Batman Quest: Bethlehem Rising, Issue #15

The sun sets on rain-soaked Gotham city, threatening another long, sodden night. When the rain first appeared in the morning, the city rejoiced in the relief it provided from a long and brutal heat wave. But the storm overstayed its welcome, only growing in ferocity as the sun sank behind blackened clouds. Now storm drains overflow and gush out onto the streets, all but the highest priority of which have become rivers, dark, polluted and deadly quick.

Despite this, the global environmental summit hosted by Wayne Enterprises in their very own downtown tower marches on, undaunted. Jonathan Albright, the summit’s chief luminary and overall coordinator, is milling through the crowds, basking in his flock’s praise, when he sees you standing on the overlooking foyer that your private elevator lets out onto. He calls out to you like an old friend, though you’ve never met in person. You play the part, descending the stairs with an obsequious grin on your face, scanning the room for dangers all the while. So far, nothing has leapt to your attention.

You are Damian Wayne, son of the Bat and his successor. For the past two weeks you have been in pursuit of an elusive new adversary known as the Instigator. Despite feeling his influence behind several crime scenes since then, you have been unable to come to grips with your foe, always just one step behind. The last shreds of intel you were able to gather were given by Scarface, an old rogue of your father’s. After some coercion earlier, the possessed ventriloquist’s dummy explained that the Instigator had approached him with a deal, an investment of sorts: if Scarface loaned out some of his best enforcers to him on good faith, the Instigator promised a healthy return when the job was done.

What was the job? The Instigator wouldn’t say.

Whatever it was, Scarface was more afraid of it actually succeeding than he would like to have let on, and the psychotic puppet seems to think it has something to do with the environmental summit here, tonight in Wayne tower. You are forced to suppress a grin at the thought of how livid this new masked man would be if he knew he’d planned his master stroke to take place in the lion’s den.

Or in this case, the bat’s cave.

Albright is saying something.

“Hm? I’m sorry, what was that, John?” You ask, pretending to have been too busy admiring the revealing hemline of a young debutante’s skirt to listen.

The man’s face darkens just for a moment, but quickly that oily grin is back, recalling the smell of closely packed plastic or leather. “I was just saying how grateful the organization is to the Waynes for hosting us this year.”

“’Wayne,’ John. There’s just the one now. And as I’ve said before, I’m happy to–”

You trail off as you notice a commotion out of the corner of your eye, across the room by the main entrance. Albright frowns slightly.

“Damian? You seem distracted. I suppose I should expect Wayne Enterprises’ CEO to have a lot on his mind. Should we catch up later?”

You smile graciously at Albright, touching your hand to your forehead in a ‘mea culpa’ gesture.

“Alas, I cannot deny it,” you grin, “A devil’s work is never done. I’m sorry John; we’ll catch up soon. Have your people talk to my people.”

Despite the snub, Albright seems content to let you go. Maybe something worthwhile to that one after all. You push him to the back of your mind and focus on the party. Your contact lens display scans the faces of the revelers and compiles miniature dossiers for your perusal as you cross the floor. The cream of the crop has turned out to Albright’s soiree… Artists, politicians, all the various faces of the press. You’re fairly certain you saw Commissioner Barbara Gordon glowering at you somewhere along the way. You blink-click the noise away and get to the dirt. The Instigator, a moniker meaningless outside of its own context, a villain acting with hidden purpose, recruiting the worst Gotham has to offer, moving always toward some hidden end somewhere here at the gala. Always talking about ‘changing’ Gotham, ‘renewing’ it. Favors a strange kind of radio signal emitter that causes those nearby to become irrationally aggressive, even murderous. Capable in hand-to-hand combat, though far from the best you’ve seen. What it all adds up to remains unclear.

Reaching the bar, you belly up and order a whiskey on rocks. The barman drops what he’s doing and responds immediately, recognizing you as billionaire Damian Wayne and, though separated by several levels of management, his boss. As you watch him scramble, the fruity scent of the tropics announces the sudden presence of what smells like a girl just out of college that is trying much, much too hard.

“Mr. Wayne?” The voice matches your mental image. “Damian Wayne?”

Turning to address the woman, you are somewhat surprised to see that she is not exactly as you expected her to be. Instead of the platinum blonde sheathes that are so common these days, her hair is a wild auburn tangle done up in what might pass for a bun somewhere. Where you expected a stunningly revealing red dress, she’s wearing a simple, strapless green gown. In the place of the expected vacant, thoughtless stare, her brown eyes are purposeful and calculating. Your first thought is ‘paparazzi,’ but the lack of cameraman or visible recording device crosses that off the list.

“Last time I checked.” You respond smoothly. “Do we know each other?”

“Not yet,” says the woman in green, “but we ought to by now. And I really need to talk to you. Privately.”

Alarm bells. Alluring young woman approaches a hapless billionaire at a crowded gala and suddenly wants to find a quiet spot? Sounds like the beginnings of every needless kidnapping case you’ve ever worked. And then there’s still the commotion at the front of the room.

You feign an expression of concern. “Of course, miss…?”

“Em.” She says quietly. “You can call me Em.”

You nod and place a hand on her elbow, leading her gently away from the crowd toward a quiet back room, secured by biometrics. Only the best at Wayne tower. As you go, you notice Albright chatting innocuously with Barbara Gordon at one of the many dinner tables in the hall. Almost before you realize it, Albright is looking right back at you. Directly at you. You grin and give him a wink as you and the young lady disappear into the private room, but he doesn’t return it this time. No, in fact his expression is quite cold.

The door closes with a buzz and click of engaging locking mechanisms and Em crosses the floor to a private dining table set for business transactions. She sits down and rests her head in her hands. You give her a moment, then break the silence.

“Em? I don’t mean to rush you but I actually am quite busy tonight. I came back here because you said you needed to speak with me and I–”

“I do need to speak with you. But not you.” She says, not taking her head from her hands.

You sigh, pretend to look at your watch. “Look, Em, I need to go. If you’re lost and need help I can have a team dispatched to escort y–”

Suddenly, she looks up at you, glaring. “Oh please! They’re not going to be able to help me and neither are you! I don’t need to talk to Damian Wayne, useless billionaire! I need him. I need to talk to… Batman.”

Your eyes go wide as saucers. You can’t help it. How does she know? How could she possibly know?

“Batman?” You scoff, attempting a hasty recovery. “Why would you think I had anything to do with him?”

“Because I’m not an idiot.” Em replies flatly. “And I did my homework. Not that you or your daddy made it easy.”

You suddenly become cold, aloof. She hit a nerve and she knows it.

“Be very careful how you speak of my father, Em. I may not be Batman, but I’m a dangerous man in my own way.”

“I didn’t mean any disrespect,” she replies hastily, “Bruce Wayne made a remarkable effort to conceal his identity as Batman–”

“He wasn’t Batman either.” You persist stubbornly.

“Whatever. Anyway, I have a bit of a nose for information. I’m gifted at connecting things, especially when I think it’s in my best interest to line up the dots. It’s gotten me by in my life, more or less. Once I figured out I needed to talk to Batm–”

“If you say that name one more time I’m going to have a collection of large gentlemen eject you from the premises.”

Em rolls her eyes, bites her tongue.

“Once I figured out I needed to talk to him, it wasn’t such a difficult exercise in reverse engineering to gather data on every known sighting of the current Bat and work backwards from there. You’re not even particularly good at this, you know. Your father was amazing, but you’re only slightly better than Richard Grayson was at keeping your identity quiet.”

You sigh, take a step back and cross your arms. So she knows. How she knows is, at this point, irrelevant. She knows about you, she knows about Grayson and she knows about father. The question is, what did she seek to gain by revealing this information to you? So you ask.

“Your attention.” She replies. “Something I’ve been struggling to get for a while now. I figured hacking into that monster of a mainframe you have stationed here would do it, but you’re stubborn when you get it in your mind to ignore a girl.”

“You hacked into a mainframe? What mainframe?” You can’t help but keep up the oblivious act. She rolls her eyes and jerks a thumb toward the ceiling.

“That thing you have up there in the penthouse. You know, you reached out to me to begin with, the least you could do is return a phone call.”

Suddenly, it all falls into place. The mysterious ‘Em’ possessing the wherewithal to uncover your secret identity, the urgent message…

‘Em.’ The Machinist.

No more games. You lash out quick as a viper and pin the Machinist to the wall, one hand caught behind her back.

“You know a lot about my family,” you grate, “did you ever think you might be finding out more than was healthy?”

She struggles a bit, but knows it’s futile and gives up quickly. The Machinist’s strengths lie in the procuring of information from a remote location, not in fisticuffs.

“You know what? I did, at first. But I couldn’t stop, not once I found out who you were. I had to know who all the rest were, too. It’s a weakness. And once I did find out more, once I uncovered everything? I wasn’t afraid anymore. Because the Batman isn’t a murderer, not a thug. And if you were him, you would never kill me.”

“That remains to be seen. Spit out your message, Machinist. Before my patience is exhausted.”

“The Instigator is here, Batman. He is sitting on your doorstep and you can’t even see it. He’s going to burn the whole thing down and you’ll never know he was here. I can help you, but only if you trust me. There’s not much time, Damian.”

You increase the pressure slightly, just to remind her that she’s at your mercy.

“If you are who you say you are, then you’re a wanted criminal in six countries. You’ve staged electronic heists in cities across the globe, including Gotham. Why would you come anywhere near me?”

She laughs, her breathing restricted by the hold. It sounds awkward, forced.

“Yeah, that was a question I asked myself a lot before I finally caved and responded to your contact request. The only reason you ought to need is that you’re not the only one with stakes in Gotham, even if the rest of us don’t dress up like a Bat and beat people to death to prove it.”

“So?”

“So I’m not ready to watch the old pile of bricks crumble yet, alright? Will you ease up a bit, tough guy?”

Reluctantly, you release her, the smell of the tropics lingering on your suit.

“Talk.” You demand.

“You’re after the Instigator, yeah?” She asks. You say nothing. After a moment, “I will take your stoic silence as an affirmation. Well, let’s just say he came to me for help in this fucking insanity that he’s planning, and I can’t let him go through with it.”

You can’t help slipping into the voice. “Sounds like you know him personally.”

“That’s not on the table.” She responds coldly. “What is on the table is his name and what he’s planning to do. You need to stop him, Damian. For all our sakes’.”

“Give me the information. Maybe I can see that something is done with it.”

“The Instigator is going to begin ‘changing’ Gotham right here, tonight. He sees the global climate summit as the best possible starting point for his crusade. I don’t know the specifics of how, only that he wanted me to shut down your security grid. I turned him down, even if it was an easy buck, because of what he wants to do after the grid is–”

Suddenly, the room is pitched into darkness. Outside you hear several startled gasps and cries, then another moment of quiet before a voice, raised to boom throughout the hall, speaks.

“Ladies and gentlemen! This is your host, Jonathan Albright. It appears that the cheery conditions outside–” pause for politely amused applause “–have caused an unfortunate blackout throughout the block. Never fear, however, there are attendants with eco-safe lanterns and ice cold champagne on their way to you now!”

Quick response from Albright. He must have had scarcely more an idea than the rest of them as to what was happening. Odd that the emergency generators haven’t kicked in. In fact, it’s downright bizarre… Em grabs you by the lapels.

“Please tell me the security grid is on an independent power system.”

“It’s never had to be. Our backup generators are infallible.”

She casts an arm around the darkened room.

“Clearly!”

You take hold of the Machinist once more in the dark, pull her close.

“If I were you, ‘Em,’” you say, your voice barely audible, “I would be doing my best to erase any evidence that I was ever anywhere near this place.”

She wrests her arm away from you.

“And if I were you, Batman,” she says, stressing the name, “I would start opening my stupid, arrogant eyes to the fact that my bulletproof identity isn’t so bulletproof!”

With that, she storms out of the room and back into the gala area proper. You head the other way, down one of the many secret access corridors you’ve had installed in the tower, and up a back staircase to the loft. It’s a long climb, but worth it for the secrecy. Ten minutes later, you’re geared up and ready to head back downstairs. Good thing, too. The weather isn’t the only thing on the news anymore. Across the room on one of the panel televisions is a young anchorwoman delivering a breaking news report about what appears to be a hostage situation developing at Wayne tower.

The environmental summit. The Instigator.

Too late.

Accessing O.R.A.CL.E.’s main panel, you call for an update on the building’s current status. Unfortunately, the emergency reserves the database has aboard its main console are only powerful enough to keep valuable information in memory in the case of a complete power blackout such as this one, not perform a full building diagnostic. Whatever awaits you down there, you’ll be going into it blind.

You’re about to step out onto the helipad and cross to the equipment shed you keep there to select a glider from your collection when the torrential downpour outside reminds you that flying a glider in this weather is going to be more than a little challenging. Still, getting down to the vehicle bay and prepping something suitable for transport will take too much time. With a muttered curse you decide to forego any elaborate method of transport in favor of the ever dependable grapnel gun.

You are soaked long before you reach the edge of the helipad, rain sluicing off your suit in rivers that become waterfalls as they plunge off of your body and over the 40th-story ledge. It should feel awful, but it doesn’t. It’s refreshing, a release from the oppressive heat. Almost without thinking, you allow yourself to tumble over the edge and into the open air. Then you’re falling, falling; you’ve let six stories fly by before you decide to do anything about it. Firing your grapnel gun at a target you picked out whilst gazing out over the rooftops, you wait for the line to go taut and swing in toward your objective: the roof of a small, run-down bank that has little by way of security measures. You keep the place open through anonymous donation, year after year, simply because its ill-guarded roof provides such an excellent vantage point.

“Cowl, zoom in and enhance target.” You say, looking pointedly at the ground floor and the commotion surrounding it. As your optics provide you a better look, you’re able to see that five unmarked vehicles have pulled up in front of Wayne tower. Two large cargo vans block either side of the street, and three black sedans are pulled up right onto the building’s steps, vacant but for their drivers, who have kept the motor running.

“Thermals.” You command, and your vision suddenly becomes a Technicolor sea of deep blues, pale yellows, fiery orange and hot reds. As expected, one driver per sedan. A driver and two other signatures in each of the vans. Cold blues mixed in with their hot reds suggest firearms or other weaponry on their persons. Can’t see anything past the front door of the tower, even with thermals. A security measure you recall requesting personally.

It’s going to be a long night.

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2 thoughts on “Batman Quest: Bethlehem Rising, Issue #15

  1. This is fantastic. If you could please upload 16 that would be great. These threads are awesome and I’d like to be able to show people the great end to the Instigator.

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