by DarkMark and Dannell Lites
"This is my son," said Superman to the members of the United World. "This is my successor. This is the new Superman."
There was applause, hands banging together in syncopation, as the delegates from all the nations of Earth rose to their feet. Some huzzahs were heard, along with accolades in several languages. Despite Commonspeak, most members of the UW reverted to their native tongues when they had a chance to.
Alan Kent stepped forward. He tried not to look nervous, hoped his actor's training stood him in good stead. The thought crossed his mind: What if they recognize me from my holovid show? What if they say, "Oh, there's the guy who played Tab Hunter, Time Master"? What kind of secret identity will I have after that?
Then he remembered what a public life Superman I had as TV newscaster Clark Kent, and hoped that luck would hold for him, as well.
The 21st Superman had the floor to himself, now. The holocameras were pointed his way. This would be his supreme role, and he wasn't even being paid for it. Well, that was par for the course, in his life.
Klar had given him instruction on how to alter his voice when speaking as Superman. He reverted to that voice now--a bit higher in tone than his usual mode--and spoke.
"Delegates of the United World. My father. My family. Those of you who watch us on holovid. I come to you now as the inheritor of a great tradition, which--goes without saying--"
Klar stood behind him, arms folded, as impassive as a rabbi at a kid's bar mitzvah.
"--but I also come to you as myself. A man. Only one man, even if that man is a Superman. I realize the weight of the mantle which has been placed upon my shoulders. I can only hope that I will measure up. This is a job for which it's very hard to train."
Some laughter. Alan smiled, and went on.
"On the other hand, it's even harder to apply."
Now just about everyone laughed, and Alan, stealing a look back at his dad, saw a grin on his face as well. He continued.
"I might not have asked for a greater predecessor in this role than my father. For he upheld the role originated by our great ancestor Kal-El, the first man to wear such a costume. Though the burden was heavy, his shoulders were great enough to bear it. And sometimes, the burden was of such magnitude, I know, that it would have broken the back of Atlas. In all of this--in his great battles against Muto and Chaos 5, in his halting the war between Thanagar and Sirius 3, and all the others--he was a Superman. A true Superman.
"Today I face challenges similar in many ways, but also unique in themselves. I must beg your indulgences, for my first attempts will be that of the child learning to walk, falling down time and again, but getting up after each fall. Sometimes I will succeed. Sometimes I will fail. But as long as I wear the cape, I promise you to do it honor. To serve, and to protect. And to uphold the ancient oath of Truth, Justice, and the Terran and Kryptonian Way!"
This last was delivered with the true fervor of an actor behind it, ringing throughout the great chamber. That, and his expression of resolution, brought the delegates to their feet again in a new round of applause that outdid the last one.
Alan thought to himself, I could almost get to enjoy this. Almost.
Bron Wayn snapped off the holovid. Ceremonies. Passings-on of torches. They sickened him. All too often, the cape of the Batman had been passed on by a father's death. That happened for Bruce Wayne, 500 years ago. It had happened to him in his youth.
No more, he thought. I am the last. No more to take my cloak and cowl, no more to try and be Gotham's dark bulwark against lawbreakers. Leave that to the gadjo cops.
Then, will you take the life of Aelfric, Bron Wayn? Will you play God, as you play Batman?
Eye for eye. Tooth for tooth. Life for life.
Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord...
Yet who is the tool of the Lord's vengeance? If guilt cannot be proven in court, does it not fall to the wronged to ensure justice? Is justice not just society's vengeance?
Bruce Wayne. Bruce Wayne did not kill Joseph Chill, only revealed his identity to him, or so the legend goes, and Chill's own men killed him. Convienient. Also damnably stupid. If Chill had lived long enough, he could have spilled Batman I's identity to all of his gang.
Batman I was lucky.
Can't count much on luck.
Superman. Great heaven and hell, Superman thought he had it tough, what with two kids and a wife and a greater extended family to ride herd on. But he never saw his parents die. Never saw the Joker murder his father.
The Joker. Scion of the first Joker, just using skinmask on face and hair coloring to make himself look like the first one. Why in the thrice-damned hell had so many generations felt compelled to play out the scenario the first one started, 500 years ago? True, not so many Jokers as there were Batmen and Supermen. But the latest generation had died, when the Joker
(son of Aelfric)
had fought him on a tower during a thunderstorm
(son of Aelfric the killer)
and picked up a lightning attractor, not knowing what it was, and tried to bludgeon Batman with it
(son of Aelfric the Batman-killer)
and died when a bolt of lightning had struck it.
(son of Aelfric, Aelfric who KILLED YOUR FATHER)
The son of the man who was your butler. A good butler. A gentleman's gentleman, like...the legendary Alfred.
Except that Aelfric knew when you'd be gone. He knew when you'd be out on patrol, as Batman. He knew everything he had to about you, and then some.
Why didn't he kill you when your guard was down? When you came back from battle, wounded, bleeding, why did he patch you up, give you airinjections of healing drugs, instead of letting you bleed to death or giving you poison?
Was it just that he played by different roles when not in his Joker mask? That he felt it was not honorable to take the life of his greatest enemy, or his greatest enemy's son, when that son was not facing the Joker?
Split personality? Perhaps.
One had to be sure. In matters of vengeance this grave, one had to be sure.
(Father's blood cries out to you, seek vengeance my son)
(SHUT UP, BLOOD)
Aelfric would have to be mindprobed. But how to do it? How to do it? Worse, how to play the game with Aelfric, of pretending to be retainer to faithful butler, when one knew (or suspected, hightly, highly suspected) that the man had...
(leave the damnable memory alone for right now)
(no, leave it in a place where you can easily find it)
And then what? And then what?
And then, he was sure he would find a way.
Bron Wayn's hand passed over a control sensor in a certain manner. Obligingly, the servos turned on the holovid projector. A series of light beams stabbed down from a transmission disk in the ceiling to a receptor in the floor. Between them, a 3-D hologram took shape from one of the great vidnets. He needed something to take his mind off the present matter
(matter of Aelfric)
and it was on an all-news channel. Live event, so the corner button said.
Two Supermen were at the United World. The young one was making a speech.
"...To serve, and to protect. And to uphold the ancient oath of Truth, Justice, and the Terran and Kryptonian Way!"
Applause. The young one had been making the speech. Bron squinted at the holo. No doubt about it, this one was Alan. Klar's actor son.
"Beginning of segment," said Bron. "Go."
Obediently, the holo began at the start of the broadcast of the Superman ceremony. It was not unlike the one Klar had undergone himself, as Bron recalled, except Klar's father had not come to that one.
A door opened behind him. A voice.
"Sir, you haven't input your choices for dinner tonight and I will not see you off to patrol tonight with only a foodpatch. Now, come. What would you like?"
Bron turned his head and became an actor before his profile faced Aelfric. "Chicken Kiev, Aelfric. Use the autopounder on the breasts, but handstuff the butter and spices. And please roll the breadcrumbs yourself."
"It will take time, sir." Aelfric's visage was friendly, yet knowing. The Good Servant.
"I can wait, Aelfric."
"Very good, sir." The butler withdrew.
Bron Wayn slammed his fist through the holocast into the wall beyond.
Aelfric popped his head through the door again. "Sir!"
The butler saw eyes full of fury as his employer turned to him again. "It's his son, Aelfric. I never had a son. That's why I'm angry."
"There is still time, sir."
"As you say, sir." Aelfric withdrew again.
The playback had been halted when Bron stuck his arm through the low-level lasers. No harm to his arm, a little breakage of the wooden paneling beyond. His arm had been sticking right through the simulation of Alan's face, in a closeup.
True. Not enough time.
He wanted to talk to Klar again.
And he wanted to talk to Alan.
The new Superman was making his first patrol of Metropolis.
He'd done it before, as a Superboy. He knew the way of it. Fly at about mid-height of the buildings, most of the time, so that the lowboys and the highboys both could see you. And hopefully be too afraid to pull anything, while the law-abiders waved at you. He waved back.
Some of them, a lot of them, were kids. Some held signs up: DOUBLELUCK, SUPERMAN. BLOCK 344.5 WELCOMES THE NEW MAN OF STEEL. NEW FACE, SAME COSTUME, SAME TRADITION. He wondered what to make of that. SUPERMAN, HELP WITH HOMEWORK!
Actually, he was fighting one hell of a case of stage fright.
He'd talked that out with Dad. Klar Kent had told him, "It's natural. Happens in every job. Until you get used to it, it'll be there. So go out and get used to it."
"I'll try," he said.
"You'll do it," said Klar, in the voice that was as good as crossed fingers for stopping an argument.
But the old man had compromised, without much bargaining, and agreed to introduce him to the United World. Actually, he had been plannng to do that already. His own father hadn't done it for him--"You're the new Superman! Now get out there and do it!"--but he always saw it as a sort of coronation ceremony. Like the legends of King Arthur that had been retold by writer after writer from the Middle Ages on down to the present. Like the Ceremony of the Sun, to which Kryptonian babies were subjected on their christening. That, at least, was what the old man had told him. So the presentation was made, and now he was patrolling.
It seemed like every damned holovid camera crew in town was training finders on him.
After about half an hour, Alan turned in mid-air, hovered, held out his hands, and yelled, "Just a minute!"
They waited. He made sure he had a patient smile on his face.
"I know you folks want to get the feed of my firstflight over town. But you're blocking my job. Every highlife pusher, every banggrabber in town, will know where I am if you keep ‘casting. Doubletrue, or negative?"
The hovering cameras, operated by remote controls, waited.
"Here's what I prop. You back off, put your ‘cast on timeback, at least an hour. Gives me time to job, you get your holos for them to watch later. Otherwise, I do this at super-speed, and you'll never even track me. Am I agreeable?"
A voice came from the small speaker in one camera. "GMBO here. Agreeable."
"FeedSeven agreeable," said another.
"UmbraNet agreeable, Superman must uphold his end bargain," said a third.
"I will," promised Alan. "The rest of you, let's hear it."
On down the line, the voices came from the camera speakers. "Agreeable." "Agreeable." "Agreeable."
Watching from his living room, Lyra beside him, Klar Kent nodded, slightly. The boy was learning. An announcer's voice feed explained what everybody knew. "The new Superman has just negotiated a time-delay ‘cast with ourselves and other pressreps. In keeping with his wishes, we will put this broadcast on timedelay till his maiden patrol is over. We back you to home studios, now."
The face of a well-known holonews host filled the space, and Klar said, "Off." The lightbeams immediately faded.
Lyra put her arm around his neck. "You aren't going to watch until the timedelay, dear?"
Klar smiled, briefly, at her. "Don't need to. I'll watch him from here." His eyes focused the way they did when he was using his super-vision, as Lyra knew. She couldn't imagine what it was like to see through substances, or across cities, continents, or even planets with nothing but your natural eyepower. Well, it was hard to imagine having the strength to lift mountains, too, but that was another deal altogether.
Her husband looked a bit stern, then sighed and sat back. His eyes went back to normal focus. "What happened, Klar?"
He sighed. "The kid was facing in my direction. Guess he knew I'd be watching. Maybe he was watching, too. Anyway, he mouthed it to me at super-speed. Quote: ‘And that means you, too, Dad!'"
"We'll watch it on the holo when it comes on," she said.
"Guess we'll have to."
Most of what Superman XXI did on his debut flight was fly around. That was all, just fly around. It was a temptation not to use the old X-ray vision, to pretend ‘out of sight, out of mind'. But his father had caught him doing that once on patrol, not perceiving the things the old man had seen through the walls, and gave him a royal trunks-chewing when they got home. So, reluctantly, Alan scanned the buildings as he went by.
It was mainly routine stuff. He felt like a peeping Tom, really. People were doing the stuff of Life, catching up on late work, watching the holo, sleeping, answering nature's call, answering nature's stimuli if they were lucky.
I'm a cop, he thought. A cop on a beat.
But it wasn't his super-vision that alerted him to what came next. It was his hearing.
He heard the sound of a woman crying out in pain. A "No, stop!".
Even the cameras couldn't catch up to him this time.
The site of the action was an unpleasant apartment about 80 per cent of the way up a hightower. Superman cursed himself that he heard the sound of another blow fall before he could vibrate through the wall...a trick the family, he knew, learned from the ancient Flash. He eased his vibrations and regained solidity, and visibility, inside.
A husband, crazed with nothing more than emotion and testosterone, was using his belt on his wife. She was cut pretty badly from the buckle on it. Alan guessed it had been sharpened.
The two of them barely had time to register the sight of the colorful figure standing there, a grim expression on his face, before the man was in motion. Three steps put him within reaching distance of the man with the belt. Superman drew his hand back and, gently, swatted him with the back of it.
The man recoiled from it, bounced off the wall, and sat down, clutching his face in one hand and the back of his head with the other.
"Now do you know what it feels like?" he said, standing over the man, quietly.
The husband tried to say something, but words wouldn't come from his mouth. The woman cowered behind the caped invader.
"Do you know what it feels like?" said Superman, a bit more loudly this time.
"Yes," gasped the man. Then, louder, "Yes! Please, oh, God, don't hit me again!"
Alan pointed at him. "Get on the com to the police. Turn yourself in. NOW." The man shivered.
He picked himself up and rushed into the other room. A touch of super-hearing told Alan that the man was activating his comlink, and it was to the police.
Superman turned to the woman. "You're coming with me."
"No," she said, fearfully. "No, I...just no."
"I'm not going to hurt you," he said, holding out his hand. "Just going to take you to a shieldhouse. They'll keep you safe from him."
"I don't, don't want to..."
Great, Superman, he thought. How would you feel in her place? In the middle of getting a beating, somebody walks through your wall and bashes your husband. You don't know him from Adam...or even Alan. What do you think she sees you as?
But that didn't matter as much as helping her. "I am Superman," he said. "I do things like this. Come with me."
With that, he scooped her up, hearing her protests, went to the window, thumbed it open, and shot forth into the skies of Metropolis. She screamed. He managed to turn her head towards his chest and said, "Don't look. I'm not going to drop you. You'll be just fine."
She threw up on his shirt.
The cameras had caught him bringing the woman into the shieldhouse, which meant that she'd have to be transferred to another shieldhouse and, most likely, given a disguise. It also meant that her husband would be the most famous wife-beater in Metropolis, maybe the world, for the next year. He burned the puke off his uniform with his heat vision and accepted a handshake from the woman who ran the place for the city. After one brief picture was taken with her and her staff, Superman XXI launched himself into the sky again.
He'd thought about saying, "Up, up, and away!", but decided that was just too, too retro.
There were other events that night. He saved a brainbanger from overdosing on dreampatch and got him to a hospital. He foiled a small robbery attempt by some of the Elastic Band. In a wetbar on the waterfront, his very presence was enough to halt a big-time brawl. In all of this, he performed the role of Superman.
Small-time stuff, he thought. But hey, even Dad didn't get Muto on his first night.
At the end, he turned, gave the cameras a shot of him standing atop a building looking resolute, and said, "That's it for tonight. Stop transmission. Any disagreement, and you won't get light on me for the next week. Agreement?"
"Agreement," some chorused, and all of them began the trip back to their various service providers.
For a moment, Alan posed there, one foot on the edge of the building roof, looking down at the city. He shook his head in disbelief. This was his city, now. It had been handed to him as if it were a briefcase. Beyond what the police force and the other guardians of society could do, it was in his hands. His.
If anything went wrong, the people of Metropolis would damn him for not being there. Or not being in time. As if he were God, but intended to intervene the way God might not.
As if no responsibility ever lie with Man.
He turned away, sat down on the roof, and was about to sigh heavily and stroke his brow when he knew there was someone there with him. He looked up, with a start.
"Hello, Superman," said Katherine De Kaan.
She was standing there in a blue suit and transparent shoes, looking beautiful. He knew she hadn't used the gravlift to get to the top of the building.
"You shouldn't surprise me like that, Kathish," he said. "This is my first night on the job."
Katherine knelt down and sat cross-legged before him. "From what I saw, you did very well. Can't expect an invasion from Mars II every night, can you?"
He snorted. "I suppose you saw the woman empty all over my shirt."
"Saw me playing peacesoldier with those guys in the bar." He paused. "Big deal."
"It was to some of them," she said, stretching one leg out before her. "There's a few won't need to go home with closed gashes tonight, a bar that won't need repairs, and a bunch of dips who'll say they saw Superman on his first night."
"Yep. Superman on opening night." He hung his arms around his knees. "Think the run'll be very long, Kath?"
"Long as you want it to be, Alanian."
He considered it. "Don't know if I should be pleased or scared by that."
She moved over to sit beside him. "Don't you like anything about being Superman, Alan? Most of the family would fight ten other members to get that suit."
"And then they'd fight fifteen to give it up," he smiled. "No, Kath, I guess it has something to say for itself. It's a role that's been there for, well, five hundred years. They keep telling me that. Almost like I was the Pope in a cape."
Katherine grinned and whacked him playfully on the shoulder.
Alan chuckled. "No, sorry about that. But I don't know. I suppose every Superman has felt like this. Every one of them must have felt like, wow, the whole world's been passed over to me, and I can't let it drop. I'm Atlas, and I don't dare shrug."
"No one expects you to do more than you can, Alan," said Katherine, her arms crossed over her knees. "We all know you have a life. You just work in the Superman thing where you can. Just like Kara worked in Supergirl."
He looked at her. "Ever think you'd want to do that?"
Katherine looked at him, half-gaping, half-serious. "You think I want to do that?"
"Didn't ask you that, Kath. Just asked if you ever thought you'd want to."
She considered, putting a hand to her chin. "When I was a girl, I always wondered what it'd be like. To put on that blue uniform and tie that red cape around my shoulders, and put on those red boots and...fly. To show the whole world that I could fly. I had...oh, this is silly."
"No, it's not." Alan found his arm going about her shoulders, his hand playing with the curl of her hair. She didn't object. "Go ahead."
"I, well, when I was six years old, I had my mother make me a Supergirl costume, and when we were alone, just the family, with nobody else and no spyrays or anything around, I'd just jump into the air, wearing it, and holler, ‘Up, up, and away from me!'" She laughed. He snickered. "And I, oh, I didn't go very far up, not high enough to be visible from a great distance, but it was so much fun. Being a little six-year-old Supergirl. Not to have to fight bad guys, or to show off my strength. Just to be able to fly."
"What did your folks think?"
"My dad tolerated it, but he said I had to drop it by the time I was eight. Mom loved it, but she didn't want me being a Supergirl. She wanted me to grow up without having to risk my life several times a year." Katherine looked down at the roof. "So. That's where it stands. But I still have the costume, locked away."
"You'd have to do alterations on it to wear it again, I'm sure."
"Yeah. The Kara costume didn't get passed down like the Superman one did."
"I like..." He hesitated.
"I like...having you here beside me, Katherine."
She lay her head on his shoulder. "I knew that. And doubledamn, Alan. Don't you think I like having you beside me, too?"
"Thought had crossed."
She sighed. "How many women can say they've talked with Superman on his first night on the job?" Katherine smiled, her eyes closed.
Alan put his arms around her, turned her face towards him. "How many women can say they've done this?" He kissed her.
Pulling back a bit, she lay a finger on his lips. "That...was nice for starters. Let me show you something more." She leaned in, kissed him passionately. Their arms enfolded one another, their bodies molded against each other. She felt him responding to her and was silently proud.
They lay there for a long moment, not breaking the kiss, their hands stroking each other's back. Then they did separate their lips, and they hugged tightly, their heads resting on each other's shoulder.
He sighed. "I have to go home, you know."
"I know," she said.
"I always...wondered. Whether it'd be me...I mean, me, or Alan."
"Who got to be Superman?" she murmured.
"No. Who got you."
She disengaged from him, gently. He sat up, in alarm. "Kath. I didn't mean--"
"Don't worry," she said, smoothing a few wrinkles from her clothes. "I don't know that anybody's ‘got' me, Alan. But--" She turned her face away from him, tantalizingly, as she took a comb from a pouch on her belt and ran it through her hair.
"But what?" he asked, trying to keep the nervousness out of his voice.
She stopped combing and looked at him. "Let's just say you've made a really good start. Bye, now." She stooped, kissed him on the cheek. Then she turned, crouched, and leapt into the air. With a spurt of super-speed, she was invisible to non-Krypt eyes within an instant.
Alan looked after her, a slight smile on his face.
After a few more seconds, he launched himself skyward, in the direction of home.
George Kent said, "So. You saw?"
Adam Kent, sitting beside him, said, "Oh, yes. All of it."
Draping herself over the side of Adam's chair, Sy Kent said, "Including that interlude with his little blonde wimpette bedwarmer? You saw that, too?"
"Sy," said George. "I will not hear you speaking about Katherine in that manner. Not in my presence. You understand?"
"But Daddy, all I'm saying about the little slut is--"
Adam Kent took Sy's hand, gently. "It's all right, George. I'm sure we've had...worse things said about the family, certainly. Sometimes within it, as well as without."
"True," said George. "But, when all is said and done, it is still the family."
"It always will be, George."
"No matter who heads it," George continued.
"I wouldn't worry overmuch about the head of the family, George," said Adam, as Sy bent to plant a kiss on his cheek. "I wouldn't worry much about it at all."