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Annual #1
 
an FDC original series...

Higher Learning
#4
"It Has Come to Our Attention..."
By David Marshall


The first thing that struck me about Buenaventura were the smells. The clean, fresh scent of ocean salt wrestled with the rich aroma of raw coffee beans for my attention. Large hotels beckoned the tourist dollar with promises of modern convenience, luxury, and South American charm. For the most part they lived up to their boasts. Or if one preferred he could stay in one of the many flats around the city for about thirteen dollars, U.S.

Pristine beaches were filled with sun lovers and those seeking relief from the heat of the day. Along the streets, vendors tempted tourists with a bevy of souvenirs; handcrafted dolls, rosary beads, gold-plated crucifixes, ceramics, brass miniatures, and unremarkable pottery. The quality was cheap, but so were the prices. The vendors reminded me of carnies on a bustling midway, with their clever, well-prepared sales pitches and smooth dialogue. I believe the tourists enjoyed the show every bit as much as the goods.

The residential areas of town provided a stark contrast between the wealthy and the poor. Lavish mansions sat behind posh gated communities in denial of the general poverty surrounding them. Manicured lawns, stone fountains, and lush landscaping testified of great wealth. Other areas were marked by shanties and barefoot children running half-naked in an effort to escape the tropical heat.

The seedier side of the tourist trade was evident about town as well. Unscrupulous vendors hawked worthless artifacts and tokens to unsuspecting vacationers. Even in broad daylight, prostitution flourished. I could only imagine how much worse it gets at night. To the carefully trained eye, even the busy, festive shops in the market spoke of a darker Buenaventura, locked away at night behind iron bars and gates.

The docks were the city's lifeline. Bananas, mangoes, coffee, and rice bound for ports around the world were loaded onto a motley assortment of boats - from half-rotten, wooden cargo boats for shorter trips to modern marvels of engineering built to tread the open seas. I'm sure the country's less legal goods were on some of those boats as well, but that wasn't why I came to Buenaventura.

I toured the city for a total of two hours. There was much to see and do, and I could see why the city's visitors were snared so easily by the sensory overload. But I was here for the children. I took to the skies.

The campus wasn't located in the Buenaventura city limits, but southeast of the city toward the rocky hill country. The countryside was beautiful. Lush green forests stretched for miles, their monotony broken up only by the open farmlands and grazing cattle. I followed a winding dirt road into the hills and arrived at the Windsor Academy campus in ten minutes. To insure I remained unseen, I rendered myself invisible.

I found the place as I expected it to be... a mess. According to our sources, the school was leveled by an angry paramilitary organization in retaliation for interfering with their operations. Hailing the students as heroes following their bust of a cargo load of drugs, the Colombian people were aiding in the rebuilding of the school. Construction crews worked feverishly on the rear of the building like worker ants. Ladders and scaffolds stretched up and across the building. It was definitely a hard hat area.

I spied a hand-painted sign on the manicured lawn that read, "Muchos Gracias, Amigos."

Several trailers were lined up in a neat row to the west of the main hall. They served as temporary housing and classrooms. At least the students weren't living in the unfinished hall.

It was just after noon when I arrived and I spotted three of the children eating lunch picnic- style beneath the shade of a palm tree. From our dossiers, I recognized them as Portia Cheney, Indira Khandhari, and Ezekiel Goldman. I lifted myself into the air and floated behind them to eavesdrop on their conversation.

"I can't wait to get back into the dorms. The rooms in that trailer are just too small for all my stuff," said Portia.

Ezekiel Goldman finished a sip of Coca-Cola and sat it beside him. "You guys have it bad? You should try sharing one of those rooms!"

Indira Khandhari took a bite of her sandwich.

"I don't see how you share a room with Chaucer anyway," Portia answered. "He's such a freak."

"Don't call him a freak. He's just very intelligent," Indira interjected. "I've read that super-intelligent people spend most of their time deep in thought. To him the day-to-day stuff is trivial."

"Yeah, trivial things like sleeping, eating, and bathing," Ezekiel answered.

Portia's wrinkled her nose in disgust. "Ewww."

"It's hard to believe it's been nearly a month now," said Indira.

"Since he bathed?" Portia asked in disgust.

I couldn't help but smile at the conversation which was quickly meandering along two paths.

"No, silly. Since the school was destroyed."

Everyone remained quiet for the next few minutes, eating and drinking. After everyone finished, Ezekiel put his arm around Indira. The petite girl snuggled into her boyfriend's arm and they leaned back and rested against the palm tree.

"Oh please, you two," Portia cried. "Get a room!"

"Any word on when we can use the school again?" Ezekiel asked.

"Professor K says a couple more weeks if the construction crew keeps this up," Portia answered. She looked up to one of the scaffolds and spotted a handsome, young man wiping the sweat from his brow with his shirt. His dark skin glistened in the hot sun. "Of course I won't complain if they slow down a little. No need to overwork themselves."

Indira picked some grass and tossed it at her friend. "Now who needs to get a room?"

Not exactly the criminal element I expected. They were more like ordinary kids which made this school even more of a travesty.

I phased through one of the trailers and found a makeshift kitchen and dining area. Two other students ate lunch there.

"I'm telling you dude, for a short period of time in the late eighties M.A.C.E was the biggest band on earth." Tristan Stoner patted his corn-rowed hair as he spoke. His motions very animated, he obviously harbored a fondness for his subject.

"No way, man. Just a blip on the radar," argued the other boy, who I recognized from his records as Bo Freebird. He wore a white t-shirt with two crossed confederate flags on the front. Underneath were the words, "Born American. Southern By the Grace of God." He looked like a real piece of work. "Now Skynyrd, there was a band."

"But dude, it's southern rock. It's been dead since the Carter administration! And don't even get me started on that shirt."

"And hair metal's not dead?" Bo asked.

Tristan shook his head. "M.A.C.E is timeless. Just listen to "Rock and Roll Queen", the killer riffs, and the guitar tone. My god! It's freakin'...."

Tristan looked around.

"What? Dude, you stopped talkin' in mid-sentence."

Tristan raised a finger to his lips. "Shhh..."

"You hear something?" Bo asked.

"I feel it. There's someone else here."

Bo looked around the lunchroom. "Yeah, the lunch ladies behind the counter."

"No, someone else," Tristan answered. "I can feel their presence. They weren't here before."

"I don't see anybody dude. It's you, me, and the lunch ladies."

I quickly phased through a wall and returned to my tour of the grounds. Stoner's empathic abilities were stronger than we realized.

I phased into another trailer. It was the girl's living quarters. A cheap, but functional, sofa and love seat surrounded a small coffee table and accented the light gray carpet. A television and entertainment center sat along the facing wall. The living room passed into the kitchen and dining area. I opened the refrigerator. It was well-stocked, even if the nutrition content wasn't up to par. Soda, processed meats, and condiments. The freezer yielded a few frozen pizzas. It could have been any dorm room in America.

I turned on the television and quickly muted the volume. The programming was definitely racier than American programming. Two girls and a young man were competing in a pop culture trivia contest. With each correct answer they advanced one square on the main board. Each wrong answer required them to remove an article of clothing. The grand prize was a weekend in Bogota.

Turning off the television, I made my way to one of the girl's rooms and opened the door. It could have belonged to any young girl except most young girls don't have portraits of Kobra hanging above their beds. Using my telescopic vision, I found her journal tucked away beneath her mattress. I removed it and opened to a random page.

Dear diary,

I really thought we were going to die last night. The drug cartel we busted destroyed our school. It was so scary. They lined us up and loaded us into a truck. All but Zeke and Bo. The first explosion sent them through the floors and into the basement. They weren't hurt and ended up saving our lives.

I helped out a little. I stopped the truck from flipping down a mountain and Chaucer used something he called a wormhole to teleport us to the bottom without being injured. The Professor was wonderful though. Throughout the whole ordeal he kept telling us everything would be ok and that he wouldn't let anything happen to us. He's a good man.

Oh, and we thought Portia was killed but she wasn't. Thank God. She's my best friend. I can tell her almost anything except.... well, you know what.

Zeke kissed me today! It was just a quick peck but it was like electricity. I'd better go. I have some studying to do for Dr. Hand's class tomorrow. I hate Strategic Theory.

Love,

Indie

p.s. I'm still leaning to Tempo for my code name.

I didn't know what to make of the diary entry. It confirmed our worst fears. Dr. Hugo Knott was training children to be villains. We didn't know that William Hand was aiding in the effort. Perhaps this school was better connected in the underworld than we thought.

I heard the front door open.

"... in a minute! I want to change before class!"

It was Indira Khandhari!

"It's just a little soda. Nobody will notice," said Portia.

"Bo notices everything," Indira answered. "We won't be late. I promise."

"We'd better not be," Portia warned. She turned on the television.

"That's odd," said Portia.

"What's odd?" Indira asked.

I turned the tv all the way up before we left. Remember? We were watching videos this morning," Portia answered.

"So?"

"Someone has muted it," Portia answered.

I admonished myself for my sloppiness.

The door to Indira's room swung open. I was so intent on eavesdropping and frustrated that I couldn't easily hear over the television that I'd forgotten to tuck the diary back under the mattress. I was still holding it.

Indira screamed at the sight of her floating diary.

I let the book fall to the floor and phased through the wall. I'd seen enough. I was going to talk to Professor Knott.

A search of the other trailers yielded no office so I entered the school's main entrance which looked mostly unharmed by the blast that leveled the rear of the school.

A sweet-looking elderly lady sat at the reception desk. Her name plate read, "Rosa Hervegas."

Not wishing to disturb her, I passed her desk and phased through the large oak doors behind her. As I suspected, I found Professor Hugo Knott. He sat behind a makeshift desk of banquet tables. Plastic milk crates on the floor housed an assortment of documents.

"We need to talk," I said as I materialized.

Professor Knott jumped. "What are you trying to do to me, man? Give me a heart attack?"

"Then I can dispense with introductions?" I asked.

He nodded. "Of course. You're the Martian Manhunter. Everyone not living in a third world country knows you. Why are you snooping around my school?"

"League business," I answered.

Professor Knott pointed his finger at me. "The "League" has no business here. This is private property!"

"You're training children to become criminals," I replied.

"That's the difference between us, Manhunter. You see the world in black and white, while I see shades of gray."

"Shades of gray? Is that why William Hand is teaching at your school? Or Micron O'Jenius? Those shades of gray are colored by the blood on their hands."

Professor Knott sat back in his chair. "Let's be reasonable, Manhunter. We're providing these children an education."

"In what?" I asked.

"We teach them life skills necessary for them to survive. It can be a scary world out there for young metahumans not tied to the capes of your ilk," the Professor answered.

"We mentor those children and they are carefully chosen," I retaliated.

"As do we," Knott replied.

I placed my hands on the banquet tables and leaned in face to face with the Professor. "In terror?"

"You don't frighten me, Martian."

"Do you realize one of your students has a portrait of Kobra hanging over her bed? Kobra!" I shouted.

The door to the Professor's door opened.

"Is everything ok, Professor?" asked Rosa. "I don't know how this man got past me. I swear I was watching."

The Professor smiled and nodded. "Everything is fine, Rosa. Return to your desk, please."

Rosa paused before closing the door. "Should I notify the authorities?"

"No, Rosa. Our friend here means us no harm," Knott answered. "He's just lacking in social graces."

Rosa closed the door behind her.

"Yes, I know Indira keeps a picture of Kobra above her bed. I don't approve, but refuse to make her take it down until she wishes to do so herself," Professor Knott answered.

I crossed my arms. "Then why allow it if you don't approve?"

Professor Knott stood and walked to a lone filing cabinet, which took me by surprise. I assumed he was handicapped since he was seated in a wheelchair. He retrieved a manila envelope and opened it. He shuffled through a stack of papers and reached some photographs to me. "Indira is a special case. She was born into what passes as middle-class parents in Delhi, India. Her parents were devout Hindus. When Indira's quantum fields first manifested at six years of age, a priest convinced them that she was a demon. He advised them to kill her, but they abandoned her to the streets to fend for herself and lied to the priest. She ran with the street urchins and ate from the refuse heaps. At night, she huddled with them in groups of twenty or more to stay warm and to protect themselves."

"This girl belongs in Child Protective Services," I answered.

Professor Knott seemed undaunted by my interruption. "When she was eleven she met a man who promised to care for her if she'd work for him. Every night he sold her to tourists, mostly American, to use and abuse sexually. She learned English but also contracted HIV. The small tattoo on the right side of her nose? The biological symbol for the female sex turned upside down? It marks her as a prostitute, an untouchable. Kobra heard about her from one of his followers who witnessed her power during a minor earthquake. He rescued her from prostitution and funds research to find a cure for HIV and AIDS. Of course she sees him as a saint, a hero."

Even Oracle missed that information.

I sifted through the photographs. I saw a dirty, little girl. She was malnourished and covered in bruises and sores. Another photograph showed her cleaned up, probably around thirteen years of age. She was sitting on her knees in the middle of a bed, her legs and feet tucked beneath her. She wore black lingerie and garter hose. Her girlish smile was replaced by ruby-red lips that tried desperately to pout seductively like a grown woman's. Her sunken eyes were covered with garish makeup. She was still skinny, but judging by the bruises running up and down her exposed left arm, heroin was more responsible for her protruding bones than malnutrition. A third photograph showed her smiling and looking very much like she did underneath the palm tree with her friends.

"The last photograph was taken in an orphanage in Calcutta. Kobra funds the orphanage."

I handed the photographs back to Professor Knott. "But can't you see that Kobra wants to use her too?"

Professor Knott tucked the photographs back into the folder and laid it on his desk. He looked up at me from beneath his bifocals. "Of course, I do. That's why I talked Kobra into bringing her here where she has a chance to be a normal young woman."

"What of her condition? Do the other children know?"

Professor Knott shook his head. "She hasn't developed full-blown AIDS. Kobra supplies her with the best medicines money can buy."

"Are you aware that she's becoming close with the Goldman boy?"

The Professor nodded. "Yes, I am."

"He should know."

"That is for Indira to decide. For now, Ezekiel isn't in harm's way."

"You put all these children in harm's way," I replied.

"And what of your Justice League? Do you not sponsor Young Justice? The Teen Titans? I hardly see your point, Martian."

Was this man really that thick-headed and stubborn? "We're the Justice League and we keep a very watchful eye on our proteges. The Titans care for their own. In case you haven't noticed, they've grown up."

"Care for their own? Really? Jericho, Terra, Kole. I could go on."

"This is getting us nowhere," I replied.

Professor Knott settled back into his chair again. "I agree. What is it you want Martian?"

"We want this school closed."

The Professor shook his head. "That isn't going to happen. We are a lawfully accredited institution of learning and my students are hailed as heroes by the public here. Any attempt to do so could get nasty."

"We have our ways," I replied.

"Really?" The Professor asked. He arched an eyebrow. "And what will you do? Burst in here and fight my students? I don't believe the world will look favorably on your miserable band of vigilantes assailing a group of young people looked upon as heroes in their country."

"This conversation is over," I said. "I've delivered our message."

The door behind me flew open.

"There he is! I knew somebody was here!" yelled Tristan.

The Windsor Academy students rushed toward me.

Portia Cheney leaped. "Get away from Professor K! You Justice League freak!"

"Please I..."

She landed on me with tremendous force, her lithe young body replaced by that of a snarling, mad werewolf. I didn't want to hurt her, so I attempted pushing her away with as little force as possible. She didn't budge. It seemed her strength increased with her anger.

Thinking perhaps the most gentle approach was a mental attack, I probed her mind. A few short bursts of psychic energy into her cerebral cortex caused her to freeze. Using very little super-strength I flicked her with my middle finger. She fell to the floor.

I raised to my feet. "Please children, I'm not here to hurt you or the Professor."

The children attacked as one, the lone exception being the St. Claire boy. He seemed more interested in the Professor's television remote.

Within seconds, the children were hanging all over me.

"I've got the creep!" said Bo Freebird. He punched me in the jaw.

"Ow! Crap! What's he made of?" he cried.

I was thankful none used their powers. I rendered myself immaterial and they fell to the floor.

"Please, children. This will get us nowhere."

The Goldman boy answered with a tremendous burst of energy that knocked me through the stone wall and into the courtyard. I felt like I'd been hit by a sonic cannon. The children filed outside through the hole in the wall.

Before I could stand, the ground reached for my hands and feet and quickly bound them.

The Stoner boy walked to me. "Dude, you look scared."

He was right. I was frightened. Flames sprung up all around me. I could feel their heat seer my skin. They had to be illusions! I reached my hand into a tongue of flame and withdrew it quickly. They were very real!

My agony grew worse as Ms. Khandhari bathed me in a bizarre energy she projected from her hands.

"And you will burn in this hell a few million years!"

I tried to move but was frozen. In fact, everything within the confines of her energy blast was suspended like a mammoth in a glacier. Outside the sphere of her influence, time passed normally. I tried to phase into my phantom form, but the change was so slow it was barely discernable. Even to me.

The heat of the flames raged within Indira's stasis field, their tongues roasting me at a decelerated, agonizing rate. "No!" I yelled. My own voice seemed to echo for centuries.

Chaucer St. Claire stepped through the hole in the side of the school with the Professor. He still tinkered with the remote control, but pointed it toward me.

Rings of energy leaped from the television remote and bound me. How foolish of me to underestimate the children. They were extremely formidable. But raw.

The only non-lethal weapon that was left for me was my telepathy. And thankfully, my thoughts weren't affected by the stasis field. If I had any chance of making it out alive, I had to take it out first. Reaching out with my mind, I touched Indira's and put her to sleep. She fell to the ground. The stasis field immediately dissolved.

Able to move again, I used a burst of laser vision to destroy the remote in Chaucer St. Claire's hand. It burned his hand and he dropped it to the ground.

Next, I phased through the strata that bound my feet and hands. I floated into the air, but the earth came after me.

"Enough!" the Professor cried.

The students quickly obeyed his command.

I landed and walked toward the Professor. His students rallied around him.

"Your bravery is commendable," I said to them. "But I don't wish to hurt any of you or the Professor."

"Then why are you here?" Indira asked.

"Go ahead, Martian. Tell them," said Professor Knott.

"To shut down this school," I replied.

The children gasped as one and looked to their mentor.

"He can't do that! Can he Professor K?" Bo asked.

"It's not fair! What gives the Justice League the right to shut down our school?" Tristan asked me.

"You don't understand. You're just children," I answered.

"You will not tear us apart," Indira replied.

"Please, Ms. Khandhari. It's in your best interest."

"I'm curious," said Chaucer St. Claire.

Everyone turned to the younger boy as if his input was a surprise.

"Yes?" I asked.

"By whose authority do you plan to do this? The Republic of Colombia is a recognized entity within the world community and a member of the United Nations. Do you have the backing of any national body to shut down our school? This is an accredited institution of learning and thus protected by the laws of this nation. Any attack on this school will surely be deemed an action against this country. Can the Justice League afford the backlash?"

The Professor beamed a smile. "I love this boy."

"You'll be hearing from us," I said and flew into the sky. I flew to an isolated area of the countryside and landed. "I'm ready."

I felt the familiar tingle of my molecules being disassembled by the JLA teleporter. I suppose I have an easier time with the sensation than the others, since I rearrange my molecules when shape-shifting. Even so, the experience leaves one disoriented momentarily even after your atoms are reassembled and the Watchtower shimmers into view.

I stepped out of the teleporter and made my way to the meeting room. My comrades were waiting.

"Your assessment, J'onn?" Superman asked.

"Given the curriculum and the mentoring the children receive, if allowed to complete their education in this school, they may one day be a threat to the world."

"Oracle has searched the cyber trail diligently. The school leaves nothing behind tying it to the underworld," said Batman.

Green Lantern leaned back in his chair. "Then we have nothing. We leave them alone?"

"Absolutely not," Wonder Woman answered. "I will petition the United Nations to pressure the Colombian government."

"With what?" asked Flash. "You're the most persuasive woman I've ever met, Diana, but even you'll need some evidence. These are kids we're talking about."

"I believe the Flash is the only one of us who sees the big picture," I answered. "These are children."

"Very dangerous children," Batman answered tersely. His eyes narrowed into icy slits beneath his cowl.

"I agree with Batman," Superman answered. "They warrant our attention. We owe it to these kids to get them out of that situation."

"Our problem is complicated by the Colombian government. These children are hailed as heroes. An attack on them would be costly to our credibility," I answered.

"Recommendations?" Superman asked.

"We leave them alone," I answered.

"What?" the others said as one.

"This situation requires stealth. Professor Hugo Knott may hold the cards, but perhaps we can deal a few Jokers of our own."

Again, Batman's eyes narrowed.

"No offense, Batman."

"The children are in no immediate harm, at least not more so than they'd be if they were members of Young Justice or the Teen Titans of old," I answered. "I saw a basic goodness in these children. Perhaps we could cultivate that over time."

"A mole?" Green Lantern asked.

Batman picked up my thought and ran with it. "I'd rather know what's happening within the walls of that school. I know Hugo Knott. He's gone head to head with the likes of the Joker and the Scarecrow. He's not easily intimidated."

"I believe J'onn's plan has merit," Wonder Woman answered.

"An inside job? May work," Green Lantern answered.

"I don't think so, guys," Flash answered. "I know inside jobs, remember? Terra infiltrated the Titans and betrayed us. If we lean too hard they'll rally around one another. You guys constantly made us feel like we had something to prove. That's why we're family today. Us against the world."

"Us? We?" Batman asked.

Flash stood and pointed an angry finger at Batman. "Yes, us and we! I serve in the Justice League to honor Barry and because it's where I can do the most good, but, in here, I'm forever a Titan!" He pointed to his heart. "It's an honor serving beside you, but if my life is on the line I'd take Dick over you any day because I know he'd choose what was in my best interest. And if we lean on these kids too hard, they'll form a bond stronger than even Superman can break."

"Explain," I said.

"There were times in the Titans I felt we were totally outclassed; Trigon, the Fearsome Five, Brother Blood, hell, even the Terminator. But what got us through was the fact that any one of us would have laid our lives down for any other."

"So would we," Wonder Woman answered. "It's our duty."

"Exactly," Flash answered. "Duty. If I'm in danger, I know Superman would give his life to save me."

"Of course I would," Superman replied. "The world needs the Flash."

Flash pulled back his mask, exposing the familiar ruddy features of Wally West. "But Dick, Kory, Garth, Donna, Roy, Vic, or Gar, they'd do it because they need Wally West. Mark my words. This will backfire."

"Let's vote," said Batman. I could tell by the stony set of his jaw that he didn't appreciate being dressed down in front of everyone by Flash.

When the voting ended, we'd decided five votes to two in favor of placing a mole inside Windsor Academy. We had no idea who would accomplish the task or how, but I found the other dissenting voter staring out across the moonscape.

"It's a mistake, J'onn," said Flash.

"I concur, Wally, but the democratic process didn't favor us today," I answered. "I'm sorry I suggested it."

"I envy them in a way," Flash answered with a smile.

I was stunned. How could Wally West, Titan and one of the most recognized heroes on the planet Earth, possibly envy the unfortunate souls of Windsor Academy? He must have seen the confusion on my face.

"I'd give anything to live it over again, J'onn. To be that age. To watch Dick grow from the smart kid we hoped had all the answers to the man he is today. Watching Kory's transformation from a naive alien refugee to a strong, confident woman. Do you know that she kissed Dick to absorb our language when we first met her? She thought it was the most fun way to learn. Vic used to be so bitter, but none of you were there when he broke down and accepted his father or saw his tears when he lost him a short while later. Bitter and unforgiving, Vic! It's hard to imagine, huh? And Gar... well, he's Gar. I'd find some way to save Kole and Joey... all those we lost, but if not, I'd be so thankful to see Joey smile again or to just hear Kole's sweet laugh."

"Their experience won't necessarily be like yours," I replied. "You are in danger of romanticizing the situation."

Wally laughed. "Probably. Hell, I still owe Gar a pounding or two for popping me with a rolled-up wet towel from the first time the Titans crashed at Dayton mansion."

"You love them. Don't you? The Titans?"

Wally nodded. "More than life itself, J'onn. They're my family."

"The Windsor students will have their own tests though and their own demons. Let us pray they never have their Jericho or Kole."

"But you now what bothers me, J'onn?"

His mind was practically shouting the thought, but I knew it was important for him to say it aloud. "What bothers you Wally?"

"We'll send them their first Terra. The others don't understand how badly that hurts. I'd rather rush in their and go commando on the school and be done with it. They'll hate us and likely go their separate ways and we'll deal with them individually from now on. But this way, we make them stronger by attacking them as a family. The Justice League will pay dearly for this decision one day."

I could only hope the future would prove Flash's prognostication wrong.


 

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