So this Faustus having godly parents, and seeing him to be of a toward wit, were very desirous to bring him up in those virtuous studies, namely, of Divinity: but he gave himself secretly to study Necromancy and Conjuration, in so much that few or none could perceive his professionP.F. Gent[leman], The historye of the damnable life and deserued death of Doctor Iohn Faustus. Newly imprinted, and in conuenient places, imperfect matter amended: according to the true coppy printed at Franckfort, and translated into English
Newspapers from cities with reports of Superman over a random thirty day period laid sprawled in the old mine beneath Wayne Manor.
Usually, these were front page stories, although sometimes ––in Metropolis for example ––Superman’s exploits were still exciting, but if it wasn’t an interview, it might not be the lead story.
In the papers from smaller cities, they always led with Superman. Of the stories that Bruce could read, they seemed to follow pattern: A picture of Superman as a blurry man in the sky, or the people he saved, or the police smiling with the alleged criminals that the Man of Steel had apprehended (although in the Topeka story, the image was a little girl squeezing a white cat close to her face). Several quotes from witnesses or beneficiaries, maybe a quote from the police. A quick anecdote or reference to another place where he’d rescued someone, and some version of the conclusive “he refused any reward but thanks.”
Bruce stood with his hand on his chin, brooding over the stories, some much more reliable than others. Radio personalities, especially Skip Freeley, The Gotham Gossip had begun to speculate on the nature of Superman, based mostly on wild conjecture, outright lies, and poorly-educated-guesses. One thing that all of the purported Superman “experts” seemed to agree on was that he was based in Metropolis, and the limited data that Bruce had been able to sample certainly seemed to suggest as much.
Skip Freeley and a handful of other Superfans postulated that Superman had a thing for Lois Lane. She was a very talented reporter, the best and most prolific one at the Daily Planet. And Superman basically gave her the Pulitzer Prize with his interview (which was long-deserved, Bruce thought, at least since her excellent work covering the ’32 elections and the postmortem she got from Hoover himself that almost made that dullard seem sympathetic. Almost.).
Bruce started scribbling notes onto scrap sheets of paper, and clipping those to each of the newspapers. Mostly about time-of-day, but if any other details jumped out at him, he’d jot those down too.
“Wendesday after school.”
“Ten o’clock in the morning, or so.”
“The caper was interrupted at 3:55 p.m…”
There were a handful of exceptions, but Superman, even on foreign soil, seemed to work only during the relative day. That added some credibility to the rumor that he didn’t sleep, or at least that he didn’t need to sleep.
No wars, it would seem, and nothing even vaguely political (Superman purported to be a crimefighter, but did nothing to apprehend Dillinger, perhaps owing to the gangster’s Robin Hood façade, and it’s fair to consider the rumors that Dillinger was receiving plastic surgery to make himself more difficult to identify).
“Coward,” thought Bruce aloud.
It would be unreasonable to ask a man to save everyone, but here was an alien who could; instead he played at “neutrality” to avoid…what, exactly? Criticism? Feedback? Superman wasn’t accountable to anyone, but choosing to save a cat from a tree in Topeka instead of dousing a fire in Hokkaido seemed like a pretty explicit statement of your morals to Bruce. Which was to say nothing of the Austrian Civil War or the coup attempt in France.
“Oppression requires action,” Alfred had retorted once, when Bruce was barely thirteen, after positing a hypothetical question about the abolitionists who presaged the War Between The States.
Bruce had suggested that he believed Nat Turner deserved his freedom, but should have chose to avoid violence. “Comfort is not Justice. It’s cowardice,” Alfred explained. “If you have the power to act to defend oppressed people, then using that power must be your first priority.”
There was more than a little objective evidence that Superman was willing to abide fascism, and as a potential one man apocalypse, the shadow of malevolent authoritarianism under a steel fist loomed larger than even Bruce Wayne could be appropriately paranoid for.
Bruce continued combing the papers and his notes from the various “Superfans” for details. He needed a new perspective on this, and removed a box of colored pushpins from a drawer, unfurling one of the many maps he’d been using to track reports of the urban legends from tabloids, and started pressing pins into the map, color coding in a vaguely chronological order (with only five colors of pin, this seemed like the best system to start with to Bruce).
He took a step back, put his hand to his chin, tapping on his lips with his index finger.
“Huh,” he said aloud.
Nothing. Nothing he could call a pattern was jumping out at him.
Metropolis had the most colored pins by far, with pops of color throughout the States, and the same on other continents.
Geography didn’t seem to be much of a barrier to Superman, and it was alleged that he could get anywhere in the world in less than an hour, though Bruce was concerned that Superman had been holding back, which might suggest he could move much faster than had been observed.
Bruce Wayne pulled every pin out of the map, and tried something different.
Foreign countries: Red.
The East Coast: Blue.
The Midwest: Yellow.
The Southwest: Green.
The West Coast: Black.
Metropolis almost had to be his home base with more pins in that one city than any other whole region, but Bruce had previously discarded a theory about Superman’s origin as an urban-legend-cum-tabloid-headline.
Now, he thought he might’ve been a bit too premature in casting the hypothesis off.
The Midwest was crowded. And the areas in the immediate vicinity of Kansas were anomalously overrepresented.
Superman is The Smallville Smear.
Bruce thought about the evidence, but considered that he might be giving too much weight to this hypothesis, and turned on the simplex radio, asking Alfred to join him “downstairs.”
“These are sightings of Superman,” Bruce explained to Alfred who looked concernedly at the pockmarked map. “Take a few minutes, and let me know what you think this suggests.”
Alfred pondered for a moment, crossing his arms, and licking his teeth through closed lips while he thought.
After four minutes, Bruce joined Alfred, offering a mug of black coffee. The two men sipped, in near silence, nodding in the general direction of the map.
Bats roosting in the cave above them began to stir, prompting both men to cover their drinks with a free hand.
Alfred walked over to the map, and placed a finger on Kansas, looking back at Bruce, and raising an inquisitive eyebrow.
Bruce Wayne smiled, and nodded once at his adoptive father.
“Will you be traveling soon, Mister Bruce?”
“I think we may have some fundraisers to schedule for Dick, but tonight,” Bruce paused to set down his coffee, “I’ll be running some more equipment tests.”
Alfred surveyed the sewing table, picking up a tiny, impossibly thin glass tubes with 3 separate chambers.
“I’m quite sure these are intended to break very easily. What’s inside of this, and what happens when it mixes?”
“Nitric acid in the first chamber. Everclear soaked sawdust in the second chamber, and a mixture of saltpeter and confectioner’s sugar in the third. Toss it away from us.”
Alfred did, followed by the tinkling sound of glass breaking, a brief spark, and sudden, heavy white smoke, both men stepped back.
“This can’t be safe to breathe,” Alfred said, covering his mouth and nose with his hand.
“It’s not, but it should provide some cover in an emergency, some confusion as well, and a chance to escape, or at least reorient, if needed.”
“Aren’t you worried about smoke billowing out of your pants pockets?” Alfred posed the question with a grin. Bruce rolled his eyes.
“That’s what this is for,” the younger man said, holding up a complex-looking, dark military belt outfitted with myriad rigid bronze colored pockets. “The satchels seal hermetically.” Bruce smiled, but then the smile fell from his face and he walked back to his workbench, grabbing a drill.
“Not interested in walking around with a pinless hand grenade attached to your waist?” Alfred joked. “Why the color? I thought that black and grey were more your fashion.”
“It was the only leaded paint I had sitting around,” Bruce replied, drilling holes into the tops of two of the pouches.
Charles Arthur “Pretty Boy” Floyd had been hiding in Gotham City if the rumors could be believed. A gangster and a bank robber, labeled by Melvin Purvis and Ed Hoover as the number two on the most wanted list of Public Enemies (Dillinger was Public Enemy number 1).
Public Enemy. Even the sentiment was propaganda. Floyd was no saint, but bank robbing had been a big business since the start of the Depression; Floyd was singled out because, in the process of taking cash from the banks (who had taken so much from vulnerable people), he would burn mortgage records, freeing poor and working class families from their enslavement to debt.
For the crime of “giving people an opportunity at a fresh start,” Floyd was framed for a shootout called the Kansas City Massacre; Floyd has publicly stated he had nothing to do with the gunfight, and wasn’t even present –– and he had previously taken credit for most of his other heists –– but the police are a poorly-trained, cowardly lot. It was easy to believe that some or all of the deaths in the shootout was friendly fire.
In East Gotham, a man in all black waited in the shadows in an alley behind The Featherly Family Drugstore. Rats scampered past his feet while whispers and footsteps approached.
A hand is placed onto a wooden plank barring a poorly boarded up door. A knob is twisted, and the door is bumped off of its hinges with the butt of a man’s palm.
A muted sound like a quick exhalation, a moment of panic.
“What was that?”
“What was what?”
“You didn’t hear that–– I don’t know, sounded like somebody following us.”
“Nobody followed us, get in there.”
The two men entered through the gap in the boards, pulling the plank up behind them.
Pretty Boy Floyd and Andy Crutchfield were quiet as church mice walking through the abandoned brownstone, taking extra care when they walked the creaking stairs to the second floor, expertly dodging steps that were particularly rotted or unreliable.
The men arrive at the top of the stairs to unspeakable horror: A horned demon, easily looming seven feet tall, with glowing eyes.
“Quiet, nothing above a whisper. We’ll be safer if you put those guns down. I’m here to help.”
“I think I’d feel safer if you didn’t move, pal,” retorted Floyd in a fierce whisper. “Who the hell sent you? What the hell are you?”
“I wasn’t sent by anyone,” said the demon. “Call me an admirer of some of your work.”
Crutchfield and Floyd glanced at each other for a moment. The sound of wind-filled canvas, disassembled gun pieces falling silently into the phantom’s eerie, flowing blackness.
The demon set the pieces of the guns on the ground.
“When I leave, you can put these back together,” a deep breath, then, “like I said, I’m here to help. You have to get out of Gotham City. We’re too close to Metropolis.”
“Metropolis?” Crutchfield shot back “we’re across a bay. And everybody knows Super––“
“Don’t say his name!” Commanded the flowing darkness of the demon.
“You’re real superstitious for a ghost, pal,” quipped Floyd. “Anyway, we don’t wanna attract any attention from no flying cops, so we’re staying out of Metropolis, and we’re just passing through Gotham.”
“You should leave here tonight if you can,” came whispers from the dark figure. “Failing that, sleep in the basement, and keep watch in shifts.” A pause. “It’s been painted with lead paint. Do you have a car?”
“Only something the cops have already made. We ditched it by the docks when we go––”
“Hey,” Floyd interrupted, “how the hell did you know we were here?”
A silver key flew through the air, and Pretty Boy Floyd easily snatched it mid-flight.
“There’s a black Buick 90 parked at the corner of Ward and West streets. It has false tags, but it hasn’t been reported stolen. There’s some shoe polish in the glove compartment. Use it to color your hair until you can get a better disguise. Lay low for a few weeks, and get away from the east coast. Maybe head to Mexico.”
The two gangsters exchanged glances, and seemed to finally exhale.
“Hey uhh, thanks, pal. How do we get in touch with you if we need you?” Floyd asked cautiously.
“You don’t,” spoke the blackness. “Take a deep breath,” the guns slid across the floor to the duo, who picked them up, “then go.”
The sound of glass on a hard floor. Sudden, consuming fog.
Two panicking men with disassembled guns pulled their jackets across their faces and hurried down the stairs. They crossed the floor of the ground level to a bronze colored trap door, and headed into the cellar. It was dirty and unfinished, but it had been appointed with a pair of cots and some bedding.
For an hour, the shadow crouched on a rooftop at the corner of Ward and West Streets, hoping the car would be taken and observing the block where Featherly Family Drugstore was located with binoculars from one of the satchels in his belt.
The car didn’t move.
A sudden crash in the distance. The echo of gunshots.
Moments later, Superman emerged from the collapsed rooftop of the abandoned brownstone with Floyd and Crutchfield held in either arm.
At Wayne Manor, there was an increasing atmosphere of paranoia.
Coded speech, typed notes, and more time spent in the cave beneath the estate.
Three men and about 75,000 little brown bats occupied the cave, working, discussing, and planning.
While Dick and Alfred spoke in earnest about Dick’s campaign, early fundraisers, direct action opportunities, and the newly onboarded campaign manager, Barbara Gordon.
Bruce tinkered at his workbench, with Dick and Alfred’s curiosity piqued by the new sounds coming from Bruce’s direction.
Static, like a radio being tuned, then a voice:
“CAR 21, WE HAVE A 10-96 AT 33rd AND FINGER AVE. SUSPECT IS A WHITE 55 YEAR OLD MALE HARASSING RESIDENTS OF WILLIAM TOWER, PLEASE RESPOND.”
“THIS IS FLASS, 10-4.”
More static, then silence.
“The Gotham Police have started using a two-way a.m. radio,” Bruce began explaining. “It makes dispatch more efficient. I’m trying to figure out how to duplicate this for the new suit –– so that we can communicate with each other –– but for now, I’ve been able to scan the police frequency with a high gain antenna.” Bruce held up a modified version of the face mask he’d adapted to attach to the cape. The eyes were mirrored, a technology that Bruce had implemented years ago to hide the eyes of the Yīnyǐng. But this modified, more rigid face mask featured a tall, metal protrusion on one side that was absolutely new: The antenna he’d mentioned.
“Won’t that impact maneuverability?” Dick asked. “And won’t people just grab it?”
“A lot of the people,” Bruce began to explain, (and this felt like one of those meandering, tangent-traveling explanations that tended to bore Dick to death) “developing their new, loose ‘science’ around his arrival are saying it’s the most significant event in recorded history.
“For all of their blustering about tachyons and ’Hyperparticles’ and whatever other invented answers they’ve given for his being here, I agree with their statement of his significance. For all intents and purposes, this is likely to be what humanity refers to as the new Year Zero.”
“What are the implications of that?” Asked Alfred.
“And what in the world does that have to do with the metal handle that you just gave to anyone who wants to knee us in the face?”
“The implication is that it’s time to refresh our image,” Bruce went straight to the point. “The Yīnyǐng have served their purpose, and done it well. There are dozens of men and women working at Wayne Enterprises and The Pennyworth Foundation who would’ve been on the streets or locked up if we hadn’t intervened. We were the worst kept secret in the criminal underworld, but we were also clearly men, and Men are mortal.
“We’re living in a world where at least one god lives among us. And, alien or not, there’s more and more evidence that he isn’t the only one of these metahumans,” Bruce let out a deep sigh. “We need to appear to be like these metahumans.”
“Metahumans aren’t automatons, No one will believe that this,” Dick gesticulated vigorously in the direction of the face mask, “radio operator is a god.”
“Maybe not,” Bruce inhaled dramatically, “but give the Devil his due. Al, if you wouldn’t mind hitting the lights?”
Darkness, nearly complete silence, save the handful of bats remaining in the cave at this late hour.
Moments passed, Dick grew bored.
Light once again filled the abandoned mine, and Alfred raised a single eyebrow.
“I saw this coming and, admittedly, was preparing to laugh at this, but I have to say,” Alfred remarked, “it’s fearful.”
“Is he behind me?” Dick asked, turning around slowly. “Dammit, Bruce, you know I hate when you –– well, if you ain’t togged to the bricks! But what’s the story with the horns?”
“They’re ears,” Bruce explained, while separating the cape like a theater curtain, revealing the armor of the suit underneath. All of it a deep, dark grey, with a matte black silhouette of a bat dead center on the chest. “Cut the lights again, I want you to see what the cape does in the dark.”
Alfred and Dick looked at the billowing darkness that Bruce became with the lights off. Nearly total blackness in the center of the dark of night, and those glowing, animal-like eyes. The effect was impressive.
“I definitely think your Bat could pass for a meta human,” Alfred remarked as the lights came back on. “Folks might think it’s not human at all.”
Alfred and Dick exchanged a glance, sharing a thought that Bruce really understood how to use theatrics in completely novel ways.
The devil removed his mask and began to walk Dick and Alfred through the integrated technology in the suit:
A layer of lead birdshot scattered in the base, with a very light coat of lead paint, followed by the fluid layer, designed to stop slugs without adding too much additional weight. The cowl, and how to plug the radio antenna in to the suit while putting the suit on. The buttons integrated into the gloves (with a failsafe under the big toe of the left boot) to send bursts of pressurized carbon dioxide into the veins of the cape and chest.
He demonstrated the grappling hook gun which required an entire canister of carbon dioxide for a single shot so you’d need to make it count, and the flash-and-fog bombs that you could use to obscure your escape (but don’t breathe the fog in).
Speaking of breathing, there was a collapsible rebreather, which also used the CO2 canisters at the back of the belt in the largest satchel. You probably couldn’t breathe under water with it (at least not for long), but you could get a few extra breaths in a situation with toxic gases or smoke. All of the gaps between the pockets of the belt were filled in with these canisters, which Bruce insisted you would just toss after using, and that didn’t include the two pockets that were filled with the cartridges. Practically speaking, even a hundred of the aluminum canisters only weighed a couple pounds, so, aside from needing to pad the inside of the pockets to keep them from jangling around, they were a relatively lightweight fuel supply for all of Bruce’s tech.
At the end of it all, Dick had donned the suit and experimented with some of the gizmos –– they all seemed very intuitive very quickly, and, having trained with weighted belts at Alfred’s request, the suit didn’t seem much more cumbersome, it would just take some time to “break it in,” they suspected.
“There’s something else,” Bruce sometimes added weight to his voice, and this was one of those times where he had the timbre of a tombstone. Dick and Alfred perked up. “So, there’s not a safe or sane way to test this, but I don’t think he actually has enhanced hearing.” Bruce let the words reverberate in the mine.
“I’ve read a bit in some of the papers you’ve gathered from the last month,” added Dick. “But even he says he can hear things across incredible distances, and the evidence seems to support that.” Alfred glanced at Dick. The boy was intelligent, to be sure, but unless his back was against the wall, he was comfortable not thinking outside of the boundaries of his established heuristics.
Bruce, on the other hand…
“So he says he patrols by flying up into the thermosphere, which he describes as being more than six hundred milesabove sea level; that’s not strictly wrong, but sound needs a medium in which to travel. Air, or water, whatever. It needs molecules to vibrate.”
“––And you’re saying that there’s not enough air for sound waves to travel through,” Alfred provided the translation by way of an interjection for Dick.
“Right. There’s air in the thermosphere, but very little. Sounds dissipate quickly over distances, but in the upper bounds of the thermosphere, they dissipate almost immediately.”
“So then how is he doing it? How does he know where to go?” Dick was incredulous.
“So some of it is visual acuity. Eagles and Owls can see much farther distances than humans, and his x-ray vision suggests that he sees parts of the spectrum that people can’t, probably with the the ability to quickly shift his focus or the spectrum that he’s visualizing on. From six hundred miles up, he could potentially see disasters by quickly shifting to finer or broader focus across his wide range of vision. Like zooming in on a camera aperture.
“That’s already a significant sensory advantage over humans, but the hearing thing wasn’t making sense to me. So I started comparing notes from the stories and the consistent thing – at least among people interviewed – was that prior to his arrival there was a mortal panic.
“Subjects have repeatedly said that they thought they were going to die, and there are plenty of biological responses to that fear that we know about. But what about responses we don’t know about, or don’t have the tools to measure?” Bruce let the question hang in the damp cave air for a moment.
“Hear me out,” Bruce went on.
“Like we have a choice,” Dick scoffed sarcastically.
“So, the way he talks about hearing, what if he had an organ that let him hear psychic distress as something with such detailed fidelity that it felt like he was hearing an audible cry for help?”
“Does that explain why he tends not to stop domestic violence?” Dick asked, hoping for some more context.
“I believe it does…I mean, I hope it does,” Bruce said. “If not, he’s a much worse hero than we thought. It probably accounts for why he doesn’t stop burglaries, even when the house is occupied. If I’m in your house, snooping around and relieving you of your jewelry while you’re asleep you’re not going to panic if you don’t wake up to a gun waving in your face demanding your money, not to mention–”
“Alright, I need to ask,” Alfred interrupted, “aside from being able to plan without his intervention, what is the advantage this knowledge grants us?”
“Like you said, it’s a potential way to avoid his attention, which will be a big part of our ability to plan, and it’s something that our enemy might not know about himself,” Bruce opened his mouth to continue, and then stopped to think for just a moment. “These are the advantages – the only advantages we’ll have. We need to gather enough of them to achieve even a hope of overcoming his raw power.”
“It’s like you always say Bruce,” Dick added, “‘Be more paranoid than you think you need to be; Contingencies on contingencies: because no plan survives contact with the enemy.’”
“Hmm,” Alfred pondered aloud, “I just can’t help but wonder what kind of devil survives contact with a god.”