by Michael Lane
This story takes place after the events in "Subzero". It draws from that movie, as well as the episodes "Heart Of Ice", "The Demon's Quest", and "Avatar". Also, the DC Comics graphic novel "Birth Of The Demon" was invaluable in writing this story.
It was a biting cold. The kind of cold that carried with it the sentence of death, masked in a euphoric slumber. For other men it was an answer, as conclusive as it was swift, to the eternal question, "Is this all that I am, or is there something more?"
But for this man, it provided no such answers. The same cold in which other men could hope only to expire was a womb for this man. It was a life-giver. It was a nurturer.
It was a prison.
He stood atop a high snowdrift, surveying the bleak whiteness that was his kingdom. Undaunted by the driving snow, he fixed his gaze on the mountains ahead. The large, white bears on either side of him, invisible but for the packs each bore, looked up expectantly, hoping for a protracted break in their journey. But this respite was a short one. Clad in a simple blue jumpsuit, boots, and snow goggles, the man set off once again. The bears grunted and fell in step behind him.
Victor Fries had been this way before. He knew where he was going.
As he approached the mountains, small structures became visible at their base. Not a soul stirred in the village, but Fries was not surprised. The cold was far too intense for any man to exist in while still holding claim to his life. But he was not any man. His claim was the cold itself. It was his life.
He knew the villagers would emerge when the storm finally ended. They were a resilient, hard-working people, and fighting the cold was a part of life in this corner of the world. They had befriended him on his last sojourn to this desolation, and now he needed them again.
He needed them if he was ever going to get back to her.
He had never been this close, not since the accident that took her from him and consigned him to his blood-chilling fate. For the first time, there was an end in sight. He could almost see it.
He closed his eyes, and there it was. He felt the warm touch of her cheek. It was the only warm feeling he could remember; and he cursed himself for reveling in that memory. There was still work to do.
He quickened his pace. The bears followed in silence.
Tayo sat at the table inside his own home and shivered. The flurries had subsided, and the temperature was no longer deadly, but the old man was nonetheless bundled tightly in the heavy trappings his people bore for outdoor ventures. The door to his small cabin was flung wide open, and no fire burned on the hearth. Consequently, it was only slightly warmer inside than it was out. The man who sat across from him regretted the extreme measures necessary to receive him, and he showed his gratitude by handing Tayo a large tin produced from one of his bags.
Tayo liked coffee, and he liked it hot. The older he got, the more he enjoyed it. It was a rare commodity in his village, only appearing whenever someone returned from the long trek to civilization. It had been half a year since his last steaming mug of fresh ground coffee, and he appreciated the good fortune that placed the hot beverage in his hand, deciding it was worth the temporary transformation of his cabin into an igloo. His guest, though clearly anxious, was evidently prepared to allow the elder to savor the gift he had brought in from across the wasteland. The gesture was not lost on Tayo, who placed the mug on the table and addressed the visitor.
"Once again you come unlooked for, my friend," said Tayo. "You are welcome, as always. Especially when you bring an old man such a fine gift." He once again raised the mug to his lips.
"Many who lead far easier lives appreciate their amenities far less than you, elder," replied Fries.
"And that is their loss, my friend. If my life has been difficult, that has been my choosing. But if an easy life robs one's appreciation of any single moment such as this, then I have made the right choice. Life is made of single moments. We should embrace them. They define us."
"They do, elder."
"And I know there is a single moment that defines you, my friend," said Tayo, leaning closer to his guest. "But you did not come here to just to make my teeth chatter and shower me with coffee grounds."
"I am always grateful for your hospitality, elder," said Fries. "I shall make my business quick, so that you may silence your chattering teeth and light another fire."
Fries reached into a bag at his side and produced a folded piece of paper. He handed it to Tayo.
The old man laid it out on the table before him. What he saw was a freehand sketch, in full color, of what he recognized as cave art. There were some examples of similar work in the caves of the nearby mountains; but this particular piece was far more vivid than any he had seen before. He leaned in and inspected the detail of the artwork. During Tayo's examination Fries remained silent.
When he was through, the elder sipped his coffee once again, and turned to his guest.
"Where did you see this?"
Fries answered, "In the mountains, many miles east of here. There is no one left in that region, so I brought it to you."
Tayo sat back in his chair. "There is nothing in the history of my own people that I can see depicted here, and I have lived a long time. However, during this long life I have met many other people, and heard many other histories."
The gaze from Fries was steady, his mouth set in a fixed, grim line. If he felt any anticipation, he succeeded in hiding it.
"There is a legend I heard not so long ago, one I quickly forgot. Until I saw this," he indicated the cave art. "It was at a meeting of village elders, not far from the region you say you discovered this remnant of the past."
Tayo shook his head. "I dismissed it as the ramblings of a wrinkled old man, hoping for a way to cheat death. He was the elder in a village that had its roots in those mountains. They had long since abandoned that area, but it was his ancestors who left those marks on the wall of that cave, I'm sure of it. He told me of a fable of rebirth, new life, given by the Earth-Mother who begat us all. It was idle chatter among old men, so I believed at the time. We all have our legends, and rebirth, life from death, is common among them. This," he placed his hand on the drawing, "is a piece of one of those legends."
Fries picked up the drawing and examined it for himself.
Tayo regarded him intently. "You seem to be looking for something more than I have to tell you, my friend. I am sorry if my limited knowledge is but a beginning to your search, not an end."
His guest was silent. Finally, he folded the paper and returned it to his bag. "You need not apologize to me, elder. You have given me direction. I know what I must do, and I cannot do it here. I am afraid I must ask for your assistance once again, my old friend. I must leave this place, and I need your help to do it."
The elder nodded gravely. "You must do what you feel is right, of course."
Tayo grasped the mug and raised it to his lips.
The sun lit the sky, but provided little warmth. The other men were bundled tightly as the laden sleds made their way over the thick powder, each led by a pack of dogs that seemed less affected by the cold than their masters. Fries, his sled powered not by dogs, but by two great polar bears, wore no such trappings. Oblivious as always to the rigors of this environment, his eyes were fixed on the horizon.
Convincing the old man to lend him the men and equipment he needed was not difficult, nor did Fries expect it to be. While he knew the elder was genuinely respectful and kind, he always sensed he was wary of him on a certain level. That's to be expected, he supposed, since it's not everyday a man arrives in your village who can venture into the elements with barely a stitch on his back.
Still, he was grateful, for it made his job easier. And the elder was even more helpful than he had realized. He had crystallized for Fries what is was he had to do next; journey back to the world.
But to do that, he needed funds. The large vein of gold he had discovered in the mountains where he more recently found the cave painting would supply him with exactly that. And with the help of the men Tayo had sent with him, it would be a simple matter to secure as much as he needed. Fate had for once blessed instead of cursed him. But it was up to him to embark on the journey this new, kinder fate had chosen for him and to bring it to fruition. And now he was close, and with that realization he allowed himself a moment of reflection.
He used to think the snow was beautiful. Uncompromising, he had called it. But he was a fool. He had known true beauty, absolute beauty.
Victor Fries closed his eyes and bowed his head.
Batman threw the car into overdrive and slammed on the accelerator. The Batmobile responded, shooting through the streets of Gotham City, leaving flames and the smell of burnt rubber in its wake. Weaving in and out of the sparse traffic was second nature to him, and he left the task to muscle memory while focusing his attention on the cause of his sudden blast into the night. He'd been monitoring the police band, as he always did while on patrol, when the call came through. To say it was not a call he'd been expecting would be a massive understatement.
"All units, all units, Mr. Freeze at Gotham Library, suspect is armed and extremely dangerous, proceed with extreme caution..."
He'd switched it off at that point. He didn't need to hear any more. Mr. Freeze, alive? And at the library? Obviously, he'd survived their last encounter. Batman vividly recalled Freeze's fall from the derelict oilrig off Gotham's coast. He'd been badly injured even before his fall, and Batman thought that was the end of Mr. Freeze. His latest attempt to save his comatose wife, this time at the expense of Barbara Gordon's life, had been thwarted, and he'd seemed resigned to his fate on that rig. Now he was back, and up to some new scheme. Surely he knew his wife had been revived. If Freeze had indeed returned to Gotham, Batman would have expected him to head straight for Gotham General where she was still recuperating. She was his obsession. What could be more important than being reunited with his beloved Nora, the woman for whom he was willing to kill, to die, and to suffer for?
Batman knew the answers to these questions would have to wait. A sharp turn brought the Gotham Library into view in front of him. Police cars surrounded the six-story structure, with airships hovering overhead. The entire exterior was bathed in searchlights. But Batman did not join the police on the perimeter. A frontal assault was their style, not his. He pulled the Batmobile onto a side street and came to a stop. He climbed on top of the car and launched a grappling hook at the roof of the building adjacent to the library. After the line was secured, he pulled himself up and ran to the other side of the roof, which afforded him a bird's eye view of the scene below.
The entrance to the library was gone, replaced by a hole rimmed with ice. The standard Freeze method of ingress, Batman noted. The cops had the area covered, and SWAT team members were suiting up. Batman knew he had to get in first. He leapt over the ledge of the roof, line in hand, and rappelled to the sidewalk below. Darting across the street, he quickly discerned a way in: a third floor window. The room inside was dark. He shot in a line and scaled up to the window. Confident no surprises waited inside, he swung himself into the room.
Once inside he ran to the nearest staircase and made for the lobby. Emerging on the first floor, he surveyed the scene. The hole in the ceiling provided on obvious indication of where Freeze had gone. Batman went to the middle of the lobby and fired a grapnel dart straight up into the blackness. After hearing it strike masonry and testing the catch, he pulled himself up, knowing the line would take him as far as Freeze had gone.
He came to a halt on the fifth floor, and swung himself out of the darkness, onto solid ground. The temperature drop on this floor was significant. The Dark Knight shivered; less from the actual cold than from the acute recollection of just how cold an encounter with Mr. Freeze could really get. The swath of destruction Freeze had cut among the various bookshelves, desks, and computers made for an easy trail to follow. Cautiously, Batman did so.
Fries knew he had found it. It was real. His answer. His salvation. No, he thought. It was not merely his. It was theirs.
The old man had been right. There were countless rebirth legends among ancient and current peoples. They all had common theme and similar characters, and most derived their settings from actual inhabited locales. And many cultures had more than one such myth. Knowing his research time would be limited by the inevitable arrival of the authorities, he was quick and efficient, yet thorough. Uncompromising, that was the word. Now he had a name. He had the key. It was up to him to turn it in the lock. He pulled his coldgun from its holster and made ready to leave.
The batarang knocked the gun from his hand before he heard it whiz through the air toward him. Fries spun around, but saw nothing.
"I have no quarrel with you, Batman. I suggest you refrain from delaying my departure."
He slowly turned around, only to find his way blocked by an all-too familiar black-clad figure, his cape drawn close around him.
"You played a role in my wife's recovery," Fries said. "That is why I allowed you to get this far. I now consider that debt paid in full. Now stand aside, or my next withdrawal will be of a more permanent nature."
Batman's eyes narrowed to two white slits.
"I should have known you'd find a way to survive, Freeze," he said. "Your obsession wouldn't allow you to die. I don't know why you're here, but you still have crimes to answer for, and I have to take you in."
"You disappoint me Batman. You more than anyone should appreciate obsession. In the face of that, what meaning can society's laws possibly hold for me? I believe you know the answer to that."
"It's not your place or mine to question the meaning of the law, Freeze. Your thirst for vengeance has crossed the lines of sanity, and I can't allow you the chance to harm others, whatever your thoughts on society and it's laws."
"Ah, vengeance." Fries shook his head. "I no longer need to avenge myself upon anyone, Batman. It is salvation that burns this frozen heart. But that will not save you, I'm afraid. You had your chance Batman, I will be delayed no longer."
Fries brought his hands together in a loud clap, and two massive blurs of white fell on Batman from atop bookshelves on either side of him. One polar bear took out his legs while the other landed on his back, throwing him forward and pinning him to the floor.
Calmly, Fries picked up his coldgun and trained it on the prostrate crime fighter. Batman struggled to get to his feet, but was forced down by the snarling bear above him.
"Shaka, Kuchta, home!"
With that, the bears bolted for a nearby window and crashed through, onto the fire escape. Fighting to regain his breath, Batman slowly rose to meet the gaze of his old adversary.
"Cold steel, Batman," declared Fries. "Cold steel wielded by an even colder hand." He leveled the gun at Batman's head, only to drop it at the last second as he depressed the trigger. The resulting jet of ice enveloped Batman's ankles. A well-placed forearm from Fries sent him flying over a row of overturned bookshelves.
"Good bye, Batman," Fries said. "You may consider yourself leniently dealt with."
Fries followed his pets out the window, and into the night.
Bruce knew the chemical treatment would not take long. His boots were well insulated, and he'd only been exposed to the cold for a short time. In fact it was only a matter of a few minutes' work with his acetylene torch and a batarang before he was free of the ice. By that time, of course, Freeze had made his escape. The police hadn't been able to stop him, and neither had the Batman.
Nevertheless, all he could do was lie back in the hot, bubbling chemicals and consider the night's events. Clearly, Freeze had not only survived the fall from the oilrig, but he had acquired the means to repair or replace his coldsuit, which had been badly damaged the last time he'd seen it. Now, with the dream of his wife's recovery finally realized, he goes not to her side, but to the library.
Alfred, who had entered bearing a towel and a steaming mug, read his master's expression.
"Perhaps he was returning some overdue books," suggested the manservant, offering the beverage to Bruce.
Bruce took the mug with a wry smile. "I don't think so Alfred. I checked the computer Freeze accessed. He was researching primitive legends. Specifically, he was looking at resurrection myths. I ran some of the titles he looked up. They run the gamut from Native American, Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, Asian. He's covering the planet. Obviously, he's looking for something."
"But what could that be, Master Bruce? His beloved wife has already been resurrected, so to speak. Why not go to her? Surely that has been what he's lived for all these years."
"That's true Alfred. But he said something before the bears jumped me. Something about being driven by salvation. While I've been laying here next to useless, I've been doing some thinking. His wife has been what's driven him. But the fact that her illness is gone doesn't mean Freeze's problems are over. He still can't be with her, not in any real way. His own condition makes that impossible. It isn't enough for them to simply exist together. He wants their life back. That's been his dream. Her recovery is only one half of that equation. If he wants a normal life with her, he needs to do something about himself."
"But medical science doesn't have a cure for his condition," said Alfred. "So you believe he's looking for answers elsewhere?"
Bruce took a sip and nodded. "Freeze is a brilliant scientist. He knows the facts of his condition better than anyone. Until now, he's been so obsessed with finding a cure for Nora, he never considered what he'd do if she ever did recover. He's being faced with that reality now."
Alfred stroked his chin. "One desperation is replaced by another. It's hard not to feel sympathy for the man."
Bruce frowned. "His condition doesn't excuse his actions Alfred. He's endangered hundreds of people, including Barbara, whom he would have killed if we hadn't intervened. But you're right; he's never been motivated by greed or power. That just goes to prove that insanity can find its roots even in a man's love for his wife."
"Or a boy's love for his parents," replied Alfred softly.
Bruce shot an angry look at his butler. His face quickly softened, however, into a knowing half-smile. "Point taken, Alfred. There's space in this cold heart even for Mr. Freeze. There's nothing wrong with wanting a normal life. I can't fault Freeze for that. But I have to know what he's planning. He hasn't hurt anyone yet. He could have killed me, and he didn't. But as long as he's in Gotham, he's my problem. If he thinks he's close to 'salvation' as he called it, he will stop at nothing to achieve his dream of a normal life. I have to know how far he's willing to go."
"And what is your next step, sir? Assuming your feet have thawed, that is."
Bruce looked at his watch. "I need to pay Gordon a visit. Nora Fries will need 24-hour guard. After Freeze decides what he's going to do, he'll make straight for her."
"Very good sir. I'm afraid your evening attire isn't back from the cleaners yet; shall I prepare a fresh substitute?"
Bruce handed him the mug. "Please."
Batman hugged the rooftop of Gotham General Hospital, scanning the dark skyline with his binoculars. No sign of Freeze yet. Still, it was barely past twelve o' clock; the night was young. Freeze was a slave to obsession, and that dictated immediacy. An appearance here tonight was inevitable.
Gordon had shared his instincts. He had already ordered a 24-hour detail on Nora Fries, and had doubled the number of men assigned to her surveillance and protection. There were men on the roof of the hospital and the surrounding buildings as well. All exits were covered, and there were at least two men on every level. There were a dozen men on the floor that housed Nora Fries, including Gordon and a SWAT team. She was in the best hands Gotham had to offer.
He tapped the side of his cowl, engaging the built-in receiver. "All clear, Jim. I'm coming in."
He secured a line and jumped over the side of building, rappelling down the façade. He made his way down to the eighth floor and crossed over to a closed window. Peering inside, he rapped softly on the glass. Gordon himself opened it and stepped aside as the Dark Knight swung gracefully into the room.
The woman in the bed lay motionless, IV's dangling from her arm. The bed was flanked by two fully armored SWAT team members. Two uniformed officers held vigil by the window. Commissioner Gordon rounded out the detail.
"Well I know one thing for certain," said Gordon. "This would be a terrible night for a crime spree to break out. I've got most of the police force hold up in this hospital."
"It won't be in vain Jim," replied Batman. "I think we both know that. Freeze will be here."
Gordon ran a hand through his frosty mane. "We've done all we can. It's his move now."
Batman nodded toward the bed. "He'll do anything for her. It's only a matter of time."
The words had barely died in the air when Gotham General shuddered.
It was a pleasure to freeze.
He allowed himself to pause in his work and consider the thought.
Pleasure. The very word curled his lips into a humorless smile, which quickly turned to an ironic sneer as he thought of just how little that word actually applied to any aspect of his existence. What was pleasure? He felt he had known at one time, but that was a thousand lifetimes ago. Now it was something indistinct, formless. He could barely remember how it felt or what it looked like. But he knew he was close to reclaiming it.
If his mouth were still capable of producing moisture, he would have spat.
He raised the gun to eye level and pulled hard on the trigger.
The man standing before him became a block of ice, the scream that would never escape his lips frozen along with the look of terror on his face.
He surveyed the ruble around him. Coming up through the sewer was not the most direct route, but it was probably the least expected. The SWAT unit stationed in the parking garage, sufficiently startled, had been easily neutralized.
He pointed the coldgun at the ceiling above and froze a small section of it. Then, aiming at the ground, he created a jet of ice that propelled him upward. Breaking through the frozen section of concrete, Fries repeated the pattern until he found himself on the first floor.
Disregarding the chaos generated by his arrival, Fries trained his gun on the first white coat he saw scrambling to escape the carnage. A jet of ice wrapped itself around the man's ankles, and he fell heavily on his face. Fries reached down and pulled him roughly to his feet.
"Nora Fries," he growled, placing the cold barrel of the gun against the terrified man's nose. "Where is she?"
The stammering man could only manage to croak, "D-d-d-don't kn-kn-know."
Without a word, Fries aimed at a nurse huddled against the far wall. He pulled the trigger and ice enveloped her. He returned his attention to the man he now held suspended in the air.
"Perhaps I've jogged your memory."
Never taking his eyes off the coldgun, the man gasped, "Eighth floor, I don't know the room."
"Very good." Fries flung the man over his shoulder and took aim at the ceiling.
The floor of the lobby burst asunder just as Gordon and Batman rushed in. The Commissioner looked on in rage as his men were either thrown into the walls by the force of the explosion, or felled by the debris. One officer managed to avoid the rubble and aim his weapon, but Freeze was quicker, and the man never fired a shot. Batman was able to lasso his wrists, forcing Freeze to drop the gun. Gordon stepped forward and leveled his own firearm at the super-villain.
"Freeze! That's far enough! We don't need anyone else hurt here! You're in a hospital, think about what you're doing!"
Freeze sneered. "You can't possibly comprehend the futility of your actions."
With that, Freeze grabbed the line that bound his wrists and yanked hard, sending Batman tumbling into the Commissioner and knocking both men to the ground. Using the strength generated by his coldsuit, Freeze snapped the line and recovered his weapon. He fired at the two men, but Batman had by this time regained his footing, and he managed to pull Gordon back into the corridor, seconds before the floor where they lay was frozen solid.
Freeze came around the corner and was greeted with a hail of bullets that glanced harmlessly off his armored suit. Gordon aimed at the glass helmet covering Freeze's head, but those shots were also turned away.
"As you can see gentlemen, I've made some improvements to my raiment," said Freeze. "You will find me most determined."
He again fired his coldgun, but Batman and Gordon had already leapt into Nora Fries's room halfway down the hall.
A concentrated blast from Freeze's weapon blew the door inward, clear to the far wall. One of the cops stationed at the window, caught by surprise, was smashed into the wall, and the snapping of ribs was audible upon impact. He fell to the floor with a groan.
Taking full advantage of the confusion, Freeze stepped in and fired two quick bursts. The two SWAT men looked down in horror as their hands were melded with their weapons, rendering them effectively neutral. The other cop by the window fired off an ineffectual volley before he himself was frozen.
Batman pulled a vial from his utility belt and flung it at Freeze, but the intruder was faster. A blast from the coldgun transformed the vial into a block of ice that Freeze contemptuously knocked out of the air, sending it shattering against the wall.
"Chemical warfare, Batman?" asked Freeze with disdain. "Is that what you've sunk to?"
He grabbed Batman by the neck and threw him hard into the ceiling. At the same time a blast from the coldgun tethered and bound him, cocooning him against the ceiling, with only his head visible under the sheet of ice.
"Don't you know that's illegal?" Freeze hissed.
Gordon made his move, leaping for Freeze's gun arm, which he succeeded in corralling. Freeze, reaching over with his other arm, grabbed the collar of Gordon's trench coat, and lifting the commissioner off the ground, slammed him into the nearby wall.
Freeze turned to the woman who lay in the bed. When he reached the bedside, he leaned over to stroke the blonde hair. "Nora, my love. How I've waited for this moment. Together at last."
Detective Rene Montoya rolled from the bed and whipped off the blonde wig that covered her head. In the same motion her pistol was out and trained on the bewildered Freeze.
"Not quite, Freeze," declared Montoya. "But don't think I'm not touched."
Batman started to work at the ice with the pick he kept in the sleeve of his left handed glove, knowing it wouldn't be long before hypothermia set in. The men who were iced from head to toe had even less time. The pick, however, was a small one meant for locks, so the work was slow.
"It's over, Freeze," he said. "The building is surrounded. More units are on the way. You can't freeze all of them. Give up now, before more people get hurt."
As if on cue, the bolts being drawn back on a half-dozen M-16's from the doorway behind Freeze accentuated Batman's statement.
Freeze was oblivious to these new developments. His eyes never strayed from Montoya. Enraged, his hoarse whisper was barely audible. "You have no conception of what it means to hurt. But you soon will."
Without turning, Freeze extended his gun arm behind him pulled the trigger. The doorway was covered with a thick sheet of ice, and the bullets of the SWAT team on the other side glanced harmlessly off.
Montoya discharged her weapon at Freeze with the same result. The policewoman, changing her tactics, aimed at Freeze's weapon and sent it flying from his hand with a well-placed shot. Undaunted, Freeze kicked the bed over, forcing Montoya to roll out of the way to avoid being crushed between it and the wall. Her reprieve was a brief one, for Freeze was on her in one stride, and grasping her by the throat, lifted her up to eye level with him.
His face twisted with rage, Freeze snarled, "Where is she?"
The gasping Montoya struggled in vain to break the cold grip of Mr. Freeze. She won't last long, thought Batman. He had chiseled himself enough room to reach his utility belt, and his groping fingers soon found his acetylene torch.
Freeze had relaxed his grip slightly, and Montoya drew a deep breath that sent her into a fit of coughing.
"I won't ask again," spat Freeze. "Where is my wife?"
Montoya set her jaw defiantly. "No where you'll ever find her, lunatic."
Freeze regarded her for a moment. Montoya took the opportunity to add, "And by the way, you're under arrest."
Freeze resumed the steel grip on his victim's throat, and she once more fought for every breath. "Death is a cold companion, young lady. You may give him my warm regards."
Pushing out with his legs, Batman broke through the melting ice and dropped onto Freeze's shoulders, still holding the torch that had secured his freedom. He reached around and ignited it in Freeze's face. Though protected from serious harm by his helmet, the sudden blast of heat knocked Freeze back. He dropped Montoya and reached for the Dark Knight. Batman was faster. He leapt from the villain's shoulders and stood between Freeze and the police detective.
Freeze, in the meantime, had recovered from the shock of the heat blast, and found his coldgun, which he once again leveled at Batman.
"We've done this dance before, Freeze," said Batman. "She's not here. You won't find her. Turn yourself in while you still have a chance at a life."
"Very clever ruse Batman. But you underestimate me. I am not a witless, raving madman like the Joker. Nor a bumbling idiot like the criminal scum you encounter on a nightly basis."
"Get to the point, Freeze," said Batman.
"Gladly," came the cool reply. "While I occupied you here, my pets have tracked my wife and secured her location. They know her scent Batman. Even now they await my arrival. And while the bulk of your forces lay unconscious in this room, or try in vain to enter, I will take my wife and retire from this city forever."
Freeze smiled grimly. "I too tire of this dance, Batman. You have been a worthy adversary. But I no longer desire adversaries. Now, with Nora at my side, I will start a new life." Freeze set his jaw, and added, "I will take her. Those who stand in my way will be shown no quarter."
"But you said yourself Freeze, it's not safe to move her while she recovers."
"I was a doctor before I was a nightmare, Batman. I know how to care for her. But you have wasted enough of my time. This conversation is over."
Fries threw himself at the window and crashed into the night. Holding his coldgun under him, he created a pillar of ice that not only kept him from hitting the ground below, but carried him upward, back toward the window.
He stopped when he was level with the floor he had just quit, and aiming the coldgun, he created a wall of ice that replaced the broken window. He then continued his ascent to the roof. Checking a device on his wrist, he pinpointed the location of Shaka and Kuchta. They were on the fourth floor. Soon, he would be as well.
"I must say, Master Bruce, you seem remarkably calm considering Freeze thwarted your trap with relative ease and achieved the goal you and the Commissioner knew for certain he would try to attain."
Batman kept his eyes on the road as the face of the imperturbable butler looked up at him from the small screen under the dash of the Batmobile.
"I would have preferred to apprehend him tonight Alfred, no question," came the nasal reply. "But he didn't get away clean. I managed to tag him with a tracer bug while we fought. He won't go far. He has a dependent now. He'll have to hold up somewhere to make sure she's well enough to travel. And she'll have questions. I plan to be there when he answers them. I'm guessing I have at least 24 hours before he tries to leave Gotham."
"Well sir, that should be enough time for your core temperature to return to some semblance of normal," said Alfred, "but you could use some hot food and bed rest."
"No time for that now." He flipped a switch, and Alfred's face was replaced with a street map of Gotham. Batman guided the vehicle through the city, shadowing the movements of the red blip that moved through the maze on the screen.
A sigh came across the audio channel. "An all too familiar response, and one I should have expected. I'll have a chemical bath ready and waiting for your return."
Batman smiled to himself as Alfred signed off. He felt a powerful sneeze coming on, and he didn't fight it. He needed rest and food, no doubt, but could not allow himself even a moment's respite. Freeze had his wife, yet seemed as driven as ever, if not more so. He claimed to be seeking a new life for himself and his beloved Nora. If not for the carnage that followed Freeze like a shadow, Batman might be inclined to let him go with best wishes. But he couldn't take the risk. Freeze was too unstable, too volatile to be given run of the planet, no matter what his intentions. He could snap at any moment if his idea of the perfect reality were threatened.
Batman shook his head sadly. Freeze was right. He was no homicidal lunatic like the Joker and some of Batman's other foes. He was clearly capable of the kind of love and passion that few save Batman himself could claim to understand. But whereas Batman had harnessed his hatred and anger, Freeze had succumbed to his. His sanity had been compromised by pain and sorrow. He was a danger to the city, and Batman had to remember to evaluate him in those simple terms. It was the only way to do the job.
He checked the screen. The blip had come to a stop. He was closing in.
The woman looking into his eyes was more beautiful than he had remembered, and he thought his memory was one of unblemished perfection. But even that beatific image paled in comparison to the reality of once again meeting his wife's gaze in a union of minds and souls.
The dank surroundings Fries had been compelled to choose as their temporary resting point could not dampen the joy in his heart. Fries had bought the abandoned building anonymously, and the medical equipment humming around him echoed throughout the cavernous structure. He sat next to the bed in the center of this makeshift hospital, holding the hand of the beautiful woman whose deep blue eyes looked up at him with devotion.
Joy! Is that what it was? It had been so long, Fries couldn't be sure. He did know that he felt warmer, a sensation he usually found unbearable. But this warmth came from within. And he not only tolerated, but cherished it.
"Victor," the woman said softly. "Where are we?"
"That is not important, my love. Soon we will be gone. The next phase of our life begins now, Nora. Never again will we be separated."
Her voice trailed off as she reached up and put her hand on the glass covering his face. She closed her eyes tightly, and Fries lay his hand on hers. No doubt she had been made aware of his condition shortly after she was revived in the hospital. The first thing she would have done is ask for him. They would have had no choice but to tell her. It was just as well. It saved him the agony of reliving the accident for her. But now she was sad, and that was not permissible.
"Soon I will be free of this prison, Nora," he said eagerly. "That is why I came for you. We are going to turn back the cruel hand of fate."
Nora Fries opened her eyes once again. "But how, Victor? They said at the hospital that your condition was irreversible."
"And they told me that you would never again live to speak my name. They told me to abandon hope and accept that you were gone forever." Fries leaned closer to his wife. "A miracle of medicine restored you to me, my love. And a miracle of nature shall restore me to you. A cure, Nora! One that will allow us to resume the life we had before your illness. Before I had to take matters into my own hands, when others refused to help me. One last time. One last fight. Then we shall rest. Together."
"What is this cure? " she asked. "Where do we find it?"
"The cure is a myth, my dear wife, a legend. But like all legends, it comes from someplace. This myth is one of life after death. I have researched. As I did when you fell ill, when I searched night and day for a cure that didn't exist. But this time, it does exist. And I have found it Nora. A deliverance from this living death that holds me. I learned of a creature, a man, who has lived for centuries. He lives, he grows old, he dies. But he is born anew! As I shall be."
Nora regarded her husband for a moment. "Victor, this sounds like a fairy tale, not a cure."
Fries smiled. "You don't dare believe me, do you? In spite of what they told you, I am not insane. Looking into your eyes, I can see that you know that to be true. But it is a fairy tale, Nora. Only this one is a reality. It is not sorcery, magic, or science fiction that resurrects this man. It is the healing power of the Earth itself. This man has learned to harness it, for his own good. I plan to use it for my own good."
"Who is this man?" asked Nora. "What is his name?"
"In our language he is called 'The Demon's Head'. But he is known to go by the Arabic translation: Ra's Al Ghul."
"Will he help you?"
"He must. I know where he is. It was costly information, but what is money compared to what we are seeking? He is the answer, Nora."
Nora closed her eyes. "I hope so, Victor."
Fries ran a hand through his wife's long, golden hair. "Sleep now, my love. Soon we will begin our last great journey."
Ra's Al Ghul. At the mention of the name, Batman could not help but swallow hard. He stood concealed behind some dumpsters outside one of Rupert Thorne's abandoned warehouses in the Factory District. It had been put up for sale by the city after Thorne's latest smuggling ring was broken up, courtesy of Batman and the Gotham police. The cops had impounded the goods, and all that was left was empty space and a leaky roof. As usual, Thorne could not be implicated in the scheme, having once again covered his tracks too well.
Batman had tracked Freeze to this location and managed to fire a listening device into the structure. His receiver picked up the conversation he had hoped to hear, but the content of that conversation gave him considerable pause. Ra's Al Ghul was a variable Freeze could not possibly be prepared for. Obviously he had resources; he was able to fix his coldsuit and gun, he acquired this building, and the medical equipment his wife needed during her convalescence. In the Gotham underworld, money could get you almost anything, including the location of Ra's Al Ghul. But he had no idea what he would be faced with during a confrontation with Ra's. No amount of research or second-hand reconnaissance can prepare anyone for an encounter with this powerful, enigmatic being.
It was a meeting that Batman was sure would end badly for Mr. Freeze. Ra's was a megalomaniacal sociopath; he would not be eager to share the bounty of the Lazarus pits with anyone. Yet Freeze needed Ra's to gain access to the pits. Only he knew where they were located, having mapped out their positions long ago. That was information Freeze would not find in Gotham library, Batman knew. Freeze was close to something he thought he would never have again. It would not be easy to dissuade him from his chosen course of action. But it was the right thing to do. He had to try. Batman always had to try.
He emerged from his hiding place and approached the warehouse. He did not want to fight. He not only wanted to avoid to the necessity of another chemical bath, he wanted to keep Nora Fries out of harm's way. He knew he could gain entrance easily enough, but the best way to insure her safety was to draw Freeze out of the building. The direct approach was called for. He picked up a rock and launched it at the building's door. The impact reverberated loudly around the nearly empty warehouse.
"Freeze!" he called. "I'm alone! I want to talk!"
Silence was the reply. Batman was about to call again when a jet of ice shot out from an unseen aperture in the structure's façade. He leapt to the side and curled his body, executing a perfect roll and jump back behind the dumpsters that had formerly concealed him.
"Freeze, don't be a fool! Ra's Al Ghul is unlike anyone you've ever faced! You don't know what you're getting into!"
This time, Freeze answered with words. "Probably true, Batman," the reply echoed from within the warehouse. "But I have no choice. I should have known you would not give up so easily. Your determination is admirable. I am afraid, however, it is but a whisper of my own."
Batman detected the hiss of the rocket an instant before it slammed into the dumpsters. He was able to turn and start his leap, shielding his head with his arms. The explosion sent him soaring like a human cannonball, slamming him against the adjacent building. His training allowed him a certain amount of body control, even under such perilous circumstances. He was able to dip his head toward his chest and turn his back to the building, saving him from a head-on collision with the wall. Nevertheless, he was knocked nearly unconscious by the explosion and resultant impact. As his senses flooded away, he was cogent enough to damn himself for his carelessness. It had never occurred to him that Freeze would use a conventional weapon against him. He should have been prepared. Three encounters with Freeze since his return, and Batman had lost each one of them. He knew he could not stay there. If Freeze wanted to finish him off he would be completely at his mercy. He activated a device on his belt and in the distance he heard the engine of the Batmobile come to life. He could only hope it got there in time. Reality was fading away. He could barley discern the approaching headlights. Blackness was enveloping them. He wasn't going to make it.
Ubu evaluated the object impassively. The light gleaming from the metallic surface provided an otherworldly sheen, but he was otherwise unimpressed by the outward appearance. It looked oddly egg-shaped, he thought. There was no hint of the awesome power contained therein.
He stood, arms folded, one hand stroking his bare chin. Appearances aside, he knew that The Master's plan revolved around the firestorm that brewed silently inside this device. He walked over the object, held aloft by one of two catwalks that hung parallel to one another above the middle of the room, traversing the length of the main chamber. They ran east-west, and were met on either end by catwalks erected along the walls, running north-south The device itself was suspended in midair by a series of thick cables, which held it in place high above the Lazarus pit. This pit, larger than most he had seen, was in the center of the largest room in the ancient temple. The structure itself, though massive, had remained hidden in the dense recesses of the Amazon for centuries. And it would likely remain so, being half buried on a hill rising above the surrounding jungle, and far from any hint of civilization. The Master had cleared the foliage above the temple, and excavated it to a degree that allowed him access to the main chamber and the bounty that awaited him inside. Moving in the lights and building material had been a simple matter, and a small, but modern headquarters was established inside this relic from the past.
Ubu crossed to the other side of the chamber and made for the staircase in the northwest corner. As he descended, The Master strode into the room, and proceeded to the edge of the Lazarus pit. Ubu joined him, and both regarded the device that hung in the air above them.
"Behold the key, Ubu," said Ra's Al Ghul. "The key to the rebirth of life. We shall witness the beauty of nature's fury unleashed. We hold the future in our hands, Ubu. At last we can finally repay the planet which gave birth to us."
Ubu remained silent; an almost imperceptible inclination of his head the only visible sign of acknowledgment he gave. All about them, men busied themselves, shuttling boxes, and setting up the last of the equipment.
Ra's walked over to the computer console that had been set up adjacent to the pit and ran his hand over the controls. "I regret that we cannot share the upcoming deliverance of Mother Earth with the world's masses, but alas, they would not appreciate the significance of the event. I fear they would only absorb themselves in the selfish concerns of their own lives, instead of relishing their part the transformation about to take place. Human vision has always been limited in that regard. That is what makes this so necessary. And so long overdue."
When Ubu spoke, it was simple, and to the point. "Preparations are almost complete, Master. We will be ready in two days. Without fail."
Ra's nodded slowly. "And at that time, my faithful servant, the master stroke shall fall." With that, he turned his back on Ubu and disappeared through a corridor on the east wall.
Once again, Ubu gave a slight nod in the direction of his departing Master.
Ra's Al Ghul entered his private quarters and examined the map laid out on the large table that served as the room's centerpiece. A yellow 'X' marked their location, with circles dotting the face of the flat representation of the world. In two days he would usher in the new era of life on Earth that he had dedicated his existence to fostering.
Ra's proceeded to the balcony and into the open air. He took a deep breath of satisfaction as he surveyed his surroundings. The jungle spread out before the setting sun as far as his keen eyes could see. Huge trees rose above the main layer, like islands in a sea of green. From their leafy crowns came the calls of various birds, foraging among nature's rich bounty. Broad branches, themselves big enough to be a respectably sized trees, spread out from the trunks, shading the canopy below.
The sounds of pure, uncorrupted life floated up to greet him. This was paradise, he thought, as life should be. Uninhibited. Nature given free reign. The Earth itself acting as dictator of it's own environment; a condition altogether rare in this era of man and machine. Even here, in this jungle, he knew that nature was waging a losing battle. Everyday, acres of untainted land were laid waste by a race of beings driven by greed and ambition. If left unchecked, the carnage would eventually make its way to the steps of this very citadel. Ra's sneered at the thought. Man had failed miserably in his role as his planet's caretaker; had failed even to recognize the responsibility, to have the dignity necessary to respect the world that had birthed him, coddled him, and provided him the means to rule a planet and set his eyes skyward, toward other worlds. How had he repaid his Earth-Mother? He raped her, stripped her at every opportunity, succumbing to greed and avarice, at the expense of his own planet. It was unforgivable, and Ra's Al Ghul was not prone to clemency. There would be a reckoning, one for which he was only too happy to provide the catalyst.
Securing the materials necessary to construct the device had not been difficult. His vast fortune and worldwide organization of resources made that an easily attained first step in his ultimate plan. Finding this location had proven more challenging. Ra's knew that nothing worth having was easy to achieve, and his current base of operations was the perfect example of this age-old truth. There was no better example of nature's purity under siege than the Amazon rainforest. The obscurity it provided was a more practical benefit. Few ventured this far into the jungle, and those flying overhead saw only the ruins of an ancient temple on a forest hill, erected by a people long forgotten.
Those people, however, had known more about their planet than modern man could ever hope to comprehend, thought Ra's derisively. This location was one of the strongest concentrations of the Earth's energy Ra's had ever encountered. The ley lines that carried this energy converged here and spiraled underground. The ancient mystics understood this, and had dug a pit deep into the Earth to harness this energy. The Lazarus pit in the chamber below him had been filled with centuries of accumulated debris that his men had dispatched with ease. The result was the bubbling pool of liquid of the kind that had served as his lifeblood for these many centuries. And now it was two days away from serving as the doorway to an awakening that would restore his polluted world to a dominion of nature; a world in which he would rise to the forefront of man, and lead those who remained to follow into the future of this brave, new world.
Ra's smiled slightly. It was a conceit, he knew. But he believed it was a healthy one. For who better than he, with centuries of experience living in harmony with the planet that gave him continual life, to provide order in the inevitable chaos that would accompany his vision of paradise? There was no one, he decided. No one equal to the responsibility he was born to accept. Once he thought he had found the man to take his mantle of leadership and see his dream to fruition. But this man had spurned him, and in doing so showed himself to be all too similar to the unwashed masses that made this desperate plan necessary.
Still, it was sad, he thought. For this man had the potential to be truly remarkable. Indeed he was the only man that Ra's had encountered in his many travels that he could almost call an equal. And the truth was, he starved for a kindred intellect. There was no one who could address him on the level his vast intellect occupied. Even his own daughter, Talia, had all too often demonstrated her frailty. The sacrifice dictated by his life's work granted Ra's himself no immunity. It had robbed him of those he held dear, and of anyone equipped to comprehend the enormity of his undertaking. He yearned to share his vision with someone other than the mindless drones who performed the menial labor necessary in achieving his end.
But alas, it was not to be. Such was the cruel reality of his life's quest. He was doomed to a solitary existence, beset by those who were dependent upon him for life. In two days he would be tasked with guiding a new world to maturity. And he would do it alone.
He turned away from the jungle and started back to his chamber when another thought entered his mind. Returning to the balcony, he once again took his place on the terrace and rested his hands on the stonework that enclosed it. He bowed his head and closed his eyes.
"And for you," he whispered. "When the end is upon you, I hope you spare a thought for me. And if you do, ask yourself if you made the right choice in defying me; he who would have been your father." He raised his head, and his eyes met the horizon and looked upon the forest, in silhouette behind the vanishing sun.
A mist was slowly rising from the rainforest canopy below. Ra's Al Ghul left the balcony without a backward glance.
The conditions at the landing strip were to be expected. As in other poor Latin American countries, resources outside the capital were often lacking in Bolivia. But Carrara's employer had not asked for luxury accommodations, only a serviceable runway, and most importantly, privacy. Money, Carrara quickly discovered, was no object for this man. He'd been sent a large stipend, and with it, orders to purchase the landing facility, staff it with a competent and discreet crew, and secure a list of supplies. Even with these expenditures, there was enough left over to make the transaction a profitable one for Carrara.
The compound itself was not impressive. One dirt runway, an ill kempt hangar, a helipad, and a small, cramped control tower comprised the whole of the facility. Everywhere it seemed the jungle threatened to overwhelm these slipshod constructions of man with exuberant vegetation. Carrara did not know why a wealthy American would want to own a run-down landing strip outside Cobija, but he could guess. There were a few reasons he might need to come and go in secret, unhindered by government regulations, to and from a facility owned and operated by men under his employ.
Carrara smiled to himself and shook his head. He could narrow these few reasons to just one: a would-be drug lord trying to establish a foothold in the lucrative trade of narcotics trafficking. It was likely to be a short-lived venture. The government had been known to look the other way in the face of the kind of money his employer apparently had at his disposal, but the competition was less easily swayed. They had a penchant for hostile takeovers. It was all the same to Carrara. As long as he was paid, the duration of the man's stay in Bolivia, and for that matter the duration of the man's life, were of little concern to him. As always, he would be far away when matters inevitably turned sour for this fledgling entrepreneur. It was what he did.
The morning sun shone brightly overhead. It was already muggy, and Carrara's shirt was drenched with perspiration. The mosquito that had been circling him for the last five minutes finally lighted the back of his neck. As he swatted at it, he consulted his watch. His employer was due in 10 minutes, and he had every reason to expect punctuality. He was not disappointed. Nine minutes later he heard the distant roar of a jet engine. From the tower, Carrara watched the single-engine aircraft land, and taxi into the waiting hangar. He quickly ran to meet his benefactor.
He was unprepared for the scene that greeted him upon entering the building. A sternly beautiful woman was making her way down from the passenger seat. Under normal circumstances, she would have served to arrest his attention to the exclusion of all else. But she was reduced to an afterthought when he saw the pilot who helped her from her perch atop the aircraft.
The man reminded him of pictures he'd seen of American astronauts from the 60's. He was sealed in what looked like a space age suit of metal and rubber, toped by a glass helmet covering his head. A large gun of some kind rested in a holster at his waist. He gingerly guided the woman to the ground, and turned to Carrara, who removed his hat and tried to catch his breath.
"Greetings, señor," he said, bowing slightly. "I am Alvaro Carrara, at your service. Whom do I have the honor of addressing?"
"You may dispense with the platitudes, Carrara," the man replied. "And you may call me Mr. Freeze. You have questions, no doubt. I advise you to leave them unasked. I have little time and even less patience. Perhaps this will make your tongue easier to swallow."
He reached into his belt and extracted something, which he tossed at Carrara. It was a wad thick with American bills. Carrara saw that they were
hundreds, and quickly pocketed the roll, smiling wanly.
"Very good," Mr. Freeze said. "I trust all is prepared."
"Sí señor," said Carrara. "The helicopter is ready and waiting, with all the supplies you requested."
"My wife requires rest. You will leave us undisturbed for one hour. At such time we will depart, and you will receive the third installment of your early retirement fund. The fourth will be paid when I return and find my jet refueled and ready for flight."
At this, an idea sprang into Carrara's mind. He licked his lips nervously.
"Señor," he said. "Perhaps I could send a couple of men with you on your journey. The way is dangerous for one unfamiliar with the perils of the jungle. And traveling with a woman no less. The additional cost would be mini-".
The gun was out and in his face before he could finish the sentence. The end of the barrel grazed his nose. It was cold to the touch.
"You can do as I say and die many years from now, a rich man," said Mr. Freeze, scowling. "Or you can grovel for one last penny and die here and now, by my hand. It is your choice. Make it a swift one."
Carrara swallowed, but found no relief for his parched throat. "ĦUn hora!" he stammered. "One hour, just as you say!"
The man replaced the gun in the holster. "I trust I will not have to repeat myself. Leave us."
Carrara almost tripped over his own feet as he turned and ran from the hanger. The man called Mr. Freeze closed the door behind him. Carrara produced a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped the sweat from his bald head, bending over at the waist to try and catch his breath. He only allowed himself a moment before he ran over to personally double check the helicopter.
Bruce cradled the phone between his neck and shoulder, ignoring the stinging pain that shot through his spine as a result. The midmorning sun streamed through the hotel window as he looked down upon a bustling downtown Lima thoroughfare. The man Bruce was speaking to, unaware of his discomfort, continued in a pleasant, though flustered tone.
"Of course we can accommodate an inspection, Mr. Wayne," the man insisted. "We operate entirely within the guidelines of Wayne Enterprises. It's just that your unannounced visit has caught us somewhat off guard. Some notice would have been app-".
"If I had given you notice," Bruce broke in, "it wouldn't be a surprise inspection, would it Mr. Caspiñota?"
"Well, no," came the halting reply. "It is your company, Mr. Wayne. We would be privileged to welcome you to our facilities."
Bruce smiled to himself. "Thank you, Mr. Caspiñota. But I want to see the sights a little before I get to the business part of this business trip. It's Tuesday. Let's meet for lunch on Thursday. Does that work for you?
The clearly relived voice answered, "Yes sir, that will be fine. I look forward to meeting you in person. "
"Likewise, Mr. Caspiñota. One more thing. I've always wanted to see some Inca ruins up close. The pictures in National Geographic don't do them justice, I'm sure. If it's not too much trouble, I'd like to borrow the company helicopter for the day. Do you think you can spare it a while?"
"For you, of course Mr. Wayne," said Caspiñota. "Our best pilot is at your disposal. His knowledge of the region is extensive. I'm sure he'll know where to find what you're looking for."
"No, that won't be necessary," said Bruce casually. "I like to fly solo. More fun, you know. Don't worry, I'll bring her back in one piece. I have a few hours in the seat under my belt. Just have a car waiting outside the Hotel Lima in 20 minutes. I want to get started right away. This is my first time in Peru, and I want to see as much as I can before we get down to business."
"As you wish, Mr. Wayne. Twenty minutes. Enjoy your trip."
"Thank you, Mr. Caspiñota. See you Thursday." Bruce hung up the phone.
He put a hand on the back of his neck and tried to rub the stiffness away, without success. The events of the previous night still weighed heavily on his body, as well as his mind.
Much of it was still a blur. After he was almost knocked out by the concussion of the rocket blast from Freeze, he must have managed to crawl back to the Batmobile. He recalled little of the drive from the Factory District back to Wayne Manor. He guessed he'd been lucid enough to engage the auto control function of the car, and allowed it whisk him safely home.
He had awoke to Alfred, tendering his usual ministrations; something at which he was all too proficient, the butler had said. When he could stand with a bearable amount of delirium, he checked the telemetry from the tracer bug he planted on Freeze. Not surprisingly, it was no longer functioning. Freeze would not be duped a second time. But Bruce had other avenues for tracking him down. He located the people that sold Freeze the whereabouts of Ra's. The number of people who had access to that information was few and far between. He paid each of them a visit that night. Getting the answer had proven far easier than he had expected, despite the pounding in his head.
Getting himself to South America had been a less straightforward process. As much as he wanted to jump in the Batwing and set off at once, the sudden disappearance of Bruce Wayne would leave too many unanswered questions. He could have had Alfred call in to Lucius Fox with some story, as he had many times in the past, but he would need Bruce Wayne's pull, so he had to give him a reason to go down there. An environmental safety inspection of the Wayne Enterprises research facility in Lima provided a plausible excuse. Deforestation was a hot topic in the region, so he would go there to "make sure Wayne Enterprises is doing its part to preserve nature while pushing the human race forward" or some corporate do-gooder drivel along those lines.
So, after a hastily arranged flight on his private jet, a still groggy Bruce Wayne found himself in a Lima hotel room. Two days should be enough time to settle the affair with Freeze, one way or another. He would still have to meet with Caspiñota, to keep up the charade. But if he gets through the next two days, he thought, touring some laboratory will feel like a vacation.
He removed the false bottom of his suitcase, and pulled out the cape. He set it down, folded over the back of a chair by the window. He double-checked the utility belt and consulted his watch. The car would arrive in less than 17 minutes, if Caspiñota was punctual. Bruce had the feeling he would be.
The stone structure loomed behind the dense foliage as Fries approached. He laid his wife gently on the ground, and scanned the terrain between them and the entrance to the ancient structure. Two guards, armed with automatic weapons, patrolled the grounds around the tunnel that fed into the building.
Fries grunted. Child's play, he thought. He looked down at his wife. She was getting stronger everyday, but it was still necessary to carry her at times. It was no great chore for Fries, his strength increased many fold by the coldsuit. Still, he was glad their journey was at an end. The humid jungle climate was repellant to him, coldsuit or not, and he longed to get Nora out of the oppressive heat. He still questioned the decision to bring her this far in the first place. What good could she really do here? This was something he had to bear, not her. She had endured enough, and finally, she was whole again. Now, it was his turn. No, he thought, she belonged here, at his side. They had been apart for long enough. They would take this final step together.
Nora sat up and propped herself against a tree trunk. "I should have stayed behind, Victor. I'm only slowing you down. I'm a burden. I'm not strong enough yet."
Fries knelt by her side, and took her hand. Looking at her, he was struck by her piercing blue eyes, which still gave his heart a jump, after all this time. "You have been the only source of strength for me for so long, my love. Now allow me to give strength to you. When I return from that place, we shall once again be a couple. Things will be different this time, Nora. We will have our lives back."
Nora's eyes welled with tears. She reached up to him, placing a hand on the glass shield that protected his head. "I believe in you. I always have. I fell in love with the man trapped inside this suit. Go bring him back to life for me."
Fries drew a deep breath, and stood. "Once again, to touch you with my own hands. To feel your breath on my skin. The thought has sustained me for long enough. Now I will make it a reality."
He turned from his wife and walked toward the entrance of the temple. As he stepped into the open ground, two frosty tendrils leapt from the barrel of his gun and quickly wrapped themselves around the guards. Fries pushed past them without a second glance and proceeded into the body of the structure.
The entrance tunnel spilled into a large chamber. A large, oval-shaped device, suspended in midair from the ceiling by thick cables, dominated the room. A metal framework reinforced the ancient masonry, and provided the anchor for the cabling. This, Fries observed impassively from the shadows of the entry corridor. However, when his eyes rested on the pit of bubbling green liquid directly below the device, he could not help but feel a rush of anticipation.
He opened a small compartment in his suit, and pulled out a piece of paper. Unfolding it, he examined the artwork. The painting was divided into four scenes. The first depicted three figures, one of which was clearly wounded, his head bowed, with blood dripping from his neck. The second showed the other two figures carrying the wounded man toward an opening in the ground, the interior of which was a bright green. In the next scene, the wounded man was shown submerged up to the neck in the green interior. In the final scene, the three figures stood around the aperture, all evidently in perfect health.
Tayo was right, he thought. Life from death. Reclamation.
He replaced the paper and glanced quickly about the room. Two men worked at a console near the pit. One man each stood sentry in front of corridors that opened on either wall to the left and right of the entry. Another stood on one of the catwalks hanging above the pit, inspecting the device fixed to the cables, his back to the entrance tunnel.
Fries chose his first target. A blast from the coldgun froze the man on the catwalk to the railing he leaned on. Fries emerged from the shadows and walked calmly toward the pit. The remaining four sentries, their attention momentarily transfixed on the their hapless comrade, now turned toward the entrance and saw Fries. The man guarding the corridor on the east wall immediately dropped to one knee and took aim with his rifle. Before he could squeeze the trigger, however, Fries hit him with a jet of ice that lifted him off the ground and flung him back into the wall behind him. The meeting of skull and stone resonated with a sound that left little doubt as to the man's fate.
Fries turned to the guard's counterpart on the west wall, but before he could raise his gun, the man opened fire. The rounds ricocheted wildly off the coldsuit. Fries stood, arms folded, and decided to allow the man the satisfaction of emptying his entire clip, which he quickly did. He did not have long to bask in this achievement, however. He was soon encased in a block of ice, his wide eyes revealing the astonishment and terror of one who is quickly confronted with a destiny he was not prepared to meet. At one time, Fries could have sympathized, but no longer. He was in full control of his destiny now.
With a grim sense of purpose, Fries regarded the two remaining men. One was thickly muscled, with a gleaming bald head. He stepped toward Fries, arms at his sides, his hands balled tightly into fists. He stood between Fries and the Lazarus pit. The other man, apparently unarmed, looked quickly from Fries to the bald man, and back again. He then bolted for the east corridor. Fries disregarded him, instead focusing on the man before him.
The man sneered and thrust out his chin defiantly at Fries. Then leaning forward slightly, never taking his eyes off his adversary, he spat. His face twisted into a look of contempt. "Infidel!" he snarled.
Fries was silent for a moment. Then he raised the gun. "Nevertheless," he said at last, "the day is mine."
He squeezed the trigger, and the brave, foolish man in front of him said no more.
Fries holstered his weapon. He walked up to the pit, shoving aside the frozen, oafish mass that had momentarily defied him. He looked down into the congealed mass of green bubbles that was to become his own primordial soup.
"I never dreamed it would be this easy," he said quietly, kneeling down at the rim of the pit.
"Not so easy after all, perhaps."
Fries jumped to his feet, whirling around and drawing his weapon in the same motion.
The voice had come from the shadows around the west corridor. The solid form of a man slowly separated itself from the gloom. The man was covered from head to foot with a green cloak, which he held close about himself. Fries could not make out his face, save for the wisps of dark hair that dangled from the sides of his chin, and the intense green eyes which bored out from under the hood of the cloak. They seemed to radiate a heat. Fries shifted nervously in place. A lump of anxiety swelled in his throat.
The man in the green cloak revealed a gleaming set of white teeth, as his lips curled back into a mirthless grin. "Your unease is well founded, my friend. For the day is not yet over."
Fries stepped cautiously away from the pit, his gun trained on the new arrival. "Ra's Al Ghul, I presume."
The man bowed slightly. "The same. I am not in the habit of receiving guests, however," he gestured to the frozen men, "I see you have made yourself quite at home."
"Your pawns are of no interest to me," said Fries. "You have something I want. My name is Vic-"
"Victor Fries," Ra's broke in. "Doctor Victor Fries, if I am not mistaken. Former Gothcorp scientist. DNA systemically damaged during a laboratory explosion as you desperately struggled to preserve your beloved wife. Nora, I believe was her name. As a result, you cannot exist outside a subzero temperature for more than a few minutes. Thus was born Mr. Freeze."
Fries succeeded in keeping the surprise from his voice. "I see your reputation for resourcefulness is not exaggerated."
"It is my business to know everything," Ra's said flatly.
"Then know this," Fries said. "I have no quarrel with you." He indicated the device hanging over the pit. "You and your operation here are of no concern to me. I am here for a very specific reason."
"Oh, I think I can divine your purpose," said Ra's, pulling back the hood of the cloak to unveil a head of black hair, streaked with white at the temples. "You seek rebirth. A parole from that suit of armor that holds you in purgatory, neither living nor dead. You wish a drink from the pool of life that has sustained me for all these centuries. Have I hit upon it, my friend?"
Before Fries could respond, he heard many rapid footfalls approaching from the east corridor. He took aim, and the aperture was quickly covered in a thick wall of ice. He turned and once again regarded his adversary.
"I do not share your thirst for immortality," said Fries. "I simply want a chance at the life that was denied me. The Lazarus pit is that chance."
Ra's smiled. "Indeed it is. You have obviously educated yourself as to the significance of the Lazarus pit and what it can do. Let me reassure you, it is all true. Every bit of legend and myth surrounding the life-giving powers found therein has been absolutely proven time and time again. It is indeed your only hope for attaining that which you seek. If your quest is rejuvenation, your salvation awaits you there."
Fries took a deep breath and lowered his weapon. He turned his head and allowed his gaze to wash over the green pool.
Ra's advanced, holding his hands out, palms up, before him. "Allow me to demonstrate, lest you believe this all too good to be true."
Fries eyed Ra's Al Ghul. He had no weapon. Deciding that one unarmed man was little threat to him, he stepped back and allowed Ra's to approach the pit. He dispassionately regarded the man that lay frozen beside it. "Ubu, my devoted servant, shall make an effective litmus test, I should think." He lifted the block of ice, with little effort, Fries noticed, and placed it upright on the lip of the Lazarus pit. He looked at Fries. "Now let all doubt forever vanish from your mind as you witness this miracle of nature." With that, he pushed the frozen man into the mouth of the pit. The block bobbed on the green pool for a moment, steam rising from the dissolving ice. Then it vanished from sight, enveloped by the bubbling mass of fluid. There was no sign of the man inside.
Fries moved closer to the pit, straining to capture a glimpse of the man he thought he had consigned to his fate. Ra's was rubbing his hands together eagerly. "I never tire of witnessing the power of the Earth unleashed. It is much like watching the transformation of an ordinary cloud into a dramatic thunderhead." He cast a sidelong glance at Fries. "Your science has nothing to match the pure, raw power of nature. But of course, you knew that. That is why you have come begging at my door, is it not Doctor? Behold," he indicated the pit with a nod of his head. "That is the thunderhead, and you are but one of the great unwashed, to be swept away by the coming storm."
As the true intent of Ra's words dawned upon him, Fries reacted, but too slowly. A flash of something metallic leapt from Ra's cloak, and Fries was flung violently back, landing with in impact that echoed throughout the cavernous chamber. He raised his head, and saw Ra's Al Ghul standing over him, brandishing a cane in his right hand, which Fries thought must have been made of lead. A slight dent creased the front of his suit. Fries tried to bring his coldgun to bear, but Ra's again proved the quicker man. The cane cut through the air, and the coldgun flew from Fries's hand, landing near the west wall.
"You arrogant fool," said Ra's. The contempt and rage that dripped from his voice was also etched on his face. "Did you really believe you could simply walk into my sanctuary and make demands of Ra's Al Ghul? I was guiding the fate of a planet 500 years before you were born."
Ra's advanced, holding the cane high over his head. Fries struggled to his feet, only to be felled once again by a kick to the chest. Staggered by the strength of this man, Fries looked about for anything he could use as a weapon, but found nothing. Ra's smiled derisively at his fallen opponent.
"I am imbued with the energy I have absorbed for these many centuries," said Ra's. "I need not prostitute myself to science. My strength flows from the very planet on which we live."
Ra's again stepped toward him. Fries steeled himself for another blow, but to his surprise, Ra's lowered the cane and returned it to the folds of his cloak.
"Now my friend," he said. "I invite you to bear witness to the miracle which you shall never experience. I give you," he stepped aside, allowing Fries an unobstructed view of the Lazarus pit, "Rebirth!"
Fries looked on in amazement as first once hand, then another appeared on the rim of the pit. The bald head surfaced next, doused in green. The man, Ubu, Ra's had called him, slowly pulled himself up. His eyes never left Fries. Slowly, his face tightened from confused simplicity into violent hatred. The muscles in his bare arms bulged with veins, and Fries heard his knuckles crack as he clenched his fists. A primal scream of rage escaped as he broke into a dead run and hurled himself at the prostrate Fries.
Fries fought the instinct to try and regain his feet, instead holding till the last second and rolling to the side. Ubu crashed into the ground Fries had occupied moments before.
Fries jumped to his feet and faced his attacker. Ubu, oblivious to the blood that poured from a gash in his lower lip, leapt at Fries again. This time, he stood his ground, cocking one arm behind his head and delivering a punch to the oncoming Ubu that would have decapitated most men. Indeed, Fries heard the grinding of jaw bone as his blow landed. However, with a ferocity Fries had never witnessed, Ubu kept coming, a short grunt the only indication he had felt the blow at all. He locked his arms around Fries's neck and dragged him to the ground. He quickly stood, his face now obscured behind a mask of his own blood, and grabbed Fries by the legs. Swinging him around once, he launched Fries toward the west wall. He struck the stonework with a crash that rocked the entire structure. Dust fell from the ceiling, and the catwalks swayed uncertainly, but the wall remained intact.
Dazed, Fries fought to regain his senses. No mere man had ever done to him what these two men were doing. The wielding of brute physical force was his domain. He was the juggernaut. Now, he was in its path. As he pushed himself up off the ground, his hand fell upon the butt of the coldgun. It gave him strength. He heard Ubu closing fast behind him. Waiting until the giant was almost upon him, he turned quickly and pulled the trigger. Once again, Ubu was enswathed in a cone of ice. Breathing heavily, Fries trained the gun on Ra's.
The other man smiled, an image Fries had quickly grown to detest. "Why my dear Doctor," Ra's said, "If I didn't know better, I'd think you had broken a sweat."
"You wanted to impress me, and you have," answered Fries. "But if your goal was to break my resolve, you have failed. That is beyond the scope of any man. My mistake was not eliminating you at the first opportunity. I shall now rectify that oversight."
Ra's closed his eyes, making no attempt to avoid the freezing torrent that shot from the coldgun. He was locked in a pillar of ice that hardened quickly around him. He stood, rooted to the ground, arms at his sides.
A cold silence gripped the room as Fries cautiously circled his frozen adversary. He was about to approach him when the first crack appeared. It started at the bottom, at Ra's feet, then snaked it's way up the face of the pillar, shooting branches off in every direction. Finally, the top portion burst asunder, ice flying in all directions. Ra's held his arms aloft for a moment as they broke through, before bringing them down on the portion of the pillar that still immobilized him. It shattered, freeing his legs. Ra's stood among the icy rubble of his would-be coffin and locked Fries with a stare from his green eyes.
"Tragic, don't you think? To come all this way, to expend so much effort in pursuing a dream, only to have it become a nightmare."
Fries felt the rage welling up inside him. He fixed the coldgun on his enemy.
Ra's shook his head mockingly. "Must we play this game again?" he asked. "We know how it will end. You cannot win. But I am not without compassion. Those who have crossed me number few among the living. I offer you the rare opportunity to join them. Leave now, and forget the name Ra's Al Ghul. You profess no interest in me beyond what I possess. I have as little interest in you. Walk away now, and I will forget the time I have wasted with you. Each moment is precious. Remain here, and you will have precious few moments left."
"If I leave here," answered Fries through clenched teeth, "I return to a life without life. An interminable death. Never."
Ra's grinned, that evil, knowing, grin. "So be it," he rasped.
Ra's knelt into a crouch. Fries tensed. He was about to fire off another freezing blast when he noticed Ra's appear to look past him, into the darkness beyond.
He whirled, momentarily forgetting his own peril, overwhelmed with panic as he recognized the voice and realized the danger it had walked into.
Nora Fries emerged from the shadows of the entrance tunnel.
The woman rushed forward, taking Fries's arm, and casting a savage look at Ra's. He was struck by the intensity in her eyes.
"Victor, are you hurt?" she asked. "I heard a noise, and the whole building shook. I had to see if you were all right."
"Get out now, Nora!" Fries said sharply. He began to pull her toward the tunnel, still holding the gun on Ra's.
Bemused, Ra's observed this tender scene. The emotion in the woman's face was something he seldom beheld. He had long ago allowed his quest to subsume all remnants of devotion he once possessed. This, he realized, what was he was witnessing; devotion.
"This man is more dangerous than I estimated," Fries told the woman. "I don't know if I will survive. But you must. Leave, Nora, now!"
The woman flushed with rage and tore herself from Fries. She ran straight up to Ra's and thrust a defiant finger squarely in his face.
"I don't know who you are," she seethed, "and I don't care. We want to take nothing from you. You lose nothing by allowing my husband to use what you posses. You gain nothing by preventing him from using it. Is your ego so fragile that you take pleasure in denying a man who simply wants a chance at life?"
Ra's regarded the woman in silence. Her beauty was obvious, as was her passion. Ra's was struck by her intellect. Even in this highly emotional state, she chose her words carefully, and spoke with a quiet authority. Clearly, a formidable woman.
He smiled, bowing his head slightly. "Nora Fries. I am pleased to see you fully recovered from your long illness."
Fries, fresh from the shock of seeing his wife in harm's way, came quickly forward and pulled her back, stepping between her and Ra's. The gun took the place of the woman's finger in his face.
"Nora, there is no reasoning with this man," Fries said. "The only language he understands is violence."
Nora placed a hand softly on her husband's forearm, slowly lowering the gun. She looked Ra's in the eye, and he was again struck by the stern intensity in her face. There was no weakness to be found within. Emotion, yes. But no weakness.
"I appeal to your intellect," she said. "To the only thing that separates us from the animals around us. My husband is a brilliant, kind-hearted man. Without that suit he isn't a threat to you or anyone else. Nor would he want to be. We just want to be together. You have the ability to make that happen."
Ra's paused. This woman who had the audacity to speak to him as though they were equals. He knew he should be angry. He should show this woman and her husband their proper place in his world. They had wasted enough of his time already. But he couldn't avert his eyes from the stare of this woman. Even in this desperate time, she had the strength to reason, to assess the situation. She successfully balanced her emotions with her goals. Again, no weakness. It had been so long since he looked into a woman's eyes, into any person's eyes, and saw no trace of weakness.
"Please," he said, "there is no need for further use of force. Perhaps I overreacted to your husband's intrusion. His reputation precedes him. I assure you I am fully capable of a more rational exchange. The sight of my men so coldly disposed of must have set me off."
"They are not dead," said Fries. "If you attend to them quickly, they will recover."
"Of course, had I taken a moment to think, I would have realized that," Ra's replied. "Allow me to make amends. I will tend to my men. Then we can discuss your request. There is more to using the Lazarus pit than simply jumping in headfirst, as Ubu's reaction probably showed you. You must be prepared for the aftereffects of submersion."
Fries hesitated. Cautiously, he returned the coldgun to its holster. "You've deceived me once already. Do so again and I swear-"
"Please," insisted Ra's, "let us not allow ourselves to regress into idle threats. Forgive my earlier rashness, and I shall forgive yours. You've come all this way. What choice have you but to trust me?"
Fries still seemed uncertain. His wife took his hand in hers.
Fries looked down at her. Ra's noted the steely resolve in her voice. Gentle, yet unyielding.
"Very well," Fries said at last.
Ra's smiled. "Excuse me, while I tend to my wounded." He bowed and turned away.
Still smiling, he approached Ubu. Great oaf, he thought. Hardly deserving of a second salvation. This woman, however, was intriguing to say the least. He'd forgotten what it was to address an equal. And one so beautiful. He hadn't been struck by a woman's beauty since before Talia was born. And even then, it was an empty beauty, a beauty without substance. This woman was made of sterner stuff. She had the intellect and the passion to survive the coming evolution. She deserved to survive. She deserved to stand with him, at his side as he ushered in the new chapter of Earth's history. The man was a minor inconvenience, and would be dealt with. Evolution, after all, was survival of the fittest.
He lifted Ubu over his head, and started toward the Lazarus pit.
Batman approached the citadel cautiously. He raised the binoculars to his eyes and scanned the front of the building. Tall columns of gray and brown were covered in places by white patches of lichen. It was surrounded on all sides by innumerable hues of green light that filtered through the foliage. The frozen remnant of the sentry stood in two blocks flanking the entrance to the temple.
Batman entered the tunnel, and made for the room ahead. He hugged the wall, moving noiselessly through the darkness. Two men approached, dragging a heavy block of ice. Batman quickly went prone, disappearing into the shadows. The men passed him by, trailing their burden behind them as they moved toward the exit. When they were safely past him, he proceeded down the tunnel, and reaching its end, crouched along the wall.
He saw the Lazarus pit, and the oval-shaped device hanging above. Shards of ice were littered the chamber. In the corner to his left were piled three man-sized blocks of ice. The aftermath of an encounter with Mr. Freeze, Batman thought. Apparently Ra's didn't deem them worthy of his attention. They were on their own, as was all of humanity, in the twisted image of a purified world that defined Ra's Al Ghul.
Freeze himself stood near the Lazarus pit, both hands wrapped in those of his wife. They spoke in hushed voices. Ra's himself was not to be seen. Men were still clearing the ice from the east corridor, so Batman darted for the west wall, and slipped into the tunnel. He had not gone far when the passage turned sharply to the left. He peered around the corner, and finding the way clear, he proceeded. The corridor branched off at various places into small ancillary chambers that Batman found to be empty. The tunnel came to an endpoint, presenting Batman with two choices. To his left, the passage continued, while stairs ascended to his right. Batman considered for a moment, and with caution proceeded up the stairs.
A chamber opened up before him as he reached the top of the stairs. A quick survey revealed modern trappings such as chairs, lights, a desk, and in the center of the room, a large table. Batman approached the table, and saw a map of the world spread out over it. The map was covered with red marks that blanketed its surface. A large yellow 'X' denoted the location of the citadel where Batman now stood.
As he observed the map, the memory of the scene in the main chamber below flashed before him. His stomach knotted.
The sound of voices stirred him from his reverie. Following them, he saw a balcony. With a stealth perfected over years of training and practice, he moved silently to a position just inside the terrace entrance, and listened to the conversation coming from without.
"Fortunately, his good sense is bound by his own desperation," said the voice of Ra's Al Ghul. "He will let us lead him to his own demise. A pity. I imagine the man was once truly brilliant."
"Do proceed as discussed, Master?" asked the second voice, which Batman recognized as Ubu's.
"Yes," Ra's answered. "The tenor of the plan has changed, but only slightly. We will dispose of Victor Fries, and his wife shall take her place by my side. A remarkable woman. Her arrival truly heralds the dawn of a new age. I was resigned to living the future as I have done the past: alone. Bereft of a kindred spirit among the throng of history. But things will be different this time. This will truly be the Golden Age."
Batman heard footsteps on the stairs. Leaving his position by the wall, he threw himself down behind the table and lay motionless. A man ascended the stairs and proceeded to the terrace entrance.
"Speak," said Ra's.
"He is ready," the man answered.
"Good, we will be down shortly."
Batman didn't wait to hear more. He darted down the stairs, and ran back through the stone halls to the main chamber. He approached cautiously, his back to the wall of the corridor. He peered around the corner.
The scene inside had changed. Freeze still stood with his wife near the pit, but the coldgun lay discarded behind him. His wife faced him, a hand grasping each of his arms. Their eyes never left each other. Ra's was right, thought Batman. This was desperation.
Two armed men flanked the couple. Two more had taken positions around the main entrance. A fifth man tended the console next to the pit's aperture.
Batman reached inside his utility belt and removed a small glass capsule. Stepping into the chamber, he lobbed the capsule toward the entry tunnel, where it landed in between the two guards, shattering on impact. The two men hadn't taken a step before the gas hit them. They fell without a sound. Batman saw none of this. As soon as the capsule was out of his hand, it was replaced by a batarang. This, too, was soon flying through the air. The man to the left of Freeze fell back, blood spurting from his nose. The other man, stunned by the sudden disposal of his comrade, didn't see Batman coming until it was too late. A single punch left only the man at the console. This man reached for a sidearm, but never drew it. Batman threw a lasso that quickly wrapped the other man in a tight embrace. He fell to the ground, squirming.
Batman surveyed his handiwork. Five men in seven seconds, without a shot fired. Not bad, he thought.
Freeze and his wife, bewildered by the sudden show of force, stared wide-eyed at the Caped Crusader.
"Freeze!" he shouted. "You've got to get out of here! Ra's is going to kill you!"
Freeze let the anger wash over his face. "Let him try, Batman. I have come too far. I will not allow him to stand in my way."
"You don't know what you've walked into Freeze. You're not the only one with a dream of a new life. Ra's has a plan for the world, and you're not part of it. You've got to get out now."
"The plans of a madman do not interest me," said Freeze. "He has one thing I want. What he does with the world is no concern of mine."
"And you have one thing he wants," said Batman. "When you're out of the way he's going to take your wife as a mate. I know this man, Freeze. Don't risk everything you hold dear. He believes he is entitled to world domination. And he'll start here, with you and Nora. It's his way of life. It's all he knows. He takes what he wants, Freeze. And he reshapes it in his own image. That is his obsession, and it is every bit as powerful as your own."
Freeze shook his head. "He cannot possibly-"
"He can and will do anything, Freeze," Batman insisted. He indicated the device hanging from the ceiling. "What do you think that is? My guess is a nuclear weapon. He's going to send it down the pit and detonate it. Do you know what happens next? I think I can guess."
"Allow me to remove the guesswork, Detective."
Ra's stepped into the light, flanked by Ubu and another guard.
"You are an unexpected, but not all together unwelcome guest," said Ra's. "It is only right that you be present for the event you yourself delayed sometime ago."
"I knew you wouldn't stop with Orpheus," Batman said. "But isn't a nuclear bomb a little pedestrian for Ra' Al Ghul?"
Ra's shrugged. "One makes do. True, the satellite would have accomplished the task far more rapidly, but this allows me to work in relative obscurity. No desert fortress. No complex navigational computers. Just this." He reached into the folds of his cloak and pulled out a small device. "I hold the fate of the world in my hand, Detective. This world, and the world yet to come."
"If Freeze hadn't stumbled into your little hideaway-"
"Very likely you would not have realized what was happening until it was far too late," said Ra's, replacing the device. He smiled, and turned his gaze to Nora Fries. "But I gladly suffer the delay in light of what it has brought me." Nora shuddered.
Freeze fixed Ra's with an icy stare, his brow furrowed in a deep-set frown.
"You are right, of course," Ra's continued. "The device above us will travel down the Lazarus pit, until it reaches the nexus from which all pits flow. At that point, it will detonate. And the life-blood of the Earth will wash over the planet, bringing about a return to the lush simplicity of nature. We shall witness a harmony and balance not seen since the infancy of the world as the life-giving chemicals roll over the planet's wounds like a tidal wave. Truly a rebirth."
Freeze shook his head emphatically. "What is this madness? You talk of rebirth. What you propose is nothing less than genocide."
Ra's regarded Freeze with disdain. "Your quest has ended, my cold-hearted friend. Rest assured I will see to her well-being. She is my birthright. Yours, I'm afraid, is to melt away with the great stench of humanity you have so longed to join. But be glad, for your existence has been but death masquerading as life, and the dead are happier when they are truly dead."
"You monster!" Nora screamed. "I tried to appeal to your intellect, but I shouldn't have wasted my breath. You aren't human. You're nothing but a cauldron of hate."
"Time will show how wrong you are, my dear," Ra's said impassively. "We shall move this new world forward, together. You will learn to appreciate me."
Nora flushed with rage. "I'll never go with you. I have a husband, and he is ten times the man you are. You are nothing more than a lunatic. You're not fit to be in the same room with him."
"Has he saved the world?" Ra's bristled. "What has he done in the face of the oppressive cacophony of mankind, with his greed and ignorance? Genocide, he says. When you crush an anthill, do you call it genocide? I think not. Do you weep for lost souls? I think not. I am restoring the world to the condition nature intended from the beginning. Free of ants."
"Humanity is part of nature, Ra's," said Batman. "We evolved from nature. We are as much a part of the lifecycle of this planet as the trees in this forest."
"Man has separated himself from nature, Detective," Ra's shot back. "He has placed himself on a pedestal. And he has forgotten from whence he came. He ignores, he spurns, he destroys it." Ra's paused. "A walk through this very forest reveals a wonder of shapes, sounds and colors, infinite variations of the shade of green. Indeed, this region offers a richness and depth of nature that is beyond description. Unfortunately, the only shade of green that holds any beauty for mankind is found in a bank, not a forest."
"I should have known it would be impossible to reason with you Ra's," said Batman. "Nora is right. After all these centuries, whatever was left of your humanity, your ability to reason and to sympathize, has been consumed by your hatred. You have failed to live up to your humanity. Victor Fries came here because he wanted to reclaim his. He had his rebirth, and he didn't need to dive into a Lazarus pit."
Ra's sneered. "And you Detective," he said. "What brought you here? Surely you didn't come all this way to play chaperon to your old enemy in his noble quest for redemption."
"No," said Batman, shaking his head. "I came here for you Ra's. I came here to stop you."
The thin, humorless smile played across the face of Ra's Al Ghul once again. "Always it comes to this. A pity. The two most powerful minds in the world, in opposition. It didn't have to be this way. You could have taken my throne, as well as the hand of my daughter. Yet you chose to defy me. Only one of us will leave this place, Detective, and for that I am truly sorry."
The guard raised his weapon, but a well-placed batarang sliced through the barrel and knocked it from his hands. He charged, making the mistake of leading with his head. Batman took advantage, landing a forearm that snapped the man's head back sharply. Stunned, the man staggered for a moment. A gruesome soup of mashed teeth and blood poured from his mouth, and he dropped to the ground. Snarling, Ubu pounced. Batman fell back and planted his feet in Ubu's stomach, using the other man's momentum against him and flinging him head over heels behind him.
Batman came to his feet, and was confronted by Ra's, who stepped forward and sent him flying with a punch to the jaw. He landed heavily, but he quickly rolled and jumped up. The room was still spinning when he regained his feet, but he was able to focus in time to see Ubu charging again. Batman steadied himself for the attack, but it never came. A torrent of ice enveloped Ubu from behind and held him in place. He stood, frozen, before the Dark Knight, a warrior's rage etched on his face.
Victor Fries, coldgun in hand, advanced toward Ra's. No, Batman thought, noting the cold resolve in his face, this was Mr. Freeze. The desperation was gone. In its place was the grim mask of vengeance Batman had seen so many times before.
Ra's stepped back. He reached inside his cloak and produced the hand-held control pad. He pushed a button, and the cables holding the device above them snapped back, allowing the bomb to plummet into the pit below. It landed with a huge splash of green liquid, covering the wall behind. Freeze held his wife close to him, shielding her from the thick, green rain. Batman went to one knee and covered himself with his cape. Ra's stood, unmoving, and untouched by the sudden downpour. Smiling, he pressed another button on the control pad. A beep sounded from the pad, and was answered by the nearly submerged weapon. Various lights came sharply to life on its surface, and a low hum began to sound from the device. Slowly, it sank further into the bubbling ooze, until it finally disappeared. Ra's closed his hand tightly around the pad, and it exploded in a brief shower of sparks.
"It has begun," said Ra's. "It is out of your hands now, Detective. The device is armed and on its way. I could not stop it even if I wanted to. Leave now, and you may yet survive what is to come."
Batman stood and faced Ra's. He started to advance when a firm hand gripped his shoulder. He turned and looked into the eyes of Mr. Freeze.
"This man is my problem, Batman," he said. "Yours is down in that pit. Go. When you return, you will have one less enemy to face. Only fate knows who that will be. But I intend to make a convincing argument."
"But you can't face him alo-".
"Go! Your quest has always been one of salvation, and the world needs you to fulfill that quest." He looked at his wife. "Mine has always been one of revenge. For once that quest offers salvation of its own. If not for my life, then perhaps for my soul. Go."
Batman looked between Freeze, and the still smiling Ra's Al Ghul. He reached into his utility belt and removed a small device, which unfolded into a rebreathing mask. He placed this over his mouth, and unfastened his cape. He ran for the pit, and dove headfirst into the pool of green that swirled and churned below him.
"Nobility born from foolishness is hardly noble at all. The Detective disappoints me, again."
His eyes smoldering with contempt, Ra's sneered as he regarded Fries. "And you I have humored for quite long enough. I shall end this charade with a brutal finality."
Fries was unmoved. "As you said before, I have been dead for so long, what could I possibly have to fear from you?"
Without waiting for a reply, Fries fired. The blast hit Ra's in the waist, and enveloped him up to the neck. He never lost his footing, nor the thin smile on his face. The ice had barely hardened before it was splintered from within. The shards fell harmlessly to the ground. Against his will, Fries swallowed.
"What I am and who I am," Ra's said, "is greater than anything you can possibly comprehend. Your puny existence is of no consequence. This encounter ends, now."
In a blur of motion, the cane was out and shooting towards Fries with astonishing speed. Reacting on instinct, Fries barley had time to raise his gun arm and deflect the cane, altering its trajectory enough that it missed his body. Nora, standing behind her husband at an angle, was not as quick. The cane ripped through her side and lodged in the wall behind the Lazarus pit. Nora clutched at her side and collapsed to the ground.
"Nora!" Fries screamed. He dropped the coldgun and rushed toward her. Before he could reach her he was tackled from behind. A strong arm slammed his head into the ground with such force that Fries saw tiny cracks appear in the helmet, millimeters from his eyes. Dazed, Fries felt himself being picked up. A momentary sensation of weightlessness followed. The impact with the wall brought his world sharply into focus. Large cracks, now unmistakable, veiled his field of vision. He was able to roll over, and looking up, saw the scaffolding above. Ra's had thrown him into the northwest corner of the chamber. He was lying underneath the stairs that led to the catwalk lining the west wall.
Before he could reflect on his position further, the scene went dark. A foot crashed through the helmet, which shattered into a million pieces. Fries felt his lungs contract as they filled with the searing heat of normal air. He was only vaguely aware of Ra's laughter as he flailed about with his arms. Ra's held him in place with a foot planted solidly in his chest. As he gasped for breath, his hand closed around one of the beams that supported the staircase. With his remaining strength he pulled hard, dislodging it from the ground. He swung wildly, knocking a startled Ra's off of him for the moment. Knowing Ra's would recover quickly, Fries swung again, but not at his opponent. He took out the other support beam just as Ra's pounced once again, pinning him to the ground. He felt a vise-like grip close around his neck as he looked into Ra's eyes, green and bulging with violent emotion. Fries managed a smile. Ra's frowned and slackened his hold. Fries saw the realization creep into the eyes of his enemy, but too late. Ra's turned just as the staircase tumbled down on them. The west catwalk, which was supported in part by those same beams, dropped sharply on the north end, snapping the tethers that held it from the ceiling. It crashed down on that end, falling in on the collapsed staircase.
Fries had managed to shield himself by curling into a ball and covering his head with his arms. The coldsuit had protected him from the brunt of the debris, but as he moved, a shooting pain ran down his left leg. Broken, he thought. He pushed through the debris, and felt the heat begin to rise around his body. Steam escaped from the battered suit. And the air was thick with dust, which added to his breathing woes. Fries felt unconsciousness closing in on him. He pushed a button on his belt, and the suit dropped off him, falling into several pieces. All that was left was the breathing apparatus on his back. He reached behind him and pulled a clear mask over his face. Tubes from the mask snaked over his shoulders to the backpack. Frantic, he crawled to where he had last seen Nora.
It did not take long to find her. She was near what used to be the staircase, out of the path of the falling debris. Fighting the pain, Fries made his way slowly to her side. The pain was submerged in despair as he saw the size of the pool of blood around his wife. Her face was deathly pale. Part of her side was missing, and there was no way to stop the bleeding. Fries looked to the Lazarus pit.
It was perhaps twenty feet to his left, but it may as well have been twenty thousand. Without his suit, which lay broken and useless behind him, his body temperature was rising steadily, and would soon reach fatal levels. He understood his own condition well enough to know how much time he had. He felt his remaining strength leaving him. Sweat seeped from every pore on his body. He looked again at the Lazarus pit, then back to his wife. He pulled up the mask and shrugged off the backpack. He lifted his wife off the ground and held her close to him, wrapping his arms tightly around her.
Batman fought his way through the thick current. His body tingled, but he was otherwise unaware of any physical effect from exposure to the Lazarus chemicals. He could not see very far in front of him, and he had no idea how fast the device was traveling through this network of underground tunnels. The farther he traveled from the surface, the greater the chance of getting lost or becoming disoriented in the green fog. He pushed harder.
He soon heard a faint hum resonating around him, muffled by the dense liquid environment. A gray cloud appeared before him. He shot through the ooze with powerful kicks. The cloud became larger and slowly resolved into the rear of the nuclear device.
Batman shot a line through to the hull, and tethered himself to the weapon, allowing it to pull him along. Thus secured, he pulled himself close and latched on. He scaled the outside of the doomsday machine, searching for something, but he wasn't sure what. He had disarmed small explosives on several occasions, and worked hard to keep those skills fresh. However, he had no experience on a scale this large. One wrong move by him could spell disaster for a massive number of innocent people.
He made his way underneath the weapon. He was climbing down toward the nose when he saw what he was looking for. A small handle protruded from the surface of the device. Batman wrapped both hands around it and pulled hard. The panel offered some resistance, but soon came off. Peering inside, Batman saw a series of wires, and three thick black cables. His training taught him to cut wires of certain colors in order to disarm the device in question. The problem here was that when imbued in the green hue of the surrounding chemicals, the color of the wires was indistinguishable. Batman hesitated. He felt himself getting farther from the surface with every passing second. He looked at the thick cables, and an idea sprang into focus. He grabbed one and pulled. It didn't move. He tried another with the same result. From his utility belt he pulled the cutting tool and slashed sharply at the trio of cables. A charge shot through the cables and every muscle contracted as it gripped his body. Forcing the signals to move from his brain to his arms, he managed to detach the line and push off from the outer hull of the device.
As he floated, fighting to regain his senses, he slowly became aware that the hum of the machine had stopped. He looked up and saw the device drifting languidly through the green space. The forward propulsion had been cut off. He had judged by their thickness that the cables supplied power, and had nothing to do with the armament of the device. He cut off the flow of power to the engines, but it was still very much armed and dangerous. But he could do nothing about that now. He swam back to the weapon and placed a tracer beacon on the hull. Then turning from the device, he started the long push back to the surface.
Madness. Pressure, threatening to crush his skull from the inside. Spots of color swirled before him. He clutched fitfully at them, swinging wildly, finding only air. Voices in the dark, taunting him, merging with the chorus in his head, creating a rush of blinding pain. He clasped his hands to his ears in a futile attempt to silence the cacophony that mocked him. He knew nothing of his surroundings, lost in his private world of torment and rage. One by one, the voices faded into silence, and his vision seemed to focus; yet the pressure remained. He looked around, and a new sensation slowly pushed aside the anger. Fear. Dread. The dark alley. The full moon looming brightly overhead. Its light offered no hope, no comfort, no security in the cool Gotham night. He looked down and saw he was wearing children's shoes. He looked at his tiny hands and found them wrapped inside those of a man and a woman, one on either side of him. He looked up and saw the familiar faces of his parents, smiling down at him. A flash of joy leaped into his heart. They were alive! By some miracle that he dared not question, his family was together again. He could save them. He knew where he was. He knew what was about to happen. He had been granted the second chance he had so desperately prayed for these many years. He knew what he had to do. He looked down the alley and saw the dark figure. The dread returned, but it was quickly replaced by determination. Things would be different this time. His mother and father stopped suddenly. The dark figure spoke, but the words were strangely distorted, and he couldn't understand them. He looked at his parents and saw the fear creep into their faces. The gun came out. Time to act. Kick the gun from the man's hands. A quick left jab to the belly. Finally, a right cross to the jaw . He'd dispatched street thugs like this with less effort. That was all it should take. His mother screamed. He made his move. Nothing happened. He hadn't moved at all. He couldn't. Move! Do something! Your training! It's in your hands now! This is your chance to set things right, to make them proud! But the didn't move. He stood, rooted to the concrete. The first shot rang out, and his father fell. Another scream from his mother, followed quickly by the second shot. Silence. He still hadn't moved. He looked down at his parents, lying on the cold, hard ground. Blood was beginning to pool underneath their motionless bodies. He looked up at the dark figure. It spoke again, again in muted strains he could not make out. He could not see any of its features; a blank nothingness existed where its face should have been. He squinted, but could discern nothing in the emptiness. The gun was pointed at him now. His eyes were fixed on it. Grab it! But he still could not move a muscle. The figure backed away into the shadows. He looked down once again at his parents. He had failed them again. A chance at a normal, happy life. That was all he had ever wanted. That was all they had ever wanted for him. It was in his hands, and he did nothing. He was useless. He stood there, petrified. Like a child. All the hopes and dreams they had for his future. It was all for nothing. They were dead. Again. It was his fault. Again. Desperation. Again. Suddenly, he found he could move. He fell to the ground and dissolved into tears.
Batman found himself kneeling on the lip of the Lazarus pit, his face buried in his hands. He tore off the cowl and wiped a forearm across his tear soaked face. The rebreather lay next to him, covered in the same green film that slowly worked its way down his body. Testing his balance, he rose to one knee, and finally, he tried to stand. He surveyed the area around him. Rubble was strewn across the ground along the west wall, where the catwalk had partially collapsed. Freeze's coldsuit lay in pieces among the debris. There was no sign of Ra's Al Ghul, save the cane embedded in the wall beyond the Lazarus pit, dripping blood. But it was the scene near the corner that arrested his attention.
Victor Fries lay cradling the limp body of his wife. Blood continued to pour from a huge gash in her side. Fries's breathing apparatus lay discarded next to him. Bruce took two steps toward them, then once again sank to his knees. The tears flowed anew from his eyes.
"It is not your fault, Wayne," came a faint whisper, barely reaching his ears. He looked up and saw Fries, amazingly, still alive, still clutching his wife. He spoke again. "This is the end I have cheated all these years. Revenge offers only this consolation, that my last moment in life will be spent with the only person that ever made me feel alive." He looked into his wife's face. His voice quivered with emotion. "Goodbye my love," he said. "Truly, hell is a cold, cold place after all."
Bruce stood transfixed as the man reached back and produced his coldgun. Recovering himself, Bruce shouted, "Fries, no! The pit, we can-"
"It is too late for my wife, Mr. Wayne, therefore, it is too late for me." He stroked Nora's blonde hair. "Go, Bruce Wayne, Batman. Keep saving your world. I was never meant to be a part of it."
A tight jet of hard ice shot from the gun toward the far wall, smashing through. Fries fired again, this time at the roof. After a third blast, the latticework above began to fall. The ancient ceiling started to crumble, and with it the steel and wire added by Ra's. Bruce sprang aside and ran for the entryway, dodging falling debris with every step. He turned just as he reached the tunnel and strained to catch a glimpse of Fries among the hail of stone and metal. He saw him. Fries, still breathing, barely, closed his eyes and held his wife tightly to his body. He whispered something in her ear. Bruce saw no more. The dust cloud enveloped the fallen gladiator and his mate, and hurled itself toward Bruce. He turned and ran, leaving the billowing avalanche in his wake.
The jungle sped past Bruce as he looked on from the window of his Wayne Enterprises jet. The rich, green trees, the sinuous curves of the many rivers; Bruce was indifferent to them now. At the moment, they held no beauty for him, and commanded no respect.
In his mind, he knew Fries was right. It was not his fault. He could not save every lost soul. He could not patrol every dark alley. Yet the need to do so drove him, every hour of every day. And to fail, to come up short, and allow life, any life, to be taken, left him with the same sinking, empty feeling he had that night in his own dark alley. How easy it would have been, he thought, to follow that cold, dark path himself. Both Fries and Ra's were driven by passion, just as he was. Even the insanity of Ra's was fueled by a passionate love for the planet, albeit twisted by a mad thirst for power. But it couldn't have been like that in the beginning. He had been a doctor. He had saved human lives. Fries had been a man of science. He had pushed the human race forward. At some point both these brilliant men had their lives steered horribly wrong, and they never recovered. They had both lost something, just as he had. But he was lucky, he had Alfred. He sill had love. The others had nothing. They were alone with their grief, and it became what defined them. Nothing else was able to penetrate their hearts.
No, he thought, he hadn't failed. He had succeeded, against all odds. But he hadn't done it alone. A few wrong turns, and he would have ended up like those two men buried in the ruins of the citadel. Those two brilliant, wretched, doomed men. But he hadn't been allowed to take those turns. His parents influenced him long after their deaths, with Alfred serving as a living surrogate, giving him the love and attention they could no longer provide. He could not fathom doing anything that would shame their memories. He hadn't failed them that night. He was a child back then, in that alley. He hadn't failed, but he wasn't done. What made him different than Fries and Ra's was that they were both on quests they believed would end in salvation, one for himself, one for his planet. All three were defined by loss, and each became a product of the sorrow that drove him. But his quest never ended. He could not rest until he had rid the world of the very grief that made him what he was. There was still so much, and the two men he left behind were proof of this.
Bruce pulled the cover down over the window. He shut his eyes and leaned back in his seat. He would keep going. He would make them proud.
The woman lifted her goggles and wiped the sweat from her brow as she walked among the ruins. The area was swarming with men in jumpsuits and hardhats, some operating heavy equipment, others clearing debris by hand. She found the heat oppressive, but hardly unbearable. Two helicopters circled high overhead, and these, in concert with the ground crew, served to drown out the sounds of the jungle around her. She replaced the goggles and continued her survey. The goggles and mask she wore offered protection from the air, which was thick with dust.
"Miss Talia, over here!"
She made her way through the rubble to a cluster of men that had gathered not far from where she was. The man who called to her indicated the ground where other men were rapidly moving chunks of the fallen citadel. Soon, the broken body beneath was uncovered. Talia was impassive as the men placed the body on a nearby stretcher.
"Find the pit," she said sharply. "We don't have much time."
Even as she said this, she knew it was a lie. They had an eternity. Ra's had been exposed to the Lazarus chemicals so many times, his body could remain lifeless for months and still respond to the baptism of the pits. He was so suffused with the power of the very planet that he worshiped, as long as his body was intact it could again breath life into him.
Still, she was torn. She should let him rest; let her father's beloved nature have its final say. But she could not. In spite of everything, he was her father. It was a relationship that meant more to her than it ever had to him. But she had been given another chance, and she would take it. Perhaps this time things would be different. Perhaps this time they could connect as those bonded by blood were supposed to. Those with normal, happy lives.
"Miss Talia, something else!"
She looked at the man on the stretcher.
She would try again with her father. She would make him proud.
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This piece is © 2001 by Michael Lane.
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