Chapter 7: Gambit Declined
Fun fact: a DEMON minion that needs to take a leak has exactly the same tells (and exactly the same narrowed focus) as a museum guard in the same position. There’s this little torque in their stride when they start to walk. Once you've seen it twice, you can’t mistake it for anything else. Starts in the right thigh if they're right handed, left if they're left handed.
I had followed the body once the seltzer-squirting minions dragged their ex-colleague out of the mess. I guess I hoped the dead-fish minion would jump to his feet once he was out of view of the hostages, dust himself off, and have a laugh with the others about their poor marksmanship with a canister of fizz. I hoped the whole grisly scene would be proven a hoax, a demonstration for the scientists’ benefit and not the gruesome murder-suicide it seemed. Wishful thinking, I know, but... But there was something more than that, something I couldn’t put my finger on. Something bothered me about the whole thing, beyond the obvious horror.
The body did not jump to his feet, however. The minions went on dragging him until they came to the stairs, and then they picked him up and carried him out of my line of sight. I abandoned my air duct and got to the top of the stairs by another route, caught up with them coming up out of the hatch. There, they promptly crossed the deck and tossed the corpse over the rail without so much as a “we commit this body to the deep.”
I really thought my opinion of Ra’s couldn’t get any lower, but that did it. I mean, okay, Joker is worse. Today, tomorrow, and always, Joker is worse. It’s not like anyone can unseat him on the dangerous, mean, and downright evil throne. Jack wouldn’t need a reason half this practical to off a henchman—or half a dozen henchmen, for that matter. Snuffing a single one for something as practical as an “obey or die” demonstration to keep the hostages in line, that would probably strike him as constipated. Pathetically in-the-box thinking, unworthy of the name of villainy. But at least Joker would a) have the balls to do it himself instead of staffing it out to the guy’s buddies, and b) once he did go on a “Just 'cause it’s Thursday” killing spree, any henchmen who survived the slaughter would bow their fucking heads for a minute before tossing the bodies overboard. And even if that last is technically a bit of conjecture on my part, I know for a fact that they’ll take that minute to raise their glasses to the deceased the next time they hit the Iceberg. They’ll call for a moment of silence and ask everyone to drink a toast to Hilarity Hank, Wide Tooth Tipling, Smiley Stevens, or Dental Plan Dan. They would NOT toss those men over the rail like a used sandwich wrapper.
Or, in the case of the minions of the SS Hairdo, toss them overboard like a sandwich wrapper with a good half of a Katz pastrami still inside. That’s judging by the fins I saw approaching the ship once the late minion’s body hit the water.
I looked away, disgusted, and that’s when I noticed one of the Demons doing that little torque walk that means my visit to the Impressionist wing is about to get a whole lot easier. I couldn’t believe my luck! I was looking at a Ra’s flunky that, within a minute or two, was going to separate himself from his buddies and be walking alone with no more awareness of his surroundings than a museum guard with a full bladder. I followed, I waited, I cursed the lack of drugged claws in Angelica’s hair barrette, and then, deciding the minion was a little tall for a traditional sleeper hold, I opted for a bokator variation Sensei taught me. I hadn’t used it in years, the claws are just more efficient, but it’s like riding a bike. Once you've done it twice, it comes back before Abdul can get to his dagger.
Minion dispatched, I took his clothes and left him tied up in Angelica’s baggage compartment in bus 3. Then I headed back to the mess. I was still taped down into Angelica’s double-A Victor/Victoria body, so for once, my lack of complexity wasn’t an issue. The headdress covered enough of my face that I could risk it, and I'd noticed the minions didn’t talk among themselves in front of the hostages, so I wouldn’t have to worry about my voice. The only worry, amazingly, was my thin, hairless wrists, which I hid as best I could by carrying a box. I worked my way slowly and quietly to the back of the room, and in my peripheral vision, I saw Tim was doing the same. I was dying to know how he made me, but we had little time and other priorities. I figured I'd find out later.
“Boy, glad to see you,” he whispered as soon as I was close enough to hear. “I didn’t know if you'd made it out of Gotham, and it seems like we’re too far out to use O-Com without a booster. But look, if I can get some alone time in the radio room, I know I can rig something up. Bounce off the satellite or even tap into the League system in Atlantis, 'cause assuming this is the Atlantic, we should be close, right?”
I blinked. Alone time in the radio room to bounce an OraCom signal off a satellite? What did he think this was, Mission Impossibat?
“Look, if you can get to a radio or something before me,” he babbled on, “we've got to find out if a guy called Anton Geist is still in custody. I think if he'd escaped I'd have heard something about it. But y'know, I don’t always, eh... I'm not exactly B, and I don’t always keep up with every report and read through every single bulletin as thoroughly as I should.”
That’s the mythos in action. Even someone like Tim can buy into it: The Uber-Bat, Batman the omniscient and infallible. “I'm not exactly B” because it is theoretically possible that Ra’s broke Anton Geist out of prison and I didn’t know about it.
“Tim, I saw the demonstration,” I told him, so he wouldn’t have to explain about Geist. “I’ll find out what I can, but in the meantime, do you have any idea when you—or we—were exposed, assuming it’s true that we were?”
“I dunno,” Tim said darkly. “If the stuff is ingested, it would have to have been at one of the banquets. We were on our own for breakfast and lunch, and everybody drank something different at the cocktail party. The dinners were really the only chance they had to get to all of us putting it in food. But if it’s airborne, then they could have got us at any time, although my guess is they would have done it on the bus rather than expose a bunch of hotel staff with us. Not that Ra’s cares about waiters and bus boys, but it'd be a trail that could expose what he'd done. Couple months from now, one of them goes swimming and all of a sudden they stop breathing air, that’s gonna be noticed.”
“I agree,” I said quietly.
I’ll admit I'm a selfish bitch. Worried as I was about Tim and the others, my first concern was for myself. I had attended the first dinner, but not the second. I hadn’t been gassed with the others on the bus, but I had been in that baggage compartment for part of their journey, and I had no idea how much air it might share with the passenger section. If an airborne agent was introduced in the buses once I was inside, it was possible I'd been exposed. If it was in the food at the first dinner, it was a certainty. I admit it, I'm selfish. The risk of becoming a water-breather blotted out every other consideration, for a moment. Suffer some little mishap, suck in a little water, and be torn away from my life in Gotham? From Bruce and Alfred, from the Catitat, from prowling… For a moment, it just seemed too awful to even contemplate. All I could think of was Lorena, the woman I'd met in Sub Diego when I made that delivery for Aquaman.
And that’s when it hit me: Lorena. That’s what had been bothering me since Ra’s demonstration with the dead-fish minion!
When I went to Sub Diego, they were racing the clock. The first wave of women who had been pregnant when they became water-breathers were starting to give birth—to normal, non-mutated, air-breathing babies. They had rigged up two pressurized rooms in the old navy base where they could accommodate an air-breather for about three hours. It wasn’t a long-term solution, Lorena stressed. It took them almost four days of prep time to achieve those three hours. I waited in one of those rooms while my mini-sub was unloaded and refueled, and I was shocked when Lorena joined me there.
Aquaman had asked her to greet me personally, and it became clear that he was grooming her to take over leadership of the community. That part wasn’t surprising at all. The shock was that she was breathing the same air I was. She said she could take it for a few minutes at a time. But after those few minutes elapsed, she hadn’t reacted anything like the minion. Her breathing became a bit labored, which she ignored for nearly a minute while she went on talking, the way you would over a mild cough at a dinner party. She put a hand to her chest then, still talking, the same dinner party performance, but now it was like something she’d eaten hadn’t agreed with her but she didn’t want to let on and offend the hostess. Then she swallowed a little and excused herself, very politely and articulately, before stepping outside for a breath of not-air.
No gasping, no flopping, no screaming or convulsing. Even allowing for the fact that she'd had months to adapt and the minion was taking his first non-breaths as a non-air-breather, it was completely, off the scale wrong.
“Tim, did anything strike you as suspicious about the minion dying that way?” I whispered.
“Yeah, in fact, that’s why I'm not all that panicked about my future life as a fish,” he answered. “If you're not getting oxygen, you should turn blue. That guy was bright pink. And I remember that from when B had me studying poisons. It’s what happens if the oxygen is building up in your system because your cells can’t absorb it. It’s a sign of cyanide poisoning, not asphyxiation. Or, considering where we are and who we’re dealing with, probably something a lot older than cyanide that nobody uses anymore. But, y'know, poison.”
“And not the Geist mutation like Ra’s is pretending,” I added hopefully.
“Right. On paper, makes sense. I just don’t want to gargle to test it, y’know?”
“Yes. I do.”
“So I was thinking, if we can get a piece of the body before we get out of here, we can confirm it. Any poisons he ingested will be in the tissue, and—”
“Um, no, that’s not going to be doable,” I told him.
Although... I remembered those fins I saw breaking the surface around the body, and I started to wonder just what would happen to a shark that ate a poisoned minion.
“Good, you're together,” Arthur announced, finding Vulko and Valerina in his office. “That will save time. Valerina, pull the domestic intelligence reports this time, we’re going over them together, line by line. Vulko, I want you to prepare for a League visitor. No fuss. At this stage, it’s not even certain he’s coming, but if he does, it will be all business and no ceremony. Understood?”
Vulko took a deep breath, as he always did before reciting a well-known rubric:
“Your majesty is well aware that agreements were made and assurances given before all that Justice League equipment was installed in the palace. The only way to justify such an utterly foreign presence in the very heart of Atlantean government was to recognize the League as though it were a sovereign nation; its teleporters, an embassy; and any who come into Atlantis via those teleporters, as a species of ambassador. Even so, to have the embassy of a foreign power within the palace itself is unprecedented, and still controversial among many of your ministers. To deviate from the established protocols…”
“Yes, yes,” Arthur interrupted. “I am 'well aware,' Vulko, but I would like to put the rules aside this time. If it’s a League emergency, we can toss all that whale shit. And if Batman comes to Atlantis, it will be on a very serious matter, even if it doesn’t fit the strict definition of a League emergency. So I would like us to... pretend.”
“Very well, sire,” Vulko nodded. “A League emergency.”
“Good. Arrange quarters with full diplomatic access and have a plasma sub at his disposal. Drain the sit room, the communication center, and at least one meeting chamber next to the barracks. And put a squad of my personal guard on stand-by.”
“Are we expecting military action, sire?”
“It’s not a certainty, but I want to be prepared. Which bring us to…”
He trailed off, his finger pointing absently to his desk. He froze, his eyes following the line of his finger and staring at a stack of papers.
“Sire?” Valerina prompted.
Arthur just stood there, riveted on the backlog of intelligence reports as if frozen.
“Majesty?” Vulko tried.
“Weasley,” Arthur breathed.
Valerina glanced at Vulko.
“Kapheira,” Arthur hissed.
Vulko glanced at Valerina.
“Weasley replaces Grah, Grah goes out to Kapheira.”
“Your majesty, King Orin, my liege,” Valerina said with a certain impatience.
“She’s trying to bait me, Vulko.” Arthur laughed, snapping back to his usual manner. “But that’s alright, because were it not for a brilliant idea of hers... Vulko, we are going to take Weasley—I mean, Litheoi Bythos off the short list for Sub Diego and make him the new Minister of Surface Intelligence Evaluation. Minister Grah we’ll promote to Counselor of Something Where He Can’t Do Much Harm—after he gets back from an extended vacation, because his present duties have made him quite irrational and bitter, and Valerina wouldn’t want to go to any party he’s planning. I jokingly suggested he take his wife out to Kapheira. Prepare those quarters, Vulko, we can now be certain Batman is coming. And forget my personal guard; tell General Phriss to put at least three squads of Cetea on alert.”
And after that, a splash, a gurgle, and at least I knew for sure that I had not become a water-breather.
I hadn’t meant to test it out that way, and if it had gone the other way, I would have killed Tim, that’s for damn sure. Turns out, the little shit does still have a bit of that Shiva-boxer shorts charm working for him. He’s certainly got E.J. Meadows watching out for him like a mother hen. I did the same thing when I teamed up with him way back when, but that didn’t make me any less pissed at the current situation. Seems Dr. Meadows noticed the swishy Demon talking to Tim in hushed tones and decided I was some kind of pervert trying to diddle the boy prisoner. Zany hijinx ensued.
She came over and brought two of the other eggheads with her, making it impossible for Tim and I to talk privately and drawing the attention of several real minions. I ran, they chased, swords were unsheathed, bullets were fired, and the only way I could avoid getting perforated was to dive off the side. Splash. Gurgle. But at least I knew I could still breathe air.
Great news for when I get back to Gotham… Shitty news while I was treading water in the middle of the Atlantic, wondering how far we'd got from those sharks that ate the poisoned minion.
Any League transporter except for those in the Batcaves can teleport directly to any other. Those Batman permits in the caves will teleport only to and from the Watchtower. From there, a party can transport to any other location, but non-Kryptonian bodies need a few minutes for their biorhythms to stabilize between transports. For humans, five to fifteen minutes is recommended. Not wanting to waste the layover, Batman arranged for Arthur to brief him at the Watchtower.
He sat alone in one of the smaller conference rooms (Plastic Man was in the monitor womb, and Batman saw no need to get into a conversation there), and a series of images appeared in sequence on the main viewscreen, broadcast from Atlantis while Aquaman narrated over the com system.
“What am I looking at?” Batman asked, scowling at a fortress built into the face of a towering seamount.
“Kapheira,” Arthur announced. “A relic from the warring days when Atlanteans fought the Shadow Deep. Atlantis cities—and particularly the capitol—were built for peace, not war. A sprawling city exposed on all sides can’t be properly defended.”
“No,” Batman agreed. “Particularly against an enemy that wants to wipe out the population. You said that was their aim.”
“Correct. They would slaughter civilians as readily as soldiers. Old men, women and children. After the first massacres, our ancestors built Kapheira, close enough to the city that the entire population could be moved there quickly, with enough provisions to withstand a prolonged siege. You can see there’s only the one keyhole entrance to defend against invasion.”
“Impressive,” Batman said curtly. “Does it have—”
“Atlantis technology? Yes. Not the creature comforts of the modern city, but the crucial tech, from a surfacer point of view, the one that would make it an ideal work camp, prison, or base for Ra’s al Ghul. Even in ancient times, we had the ability to drain or flood enormous regions and provide a sustainable atmosphere of breathable air. Kapheira can’t isolate individual rooms like the palace, but as one great chamber, the central core can be drained and filled with air. It was made to be a second Atlantis, after all, and the choice of atmospheres is simply a part of our culture.”
“How do we take it?” Batman asked.
“With some difficulty.”
There’s this thing that cats do whenever it’s feeding time or playtime and we stupid humans aren’t getting the message. They’ll go right to the feet and nudge, poke, and steer around the ankles until they get us moving in the right direction. All cats do it, even the big ones. And it can be a little disconcerting the first time a full-grown leopard gives you the nudge.
It’s even more disconcerting when a hammerhead shark does it, but that’s what was happening now. A shark, a swordfish, something else big that might have been a tuna. That’s really all I could see, but I think there were more snouts down there, giving me the feline nudge-and-bump.
Before hitting the water myself, I’d heard you flash on every movie you’ve ever seen when you see that fin coming at you. Based on my own experience, however, there is only one movie and only one scene in that movie: the nude chick at the beginning of Jaws. No violins, though, no mood music of any kind. So it doesn’t seem like a movie you’re remembering, it seems like a premonition. No violins, just that image of her being pulled under, playing in a loop in your head. And then, fin disappears under the water and… nudge-bump.
Right under the soles of my feet. Nudge-bump. Then another one behind my knee, bump-poke. And then simultaneously, under both feet pushing up and behind my ass pushing forward. I was being hoisted up to where I was on my back, about two-thirds out of the water most of the time, and being propelled in some very definite direction.
Now, on dry land, it’s easy to see this was Aquaman’s handiwork, but at the time, in the moment, it takes a lot longer to get past that what-the-hell reaction than you might think. I was in the water, being propelled that way for what seemed like hours, and in that time, my clearest thoughts were the third-degree sunburn I was getting on my forearms as I held them up to shield my eyes, and yelling at the swordfish to please be careful what part he pokes with.
After several hours of this, the fishy-back transport slowed, and a few minutes later, I began to hear a different kind of noise mingling with the surf… Boats! I heard BOATS!
Valerina had met several Justice League visitors to Atlantis, but she had never greeted one before. Usually the king himself met any colleagues at the transporter, and if he couldn’t do it in person, the job fell to the Prime Consular. But today, since “all that whale shit” (a.k.a. formal diplomatic protocol) had been set aside, Valerina was sure Arthur would meet this Batman in person. He certainly intended to, but then the messages started arriving over the sonar web, and since neither she nor Vulko could hear the dolphin’s report, one of them would have to meet Batman and bring him to the com center.
Vulko was the Prime Consular, so his going would have kept the very protocols they were setting aside—at least, that was the excuse Arthur gave. But there was an exchange of looks with Vulko when he said it, an exchange that made Valerina roll her eyes. It was quite obvious they thought Batman would simply like her better, and as she waited, she hoped he would confine his “liking” to leering, like Plastic Man did, and not be a grabber like Green Arrow.
I washed up in the quaintest harbor town you ever saw: Horta. I knew it was called Horta because right there on the dock was this sprawling mural where visitors would leave pictoral signatures. On the sidewalk, there was a cute little map left by “Toby, Geraldine, Roger, Kevin, Rebecca, Gene, and Don,” indicating they had left Norway, represented by their flag, heading for Antigua, indicated by a flag, with the dotted line of their progress broken at a little dot with an arrow pointing to it, labeled “Horta.”
Other drawings, graffiti, and flags made it clear that the island saw its share of English-speaking visitors (so it was going to be a lot easier communicating with the locals than it had been with the fish) and also that Horta was on the island of Faial in the Azores, and that Pete’s Café Sport was the place to go for the best gin and tonic in the region.
I figured a bar was also the best place to go for a phone, and a sailor’s bar, the best place for a girl without I.D. to get a little assistance without a lot of bureaucratic entanglements. I was quite right. Pete’s Café Sport is one of those places with twin brothers all over the world. All over the Mediterranean, the Caribbean, and right up into the Keys, anywhere boats dock, there’s a little spot like this, the walls plastered with flags and signed dollar bills—signed so you know it’s yours, and left here when you’re flush, so if you’re broke the next time you’re in port, you can take your dollar off the wall and get a drink.
The bartender was a sucker for a dripping stranger with a winning smile, as expected. His phone wasn’t a candidate to rig up the OraCom and bounce a signal over the satellite (or whatever that nonsense was that Tim was spouting), but it was perfectly capable of reaching the manor. I could tell Alfred I was safe, and he could get a message through to Bruce.
Well… he looked. As soon as Batman’s form solidified, his eyes scanned the room incredibly fast, from the door to the light fixtures to the technicians at the control console, and then they zeroed in on Valerina. Standing apart from the equipment, she was the one person in the room who did not seem to have any obvious function, other than, presumably, to greet him. He looked her up and down with a vague air of… something. It wasn’t quite judgmental, but Valerina had a definite sense of being “sized up”—and against a very strict measure. Yet the words that followed were polite enough:
Valerina hid her amusement in a welcoming smile. It was the gravelly voice Arthur used whenever he quoted Orlen I, the ponderous gravel that made everything sound so deathly serious—but it instantly put her at ease about the possibility of being leered at, drooled over, or pinched.
“Welcome to Atlantis, Batman,” she pronounced with the punctilious elocution of her school days. “I am Valerina, personal aide to King Orin. His Majesty is sorry he couldn’t meet you himself, but a message is coming in that he has to attend to personally.”
Batman fell into easy step alongside her, and they talked without social pleasantries as she led him to the communication center.
“A legitimate message or another diversion?” he asked in that deep gravel. “So far, Ra’s al Ghul has been quite successful devising ways to command Aquaman’s attention without his realizing.”
“Resourceful he may be,” Valerina mused—in a tone that was strangely reminiscent of Selina’s whenever she dismissed “the Hairdo.” “But I doubt he can pass himself off as a dolphin. King Orin placed the sealife in the mid-Atlantic on alert as soon as he became aware of your situation, Batman. The report His Majesty is now receiving is the first word we have received from them. And the phin-to-phin sonar relays have kept Atlantis informed in this way for thousands of years before your inefficient surface communications. Our dolphin sonar is four times faster than your satellites.”
“Under water,” Batman conceded, the edge of his lip twitching in an odd manner at the conclusion of the statement.
“Yes… under water,” Valerina replied with a coy smile. “That’s a given here. As I said before, ‘Welcome to Atlantis.’”
And on that perfectly-timed line, they stepped through the doorway into the communication center.
“We found them,” Arthur announced without acknowledging Batman’s arrival or turning from the giant viewscreen he was facing. “Bring up the sea map again,” he told an aide, and then only half-turning in Batman’s direction, he said “A ship in this region, roughly 35 ¼ 32 north by 28 ¼ 26 west, is tossing off bodies, one alive and one… not. The fish are bringing them to the nearest populated island—Can we zoom in on that region?—Here, in the middle of the Azores.”
Batman grunted. As Aquaman continued, Batman subtly placed a finger to his belt to silence the vibration of an incoming message, and just as subtly, placed his hand to his ear to concentrate on the in-cowl receiver. Instantly, an indicator light on the console flashed discreetly. The aide next to Aquaman reached out to hit a button under it, but Aquaman grabbed his wrist, a smirk creeping over his otherwise fixed features. The light was a warning that a foreign transmission had infiltrated the com center, which Arthur immediately surmised was Batman’s. Such a transmission should not have been possible inside the palace, especially in the fortified core of the communication center; but, Arthur thought as his smirk widened, this was Batman. He tapped a series of controls to tell the system to ignore the transmission, and continued his report.
“We’re trying to make contact with the local law enforcement to inspect the body. The sharks aren’t able to provide meaningful detail for purposes of identification, naturally, but the local authorities shouldn’t have much trouble once we can get them there to take a look. But so far, we’ve only been able to reach the Coast Guard and—”
“The dead body is a minion of Ra’s al Ghul,” Batman interrupted. “Executed as a demonstration to frighten the hostages.”
Arthur turned slowly from the map to face Batman. A brief, silent moment passed between them, and Aquaman knew that there was more to come. Batman’s eyes flicked almost imperceptibly to each of the room’s inhabitants, then back to the sea king. Aquaman cleared his throat and glanced around the room imperiously.
“Everyone, let us have the room, please.”
The aides and technicians at the various consoles glanced at each other in a moment of communal hesitation, but one look at their king’s face and they all silently stood and exited the room through various doorways. Valerina moved toward the archway where she and Batman had entered, but was stopped by Arthur’s hand gently touching her elbow. Once the rest of the crew had filed out, Batman glanced at Valerina again, then back to Aquaman, the hint of a question passing over his stoic face.
Valerina had been present for enough trade negotiations and cultural summits to realize what was happening. Often, the most intense debates were carried out in complete silence, each participant staring at the others for minutes—or hours—as a battle of wills was waged without words. Arguments were offered, decisions reached and concessions made, all in absolute silence. She’d seen her king reduce titans of Atlantean industry to puddles of acquiescence in these silent confrontations, but she also sensed this Batman knew the battlefield as well as Arthur did, and was, perhaps, just as adept with its weapons. She began to wonder just how long these giants would stand face to face, battling in utter silence… when it stopped.
The whole thing lasted all of two seconds. After that brief moment, Batman returned his attention to the screen and continued as if there had been no interruption at all.
“The live one is Selina. She’s on the island of Faial, in Horta, the port city. She needs some transportation.”
“You’re talking to her now?” Arthur asked.
Valerina was shocked to see no change in King Orin’s demeanor. Usually, after one of those staring contests, a satisfied air settled over the throne room, now that the industrialist, ambassador, or minister accepted the wisdom of the crown’s position and agreed to stop being such a stiff-finned perch. But not with this Batman. Arthur simply turned his attention back to the viewscreen, all business. She guessed, from the speed of the altercation and the lack of an aftermath, that the confrontation she just witnessed must be routine for these particular Leaguers.
“No, she was able to call home,” Batman was saying, “and Oracle is relaying her message.” He turned slightly to Valerina before adding, “We non-dolphins can sometimes manage to—”
He stopped suddenly, his face frozen in a mask of shock, and the fingers over his ear shifted, as if trying to tune in another frequency.
“Oracle, repeat that last part,” he said finally.
There was a pause, and Valerina saw something she never expected to see on the face of a man who so obviously rivaled her king in intensity and focus: Batman’s mouth dropped open slightly. It only happened for a moment, and just as suddenly, the jaw snapped shut and the stoic intensity returned. But Valerina knew she had just witnessed something that few on the entire planet had ever seen: Batman had been surprised by something.
The pause continued.
Valerina glanced at Arthur, wondering if this was normal or if something should be done, but Arthur didn’t see. He was simply watching Batman and waiting.
“Well?” he asked finally.
“She says… Ubu is there.”
To be continued...