing that's been keeping her going this long."  He paused.  "It's going to look very bad for Bruce when the news people report that he wasn't here when the...if something should happen."

"I am well aware of that, Doctor," Alfred said, stiffly.

"It's going to look even worse if Selina dies at home, not at a hospital."

Alfred sighed.  "On that, I agree with you.  But the master is her only hope now."

"Him and God, I suppose.  I need to call in some personnel.  Don't give me any arguments about it."

"As long as you keep the true nature of our...family...concealed, sir."

Dundee said, "I've kept it this long, Alfred, and I'll take it to the grave."  He moved to the telephone.

Alfred leaned against a wall and closed his eyes.  The master was so good with last-minute rescues.  But he was half a world away now, and still, apparently, without the antidote.

Perhaps this time, the rescue would be just a minute too late.

 -B-

The air controllers at Markovia's National Airport had barely gotten over the experience of handling the JLA planes when the call came in from two Outsiders craft.  The voice they heard was that of Prince Brion himself, demanding that their arrival be kept secret.  It was, the prince stated, "a national emergency and a life-and-death matter."  So, inasmuch as secrecy could be maintained, it was.  And the two Batplanes landed not very long after that.

Batman, Black Lightning, Metamorpho, Katana, Element Girl, Plastic Man, the Creeper, Geo-Force, Halo, Looker, King Faraday, and Talia left on the run.  They were followed in short order by Nightwing, Kole, Jericho, Wonder Girl, Changeling, Cyborg, Starfire, Raven, and Kid Flash.  There was some nonsense about registration at the airport.  Brion unmasked, waved his ID card, and got them through.  Guards held back the onlookers as best they could.  The heroes charged through.

Once out of the front doors, Halo, Raven, Changeling (as a bird), Geo-Force, and Starfire lifted off and Looker levitated herself and the others.  It was getting to be somewhat of a strain, but she just didn't have time to consider how much.  Batman praised her verbally, trying to keep her spirits and endurance up.  Geo-Force helped with as much anti-gravity as he could lend her, and the load was eased somewhat.

The Markovians walking the streets of the nation's capital looked up and gaped at the aerial parade of 21 heroes.  Some managed to snap pictures, and an enterprising newshound got some footage from his videocamera.  A lot of people waved, and cops tried to survey crowds to make sure nobody tried a potshot.

The Outsiders and Titans didn't give a damn about any of that.  As quickly as they could get there, they were headed for the atomic accelerator.

The problem was that not everybody who saw them was a good guy.  One of Kobra's agents was in the city, saw the flying men and women, and stepped into an alleyway.  He activated a communicator, and spoke two words into it: "Start now!"

Those words were transmitted to a small receiver in an earring worn by Clayface and a plug in Dr. Light's ear.  Jace hesitated, then tried to look casual to her audience of heroes.  "And over here, you'll find this feature," she said, pointing to some of the pumps that served to cool down a core element.

With the Justice League heroes' attention drawn to it, she made a quick sprint.  To the astonishment of the king and his attendants, the woman's arm snaked out like a spring and reached for a lever on a control panel.

Before she could reach it, a black-gloved hand on an arm even longer than her own grabbed her wrist and held it back.  "You're good, honey, but I invented these tricks," said the Elongated Man.

Superman moved to take her.  Immediately, Helen Jace's form reverted to the brown, molten-looking woman-form of the fourth Clayface.  She turned one hand into goo and splotched Ralph Dibny in the face with it, then altered her form to that of a snake and slithered out of his grasp.  Green Lantern's ring shot out a beam that formed a solid container about the snake-woman.  Changing her hue to yellow, she penetrated it like air.

Then five Kryptonian fingers grasped her just behind the head and held firm.  She tried thinning her neck, but the grip held fast.  They were soon joined by the hands of J'onn J'onzz and Wonder Woman, and Zatanna spoke a quick spell: "namoW emoceb dezylarap."  The yellow-snake Clayface found herself unable to move.

Wonder Woman encircled Clayface with her lasso.  "I command you to remain immobile, but be able to speak," she said.  "Go ahead and release the spell, Zatanna."

"lleps eb dellecnac," said the sorceress.  Suplerman and J'onn J'onzz released their grips.

"You fools," snapped Clayface, struggling to make her altered voicebox function.

"Regain your normal form," ordered Wonder Woman.  The snake-woman quickly reshaped herself to Clayfacehood.

Firestorm stepped up, his hands aglow.  "If she's under wraps, gang, is it okay for me to tear this thing apart?  Please say yes."

King Gregor looked on with horror.  "What are you saying?  Why do you want to destroy the accelerator?  Is it defective?  And what is this...this thing?"

Superman brushed the monarch aside, stepping towards the accelerator.  "It's defective, all right.  We'll tell you about it later."  He raised his fists to strike at the metallic surface before him.

He was thrown back on his cape.

A hum of surging energy came from the accelerator.  Green Lantern unleashed his beam to attempt to contain it, Firestorm shot forth energy bolts from his hands, Zatanna spoke another backwards spell.  Nothing seemed very effective, and a field of purple was imposed between them and the machine.  J'onn J'onzz hurtled towards it with all his Martian might and bounced off as quickly as had Superman.

"Let me go," pleaded Clayface.  "I've got to activate my force-field device.  I'll be killed with the rest of you!"

Wonder Woman held fast to her lasso.  "How did you start that thing?  And how do we shut it down?"

"I didn't start it," the metamorph answered.  "Dr. Light did.  He's inside the thing.  And as for shutting it down...you don't!"

Aquaman, the Hawkpeople, Green Arrow, Black Canary and the rest were hustling the king, his aides, and the scientists on hand out of the area, as if that would be much of any help. But their action was stopped by the arrival of a yellow-and-red bullet a full three seconds ahead of the others, who piled through the doorway until Metamorpho turned himself into a giant maul and smashed through it to enlarge it for the rest.

The Outsiders and the Titans had arrived, and even in the large room which displayed part of the miles-long accelerator, it made for a hellacious crowd.

Superman took in the new arrivals with a glance.  "Batman, it's on," he rapped.

"Cut the power lines," ordered Batman.

One of the scientists still in the building exclaimed, "Of no use!  The power source is within the unit itself.  The reaction has begun."

King Faraday looked at Batman.  "If I remember right, Kobra said somethin' about this whole nation gettin' atomized by somethin' like a black hole.  Should we--"

Batman was already giving orders.  "Lantern, Firestorm, Zatanna: use your powers to set up barriers.  Hold that thing in.  Kal!  J'onn!  See if your powers can somehow contain it.  Halo, Looker: Reinforce them.  Kole, I need a buffer barrier of crystals.  Geo...Brion...I've got something for you to do."

"What, friend Batman?" asked Geo-Force, desperately.  "What?"

"I want Firestorm to provide you with a force-shield and Zatanna to teleport you inside, with a power pipeline to him.  The energy of this thing is dedicated to tearing matter apart, into its primary atoms.  I want you to hold the thing together, from the center.  If you can't...nothing will stop it."

"Send me in," barked Brion.  "Now!"

Firestorm, already taxed against the purple force-field of the device, said, "Batman, can't we just teleport him or me in there and have us smash the machine?  Wouldn't that work?"

"No, ‘Storm," said Batman.  "The reaction is independent of the machine by now.  We've got to contain this thing ourselves.  Do as I say!"

The hero with the fiery head stretched one hand out towards Geo-Force and sent forth a stream of power that surrounded him.  Prince Brion of Markovia looked towards his brother.  "Farewell," he said.

King Gregor tried to go to him, but Green Arrow held him back.  "Nix, King.  Not until afterward," he said.

"tropeleT ecroF-oeG onti enihcam," said Zatanna, her hands upraised, using the backwards-speech as a focusing device.  Before the eyes of heroes and civilians, the green-and-gold-costumed man vanished.

King Gregor was certain he was going mad.  He had seen marvels with the Outsiders, but nothing quite like this.  He turned to Green Arrow and Black Lightning, who was standing beside the archer, and managed to form words.  "Do you...does this happen all the time?"

"Only when we have to," said Jeff Pierce.

 -B-

Without, Superman, the Martian Manhunter, the Red Tornado, and Kid Flash sped about the surging force streaming from the three miles of accelerator track, barely held in by the powers of Green Lantern, Firestorm, and Zatanna.  The image of the Flash turning into a skeleton occurred to Wally West. Then he put it out of his mind, and kept running.

Within, Geo-Force, the former king of the nation of Markovia, found himself surrounded by metallic walls, barely visible circuitry, and energy.  So much energy that he was almost blinded.  He gasped, which wasted a precious second.  Then he flung both arms out, planted his feet, and drew upon the powers of the Earth.

The force of gravity was his, as were abilties related to its mass and magnetic field.  These were instilled in him by the real Dr. Helen Jace, and these powers were now to receive their severest test.  They were to counter this reaction, and to save the entire nation.

No.  If Kobra succeeded, the very world would be at stake.  There was no room for failure.

He exerted his power, pulling back towards him the gravitic and atomic forces that sought to tear matter asunder.  He felt the pull of Kobra's device.  It was incredible, like an atomic bomb unleashed in a broom closet.  Geo-Force strained, his arms still spread wide and trembling, his forehead beginning to drip with sweat.

Without, Batman said to Raven, "Can you somehow contain this?  Do your powers work like that?"

Nightwing snapped, "Batman, she can send things like weapons into other planes, but this might be even beyond her."

"I will try," the young empath said, in a voice that sounded deeper than the last time Batman had met her.  With that, the blackness enveloped her in the form of a great black bird, and she was gone.

"Halo, Looker, GL, Firestorm," said Batman.  "Zatanna.  You're the power manipulators here.  Can you feed some juice to Geo-Force, and still keep the barrier going?"

"Gee, Batman, I don't know," said Halo, her glowing hands still maintaining an aura encircling part of the accelerator-field.  "But I'll do my very best."

Katana stood beside her.  "In as much as I can, Halo, I offer support.  One moment."  Talia was trying to get near Batman.  The Japanese woman stepped towards her, grabbed her by the wrist, and dragged her over towards Halo.

"Let me go," demanded Talia.  "I can do no good in this situation."

"True," agreed Tatsu. "And while I am holding you thus, you can do no bad."

"You've already--got my answer, Batman," said Looker, a trifle breathily.  He nodded, and she bent her mind to the task.

Green Lantern and Firestorm gave their consent, and a stream of power was diverted from the heroes towards Ronnie, who was still maintaining a link with Geo-Force.  Magic, psionic powers, green energy, and more, all of them flowing in a tight stream towards the Markovian hero.

The professor who was the silent partner in Firestorm's existence, Martin Stein, sent a telepathic message to Ronnie. <This may be too much for Geo-Force,> Stein sent. <Have you considered that it may be like overpowering a circuit?  It might destroy him.>

<It might,> replied Firestorm. <Can you help us monitor his flux?  I can help regulate his intake if you'll keep me informed.>

<I'll try,> Stein thought.  With that, his psychic self stretched from Firestorm through the hell of purple power, along the lifeline of energy stretching to Geo-Force himself.  Gently, he felt of the straining hero's aura and levels of power.

<Ease the flow a little,> sent Professor Stein, thinking that Geo-Force was overexerted.  Firestorm obliged, choking back a little on his power supply.

At that, Geo-Force felt himself yanked in a million directions, as though his body would discorporate.  Stein psi-yelled: <Pump it!  Pump it!  NOW!> Obligingly, Firestorm opened the tap, and Geo's energy pounded up towards levels sufficient to let him hold his own again.

The nuclear boy felt Batman's hand on his shoulder.  "Can you tell me what's going on in there?"

Firestorm sighed.  "More or less.  We had a slight problem, but now he's maintaining."

"Can he reverse the course of the reaction yet?"

"No," said Ronnie.  "No way.  It's all he can do to keep it where it is."

Nightwing said, "I've got something, Batman.  A plan, that is."

The guardian of Gotham looked at him.  "What?"

"Risky business.  Very risky. But probably the only chance we'll have."

"Don't stall, tell me."

"Okay," said the New Titan.  "For a moment, we get the power people to drop the barrier, and concentrate all their power through Geo-Force.  Literally, give him everything they've got.  If he doesn't overload, maybe he can draw the energy back, and contain it."

"All right," said Batman.  "But for how long?"

"Just long enough for us to link him with Raven, and for him to shove the energy through her and for her to shunt it ‘elsewhere'.  If it doesn't work, we're dead.  But if we don't try it, we're probably dead in less than half an hour.  And, Batman..."  Dick's voice became low.  "...Bruce.  We've still got to save Selina."

For a moment, Batman stiffened and Nightwing was ready to dodge a blow.  Then his old friend returned to his normal grimness.

"Give it a try," said Batman.

Looker sent a telepathic message to Geo-Force. <Brion, luv, are you there?>

<Still here, Lia,> replied Geo-Force, not relenting in his power-use. <I have no choice. What is it?>

<We're going to try and hype you with everything we've got,> she sent. <You've got to take it all, and use it to draw the reaction within you.  Then we'll set up a conduit to that Raven girl and you can pass it along to her.  She'll deal with it.>

<All of this untried,> he grunted. <All of this hypothetical.  And all of this in here about to yank my limbs out of their sockets.>

<You don't want to try it?>

<I want to try it immediately,> he said. <And if we live through this, Lia-->

<Don't, Brion,> she warned. <Let's wait for ‘after', okay?  If there's an after.>

<All right,> he replied. <Tell me when you will begin.>

<NOW,> Looker sent.

And with that, the powers of Green Lantern, Looker, Halo, Firestorm, and Zatanna were yanked from maintaining a force-barrier against the energy reaction and poured into the line linking Firestorm with Geo-Force.

For a second, the purple aura seemed to leap out at those around it. The Creeper responded by jumping backwards, and found himself landing on a red-and-yellow easy chair.  "Sit back and enjoy it," said Plastic Man.

"Enjoy this?  Are you kidding?"

"May as well get comfortable," said the Stretchable Sleuth, raising part of his corpus  to prop up the Creeper's feet.

The purpleness bulged outward like a giant balloon about to burst.  Katana stood her ground until it got too close even for her, then backed up a bit.  She was still holding Talia's wrist.

Metamorpho and Element Girl formed themselves into a metal barrier between the energy and the others, and Kole, raising one hand, spewed forth a stream of hardening crystals that reinforced their surface.  Jericho, beside her, saw the signs of strain on her, and wondered what good his possession-power was in such an instance.

Changeling, in his Gar Logan form, stood beside Cyborg.  "Think this one'll work, Vic?" the green youth asked, tensely.

"Don't ask me, Gar," said the half-metal Titan.  "Try Geo or Raven.  After they're done."

"Keep tight, little brother," advised Black Lightning.  "Just hold on for another few minutes."

Wonder Woman and Wonder Girl joined hands and hoped that Aphrodite was listening to their supplications.   Black Canary, Green Arrow, and Speedy stood together.  Steel was by himself, until Aquaman and the Elongated Man joined him, quietly.

They waited for what was to come.

Geo-Force gasped in agony.  The power that fed into him was unbelievable.  He was boosted beyond the limits of Superman, it seemed.  He could hardly manipulate it.  It was getting away from him.

He felt another presence in his mind, beyond that of Looker.  It sent something to him. <Geo-Force, this is Professor Stein.  The other half of Firestorm.  Can you receive me?>

<I can...I can...> was all that Geo-Force could transmit.

<I'm in here, too, Geo,> came another sending. <This is Jericho.  Am I coming through?>

<Yes,> thought Brion. <What...>

<We're going to link up with you,> sent Stein. <We're going to help you bear the load.  But you've got to drive it.  It's your only chance.>

<Then...prepare yourselves,> thought the straining Outsider. <For...I must use my powers...now!>

The two newcomers barely had time to link with Brion before the latter gathered his power, both innate and borrowed, and used it, screaming.

Outside, the many heroes watched the purple aura.  It was on the brink of bursting forth, engulfing them all, and all of Markovia as well, and anything else in its path till its force was spent.

Batman felt Dick's hand on his shoulder.  He had felt it so many times, he could gauge it as Dick's even without turning.  In response, he put his own arm around the man who, for so many years, had virtually been his son.  Starfire came to stand on Dick's other side, both of them hugging each other with one arm.

And, as the family they were, they faced the fury before them.

There was another surge.  Metamorpho and Element Girl flowed over the barrier of crystals, resuming their humanoid forms on the other side.  Even they could not stand before the vortex.

Then...

Nightwing sucked in a breath.  "Batman.  Is that thing pulling back?"

"Hold on, Dick," said Batman.  "Just hold on."

Starfire leaned forward, not relinquishing her grip on her husband.  "It is.  Just a bit, darling, but...it's receding!"

Bit by bit, then rapidly, the force of atomic separation began to retreat.  It was obvious to all, Justice Leaguers, Titans, Outsiders, King Gregor, Clayface, and all the others.  It was being sucked back like air into a vacuum.

The velocity increased.  The heroes who fed their power to Geo-Force concentrated their efforts.  Some could barely manage to stand, and others came to support them.  Those who observed, for the most part, were silent.

And finally...

There was no purple aura visible.  Just a white-hot atomic tunnel and fused controls.

"Don't get near it!" called Batman.  "Firestorm..."

"I'm...already linking," grated Firestorm.

Geo-Force was unable to stand, within the tunnel's confines.  He sat, and then lay back, and felt as though a TNT charge had exploded within his chest and he was having to hold it inside with his bare hands.

Looker's mental voice came to him.

<You're linked with Raven,> she sent. <Do it now!>

And, sensing the new linkage, he did.

The power of the Kobra device surged through his hands and into the invisible channel, out through the roof of the building, through the air to the hovering figure of Raven.  She was blackly glowing in her spirit-form, opening an aperture to another plane of existence which, she hoped, would be able to deal with the energies she would be transmitting.

The power hit her like a high-test electrical load sent to somebody holding a cable while standing in a river.  She cried out in pain.  But she refused to fail.

She held the edges of her spirit-self away from the destructive energies as they coursed into another space.  Raven spread herself further, to her full extent, to accomodate the stream.

The people of Markovia looked up, saw a huge glowing bird in the evening sky, and crossed themselves, fell on their knees, and prayed.

The purple force continued upward and through her for five minutes more.  She taxed herself to the utmost.  It was as if she had to heal the Supergirls over again, almost.  But the daughter of Trigon refused to quit.

Finally, the last of it schussed up and through her.  With that, she closed the hole to the other world, compressed herself again, found she had no power to maintain her dark-self, and, as a human, began to fall out of the sky.

Two pair of hands caught her.  One set was pinkish, the other green.

"It's okay, Raven," said Superman.  "We've got you."

But she was unconscious as he and J'onn J'onzz flew her back.

Once inside, the two heroes saw Green Lantern using a great buzzsaw created by his beam to cut into the metal of the accelerator.  Looker had told him already that Brion was all right, but spent.  Seconds later, a green hand dragged Geo-Force from the wreckage.  The Outsider's green-and-gold uniform was stained through and through by sweat.

King Gregor was the first to embrace him.  "Brion, Brion," he said, shaking his brother.  "You have done it again.  You have saved Markovia!"

Brion couldn't even raise his head.  "Make sure...it doesn't need it again...very soon," he muttered.

The Batman was at his comrade's side.  "Geo-Force," he said, simply.  "Well done."  And he grasped Brion Markov's hand.  The other squeezed Batman's hand, weakly but firmly.

The others were cheering.  The Creeper was doing a backflip somersault off of a Plastic Man trampoline.  Batman raised his voice and spoke one word: "Wait."

They subsided.

"I need someone to teleport me to Gotham City," he said.  "I need to save Selina.  And I'm going after Kobra."

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