Like the others, she hadn't even touched the grainy photograph, taken from the film of the casino security cameras. J'onn was beginning to think it was a mistake to have come as John Jones. He had thought it would be less intimidating than the Manhunter, but white men were clearly little welcome on this reservation. Another of the endless refinements of human cultures. "Are you certain?"
Not even a flicker. "Yes."
He could have read her mind, but he would only do that against her will if the need were more pressing than it was. "She has been sighted twice by travellers across the Mojave Road. The average nighttime temperature here at this time of year is below freezing. There are no sources of running water. If she is living in the desert, someone is bringing out supplies to her. This station would be the natural beginning of that journey."
"Then she must not be living here."
"I do not blame you for wanting to protect a child. I simply want to find her, so she cannot hurt herself or others. I am not with the government, or the media."
"I don't care who you're with." She started to turn away. "You'll find out nothing here."
J'onn touched her arm. "Please."
"Don't--" She glanced down and saw the hand, which he had broadened into the familiar compromise form. Her indrawn breath echoed in the night, and she looked up into his face. "I never believed in skinwalkers."
"I'm not a skinwalker, I'm--"
"I know. A Martian. From the Justice League."
"The Martian. The last," he said gravely. "I owe no allegiance to Earth authorities. I would like very much to find this girl. Will you help me?"
Now there was swift calculation in her eyes. "She won't let anyone get near her."
"She can't hurt me."
"Are you sure?"
She looked past him. "Your car might not manage the trip."
"I will travel faster without it."
"All right, then." She went into the little office, emerging a few minutes later with a map. She marked it with a pencil and offered it to him. "This is where we've been leaving things for her. She can't stay too far away. She isn't strong."
He took the map. "Thank you."
"Don't thank me. Do right by the girl."
"I shall try."
The woman had been right; the road was barely more than theoretical. J'onn gladly abandoned his car at the first sign of difficulty and began drifting, ghostlike, west. The night was cold, though he scarcely registered it. There were mountains behind him, but ahead lay a plain covered with scrub, with occasional low hills and valleys. It reminded him of home, desolate after so many wars.
He wished he need not have come. Any one of the League might have dealt more effectively with a young human girl--if they could have safely spoken with her. Ace was, moreover, not merely a human, but one so estranged from her own kind that she would gladly have destroyed them. An alien from aliens. He was not sure what he could do.
He scanned the land carefully as he wafted above it; it would not do to miss the girl if she had gone wandering. He saw no one. Only adventurers took the road across the desert, he'd been told, and they generally preferred the more temperate months to travel. The irony of his now qualifying for that term was great. In his district, he had always passed for a stay-at-home.
In the quiet, he could hear the occasional rustle of rabbits and the snakes who hunted them, perhaps miles off. The stars were brilliant above, almost as brilliant as from the windows of the Watchtower. Indeed, the vast openness was very close to the feeling of space. It might not be so easy to find a tiny figure in all this greatness, if she did not come to him.
Ace had chosen her resupply point surprisingly well. It was at the base of a series of small hills which looked over flat ground to the Mojave Road. She could easily see anyone approaching. Unless, of course, that person were able to fly. He settled on one of the lower hills, camouflaging himself against the dirt, and prepared to wait.
The sun rose in a storm of reds and golds. Like so many things on Earth, it was beautiful, but hopelessly strange. It was his sun, but not his sun, the angle and hues subtly wrong; he wondered if he would ever grow accustomed to it. The desert woke rapidly, tiny creeping animals making the most of the fugitive warmth of day. A few birds soared above. Red-tailed hawk, golden eagle, loggerhead shrike: he named them to himself, grateful for their simplicity. He let himself fall into a light trance as the day wore on. Ace surely would not come before dark, and he was weary of solitary vigils. His other had been so long.
He wasn't sure he had told the truth when he had said he did not blame those on the reservation for shielding the girl. In the surveillance images, she seemed little more than a monster, a dreadful avatar of the worst aspects of humanity. The convulsion of minds on Earth-including those of the League-had been so powerful he had felt it as far off as Ceylon-D, where he had been handling a particularly delicate mission. It had been a fierce and ugly spasm, radiating madness into the universe, and he had never been so relieved as when it suddenly ceased, halfway through his return journey. He had still had to live with the aftershocks, the rush of fear as Flash woke from a nightmare, the strain of the grim amputation work Batman did on his own feelings. What the child had done was terrible.
What had been done to the child...was worse. There had been a murderer on Mars once who had kidnapped his victims, used drugs on them which disrupted their telepathy, and confined them in complete solitude. He hadn't even had to kill them himself; he simply watched and waited until they tore themselves to pieces in terror and pain. His people's revulsion at this crime had been tremendous, but the Great Convocation could not bear to sentence him to a similar punishment; the cruelty of inflicting such isolation on a Martian was simply too great. J'onn had thought of that case often down the long centuries, whenever he considered executing the remaining Others. It would have set him free, but only to the same sort of bleak silence. Sometimes that fear was all that had kept him from violating his own vow not to take vengeance.
Ace had scarcely been able to walk when the government had shut her away. It was not hard to understand why some of the Mojave might sympathize. J'onn did not think he would be allowed that luxury.
It was growing dark again when a low thrum from the horizon caught his attention. It was helicopters, doubtless military, beginning to flash their powerful lights along the plain. Batman's information had not been exclusive, it seemed. They were still far off, and they would have much to search, but they might get in the way. The League was divided as to Ace's fate, but all were agreed she could not be returned to government custody. There was only one thing to do.
He sped silently in their direction, turning over in his mind the handful of images they'd gleaned from the tapes (the better footage had had to be destroyed without viewing). He landed on dainty legs clad in chalk-white tights, with the uncomfortable flutter of hair falling neatly over his ears.
Yet that was not quite right. She had been in the desert two weeks. Her stockings would be ragged and grey. Her dead-white face must be powdered in dust, and her hair tangled. She'd be even thinner than she was. Panting, scared, scrambling, another hunted animal of the desert. So must he be.
When the light flooded over him, he began running, awkwardly, on bare feet, away from her real location. He was surprised that it hurt so much, but he didn't have time to make the skin more numb, and if he did, he might not be able to keep his footing among the bush and scree.
"Subject 346!" the voice boomed across the ground. "Stop running and put your hands over your eyes!"
He ignored them and kept going, cheating subtly to allow her unsteady human legs to spring from rock to rock. They'd actually increased the intensity of the searchlights-hoping, no doubt, to blind her-and so he weakened the eyes, washing everything in grey. When he reached the edge of a long, narrow, particularly overgrown valley, he halted, waited til a light could pin him teetering there, and then fell over, letting himself pass harmlessly into the ground. That would distract them for long enough.
He doubled back, zipping through the curious geological formations, until the need for oxygen forced him to the surface as himself. He struck the ground as he gasped for air. The lights and commotion were well behind him, though in the night they did not seem very distant. The anger he felt surprised him, but there was no time for such things. Ace's encampment was still at least fifteen minutes away at his top speed. He moved again, purposefully.
"Ace!" he shouted as he landed at the resupply point, hoping he was managing a good approximation of the queen's voice. The Leaguers' memories had all varied. "Ace! We need to get you out of here!"
There was a long silence, so long he was about to abandon the strategem and take to the air again to search, when he heard, clear and sweet, "Go away. I'm not playing anymore."
The voice wasn't far. The Queen could fly, if she were wearing metal, so he took off in that direction. As far as they knew, Ace could only project to minds, not read them. She could not reach out to take comfort from her friend, only deal out pain to her enemies, so the pretense could gain him valuable time.
It didn't take too long to find her. She was sitting cross-legged before a small cave in the base of one of the hills, staring blankly out into the night, strangest of all the desert animals, except, perhaps, for him. She looked as bad as he had envisioned-no, worse, for he hadn't imagined the deep, ugly cuts beneath the torn white of her stockings or the shallower ones along the arms of her bodysuit. Her doll lay at her feet; its head was torn half off, so that the stuffing was bleeding from its throat. Still, her face was as serene as if she were dreaming. He wondered if she thought she was.
"Ace, the police are coming, we need to--"
Her head swung sharply to meet him. "You're not the Queen."
Her eyes were glowing yellow, and he could feel the subterranean bubbling of his reality, like an itch or a tickle. He met her gaze steadily, imagining smoothness, glassy and still. He shifted back to his own form, carefully working his changes against the grain of the ones she was trying to introduce. "No, I'm not. My name is J'onn."
The glow was fiercer. "Go away! Leave me alone!"
"I'm with the Justice League. I want to help you."
"I don't like the League," she said, sing-song. "I don't like the Joker, either. I don't like anyone."
"I know," he said, "but you can't hurt me."
She pressed harder, but he held, a rock in a fierce torrent. He wasn't expecting her to physically dash herself against him, though, and the punch to the jaw almost shook his concentration. He caught her fist, then her other hand as she began pounding it against his chest, and held them tight, refusing to loosen his grasp on her or the world around them. There was an agonizing interval in which he dared not even let time seem to pass for fear it would run wild, and then she broke, falling against his chest and sobbing. He wrapped a third arm around her and thought of another child he had once held.
"You're going to kill me," she said. "Or lock me up. Everyone wants to. The Joker said--"
"No, I'm not."
"They shut me away, too," he told her, and pressed through the fierce static surrounding her mind to the clear center, where he could show her. "I understand."
That was almost an untruth, for he didn't understand what she had done, but he knew that she was alien, and lost, and therefore not so alien to him, after all. Perhaps that was the closest any of them could come.
She gasped at the slow turn of images in her mind. "How can you do that?"
"It was the way of my people, to speak to each other thus."
"I can't. I can only..." She looked at her hands, streaked with blood and grime. "There's nowhere for me to go."
"Yes, there is," he decided. He'd have the argument with Batman later. "I'm going to take you to the place where I live now."
Ace slept in the passenger seat outside as he refueled the car at the gas station. It would not take them to Antarctica, of course, but he was tired after carrying her out of the desert.
The same woman packed away the food and iodine and T-shirt into a bag. "She came with you."
"I didn't think she would." She dropped a pack of gum on top. "I thought they'd be taking your body out of there next week."
"That would never happen," he told her. "Martians decay very rapidly."
She stared at him, and then laughed. He allowed a faint smile to curve his mouth. "Fair enough. What're you going to do with her?"
"Help her, I hope. Though it may be many years before it is safe for her to be among humans again."
"I'm not asking where she'll be staying."
"A wise decision." He lifted the bag. "Thank you for your assistance."
He was almost through the door when her voice stopped him. "I'm glad I was wrong about you."
"People often are."
"Good luck. And don't be so gloomy."
"The white man's been writing sad stories about the last of my people since 1865. But here I am."
"Indeed." He smiled and stepped out into the break of day. "Good night."