Too Many Long Boxes!

End of Summer

Batman: Holy Terror 2

by Dannell Lites

Picking Up The Pieces

This is a sequel to the DC Elseworlds, "Batman: Holy Terror". As such, reading that book is a real advantage, heah! Although Ah will do moi's best to guide ya'll, Ah make no guarantees that ya'll will not get lost.

Just in case moi's poor powers of description should fail, heah's a (Ah hope!) terse recap:

The world of "Batman: Holy Terror" is a grim one. In our reality, Oliver Cromwell, the self proclaimed Great Protector of England, died in 1658 of malaria. His repressive, theocratic ideas regarding religion and government did not have sufficient time to take permanent hold in England. No so in this Elseworlds! Here, Cromwell survived for another ten years, and his ideas DID become deeply entrenched. Thus, from England, the repressive theocracy he established was transplanted to the so called "American Commonwealth" where it thrived.

In the world of "Batman: Holy Terror", all is not well. Jews are a persecuted minority. Three million homosexuals and other "sinners" a year are "eliminated" or "reeducated". Prostitutes and other "sinners" are subjected to heinous "aversion therapy". Sin and crime are swiftly punished, very much in the vein of "an eye for an eye". Rebellion against the State and the status quo, in any form, is not permitted. We learn, for example, that "millionaire industrialist Oliver Queen" has just been executed by the State for promulgating the literary works of such "pornographers" as Isaac Singer... White, landholding "Christian" men have multiple votes in any election. Women have none. Non-landholders and minorities (whether they own property or *not*) only receive half a vote.

All of this is beneath the surface, of course. To the casual eye, all is an orderly, God-fearing paradise, benevolently ruled by the Privy Council and the Star Chamber. The "American Commonwealth" has taken its "manifest destiny" to heart, and is busy exporting its rule and repression throughout the continent at gunpoint. In all of North and South America, only the tiny state of Peru has yet to be conquered, and it's next on the agenda! All in the name of God, of course.

And into this seething cauldron leaps: The Batman! Just how Bruce Wayne became The Batman and what he encounters in his fight against oppression is the gist of the story!

WHEW! Sorry for the long winded explanation, folks! Now: On with the story!:):)



From the diary of Father Bruce Wayne, Society of Jesus: Written in this the Year Of Our Lord, Nineteen hundred and ninety-three, being the one thousand, nine hundred and sixty-third year since the Ascension into Heaven of Our Lord Jesus Christ, and the three hundred and thirty-fifth year since the Providential Salvation of His servant, the Great Protector, Oliver Cromwell...

Like my father before me, I keep this diary so that someday, someone will know the *real* Bruce Wayne. I wish them to know The Avenger of the Night, as well as God's humble priest.

And yes, despite it all, I *do* still believe in Him. It is the State I reject; the Privy Council and all those who have twisted His Word, usurped it for their own, worldly purposes, not God himself in his infinite mercy and wisdom.

But where to begin? What was it, after all, that began this kaleidoscopic journey into rebellion and obsession for me?

Was it the death of my parents?

Was that the beginning for me? Was it really that simple? Yes, in many ways, I suppose it was. I was only nine years old when my parents were taken from me; slain before my shocked, disbelieving eyes, in a filthy Gotham City alley as we returned from seeing a film, "The Mask of Zorro". To this day, the thing I remember the clearest as we left the theatre was the joy, the exhilaration I felt. I wanted to *be* Zorro! Oh, not because he was a hero, or because fighting oppression was the thing to A quixotic, imaginative small child, I wanted to be Zorro because it looked like fun!

But then, as we made our happy, laughing way back to our car...death struck like lightning. A senseless, random street crime, I was told. They never caught the killer. For many years thereafter, I burned, I seethed, for justice; no, not for justice, for revenge.

That was where I first meet the Lord High Commisioner, Jim Gordon. In those days he was simply an Inquisitor, newly transferred to Gotham from New Amsterdam. He was the Inquisitor assigned to investigate the death of my parents, in fact. He was a kind man and a good one, I believed. In spite of everything, I still believe that. The good Inquisitor took an interest in a lonely, orphaned young boy. He became a mentor of sorts for me. He never pushed or pressed me, but, in spite of his quiet nature, I knew that he was secretly pleased and very gratified when I announced to the world at the tender age of ten that I wished to become an Inquisitor when I came of age. Jim Gordon and Alfred were the only ones who didn't laugh at me or regard my determined commitment as a childish whim or fancy. Between the three of us we set out to make my dream a reality.

In the gymnasium Alfred stocked and furnished for me in the basement of Wayne Manor, I trained my body. An Inquisitor must be fit, and I was determined to be the best Inquisitor I could be. Exercising constantly, driving my body and spirit to its limits, I grew tall and strong. If the American Commonwealth had still participated in anything with such heathen origins as the Olympic Games, I was assured that I could have been a star athlete in any of half a dozen sports. Swimming was one of my favorites. For a time, I practically lived in the Olympic sized pool in my private gym. Smiling, Alfred spoke drolly of gills and fins.

With Jim Gordon, I trained my mind. Patiently, he endured my endless rounds of probing questions. He gave me books to read and shared his cases with me. Under his tutelage, I began to swiftly learn the art of detection. He taught me how to train my powers of observation and how to ask the right questions in following leads in an investigation. I learned the in and outs of Inquisitorial procedure, and the reasons behind them. On my own, I began to study psychology and the human mind in an attempt to understand what motivates people.

I was sixteen the first time I helped Jim Gordon solve a particularly difficult case. The serial killer the media ironically dubbed The Joker had remained at large for far too long. The Inquisitors were baffled. He and his hideous "Joker venom" had claimed half a hundred victims by the time Jim came to me. The rising of the sun with each new day brought fresh evidence of his ruthless insanity in the form of corpses, their faces frozen in a horrible leering rictus, a sick, gross parody of laughter and a smile.

"What an Inquisitor you'll make, Bruce!" Jim congratulated me when my chemical analysis of the "venom" lead to the discovery of a rare catalytic enzyme only available from a single source, and thus to the Joker's subsequent capture and arrest. Such praise was most welcome. It was one of the proudest days of my young life when I watched the televised public trial that found the Joker guilty of murder. I likewise watched with satisfaction his public execution, televised live from Coventry. And I admit to owning no small sense of irony that the killer of so many was executed by means of lethal injection.

And yet...and yet...

It was not enough. My victory was somehow...hollow. My satisfaction swiftly faded. And, in the end, my parents were still dead. I was adrift again, lost amidst the swirling currents of an aimless life without purpose or duty. I had thought that becoming an Inquisitor was the answer. That my parents ghosts might rest; stop haunting my dreams if only I could bring some small bit of justice into the world; some protection for the innocent. If not for them, then at least for others.

But it was not to be. I was lost, all my plans in ruins. If not an Inquisitor, then *what*? How, then, could I bury my dead, make sense of a senseless world and perhaps, just perhaps, find a tiny measure of peace for my burdened soul? I did not know.

I can't tell you exactly what it was that led me to Gotham's St. Cromwell's Cathedral on that particular Sabbath.

Well, yes I *can*...

It was to discover God's plan for my life and to answer His call...

I awoke that morning depressed. I'd not yet told Jim Gordon of my decision not to become an Inquisitor. I did not look forward to seeing the disappointment take root like a noxious weed in his eyes at the news. Not even Alfred's careful preparation of my very favorite breakfast of chocolate chip pancakes with bacon and fresh squeezed orange juice was enough to entirely lift my pensive mood.

Alfred is a wonder. The closest thing I have ever had to a father since my parents died. He knows me so well. He senses my moods and he always knows how to dispel the gloom that, at times, threatens to consume me. He was the one who sat by my bed in the weeks and then months after I was orphaned, keeping the nightmares at bay. I shall forever be grateful for his endless bowls of buttered popcorn, his fresh baked cookies, still hot and gooey from the oven and our endless walks about the spacious grounds of Wayne Manor, talking of nothing and everything at one and the same time.

He saved my sanity.

That day, he had decided that I needed to be indulged. Alfred is a fabulous cook, but it isn't often that I permit myself to free my appetite. Gluttony is, after all, one of the Seven Deadly Sins, and an overweight Inquisitor is a frequently unsuccessful Inquisitor. So I am parsimonious and eat sparingly despite Alfred's many talents as a chef. Yielding to temptation is also a sin. And Alfred's food was very tempting. Thus, I persevered. But not that day. That day was to be different. And why not? I was not, after all, to be an Inquisitor any longer, so why not enjoy the fruits of Alfred's culinary labors? What could it matter?

It may sound trite to say that it was the Hand of Almighty God that led me to attend services that particular Sabbath. True, I attend regularly. At least, my *body* does... Like most people, I assume, I had always attended church by rote. Because it was the right thing to do. I obeyed the law and paid my tithes regularly, scrupulously, even generously. But this was different; not the same at all. As I took my place on the hard wooden pew, I did not begin to suspect what fate awaited me. Not even when Father Doyle stepped aside and Bishop Caspian took his place behind the altar. Immediately he dominated the cathedral, his tall presence reaching out to each of us. His Eminence is a powerful, charismatic, speaker. And he was speaking directly to *me* or so it seemed.

I was lost...but I learned I was not alone; never alone. God was with me. Under the good Bishop's guidance, like Jim Gordon before him, I found my true path. Peace settled over me like a great warm blanket against the chill of night. My parents had been taken form me, yes; nothing would ever change that. But perhaps there was a reason behind it, even if it was not one my poor mortal mind could comprehend. And if their killer escaped man's fallible, human justice, he could not escape God's judgment. In the end, he would pay.

But on the very eve of the greatest day of my life, my ordination into the priesthood, my world was shattered again. Once more the world became a senseless place of random, inexplicable violence and damnation.

It stopped making sense.

I remember being sad that Alfred did not accept my offer to remain in his home at Wayne Manor. Perhaps it was small punishment for my failings. All my other earthly possessions I donated to the Church in keeping with the vows of poverty I would soon utter. But...somehow I could not bring myself to part with my ancestral home. There were too many memories there. Memories I could not bear to part with. The smell of my father's favorite cherry flavored pipe tobacco...the lingering scent of my mother's musky, floral perfume...the memory of her fresh baked apple pie on the Sabbath, a special treat for the less fortunate family always invited around the Wayne family table on the Lord's Day. Alfred was not allowed to do the cooking on that day. That was my mother's special gift to God and her fellow man, given in love and kindness. So I established a small trust fund for the maintenance of the Manor in my absence.

I was in the basement, paying one last nostalgic visit to my old dream of becoming an Inquisitor, when Jim Gordon surprised me.

I knew something was wrong the moment I saw him, standing there stooped and pensive as if the weight of the world rested on his shoulders. He couldn't meet my eyes. Staring at his shoes as if they were the most fascinating thing God had ever created, he whispered, "I - I told you I never found the man who killed your parents. That...was a lie. His name was Joseph Chill. And he was dead before I even discovered his name, conveniently killed in a prison riot in Coventry. A convict released for one purpose and one purpose only -- to kill your parents and make it look like a random street crime, a robbery. But it wasn't. It was an execution, Bruce. A *state* execution..."

I recall my denial vividly, even now, years later.

"But - but that's absurd," I cried, horrified. "My father was personal physician to the Privy Council! Why would they want to kill him?"

He straightened his cravat, and peered at me owlishly from behind his thick glasses. "You only knew part of what your parents were, Bruce," he told me, his watery, but farseeing blue eyes overwhelmed with compassion for the agony of spirit that shone from my own eyes. "You only saw the loyal state citizens. Not the radical agitators who were tried in absentia and convicted of 'counter productive activities'. You see, they were too high up in the Church Hierarchy, the Holy Elite, for a public trial. The State doesn't like to admit that citizens of such high rank could be traitors. So it had to be a covert enough execution to seem like a tragic accident. And yet clear enough to their fellow insurrectionists to be an effective deterrent."

The computer disk he handed me was the final poof. My hand trembled as I took it. "Don't you see?" he murmured, "I couldn't let you go and become a part of the very system that killed your parents. I had to tell you the truth."

With my head buried in my hands, I did not see the melancholy that swept like a tide through his face and manner. But I heard it in his voice. His voice rang with it. I'll never forget the hollow sound of his rasping voice.

"But all I've really succeeded in doing is shifting a burden of pain from one heart to another."

And he left me there, my head bowed under my new/old burden, making his way silently out of my home and my life. The next day, the day of my ordination, was not a joyful one as it should have been. Jim Gordon had robbed me of that. But even as I felt Judson's hands on my head, praying for God's blessings as I ventured into a new life as His priest, I knew that I had made the right decision to accept my vows and enter the Holy Elite. As the traditional vows fell from my lips (God's grace that I did not stammer or misspeak) I made another, silent, more personal vow. To fight them, seek vengeance. From the inside. And I would begin by finding the members of the Privy Council who condemned and murdered my parents.

And then I found my father's diaries. Hidden away in a safe place for me to find and read. As Jim Gordon said, my knowledge of my parents was woefully incomplete. First and foremost, my father was a physician, a healer sworn to preserve life, to bring comfort to the sick and injured. My fingers numb with cold horror, I read deep into the night. Page after page of hideousness...unmarried pregnant women who swallowed acid trying to abort the growing life within them rather than be shunned and imprisoned...homosexuals and prostitutes subjected to 'aversion therapy' and 'reeducation', covered with burns from electroshock, some who mutilated their own genitalia in a desperate, last ditch effort to deny what they were, the way God had made them. Such victims were not allowed access to normal medical treatment. Yet my father fought for them, healed them when he could, mourned them when he couldn't, in his illegal, clandestine clinic.

Dr. Charles McNider, my father's closest associate, is blind but he opened *my* eyes to the harsh truth. My father's brethren in resistance to the state...all caught...all executed...the names. So many, many names...Alan Scott and his 'Radio Free America'...Carter and Shiera Hall, archeologist's and weapons smugglers...Rex Tyler, clandestine manufacturer of drugs needed for the hidden clinics...Oliver Queen, who's only 'crime' was that he enjoyed a good tale, well told, who died for bringing Isaac Bashevis Singer's delightful stories to the public. Because Singer was a Jew.

And Charles McNider himself. Oh, he survived when that "lunatic", a State agent, really, threw acid in his eyes. Blinded but alive. But his beloved wife, Myra, wasn't so lucky. She was "mugged"...knifed and left to bleed to death slowly in a filthy abandoned alley on her way home one night. By a "criminal" who was conveniently never caught. So very much like the death of my parents, my heart clenched as I heard him speak of it, broken and tortured. Charles McNider learned his lesson. No more resistance activities for him. Of course, by that time, there was almost nothing left of any organized resistance...

It was from Doctor McNider that I first heard the legend of The Green Man. Rumors really, a prayer, a hope; tales of someone held captive in Cathedral, someone with power enough to challenge, to threaten, the State. Charles warned me not to believe the myths. I sometimes wonder what he would have done if he'd ever discovered how wrong he was.

And how tragically, heartbreakingly right at the same time.

I had no sooner taken my vows of Chastity, Poverty, and Obedience, than I shattered them with a will. Deliberately, I broke my vow of Obedience. Many times, I had seen Judson enter his password into the ChurchNet database. I knew it well. Our Bishop is a trusting soul for all his sternness. I did not let myself think of the betrayal of his trust, his kindness and compassion for a lost young soul. Using his pilfered access code, I easily gleamed the information I needed. The information that lead me to Cathedral, that massive building housing the secular arm of government of the American Commonwealth.

Led me to Cathedral...

And to Doctor Saul Erdel and The Green Man...

Betraying Judson's trust the second time, abusing his access code to slip unnoticed into the bowels of Cathedral, was easier than the first time. Betrayal, like any other art, just gets easier with practice, doesn't it? I fancy my thirst for vengeance eased my pricking conscience. Down, down I went...down...

What I found there...Oh! What I found there...

Men kept in cages like laboratory animals; caged and experimented upon.

Barry was the first one I found. An Inquisitor scientist, Barry emerged from a laboratory accident with a great gift. The gift of incredible speed. There was so much he could have done, so much good he might have accomplished. And, with God as my witness, Barry was a good man. It's true I only knew him for a short while, less than two hours all told, really, before he died; murdered, as surely as I live and breathe, by that demon Erdel,

With my aid, Barry escaped his 'hamster cage', as he called it. But there were others. Using the basics of the electrified chemicals that granted Barry his abilities, Doctor Saul Erdel, the Chief of the Project, was directed by the State to try and create others like Barry. He was never successful. But that did not stop him from repeatedly trying. The waste, the human wreckage he left in the wake of his diligent efforts was appalling.

A young woman whose brain was the only part of her body to be affected by the chemical bath...who couldn't slow down her thought processes, whose mind raced at the speed of sound, trapped in a body a thousand times slower...

A three year old boy who was aging at the rate of three years for every week of life...who was dead within six months of his immersion in the chemical bath. And who never really understood what was happening to him.

And then there was Arthur...

Barry was the one who led me to Arthur, but he knew almost nothing about him. Arthur is "an amphibious humanoid with limited telepathic abilities", according to the records. What he truly is ... is a tragedy. A living breathing tragedy. Barry was one of Erdel's "pets" before the doctor killed him. He did not know where Arthur came from, but he did know that he grieved for him. They studied Arthur, like Barry; like Barry, they tried to break him to their will, to use him. He...broke. Into myriad tiny pieces. I shall never forget my first sight of Arthur, floating in his glass tank, staring sightlessly out of unfocused eyes as blue as the sea which was meant to be his home, his knees clutched to his chest in a tight fetal position, like an unborn child in the womb.

"Arthur? Arthur, can you hear me?" The pain in Barry's whispered voice will also stay with me for a very long time. Like many things I saw and heard in the Project. In his tank, Arthur floated, drifting aimlessly, lost in his own impenetrable world of torment.

"Damn it, Arthur, say something..." Barry whispered, and I saw tears spilling down his cheeks, "...say something..."

But Arthur remained silent.

No, Barry did not know Arthur's story. It was left to Barbara, surreptitiously hacking deep into the Project's datafiles, to learn the truth about Arthur. A secluded light house keeper in Baffin Bay named Tom Curry found Arthur, living with a pod of dolphins and befriended him. And then he turned him over to the State. Arthur cost the government many more than the traditional thirty pieces of silver that is a traitor's reward.

Arthur was the only one I was able to save. And had it not been for Garth, I should have failed at that, too. Garth is Arthur's son. Barry never knew about Garth. Erdel had special plans for Garth, you see. Garth was a *sucesssful* experiment. Arthur was not the only mer-folk the serendipitous light house keeper Tom Curry encountered, it seems. Her name was Lori, and Curry dallied with her for a time. And then, when he tired of her, he turned her over to the Project, like Arthur. In point of fact, Arthur and Lori have several children. Erdel mated them more than once. Oh, not in the traditional sense, to be sure. Arthur was catatonic and...incapable. It's amazing what can be done in a laboratory these days, though. Garth, however, was ultimately the only survivor.

Garth does not much resemble the blond haired, blue eyed Arthur. He is quite a handsome young man with his dark hair and vivid purple eyes. Even the scars over his right eye, the result of an "unencouraging experiment", only make him look rakish, vaguely piratical. He must look like his mother, Lori. I cannot say. I never met her. Like so many, many others, God alone knows *how* many, she was dead before I ever knew about the Project. In fact, she died giving birth to Garth. But Garth is very much alive.

And angry. So very, very angry...

Like me.

With Garth's help, I managed to smuggle both he and his father Arthur from the clutches of the State. But not before Barry was dead. Erdel was genuinely sad about that, I think. In his twisted way he was very fond of Barry. It didn't stop him from killing him, of course.

"Even though his usefulness as a test subject ended months ago, I *had* become rather fond of him," Erdel observed dispassionately as he pressed a certain button on his remote computer link. "Still," he smiled, "I did discover something worthwhile from studying him, after all." I will forever remember the sight of the fiery blaze that sprang up around Barry's body as he hurtled forward, moving at superspeed, racing for Erdel's throat. That...and the smell of burning flesh. I'm going to take that smell to my gave, I fear.

"Namely," Erdel continued, quite as if he were lecturing to a classroom bursting with eager students, "the electrochemical 'aura' that his body generates to protect him from friction. I learned how to measure to duplicate it..."

Erdel didn't even pause as he pronounced his death sentence.

" ... and how to neutralize it." he said.

Barry's last word, murmured as he burned hideously was a name.

"Iris... "

It was easy for Barbara to locate Iris West, Barry's former fiancee. She is a well known reporter for the Central City Picture News. I hesitated for quite some time before I dared approach her, though. How would she react to my terrible news, I wondered? In which direction might her grief push her? Toward *me*? Or toward the State? But, in the end, I had to speak. Surely, I owed Barry that much, at least. As it happens, I needn't have worried. Iris West was as brave as she was lovely. And she was no fool. No stranger to the truth about the Privy Council and its abuses of power. She knew nothing of the Project, I discovered, not very much to my surprise. I watched her eyes widen with horror as I told her that Barry had not died in that laboratory accident as she was told. And then rage consumed her when I told her of his fate at the hands of Erdel. Her hands balled into fists as she wept.

Merciful many, many angry people.

Where does it end? Where?

Barry was already dead when I fought the clay-faced thing Erdel called "Matthew". Fought...and lost. The malleable, speechless creature held me firmly in its grasp, entrapped, as Erdel directed it toward his private lab. To my everlasting horror, I realized that he meant to "examine" me. He thought I was more than human, thanks to my hard learned skill at protecting myself. He was wrong about that. But, stubbornly, he refused to be persuaded otherwise. Defiantly, I swore that there would always be people like me, like Barry; people who resisted both him and the State.

"Perhaps," he admitted with a rueful glance at my stiff back, my determined visage, not entirely hidden by my cowl. "But, if so, then we'll deal with them..." Grandly, with his own pointed show of defiance, he swung open the doors to his lab and "Matthew" pushed me through.

" this!" Erdel cried.

The body hanging from its cross of medical equipment was a bright unnatural shade of green. The man, if such he was, lay still and lifeless on his cross like Christ, Our Lord at his crucifixion. A stray curl of unruly dark hair spilled onto his high forehead. My heart clenched at the piteous sight; he looked so very young. Somehow, without being told I knew that something extraordinary had been taken from out of our poor world; ripped untimely from the fabric of Creation.

Something...someone important; perhaps irreplaceable. At the look of utter devastation that seized my face, Saul Erdel tapped his teeth with a sad contemplative finger.

"A God fearing couple in Kansas found him, and turned him over to us. Most powerful specimen I've ever studied," he mused. "An astonishing array of abilities. The older he got, the more powerful he seemed to become..." The light glinted off the lenses of his round, polished glasses under the lab's harsh actinic lighting.

"...and the more rebellious," Erdel stressed, turning his pointed gaze once more upon me.

"He became more and more difficult to control until, finally, we had to eliminate the threat by using a bit of radioactive debris we discovered on the spacecraft he was found in."

Sorrow ground me beneath its cruel heel. I swear that tears misted my eyes, burning hot and scalding to my chill cheeks. I did not try to stop them. Tragedies need to be wept over. An unfathomable sense of loss, of hope destroyed and discarded, almost overwhelmed me. With an aching heart I recalled Charles McNider's words of warning not to place my faith in the myth of 'the Green Man'...

I embraced my rage then, all the anger that I had spent half my life denying, struggling against. It if I were whole for the first time in my life...

God forgive me...I - I killed that thing Erdel called "Matthew". Deliberately. A laboratory is an odd, useful place; in more ways than one. If a man is clever he never lacks for an appropriate weapon in such surroundings. I used a tank of liquid nitrogen to literally freeze "Matthew" and then I - I picked up a heavy office chair and shattered him. Perhaps God will forgive me. But I cannot forgive myself. Staring in horror at the remains of what must have once been a human soul, I swore yet another oath. Never again. Never again would I take life. That was for God alone to decide. Not me.

During the struggle, Erdel drew a gun. When "Matthew" was dead, he threatened me with it, promising to run his tests on my corpse if need be. Lashing out, I struck his arm, throwing off his aim. Dropping to the safety of the floor, I heard several shots ring out, saw the bullets strike the Green Man on his cross...

And ricochet off.

Erdel was hit high in the chest, in the heart, by one of the ricocheting shots. He must have died almost instantly. The poetic irony struck me hard, almost like a physical blow. Erdel had not stripped The Green man of all his power along with his life, after all. Instead, he had found his own sudden death. God's justice, if you will.

I looked upon the man hanging on his cross and a small, soft smile blossomed at the corners of my mouth. Somehow, though, without being told, I knew that this was not the way he would have wanted it. To be the death of another person, I suspected, even inadventently like this, would have shamed and horrifed, him, I think.

Gently, as if I feared to cause him further pain, I lifted him down from his cross of sorrow and woe. He was still warm to my touch. Death could not have come for him, taken him in her fierce embrace, very long ago.

Oh, God...

If only I'd come sooner...I might have saved him. Oh, God...

If only...

I had no sacraments to offer, and my only vestment was the dark costume I wore to conceal my identity; the one my father had once worn when he portrayed a demon in a local passion play. But still...still, I found my lips moving, whispering the sacred words, administering the Last Rites, Extreme Unction. I am, after all, God's priest.

"O God, please send down from Heaven the Holy Spirit into this rich oil...may all who are anointed with this heavenly medicine be protected in soul and body..."

I did not even know his name as I commended his soul unto the care of Almighty God. Since I did not have a name to call him, I named him from my heart. I called him, "my brother". And he was. I touched his forehead as if my fingers had been immersed in Holy Oil, as, indeed, they should have been for this heartrending task. My hands shook as I made the sign of the Cross upon his bared breast and my eyes burned with unshed tears. God forgive me...grief is a selfish thing. Death need not be a time of loss and sorrow. Indeed, it should be a joy. My brother was Home; in a better place than this veil of tears. How could he not be happy? It was only those left behind who mourn.

I stumbled upon Garth in his watery prison not long after that. He was pounding on the transparent steel of his cage, face distorted in fury, screaming soundless wrath. It didn't take me long to hack my way into Erdel's computer, disengage the access ports and free the amphibious youngster. Together with Arthur, we managed to elude our would be captors.

That was more than two years ago. Many things have changed since then.

As I took my leave of the Project, I swore one last vow to myself: I would return and free as many of those poor, trapped souls as I could. God's mercy...if only I'd known...if only...

But, once again, it took Barbara's massive skills with a computer keyboard to reveal to me the true depths of my folly. And my failure.

With Erdel's death, the Privy Council availed itself of the God-sent opportunity to review the Project. For all his ruthlessness, Erdel had few actual successes. Barry was dead. Likewise for "Matthew" and the Green Man. Arthur was catatonic. Garth was...gone. Whereabouts unknown. Most of the rest of them were detritus...mere human wreckage; failures to be...discarded. Which is precisely what happened to them.

I was too late. By the time I was in any position to help them...most of them were already dead. Put to death by the State as "useless".

The new Chief of the Project, Doctor Hugo Strange, took over with a vengeance. A psychologist, Strange seems to have concentrated on the psi-subjects. His methods, less brutal, more sophisticated than Erdel's clumsy machinations, have resulted in no more "broken" subjects like Arthur. Once he has created a subject, Strange does not waste them as Erdel did. But he, not being the physical scientist that Erdel was, has had only limited success in creating subjects, according to Barbara.

Limited, yes...but he has been successful.

Strange calls him "Adam". He is, in Strange's words, "The first of a new breed of men..." Oddly enough, that appears to be his real name; Adam Blake. Gifted with massive psionic abilities ranging from telepathy to telekinesis, Adam Blake is a mutant; born "100,000 years before his time..." if Strange is to be believed. His mother was a "volunteer" and the only thing she remembers about Adam's birth is the unusual comet that passed overhead as she delivered her child into Strange's greedy, waiting hands.

Oh, yes; I'm still going back to the Project. There is yet work to be done there. Soon. I've learned my lesson the hard way. No more waiting.

I wear many hats these days. To my parishioners in Gotham's downtrodden South Side parish, I am "Father Bruce", the minister of their souls, devout young priest, always willing to extend the hand of mercy in their time of need or sorrow. Always willing to lend an ear when I cannot help them in any other, more concrete way. They are good people, for the most part, my parishioners. Truly the "salt of the Earth". It is my joy, my privilege to care for them. It takes so little, so heartbreakingly little to make them happy. Sometimes a smile, a warm touch from another human being is all it requires. And they tell me things. Many, sometimes useful things.

"Oh, Father Bruce!" whispered Rene Montoya in my confessional less than a week ago. She was a very angry Inquisitor, indeed. "The word's come down from the Council...there's to be a pogrom against suspected Jews within the month! My neighbor...old Mrs. Levy...oh, Father! She's a good woman! When I was hurt last year, she brought me chicken soup by the gallon for weeks until I was better. She visited me in the hospital. They'll...they'll expect me to arrest her! What - what am I going to do, Father?"

"We must all follow our conscience, child," I remember telling her carefully. "You must do as God wills."

When the pogrom came...there were no Jews in all of Gotham's Southside to be swept up in the insanity. We got them all to the safety of Common Europe and freedom.

Including Mrs. Levy. Renee did indeed "follow her conscience".

Yes, they tell me things. And I tell them things...

The Greenberg family have been Christians for more than a generation. They converted at gunpoint during the Nauvoo Massacre after the fall of Zion State around the Great Salt Lake far to the West. Like many Jews, the Greenberg's followed their great spiritual leader Lewis "Moses" Brandeis when he tried to lead them away from oppression. Of Brandeis they still say, "From Moses to Moses...there was no one like Moses..." They wandered for years, chased by dogged hatred and the Church from place to place until they settled in their Zion State and tried to make a home for themselves. At best, Zion State was a poor, frantic attempt at escaping their misery for many Americans of Jewish descent. They had no hope of succeeding, resisting the Army of the Commonwealth that descended upon them almost instantly. They fought valiantly. But they lost. When the Greenberg's moved back to Gotham in the aftermath of that horror, they put their Hebrew roots aside for the sake of survival. They had been loyal citizens ever since...

Not that this would have saved them. The loyalty of "converted" Jews is always suspect. The Greenbergs, all ten of them, might have been killed. Imprisoned at the very least. The Batman woke them from their beds in the middle of a hot, stifling Gotham night, falling in among them like Moses' pillar of fire. Standing before his wife to protect her, I heard Isaac Greenberg mutter hastily beneath his breath the words of the "Shema Yisrael", and I smiled.

I could give them no time to gather any but the most rudimentary of their possessions. A few clothes, a pitiful toy or two for the youngest children, that was all. Isaac Greenberg was a hardworking man, quite successful for a Jew. He and his family would be leaving behind them a cozy home, all their friends, everything; all the security they had ever known. Little as that was. But Isaac Greenberg actually smiled as he faced me, small suitcase in hand.

"Eretz Israel!" he exclaimed, clutching his wife's hand with joy. "If we can make it to Common Europe, then we can go from there to Eretz Israel! Just think of it, Hava! 'Next year in Jerusalem'!"

I pray they made it.

Yes, many things have changed. Not least of all *me*. Thank God for Barbara. Barbara Gordon has been a Godsend beyond words. I grew up with Barbara, Jim Gordon's daughter. She's like my younger sister. When Jim came to me, broken and grieving, after the "accident" that shattered her spine and nearly took her life, I was horrified. I spent hours talking to her or simply holding her hand as she slowly - so slowly! - recovered from her terrible injuries.

Jim Gordon is still convinced that Barbara was not mugged and raped by gangbangers, then shot and left for dead. Another "tragic accident"? Jim and I think not. Hot tears cascaded as tough veteran Inquisitor Jim Gordon's choked voice whispered to me of the many warnings, official and *un*official, that he'd too blithely ignored.

" little girl..." he wept, " poor little fault...all my fault..." In the end, he gave her like a precious gift into my hands.

"Take care of her, Bruce," he pleaded with me, not really daring to hope that I would do as he asked. It hurt me to hear such a proud man, my friend despite all that lay between us, beg for a boon he did not expect to receive. How could I refuse him?

And all the while that I struggled with her through the torturous physical therapy that followed, I grew angrier and angrier as I watched her pain and suffering. I myself despaired many, many times, but I could not let her see that.

But Barbara herself never gave up. Never. Her spirit overcame the frailty of her poor, shattered body. She is strong, now. Very strong. No, she cannot walk. God has taken that from her. No longer do her racing feet fly about her daily business, her lithe, strong muscles carry her to gymnastic victory. But she has survived; and her wheelchair has no handles in the back because she needs, nor accepts no help from anyone.

Yes, survived...and found new purpose in her life.

Barbara can no longer be the superb athlete she once was. But she has brought her many years of experience as a librarian and researcher into the forefront. From the moment she first sat down before a computer keyboard, it was a match made in Heaven. The Oracle is as well known in many circles as the Batman. Surreptitiously sliding unknown and with effortless ease into one database after another, Oracle gathers and disseminates information, the lifeblood of freedom. "Knowledge is power," Francis Bacon says, and Barbara is living proof of that. I cannot imagine what I would do without her. Gone are the days of misusing Judson's pilfered access code, and I am glad of that. In the beginning, I lived in mortal terror of the possibility that Bishop Caspian might be made to suffer for my "crimes".

Wayne Manor is a home again. Not *my* home, I fear. The Church, my parish, is my home, now. But a home, nonetheless. After I escaped from the Project, I was in desperate need of a place to shelter Arthur and Garth. What, after all, was I to do with them? My first thought was to encourage them to return to the sea, their home. There they would be safe from the State, I thought. As safe as anyone ever is. But Arthur was in no condition to fend for himself, and Garth, though he has strength enough to bend steel in those frail looking hands of his, knows nothing of life in the sea. He was held captive all his life until now. How would they survive? But Garth is very intelligent and determined. He WILL be free. Day by day he learns and prepares to make his home in his natural element.


Somewhere out there in the vast ocean depths, there must be others. Others like Arthur and Garth and Lori. Garth has vowed to find them.


In the meantime, he and Arthur have made themselves comfortable in the pool in the basement of Wayne Manor. Garth's telepathic abilities seem to be limited to sea creatures...but then, Arthur *is* a gift of "Father Poseidon", Garth points out. The boy's telepathy has been invaluable in assisting Alfred and Doctor Thompkins to care for and even help Arthur. Arthur has yet to speak aloud. But he no longer simply floats in aimless catatonia, and Garth says that Arthur is beginning to speak to him telepathically. There is yet hope for Arthur. I remember the tears in Barry's eyes, and for the thousandth time, I find myself wishing that he were here to see this. It would have made him so happy to see Arthur smile.

It wasn't hard to find Alfred, and persuade him to return to Wayne Manor. And with him he brought Doctor Leslie Thompkins. Leslie is a marvel. Of an age with Alfred, she has the same calm, tireless energy as Alfred when it comes to serving her patients. Officially, Wayne Manor is a clinic, now. The Thomas and Martha Wayne Memorial Clinic. By day, Leslie and Alfred see to the needs of the Holy Elite and Gotham's wealthiest citizens, charging them outrageously for the privilege.

By night...

By night, Leslie Thompkins is Doctor Midnight, the midnight doctor, who treats society's outcasts, those poor souls who have no other place to turn; victims of the State's many abuses and excesses. She wanders ghostlike wherever she is most needed, treating her suffering patients where she may find them. And she is not alone. Always, Alfred is at her side.

It was, without question, the happiest day of my life when Alfred and Leslie stood before me. Blessing their marriage was the single most joyous thing I have ever done. tall and dignified in his tuxedo...and radiant in her bridal finery, every seam meticulously sewn for her by her doting groom's own hands...

Thanks to them, Wayne Manor is a home again, as it was always meant to be. The lower levels have been taken over by the finest, most modern, up to date, medical equipment and even a small surgery, but the upper levels, the upper levels are a home, a place for family. And the family keeps expanding, a growing organic thing.

Barbara is a part of that family. So am I. It is very strange to find myself an integral, treasured part of a living family. But, at the same time, I find it and comfortable, too. Besides her companionship and her courage when I need it, Barbara has granted me many gifts, many boons that are uniquely *hers*.

She has given me knowledge of "my brother" and I am more at peace with his spirit, now.

His name was Clark. Clark Joseph Kent. Only Barbara could have hacked the datafiles of the Project so completely. The records are quite detailed. For hours, I poured over dry statistics, scanned photograph after photograph in my futile, desperate quest to understand him. Many astonishing things came to light. What must it have been like to fly like that? To soar through God's Heaven, unfettered by the merciless bonds of gravity? How would it feel to be so free? I shall never know.

But *he* did.

They never found a way to accurately measure his strength. In all the early pictures and film footage they have of him, he is laughing and smiling, that single dark curl dangling boyishly into his eyes, dancing in merry abandon. In later's almost as if the years began to overwhelm him, press him down, like the Greek myth of Atlas, bearing the weight of the world on his shoulders. He stopped smiling.

But what I was looking for was not here, in these endless recordings of solar radiation levels and energy conversion phenomena. I must look elsewhere for my answers, I decided. Armed with names, I set out upon my quest. His parents: Jonathan and Martha Kent of Smallville, Kansas.

I've never been quite sure why I had to meet the Kents. I only knew that I must. I had to look into their eyes when I told them what had happened to heir son. It was essential that I know how they felt. And most important of all, *why* they had done as they did. What could have possessed them to give Clark to the State, I wondered? Simple greed, as in the case of Tom Curry? It was important that I know before I...acted.

Yes, I had to see their eyes.

Meeting the Kents was an unsettling experience. I'm not certain what I was expecting...hard bitten purveyors of child-flesh? Monsters, perhaps? Whatever my expectations *this* was surely not it. Gazing into Martha Kent's mild and guileless wide blue eyes, I was to be sorely shaken.

"Why, come in, Father," she invited me into their small, cozy home on one of Smallville's main streets. "What can we do for you, reverend?" Her softly accented Midwestern voice echoed with graciousness and kindness. No, not what I was expecting in the least. Hardly the voice of a monster.

Jonathan Kent was a storekeeper, owner of Kent's General Store, I discovered. Martha wiped her hands on her ever present apron and served me tart, fresh squeezed lemonade and cookies. She smiled, aglow with happiness as she neatly replaced a loose stray strand of silver-white hair in her prim bun. She peered at me eagerly over the top of her rounded wire framed spectacles.

"Is this about Clark, Father?" she'd inquired, full of hope. "It's been so long since we heard anything from him! Any news you might have would be a blessing!"

I'd nodded, slowly, avoiding her clear blue eyes. "Yes," I admitted in a grave, hesitant voice, "'s about Clark..."

Her face lit up. "Let me call my husband, Jonathan!" she cried, still joyous, and my heart lurched at the sight of her beaming face. "He'll want to hear this, too, Father!"

As I patiently waited, I glanced about the small room, neat and tidy as a pin. On the mantle and on the walls, my eyes brought me the sight of picture after picture of a young, dark haired boy, smiling and laughing, with a familiar unruly curl flopping into his eyes. Clutching a pitcher's mitt with a bat slung over his shoulder in one picture...rolling on the lawn and playing tug - o - war with a little white mongrel pup in another...dressed in his Sabbath best carrying a Bible underneath his arm.

Jonathan Kent's hand, when I shook it, was strong and broad, with blunt powerful fingers; the hands of a skilled craftsman, a workman or...a farmer. I recalled, then, that the pleasant storekeeper used to *be* a farmer. He'd had to give up his farm when a heart attack felled him less than six months after he and his wife had relinquished their son Clark to the State. "Overwork," Kent's physician warned him. "A farm is just too much work for a man your age to do alone, Jonathan," pronounced Doc Whitney in solemn tones. "You'll kill yourself if you keep trying."

Somehow, I managed to tell them; to pry the words out of my slow, reluctant mouth. This wasn't right. Not the way it was supposed to be.

I couldn't shake the overwhelming feeling that swept over me like a tide that this whole thing was just *wrong*.

So very, very *wrong*...

Martha Kent backed away from me, as if distance could spare her the pain of my now unwanted news. Blinded by tears, the silver haired woman stumbled across the room, grabbing a wooden cigar box. With shaking fingers she opened the box, casting a pleading look at me that came close to sinking me in a yawning quagmire of despair.

"N-no," she cried. "No! It - it can't be true! Look! See? We - we have letters from Clark..." She ran her hands through the great pile of letters in the box, all written on plain, buff, very official looking government stationery. They flowed through her trembling fingers like water. "L-letters," she insisted. "Letters...all saying how happy he was in that government they were helping him to learn to control his abilities..."

I had to look astray from the devastation in her eyes.

But not before I saw the box full of pitiable, lying letters clatter to the floor from her numb, suddenly nerveless fingers, spilling its contents like a dark stain of blood on the colorful expanse of Martha Kent's pristine clean parlor rug.

I sat down heavily on one of her embroidered couch cushions when Martha Kent burst into tears. Many times as God's priest I am called upon to comfort the bereaved; the dying and those left behind. not very good at it. It's not one of my strong points. Judson once told me that I feel things too deeply, that I cannot bring myself to merely parrot empty, many times meaningless, words of consolation in the face of tragedy and despair. Perhaps he's right. I only know that there were no words that could have reached *me* when my parents were taken from me...and so I remain silent. A strange thing in a priest, Barbara says.

Taking his wife in his loving arms, Jonathan Kent guided her to the other end of the couch, holding her tightly against the pain. As if she were drowning she clung to him, weeping softly from the heart, as if she might never stop. She buried her head on his chest to muffle her sobs.

"Oh, Lord God, forgive me," she pleaded brokenly, "Oh Lord...Oh Lord...what have I done? What in mercy's name have I done?" Jonathan stroked her hair, and blinked back his own tears. He was trying so very hard to be strong for very, very hard...

I have rarely felt so...inadequate...sitting there staring at my spasming hands, trying not to intrude on their grief, but feeling that I should do *something* - *anything* -

"Martha, honey," Jonathan soothed her, "hush, now. Shhhhh. We - we *both* decided it would be best to let Clark go with those government fellas."

"No such of a thing, Jonathan Kent!" Martha maintained stoutly. With a corner of her apron she dabbed at her glistening eyes, drying her tears.

She looked up at me, willing me to understand, to see and accept her guilt.

Still leaning into her husband's embrace, she closed her eyes in remembered pain. "Jonathan never wanted to do it," she insisted. It seemed very important to her that I understand Jonathan's innocence. "He was dead set against letting Clark go with those - those - *men*. But I! I wouldn't hear any different! From the moment we found Clark, Jonathan and I both knew that he was different...special...'Jonathan Kent,' I said to him, 'that boy has a destiny! And it's not here working this little patch of ground in Smallville, Kansas!'"

Jonathan nodded in affirmation, kissing her silver hair. "And I had to agree with you. Why, he was only ten years old when he left us, but already the things that boy could do!" His face crumpled into lines of worry and sorrow. "But - but I think they scared him, too, those things. He was always afraid of hurting other folks. And he wasn't sure what he should do with those wonderful gifts the good Lord gave him. He - he *wanted* to go with those fellas. They promised to teach him and to let him use his powers where they'd do the most good..."

Martha burst into tears once more, burrowing into her husband's broad shoulder. "Oh, God, forgive me," she wept, "God forgive me! My poor little poor, poor little boy...he was such a sweet child...our little Gift from Heaven...our little Angel sent to us directly from God..."

I had to say something. My dry throat worked, but it was several moments before words emerged past my reluctant lips.

"Mrs. Kent," I told her softly, "you never had a choice. If you'd refused to let Clark go, they'd just have taken him anyway. There wasn't anything you could have done to stop them. Nothing. Don't torture yourself this way. Cl-Clark wouldn't have wanted you to do that."

Her eyes softened. "Th-thank you, Father. He never even cried, you know, like most babies do. The only time I ever saw him cry was when he was about three. He got restless in his playpen and broke the bars to get out. When I saw him, I turned him over my knee to spank him, I surely did! 'Spare the rod, spoil the child' the Good Book says. The only thing I hurt, as it turned out, was myself. I broke two fingers spanking him gently on the bottom. I don't think he even felt it. But that's when he began to cry. 'Me hurted Mommy!' he kept sniffling. 'Me hurted Mommy!'"

"The boy was special, and that's a fact," agreed a sad Jonathan. "From the second I saw that - that - *thing* come a thunderin' down out of God's Heaven, I knew that. Martha was right. He belonged to the whole world. At first, we didn't know what to think. What with all this news about a 'space race' with Common Europe and capsules up in outer space and all, why we were down right puzzled. I mean to say, who'd be cruel enough to send a poor helpless little baby up into space, I ask you? First we figured it was them European folks and all what done it. But, after a bit, it became plain to us that Clark never came from *this* world, no siree."

I talked with them for a bit more before I took my leave of them. Was I wrong to accept their eager offer of aid? Did I take advantage of their grief and loss? Perhaps I did. But I know that the Kents are at peace, now, with what happened to Clark. And there are more than a hundred people, some of them metas, some of them just ordinary people, condemned by the Holy Elite for their lifestyle or their politics or their religion who are alive today because Martha and Jonathan Kent of Smallville, Kansas sheltered them and helped them find their way to safety outside the American Commonwealth. People like the Greenbergs.

Is it right for me to accept their help when it might cost them so much? Their very lives, even? Does it matter that they do it willingly? I did not recruit the Kents into my own personal Underground Railroad. No, I did not. They volunteered.

Still...the question haunts me.

How did it happen, I sometimes ask myself? How did I begin this dangerous habit of collecting people? The outcasts, the walking wounded of this less than perfect world we all inhabit? An elderly, mourning Kansas farm couple...a catatonic, aquatic telepath and his angry offspring...a woman who'd never even been given the chance to be a widow...a crippled orphaned nine year old Gypsy boy who burns for revenge like a star...the battered pieces of a shattered killer Angel...

They all have a home now at Wayne Manor. Sometimes I almost feel as though *I'm* the one who doesn't belong there anymore. Wayne Manor was Bruce Wayne's home. And more and more Bruce Wayne, "Father Bruce", is a lie; a charade I perpetrate to hide The Batman. And...and that frightens me. I must not lose sight of Bruce Wayne in the kaleidoscopic hodgepodge that is my life, now. I must not. And yet it would be so easy to do. So very, very easy to do.

The future is uncertain. How long can I maintain this facade? This playing at rebellion like a child? And what happens if I'm caught? What happens to me in that instance isn't important. It will be swift and painful. But what of the others? What becomes of them?

Dick wants to help. In the way of children, he is immortal in his own eyes, and does not realize, I think, what it is he is asking of me. Still, it's a tempting offer. I'm not sure how it came about that the Flying Graysons of Haley's Circus found themselves stranded upon American shores. The Rom are not welcome here. All Dick can remember are the Inquisitors who descended upon the visiting European circus troupe and arrested them all as "foreign spies". John and Mary Grayson were hauled off to a "reeducation" camp, after signing confessions admitting to espionage against the Commonwealth.

Dick was placed in an "orphanage" - another name for a juvenile detention center. There he was "processed" and forgotten about, merely one of hundreds. God knows what would have happened to him if he hadn't run away. He still refuses to talk about the things that were done to him there in that awful place. When Alfred found him hiding in an abandoned, condemned building, he hadn't eaten in two days and was feverish. He brought him home to the safety of Wayne Manor, and he's been there ever since.

The distressing thing is that Dick would make an excellent partner for the Batman. He's a highly skilled acrobat, and even at his tender age, he's managed to teach me a trick or two. He has a natural flare for gymnastics, and with some intense training he could prove to be a formidable fighter, indeed. And he is a brave little boy. Perhaps too brave. A natural athlete and he's almost frightfully intelligent, too. A deadly combination, as I have good reason to know. could I, in good conscience, involve a child in my dangerous, very adult games?

And would help Dick, I think, to deal with his anger about what was done to his parents, to be able to avenge them in some concrete fashion. Otherwise, he will never be free of the guilt of surviving them, and his anger will twist and distort him into...something unpleasant.

I know about *that*, too.

Dick is a very focused, but still boisterous, little boy.

Jean-Paul, on the other hand, is quiet. Too quiet. He rarely speaks. Like an eerie shadow, he moves noiselessly about the Manor, scarcely even disturbing the dust. He is not human. Not even remotely. For all his human, even comely, appearance nothing entirely human is that graceful or quick. A genetic construct, built with a bit of *this* gene from that animal for speed and endurance, a slice of *that* DNA sequence from that beast for great strength, Jean-Paul is Hugo Strange's penultimate achievement. He does not even really have a name.

Strange called him Azrael after the Angel of Vengeance and Destruction, because that's the purpose for which he was created. It was Barbara who named him Jean-Paul.

"Doesn't he look like a Jean-Paul to you, Bruce?" she smiled, when I asked her why she chose that name.

Yes, Jean-Paul is a shy and bookish young man, appealing and eager to learn and please, sometimes reticent to the point of silence. *Azrael* is another matter entirely.

Azrael is death for the enemies of the Holy Elite. Programmed almost from conception, Azrael is The Holy Avenger, sent to destroy the enemies of the State. Strange called the process of psychological and physical torture with which Azrael was "trained", "the System", and I have seen it's results in action. Without blinking an eye, I saw him kill almost two dozen heavily armed and trained Inquisitor SWAT troops, the so called Hosts of Heaven, in less than a minute when he escaped from the Project.

I am not a man who is easily frightened. But Azrael frightens me.

Jean-Paul, though, is like a lost child. He is the one who is left behind in his private anguish, his own personal slice of Hell, when Azrael abandons him in the wake of the ruins, the dead and the dying, that he leaves in his wake. Barbara is the only one who isn't afraid of him. All the others avoid him when they can. It was her idea to teach Jean-Paul about computers. It seems that there's quite an agile mind lurking beneath that mane of long blond hair. He's almost as good a hacker as Barbara now. Barbara smiles at him and always treats him like a person instead of the *thing* he feels himself to be. He's devoted to her.

He loves her, I think.

I find it strangely satisfying to know that if I fall, when I'm gone, if they come for Alfred and Leslie and Barbara, especially Barbara, they will face Azrael. Poetic justice, that. Fitting that the State should find vengeance at the hands of the "Angel" they created for that purpose, is it not?

Still, I am troubled. This crusade of mine cannot last forever. Even with the help of Barbara, Alfred, Leslie, the Kents and so many others, things move too slowly. We are so limited in what we may accomplish. A life saved here, a family rescued heartbreakingly little. Mere drops of water in a desert of pain and oppression. Quixote fighting his windmill 'giants'...there are not enough of us. We don't have the sheer power we need to overcome the vast numbers of the Holy Elite arrayed against us. All we can do chip away at the edifice of the State and look to the future. If only...

...if only Clark had lived...

"Hello, Clark."

Sitting on the stone bench in the private gardens of Wayne Manor, I smooth the creases of my soutane with a sigh. I lay a single rose on the well tended grave here in this place of natural beauty. "I know I haven't come to talk to you for a long time, and I'm really sorry about that. I've...been busy." I closed my eyes. "I need your help, brother. I - I have a big decision to make...and I can't make it alone. Since it concerns your foster parents, the Kent's, I knew you'd want to hear this. What am I going to do? For myself, my course is set. I'll keep fighting; doing what I can here and there. No, don't worry. I'll continue to fight the good fight. I can't quit, now. But the others? What am I going to do about the others? When I began this thing, I never meant to involve, to endanger, anyone but myself. But now..."

What was it that betrayed them? Was it some slight sound or movement? Even now, I cannot say. But suddenly, I knew that I was not alone here in this private place. I could feel, with some unguessed at sense, the presence of another. I have learned to trust my instincts in these matters. They have always stood me in good stead; saved my life on more than one occasion, to be sure. Silently, I rose from the bench and looked about, tense, prepared to strike if I must. There. Among those flowering hydrangea bushes; a flicker of movement.

My voice, when I spoke, was deeper, harsher than the voice of "Father Bruce".

"Whoever you are, you're trespassing on private property. Don't be foolish. Come out, now, and maybe we can talk."

For long moments, I thought I'd been ignored. A great chasm of silence opened itself and threatened to engulf me. But, then, as if a reluctant, rueful decision had been reached, the bushes shook themselves, trembling as if in a stiff breeze. The figure that emerged seconds later was surprising in more ways than one. She was tall, with the most amazing head of flaming red hair that I have ever seen. Brighter, even, than Barbara's and I would have sworm that was impossible. My eyes widened. Holding her hands out before her, I suppose to show that she was unarmed, she held her ground and stared at me.

She was not afraid. I would take an oath on that. Her jade green eyes were clear and unclouded by fear. She seemed to be struggling to reach a hard decision. I could certainly sympathize with that. With a sigh, she spoke at last. "I hope to God Jonathan and Martha were right about you," she said simply. "Otherwise, I'm sooo dead."

Her gaze never flinched as she said it. And neither did mine as I considered the implications of her statement. Trust is not an easy thing for me. Twice I have trusted the world to be a just place, to make sense and be a safe haven...and twice I've had my world mutilated by the brutal violation of that trust. When my parents were murdered...and when Jim Gordon shattered the hard won serenity of my belief in the Holy Elite.

*Could* I trust her? Dare I? It could be a trap, of course. Had my haphazard network been penetrated by the Privy Council? Had she been sent to lure me into open defiance and confession?


But staring into her eyes, I was again forced to trust my instincts. And the pain and grief I saw there were quite genuine.

"Who are you?" I asked softly.

She frowned. "My name is Lana. Lana Lang. I'm from Smallville, originally. But until last week, I hadn't been home in a long time. When they took Clark...they took me, too. I was the proverbial 'girl next door', the 'little girl who lived down the lane'. My family owned the neighboring farm less than three miles from the Kents. Clark and I grew up together. I was...very fond of Clark. And he was fond of me. That's why they took me, in the beginning. Toward the they killed him, I was one of the ways they kept him in line. By threatening me."

The anger in her eyes caught fire and smoldered like banked coals. Her hands knotted themselves into fists at her side before she forced herself to relax.

"It wasn't your fault, Lana," I told her. "You had no choice."

"Yes, I did," she whispered. "I - I could have...I could have - " her voice trailed off leaving the sentence unfinished. Her meaning was plain, though. Resolution and determination flowed like a clear stream into her pale face, lightly dusted with freckles. "And I tried; I did! But, I blew it; didn't do a good job of it. And Clark...Clark was so hurt, so sad...I never found the courage to try it again."

The Church teaches us that suicide is a Mortal Sin; taking into your own hands a matter meant for only Almighty God himself to decide. I tried not to imagine the pain and guilt that must have tormented this vital woman to drive her to such a thing.

"And when we were older, the Project found...other uses for me." She looked away in haste, color rising in her alabaster cheeks. "At first, they thought that Clark was a mutant. And Erdel wanted to see if the mutation would breed true. They even married us with a priest and everything. Clark wouldn't have it any other way. My proper name is Lana Kent." Her eyes misted with tears she was too proud to shed. "Thank God, I never - I never - they tried everything. When the natural way didn't seem to be working, I was forcibly impregnated artificially about half a dozen times. The last time almost killed me. But nothing seemed to work."

If I'd harbored any doubts, they vanished, then. This pain was too raw, like an open, bleeding wound, to be feigned.

Taking her hand, I led her to the ornamental stone bench and sat her down carefully, gently. She lay her head on my shoulder, and for a long time we simply sat there, wordlessly basking in one another's healing presence. I'm not sure how long we sat there, but eventually Lana Kent raised her head.

"I'm sorry, Father," she apologized, "believe me, I didn't come here just to burden you with another sad story. God knows there are enough of those already without me adding to them. The past is the past. It's the future that counts. And that's why I'm here. I - I seduced one of my guards and ran away from the Project. Jonathan and Martha sent me straight here. They told me you could use my help."

My reluctance, my unhappiness must have shown in my face. I opened my lips to find some gentle way of discouraging her, but she was having none of it. She lay a determined finger on my lips to silence me.

"No, Father, hear me out." She barely waited for my tiny nod of agreement before she plunged in with both feet. I was to discover that this was Lana's way. No half measures for the lady from Smallville. It was all or nothing with her. "You see, I didn't escape alone. There's someone you need to met." Lifting her eyes into the trees, she looked about.

"Kon?" she called softly. "Kon, you can come down, now."

My eyes widened at the sight of the young boy, clad in a colorful red and blue bodysuit, who came drifting down out of the trees. As lightly as a feather, he touched the ground and stood waiting, alert but trusting. It wasn't until he grinned that I gasped and found myself very glad that I was already seated. I'm sure I would have fallen and embarrassed myself otherwise. I'd seen that face before. In photo after photo on Martha Kent's mantelpiece, and the walls of her small home. Again, I tried not to imagine what Lana Kent's first sight of this boy must have been like for her. To see the shadow of the man she loved, lost to her, in this youth must have been painful beyond belief. Lana was a much stronger woman that I'd ever suspected.

"Dear *God*," I choked.

"He's a clone," Lana said calmly, answering my unvoiced question. "Like most of Strange's subjects, he doesn't really have a name. But I call him Konal. Konal Kent."

The garishly clad youth crossed his arms over his chest, and regarded me with a happy, cocky smirk. "*You* can call me Superboy," he cracked. "The one, the only; accept no substitutes!"

"When nothing else seemed to do the job, they tried to clone Clark," Lana hastened to explain. "Turns out they didn't exactly succeed at that, either. But Konal is as close as they could humanly come. When I decided to vacate the Project, the last thing I did was spring Kon from his rapid age acceleration chamber." She grinned mischievously and her green eyes twinkled merrily. "He was supposed to be decanted fully grown, but I - ah - rescued him a bit early, I'm afraid. He's going through a 'punk' phase, right now. But don't worry, he'll grow out of it."

"Hey!" the boy cried indignantly.

Lana smiled. "Why don't you show Father Bruce what you can do, kiddo?"

The boy's return grin was infectious. With a loud cry of, "You got it, babe!" he rose into the air and began weaving his way through the overhanging tree branches like an obstacle course.

But it was when he landed again and hefted the heavy stone bench with the two of us still seated upon it over his head effortlessly that I was most impressed.

"And he's pretty much impervious to physical harm, too," Lana informed me, pleased to relay such good news. "I think he could be very useful, don't you?"

I nodded absently, plans already birthing themselves like Athena from the brow of Zeus in my busy mind.

"And speaking of 'useful'," Lana remarked with a certain smugness, "I'm not exactly chopped liver, myself. When I wasn't of any further use to them with Clark, I became just another subject to be experimented upon. So they did."

From her shoulders, multifaceted wings sprouted, and from her forehead insect-like antenna elongated themselves into twitching life. "They doused me with all kinds of insect enzymes and cell extracts," she claimed. "I can morph myself now into just about any kind of insect form I can imagine. And I've been studying entomology pretty seriously to get a better grasp of my potential abilities. I can help you, too...*Batman*."

"I'm ready to take names and kick butt, dude!" bragged the brash, self proclaimed 'Superboy', and I had to smile.

My decision was made almost instantly, without any hesitation at all, really. Here at last was a real chance to effectively strike back at the Holy Elite. Real power to bring the State to its knees. Lana and Konal were both watching me carefully, tense and anxious as they impatiently waited for my answer. The prayer that left my lips then was the first genuine prayer of thanksgiving I'd uttered in a very long time. I stood up and held out my hand.

"We'd better go inside," I said. "We have a lot to talk about."

The End

Dannell Lites was a little ol' southern gal from Louisiana by way of the great state of Texas, who fell in love with comics when she was knee-high to a grasshopper and never fell out of love with them. Fanzing lost Dannell in 2002.

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