[The following story is fan-fiction, written purely for entertainment purposes. It may not be reprinted in any form without my permission and may not be reused for profit. I don't own any of these characters; copyrighted hero names belong to DC Comics. Superman created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, Aquaman created by Paul Norris and Aqualad created by Robert Bernstein. This is a decidedly Silver Age tale with elements of Aqualad's Modern Age origin.]
It is an unusually quiet day here, which is really saying something given that this is Metropolis, a city whose very name seems to attract trouble. That's likely because of me, Clark Kent, or more likely because of my alter ego, Superman. I've been sitting here secluded in the file room on the tenth floor of the Daily Planet tower for two hours trying to write the most effective introduction to a story I am due to file later today on the unusual number of sightings of Great White sharks in Metropolis Harbor, only I haven't been able to concentrate. This office is rarely conducive to contemplative thought, a fact I've noticed over the ten months I've been employed here. It's a miracle that...that I...
"Hey, Smallville! Be a pal and get your butt out here, will ya?" comes that shrill shout to which I've long become accustomed. That harsh, full-throated bark comes from seemingly the most unlikely of sources, at least on the surface: my shapely, attractive and intelligent rival reporter, the intrepid Lois Lane. Through the beveled door pane I can see her brusquely beckoning me to come to her desk. Not terribly pleased with the interruption, I rise just the same and head over to see what the fuss is about.
I didn't even have to make it all the way to Lois' desk before I notice a most unusual sight. Several other reporters have taken up positions in the adjacent aisle to get a closer look at an oddly dressed diminutive visitor sitting slightly hunched over in a chair before them. Even at first glance, it is more than obvious to me that the pint-sized figure is trying desperately to avoid their gazes but is trapped like the proverbial bug in a bell jar. My keen senses pick up on a distinctly salty scent like that of a fresh ocean breeze coming from approximately the same spot where the small boy sits cloaked in a garishly colored beach towel draped around his shoulders. He ducks his head away from the stares of the encircled adults, his boot-clad feet twisted at his ankles and suspended several inches above a small puddle of water.
"You're good with these things, aren't you, Kent?" Lois mumbles through teeth clenched around a needs-to-be-sharpened, yellow No. 2 Ticonderoga pencil, taking only a second to waggle her fingers in the direction of the chair to her left before those fingers return to pounding out sixty-two words a minute, the vast majority of them misspelled, on the black and silver keyboard before her.
"Er...things?" I ask Lois as I glance down at the silent, trembling boy who I'm guessing is about twelve years in age. It's only now from my stance above him that I realize who he is, based upon some remarkably unique features: dark-brown unkempt curls, Mediterranean complexion with freckle-dusted cheeks, a vibrant red tunic sporting a yoke and square neckline, blue swimming trunks, gloves and boots accented with black and yellow bands, bare legs from thigh high to just below his knees, a black belt gathered by a golden buckle of a stylized 'A'...and soulful, almond-shaped eyes of a violet shade Elizabeth Taylor would covet which intensely study each and every speckle on the tile floor below him. Some reporter over at WGBS-TV dubbed him 'Aqualad, The Prince Of The Seas,' when he appeared along side his mentor, Aquaman, during a recent world crisis. Knowing that the pair hail from fabled Atlantis, this little fellow couldn't be farther from home if he'd landed on the Moon.
"You know what I mean, Kent...a kid thing!" Lois snarls without missing a beat on the keys. "You're good with 'em, aren't you? I'd expect that you Kansas yokels have lots of them back in Corn Fed Country, right? I need you to take him off my hands for a few minutes until Superman gets here."
The young boy doesn't look up at me upon hearing Lois' pronouncement; he merely shifts nervously in his chair, glances over at Lois and states in a disarmingly pleasant tone, "I would like to find Superman, please."
"Yeah, yeah, I heard that already, kid!" Lois stews, mock slamming her palm into her forehead. "Now drink that water like I told you, will ya? I'm not gonna have you passing out on me again. You're pretty heavy for somebody barely in double digits."
The little boy dutifully follows orders, feebly fumbling with the blue twist cap on the bottle before he is able to take a swig. After a healthy swallow, he struggles with putting it back on and then holds it closely to his chest as his head again drops.
Alarmed by the subject of both requests, I recoil in a dumbfounded manner drastic enough to rival Marie Dressler's stutter-step in 'Dinner At Eight.' Quickly adjusting my glasses in an effort to shield my face as well as my shock, I prompt Lois for further information. "How did you meet...?"
"The kid?" she asks with a sarcastic roll of her eyes. "Just my luck, Kent: I was heading toward the Senneville Marina to meet up with an informant when some folks pointed me and Jimmy in the direction of this little boy who was dragging himself slowly along the boardwalk. While some lady jumped on her cel phone to call for the paramedics, the kid fell to his knees...and what he's doing dressed like it's Hallowe'en with his legs all bare like that, I couldn't tell ya! He kept mumbling about Superman, so I know there's a story here...well YEAH!...but I can't get it out of him! OK, so get this: Jimmy and I throw him in a cab and bring him back here double-step 'cause he looks as if he's gonna faint on us at any sec', right? We get into the lobby and then the kid breaks away from us and jumps into the fountain in the foyer! Just when I think I've seen everything, there he is making like Greg Louganis and having a grand ol' time among the ornamental water lilies! It took three rent-a-cops, Troupe from Op-Ed and Lombard the sports goon to fish him out. The crazy thing? He didn't come up for air for over five minutes! We're freaking out, figuring that he's drowning and he's happy as a clam in there! I don't get it!"
"Are you aware of who he is and why he's here in Metropolis?" I ask her, hoping that her lightning fast banter will eventually shed some light on what had transpired before I became involved.
"I dunno!" she cries, throwing her hands skyward. "He only seems able to say one thing and you've already heard it. All anyone along the way could tell me is that he'd been staggering around the dock landings and acting a bit peculiar as if he'd had too many rides on a merry-go-round. By all accounts, he'd walked a few blocks up from the pier and then tried to reach through a display window at Levitz's Electronics Store. According to eyewitnesses, the big-screen TV the store is advertising was running a news story with file footage of Superman and the kid kept asking for Superman over and over again."
"I would like to find Superman, please," the boy said again without looking up, sounding for all the world like a preprogrammed recording.
"So help me, if you say that again, I'll thump you, Junior!" the exasperated Lois grumbles at him, causing him to furrow his eyebrows, duck his head and shrink more tightly into the chair.
"He's just a scared little boy, Lois," I tactfully scold her. "There's no reason to be cross with him. You're the adult here, so you're expected to be more sensitive and understanding."
"Spare me the hearts and flowers, Kent," she replies, her tone a rapid-fire sotto voce. "Sell 'touchy-feely' somewhere else. I'm a reporter, not a wet nurse...and with this kid I do mean 'wet!' He's obviously in some kind of trouble but he doesn't seem capable of saying anything more than what you've heard..."
"I would like to find Superman, please."
Perry White, our Editor-In-Chief, juts his head out of his office like a demented coo-coo announcing the time of day, only with Perry it's more a matter of keeping the newspaper running like a well-oiled eight-day clock. "Lane?" he roars in a raspy voice tainted by decades of cigar chomping. "You still got our off-season trick-or-treater? For cryin' out loud...hand him off to Angela Chen and she can gimme a twenty-word fluffy human interest tale on 'im! Where's my story on the Great White invasion? And Kent...what are you still doin' here? Get going! The rest of you: quit gold-brickin'! Great Caesar's Ghost, people: we got a paper to get to press here!"
"On it, Chief!" the assembled reporters answer in unison, well-oiled timepiece that we are.
"...and don't call me 'Chief!'" Perry yells as he storms back into his office while the curious boy before me stelthly peers around for a sighting of Emperor Caesar's ghostly appearance.
Silently, I shame the other reporters into returning to their own pursuits and attempt to shield the boy from the spying, heavily mascara-clad eyes of Cat Grant, our jungle print-wearing society beat pounder whose raised eyebrows can be spotted over the partition on the opposite side of Lois' desk. "Never took you for the domestic type, Lane," she purrs, "but here's a hint: Next time you bathe a kid, you're meant to undress him first." She then returns to dishing out more dirt than is fit to print on the Daily Planet's online scandal sheet.
"I would like to find Superman, please," requests our guest again.
"He's like clockwork, this one," Lois says dryly, purposely ignoring Cat. She punctuates the remark with a single stab at the period key as she finishes her typing. "Here's the deal, Kent: I need to catch up with my informant before I lose him. Be a good corn husker and mind this brat 'til I get back, will ya? You can even share my byline on the story if we ever figure out what his story is. You can't get more fair than..."
Lois is unhappily interrupted by the ringing of her extension, the sound of which frightens the boy so much that he leaps forward, drops the bottle in his hands and throws his arms around my leg in sheer panic. Surprised at the strength of my suddenly clenched thigh, he looks straight up my frame and into my startled blue eyes. With a huge smile, Aqualad yells, "Superman!"
Oh boy. This is all I need. Not.
"Shhhhhh!" The sharp admonishment comes from Lois, thankfully too intent on her phone conversation to notice what the boy has just said. Earnestly waving me away, Lois cups her hand over her phone's earpiece, looking around in a shifty manner. "Do you mind, Smallville? Could you get this kid out of here now?" she demands. "This call is strictly confidential." Looking over at the boy as he starts to walk away, she calls out after him. "Hey, you: Pick up that water bottle and take it with you!"
My super-hearing easily picks up on the grizzled sounds of Bo Bibbowski, nicknamed Bibbo, a longshoreman and mutual confidante of ours who is at this moment informing Lois over the phone about Great White sharks encircling tugboats and ferries in Hob's River, of all places. Such mounting incidents particularly this far from the open ocean are leaving sailors quaking in fear of taking their launches out, or so Bibbo says. Since I will be able to eavesdrop on their conversation and thereby scoop Lois just as well from twenty feet away and through a closed, lead glass and oak door, I take Aqualad's hand, dwarfed by the size of my own, and lead him to the confines of the file room. Once there, I shut the door and take a seat, pulling the jigger-size hero toward me.
"You ARE Aqualad, aren't you?" I ask him with a welcoming smile in an attempt to win his confidence. "Where's Aquaman? Why are you roaming around alone?" The result of my questions yields unexpected results as the child quickly drops into a prostrate position before me.
"It's Arthur...ummm, Aquaman...who sent me to find you, sir," he whimpers, barely audible since he's speaking into the heavily carpeted floor. "I have searched very hard for you. We have no right to do so, sir, but we beg you to help us, please."
"Of course, I'll be please to help, if I can, Aqualad," I give my hearty assurance to him, unsure as to what I am really promising to do. "By the way...just what is your name? I've only ever heard you referred to by your hero moniker or by a nickname."
"That is what Arthur does, sir," he answers hesitantly, his face...or what I can see of it...mirroring a level of embarrassment I couldn't have anticipated. "I was abandoned when I was small and have never had a name."
Good grief. I feel like a first-class creep having made him say that. Who would abandon such a nice kid and why hasn't that idiot guardian of his given him a proper name? Every one of Aquaman's pets rates a name but not his ward? We've got to have a talk.
Without rising, I reach down to support the shoulders of this sincerely humble child, encouraging him to stand up. Next, I shaking a stern finger at him when he attempts to again return to that crouched position.
"No, no...please don't do that again, little guy," I ask of him as his strangely tinted eyes search for what he considers to be an appropriately servile place upon which to focus his glance. "I'm sure that the customs you are familiar with when among the monarchy are different than what we do here but I'm from Kansas and the Kents are just plain folks. No bowing and scraping around me, hear? As for my 'Superman' identity: When I'm wearing this suit, I am Clark Kent, Reporter. It's really important to remember not to call me 'Superman.' Understood?" I make the patented elf-ears finger movements indicating quotation marks to emphasis my hero name but quickly lower my hands when I note the nonplused expression on my young visitor's face.
"No, sir," he answers honestly with an endearing shake of his head. "Do these people not know who you are under your suit?"
"They really don't, son," I assure him, "and it is essential to my work that they remain unaware of who I am as a hero. I know that you and Arthur don't really deal with dual identities but it is different for people like me who have to operate in the real world...errr, not that Atlantis isn't real, but it is a different sort of social environment, you see. Errr...you don't really see what I mean, do you, lad?"
"I think I understand now, sir," is his response, though I can bet he's saying it so as not to hurt my feelings. "It is like acting on your part, is it not? Can these people really not recognize you through your glasses?" He asks this a bit skeptically while twiddling his fingers, apparently quite comfortable with the concept of negative space but not as much with questioning his elders.
"Luckily for me, they can't," I reply, "or at least they haven't until now, though I don't think anyone really heard you. You're a pretty soft-spoken wee fellow. Arthur once told me that Atlanteans barely raise their voices because sound carries so well under water. My enhanced hearing is good enough that I've heard you two when you were whispering to each other."
As a pair, we become quiet for a moment. "I'll tell you what we'll do," I offer him in aid of making this crazy reality of mine easier for him. "When you see the big 'S' and the red cape, that is when you can call me 'Superman,' and whenever you don't see it, then you should call me 'Clark.'"
"No, sir," he replies, shaking his head, but before I can begin my explanation again, he continues, "I will call you 'Mr. Kent.' Arthur would punish me if he thought I had been disrespectful to you of all people."
I let out a sigh of relief that I've gotten through to him and take his small, gloved hands in mine, placing his all-important water bottle on top of a green felt blotter on a nearby desk. His dark eyes dart after it, fearing Lois' reprisal for having released it but I draw his attention back to me. "Now, young man," I say with a gentle shake of his hands to get him to focus upon me, "suppose you tell me why you've come all this way to find Superman, please."
He takes a long, deep breath, sighs and then begins. "Arthur and I were lured away from our cave, sir," he states while staring at his boots. "There were explosions and tremors which had frightened a great many sea creatures, causing them to flee in large numbers. Soon after we arrived in the area, a steel net with pointed barbs was dropped upon us; it was like nothing we had ever seen. The more we fought, the deeper it cut into our skin. Our skin is pretty tough, so sharp objects are usually not of concern. Even with our combined strength, we were only able to pry open the net enough to let our finny friends out. Eventually, we were hauled aboard a large vessel and dumped out onto the deck. Before we could escape our attackers, we were shot with some sort of sedative from a high-powered weapon and then separated from each other. When I awoke, I found myself tied down onto a table with harsh lights overhead and tall men leaning over me who were wearing white masks, medical cloaks and goggles."
"Did you recognize anything about these men?" my innate reporter's sense kicks in. "Did they have distinguishing accents or marks?"
"They didn't speak to each other that I recall, sir," Aqualad stated, a hint of stress in his voice as he attempted to call upon his fuzzy memory. "They weren't in charge of the operation; that's for certain. Their boss was another man with a low, growling voice like the sound of a fog horn. He shouted orders at them...sounded like an American...well-bred, educated and of some authority. I can't be completely sure because I was groggy from the anesthetic. Those men were aware that I was conscious but they didn't seem concerned of it while they were hurting me. I was moaning and in awful pain but they ignored me. It wasn't until I became louder that they put something in my mouth to muffle my groaning and then put a gas mask to my nose. The next time I awoke, I fought to clear my head quickly as soon as I noticed that I was alone. That is when I made my escape."
I gave the matter some thought before asking him, "What were they doing to you?"
This was the one question that I hadn't wanted to ask; I wasn't sure that I had the stomach for the answer. The little hero tugs at and then raises the right side of his tunic, gathering it tightly in his hands. I brace myself for the worst and get exactly that. There on his painfully thin trunk are viscious-looking incisions, barely sutured in a manner which indicates that the butcher responsible didn't think his victim merited any proper care. Two such wounds have small amounts of fresh blood and serum albumin seeping from them. Without comment, this brave child gathers the hem of his tunic and stuffs it back under his belt, never raising his eyes from the floor as if he were the one who should evidence shame. It is taking all of my superhuman strength to keep a lid on my anger at this most heinous exhibit of the lower realms of human depravity.
"I'm very sorry that they hurt you so badly," I apologize to him after containing my fury at what I've seen. "You're a very brave boy to have traveled so far to find help. I'm sure you know that what happened to you means that Arthur is in grave danger." This is a preface to my untoward request of him. "Would you know this ship if you saw it again? If you can describe it well enough, I can go in search of it, after first dropping you off at S.T.A.R. Labs for medical attention."
"Please, sir, I do not want to go to another laboratory!" he responds excitedly, his lower lip stuck out. "I want to rescue Arthur! I know what the ship looks like and did what I could to disable it before leaving. I've even already left a marker to find it again. You can't go without me. I won't let you!"
His protests come to a sudden stop, extreme terror in his eyes. Salty tears run freely down his cheeks, then explode like water bombs against concrete as they crash and scatter on the highly polished floor. "You must forgive my outburst, sir," he says in a voice so quiet that it could have come from a mite a mile away. "I meant no disrespect to you...and please don't tell Arthur! You must understand..."
"Understood, Aqualad," I interrupt him conclusively, hoping to comfort him. "I can imagine that you would be a bit gun shy about doctors after what you've been through, though I can't help but be concerned about the look of those wounds. Your worries about Arthur are justified and I know you want to help to find him as quickly as possible. That's the only reason I'm going to bypass my better judgment and allow you to come with..."
The rest of that thought is swept into the ether by the swift collapse into my lap of this determined lad, now reduced to torrents of grateful sobs. "Thank you, sir; I knew you would help us," he gasps quietly between attempts to catch his breath.
"Now you will have to help me before we can go on our mission, kiddo," I advise him, coaxing him to his feet again while handing a few tissues to him from the box on the desk. I then show him how to use them, Atlanteans being completely unfamiliar with paper tissues, mopping tears or blowing their noses. "I need to convert to my 'other self' and we'll have to make sure that your remark out there didn't put thoughts into my coworkers' heads. I heard Jimmy's signal watch go off, so he and Lois will be expecting Superman to arrive soon. Your mission is to sit quietly at Ms. Lane's desk while I pretend to leave to investigate the story I was meant to be covering this afternoon. I'll have Jimmy come over to keep you company. Superman will arrive to pick you up soon afterward. Check?"
"Check, Superman...errrrr, Mr. Kent!" he replies, ready for action.
Twenty minutes later, we are flying out of a window at the Daily Planet, Aqualad's thin but surprisingly hefty frame resting against my back, his spindly arms wrapped around my neck. My cape floats over him, protecting him from the friction of the icy breeze at this altitude. I direct my young passenger's attention to some of the major attractions of my fair adopted city as we fly over Lafayette, which is our local version of New Orleans' French Quarter, the wide and murky West River, Hob's Bay and the Galaxy Broadcasting Tower. Far below us, the Metropolis Monarchs are about to take on the Gotham Knights at Metrosteel Stadium. Aqualad acknowledges each tidbit of information with a soft 'uh-huh,' polite enough not to let on that he has no idea what broadcasting or baseball are.
Despite the wind rushing past us, I am easily able to hear Aqualad's description of the boat upon which he was held captive. According to his admittedly foggy memory, there was a rendering of what appeared to be an arrow pointing toward the stern of the ship, accompanied by some glyphs which appeared just above the water line. Upon his escape from this vessel, the Atlantean youth telepathically requested his finned compatriots to encircle it, ensuring that he would be able to find this mysterious freighter again.
Several times along our journey, Aqualad gives a slight tap on my shoulder followed by an unnecessary apology to remind me that it is time for him to take a dip into the sea. As he explains it, a rare birth defect related to his jewel-colored irises caused him to possess vestigial lungs which will not become fully functioning for long-term air breathing until adulthood, hence his need for frequent hydration. Every time I gently lower him into the thundering white caps of the frigid Atlantic, I can't help but fret for his safety, my natural protective nature causing me to forget that this little boy isn't exactly human. The cold, unyielding ocean is this youngster's natural environment, as normal to him yet as foreign to me as my farm boy upbringing would be to him.
After the last such rest stop, an exhausted Aqualad rests his cheek against my shoulder, taking in a deep breath before speaking. "I'm sorry to be such a hindrance to you, Superman," he offers as he points to a passing flock of sea gulls which he requests for me to follow. "You could have been there by now if it weren't for my weakness. I'm afraid that I will never amount to being much of a hero."
"All people have some physical need for nourishment and hydration," I remind him, touched by his modesty. "As long as you don't perceive it as a weakness, no one else will. I must say that from what I have heard of you from other Justice League members and having now met you for myself, you possess a strength of character which far outweighs any physical limitation you might believe of yourself."
My peripheral vision picks up on the brilliant red blushing of the child's tawny cheeks. "That's quite the nicest thing that anyone has ever said to me, sir," he says in a hushed tone, his pixie-like face filled with newfound confidence. "I will work very hard to earn such a compliment."
"Do you like living with Arthur?" I ask him to break the next silence. "Is he taking good care of you?"
Aqualad takes a long time to answer, then replies, "It is more common that I take care of him, sir, rather than the other way 'round. He said I couldn't live with him unless we had a home; he was used to sleeping on the decks of old freighters before we met. I made a home and furnished it for him. Each day, I keep house, tend garden and harvest kelp for meals; I do whatever I have to do so that we can stay together. You see, Arthur is all I have. He doesn't mind that I was exiled for being cursed with mental and physical deficiencies, which is what the Atlantean authorities declared. They said I could never be educated like other children but Arthur never believed them. He taught me to read, write and how to identify every fish in the sea... and how not to be afraid of them. Arthur warned me that it would be hard work being his partner but I don't mind as long as I can be with him."
Poor little tike: A million square miles of ocean and no one to rely upon but Arthur, easily one of the grumpiest, most officious and demanding persons I've ever worked with. Brawny, blonde and rugged, The King Of The Seas is sometimes even more moody and sullen than Batman, which is really saying something. This charming waif is the polar opposite of his mentor, with a reputation for having a sunny, helpful disposition and the mildest, most obliging temperament around. On a recent rescue of passengers from a downed airliner stranded on the surface of the Atlantic, Aqualad single-handedly kept them all calm and safe by persuading them to sing sea shanties with him. Singing abilities are hardly the prerequisite for being a hero but he was exactly the person those people needed in that instance. His sad tale makes me wonder if my mermaid friend Lori from the neighboring city-state of Tritonis could be of help to him, though I've been told that two-legged and tailed merpeople rarely live in peace with each other.
What Aqualad needs is a nice, peaceful trip to Smallville to meet Ma and Pa. Seems to me that he could use a hot meal, a hunk of apple pie and some good ol' fashioned kindly parenting, something that from the looks of things he's not getting from Arthur. The Justice League may have to reconsider the sanctioning of our members who have taken on orphaned children as partners. The Grayson boy whom Batman is raising seems promising enough; that smart-aleck Harper kid working with Green Arrow...well, far less so. This particular junior partner's living situation might not be the healthiest of environments for someone who is without formal education and a positive support network to bolster him. Sadly, if there is truly no one who will make a home for him in the whole of Atlantis, then I can't see an alternative to his present condition.
Shaking me from my thoughts, a plume of glistening water spewing forth from the blowhole of a blue whale far beneath us causes Aqualad to perk up. "Jumpin' jellyfish!" he excitedly chirps, "Look there, sir!"
"I don't see any jellyfish, sorry to say," I advise, figuring that at twelve thousand feet below they would be tough to spot even with my super-vision.
"It's just an expression, sir," he says with a blush. "Swimming ahead of the bow of that freighter is the whale I asked to guard it. The many other whales, sharks and dolphin pods in the area are following her to the port and starboard sides of the ship to keep steady with it. That's just got to be the right ship...but what is that weird green light?"
In a fraction of a Metropolis minute, Aqualad and I are punched by the violent force of an emerald-tinged ray which immediately sends ripples of gnawing pain throughout my body, makes me as weak as a sick kitten and causes me to be exceedingly nauseous. Only one lethal element can cause this: Kryptonite. Most commonly found on Earth as chunks of jade green rocks, they are the deadly remnants of my home planet, in this case somehow focused into a beam of poisonous light. I make a feeble attempt to roll over onto my back to use my cape for protection while flinging my companion into my arms, but the toxicity of the ray has done its damage and I am again forced to turn to face the source of the attack. The boy's amethyst-hued eyes open as wide as saucers as he first dangles from my limp arms and then, gravity playing its hateful part, plunges backward in a thousand-foot death dive toward the thrashing waves. If there is any mercy this day, it is that a patch of low clouds obscure my view of the certain demise of this innocent. I slowly but surely follow his deadly descent through a thick, misty gray lining plucked from a graveyard scene, nestled ominously like a foreboding limbo between sea and sky.
The crackle of splashing water causes me to stir from a state of blackout as I realize I can't recall having felt anything for the previous few moments. It occurs to me that I am soaking wet and becoming more thoroughly so by the second. Looking back over my shoulder and below me, I can now see multiple streams of water spouting in tandem from a symphony of whales joined together to prevent me from hitting the surface of the Atlantic at a bone-breaking eighty miles per hour. Cautiously, my rescuers put the brakes on their natural geysers, gradually lowering me to the surface of the ocean where Aqualad awaits my arrival from his perch on the edge of a whale's invitingly wide fluke.
"Arthur says that you surface-dwellers enjoy big, plastic water slides," I am informed as he attempts with some effort to ring out my cape while I brush my sopping wet hair from my eyes. "How did you like my version of one?"
"Oh, that stunt could rival any major amusement park ride, kiddo!" I congratulate him, delivering a hearty and grateful pat on his knobby shoulder, knowing that this most underrated of heroes just saved the life of the so-called 'Man Of Steel.' With a mighty draft of upward air bounced off of my lower lip, that familiar ebony curl of mine is dry and back in its place. "Now...where are we?"
His head turns to indicate the direction of our quarry. "The ship is on the other side of these whales, Superman," he instructs with a jerk of his thumb, his thin yet muscular legs churning water in the guileless manner with which other children waggle their legs when seated in a tall chair. "We are shielded from the view of those onboard for now, though they may suspect that we still live and will be watching for us. The best option for us would be to attack from below the waves while being hidden by our friends here. Can you hold your breath for very long, sir?"
"I haven't had as much practice as your friends here have," I advise him with a wink, "but I'm certain I can manage it for long enough to get inside that ship. Let's get going!"
With a willing nod which doubles as a request for my permission to lead on, this stoic miniature Marine Marvel takes hold of my hand and dives into the waves. As we pass beneath the bellies of the whales, I can hear the calming yet disarmingly powerful songs of our cetacean cohorts. Their plaintive moaning is a reminder of just how dire our mission truly is, for these expansive creatures wish to free their presumptive monarch as desperately as we do.
From the vantage point of being ten feet below the hull of the ship, I am now able to read the glyphs which were unfamiliar to the juvenile submariner at my side. At once I understand exactly why what appears to be a mere merchant vessel flying multinational flags is armed with a Kryptonite ray gun. That 'arrow' the boy had described is actually a stylized 'L' which put a name on the source of our mutual troubles: Lexcorp.
So far undetected, I decide to take this opportunity for an advance strike. Using my x-ray vision, I search through the triple-strength steel plating along the hull, through to the superstructure and beyond the bulkheads to find the engine room. Targeting the twin turbines, I aim straight for them with a thin beam of my own natural infrared vision. After focusing upon them for a matter of seconds, the engines make a disturbing clanking sound and groan loudly as if being rent from within; they then whir to a jarring halt. That megalomaniacal louse, the follicly-challenged Lex Luthor, founder of Lexcorp, assumed himself prepared for the eventuality of my arrival at some point in our unhappily shared history with that death-ray cannon of his. His persistent cockiness will be his downfall this time since he has neglected to line this ship with the one metal through which I can't see: lead.
Swimming to the right aft of this floating behemoth, I lift Aqualad into my arms, directing him to tightly wrap his arms and legs around my torso while I protectively knot my cape around him and cover his head to shield him. From a floating position five feet above the waterline, we begin our assault upon Aquaman's captors. I extend both arms to use my fingertips as a makeshift drill, spinning my body at a suitable 'speed multiplied by force' ratio to create an opening through which we can pass. Once inside, I release the surprisingly giddy lad, finding that I have to hold him up momentarily as I survey the contents of the cargo hold in which we find ourselves.
"Holy halibut, Superman...that was wicked fun!" the youngster gushes, his head still spinning from our impersonation of a pneumatic drill. "That was a way better ride than the water slide the whales made. I'd partner up with you any time if I could try that again!"
Ahhhh, the resilience of youth. Tousling his hair, I reply, "You've been so brave about all of this that I'm going to take you as my guest to Palisades Park so that you can enjoy the thrill rides, if that's OK with Aquaman. Back to business, though. Think you can remember on which level you and Arthur were being held?"
He doesn't even hesitate. "Oh yes, sir...it was on the level just below the main deck. There is a steep stairwell which leads from the bulwark to an area near the forward cargo hatch with holding cells to either side of it. The examining room from which I escaped is at the stern of the same corridor. There are cameras mounted every few feet along the row of cells and the monitoring room is housed in the fo'c's'le."
Being about as familiar with nautical terms as a prairie snake in Saskatchewan is with penguins, I'll have to trust my diminutive pal here with leading us in the right direction. His enhanced olfactory organs being equal in fine tuning to mine, both of us quickly pick up on a scent we recognize as belonging to Aquaman. We skulk quietly forward along a dank inside hallway until we find a glaring light ahead which indicates we've found the main corridor. True to what Aqualad had remembered, the room to our left is indeed equipped with the toys of some medically-trained malcontent: An x-ray machine, Magnetic Resonance Imaging equipment, a laser ray surgical instrument, an Electrocardiograph and a severe-looking gurney complete with rubber-coated chain restraints, a thick leather harness and a mouth guard which looked more like the bit from a horse's bridle. Aware of the horrors visited upon Aqualad by some lunatic in this room, I become again queasy from the mere sight of it.
Currently, the makeshift examination room is dimly lit and empty, so it presents no threat to us, unlike the hallway we are about to enter. Aqualad halts my motion with a gentle tug on my arm, silently indicating the position of the four cameras mounted in the corridor ahead of us. I crane my head just far enough around the corner to allow me to view the cameras and take them out with a faster-than-a speeding-bullet flash of my heat vision.
"Arthur!" Aqualad gasps in a stifled whisper as we approach a cell in which the Sea Monarch is restrained by multiple harnesses against the bars at the back of it. The boy's towheaded mentor barely lifts his heavy eyelids but grunts an acknowledgment, still groggy and weak from an earlier physical assault, a lack of nutrition and, most importantly, prolonged deprivation of life-giving water. "I brought Superman to help you, Arthur. He will set you free."
Those hopeful words trigger a rapid series of events which tick off like the heavy hands of a timepiece counting down precious seconds: I use my infrared vision to sever the restraints holding Aquaman. He then slumps to the floor with a heavy thud, free but unable to function. I shift my attention to the twin mortice locks on the gated door keeping my teammate captive. Before I am able to generate enough heat-vision to melt the first mechanism, I am again hit by a sudden wave of nausea and excruciating pain which rips through my veins like shards of jagged glass. Aqualad screeches as he is lurched away from my side, slammed to the concrete slab flooring and assailed by two towering goons four times his size, both of whom he handily volleys aside, slamming them against opposing sides of the cabin. Unfortunately, the one on the right is able to recover fast enough to grab an electric cattle prod which he jabs against the boy hero's spine to goad him into submission.
"I am sure, my aquarium stock additions, that the alien here would be happy to annoy us all once again with his tiresome show of paltry theatrics," sneers a voice tainted by contempt with undercurrents of rage and self-assumed superiority. Unable to raise my head, I am nonetheless aware that the speaker is Lex Luthor, scourge of Metropolis business, political and underworld circles alike and my mortal enemy. "Your savior seems rather preoccupied with his own mortality right now, an event I hope to celebrate in short order."
Using his foot as if nudging away something distasteful, Luthor forces the now restrained Aqualad to face him by ramming the flat of it against the boy's groin, shoving him onto his side. "You declined my hospitality earlier on, fish boy," he hisses like a sea snake at the writhing child. "Your rudeness would hurt my feelings, were I to have any where you are concerned. Since I don't generally equate feelings to dumb animals, I will chalk it up to experience and return you to confinement. Any more ill-behavior on your part and the gentlemen who flank you will guarantee that you will regret it for a long time to come...or at least until such time that you expire at our hands."
"You can do what you want to me, but stop hurting Superman!" the boy pleads of Luthor. "It's my fault he is here, so punish me, not him. I will stay and do whatever you ask of me, sir, if only you'd set Aquaman and Superman free. Please let them go!"
"Unlikely, but I do appreciate the polite touch," Luthor says as he pretends to mull over the request. "Far too many people tend to neglect the niceties and the power of 'please' and 'thank you' these days. Sadly, your offer is hollow, my little goldfish, since I already have you under my control and the release of these two will just disrupt my operations even further. I prefer the current arrangement, thank you just the same."
"They...are human...beings, Luthor," I wheeze, my lungs heaving and limbs as weighty as oak logs, my words syncopated as I find it more and more difficult to breath. "They are not lab rats you can experiment on at your will. You have no right to hold them here."
Each moment Luthor's henchmen holds that Kryptonite ray on me magnifies the unspeakable pain coursing through my body, yet all I can do is focus upon the angelic face of the mortified Aqualad whose hopes for saving his friend and mentor have just been dashed to the rocks along with any prayers for his own survival or mine. His eyes narrow to a glare of pure disgust as Luthor responds to me with another taunt.
"As usual, you are quite wrong, alien," he chides me with a scolding shake of his head. "These creatures are no more human than you are; like you, they only mirror the appearance of humans. They are served by no recognized government, there are no treaties which protect them and no political body lobbies for them. My ship is anchored in international waters and, like every other sea creature beyond coastal limits, these two are free to be captured and treated as I see fit. As it happens, I see fit to examine these fascinating specimens and document their unique physical functions."
"Since when are you so fascinated by Atlantean physiology, Luthor?" I ask, my strength ebbing to an all-time low, merely buying time in hopes of a miracle.
"I have underwater mining and drilling interests ten miles below the surface of the Atlantic," he advises, a knowing smirk cheering on my weakening countenance. "It is an operation which is constantly hampered by the ill-effects of the prolonged exposure of my men to the pressures of the depths and the isolation of their cramped, airtight equipment capsules. Studying the unusually complicated physique of the younger of these two specimens has allowed my scientists to begin to understand why these pseudo-homo sapiens are able to exist by syphoning oxygen through their pours and a crude system of gills. We were perplexed as to why they are able to withstand the tons of ocean pressure upon their bodies without an exoskeleton or reinforced outerwear or how they speak to each other through water molecules and telepathically communicate with lower orders of sea life. We have made some amazing discoveries."
I look on with abject revulsion as a menacing Luthor indicates to the two men holding Aqualad to hoist him onto his feet. Once upright, Luthor draws back his right arm, balls his fist and punches the boy squarely in the chest, causing him to buckle at the knees, supported only by the hands of the ruffians at either side of him. My head and heart reel at the image.
"You see, Superman," Luthor aims his voice over his shoulder, "if this creature's heart was where it would be on a human being, that blow would have stopped it cold. To our astonishment, these humanoid's hearts are fixed at the back of their bodies and in an upside-down position in the same area where the human kidneys would be found. Striking this...thing...as I just did might have ruptured its appendix, though we are not quite sure it possesses one, but the expected damage did not happen. We believe that the abnormal placement of internal organs might well be one of the factors which enables these extraordinary creatures to survive in such a frigid and crushing habitat."
With a callousness so vile that I am sure to have nightmares about it for years to come, Luthor yanks forward an anguished Aqualad by the scruff of his neck and speaks to him insultingly slowly, so close to the boy's face as to leave beads of steam on his freckled nose. "Now, my young guppy," he threatens his captive, "Messrs. Smith and Jones here will escort you back to the examining room to continue your service to me. Should you make any further attempts to leave this vessel, I will instruct Doctors Mallard and Drake to sever your Achilles' tendons. You so-called Atlanteans claim to have descended from the Greeks, so I'll assume that you know what happened to that mighty warrior of lore when that nasty little tendon was clipped by Paris' arrow. I promise you that despite your feeble attempts to rise to some semblance of humanity, The Fates don't have anything better in store for you than they did for poor, brave Achilles."
Released from Luthor's rough grasp, Aqualad's head hangs lower still, his violet orbs vacant, defeat draining his youthful optimism as his tormentor's deprecating words cut a deep swath of self-loathing across his soul. It is at that moment that I hear a low rumbling coming from the cell in which Aquaman awaits aid, his debilitated frame left to drag itself across the floor toward the barred door.
"Belay your noxious prattle, brutal bottom feeder!" the King commands of Luthor through tightly gritted teeth. "You are woefully without the honor or humanity you claim to prize, a fact which will be your ultimate undoing."
Without turning to his vanquished partner, the Monarch Of The Seas exacts a final demand of him. "Concentrate, Minnow!" The command is issued and, despite the boy's condition, the expectation is that his liege's will shall be obeyed. "Reach out to our friends. They will help us if we can get a telepathic message to them. We can do this together. Now!"
A titanic lurch of the ship sends the Kryptonite ray gun flying out of the hand of Luthor's third cohort while his boss and the two men holding Aqualad are flung against the frame of the bulkhead door to our left. Waves of sea water splash into the hold from the deck above, having the twin benefits of nearly drowning our enemies while at the same time revitalizing my Atlantean friends. The ship rocks back and forth, making it impossible for Luthor's men to do anything save grasp for whatever bolted-down objects are within reach. This buys me time to recover from Kryptonite poisoning as, more slowly than I'd prefer, I feel my power levels slowly on the rise. Again focusing on the mortice locks, I liquify them in a heartbeat, their molten metal left to drip down the bars on the door and sizzle upon hitting the soggy concrete flooring. At last, Aquaman is free and he is more furious than it is healthy for any man to be.
"What in the world was that?" I ask as I gather myself up from the slab below me. "It felt as if we hit an iceberg."
Aquaman dusts himself off with a minimum of strokes and offers a hand up to me, his golden tresses and orange tunic shimmering like polished chain mail exposed to the dappled light coming from the aperture of the cargo hatch above. "I told the whales to ram the ship so that the oaf bent upon killing you would falter," the Sea King speaks, his authoritative tone tempered with disdain in like kind to Luthor's venomous contempt. "The boy beseeched the denizens of the deep, as is his way, to save the life of their sovereign, while I ordered them, as is my way, to do whatever damage necessary to sink this cursed vessel and send it to the bottom of the ocean. Once again, Tadpole," he adds, redirecting his remarks for his protege's edification, "you'll notice that my method is more effective."
As our eyes turn toward the boy, we are again reminded that the unmitigated determination of Lex Luthor is never something to take for granted, for this master criminal has not given up hope of regaining the upper hand. He stands, feet firmly planted and back against the wall, with an eight inch scalpel pressed firmly into the kneeling Aqualad's throat. "These damnable humanoids may not have similar internal organs to humans," he sneers in my direction, puffing away as sea water splashes all around us, "but I'm betting that this brat has a jugular vein which is just as precious to his continued existence as is anyone else's. Now back off, the both of you, or I'll turn this youngling into a pin cushion."
"That would be redundant of you, brute!" Aquaman heckles Luthor as he continues to walk toward the pair, the dense molecular structure of his weighty muscles allowing him to maintain contact with the floor while the humans present can only float. "Whether the boy lives or dies, your reign of terror on the high seas ends now."
Could Arthur really be so callous about the safety of his ward that he would dare Luthor to kill him? I'm not waiting to find out. Still shaky but moderately reenergized, I refuse to take any chances with that child's life and use my heat-vision to roast the metal surgical tool in Luthor's hand. The searing burn, about equal to wrapping one's hand around a fire-red briquet, forces Luthor to release his weapon as well as our young charge. Just as he attempts to flee for the stairs leading to the upper deck, a second salvo of pounding assaults the ship from the starboard side, sending another volatile wave of water into the hold. I lose sight of Luthor as the bodies of his drowned henchmen wash past his scurrying feet.
"My telepathic instructions were unable to penetrate the ship's fortified hull to reach my subjects until you created the opening through which you entered," Aquaman informed me as he lifts his exhausted protege into his arms. Wordless but justly appreciative, the boy wraps his arms tightly around his mentor's neck, grateful to feel some modicum of safety once again.
Luthor's wildly lurching rogue freighter steadily sinks beneath our feet as Aquaman spies the hatchway above to make our exit. "I shall have to consider a way to circumvent a repeat of this scenario in the future for I will not be made a captive of the surface-dwellers again. Far too many of your villainous scum have ready access to seagoing devices, allowing them to plunder our oceans. I don't want your filthy miscreants spewing over into my waters. With three-fourths of this planet to protect, I assure you that I have enough on my hands without doing your job as well. The villain Luthor has escaped but I take it that you have surmised this."
I can hear the beating blades of a heli-jet, already aware that this signals Luthor's retreat and that of his surviving henchmen. "Lex Luthor can't run away far or fast enough that I can't catch him long before he reaches the mainland, Arthur," I assure him, admittedly a bit stung by his rebuke of my crime fighting skills. "He will be dealt with, this time most likely by the international maritime courts, given the arena he used to render his attack upon you two."
The superstructure of the ship creaks a loud death cry, the lower decks now filled with sea water, the weight of which drags the massive vessel ever further toward the ocean floor. I lift the aquatic pair out through the hatch and land with them atop an obliging whale awaiting the next command of its sovereign.
"Atlanteans have come to expect inaction, derision and an unfathomable lack of empathy and consideration from your world's legal and governmental bodies, Superman," I am reminded by a scolding Aquaman as we watch the prow of Luthor's despicable seagoing laboratory swiftly and silently sink below the surface. "I expect nothing to come of this, any more than our demands that your world government intercedes to stop Luthor from undermining the foundations of our undersea cities with his mining operations. It is obvious that we of the oceans will have to protect ourselves by whatever means necessary. You have just witnessed first hand the kind of savagery your kind are capable of visiting upon our people. Mere weeks ago, a similar criminal element kidnapped eight Atlanteans, enslaving them in a marine amusement park for the sick enjoyment of their paying customers. In exchange for our men's freedom, I was forced to bound Aqualad into servitude in their places while I sought other means to sate the greed of those money mad criminals. The boy was coerced into performing dangerous stunts hour after hour with no care for his safety. The scurvy dogs treated our people worse than any animal and bragged that they had never made so much money. Just what will your courts do to bring justice to us for these atrocities and so much else that's been done unto them? Nothing."
Aquaman's rage is tangible and his revelations leave me shuddering. The Daily Planet covered that 'Maritime Cavalcade' show at the Wharf Stadium for our entertainment section, completely unaware that its child performer was a mistreated captive. Truly ashamed of the vision of the human race these Atlanteans know all too well, I must still fulfill my role as peacemaker.
"As the ruler of your realm," I address Aquaman, "you should come before the United Nations and plead your case to the World Court in The Hague. You must understand that most humans around the planet regard Atlantis as a myth, but the world can't continue to ignore you if you step forward into the light of day and publicly air your grievances. As a reporter, I can help by covering your story and presenting it to the public."
The King is not impressed. His voice is salty, cold and forceful, bellowing like an echo magnified through a conch shell. "After what you've heard and seen this day, can you look into the face of this boy and say that his life matters one jot to you land-dwellers? Can you swear that your people care what happens to any of us who call the seas our home, or will you merely fly away and file this as yet another case of the corporate big fish who got away?"
"Arthur, it's not Superman's fault," a drained Aqualad pleads. "He's not like them; he's on our side."
"Silence, Minnow!" is his guardian's caustic retort. "If you are strong enough to talk, you are strong enough to walk," Aquaman abruptly adds as he deposits his young charge onto his feet, casting a reproachful glance at him. "Superman is enough like them that they accept him as an equal while we who are from the same planet are dealt with as alien beings or the fodder of tall tales. There are only two sides in this fight: The way of the dusty, arid land and the way of Mother Ocean."
I look to Aquaman's young aide, his arms tightly wrapped around Arthur's waist. The boy is dwarfed by the sheer size and stature of his mentor as he patiently clings to him for support. "My promise is to you, Aqualad," I begin, unsure of what words I can conjure which can convey my sincerity. "I pledge that I will do all in my power to bring Luthor and his kind to justice. As you have already found in your young life, fighting for justice is a never-ending battle but it is a cause to which I have taken a solemn oath. I can maintain my vigil knowing that I have two such stalwart heroes equally dedicated to this cause who guard at such great risk our maritime channels and open seas. I am humbled by your sacrifice and vow to earn your trust."
The boy looks up at Arthur and then turns back to me. "I believe you, Superman," Aqualad offers with a reassuring nod, cowlick waggling and a beguiling smile gracing his lips. "Thank you, sir, for saving us. I trust you with my life and that of my friends. It was my honor to serve you."
The very fact that this star-crossed child is willing to pledge his loyalty to me after the horrors which have befallen him by the hand of man fills me with hope. As I take to the skies, I call out to Arthur one final time, leveling a warning with which even he can't argue. "You take care of that little fellow," I warn him. "He is a rose among the briars with a heart more pure than gold."
An enigmatic pair of aquatic heroes salute me as they prepare to leave. Their whale conveyance flexes her fins and fluke and she announces their departure with a last gust of water from her blowhole. Her regal charges disappear below the teaming waves and fade from view.
Reclining in bed after a long, difficult day, I have just filed my report and secured the front page headline of tomorrow morning's edition of the Daily Planet. The 'most trusted source for news in Metropolis' will deliver an exclusive on the Lex Luthor story as covered by intrepid reporter Clark Kent. By the time it hits print, the facts will have been moderately censored and heavily distorted by our Editor-In-Chief, being that Luthor built half of Metropolis and likely holds the deed to the rest of it. The dedicated Mr. White, in his role as guardian of the public trust, will also strip away any and all references to 'Atlanteans' having been menaced, being that, in Perry's words, 'as a well-respected major metropolitan newspaper, we are not in the business of validating the existence of leprechauns, little green men, The Tooth Fairy nor mermaids.' Aquaman may be right but I'll be hard-pressed to admit it to him.
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