She has given me knowledge of "my brother" and I am more at peace with his spirit, now.
His name was Clark. Clark Joseph Kent. Only Barbara could have hacked the datafiles of the Project so completely. The records are quite detailed. For hours, I poured over dry statistics, scanned photograph after photograph in my futile, desperate quest to understand him. Many astonishing things came to light. What must it have been like to fly like that? To soar through God's Heaven, unfettered by the merciless bonds of gravity? How would it feel to be so free? I shall never know.
But he did.
They never found a way to accurately measure his strength. In all the early pictures and film footage they have of him, he is laughing and smiling, that single dark curl dangling boyishly into his eyes, dancing in merry abandon. In later photographs...it's almost as if the years began to overwhelm him, press him down, like the Greek myth of Atlas, bearing the weight of the world on his shoulders. He stopped smiling.
But what I was looking for was not here, in these endless recordings of solar radiation levels and energy conversion phenomena. I must look elsewhere for my answers, I decided. Armed with names, I set out upon my quest. His parents: Jonathan and Martha Kent of Smallville, Kansas.
I've never been quite sure why I had to meet the Kents. I only knew that I must. I had to look into their eyes when I told them what had happened to heir son. It was essential that I know how they felt. And most important of all, why they had done as they did. What could have possessed them to give Clark to the State, I wondered? Simple greed, as in the case of Tom Curry? It was important that I know before I...acted.
Yes, I had to see their eyes.
Meeting the Kents was an unsettling experience. I'm not certain what I was expecting...hard bitten purveyors of child-flesh? Monsters, perhaps? Whatever my expectations this was surely not it. Gazing into Martha Kent's mild and guileless wide blue eyes, I was to be sorely shaken.
"Why, come in, Father," she invited me into their small, cozy home on one of Smallville's main streets. "What can we do for you, reverend?" Her softly accented Midwestern voice echoed with graciousness and kindness. No, not what I was expecting in the least. Hardly the voice of a monster.
Jonathan Kent was a storekeeper, owner of Kent's General Store, I discovered. Martha wiped her hands on her ever present apron and served me tart, fresh squeezed lemonade and cookies. She smiled, aglow with happiness as she neatly replaced a loose stray strand of silver-white hair in her prim bun. She peered at me eagerly over the top of her rounded wire framed spectacles.
"Is this about Clark, Father?" she'd inquired, full of hope. "It's been so long since we heard anything from him! Any news you might have would be a blessing!"
I'd nodded, slowly, avoiding her clear blue eyes. "Yes," I admitted in a grave, hesitant voice, "it...it's about Clark..."
Her face lit up. "Let me call my husband, Jonathan!" she cried, still joyous, and my heart lurched at the sight of her beaming face. "He'll want to hear this, too, Father!"
As I patiently waited, I glanced about the small room, neat and tidy as a pin. On the mantle and on the walls, my eyes brought me the sight of picture after picture of a young, dark haired boy, smiling and laughing,
with a familiar unruly curl flopping into his eyes. Clutching a pitcher's mitt with a bat slung over his shoulder in one picture...rolling on the lawn and playing tug - o - war with a little white mongrel pup in another...dressed in his Sabbath best carrying a Bible underneath his arm.
Jonathan Kent's hand, when I shook it, was strong and broad, with blunt powerful fingers; the hands of a skilled craftsman, a workman or...a farmer. I recalled, then, that the pleasant storekeeper used to be a farmer. He'd had to give up his farm when a heart attack felled him less than six months after he and his wife had relinquished their son Clark to the State. "Overwork," Kent's physician warned him. "A farm is just too much work for a man your age to do alone, Jonathan," pronounced Doc Whitney in solemn tones. "You'll kill yourself if you keep trying."
Somehow, I managed to tell them; to pry the words out of my slow, reluctant mouth. This wasn't right. Not the way it was supposed to be.
I couldn't shake the overwhelming feeling that swept over me like a tide that this whole thing was just wrong.
So very, very wrong*..
Martha Kent backed away from me, as if distance could spare her the horror of my now unwanted news. Blinded by tears, the silver haired woman stumbled across the room, grabbing a wooden cigar box. With shaking fingers she opened the box, casting a pleading look at me that came close to sinking me in a yawning quagmire of despair.
"N-no," she cried. "No! It - it can't be true! Look! See? We - we have letters from Clark..." She ran her hands through the great pile of letters in the box, all written on plain, buff, very official looking government stationery. They flowed through her trembling fingers like water. "L-letters," she insisted. "Letters...all saying how happy he was in that government place...how they were helping him to learn to control his abilities..."
I had to look astray from the devastation in her eyes.
But not before I saw the box full of pitiable, lying letters clatter to the floor from her numb, suddenly nerveless fingers, spilling its contents like a dark stain of blood on the colorful expanse of Martha Kent's pristine and spotlessly clean parlor rug.
I sat down heavily on one of her embroidered couch cushions when Martha Kent burst into tears. Many times as God's priest I am called upon to comfort the bereaved; the dying and those left behind. I...am not very good at it. It's not one of my strong points. Judson once told me that I feel things too deeply, that I cannot bring myself to merely parrot empty, many times meaningless, words of consolation in the face of tragedy and despair. Perhaps he's right. I only know that there were no words that could have reached me when my parents were taken from me...and so I remain silent. A strange thing in a priest, Barbara says.
Taking his wife in his loving arms, Jonathan Kent guided her to the other end of the couch, holding her tightly against the pain. As if she were drowning she clung to him, weeping softly from the heart, as if she might never stop. She buried her head on his chest to muffle her sobs.
"Oh, Lord God, forgive me," she pleaded brokenly, "Oh Lord...Oh Lord...what have I done? What in mercy's name have I done?" Jonathan stroked her hair, and blinked back his own tears. He was trying so very hard to be strong for her...so very, very hard...
I have rarely felt so...inadequete...sitting there staring at my spasming hands, trying not to intrude on their grief, but feeling that I should do something - anything -
"Martha, honey," Jonathan soothed her, "hush, now. Shhhhh. We - we both decided it would be best to let Clark go with those government fellas."
"No such of a thing, Jonathan Kent!" Martha maintained stoutly. With a corner of her apron she dabbed at her glistening eyes, drying her tears.
She looked up at me, willing me to understand, to see and accept her guilt.
Still leaning into her husband's embrace, she closed her eyes in remembered pain. "Jonathan never wanted to do it," she insisted. It seemed very important to her that I understand Jonathan's innocence. "He was dead set against letting Clark go with those - those - men. But I! I wouldn't hear any different! From the moment we found Clark, Jonathan and I both knew that he was different...special...'Jonathan Kent,' I said to him, 'that boy has a destiny! And it's not here working this little patch of ground in Smallville, Kansas!'"
Jonathan nodded in affirmation, kissing her silver hair. "And I had to agree with you. Why, he was only ten years old when he left us, but already the things that boy could do!" His face crumpled into lines of worry and sorrow. "But - but I think they scared him, too, those things. He was always so afraid of hurting other folks. Things were so fragile for him ... And he wasn't sure what he should do with those wonderful gifts the good Lord gave him. He - he wanted to go with those fellas. They promised to teach him and to let him use his powers where they'd do the most good..."
Martha burst into tears once more, burrowing into her husband's broad shoulder. "Oh, God, forgive me," she wept, "God forgive me! My poor little boy...my poor, poor little boy...he was such a sweet child...our little Gift from Heaven...our little Angel sent to us directly from God..."
I had to say something. My dry throat worked, but it was several moments before words emerged past my reluctant lips.
"Mrs. Kent," I told her softly, "you never had a choice. If you'd refused to let Clark go, they'd just have taken him anyway. There wasn't anything you could have done to stop them. Nothing. Don't torture yourself this way. Cl-Clark wouldn't have wanted you to do that."
Her eyes softened. "Th-thank you, Father. He never even cried, you know, like most babies do. The only time I ever saw him cry was when he was about three. He got restless in his playpen and broke the bars to get out. When I saw him, I turned him over my knee to spank him, I surely did! 'Spare the rod, spoil the child' the Good Book says. The only thing I hurt, as it turned out, was myself. I broke two fingers spanking him gently on the bottom. I don't think he even felt it. But that's when he began to cry. 'Me hurted Mommy!' he kept sniffling. 'Me hurted Mommy!'"
"The boy was special, and that's a fact," agreed a sad Jonathan. "From the second I saw that - that - thing come a thunderin' down out of God's Heaven, I knew that. Martha was right. He belonged to the whole world.
At first, we didn't know what to think. What with all this news about a 'space race' with Common Europe and capsules up in outer space and all, why we were down right puzzled. I mean to say, who'd be cruel enough to send a poor helpless little baby up into space, I ask you? First we figured it was them European folks and all what done it. But, after a bit, it became plain to us that Clark never came from this world, no siree."
I talked with them for a bit more before I took my leave of them. Was I wrong to accept their eager offer of aid? Did I take advantage of their grief and loss? Perhaps I did. But I know that the Kents are at peace, now, with what happened to Clark. And there are more than a hundred people, some of them metas, some of them just ordinary people, condemned by the Holy Elite for their lifestyle or their politics or their religion who are alive today because Martha and Jonathan Kent of Smallville, Kansas sheltered them and helped them find their way to safety outside the American Commonwealth. People like the Greenbergs.
Is it right for me to accept their help when it might cost them so much? Their very lives, even? Does it matter that they do it willingly? I did not recruit the Kents into my own personal Underground Railroad. No, I did not. They volunteered.
Still...the question haunts me.
How did it happen, I sometimes ask myself? How did I begin this dangerous habit of collecting people? The outcasts, the walking wounded of this less than perfect world we all inhabit? An elderly, mourning Kansas farm couple...a catatonic, aquatic telepath and his angry offspring...a woman who'd never even been given the chance to be a widow...a crippled ex-librarian...an orphaned nine year old Gypsy boy who burns for revenge like a star...the battered pieces of a shattered killer Angel...
They all have a home now at Wayne Manor. Sometimes I almost feel as though *I'm* the one who doesn't belong there anymore. Wayne Manor was Bruce Wayne's home. And more and more Bruce Wayne, "Father Bruce", is a lie; a charade I perpetrate to hide The Batman. And...and that frightens me. I must not lose sight of Bruce Wayne in the kaleidoscopic hodgepodge that is my life, now. I must not. And yet it would be so easy to do. So very, very easy to do.
The future is uncertain. How long can I maintain this facade? This playing at rebellion like a child? And what happens if I'm caught? What happens to me in that instance isn't important. It will be swift and painful. But what of the others? What becomes of them?
Dick wants to help. In the way of children, he is immortal in his own eyes, and does not realize, I think, what it is he is asking of me. Still, it's a tempting offer. I'm not sure how it came about that the Flying Graysons of Haley's Circus found themselves stranded upon American shores. The Rom are not welcome here. All Dick can remember are the Inquisitors who descended upon the visiting European circus troupe and arrested them all as "foreign spies". John and Mary Grayson were hauled off to a "reeducation" camp, after signing confessions admitting to espionage against the Commonwealth.
Dick was placed in an "orphanage" - another name for a juvenile detention center. There he was "processed" and forgotten about, merely one of hundreds. God knows what would have happened to him if he hadn't run away. He still refuses to talk about the things that were done to him there in that awful place. When Alfred found him hiding in an abandoned, condemned building, he hadn't eaten in two days and was feverish. He brought him home to the safety of Wayne Manor, and he's been there ever since.
The distressing thing is that Dick would make an excellent partner for the Batman. He's a highly skilled acrobat, and even at his tender age, he's managed to teach me a trick or two. He has a natural flare for gymnastics, and with some intense training he could prove to be a formidable fighter, indeed. And he is a brave little boy. Perhaps too brave. A natural athlete and he's almost frightfully intelligent, too. A deadly combination, as I have good reason to know.
But...how could I, in good conscience, involve a child in my dangerous, very adult games?
And yet...it would help Dick, I think, to deal with his anger about what was done to his parents, to be able to avenge them in some concrete fashion. Otherwise, he will never be free of the guilt of surviving them, and his anger will twist and distort him into...something unpleasant.
I know about that, too.
Dick is a very focused, but still boisterous, little boy.
Jean-Paul, on the other hand, is quiet. Too quiet. He rarely speaks. Like an eerie shadow, he moves noiselessly about the Manor, scarcely even disturbing the dust. He is not human. Not even remotely. For all his human, even comely, appearance nothing entirely human is that graceful or quick. A genetic construct, built with a bit of this gene from that animal for speed and endurance, a slice of that DNA sequence from that beast for great strength, Jean-Paul is Hugo Strange's penultimate achievement. He does not even really have a name.
Strange called him Azrael after the Angel of Vengeance and Destruction, because that's the purpose for which he was created. It was Barbara who named him Jean-Paul.
"Doesn't he look like a Jean-Paul to you, Bruce?" she smiled, when I asked her why she chose that name.
Yes, Jean-Paul is a shy and bookish young man, appealing and eager to learn and please, sometimes reticent to the point of silence. Azrael is another matter entirely.
Azrael is death for the enemies of the Holy Elite. Programmed almost from conception, Azrael is The Holy Avenger, sent to destroy the enemies of the State. Strange called the process of psychological and physical torture with which Azrael was "trained", "the System", and I have seen its results in action. Without blinking an eye, I saw him kill almost two dozen heavily armed and trained Inquisitor SWAT troops, the so called Hosts of Heaven, in less than a minute when he escaped from the Project.
I am not a man who is easily frightened. My supporters reckon me a fearless man. No, I do not allow many thing to frighten me. But Azrael frightens me.
Jean-Paul, though, is like a lost child. He is the one who is left behind in his private anguish, his own personal slice of Hell, when Azrael abandons him in the wake of the ruins, the dead and the dying, that he leaves in his wake. Barbara is the only one who isn't afraid of him. All the others avoid him when they can. It was her idea to teach Jean-Paul about computers. It seems that there's quite an agile mind lurking beneath that mane of long blond hair. He's almost as good a hacker as Barbara now. Barbara smiles at him and always treats him like a person instead of the thing he feels himself to be. He's devoted to her.
He loves her, I think.
I find it strangely satisfying to know that if I fall, when I'm gone, if they come for Alfred and Leslie and Barbara, especially Barbara, they will face Azrael. Poetic justice, that. Fitting that the State should find retribution at the hands of the "Angel" they created for that purpose, is it not?
Still, I am troubled. This crusade of mine cannot last forever. Even with the help of Barbara, Alfred, Leslie, the Kents and so many others, things move too slowly. We are so limited in what we may accomplish. A life saved here, a family rescued there...so heartbreakingly little. Mere drops of water in a desert of pain and oppression. Quixote fighting his windmill 'giants'...there are not enough of us. We don't have the sheer power we need to overcome the vast numbers of the Holy Elite arrayed against us. All we can do chip away at the edifice of the State and look to the future. If only...
...if only Clark had lived...
Sitting on the stone bench in the private gardens of Wayne Manor, I smoothed the creases of my soutane with a sigh. I lay a single rose on the well tended grave here in this place of natural beauty. "I know I haven't come to talk to you for a long time, and I'm really sorry about that. I've...been busy." I closed my eyes. "I need your help, brother. I - I have a big decision to make...and I can't make it alone. Since it concerns your foster parents, the Kent's, I knew you'd want to hear this. What am I going to do? For myself, my course is set. I'll keep fighting; doing what I can here and there. No, don't worry. I'll continue to fight the good fight. I can't quit, now. But the others? What am I going to do about the others? When I began this thing, I never meant to involve, to endanger, anyone but myself. But now..."
What was it that betrayed them? Was it some slight sound or movement? Even now, I cannot say. But suddenly, I knew that I was not alone here in this private place. I could feel, with some unguessed at sense, the presence of another. I have learned to trust my instincts in these matters. They have always stood me in good stead; saved my life on more than one occasion, to be sure. Silently, I rose from the bench and looked about, tense, prepared to strike if I must. There. Among those flowering hydrangea bushes; a flicker of movement.
My voice, when I spoke, was deeper, harsher than the voice of "Father Bruce".
"Whoever you are, you're trespassing on private property. Don't be foolish. Come out, now, and maybe we can talk."
For long moments, I thought I'd been ignored. A great chasm of silence opened itself and threatened to engulf me. But, then, as if a reluctant, rueful decision had been reached, the bushes shook themselves, trembling as if in a stiff breeze. The figure that emerged seconds later was surprising in more ways than one. She was tall, with the most amazing head of flaming red hair that I have ever seen. Brighter, even, than Barbaras and I would have sworn that was impossible. My eyes widened. Holding her hands out before her, I suppose to show that she was unarmed, she held her ground and stared at me.
She was not afraid. I would take asn oath on that. Her jade green eyes were clear and unclouded by fear. She seemed to be struggling to reach a hard decision. I could certainly sympathize with that. With a sigh, she spoke at last. "I hope to God Jonathan and Martha were right about you," she said simply. "Otherwise, I'm sooo dead."
Her gaze never flinched as she said it. And neither did mine as I considered the implications of her statement. Trust is not an easy thing for me. Twice I have trusted the world to be a just place, to make sense and be a safe haven...and twice I've had my world mutilated by the brutal violation of that trust. When my parents were murdered...and when Jim Gordon shattered the hard won serenity of my belief in the Holy Elite.
Could I trust her? Dare I? It could be a trap, of course. Had my haphazard network been penetrated by the Privy Council? Had she been sent to lure me into open defiance and confession?
But staring into her eyes, I was again forced to trust my instincts. And the pain and grief I saw there were quite genuine.
"Who are you?" I asked softly.
She frowned. "My name is Lana. Lana Lang. I'm from Smallville, originally. But until last week, I hadn't been home in a long time. When they took Clark...they took me, too. I was the proverbial 'girl next door', the 'little girl who lived down the lane'. My family owned the neighboring farm less than three miles from the Kents. Clark and I grew up together. I was...very fond of Clark. And he was fond of me. That's why they took me, in the beginning. Toward the end...be-before they killed him, I was one of the ways they kept him in line. By threatening me."
The anger in her eyes caught fire and smoldered like banked coals. Her hands knotted themselves into fists at her side before she forced herself to relax.
"It wasn't your fault, Lana," I told her. "You had no choice."
"Yes, I did," she whispered. "I - I could have...I could have - " her voice trailed off leaving the sentence unfinished. Her meaning was plain, though. Resolution and determination flowed like a clear stream into her pale face, lightly dusted with freckles. "And I tried; I did! But, I blew it; didn't do a good job of it. And Clark...Clark was so hurt, so sad...I never found the courage to try it again."
The Church teaches us that suicide is a Mortal Sin; taking into your own hands a matter meant for only Almighty God himself to decide. I tried not to imagine the pain and guilt that must have tormented this vital woman to drive her to such a thing.
"And when we were older, the Project found...other uses for me." She looked away in haste, color rising in her alabaster cheeks. "At first, they thought that Clark was a mutant. And Erdel wanted to see if the mutation would breed true. They even married us with a priest and everything. Clark wouldn't have it any other way. My proper name is Lana Kent." Her eyes misted with tears she was too proud to shed. "Thank God, I never - I never - they tried everything. When the natural way didn't seem to be working, I was forcibly impregnated artificially about half a dozen times. The last time almost killed me. But nothing seemed to work."
If I'd harbored any doubts, they vanished, then. This pain was too raw, like an open, bleeding wound, to be feigned.
Taking her hand, I led her to the ornamental stone bench and sat her down carefully, gently. She lay her head on my shoulder, and for a long time we simply sat there, wordlessly basking in one another's healing presence. I'm not sure how long we sat there, but eventually Lana Kent raised her head.
"I'm sorry, Father," she apologized, "believe me, I didn't come here just to burden you with another sad story. God knows there are enough of those already without me adding to them. The past is the past. It's the future that counts. And that's why I'm here. I - I seduced one of my guards and ran away from the Project. Jonathan and Martha sent me straight here. They told me you could use my help."
My reluctance, my unhappiness must have shown in my face. I opened my lips to find some gentle way of discouraging her, but she was having none of it. She lay a determined finger on my lips to silence me.
"No, Father, hear me out." She barely waited for my tiny nod of agreement before she plunged in with both feet. I was to discover that this was Lana's way. No half measures for the lady from Smallville. It was all or nothing with her. "You see, I didn't escape alone. There's someone you need to met." Lifting her eyes into the trees, she looked about.
"Kon?" she called softly. "Kon, you can come down, now."
My eyes widened at the sight of the young boy, clad in a colorful red and blue bodysuit, who came drifting down out of the trees. As lightly as a feather, he touched the ground and stood waiting, alert but trusting. It wasn't until he grinned that I gasped and found myself very glad that I was already seated. I'm sure I would have fallen and embarrassed myself otherwise. I'd seen that face before. In photo after photo on Martha Kent's mantlepiece, and the walls of her small home. Again, I tried not to imagine what Lana Kent's first sight of this boy must have been like for her. To see the shadow of the man she loved, lost to her, in this youth must have been painful beyond belief. Lana was a much stronger woman that I'd ever suspected.
"Dear God," I choked.
"He's a clone," Lana said calmly, answering my unvoiced question. "Like most of Strange's subjects, he doesn't really have a name. But I call him Konal. Konal Kent."
The garishly clad youth crossed his arms over his chest, and regarded me with a happy, cocky smirk. "You can call me Superboy!" he cracked. "The one, the only; accept no substitutes!"
"When nothing else seemed to do the job, they tried to clone Clark," Lana hastened to explain. "Turns out they didn't exactly succeed at that, either. But Konal is as close as they could humanly come. When I decided to vacate the Project, the last thing I did was spring Kon from his rapid age acceleration chamber." She grinned mischievously and her green eyes twinkled merrily. "He was supposed to be decanted fully grown, but I - ah - rescued him a bit early, I'm afraid. He's going through a 'punk' phase, right now. But don't worry, he'll grow out of it."
"Hey!" the boy cried indignantly.
Lana smiled. "Why don't you show Father Bruce what you can do, kiddo?"
The boy's return grin was infectious. With a loud cry of, "You got it, babe!" he rose into the air and began weaving his way through the overhanging tree branches like an obstacle course. But it was when he landed again and hefted the heavy stone bench with the two of us still seated upon it over his head effortlessly that I was most impressed.
"And he's pretty much impervious to physical harm, too," Lana informed me, pleased to relay such good news. "I think he could be very useful, don't you?"
I nodded absently, plans already birthing themselves like Athena from the brow of Zeus in my busy mind.
"And speaking of 'useful'," Lana remarked with a certain smugness, "I'm not exactly chopped liver, myself. When I wasn't of any further use to them with Clark, I became just another subject to be experimented upon. So they did."
From her shoulders, multifaceted wings sprouted, and from her forehead insect-like antenna elongated themselves into twitching life. "They doused me with all kinds of insect enzymes and cell extracts," she claimed. "I can morph myself now into just about any kind of insect form I can imagine. And I've been studying entomology pretty seriously to get a better grasp of my potential abilities. I can help you, too...Batman."
"I'm ready to take names and kick butt, dude!" bragged the brash, self proclaimed 'Superboy', and I had to smile.
My decision was made almost instantly, without any hesitation at all, really. Here at last was a real chance to effectively strike back at the Holy Elite. Real power to bring the State to its knees. Lana and Konal were both watching me carefully, tense and anxious as they impatiently waited for my answer. The prayer that left my lips then was the first genuine prayer of thanksgiving I'd uttered in a very long time. Longer than I like to admit. I stood up and held out my hand.
"We'd better go inside," I said. "We have a lot to talk about."