One Terrible Moment
by ChicagoDisclaimer: In Mark Waid's Kingdom Come, J'onn J'onzz has a single page on which he wants to matter, when we learn "In one terrible moment, [he] opened his mind to the world and was forever shattered by its thoughts." This is a speculation on that one terrible moment. Characters belong to DC Comics, borrowed for fun and not for profit.
It was an anomaly to be sure - 1000 square feet of green spread out in the heart of Gobi desert in a suspiciously circular shape. Our satellites picked it up because of its sudden appearance more than anything, and ours were not the only ones.
I was on monitor duty when it appeared. More precisely, I was finishing my shift and turning over the watch to Green Lantern. Perhaps I was not the most logical person to send to investigate, but I had noticed three things that troubled me: 1) Martian Manhunter's last transmission had indicated he was heading to the home he maintained in the Gobi, 2) an attempt to contact J'onn earlier in my shift had been unsuccessful, and 3) if spread to an even density of one quarter inch, the one living green Martian would cover approximately 1000 square feet. I had reason to suspect that the circle of green in the desert was not of danger, and if my suspicions were correct, it was likely that I would be the least missed of the League against a threat that could take out a Martian.
I did not need to give this explanation to Green Lantern; he accepted my orders without blinking, sending notice to UN agencies that we were investigating and keeping a close track on me as I teleported to the planet.
Once at ground level, my suspicions seemed confirmed. The green spilled across the sand was the exact shade of our Martian teammate. The shade was not entirely unique, but there was a limited range of things that would reflect exactly that same wavelength of the visible spectrum. Most of them were not as large as a J'onn J'onzz.
The green skin did not radiate any chemicals or toxins, did not appear to have adversely affected the desert, did not register in any way on the various pre-contact tests I performed. It didn't do anything until I touched it.
Then it pulled away from my gauntleted hand.
"J'onn?" I asked tentatively. It was formality more than anything. The sensors in my gauntlet had already confirmed the presence of Martian DNA.
The green quivered.
That was enough to alarm me, and I signaled Green Lantern to demand immediate lock down of the site. Later we would have to justify our action to an angry world body that suspected we were either hiding a miracle in the desert or preventing the destruction of a biohazard. Given the alternative we suspected, letting the UN and allied groups stew made sense.
We split into teams. Plasticman took over monitor while Green Lantern and Superman did thorough sweeps of the solar system for anything that might have caused J'onn's condition. The Flash and Wonder Woman joined me in the desert.
In hindsight, Aquaman would have been more useful, but given the hazards of the desert to his physiology, we opted to leave him on alert in the ocean.
As it was, the Flash arrived first - not surprisingly. He had done a thorough sweep of the surrounding desert before joining me and had found nothing suspicious. When he stopped to report, however, it became quickly clear that Green Lantern had only relayed my orders and not warned him of what to expect. He stared at the 36 foot disc pressed against the desert sand and the word, "Jesus!" exploded out of him. The visible part of his face paled dramatically. "What - who - when I get my hands - !"
I shook my head. "I am not certain we are dealing with an external enemy," I told him, for the first time voicing my deepest suspicion. The Flash was still staring in horror at what had been his teammate, and I realized he did not fully understand. "He's alive," I revealed.
The Flash's pallor increased, and he dashed away - although not so far that I could not hear him heaving the contents of his stomach onto the sand. He was still retching in the near distance when Wonder Woman appeared.
Diana took in J'onn's state with more aplomb, but there was fury blazing from her eyes as she touched down. "There is nothing anywhere on the continent to explain this," she said, confirming the Flash's report.
I nodded, watching as she knelt beside what had been J'onn. She reached to the surface of the green skin and got the same result I had - a pull away. "J'onn," she murmured. "I want to help you."
She managed after a few minutes coaxing to actually touch him, but that just deepened the frown line between her brows. She looked up at me. "He's projecting absolutely nothing. Normally just touching him I get a mental echo..."
"The lasso?" I suggested.
She considered for a moment, leaning back on her heels. Finally she seemed to agree with me, looping the golden strand of the lasso of truth around her palm and once more reaching for J'onn's surface.
She was thrown back 135 feet. The Flash rushed to catch her before she could strike the ground. He did not bring her back, obliging me to go to meet them.
Wonder Woman was crying, a sight out of character enough to shake me to the core. "Batman," she gulped as I approach, leaving the Flash's arms for mine in a move that made my stomach churn icily. "He's in so much... pain..."
My brain did not want to process how much pain would be enough to flatten a stoic Martian and reduce the strongest woman on the planet to such demonstrative tears. The Flash's jaw was grimly set as he watched Wonder Woman sob in my arms. "Batman," he gritted, "you said you thought it might not be an external enemy," he reminded me.
Wonder Woman raised her head and wiped her tears away, stepping back to regard me. "Hera," she breathed, "you don't think-"
I met her eyes evenly. "You touched his mind. You tell me."
She shuddered, her composure regained, but her rational self processing what she had experienced and translating it into a more profound sort of horror.
"Batman?" the Flash prompted.
The comlink beeped, and I forestalled the Flash long enough to hear Superman report that he and Green Lantern had found nothing. I acknowledged, then revealed, "We'll need Green Lantern here for recovery. Have Plasticman amplify the telepathic shields at the Watchtower."
"Recovery?" Superman queried, not as willing as Green Lantern to take my orders.
"We need to get J'onn off the planet, and he is not transportable as he is. Batman out." Even for Superman, I was not going to describe why.
Lantern ended up having to use the ring to roll J'onn like a carpet and fold the resulting roll in thirds, creating something of a size and dimension that the teleport tubes could handle. Superman manned the teleport controls in the Watchtower, and when what had once been J'onn spilled and oozed from the tube and writhed desperately to avoid any contact with the Man of Steel... Superman stopped asking me to explain my conduct.
Kyle says he still has nightmares about the work he had to do to get J'onn's discorporated body back to the telepathically shielded quarters that would free the Martian from the thrall of human thoughts.
It was six weeks before J'onn managed to even approximate a remotely humanoid form. A pall fell over the Watchtower as we all bore witness to his living death, making reluctant pilgrimages to his quarters wearing headgear to shield him from our thoughts. It took us relatively little time to confirm what he had done; he had decided to completely open his mind to humanity.
The harder question was why.
We all researched it in our own ways. I even caught the Flash spending hours trying to decrypt J'onn's journal files.
After three months, J'onn was more or less maintaining a consistent physical form, a human looking body that was almost as distant from his Martian Manhunter form as it was possible to be. He still had not spoken a word.
By that point, the spectre of guilt was creeping over each of us. There were countless moments where we had demanded that he compromise his ethics for the sake of a greater good, too many times when we had offered half explanations and believed he had understood, and too many more when one or another of us had implied he could never understand.
There had been warning signs that the burden of J'onn's loneliness was getting too great, but none of us had noticed.
He did not leave his quarters on the moon for 17 months. We had realized long before that that he would never truly recover, and the world mourned his passing in large public gatherings. We archived every one of them, not certain if he would ever want to watch what amounted to his own funeral.
He did. He watched and wept and whispered his first words in over a year. "I can't do it anymore."
He was entering his third year of self-exile from Earth when he begged to be allowed to disappear into the madding crowd that had destroyed his mind. The rest of us had heated debates about the topic, sometimes worried if he could survive, other times worried he might become a threat in the future.
Ultimately, he made the case for letting him go, proving the compassion that had always driven him was still intact even if so much else that had made him a Justice Leaguer was shattered beyond repair. He pointed out that since his incapacitation, we all had spent less time at the Watchtower. There had been a lot of finger pointing and blame shared between us, undermining our functioning as a team. His presence, he argued, was destroying the League, and he could not live with the knowledge he had brought down the one family he felt he had on Earth.
We let him go.
Maybe that was the beginning of the end. I suspect that we lasted longer than we might otherwise have because of our sense of obligation to him, but the world was changing, and eventually we abandoned our Watchtower and focused on our own corners of the world.
I checked on him regularly. I think we all did. We would find him, slump shouldered and wandering, and buy him coffee and talk to him, and there would be something in his eyes of what he had once been, a memory fading with time.
Would things have been different if he had chosen differently, if he would have remained among the heroes of the world? Would the purity of intent that had been solely his have been enough to offset the vaunting ambition of younger potential heroes? I have never been one for might have beens, and I am not yet old enough to give my life over to wistful regrets.
I think I will introduce the younger heroes to him, though, teach them to find him and buy him a cup of coffee from time to time.
He can still matter.