Tuesday, May 24, 2016

The Undersea World Of Mr. Freeze

I may be prouder of this than I have any right to be.  In the 1970s, when I used to fill notebooks with vague notions of things I wanted to write, one of my ideas was for a story in The Brave And The Bold, a DC Comics title that teamed Batman with different guest-stars from the DC Universe.  At the time, it never got past the title:  Batman and Aquaman in "The Undersea World Of Mr. Freeze."  Many years later, I wrote a quick prose version of the story and posted it in a comics discussion group.  I liked the way it turned out, and figured I'd return to it someday and flesh it out.  Now, I have.

I don't think there's any current commercial market for short-form Batman prose fiction; if Warner were still publishing Batman short story collections, I'd submit this in a heartbeat.  In my mind, I can see illustrations by the late Jim Aparo, intermingling with my over-the-top purple pulp prose.  I can't begin to tell you how much fun this was to write. If you're a fan of Bronze Age DC Comics, and any of this makes you think of Steve Englehart or Denny O'Neil, then I did my job.

All characters are copyright DC Comics.  Batman created by Bob Kane with Bill Finger.  Aquaman created by Paul Norris. Poseidon's Labyrinth is all me. 

Snow fell heavily on Gotham City, a white blanket that covered all without concealing the grit and grime beneath it.  As even the snow itself was engulfed by the dark shadows of Gotham's twilight, the city's denizens of night came out to play...and to prey.

At Gotham's docks--never the safest part of town, even at high noon on a sunny, summer day--the evening shroud of darkness further emboldens its scavengers, its predators...the lawless, amoral element who break the law and victimize the weak, the good, and the innocent impartially.  Criminals. Gotham's greatest citizen knows them well:  a superstitious, cowardly lot.  They think themselves fierce and mighty, fearless, beyond the reach of the law. But they fear him. Oh, how they fear him.

On this evening, a family from out of town--from some faraway place that was safer, saner--found itself separated from its tour group.  The man, the woman, and their young son, all of them so far removed from any familiar surrounding, blundered into the wrong place at the wrong time, the worst time.  Already nervous, scared, they were surrounded without warning.  The chill air of the docks was nothing compared to the cold dread that gripped them as a gang of five thugs circled them, demanding money, demanding tribute, demanding blind terror, laughing and scowling at this poor family's plight. The mother clutched her son. The father did his best to shield his loved ones from harm, and to surrender his wallet to these assailants, but knowing with sick certainty that would not be enough to satisfy these four evil men.

Wait.  Four evil men?  Hadn't there just been five of them?

With a gurgled scream, that fifth attacker crumpled to the pavement, bruised and beaten, entering a long, painful slumber that could not be described as the sleep of the just.  His four companions exchanged a miserable glance through the glittering, grimy snow--they knew. They'd lived in Gotham long enough to know, and to abandon hope.  They would resist.  They would fight.  But their battle was already lost.

A phantom of black and gray moved among them, striking too quickly to be real.  Two more fell to the ground, their weapons scattered, their bodies wracked with pain.  Another tried to run, but stopped short as a black-gloved hand reached out from nowhere, gripped his throat like a vise, and then a black fist sent him into unconsciousness as well.

Only one of the thugs remained.  Still armed with a knife, buoyed by the false bravado of his own desperation, the criminal lurched toward the boy and his mother, seeking hostages.  It was the stupidest thing he had ever down in his misspent life.  For now, he had drawn the ire, the anger, of this relentless wraith of vengeance.

His weapon was gone before he knew it.  His intended victims were beyond his reach, before he knew it. He stood alone, face to terrible masked face, with the cold fury of The Batman!

The last thug fainted.  It was a mercy he did not deserve.

With the brief battle over, The Batman's grim stance shifted, softened.  He turned his attention to the family he'd rescued.  No longer a figure of swift and merciless justice, The Batman transformed into an angel of mercy, tending to this family, making sure they were unharmed, unafraid.  He knew, firsthand, the awful cost criminals could inflict upon a family. More than anything else he ever did--more than solving the evil conundrums posed by The Joker or The Riddler, or the coy charade he played with The Catwoman, and even more than saving the universe itself alongside his friends in the Justice League of America--The Batman had dedicated himself to protecting the innocent.  He remembered well the ache of innocence lost.  He became The Batman to prevent that sort of loss, to make sense of the senseless, whenever and wherever he could.

The distant wail of sirens drew closer--help was on the way.  As The Batman looked up into the cold, dark Gotham sky, he saw the symbol that horrified criminals and gave a light to those that needed light in a blackened, brutal city:  The Bat-Signal.  Commissioner Gordon had summoned him.  His work here at the docks was done for now.  Evil had been vanquished, its perpetrators taken into custody, their intended victims now safe and sound with the help of arriving police and EMS workers.  The Batman disappeared into the snowy night.
In the undersea realm of Atlantis, the royal family's mood was sad, brooding, a simmering cauldron of pain and regret.  It had been three years--three years to the day--since that horrible moment that the mighty king and queen of Atlantis would never forget--a stinging memory they could never escape.

Arthur, Jr.  Little Arthur had been the only child of Aquaman and Mera, a healthy, happy child that admiring fans on the surface world--delighting in the legend of this Camelot beneath the waves, and its fabled First Family--had nicknamed "Aquababy."  Only three years ago. Three years gone already.

There is no comfort in knowing, with absolute precision, when was the worst day of your life. You can shudder and pray that an even worse day never comes, but that offers no solace, no succor.  You can only cling tight to those who remain, to those you love, and beg the fates for the strength to endure.

Three years, damn it.  Aquaman and Mera held each other close, and mourned their loss yet again.

Their adviser Vulko appeared at the doorway.  He did not want to disturb his lieges in this private moment of sorrow, but he knew he must.  My king, my queen, said Vulko.  It is time.
At police headquarters, Jim Gordon knew The Batman would answer his call for help.  Gordon knew that The Batman would appear suddenly and silently on the rooftop, and Gordon wouldn't even be aware of Batman's approach and arrival, no matter how much Gordon thought he was prepared for it.  One second, Gordon was alone, or at least thought he was alone.  A second later, he was speaking with The Batman.

It's Freeze, said Gordon.  He has visitors at Arkham, and they're asking to see you there, as well. And Batman, Gordon paused. searching for the right words.  One of the visitors is a friend of yours.  With a few more hurried words of explanation, the conversation was ended. The Batman vanished once more, leaving Gordon in mid-sentence.  Alone on the rooftop. Again.
Arkham Asylum was Hell, perhaps literally.  Designed as a hospital for the criminally insane, Arkham seemed an earthly counterpart of Dante's Inferno, a desolate place of misery, despair...and madness. Its freakish inhabitants never had any hope to abandon in the first place. Killers. Monsters.  Madmen.  And, worst of all, a laughing maniac whose clownlike visage haunted the nightmares of all who had ever met him.  If they were lucky enough to survive the meeting.

But The Joker was silent this night; he hadn't been sedated--the staff at Arkham knew from dreadful, repeated experience that their medications had no effect whatsoever on the insane harlequin--but in a self-imposed catatonic state.  It was nothing new.  The Joker often withdrew into the murky labyrinth of his own demented psyche, no doubt plotting yet another crazed scheme that could only make sense to him, and to him alone.  The Scarecrow whimpered in the corner of his cell, the master of fear ironically consumed by terror himself.  The Penguin simmered with sheer anger.  The Mad Hatter smiled sweetly.  Poison Ivy licked her lips, and preened and pouted, writhing seductively.  Tweedledum and Tweedledee bickered.  Two-Face, deprived of his trademark coin, paced nervously, undecided.  False Face, as always, protested his incarceration, insisting that The Batman had captured the wrong man.

The Batman moved past them all, unseen.  No one had let him into Arkham's secure facility. No one ever had to "let" The Batman in anywhere.

In a central office, deeper within Arkham's recesses, a petty bureaucrat complained that he was done wasting time, sick of waiting for that masked vigilante, The Batman.  The Batman resisted the temptation to actually say Boo! to this tin-plated blowhard; The Batman's characteristically sudden appearance nonetheless silenced the mouse in mid-roar.  The Batman had already surveyed the room, and identified all of its occupants:

City Councilman Arthur Reeves, a vain, egotistical nothing who valued red tape above human accomplishment; not an evil man, but not a good man, either.

Lois Lane, a fiery-mannered reporter for that great metropolitan newspaper, The Daily Planet, in Metropolis.  They had a mutual friend.  Lane was one of the most capable, most courageous people The Batman had ever met.

Colonel Steve Trevor, an Army veteran and United Nations liaison, a man whose bravery and unerring moral compass had earned The Batman's respect.  They also had a mutual friend.

Dr. Marshall Englehart, acting interim director of Arkham during a prolonged investigation that had ensnared the facility's permanent management.  The Batman had only met him twice, but had been impressed with Englehart's compassion and skill in a thankless job.

Aquaman.  One of the most physically powerful individuals on the planet.  His status as the ruler of the sovereign nation of Atlantis further made him one of the most diplomatically powerful individuals on the planet.  The so-called King of the Seven Seas could accomplish nearly anything he wanted.  He and The Batman had been friends and allies for many years, since the formation of the Justice League of America, though they had also, upon occasion, been on opposite sides of a dispute.  The Batman suspected that might be the case again this evening.

And there was one other present:  an Arkham prisoner in a refrigerated holding cell. This was Victor Fries, aka Mr. Freeze, a supervillain whose tragic history did nothing at all to ameliorate the brutality of his crimes against the citizens of Gotham.

The Batman needed no reminder of Mr. Freeze's story.  Victor Fries had been a scientist, deeply in love with his wife Nora.  When a fatal disease was poised to take Nora's life, Fries developed a unique freezing process to preserve her until he could find a cure. But Fries' compassion for his wife did not extend to others, as Fries committed violent crimes to fund his research and experiments. An accident turned Fries himself into a frozen freak, incapable of surviving at anything greater than subzero temperature.  He developed a unique cryogenic suit to preserve himself, and a weapon to generate deadly freezing force.  Nora's own subsequent death further turned Fries' heart to ice. Mr. Freeze had murdered dozens of innocents in the coldest of cold blood.

And The Batman knew:  these people were planning to set Freeze free.
Aquaman spoke:

Seven seas, and seven crystals.  Atlantean legend tells us of seven mystic crystals, scattered and hidden by the god Poseidon in the deepest, darkest depths of Earth's oceans.  And it is foretold that on one precise day, at one precise moment, the crystals can be assembled together and frozen together by a powerful force beyond nature or magic.  In that moment, Heaven will open to accept Earth.  The dead will live again--all lost souls restored--and the whole world will enter into an eternity of peace and harmony.  All sins will be forgiven.  All of the people of the world will be reunited with their departed loved ones, all living in peace, now and forevermore.

That moment is two days from now.  I will assemble the crystals.  Mr. Freeze will supply the cryogenic force I need.

Atlantean legend is fact.  I know this to be true.  This is not a matter of faith, but a matter of things as they really are.  I have seen enough to verify that.

I am done with mourning.  I am through accepting my loss.  I have the ability to set things right, and the will to see this through.  The matter is decided.

Arguments ensued.  But Aquaman was correct:  the matter had already been decided.  The American government, wary of needlessly tempting the ire of the King of Antlantis, was grudgingly wiling to cooperate, and to allow the Atlantean head of state to extradite Mr. Freeze.  Aquaman apologized to his caped friend; the king had asked The Batman to be here, but only as a courtesy.  Mr. Freeze was freed from his cell, and placed into Aquaman's custody.

Free at last, Mr. Freeze addressed the assembled parties, from the weasel Reeves to his hated foe, The Batman.  We share tragedy, Freeze said, his tone as cold and dead as it always was.  Perhaps we share nothing else, nothing at all in this empty world.  Freeze did not actually grin; it was but a trick of the light. But that we do share.  That we all share. Perhaps, he paused, noticing within himself an unfamiliar sensation; Freeze felt the warmth of hope.  Perhaps now is the time that we can alter our fate.

And, with that, the plan commenced.

In Atlantis, Mera dealt with unrest.  The Cult of Poseidon--a devout sect of religious extremists--had learned of the king's plan to fulfill the ancient prophecy:  to unite the crystals and freeze them together, to raise the dead, but with the help of an unclean surface dweller!  Heresy!  Foul, unholy heresy!  A mad cleric rallied his supporters to overthrow the absent king and his consort, but Mera's own fantastic powers were more than sufficient to thwart the attempted rebellion.  Aided by Aqualad and the Atlantean Royal Guard, Mera routed the cleric and his cadre of militants, but were unable to prevent their escape.
The Batman returned to his cave.  To prepare.  And to brood.
Poseidon's Labyrinth was the key.  An impossible, instantaneous portal to all points under the sea, Poseidon's Labyrinth was a path fraught with peril, from an unknown location hidden from all.  Even if one could locate this fabled path, none but the strongest--the bravest and the boldest--could ever hope to navigate its deadly course.

But this world has never known an individual stronger, braver, or bolder than Aquaman, the king of the seven seas.

Atlantean technology allowed Mr. Freeze to accompany the sea king into the darkest depths of the ocean, able to withstand the crushing pressure, to breathe without air, and to navigate this strange terrain as surely as if he were stalking a victim in Gotham City.   The location of Poseidon's Labyrinth--an unsolved mystery since the dawn of time--was no mystery at all to Aquaman, whose unparalleled knowledge of all Earth's oceans (combined, one might guess, with a thing or two he may have learned about the art of deduction from a dark-cloaked ally in the Justice League) led this disparate duo to Poseidon's Labyrinth within a day's trek.

The defenses of Poseidon's Labyrinth?  The demonic guards, the intricate deathtraps, the impenetrable, impossible maze itself?  Aquaman and Mr. Freeze passed through them all, fiercely and confidently, and ultimately with the apparent ease of a surface child passing through a wave of bubbles on a warm spring day.  And now, they stood at the center of Poseidon's Labyrinth:  a massive world within a world, a cavernous land beneath the top of our planet, and beneath the bottom of the ocean.  Its vistas stretched farther than any eye could see, and extended beyond that to...everywhere.  Everywhere!  It was here that the world's new fate would be decided.  Aquaman turned to Freeze and gave the order:

This is your undersea world, Freeze. This is where we set things right.
The experiment seemed on the verge of success; even the dread Batman, watching from far away via video screen in his own subterranean lair, was willing to see where this seemingly mad plan of Aquaman and Mr. Freeze plan would take them.  In Freeze's undersea world beneath the Arctic Circle, the atmosphere was tense, expectant--cautious in its optimism, unsure whether hope was a leap worth taking, or a bottomless chasm waiting for all to fall within, lost forever.

Mera had joined her husband in the Labyrinth.  Aquaman had assembled the crystals.  For thousands of years, the seven crystals had remained hidden from mortal view, their very existence a thing of legend:  mystic crystals that could restore the lives of loved ones taken too soon. But nothing in all of the world's oceans could remain a secret from the King of the Seven Seas.  Aquaman had dared the perils of Poseidon's Labyrinth, with none other than Mr. Freeze at his side.  Ironic that Mr.Freeze, an evil scientist who had done so much harm in the past, now stood poised to be Aquaman's salvation--and perhaps the salvation of all the world, as well.

Life restored!  Freeze understood.  Hadn't he lost his own beloved wife, unfairly, unacceptably? He became the frozen scourge of Gotham City to seek vengeance, but what if he used his knowledge, his power, to seek redemption instead?  Might he even be allowed to once again gaze upon Nora's face, to hold her hand, to feel her embrace?  Might even the notorious Mr. Freeze be allowed...a second chance?

Freeze focused his device upon the seven crystals.  The frigid force of his formerly terrible weapon caused the crystals to shake, vibrate, shimmer and, slowly, to expand and glow.  Shapes began to form before the assembled crowd--teasing, immaterial shades at first, but soon the shapes solidified, became more defined and definite.  And all saw someone familiar taking shape.

Poseidon's Labyrinth had linked the undersea world of Mr. Freeze with undersea sites all over the world, each separated by thousands of miles but still mere steps away through the magic of Poseidon's Labyrinth.  In Sub Diego, survivors of that city's cataclysm saw family members and friends, lovers, children, all taken from them when the disaster hit greater San Diego, now seemingly alive, returned to them via the strange combination of Mr. Freeze's science and the magic of the crystals.

In fabled Atlantis, Aqualad stared unbelieving as his love Tula, who'd perished defending Atlantis during the Crisis, smiled at him and moved forward for a kiss.  The effects were felt in the surface world, as well, as specters of the past became present.  In rural Kansas, an elderly couple named Kent blinked at the once-familiar sight of sunlight shining on the Smallville farm where they had lived, and loved, and passed away; on the outskirts of Gotham, a husband-and-wife team of trapeze artists, The Flying Graysons, picked themselves off the dusty ground where'd they'd met their sudden violent end years before. Even in the heavens themselves, in a distant solar system, a planet that had once circled a giant red sun--a planet long gone--began its impossible return to the realm of the living.

In Freeze's stronghold, the process was nearly complete.  Nora was there, gaining form, beaming at Mr. Freeze and delighting in his redemption.  And Aquaman and Mera, speechless, wept with transcendent joy to once again gaze upon their infant son, Arthur, Jr. These were not illusions, not clones or recreations, but loved ones actually--miraculously!--returned to the living.  Freeze had triumphed!

An explosion made the triumph short-lived.

Using Poseidon's Labyrinth as his own conduit, the renegade Atlantean cleric and his cult of supporters suddenly rushed into Freeze's undersea world.  Screaming at Freeze for his heresy, both in defying death and for defiling Poseidon's mystic crystals, the cult scattered the crystals. Aquaman and Mera responded in kind, valiantly seeking to repel the invaders, while Mr. Freeze sought desperately to maintain the cryogenic force needed to complete his work with the crystals.  His resurrected souls began to fade.  Feverishly, he sought to replace the crystals in their precise locations. But, with a frenzied blow, the mad cleric broke free of the mighty Aquaman, and destroyed one of the crystals.

The good people of Sub Diego shrieked as one. Aqualad felt his soul die again, along with his soulmate.  The returned were all lost again.  Nora was gone.  Arthur, Jr. was gone.

Gone, too, was Mr. Freeze's interest in redemption.

With the cold stare familiar to many of his victims in Gotham, Mr. Freeze turned his weapon on the mad cleric.  The cleric's blood froze instantly; he barely had time to realize his own life was forfeit before a blow from Mr. Freeze shattered his body to icy pieces.  The cleric's followers were next, all dispatched to a frigid hell before Aquaman and Mera could voice an objection.  If they would have objected at all.

But now Mr. Freeze's cold fury would expand beyond his undersea world.  Sub Diego would perish.  Atlantis would die.  All of the world's oceans would become the icy domain of Mr. Freeze.

Even while consumed with his own grief, Aquaman would not allow that.

As Mera commanded hard water forces to pummel Mr. Freeze, Aquaman summoned the mightiest creatures of the depths to subdue his recent ally.  There isn't much in all of the world that could hope to withstand the unleashed power of the Sea King, but Freeze struck directly at Mera, felling her; Aquaman's concern for his wife overcame his own tactical sense, and soon both Aquaman and Mera lay at the feet of the mad Mr. Freeze, with nothing to save them, or the oceans, or the world.

But something odd, unexpected occurred. As Mr. Freeze prepared a killing stroke that would finally remove Aquaman and Mera from his path permanently, his beloved Nora came into his mind.  Nora...!  So close, yet never to be seen again.  Freeze looked down with sadness at his foes, and thought of their love for each other, and again of his love for Nora.  A tiny flicker of warmth yet remained in the frozen felon's dead heart.  There would be other days.  Perhaps he would still freeze the entire ocean, or perhaps he'd return to Gotham and put the hated Batman on ice first.  It didn't matter.  Nothing really mattered.  He would have his revenge served cold.  But he didn't care to have it tonight.

As Aquaman slowly stirred, he saw Mr. Freeze withdraw.  By the time Aquaman and Mera had recovered, Freeze was gone, untraceable, vanished in Poseidon's Labyrinth with all entrances frozen fast behind him.
Watching on a video screen in the Batcave, The Batman had observed it all, helpless to intervene, unable even to investigate the veracity of what he thought he'd seen, as images of his own parents had appeared before him.  So close, yet never to be seen again.  We share tragedy; Freeze had been right about that.  But the best of us, at our bravest and our boldest, are not defined by our tragedy; we are defined by how we persevere, by how we seek to make sense of the senseless.  Mr. Freeze would be returning to Gotham City soon. The Batman would be ready, and the battle would rage on.  The battle would always rage on.

But for now, The Batman rose from his perch and made his way to the Batmobile.  It was time to return to Gotham City.  There were evil men to punish.  There was sense to be made, order to restore.  And there were innocents to protect.

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