The Great Confrontation

    by DarkMark and Dannell Lites

    part 9

The newsers were on top of the story almost before it broke.  Old holos of Muto and his battles with the former Superman were trotted out and put into play, and the populace of Earth were reinformed of the history of their battles.  One more thing was brought out as well: Superman was vulnerable to seawater.

Over the centuries, intermarriage with Terrans and scientific treatments had reduced the vulnerability of the Superman line to Kryptonite.  But a radical element released into the seas by a nuclear accident had most of the same effects on them, and it proved impossible to remove from the waters of Earth.  So they traded a weakness which could be easily dealt with, thanks to Kryptonite’s rarity, for one which was as common as, well, the seas.

That was something the Family had been working on.  But it hadn’t been conquered yet.  

So the intrusion of Muto into the underwater world of Atlantis was a stroke of genius, strategically, although it was simple enough to think up.

Nonetheless, it was deadly.

There was no filming scheduled for We’re All Martians that day.  Lucky enough, thought Alan Kent.  Maybe.  He sat in his apartment and watched the holos form about him with the spoken commentary and reproduced sounds.  Then he said, “Cutoff,” and the images faded.  Another spoken command activated his communications unit.  A likeness of his father appeared.

“Hello, Dad,” said Alan.  

“Morning, son,” said Klar.  “Need some advice?”

Alan shook his head.  “I’m not sure.  You told me so much about him, but I never met him.  I’ll have to make my play soon.”

“You could wait till after hours, and I could lend you a hand,” said Klar.  “I’m the one with experience, here.”

“I know that,” said Alan.  “But it’s my job now.”

“Just remember, you’re not alone, Alan,” said Klar.  “The Family has always had allies.”

“That’s where you’re wrong, Dad,” Alan retorted.  “We’re always alone.  See you later.”  He broke contact.  

Then he pressed a button on his wristlet.  Immediately, his uniform atomically assembled itself upon his body.  The red cape hung from his shoulders and, again, Alan Kent was Superman.

He just wondered what in Sheol he was supposed to do.  But he guessed, like his ancestors, it would come to him.

Then he left the apartment at super-speed.

    -S-

The continent of Atlantis had been sunk ages ago, under circumstances that were never quite clear.  Superboy I had claimed to have witnessed it himself on a time-trip, but wasn’t too forthcoming with the details.  There were things he didn’t reveal too much to his progeny, and it was suspected they had to do with the future.  Even if what he’d visited was just one of many possible futures, it was better to play it close to the chest.

None of the Family had forgotten the story of how Kal-El I had loved and lost Lori Lemaris, the beautiful mermaid, in his college days.  Slightly less well-known was the fact that Supergirl I, Kara Zor-El, had a merman boyfriend named Jerro for awhile.  Everybody was well-aware of the fact that Aquaman, one-time king of Atlantis, had been Superman’s ally in the old Justice League of America, and that he and his people had legs and that Lori and her people had fish-tails.  There had been racial problems between the legged and fish-tailed people of Poseidonis and Tritonis before, but the physical separation of their two cities kept things fairly cool.

Muto, a mutated supervillain, had come into being soon into the last Superman’s career and fulfilled the role of his arch-enemy.  Physically, he was unprepossessing: a stunted, yellow-skinned body, covered with an orange uniform.  But his head belied his weakness.  Muto’s cranium was huge, overgrown, bulging, a full foot and a half above his eyes.  It had to be, to house his oversized brain.  This mutated organ of thought gave him psychokinetic power, the ability to move and control things by thought alone.  That, and his malevolent genius, had made him a great challenge to the current Superman’s father.

As it was, he owed his existence to the Family.  The 19th Superman, father of Klar Ken, had shattered a comet head in space lest it strike an inhabited world and cause great loss of life.  Unfortunately, a space-warp had been opened by the force of the comet’s head explosion and briefly engulfed a medical spaceliner on its way to Earth.  While the craft was in another dimension, one whose physical existence was quite different from Earth-One’s, a woman had given birth.  Her child was altered by the forces of that dimension, given mind-over-matter powers and great intellect.  The spaceliner returned to Earth’s realm shortly afterward, but the damage had been done.  The baby born on the other plane of existence would grow up to be Muto.

Once he reached his maturity, the great-headed, yellow-skinned mutant turned his power to crime and conquest.  Quite naturally, he ran afoul of the twentieth Superman.  In a very short time, he became Superman’s arch-enemy, the Lex Luthor of his time.  Secretly, that made Muto pleased.

There had been numerous battles, imprisonments, and escapes.  Finally, Muto had simply vanished.  Those in the know suspected he’d either tired of the Great Game, or was hatching a greater plot somewhere that Superman would have to deal with.  But years had gone by, and he had not returned.  Everyone seemed relieved.  Everyone, perhaps, except Superman.

Now he had returned.  Was the attack on Atlantis symbolic?  Well, yes, it was.  The first Superman had been a good friend of Aquaman, his Justice League teammate.  Several Supermen had come to the aid of subsquent rulers of Atlantis in the years intervening.  There had been a few Aquamen, or their equivalents, over the last 500 years, but mostly Atlantis kept to itself and its kings handled things in their own realm.  

The Fortress of Solitude that Superman I had maintained had long since been discovered and turned into a museum.  The current Fortress was hidden within the asteroid Ceres.  Turning on his flight power to hyperlight speed, Alan Kent, the 21st Superman, made the journey in minutes.  Once within the great asteroid belt, with the absolute silence and cold of space about him, Alan quickly sought out the huge rock that was his destination.

He had little taste for space, actually.  The lack of sound was a major sensory deprivation.  He could always attune his super-hearing to take in noises from Earth or other planets, and often he did.  But it never kept back the knowledge that the spaces between worlds were not intended for human life, not even such as his.  

Krypts could survive there.  Because Krypts were freaks.

He shoved the thought aside, stood over a certain part of the asteroid, and beamed his heat vision down at three points of rock near his feet  in a coded succession.  A disguised portal in the surface of Ceres opened.  Superman XXI flew inside, tripped a sensor, and closed the door behind him.  Once it was done, a second airlock door opened and the cream-colored chamber was filled with air and heat.  

It wasn’t Earth, but it wasn’t bad.

Alan briskly walked through the airlock door, past the array of sensors that confirmed him as an authorized presence, and glanced at the array of trophies and exhibits before him.  Not as extensive as the original Fortress, but it served.  A few mementoes of the 20th Century Superman had been brought here, but nothing the size of the ocean liner that was suspended from the first Fortress’s ceiling.  They also kept no living beasts here, unlike Old Superman’s interplanetary zoo.

There was an android butler who could be activated if Alan wanted to, but he didn’t want to.  To him, the Fortress of Solitude should live up to its name.  He came there when and if he wanted privacy.

Or if he wanted to pick up a weapon.

Superman knew just where to go.  In a chamber off limits to all except him and his father, certain relics from other times and dimensions were placed.  The existence of the future Legion of Super-Heroes was one of the Family’s most closely-guarded secrets.  They would come into being 500 years from now, and one of the Superman’s unstated responsibilities was to make sure there was an Earth there for them to exist on when they came.

One of the souvenirs of that 30th Century time was a force-field belt made by Brainiac 5, a Legion member.  It had rarely been used.  Mostly it had been forgotten.  Alan never forgot it.  He unlocked its case with his handprint, opened the case, and held the metal belt in his hands for a long second.  Then he slipped it on under his shirt, fastened it, and pressed a control in its buckle.  

Immediately, a field of power surrounded him.  Within that field, even air molecules couldn’t get out.  The belt recycled and refreshed the extant air within, while letting in enough light and sound to permit communication from the outside.  If necessary, the field could be turned up enough to block even those.

Against that, seawater shouldn’t be a problem.

“Okay, Muto,” said Alan, softly, “here I come.”

The young Man of Steel closed a mental relay, levitated from the floor, and rushed through the Fortress chambers so quickly that the airlock barely had time to admit and expel him.  In an instant, Superman XXI was in the void, headed back towards Earth.

Part of him was nerved about entering his first challenging battle.

Another part, he had to admit, was as thrilled as all Sheol.

    -S-

Muto looked upon his work and judged it good.  It wasn’t the first time he’d threatened Atlantis, but it was the first time he’d conquered it.  

Right now, he sat in the throne of the Atlantean Kings, which had been occupied by one monarch or the other over a stretch of millenia.  The fact that the kings had often been friends of the Supermen of the last 500 years was another bit of pleasure.  

His body, like that of his two aides, was surrounded by an aura that kept out water and held back the pressure, as well as maintaining a comfortable 70-degree temperature within itself.  God only knew how the Atlanteans adapted almost immediately to surface pressure, or lack thereof, and the warmer climate.  The only thing they couldn’t do is breathe air.  Well, unless they were amphibians, like those of the royal line.

The auras were maintained by devices Muto had designed himself.  He could, of course, have done the job with his mind-over-matter power, but even he had to sleep sometimes.  The two aides were there more for company than anything else.  

Admittedly, Muto had been efficient.  When his sub-craft (powered by his own brain) had been attacked by the Atlantean legions, the mutant had telekinetically grasped the battle-wagons, opened them up, shaken out the crews, and transformed the craft into metallic sculptures.  True, they weren’t the greatest examples of surface abstract art, but face it...he was too busy to do a great job.  There were a few injuries, but not any deaths that he knew of.  Murder was messy.  Terrorism was artistic.

The undersea militia had tried to attack him with hand-weapons, and he’d just turned the guns into mechanical fish and had them swim away.  When the soldiers of the realm had rushed the approaching Muto-machine, he’d caused the sea floor to raise up, enclose them in a prison, layered a roof over it, put in a couple of windows, and that was that.

“Now,” he’d broadcast over an exterior PA system, “will there be anything else?”

Nobody seemed to want to argue with him.  The craft had docked just outside Atlantis’s walls, and he and his two men had embarked and entered without much opposition.  That was what they had expected, really.

The fun wouldn’t begin until that upstart new Superman showed his face.  But they had to do the amenities, anyway.  

They had been taken to the palace of the king, who had refused to turn over his throne.  Muto simply concentrated, upended the throne, and pitched the king out for a loss.  Faced with the threat of metal bands constricting about their throats, several Atlantean guards picked up the king and his queen and escorted them gently to rooms which Muto had reshaped as elegant cells.  He might be a conqueror, but there was no sense in being offensive about it.

Now, when it came time to really conquer things, he’d show a more fearsome side of himself.  He’d tear up the cities, turn the milescrapers into rampaging monsters, crack the coastlines so that the sea went for miles inland, maybe even tear the rest of California loose from its moorings.  Whatever it took, with as little life lost as possible.  That was the ticket.  Conquer, but keep people on your side.  It was time Earth had an efficient tyrant, one who would keep losses and costs down, and Muto was the man.

“Angolax,” said Muto, “when do you think he’ll be here?”

The white-skinned alien shrugged, a gesture he’d picked up from his boss.  “Not know, Muto King.  Monitoring news from surface.  No mention of the Superman.  Not yet.”

“Indeed,” said Muto.  He rubbed his eyes, cursing the wrinkles that had developed over the last decade.  “With his speed, he’ll be upon us before any newser can detect him.  You know what to do when he arrives?”

“You said surrender,” said Angolax.

“That’s it,” said Muto.  “Neither you nor Klaranze will be of any use in a fight against him.  Leave the Kryptonian to me.  That’s the point of the whole exercise.”

Klaranze, a Thanagarian, spoke up.  “Begging your pardon, sir, it seems like a lot of effort just to set up a battle.”

Muto was annoyed.  “That, Klaranze, is what differentiates feather brains like you from the multilevel mentality of myself.  The staging of battles must be done precisely, artistically.  Great pomp and spectacle must be delivered.  It’s all about the show, man.  Have you no showmanship in your soul, at all?”

“Just hoping for a really great cut of the profits,” admitted Klaranze.

The conqueror sighed.  “There is ceremony in these things.  First we fight the Superman, then we get about the business of conquering the rest of Earth.  Doing it differently simply isn’t done.”

“Why not?”

“Because I said so!”  Muto concentrated, and a section of wall developed two ceramic arms that enclosed Klaranze’s chest and squeezed.  Angolax gaped.  The conqueror continued, “Any more questions?”

“No!  None!” gasped Klaranze, turning red in the grasp of the stony arms.

“Well, then.”  The arms retracted and reformed into the walls.  Klaranze fell to his knees, gasping.  “Ready to play your part?”

“Absolutely,” said Klaranze.  Angolax wanted to help him, but didn’t feel like crossing Muto.  

“See that you remember it,” said Muto.  “When the man gets here, I’m not going to have time to wipe anybody’s noses.”

Muto turned his head to the window and watched the activity of the Atlantean people, both with fishtails and without, operating under the behest of the newly-drafted Muto Police.  At least things were proceeding pretty much on plan.

Had villains of ancient times been forced to deal with men of his lieutenants’ quality?  Did Luthor, Amalak, or the Ocean Master have to use nitwits like these two?  Admittedly, they were the best available at the time, and didn’t need much training.  Still, it was enough to make one wish for centuries past, when there had been legions of supermen and superwomen on both sides.  Amazons, Green Lanterns, Kryptonians, Martians, and independents of every stripe on both sides.  Now that would have been a time worth living in.

Today, it was just down to him and the kid Superman.  They were the last upholders of the once-proud tradition.

Well, it had to be.  If you were contracted to do a show and only one person showed up in the audience, you still did the show.

He and Superman would give them a show they’d never seen before, and would never see again.  Just wait.

It was regrettable, really, that he’d probably have to kill the kid.  He wanted a show that even the old Superman would have enjoyed.  Except, of course, the bit about Muto winning.

No time for flop sweat, though.  It was almost showtime.

In his borrowed throne, Muto waited for the curtain to go up.

    -S-

The shadows had receded somewhat in Gotham City over the centuries, but they never really left.  It was a nastier town than its twin, Metropolis, and it seemed to want to stay that way.  

As case in point, the body of one Hi Jenk S6745, pasted to the side of a building 20 stories up in a crucified position, dead, open-eyed, and smiling.  Smiling too much.

His lips were rouge-red and if he had been smiling any wider, the cops on the scene might have expected his head from the upper jaw onwards to fall off.

Three hovering cop-vans were on the scene in a roughly circular position, using flying bots to scan the body and the surroundings, take body samples, do scientific analyses, and leave the deduction to the boys in the back.  Well, most of it, anyway.

“Why him, Reg?” asked one of the cops in one of the vans, looking at the readouts on Jenk.  “This guy was a 4th level Insurer. Who in doublehell did he upgripe?”

Reg, sitting in what passed for the pilot’s seat, shrugged.  “I’ve got a cold feeling we know who he upgriped, Ken.  Question is, why and how?”

For a long moment, Ken stayed silent.  Then he said, “There hasn’t been a killing with this m.o. in a longdamn time, Reg.”

“Yeah.  And the last guy who did things like this died.  Lightning bolt got him.”

“They said his dad was still around.  The one who killed the old Batman.”

“Could be a copycat killer.”

Ken nodded at the holoscreen analysis.  “Not this time.  That readout’s a perfect match for Joker-venom, Mark VII.  Either the dead Joker had a kid we don’t know about, or...”

“Or Daddy is hitting the comeback trail,” finished Reg.  “Happy thoughts, Ken.”

Ken looked glum.  “Doubledamned if the commish will let us get sleep on this one.  If the Joker’s back...”

“He’s back, Ken.  He’s back.  And...”

There was a flicker of movement that the viewscreen barely caught, but Ken, somehow, observed it and stopped talking.  “Screen,” he said, pointing at part of the holodisplay of the crime scene.  “One minute back.  Magnify.  100 up.”

Obediently, the mechs of the information engine played back the scans of the part Ken had pointed to, magnified.  At one point, Ken yelled, “Freeze!”  The display halted.

“Two back.  Magnify.  Enhance,” said Ken.  Reg watched, intently.

There was a slight flickering of something, as if it were barely-perceptible wings.  Or perhaps clothing, of a sort that flapped in the wind.  Or maybe...

“A cloak,” said Reg.

“A cloak.  Cloaked,” said Ken.

“Thought he only operated in the dark,” Reg remarked.

Ken looked at his partner.  “He brings his darkness with him.”

Inside the building to which the unfortunate Hi Jenk had been pasted, Bron Wayn emerged from a restroom.  He adjusted the slightly retro neck ornament over his black suit and, taking in the small throng of people in the hallway, checked them, compared them to the mug file he had in his memory, and was satisfied that none of them needed to be dealt with.

The cops probably didn’t know what was going on yet, but they’d find out in time.  He already knew.  

Hi Jenk had an ancestor of some importance.  It was a cursed shame that a man had to die just because of being part of a family.  But that was, all too often, the way it went.  

Jenk’s ancestor had been James W. Gordon, the famous 20th Century police commissioner of Gotham and ally of the first Batman.  

The Joker was bringing it all back home.  If Bron had the will to imprison Aelfric a week back, this would never have happened.  The blood on the Joker’s hands dripped onto the gloves of the Batman.

Bron Wayn’s face was set in stone.  In the name of the Family, it was time to pay him back.

    -S-

A miniature spy satellite that Adam Kent had in orbit caught an image of the new Superman just about where he’d expected him to be, over Atlantis.  Alan, Adam noted, came from the direction of the Fortress.  Good thinking on his brother’s part.  The young Man of Steel was moving at hyperspeed, but the satellite’s cameras were good enough to slow the tracking down enough to make him visible.  The blue-and-red-clad hero plunged below the waves and was gone.

Within minutes, he’d be tangling with Muto. Then what?

Well, if the kid needed a hand, he supposed he’d have to lend him one.  But he’d give him a chance.  Being Superman was Alan’s job. At least, for the present.

Besides, Adam had a lot of plans to make and actuate.  Most of them didn’t require a suit with a big S on the chest.

He shut off the display.  For both of the Kent brothers, it would very quickly be showtime.

    (next chapter)

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