Waking, part 16
Disclaimers in "part 0"
"I'll take weird things you never thought you'd see for 1000, Alex," Plasticman quipped, giving himself the appearance of a suave game show contestant. For once, no one shushed him.
"I still don't understand," Wonder Woman puzzled.
"You would if you could feel it," Green Lantern noted. "It's like your best friend just - died or something." He was gamely fighting his emotion, but the sudden hitch in his words had the quality of a suppressed sob.
"That level of shock," Nightwing put in in cold, clinical tones. Barbara could see Plasticman contorting into the shape of a twisted bicycle, one wheel turning forlornly, and noticed Superman look away as if faintly stricken. "Not," Nightwing continued, "like something you've had a chance to process or develop any kind of anger towards - more raw, unexpected grief."
Like the feeling of the exact moment when you realize those broken bodies on the ground are your parents, Barbara imagined for him, biting her lip for what he was going through. It was easier to concentrate on his grief than her own.
"And you believe this has the same telepathic source?"
"No, it's coming from the moon!" Aquaman snapped. "We keep having this conversation!" Across from him, Plasticman stretched into a giant stop sign.
"It's an opening," Nightwing said calmly.
"An opening?" Wonder Woman asked.
"J'onn," Kyle added, looking as if he might want to say more but didn't trust himself to complete the thought.
"Now I am lost," Superman confessed. "How-?"
She swallowed hard. "We've been going through the data that Batman and J'onn put together, along with new information as it's come in. We have reason to believe that this telepathic blanket has been affecting the planet for several months but has only recently become so intrusive. We've tracked a steady decline in lawsuits, increases in charitable giving and volunteer work. Aquaman's observation of the steady increase in telepathic chaff, as he called it, got us digging deeper."
She paused for Aquaman's grunt of acknowledgment as Plasticman began a cartoonish display of shoveling.
"We suspect whoever or whatever is behind this was already in play even before the recovery of Poseidonis, but was so low level as to be undetectable."
"Oracle, forgive me, but what does this have to do with J'onn?" Wonder Woman interjected.
"We need the whole picture, Wonder Woman," Nightwing answered for her, giving Barbara a grateful moment to take a deep breath. He understood - it was easier to operate in report mode than to jump to the chase, which they'd already discovered intensified the feeling of grief.
"We don't have a firm start date, but since the gradual build first becomes evident in our records, there have been only two notable changes in its nature. The first was the sudden weariness and panic that flared up several hours ago. We discovered shortly after that something about the telepathic signal had changed, amplifying human empathic ability."
Nightwing held up a hand. "We weren't sure of the significance of the change," he pointed out. "It seemed silly to drag you all back here over every scrap of clue we found."
"Glad someone's thinking," Aquaman muttered, ignoring the display of lightbulb shapes that Plasticman floated over Nightwing's head. "Go ahead, Oracle."
"As I said, there was something in the signal that carried some sort of catalyst for human empathy. Since both these events happened after we lost contact with J'onn-"
"You think he might be behind this," Superman finished, effectively covering the fact that Barbara could not have completed the sentence if she wanted to. Even Aquaman's expression wavered slightly, and Plasticman had assumed the form of a court reporter's teletype.
"This latest shift," Nightwing picked up smoothly, "is only the second interruption of the good-will vibe - or aggressive signal for Atlanteans - and unlike the first, it is motivating people to power down their lives a notch, to rest their bodies and gather peacefully, if rather grief-stricken. Even the Atlantean situation has shifted, even though no one is speaking to one another, they've lain down their arms if I understand you correctly, Aquaman."
"Right," Aquaman confirmed.
"J'onn bought us an opening," Wonder Woman breathed in sudden understanding, freeing any of the others from the uncomfortable prospect of presenting that fact. "But what do we do with it?"
"Recent events suggest the world might be particularly receptive now to suggestions of a general slow down," Barbara pointed out. "The magnitude of the sense of grief is such that no world leader would doubt that there is some influence at work. There is a possibility that consciousness of it might immunize the populace to some degree once this grief cycle runs down."
"Are we sure it will?" Wonder Woman asked, and Barbara couldn't answer for the sudden tightness in her throat. It had to, she thought desperately.
"We have to believe it will," Superman asserted firmly, although his eyes had a distant expression. "We have to plan on it, and we have to mobilize world leaders to spread the word, to get the information to every corner of every city that this influence is real and there is a way to think past it."
"And if it doesn't go away?" Green Lantern asked. "If people stay shell-shocked?"
Superman's expression grew more determined. "Then we make sure we get the telepathic dampening technology into every corner of the world as quickly as possible."
Barbara actually rallied a faint smile. This was doable, and Superman's faith in it would carry them. It helped clear the fog, and she tapped back into her report networks.
"We should also consider how we can offer relief in the present moment," she observed. "Essential services are still functioning, but folks are gutting it out on pure will down here."
"Good thinking. Oracle, contact all teams, reserves, everyone you've got on tap. Diana-" Superman turned to his teammate. "I know the policies of Themyscira, but since your land is unaffected, perhaps some of your sisters can be persuaded-"
"I'll do what I can," she promised.
"Kyle," Superman continued, "I hate to ask this of you, but should this grief spell not break, can you muster the power to ring up a dampening field?"
"Of course he can, Big Blue!" Plasticman suddenly declared, bouncing up behind Kyle's seat. "This is the main man. The king of the ring. Remember, he stopped a SUPER-NOVA! And I don't mean a souped up Chevy. You with me, Ring-Ding?"
Green Lantern nodded. "I can try."
"That's the most we can ask," Superman allowed. "Aquaman, you have your own work cut out for you..."
Barbara frowned as the sudden beep of an emergency signal distracted her from the Watchtower feed. Her already pained psyche felt a deepening of dread as she reached for the switch to the Batcave link. She actually closed her eyes as the monitor flared to life.
"Miss Barbara?" Alfred's voice filtered through her speakers uncertainly. It was all she could do to open her eyes and see the narrowly controlled sorrow on his face.
"Go ahead, Alfred." She didn't want to hear this.
Nor did he seem to want to say it. He paused, then finally revealed, "Master Bruce has disappeared."