Batman Quest: Bethlehem Rising, Issue #11-11.5

The existence of Gotham’s financial quarter has always fascinated you. In a city devoid of hope or ambition, a place known the world over for its tendency to devour its children and leave their bones strewn across its streets, the business district is surely an oddity. Like a tiny patch of pristine flesh surrounded by countless lacerations, swollen and infected, oozing corruption and death. This area of the city is out of place; or so it would appear at first. Upon closer inspection, however, one quickly discovers that the financial sector is the way it is not through some implicit merit or virtue, but through the vanity and sheer force of will of its inhabitants. When put under the harsh light of scrutiny, these moneyed streets are just as filthy as the rest of Gotham. They’re just less honest about it.

You are Damian Wayne, son of the Bat and his successor. Bruce Wayne met his inevitable end when you were just fourteen. Dick Grayson assumed the mantle while you grew into the man you had to be, but his heart was never in it. Perhaps the problem for Dick was that he had a heart at all. He willingly passed your father’s burden on to you when he felt you were ready. Thinking of those days too long brings up emotions that the Batman simply does not trade in. You push them aside, focus on the task at hand. You’ve just brought down Max Roboto, who was draining the city of its resources, exploiting the massive heat wave that continues to pummel Gotham. He is secured and awaiting pickup by the thinly-stretched GCPD in front of his final target, Gotham National. As the sun breaks over the horizon, signaling the start of a new day, several things weigh heavily on your mind.

First, there is still the issue of William Cobblepot, Oswald’s son. The current Penguin is charging exorbitant entry fees to his Iceberg Lounge, which was declared by the city to be a relief zone and thus open to the public. Tension between Cobblepot’s not inconsiderable security and the angry, poor and desperate gathering outside is building to a pitch.

Then, the Instigator. You are concerned not because you have a lead, but because of the alarming lack of them. Despite hearing his name everywhere, you have no concrete impression of his next move.

Finally, the Machinist, a possible former associate of the Instigator’s has been attempting to contact you. So far, you’ve kept them at a distance, your attention turned elsewhere. That hasn’t stopped them trying.

You stand atop Gotham National, pondering your next move.

Gotham never sleeps, and neither do its criminal superpowers. That means you can’t afford to, either. Despite having gone almost twelve hours already, the problem with Cobblepot will not wait one more day. It has to be dealt with now and with finality. You signal in a Ro-Bat to pick you up from the Gotham National’s rooftop, then wait, watching the blazing fingers of sunlight creeping across Gotham‘s streets and over its buildings. Tiny tendrils of fire, preparing a blaze.

In under ten minutes, your transport arrives and scoops you up and away toward the upper-class nightclub.

Upon arrival, you see the situation to be even worse than you expected. There are the picketers and protesters chanting mantras, of course, but there is also a markedly more violent element radiating from somewhere in the crowd, assaulting Cobblepot’s security and trying to force their way over impromptu barricades. The police are nowhere to be found.

You drop down from the adjacent rooftop on which you perched, then wade into the crowd, startling most into submission simply with your sudden appearance and putting down those who offer meager their resistance. As you approach the heart of the disturbance, however, the fights grow lengthier and more fierce. More driven than you expect from simple rioters. As you put another down, the crowd suddenly draws back as one, and three particularly large specimens emerge.

Like a hivemind.

You strike out at the nearest man, delivering a punishing body blow. Or what should have been one. Unbelievably, he shakes it off and rushes you, his attack unnaturally swift.

“You can’t stop me now, Batman. No one can!” Screams the maddened citizen, spittle flying from his mouth. But you’ve already recovered, already recalculated, learned from your mistake. His swings are powerful but erratic. You gradually step backwards, slapping away the strikes you can’t dodge outright. He’s tiring himself out, giving you an opening. Behind him, the other two thugs loom.

The crazed protester gets slower and slower, working himself up into some kind of fever. He goes for a misjudged high kick that you catch in your armored palm. You then toss the foot aside and spin forward, delivering a spike-gloved fist to his temple.

His head rocks back, blood streaming from his nose and lacerations from your glove. You’re set to press the fight when he suddenly wretches bile and doubles over, foaming at the mouth. In seconds, he is taken by a grueling seizure and lies quietly groaning. His brothers-in-arms push onward.

(Commence issue #11.5 -Ed.)

On Gotham’s upper side, in front of the nightclub known the world over as the Iceberg Lounge, a great storm is brewing. The club’s owner, William Cobblepot, son of the erstwhile Penguin, has been charging exorbitant entry fees to the exclusive hideaway. Normally this would all be routine, except that due to the hellish temperatures currently gripping the city, the council has declared the Lounge to be a relief center and thus free to public access. Cobblepot’s not playing by the rules. You’ve shown up to put things right.

You are Damian Wayne, son of the Bat and his successor, and your patience with these rioters is growing thin. Dropping down from your rooftop perch roughly ten minutes ago, you waded into the crowd and began neutralizing points of conflict. You’ve made your way closer to the heart of it, but were stopped by three brutes whom the crowd pulled away from like some kind of unified organism. You took one down toe-to-toe, but frankly it took more out of you than you’d care to admit, and you’re not looking to repeat the experience. Fingers darting into your utility belt, you produce a single smoke pellet and hurl it at the two remaining thugs. It thuds dully against the closest man’s chest, then detonates, thick clouds of choking green-grey smoke billowing outward.

The one against whom it impacted is caught completely off guard and inhales a great lungful of the stuff, dropping to his knees, hacking and wretching, tears flowing freely. The other is a bit quicker in reacting, and dances away from the poisonous gas, holding his breath. He then bears down on his haunches and launches toward you, fists upraised.

You watch the man close, feeling the tremors his footfalls cause. As the arc of his swing reaches its highest point, just before he brings his fists down on you in a crushing hammer blow, you dart under his guard, gathering your legs under you and coiling like a spring. Then you lace your hands together and push off against the ground with all the strength you can muster, hitting the goon squarely in the stomach. The hit is hard enough to lift the man off his feet for a brief moment, and when he comes down, he comes down crashing. He retches and gasps, scrambling about on the ground as his body attempts to deal with the trauma and his mind tries to get him clear of the smoke. In the end, the body wins out and he collapses to the ground, unconscious.

Just beyond him is a thin man in a trench coat and hat, its brim pulled down to obscure his features. His coat bulges unnaturally, a box-like protrusion on his back making him look like some kind of geometrical hunchback. He is facing away from you, unmoving.

Withdrawing it from your utility belt, you flick the switch on your tazer and feel it hum to life in your hand. That done, you begin to close on the mysterious, misshapen individual. You get within five feet, as close as you dare, before you decide you’ll not get any closer without doing something drastic. In the back of your mind, you can’t help but wonder whether your treatment of the Instigator’s suspected former accomplice was not a mistake.

Your whole body tenses as you force yourself to make the decision father would have. It’s against both nature and experience for you, the League of Assassins having taught you to strike first, and the horrors of Gotham teaching you to strike hard enough that you only have to do so once. But that’s not the way. That’s not Batman.

“Turn around,” you growl, “Slowly.”

The figure starts a bit, as if it had been unaware of its surroundings. Then, slowly, it begins to turn in place, its feet dragging across the pavement as it does so. You see it to be a young man just out of his teens, cheeks gaunt and sallow. He’s malnourished, that much is clear. From the quality and state of his clothes, you guess he’s not from uptown. Maybe came up this way looking for a way out of his life.

Or because he was promised one.

“B–Baaa… Batman? I d–” He stops mid-sentence, eyes glazed and staring off into the distance, “I don’t feel good. What’d he… What’d he do to me?’

The man has clearly been drugged. His speech is slurred, he’s distracted, can’t focus on anything.

“What’s your name?” You ask.

“Harrr… Harlon.” He has to work at it, really work at saying his own name.

“What’s on your back, Harlon?” You ask, jerking your chin at the space over his shoulder. His gaze follows the movement, then slowly settles back on you.

“Dunno.” Harlon answers simply.

You watch Harlon struggle a while longer, trying to get a better understanding of his psychological state. It doesn’t help much; whatever drug he’s been given, it’s powerful. His facial expression is constantly shifting, as if he’s never quite sure what he’s feeling. His pupils are dilated, unfocused. A thin sheen of sweat covers his brow.

“Harlon,” you say, keeping your voice even, clear and reassuring, “I can help you get out of this, but I can’t do it alone. I need to ask you some questions. Can you focus for me?”

The man’s head sways back and forth, a low moaning issuing from his throat. “I don’t feel good Batma–Batm–Bat–HURKKK!” He spills his guts on the ground in front of him, groaning and shivering. As he stands there recovering from his nausea, you notice nylon shoulder-straps encircling his arms under the coat. You’re almost surprised that the method used to attach Harlon to whatever is under that trench coat was not more sinister. Still, it will be more than enough if Harlon isn’t seen by a doctor, and soon.

“Harlon,” you say forcefully, trying to get his attention, “two things: first, take your coat off. I can’t help you if I can’t see the problem. Second, tell me who did this to you. You can help make sure it doesn’t happen to anyone else.”

The man wipes his mouth on the back of his sleeve, flecks of vomit and bile staining it. He speaks through chapped lips. “A… A man. All in black. One of the crazies… He said he could help me. Help me get out. Stupid, Harlon. Really stupid…” He says, drifting into self-punishment. After a minute, he begins to shrug off his coat.

“Focus, Harlon!” You urge, taking a step forward. “I need to know more. His name. Did the man tell you his name?”

“He said… He said he was the Instigator.”

Harlon replies, his coat falling away, exposing the radio signal transmission device strapped to his back, so similar to the one you found in the Instigator’s hands over a week ago. Even better, a brick of C4 with a countdown timer attached to it is fastened snugly beneath the device. Harlon has less than three minutes before it detonates.

You weigh your options in the span of a second, then leap into action. Defusing it would take too much time and has too small a margin for error. Letting it detonate anywhere nearby is out of the question, as is leaving it on Harlon. You pull out a small canister of aerosolized nitrogen and quickly coat the plastic explosive in it. When you see the timer stop, you wrench the bomb off of the bottom of the transmitter and call in a Ro-Bat for immediate pick-up. It takes another twenty seconds for the automated glider to make its descent, but that should still leave enough time. You hurl the explosive upward into the Ro-Bat’s waiting claws and watch as it makes a steep ascent, thrusters screaming as they’re pushed past the red. Uncertain of yourself, you reach out and throw Harlon to the ground, covering his body with yours, hoping to shield him against the blast.

Seconds later, the nitrogen’s effect wears off and the C4’s anti-tampering measures kick in, causing it to detonate high over Gotham. The shockwave buffets you, stealing your wind and causing you to grit your teeth as you’re pressed into the ground. After a moment it passes, and you roll off of Harlon’s body. He’s still alive, but unconscious, breathing steadily. He will hold until the GCPD can get him help.

Standing and looking around, you walk over to Harlon’s discarded burden, the signal transmitter, and crush it beneath an armored heel. Results are seen almost immediately. The struggles between police and protester ebb, slow and then stop, their participants slumping to the ground, utterly spent.

The way is clear into the Iceberge Lounge.

With the sudden increase in confused citizens milling about while equally confused police officers try to maintain some semblance of order, you figure you have a good chance of infiltrating the Lounge undetected. Making use of a low-hanging fire escape, you manage to scale your way up to the second floor. You know from familiarity with the club that this second floor is in fact only a single walkway running along the circular walls of the ballroom, overlooking the dance floor below. A minute or two spent with your glass cutter gets you into a window. No perimeter breach alarm… Security systems must not be tied to the back-up generators. Or they’ve burnt out. Slipping into the cool and the dark, you hear the sounds of mirth and music coming from the brightly lit first floor. You hug the wall and stay low in hopes that the spinning lights won’t cause you to cast a shadow.

Below you, mob bosses and businessmen rub elbows or twirl endlessly with their much younger dance partners, the mask of merriment concealing deadly serious business deals being negotiated in dark, smoky backrooms.

One room overlooks it all, the sole occupant of the vaunted third floor. William Cobblepot’s office, formerly that of his father. Heavily fortified, heavily guarded, well secured by electronic bio-scan systems. A fortress on a dance floor. Peeking over the railing, you easily pick out several of Cobblepot’s goons milling through the crowds. You are expected.

You ghost along the outside wall in a crouch, painting yourself as closely as you can to the inkiest blacks. It pays off; neither patron nor watchdog sense your presence as you slip by them, quiet as a lion in the rushes. Finally you arrive in front of the heavy, stainless-steel entranceway to Cobblepot’s office. You sidle up to the access panel on the side. There are three methods of entry: palm-print scan, voice recognition and a keypad. Just like Cobblepot: he spends all that money in that armor up front just to install a the proverbial flimsy wooden door in the back. Employing the toolkit you carry with you in your belt, you remove the panel on the keypad and go to work.

Seconds later, the main lights go out, replaced by a red emergency glow and a piercing klaxon rips through the air. Almost immediately, Cobblepot’s dance floor clears of everyone not wearing a plain black suit and weighing in at three-hundred plus.

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