Batman Quest: Bethlehem Rising, Issue #16

Gotham is drowning.

The old city has been struggling to keep its head above water since yesterday morning, when a relentless heat wave was finally broken by a sudden and lasting deluge. Where only days ago the poor and desperate convened at relief centers around the city on the promise of cool air and refuge from the blazing sun, now they scramble like rats up into the apartment buildings and high-rises, trying to stay above the rising water line. Few succeed.

Downtown, at the iconic Wayne Tower, Gotham’s criminal element refuses to be bowed by extreme weather. An unknown mercenary group has taken the luminaries present at the global environmental summit hostage, claiming to be representatives of the elusive ‘Instigator,’ a new member of the super criminal scene in Gotham who claims he will ‘change the city’ for the better through his actions.

You are Damian Wayne, son of the Bat and his successor, and you have been chasing the Instigator for the past two weeks. All the half-truths and mind games appear to have led to this night. You are currently perched atop a small-time, rundown bank across the street from the tower that you keep in business through anonymous donation, year-after-year, simply because it provides you with such a tactically indispensable viewpoint. Through the cool blues and hot reds of your cowl’s thermal vision, you perceive the gunmen fanning out as they approach the tower’s entrance, checking their corners and maintaining tight distances. They’re well-trained, more militarized than Scarface would be able to offer. Something to look into when the time is right.

You drop down a few levels as you crisscross Gotham’s tightly-packed architecture. It’s as you’re attempting to stick a particularly tricky landing between a rickety flagpole extending over the street to a freestanding billboard across from it that a chirping in your ear distracts you so thoroughly that the night very nearly ends before it begins. It’s the sound of another rig on the secure net attempting to make contact with you. This is surprising because you haven’t received such a contact request since Grayson passed the mantle on to you.

You’ve never been great at maintaining friendships.

You blink-click through a few cowl options, looking for an ID tag associated with the caller. It returns, simply, ‘M.’

“O.R.A.C.L.E., conduct a scan of Wayne tower, top-to-bottom. I want to know what’s going on in my house.”

“Of course, Batman,” chimes the AI in your earpiece, “conducting sweep now.”

As the machine goes to work, you make use of your cowl’s telescopic vision to get a closer look at the entrance to the tower. Two vans sit astride the street on either side of the building’s approach, blocking traffic. Four men with assault rifles ensure that no driver decides to get ‘creative’ and attempt to bypass their blockade. Two men to each van. Beyond that, three unmarked sedans have mounted the stairs up to the tower’s entrance. They’re abandoned, doors hanging open. Their inhabitants must have already gone inside.

The chirping sounds in your ear again. With a sigh of frustration, you acknowledge the call.

“What?” You bark.

“Do you ignore everyone that calls you?” Comes the masked voice on the other end of the line.

“Nobody calls me. What do you want, Machinist?”

A brief pause.

“How did you know it was–never mind. I called to tell you two things. First, you should understand that the Instigator is committed to his cause, to the very end. He will die for it and he will kill for it. Second, the sweep you’re having O.R.A.C.L.E. conduct will return only false readings.”

Your eyes narrow.

“And you know this because…?”

“I was the one that set up the dummy readings.”

“You’re going to have to give me a really good reason to not come after you once I’m done with the Instigator, ‘Em.’”

“I have one. I can help you, if you let me. I can get you inside without his guards ever being the wiser.”

“Tt. And why should I trust you?”

“Because I’m the one person in this god-forsaken city that thinks it actually needs Batman.”

You weigh your options for a moment, then decide to play along. The way you see it, the worst that could happen is you have a new target at which to direct your fury after the Instigator. The best that might happen is that you discover an ally in the lonely war against crime.

“Alright, Em. Here’s what’s going to happen. I’m going to leave this channel open as I move down to the street and toward Wayne tower. You keep talking. If I get even the slightest indication that you’re double-crossing me–”

“–Then I’m next. I get it. You really like to earn your reputation, don’t you?”

You can’t help but smirk at the crook’s cheek. With no more need for words, you drop down from the billboard on which you perched, then descend the small bank’s fire escape. Your boots splash heavily onto the sodden alley below. A rat eyes you curiously from its safe haven atop a dumpster, but quickly loses interest. You begin making your way toward the street.

“Alright,” comes the Machinist’s voice, “okay. I have you approaching the Instigator’s guard. Can you see them?”

“I could see them from where I was before.” You growl.

“Good. Then you’ve seen the goggles they’re wearing?”

“Standard industrial-grade night vision.”

“Not quite. I designed those goggles for the Instigator personally. Each set has a small display from which the user can monitor a sister pair of goggles remotely.”

“What one sees, the other does too, then.”

“Precisely. This next part you’re going to really have to trust me on.”

“Hnnh. Why’s that?”

“I want you to calmly, slowly walk up to the tower’s entrance.”

You almost laugh.

“You’re joking, right? You want me to just walk up there, past four goons with assault rifles?”

“They won’t be a problem.”

“Four heavily-armed, well trained men–”

“They WON’T be a problem.” She emphasizes.

You sigh. Might as well follow this insane gambit to its inevitable conclusion.

“Alright. Here goes.”

Stepping out of the cover provided by an abandoned taxi (its operator likely scared off by the goons and guns), you begin your approach to the tower. As you approach what you believe to be the range at which the goons’ vision becomes reliable, your heart rate quickens. What are you doing?

“Slow down, Batman. I can barely keep a fix on you in the rain as it is.”

You force your heart rate to slow alongside your stride. Before you know it, you’re crossing the street between the two black vans. No one has noticed you yet, but they could be busy monitoring other parts of their perimeter for all you know. Maybe you’ve just gotten lucky so far.

Then one looks at you. Directly at you.

For a heart-stopping moment, you are certain he has seen you.

But a moment later, he looks away, casually casting his gaze across the rest of the approach to the tower.

“What did you do?” You hiss into your cowl’s mike.

“Be quiet. I’m electronically masking your presence. I did say I designed those goggles personally. Just pray no one needs to rub their eyes.”

Incredibly, the rest of your approach goes unnoticed, despite your passing within three feet of one of the Instigator’s guards.

Finally, you reach the door unmarked and bullet free. The lock has been forced, so it’s not a problem to get inside, and the deluge masks any sound the door might have made. As it closes behind you and shuts out the rain, the drip-drip-dripping of your suit onto the marble floor becomes deafening. The tower’s lobby is deserted, security slumped over at the desk, a crimson pool forming about their feet. Not much sign of a struggle if you don’t count the bullet holes in the walls. Must have been over quickly. You stride across the lobby floor and make for the hallway that leads to the ballroom where the environmental summit was being held, now the Instigator’s hostage. Pushing open the double-doors, you see that the lushly carpeted hallway is decorated with the cooling corpses of some of the gala’s attendees. Did they resist? Or were they just in the way?

You push the thought out of your head. Time to mourn the dead later. Must think of the living now.

At the other end of the hall is the double-door entrance to the gala. You know of two other entrances. Security has a backdoor built into every area in the tower, accessible from the control room in the lobby. But if the Instigator is monitoring the tower’s systems as the Machinist suggests, he may notice your attempting to access the corridor. Another is a small air duct that opens up over the stage in the room, intended to keep performers happy and cool under the bright stage lights during charity shows.

Your anger is boiling up below the surface, threatening to take control. Something father always warned you about. He was so cold, so calculating when he worked. But you are not him. You deliver a savage kick to the double-doors at the end of the hall, flinging them wide. A sudden silence falls over the ballroom, all eyes turned on you. There are the gala attendees, terrified and corralled onto the dance floor by more faceless goons with automatics. There are the brave men and women of Wayne Security lying lifeless in a heap, stripped of their weapons. And there across the room, standing atop the stage is the Instigator, mid-oration.

“Look out,” you say, looking up at him with a smug grin, “Batman’s here.”

There is a moment of stunned silence as the entire room tries to process just what is happening. The Instigator gets there first.

“Move, you idiots! Stop him!” He cries from atop the stage.

“O.R.A.C.L.E., lights!” You bark as you reach into your utility belt, producing a handful of flash grenades.

“Unable to comply, Batman. My access to the tower’s systems has been restricted.” Responds the AI.

You mutter something foul under your breath, then hurl the grenades outward and temporarily dampen the feed from your cowl so as not to be affected yourself. A great crack and flash later and most of the room drops to their knees, rubbing their eyes or holding their ears. You fire your grapnel gun, aiming for one of the gargoyles father had installed here years ago (honestly, how the world at large has never discovered Batman’s identity is completely beyond you) overlooking the floor. The high-tension cable wraps around the beast’s snout, and the retraction mechanism sends you hurtling through the air toward it. You land with cat-like grace, silent as the night.

Taking a moment to survey the room properly, you count six thugs with guns on the dance floor. They’re recovering quickly, ensuring that none of the gala’s attendees see fit to make good their escape in the confusion. Well trained. The Instigator paces the stage like a caged animal, scratching at his eyes and screaming orders. The innocents on the dance floor are terrified, huddling together, hoping for safety in numbers. Or perhaps just that someone else’s body will stop the bullet destined for them.

Reaching into the specially sealed compartment on your utility belt at the exact opposite end from your standard smoke pellets, you withdraw two paralytic smoke bombs. You’re not fond of using the weapon, as the effects can be brutal and they feel like a crutch besides. Still, sometimes one has to put one’s pride aside in order to get the job done. That done, you reach for a tracer and palm it into your other hand. Then, in one smooth motion, you flit the bombs down toward the dance floor and the tracer at the Instigator’s livid form. In seconds, the room is filled with choking green gas. There are screams from the innocents on the floor, but it’s not long before the agent affects them as well and their cries are cut short. The Instigator is so enraged by the display that he doesn’t even notice the tiny, stylized tracer attach itself to back of his calf.

As the paralytic gas settles to within two feet of the dance floor, you are pleased to see that not one of the Instigator’s agents were able to resist its effects. Neither were any of the gala attendees for that matter, but that’s not important right now. The Instigator has seen that he is suddenly alone as well, and is not pleased.

“Batman!” He screams at nothing. “I know you’re in here somewhere! I won’t let you stop me! Do you understand? This HAS to CHANGE! Gotham must be saved! You’re killing her! You’re… You’re killing her…”

His voice trails off, and suddenly a faraway look passes over his eyes.

“Do you know what was going to be revealed here tonight, Batman? It really was impressive. A machine… a machine to save Gotham. Maybe the world. It released these… machines. Tiny little nano-bots into the air. And they, they would purify it for us. Make it breathable again. Erase our mistakes.”

Father often spoke of the benefits of listening to the twisted reasoning of rogues, of learning from their madness. Now, you force yourself to heed his wisdom, but ready a Batarang in case things get out of hand. The Instigator continues his tirade.

“And the man who built all of this? Do you know why he did it? He just wanted to help, Batman. That’s all he ever wanted. And do you know what the fat cats and big wigs told him when he brought his miracle to them, when he asked that they open their coffers for the good of mankind? They said, ‘where’s the profit?’”

He cackles insanely.

“That’s right! ‘Where’s the profit’ in ensuring mankind’s continued existence. But he couldn’t convince them, Batman. No, he couldn’t. So they turned him away, the thieving, conniving bastards. They sent him out in the cold with hat in hand, and his miracle was never made real. But I’ll make it real, Batman. Just not QUITE how he envisioned it.”

He stops pacing and suddenly goes deadly still.

“I know you’re in here, Batman. And if you don’t come out, I promise that nothing you do will stop me from killing these people tonight.”

Activating cowl optics, you attempt to scan the villain for any obvious electronics, harmful or otherwise. Unfortunately, whatever is jamming O.R.A.C.L.E.’s systems extends to your cowl’s onboard CPU as well. It reveals nothing. But he can’t possibly kill these people quicker than you can put him down. At least, that’s what you tell yourself as you hurl the Batarang from your hidden perch. It whistles through the air, sharp as a razor-blade, and embeds itself in his shoulder. He bellows in pain and rage as you drop down from above and begin sprinting toward him. He sees you as you’re still fifteen feet away and gives you an almost rueful grin. Then he produces what looks like a detonator from one of his suit’s many compartments.

“Don’t say… I didn’t warn you.” He grunts, then triggers the device.

Somewhere behind the stage’s curtain, what sounds like a muffled explosion goes off. But there’s no heat, no fire, no killing concussive wave. You stand there for a moment, baffled. The Instigator is still looking at you, grinning.

With a howl of rage, you send a vicious right hook cracking across the Instigator’s jaw. He flies backward and lands heavily on his back. But he’s laughing. Laughing.

You ignore the madman and pull back the stage curtain. What awaits you there you can’t quite explain. It’s some kind of device, certainly, but not a bomb. No weapon that you recognize, in fact. You stare at it for a moment, then spin on your heel and march back over to the prostrate Instigator.

“What did you do?!” You scream in his face, holding him up by his lapels. But he just keeps laughing. Another crack across his jaw.

“WHAT DID YOU DO?!”

“Ahahaha, oh look at you. A little boy throwing a tantrum, hahaha. You’ve already lost, Batman. You lost a long time ago. When you sacrificed your soul for survival.”

“Speak plainly or so help me god I will end you, psychopath.” You growl.

“That machine–my invention–has just released a microscopic swarm of nanobots into the air. Oh, forgive me, I haven’t properly introduced myself. You know me as this monster, the ‘Instigator.’ What outlandish rubbish.” He cackles again for a moment, then reaches up to his mask and begins unfastening it. “But I needed something like that to get your attention. Something flashy. And I got it, Batman. My name,” he says, “is Jonathan Albright.” And when the last scraps of leather fall away, you know it to be true.

“My god… why, Albright?”

“Haven’t you been LISTENING? I was going to fix Gotham. Me and the other so-called ‘heroes’ that you just put into a paralytic stupor. But they wouldn’t take the hit. They wouldn’t pay the price of salvation. They’re too attached to their precious pennies. I passed around the hat that bore Gotham’s life on it and it came back EMPTY.”

As he talks, a buzzing begins in your head and grows louder, louder, until you begin to feel it in your fingertips.

“So now… Now they’re going to be a part of Gotham’s violent history. Nothing more. You see, I’ve modified my machine, incorporated elements of the radio signal transmitter you’ve no doubt analyzed since we last met. Yes, that very same signal that takes every primal, violent urge in you and amplifies it tenfold. Oh yes, I’ve modified my machine. Now, instead of acting as tiny little janitors, cleaning up this PUTRID air,” he says, spitting the word, “they’re all tiny little antennas, programmed to receive on signal and one signal alone: insanity.”

“How do I stop it?”

“Stop it? Haha, oh no. It’s far too late for that. The nano-bots have taken flight, the signal is transmitting, and I won’t tell you where from. You see, there’s something wrong with the people of Gotham, and I’m going to make it right. I’m going to cleanse them. Because when all the murderers and thieves and rapists succumb to the signal’s siren song and give in to their basest desires… When the streets have been washed clean by their blood and only the purest of heart remain… Then Gotham will be cured.”

The buzzing is overwhelming now. You can’t believe you’ve failed… Can’t accept it. Why won’t he stop telling you that you’ve failed? There has to be some way to stop it. If only he would stop talking… If only you could make him stop talking.

Before you know it, your hands are at his throat, squeezing.

Rage is clouding your vision, sapping your will to fight, to resist murderous desire.

But that is not Batman.

Desperation is weakening your resolve. Wouldn’t father understand? Shouldn’t this one pay?

But that is not Batman.

The loneliness of these long years weighs heavily on your shoulders, pushing you down into the muck that so many in Gotham drown in.

But that is not Batman.

“NNnNnngh!” You growl, still pressing, slowly crushing the Instigator’s windpipe. He’s not struggling, no. Just smiling through tears. “Rrraagh!” You scream, forcing your fingers to unlock from around his neck.

But it would be so easy… Just finish him here. This is the way it should be done. Father was wrong.

“NO!” You hurl yourself backward, away from the Instigator, away from the destruction of the symbol.

“You see, Batman?” The Instigator whispers hoarsely, propping himself up on one elbow. “I’ve fixed you.”

Striding towards him slowly, focusing every ounce of your will on maintaining control, you stoop low.

“You have accomplished NOTHING.” You whisper before rendering the Instigator… No, Jonathan Albright… unconscious with a single blow. You then cuff him.

Outside, a series of staccato bursts. The signal and its nano-bots must have reached the goons outside. Suddenly, you become aware of a chiming in your ear. The Machinist.

“Go.” You say, blink-clicking the ‘acknowledge’ option.

“Batman? What’s happening? I got a weird wash of static on my sensors a minute or two ago.”

“The Instigator activated his device. I couldn’t stop him.”

There is a long pause.

“Em?”

“I’m sorry. I just… I had hoped… Nevermind. What now?”

“I was going to ask you the same thing. Advanced tech appears to be your department. Can you track down an individual radio signal?”

“In my sleep. Why?”

“No time to explain. I need you to get a fix on the signal that is spreading from Wayne tower and tell me where the hell it’s originating from.”

“I can do that.”

“Then do it fast.”

You stand there for an agonizing ten minutes awaiting the Machinist’s response.

“I’ve got it. Penthouse level, on the bal–”

“That’s impossible.”

“No it isn’t! Now fucking get up there!” She shouts.

Despite your misgivings, you spring into action, rushing out the front door. You can get up there faster with your grapnel gun than with an elevator. As you step out onto the tower’s approach, you see that the signal has indeed passed this way, corrupting the minds of the goons outside, whispering that killing one another would be a great idea until it seemed to be the only thing that made sense. You almost pity them.

You scale buildings faster than you should, dangerously so. Twice, three times you nearly slip and fall to your end. Finally though, you make the last grapnel shot up to the helipad, clambering up the side as quickly as you can. There you see a helicopter waiting, its pilot and co-pilot having killed each other. No doubt Albright’s chosen method of escape, had he gotten this far. Either he didn’t consider what the signal would do to the chopper’s crew, or more likely, he didn’t care.

On the pad itself, having been apparently offloaded by the crew, is a large radio transmitter. The outside paneling is heavily reinforced, the dish encased in bullet-proof glass.

With little time spent on debate, you decide that the best course of action would be to simply get this machine away from Gotham. And you know just the place to take it.

You stride across the helipad and enter the penthouse through the plasti-glass doors. Once inside, you make your way down one level to the tower’s concealed vehicle bay and leap into the Batwing. Minutes later, it roars out of a hidden exit several miles away in a largely abandoned part of Gotham. Banking sharply, you bring the vessel back toward the tower.

“Hurry, Batman,” comes the Machinist’s voice in your ear, “I’m already getting reports of widespread rioting on the police frequencies.”

You kill the audio feed. Can’t afford a distraction right now.

Moments later, you have engaged the ‘Wing’s hover mode over the penthouse helipad. Gingerly, delicately you aim the plane’s tow-cable at the radio transmitter. A squeeze of the trigger and a muffled ‘thunk’ later, you’ve secured the package and the jet’s engines scream as it strains to carry the additional weight off into the night. It manages, and ten minutes later you are soaring over the Palisades, over the Wayne estate. As carefully as possible, you drop the transmitter on the grounds, then reactivate your cowl’s audio.

“–ou there, Batman? Whatever you’re doing, keep doing it!”

“Machinist. I’ve disposed of the transmitter. Gotham should be safe now.”

“I hate to be overly optimistic, but I think you’re right. The signal started fading a few minutes ago and hasn’t regained strength.”

“Good.”

“Batman? I–well… Tha–”

You silence audio once more, then lean back in the pilot’s seat and close your eyes, content to leave the Batwing hovering for now.

It’s been a long night.

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