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Disclaimer: Sadly, Dick Grayson isn't owned by me. DC has that privilege. DC owns most of the characters in this story. All I own is the distinctive way the story unfolds, the specific dialogue and unique situations. (g) No money is being made from this. Please don't sue. It wouldn't be worth your while.
WARNING: There are a number of spelling, grammar and punctuation differences between Australia and the USA... please forgive me for writing with an accent. (g)
Another Halloween Night
Darkness had descended on Bludhaven some fifteen minutes before. The colourful hues of sunset had faded to be replaced by a deep grey. Clouds of pollution masked the moon’s light, producing shimmering shadows.
On the silent street below, the creatures of the night had started to stir and crawl from their places of concealment.
Nightwing surveyed his city from atop a building. Things were quiet. They had been for the past week. Dick couldn’t be sure if that was because he was making a difference of if this was simply the calm before the storm.
A whisper of a breeze ruffled his hair. It was out of place on the airless evening.
“Superman,” Nightwing greeted, without turning around. “To what do I owe this pleasure?”
Clark stepped out of the shadows. “You’re good.”
“It pays to be in Bludhaven.” Nightwing turned and his serious expression dissolved, replaced by a relaxed smile. He offered his hand and Clark took it warmly.
“It’s been a while.”
Dick nodded, noting the strained look that lingered behind the amiable greeting. “I take it this isn’t a social call?”
“I’m afraid not. I need your help.”
Dick’s right eyebrow rose. “My help?”
“I don’t have time for long explanations. I went to Star Labs to find you. We received a briefing mentioning you’d been injured.” The huge man ran his eyes up and down Dick’s frame.
Grayson smirked, “So I take it Dr. Charles knows I signed myself out.”
“Concussion, several broken ribs and internal bleeding in your abdomen as a result of an explosion last night. Sarah doesn’t feel you are…”
“Sarah just likes to worry. By the way, should I be blushing?” he added, noting the tell tale pinching at the side of Superman’s eyes that indicated he was employing his X-ray vision.
Superman studied the younger man in the limited light, critically assessing his physical condition both with and without the assistance of his enhanced senses. There was bruising evident on the right side of his face, but the hidden injuries were of greatest concern.
“Supes, I wouldn’t have left if I wasn’t fit enough to do my job.”
“Mmmm,” Superman murmured, suspiciously.
Dick’s smile broadened. “Okay, you know me too well… and have more facts than I was hoping to let on. I’m sore, but otherwise, fighting fit. How can I help?”
Superman had no choice but to accept Nightwing’s assurances, despite what he’d just seen. He desperately needed the young hero’s help. “Four hours ago, this message was recorded by our screening equipment and then wiped from the database by person unknown. Someone went to a lot of trouble to ensure we didn’t see it,” he stated, handing a copy of the recovered message to Dick.
Grayson took out his miniature flashlight and read aloud from the crumpled piece of paper. “Mission almost accomplished. Final communication at 2:00.” Nightwing handed the note back. “What mission?”
“We don’t know.”
“So, why come to me? Do you want someone outside the organisation to investigate the removal of the message?”
Clark paused for a moment. “Not exactly. And you don’t need to be outside the JLA. You know that to you, there’s always an open invitation.”
Dick snorted. “Sorry, Superman. You guys are a bit too ‘business like’ for me. I’ll stick with the Titans. You may have persuaded Wally, but I’m a lost cause. Besides, I’m not sure the big black Bat would be too happy about my membership.”
Clark grimaced. He remembered a time when Bruce and Dick had been as close as the closest father and son. Sadly, such days were gone.
“So, why me?”
“I don’t need you to investigate the message, the mission referred to or who wiped it. I’m hoping Batman will.”
“I haven’t been able to contact him yet. Time is a critical factor.”
Nightwing nodded. “About eight hours until the so called final communication mentioned in the message.”
“We don’t know where the message was sent from, but we do believe the person who sent it is a member of the JLA who is under a type of mind control.”
“Mind control? Who holds the reins?” Dick saw the momentary pause and rolled his eyes. “You can trust me, Supes. I’m somewhat experienced at keeping secrets.”
“Sorry, Nightwing. This situation has me concerned.”
Dick frowned. No, not concerned. This situation had him rattled and it took a lot to rattle the strongest man on Earth.
“We believe we have a Mantla spy on Earth.” Superman waited for some sort of response.
“And who is he when he's at home?”
“Batman never told you?” Superman was genuinely surprised.
Nightwing held the other man’s gaze and in a deadpan voice responded, “Batman and I don’t talk a great deal these days.”
“The Mantla are an alien civilization looking for new feeding grounds.”
“Feeding grounds. I take it that we taste finger-lickin’ good.”
Clark nodded. “We stopped one of their spies about two years ago. I wanted to inform the Titans and other groups but Batman said that would only cause panic. I had assumed he’d at least told you.”
“Well, as they say, to assume is to make an ass of u and me.”
“Not as much as I am,” Dick murmured. His relationship with Batman was raw and certainly not a topic he ever discussed with others. It stung that his former partner and mentor clearly hadn’t ‘trusted’ him with the information. “Go on.”
“There’s evidence to support that the message was sent to the Mantla home planet.”
“Hence your conclusion that there's a Mantla spy. And it has the ability to control people’s minds?”
“Mantla are able to use our bodies as a host.”
Dick’s face twisted with distaste. There was something altogether demeaning about losing your will. He’d experienced it more than once.
“The Mantla are slug like creatures. Despite their primitive physical appearance, they are an advanced life form from a sophisticated civilization. They enter the host through the mouth, nose or ear and then attach themselves to the host’s brain, interrupting all electrical messages that control independent thought -- enabling them to actually ‘run’ the body like a machine.”
“And you think one of the JLA has been taken over by one of these things?”
Superman nodded, and his lips pressed together.
Dick’s eyes grew wide. “Batman? No. He’s had training in that sort of thing. He’d be aware.”
“He’s been acting out of character.”
Dick’s face shadowed with immediate concern. “In what way?”
Superman struggled. “Very sullen. Emotionless.”
Nightwing’s left eyebrow rose and the concern gave way to amusement. “Your point?”
Superman frowned. He didn’t have time for Dick’s flippancy.
“Come on. You’ve known him even longer than me, Supes. You can’t tell me you think sullen and emotionless is out of character for Batman these days?”
“Perhaps not,” Superman conceded.
“Talk to me,” Nightwing invited. Superman wasn’t telling him everything and yet, Dick could tell he wanted to.
The Krytonian sighed. “I don’t really want to involve you, Nightwing, but I don’t see any other way. When the Mantla infiltrates the body, it shuts down independent thought, but in doing so, it severely inhibits emotional responses. Hence, lack of discernible emotion is the best indicator that the person has been infiltrated. No smiling to speak of. Little reaction to any situation. The problem I have is…”
“Batman never smiles and rarely reacts to anything, so it’s impossible to tell if he’s been ‘infiltrated.’”
“Exactly. I have to know if I can trust him. The JLA haven’t had any major missions in the last few days. Everybody is busy in their home areas. If I call them in…”
“You risk warning the ‘slug’ that you’re on to it.”
“Yes. I’ve told Wonder Woman and Green Arrow because I know they weren’t at the crash site.”
“Crash site? You’re leaving things out,” Dick pointed out. He needed all of the information as quickly as possible if he was to help.
“Sorry,” Superman apologized. This wasn’t usually his role. Batman always handled the details. “Three days ago a meteorite crashed to earth. We checked it out as we always do. I’m now certain that was how the Mantla got here. Everyone was present except Diana and Ollie, which means...”
“Which means they’re the only members of the JLA you can trust.”
“But they aren’t detectives. Batman is, but it’s more than that. Following our last encounter with a Mantla, he created a database on the creature. I can’t find any reference to it in our files, nor can I locate any of the physical samples in our lab. I don’t know if the Mantla has removed them or if Batman took them for analysis. Batman, and Batman alone, may hold the key to stopping them. But first I have to eliminate the possibility he’s the host.”
Superman drew in another deeper breath and then turned from Dick and walked to the edge of the building, looking out over the city. “I recovered the message purely by accident, but I can’t trace the source, nor who removed it from our records. So you see, that’s another reason I need Batman’s help. I tried to get an emotional response from him, but… well, you know what he’s like. I don’t know if he’s just being himself or…”
Dick nodded. Small creases had appeared around his eyes, visible from the sides of his mask. “But why come to me? Bruce and I haven’t exactly been close the last few years. Our relationship gives ‘emotionless' a whole new dimension.”
“I thought things had improved.”
“Only if you consider going from silence to grunts improvement.”
Clark shook his head and faced Nightwing. “He was so different… when you were young.”
“Weren’t we all?” Grayson’s voice echoed regrets. The days when he’d worn the red, green and yellow had been among the best in his life. Then, he’d seen much of it as a game. Good against evil, and good always won. He’d since learned that that wasn’t always the case and that Batman couldn’t fix everything… another innocent fallacy he had once believed. Batman was only human -- just barely human, Dick thought with some dark amusement. “It doesn’t sound like we have time to trip down memory lane. Tell me exactly what you need me to do.”
“You know him better than anyone. I have to be sure before I share this information with him. You may be able to draw some sort of emotion from him. A smile. Laugh.”
“Laugh? Hell, Bruce hasn’t laughed at any of my jokes for years.” The sarcasm belied his growing anxiety.
“Something isn’t right with him at the moment. I’m not sure if that’s because he’s already two steps ahead of me or because he’s the one who’s been infiltrated. It will be a massacre if the Mantla invade us.”
“Massacre?” Nightwing frowned.
“We won’t be able to stop it, if it starts. They’ll come in their thousands. We could barely stop one. Batman’s had experience with these creatures before. He made a study of the last one. If anyone can discover what the mission is, work out a way to stop or reverse it, identify which of the others is the host, and devise a way to defeat the Mantla spy before it can send an invitation to its ’friends’, it’s Batman. I considered going and checking each of the other members of the JLA first. It would certainly be easier to tell if they react emotionally to anything, but the Mantla are incredibly intelligent. If I start asking questions or trying to get an emotional response from its host…”
“You’ll give away the fact that you’re on to it. The only advantage you have at the moment is that you know the Mantla is here.”
Superman smiled, despite the gravity of the situation. “You’re so like him.”
“You never let a man finish.” Like Bruce, Dick was always several steps ahead of everyone else. Superman gripped Nightwing’s shoulders in each hand. “I need your help.”
“I can have the Titans assembled within half an hour.”
“No. I’m not asking you to fight this battle, nor investigate what’s going on. This is internal matter for the JLA. If it gets out of hand, then I’ll call for the help of the Titans and everyone else we can lay our hands on. For now, containment is the key. All I’m asking you to do is to help me clear Batman of being the host as quickly as possible so he and I can do what’s needed. We’ve seen a Mantla in action. Batman has all of the information and the ability to put it together to our advantage. We can‘t start from scratch. We don‘t have time.”
Dick grimaced. “I’ll do what I can, but first, I need some background information so I know what I may be dealing with. Tell me about the Mantla.”
“They have the ability to reduce their size so that they can enter a host,” Superman explained, dropping his hands.
Superman began to pace as he tried to remember everything he could. “Once they leave the host’s body, they grow… rapidly. The one we faced last time grew to twelve feet in a split second.”
“Big slug. What else?” Nightwing demanded, his brow furrowing with concentration.
“They can reduce their size just as quickly and jump from host to host. They have three primary defences. The first is acid that they eject from glands on their body. Acid that will burn a hole right though you.”
“Something to look forward to. And the second?”
Superman stopped and faced Nightwing. “Rows of teeth that make a great white shark look gummy. Finally, they have a set of electrified… for want of a better word… tentacles around the lips. They use them to capture and drag things into their mouth.”
Nightwing turned his back on Superman and walked a few paces away, processing all of the information. “And how do you know there’s only one?”
“I checked the meteorite. There was one empty chrysalis embedded in it. We missed it the first time, but then, we weren’t looking for it.” For several moments there was silence, Clark staring at the younger man’s back.
“How do they reproduce?”
“I have no idea. It’s not here to populate, Nightwing. It’s here to secure information and/or prepare the way for the invasion. The Mantla won’t come unless they know they can defeat us easily. As I said, despite the way they look, they come from a highly advanced civilization. We aren’t essential to their survival so they aren’t going to take risks. By defeating the last ‘spy’ we proved we were a powerful opponent. For some reason, they’ve decided to have another look.”
“By the sound of it, this scout was randomly sent out to land wherever space took it,” Dick murmured.
“You could be right.” Superman waited impatiently.
“What mission? You must have some suspicions?” Dick asked.
“I’m assuming it’s to collect information on the strongest opposition on Earth and…”
“And that would be the JLA. So what’s it after? Personnel files? Or it is preparing to attack the JLA?”
“I don’t know. I’m praying Batman is already ahead of us.”
Still Nightwing didn’t turn around, but continued to fire questions in quick succession. “How do they communicate with their homeland?”
“We aren’t certain, but we believe that it is using a sort of internal sonar.”
“Which means it will head to a high area to send... somewhere above other radio signals.”
“That’s what Batman thought last time.”
"Can you jam the signal?"
"Only if we know exactly where it's emanating from.”
“And the intercepted message?”
“Was sonar. New equipment at headquarters allows us to monitor all messages leaving Earth. Batman usually checks the computers, but he was called back to Gotham. Someone deleted the section of the data disk that contained that message.”
“Did Batman return to Gotham before or after the message was recorded?”
“Physiologically, what is the slug’s make up?”
Superman smirked. Like father like son. They were the same answers Batman had wanted two years earlier. “Their cell structure is completely different from any living creature on this planet. Bullets and the like don’t penetrate their ‘skin’. When they feed on us, they don’t appear to need the ‘nutrients’. Batman described us as ‘an unessential part of their diet’. More like chocolate.”
“So, what do they need to survive? Air? Water?”
“Neither. We narrowed it down to electrical impulses which they draw directly from the atmosphere.”
“How did you stop the last one?”
Superman looked away from Dick’s back and his voice lowered. “We had to destroy it while it was inside a host.”
Dick’s jaw tightened. “And the host?”
Clark blew out a breath with force. “We had no choice.”
Nightwing cursed. “And you think one of these things is inside a member of the JLA?”
“Yes. Evidence points to Batman but….”
Dick shook his head in disagreement. “Unlikely.”
“Perhaps, but not impossible. I need to know for sure. I’m willing to admit that I’m out of my league on this one. We need Batman.”
Dick turned back to Clark. “And lack of emotional response is the only way to tell if someone has been infiltrated? What about X-ray? Heat sensor?”
“Useless. They don‘t show up.”
“If they feed on electrical impulses surely…”
“We couldn’t find anything last time. Believe me, we looked.”
“To identify who it is, we could isolate each person and use Wonder Woman’s truth lasso?”
“It has no human emotion…”
“Hence truth isn’t a factor. Damn,” Dick cursed. “Couldn’t Green Lantern…”
“Does the host have any independent will?”
“None that we could find. The Mantla uses the host’s brain like a computer. It can access all data. The host has no memory of what they did while under the control of the Mantla.”
“And damage to the host once the slug leaves its body?” There was the slightest rise in the pitch, betraying Nightwing’s concern.
Superman reached for the younger man’s shoulder again and squeezed it. Unlike Batman, Nightwing couldn’t turn off his emotions. “One hell of a headache. Arthur and Diana experienced it last time and both were fine within an hour.”
Dick ran his hand through his hair. “An emotional response from Batman? That’s as rare as hen’s teeth, you know that?”
“Yes. That’s why I’ve come to you. I need this done quickly. I just thought that maybe you could make him smile… or something.”
“Smile, no. Lose his temper, yes. Would that help?”
Superman smirked. “It’s an emotional response. Yes, it would tell us what we need to know. Will you be able to?
Dick forced a grin. “I’ve been making Bruce lose his temper for years. I can be very annoying when I want to be. Besides, I know how to push all of his buttons... the legacy of a great partnership.” It was said with some sadness.
“You’ll need to be subtle. If he’s been infiltrated, and the slug cottons on to what you’re doing, it’ll attack, either by leaving Batman’s body or using it. If the latter’s the case, remember, Batman won’t be in control. It isn’t Batman. The slug will do anything to protect its existence.”
“Subtle. Got it.” They held each other’s gaze.
“Be careful, kid.”
Dick shook his head slowly. “First of all, that’s the reason I won’t work with the JLA. I don’t still wear diapers. Second, the chances that Batman’s been taken over by some slug are pretty close to nil. And third, if he has… no matter how much control they have of him, he’d never hurt me… not physically anyway.” The last phrase was whispered.
Superman’s expression became more intense. “Nightwing don‘t count on that. If you suspect that he’s not responding, get out of there as quickly as possible. I’ve seen what these creatures are capable of and how powerful their hold on someone can be. Leave and report back to me. We got bloody last time we dealt with them. I don‘t want you to get hurt. Remember, the Mantla can jump from host to host. Don’t, under any circumstances, stand any closer to Batman than six feet. Contact me immediately if you suspect anything.”
Dick’s eyes narrowed.
Superman could see he was considering the warning.
Finally, Nightwing’s head bobbed once. “Do you know where he is?”
“Then I could use a lift.”
Superman exhaled with relief, walked over and lifted Nightwing into his arms effortlessly. “I’ll wait just outside in case you need me.”
“No. He can’t know that you’ve spoken to me. You’ll have to drop me in the centre of Gotham. I’m make my own way there.”
“Nightwing, you need to be really careful... and really quick. We have only hours.”
© January 2006 Aussie Nightwriter : This relates only to the creative property in this story. The distinctive way the story unfolds, the specific dialogue and unique situations are mine. I acknowledge that some of the characters and settings belong to DC comics and thank them sincerely for turning a blind eye so I can borrow them. (g) No infrigement of copyright was intended and no profit has been made from this story... so, please don't sue me. It wouldn't be worth your while.
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