Batman Quest: City of Fear, Issue #14

Gotham city is in crisis. As the last efforts of the day filter through darkening alleys and the drop in temperatures ushers in the night, this much is clear. The GCPD were unable to contain the news of the madhouse you escaped from yesterday, and already the rumor mill has churned out horrors far outstripping the not inconsiderable truth. This of course was relayed to you via Alfred Pennyworth, your butler, mentor and lifelong friend, as you were nursing off the worst of Hush’s ministrations. Though the injuries you suffered were certainly severe, one thing has become salient after examination: the wounds inflicted were never meant to kill. Which means Elliot has something more planned for you.

Still, despite his flowering psychosis and mounting body count, the madman called Hush is not foremost in your thoughts. Dick Grayson has left the manor, after only two days spent recovering from his ordeal at the hands of Deathstroke’s thugs. Alfred explained that after he had ransacked the pantry, Dick slipped out unnoticed even by the butler, whose preternatural awareness of what transpires on the Wayne estate is legendary. He left only a sparse note for you, pinned under the weight of the old grandfather clock that conceals the Cave’s main entrance.

“Gone to clear my head. I’ll be in touch. Don’t worry about me.”

Hardly what you’d expect from the normally effusive young man. Thankfully, the shavings of reactive alloy you include in all Batman Incorporated equipment serve as excellent trackers and currently have him at his penthouse in downtown Gotham. You haven’t yet thought of a convenient excuse to drop by, and he should be safe there for now. After all, the finest Wayne Tech security devices monitor the entire building. You saw to that.

Then there’s James Gordon. Your old friend hasn’t been out of a job for more than a week, but already it’s taken its toll. Page three of the Gazette today had him verbally and physically assaulting a member of the paparazzi who got closer to Jim’s family than he should have. You can’t blame Gordon… Being a cop, trying to keep Gotham from tearing itself apart, it’s been the focus of his attentions for so long now, it must be hard to let go. God knows you wouldn’t be able to. The temporarily instated commissioner from Metropolis, Cyril Hobbes, has been hard at work destroying the groundwork Gordon laid down during his time in the office. Some of this was to be expected, as a temporary fix brought in during a crisis situation, Hobbes has got to be feeling the pressure. Still, though, his crusade is so fervent, so motivated… Almost vindictive. You tuck Hobbes away in the back of your mind. Just one more thing you’ll get to, when there’s time.

Standing in the Cave by the falls, you rub your eyes forcefully, as if you could just push exhaustion’s cobwebs to the side. You’ve already suited up, even knowing that you shouldn’t be doing out with the hits you’ve taken. The Batman cannot tire, cannot afford to rest. No matter what Bruce Wayne’s body demands of him. Everything that’s happened in this month–the Narrows killings, Killer Croc, Scarecrow, Jeremiah Arkham, Hush, Nightwing, Batwoman and Bones and the DEO–it’s all bearing down on your temples, threatening to crush your skull in its vice. There has to be some way to alleviate the pressure. You stride across the Cave’s floor, deciding to take the bike out tonight. Might be good to feel the wind rushing on your skin, the rain as it pelts your suit. One thing you still haven’t decided, though… Where will you start first?

You make your way in from the palisades and head for Gotham’s southwest end, to the abandoned warehouse you and other citizens of Gotham were held and tortured in. With the rain coming down like it is, the night is quiet. Not even criminals like to get wet. Besides, in a city like Gotham, they don’t have to worry about the market drying up from disuse. There’s always someone somewhere looking for a fix, looking to disappear or to make someone else do the same.

The warehouse has been cordoned off with caution tape, and a patrol has been stationed at the front door with the intent of deterring Gotham’s desperate and homeless from seeking shelter there. You slip by without much trouble, only causing the hairs on the back of the patrol’s neck to stand up with your passing. Once inside, you begin your examination in earnest. The cages are as they were last night, empty and abandoned, their occupants hastily freed in flight. Whoever was working on them was smart, knew they were in a delirious state, knew that even Gotham cops hesitate before firing on innocent, distressed civilians. As often happens, the people in the cages were Gotham’s destitute, lured here by the promise of a hot meal and a warm bed. They got neither.

You approach a row of plain steel tables that line one wall, far enough from the rows of tiny prisons to be completely out of reach of any of the caged. Familiar implements of pain and degradation are on display as well as biohazard containers filled with syringes. Hnh. You scrape the contents of one into a small evidence container, then clip that to your belt.

You’re about to move on to the cages when you hear her voice.

“I’m sorry for what I did.”

Katherine Kane, the Batwoman, occupies the shadows behind you and has evidently been waiting. She’s crouched by one of the cages, running a finger down its rusted structure, rubbing the oxidization between her finger and thumb.

You whirl on her and snarl, fists clenching involuntarily.

“Why, Batwoman? I gave you my trust!”

Kane straightens and dusts the rust off of her gauntlets, then fixes her glare on you.

“Your ‘trust’? No. You gave me orders and a threat to follow them or else. Trust is something different entirely. Something I’m not convinced you know at all.”

“You don’t get to judge me. Not after what you did. What did Bones promise? New equipment, better intel so that you can keep going out at night to drag my name through the mud?”

Batwoman’s expression sours, as if it was rosy to begin with.

“He promised he wouldn’t ruin my life. If you’re as smart as you think you are, you know the DEO doesn’t work with sweet deals. They don’t do threats, either. They make promises. And as long as I’ve known them, they’ve kept those promises.”

“You’re going to learn to find your backbone, Batwoman. Bones might have been the first to try and get under your skin, but he certainly won’t be the last. You need to be purer than that. Incorruptible.”

She brushes past you and the criticism, handling a few of the torture toys on the table you were examining instead. When she speaks, her voice is even but made of steel. She won’t be pushed much further without a reaction.

“What have you found here?”

You eye Kane a moment, doing the math in your head. You don’t like the answer you get, but you go with it anyway. Sometimes it pays to trust your gut. Sometimes.

“You get this last chance, Batwoman. And if I so much as SMELL Bones’ thugs around here, I make sure the whole world knows who you are… Kate.”

The threat is empty, but she doesn’t need to know that. You’re sure that if her face wasn’t already painted ghost white, it would have lost some color. Good… You’ve really got her attention. Finally.

“It seems obvious that the victims in the cages here are intimately connected with those found further back in the tunnel network. Or didn’t your boss fill you in on that?”

She doesn’t take the bait, exercises some control.

“I’ve walked this whole complex, Batman. I just want to see where you got with it.”

Not giving anything away. The military does good work when it comes to training their soldiers to resist interrogation. Couldn’t have their dirty laundry aired to the world, after all.

“From what I’ve been able to tell, the victims with intravenous lines AND extraction points at the base of their skulls are serving as some kind of human incubator. Scarecrow is injecting them with something, a mutant strain of his fear toxin, then extracting it once its met some unknown parameter in the victim’s bodies.”

Kane nods, her long tresses bouncing about her shoulders. You’ve warned her about that in the past… Criminals never play fair and long hair is a liability. The fact that she hasn’t taken your advice is evidence that she’s just as stubborn as you were back when you first started taking back Gotham’s nights.

“I’m guessing, and this is speculative, that whatever is extracted from the first group of victims is then injected into the second. Some kind of psychosis inducing enzyme, maybe. A couple of doses and they become what I saw here last night. Feral, animalistic, homicidal.”

Now Batwoman shakes her head. “No, but you’ve almost got it. The people in here didn’t get sick because Crane started injecting them with his drugs, but because he stopped.”

“Stopped? Then these are symptoms of withdrawal? How do you know this?”

She taps the side of her mask, a motion you assume refers to the radio communicator embedded there.

“You’re not the only one with access to fancy toys, Batman. Bones had his boys go over this place with a fine-toothed comb, sent everything down to forensics for immediate analysis. Forwarded the results to me while you were still hiding wherever it is that you do when the sun comes up.”

She picks up a dirty syringe from the torture table, holds it up to the moonlight leaking in through broken windows.

“Whatever this is induces an intense state of delirious euphoria. The junkie feels no pain, no fear, no inhibition… Just an intense feeling of pleasure and complacency. I’m told it’s not too dissimilar from the effects of marijuana, except that it’s chemically induced and comes with some even nastier side effects.”

The syringe shatters under her boot.

“Basically, as soon as you take two, three doses, the drug induces a severe chemical imbalance in your brain, followed shortly by a crippling, overwhelming sensation of fear. The paranoia builds and builds until your oldest friend, your brother, your mother all seem like they want blood. The interesting part is that the delirium persists… Once the stuff gets in your veins it deadens the associated nerves, killing any and all pain. Then you start thinking that the only way to not be afraid is to remove all possible sources of fear, which…”

Her chest rises, then drops heavily. A sigh.

“… In this case, is everything and everyone.”

Interesting. Not an entirely new ploy for Crane, of course, but one with an interesting twist. Making people so terrified they’ll kill you to stop feeling it. Removing the “flight” from humanity’s “fight or flight” response.

Your thoughts are interrupted by a sudden beam of light stabbing into the room. A flashlight. The patrol outside is doing his rounds. You turn to tell Batwoman to take cover, but she’s already gone, already melted away into the dark. You do the same and ponder these revelations. Crane’s plan is rather ingenious… Use an army to create an army. Pump a crowd full of fear so you can heighten it, elevate it, and pass it on to the next poor souls. And who’s to say he can’t turn that same drug around on the very people that assisted in its creation?

Things needs to proceed faster now. You think you have an inkling where Crane is going with this ploy, and it’s nowhere you want to follow him to. You could stay and trade veiled threats with Kane, but it wouldn’t do much to further the cause, however bruised your ego is right now. Time to make a decision.

You decide to head for Falcone’s diner, her favored front since the passing of Carmine. Before you’re within two blocks, you know something is wrong. There’s a bitter, burning smell in the air that not even the downpour around you can drown out. Then you see people running. Not just running, fleeing. They’re coming from the direction of the diner, in expensive furs, high heels and dinner jackets. It’s a safe bet that their point of origin is the very same place you’re headed.

Leaping atop an office tower that Wayne Industries made a generous monetary contribution toward constructing with the promise that it would provide jobs to the surrounding area, you peer down at Falcone’s front. What’s left of it, anyway. A fire has been set, stoked and abandoned. It’s licking out of the windows now, smoke following it in thick clouds, noxious clouds. There are still a handful of people, the city’s rich and decadent, trickling out the front door. No sign of Sofia, but that’s no surprise. If she got out, it would have been early on, whisked away by one of her father’s security teams.

What’s interesting about the scene, however (aside from the fact that a relatively safe building is now burning to the ground), is what surrounds it. In piles, in drifts on the ground, tumbling out the windows, burning to ash before it touches the wet concrete… Straw. Hay.

Scarecrow.

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