Waking, part 10
Disclaimers in "part 0"
"Human error," Oracle replied. "A combination of inattentiveness by overworked staff and tired mistakes by the construction crew. And disregard of known safety rules by the man caught in the power array."
"He's already dead," Superman noted grimly, his comlink crackling from the electricity zinging around him.
"The minute he stepped in there. But they couldn't do anything to start restoring power until they got his body out of there. You were the only man for the job," she apologized. "I've got Wonder Woman helping the local police with crowd control in the blacked out area and Aquaman is dealing with a dam break in Indonesia. I put the Titans on the Cordova riots and the JSA is covering the shut down of emergency services in Mexico City."
"All in 15 minutes," Superman remarked. "This poor man-"
"But nothing new in the past five," Barbara pointed out, feeling herself relaxing into control of this crisis. A corner of her mind realized that wasn't really a good sign, but at the moment, she would take the energy and the consequent calming of a frightened world.
"You need me anywhere else?" Superman asked as another call beeped through.
"Hold on a sec, Superman. Go ahead Troia."
"Hey Oracle, this is really weird. The riots just kind of - stopped."
Barbara nodded to herself. "Understood. Situation?"
"There were a couple of casualties in the crowd, but that was before we got here. It's like we showed up and - I don't know."
"Hang tight there for a few minutes and if it looks like it won't erupt again, get your team home," Oracle directed.
"Got it. Troia out."
"Superman, I had a couple of things but it looks like local authorities have them under control. Why don't you call Aquaman directly and see if he needs help?" Another line pinged. "I've got my hands full at the moment but I'll call you at the Watchtower later. Oracle here."
"Oracle, it's Mr. Terrific. I'm helping the crews here reset the emergency system and it looks like they'll be operational within a half an hour."
"Good." She heard a rustle at her window. "Let me know if anything changes. Oracle out." She closed the connection. "How is he?"
Dick's hands rested on her shoulders, beginning a gentle massage of her neck. "His fever was starting to spike again just before I came over here," he answered. "You need me out there?"
She shook her head and leaned back into his soothing touch. "Everything's quieting down as quickly as it flared up. "I think our mysterious telepaths are reasserting control."
"I figured," he noted grimly. "I got a second wind on my way over. You get a chance to look at that tape?"
She gestured toward one of her projection screens where a still shot of Batman reaching for his belt floated. "I got that far before all hell broke loose. I was just trying to figure out what you were flagging."
Dick released her shoulders and walked over to the screen, studying it intently. "I also sent the monitor womb tape right before this. Sorta weird."
"Yeah," Barbara acknowledged, wheeling over to join him. "You ever see him lose balance like that before?"
"That had to have something to do with J'onn. I suspect teleporting him up was not J'onn's idea."
"No," she agreed. "What are you thinking?"
Dick reached out to the screen, his fingers marking the compartment Batman was reaching toward. "Zo'ok."
Barbara blinked. "Lost me there, Hunk-wonder." A comlink kicked in. "Excuse me a sec. Oracle."
"It's Wonder Woman - things are under control here. Have we got any better sense of what's going on?"
"Nightwing and I are working on it now. We'll contact you. Oracle out. Okay, Dick, what's zook?"
"Zo'ok. Something Martian." He closed his eyes as if remembering. "I wouldn't know about it except Batman pulled it out when Torque had me strung up."
"The Scarecrow/Hatter thing?" Barbara asked with a shudder. That case had given her the hairiest fifteen minutes of radio silence that she could remember.
"Yeah. It was weird - started as a batarang, then twisted through the locks and ropes and stretched like decel on the fall. Then I swear it scampered back to him after I was on the ground."
"Okay, that is weird. I'm surprised you didn't mention it before."
"I wasn't sure I hadn't dreamed it," he confessed. "At least, not until now. I asked Batman about it at the time, and he grunted the word 'zo'ok' and wouldn't say anything else. But it acted like it was telepathically controlled."
"Hence Martian. Except Bruce has the telepathic ability of a shoe."
Dick gave her a sidewise glance. "I think we've got to quit letting you and J'onn hang out."
Barbara snorted. "Just try it." She looked back to the screen. "But he could telepathically control this zo'ok."
"Which suggests he could use it to open a link to J'onn."
"If J'onn shut him out," Barbara finished, an idea dawning. She rolled back to her keyboard and pulled it onto her lap, tapping in a series of commands. The tape rewound and at her cue, began again.
Again she felt the tension of Bruce and J'onn's silent argument, and the words, "I won't let you go through that again." She paused the tape.
"I think I finally realized what he's talking about here."
She tapped at her keyboard, opening a file on another screen. Dick looked at it. "H'ronmeer's curse? Babs, that wouldn't be affecting humans. It's telepathically spread or something - like you have to be Martian to even be susceptible to it, right?"
She nodded. "That's not why I pulled it up." She scrolled down the file. "These are J'onn's notes. Here." She highlighted a portion of the text.
"'The only known defense a telepath has against H'ronmeer's Curse is to entirely close his mind to telepathic contact,'" Dick read. "'Even the briefest touch with an infected mind guarantees infection, and infection is inevitably fatal. Because the disease can only be transmitted telepathically, it can only go so far as it find minds open to it - it then dies with its hosts; in this case, the entire Martian race.' I still - wait. This is how J'onn survived, isn't it? By closing his mind?"
"To everyone, including his wife and daughter."
Dick stared at the monitor, and Barbara could see him thinking it through. "Damn. I can't even imagine the strength of will..."
Barbara recued the tape from the Watchtower and Bruce's voice seemed to echo in the silence of her workroom. "I won't let you go through that again."
"J'onn thinks it's the same thing. Something working on humans through a telepathic medium-"
"And must think it is somehow working through him," Barbara finished.
"And believed it strongly enough to convince Bruce."
"So when Bruce used the zo'ok to re-establish contact-
"He was getting his way again." Dick began pacing, his natural restlessness asserting itself. "That's Bruce all over. Babs, call the Cave."
She didn't hesitate, and Alfred's voice came over the line. "Yes, Oracle."
"Hi Alfred," Dick jumped in. "What's Bruce's status?"
Alfred's reply was all strained professionalism. "His fever spiked at 105 shortly after you left. Dr. Thompkins has finally stabilized his temperature, but it's sitting at 102.5."
"Has he said anything?"
"I'm afraid not, Master Dick. Although he does seem rather reluctant to part with his belt. We decided it was not worth struggling with him over it."
Dick nodded, then remembering they didn't have visual feed, said, "Let him keep it"
"I don't know, Alfred. When I figure it all out, I'll let you know. You'll contact us if anything changes?"
Barbara wordlessly closed the connection, looking curiously at Dick's face. "If he's decided he's going to stay linked to J'onn, I don't want to deal with what he'll do if we disrupt that link. He agreed to let J'onn go, and I'm trusting in J'onn's instincts here that whatever he's dealing with probably wouldn't be a good thing for humans to handle."
"And if J'onn is just being Bat-ish?"
"I've got to trust he hasn't rubbed off that much. And he did convince Bruce. That had to take some cold, hard logic."
Barbara grimaced appreciatively. "So where does that leave us? The JLA is chomping at the bit to get out there and take someone down."
Dick opened his arms. "Take who down? We still don't have an enemy to fight, aside from our own insensitivity to our bodily needs."
Barbara chuckled, struck by a sudden image. "Should we have Justice League PSAs? 'Superman slept 8 hours today. Did you?'"
Dick snorted. "That'd be rich. Although..."
"What is it?"
"I'm wondering if this is really an enemy. I mean, what's the motive of making people more productive and happier and more able to pursue their passions?"
"World peace and communal harmony?" Barbara guessed.
"But without an understanding of how to work with humans to make it happen."
"You think we're being manipulated by a bunch of alien do-gooders?" She was joking, but once the words were out of her mouth, they made sense. She imagined an alien perspective, a view of the world based not on living in it, but on the rhetoric of utopianists and people's deepest wishes. "We work together..." she murmured.
"What if J'onn is trying to negotiate with that kind of power? Maybe what we just saw happening was an initial acceptance that they might be doing more harm than good-"
"And when they pulled back, they saw things worse than before. So they jumped back in."
"This is making my head hurt," Dick complained. "Help me out, Babs. It's clear enough we can't fight the battle as directly as J'onn can - we have no idea what we're dealing with. But is there a way we can signal to them, help him prove his point? They're clearly aware of what we're doing."
"I have no idea," Barbara confessed, "although this might be a good point to bring in the JLA."
"Yeah," Dick agreed slowly. "I think you may be right."