Chapter 5: Midgame
Chess has never been my game. I can play, I just don’t particularly enjoy it. So apart from learning a few openings for the occasional game with Eddie way back when, I never bothered to study it. I do know the basics. I know the midgame is where you probe for weaknesses. That mostly means soft spots in the enemy’s setup, but it can also mean testing their ability to adapt. Some opponents, like say, Batman, are prepared for every contingency they can think of, and if you do happen to toss them something they didn’t anticipate, they can strip and reweave their tactics on the fly. Others, like say, Foster and Forsythe Security Consultants, only seem able to reshuffle the same half-dozen tricks in different ways. It’s like those Vaudeville magicians that kept the same eight-minute routines, without variations, for thirty-five years. Perform it on the Ed Sullivan Show once and they’re out of work. Nothing left in the repertoire, and no imagination to make the existing material fresh and new. The only way to know which kind of opponent you’ve got is to test them, and that means trading pieces.
And that, in a way, is what brought me to this dinky little bar in the middle of the Azores, demonstrating to the Coast Guard Rescue Team that I still breathe air.
Hmm, trading pieces...
I wonder if we could get them to take Azrael?
The guile and genius of Ra’s al Ghul truly had no equal in the modern age.
Ubu realized now the depth of his own stupidity in thinking, even for a moment, that he could understand The Great One’s stratagems.
They had not gone to Bugio, nor had they brought the Žalčiai. It was all a brilliant maneuver to see that food, fresh water, and similar basic staples were all packed, and in such quantities as to keep the entire 400 of the elite Žalčiai Corps supplied for an indefinite period. Only the genius of Ra’s al Ghul could devise such a scheme to keep his own bodyguard and his own quartermaster from knowing the true base for the upcoming operation.
Naturally, Ubu knew that F’di, the torturer, had been summoned to the throne room several times before the present plan was set in motion, but he never attached any importance to the meetings. Ubu even knew that the conversation involved the prisoner Vasilevits, but he had no way of gleaning any information from that. Still, Ra’s al Ghul had allowed Ubu to overhear certain fragments of his conversations with F’di, so when the Demon’s Head then questioned him as they boarded the motor launch out of Madeira, Ubu could not think how to reply except with the unvarnished truth:
“You may have heard a name repeated in my last audience with F’di, did you not, Ubu?”
“Yes, m’lord. The prisoner Vasilevits, though I know not who that is.”
“Leontii Vasilevits.” Ra’s nodded. “The prisoner Leontii Vasilevits was captured some years before you were called as Ubu. He was a Soviet defense minister, living in exile. I had him taken in order to learn the status of certain missile silos in Kazakhstan—a subject on which his information was egregiously out of date.”
“As you say, my lord,” Ubu replied carefully. He was unsure if there was some definite reason Ra’s al Ghul was entrusting him with this information, or if the ride on the motor launch was longer than expected, and Ra’s simply wanted to pass the time.
“Egregiously out of date, or perhaps he had been misinformed. The fracturing in those final years before the Soviet system collapsed, Ubu, there are valuable lessons to be taken from it. In any case, Vasilevits knew nothing about missiles, but he did have some curious information about Russian submarines…”
It began in the Batcave. The 43rd Science and Humanities Symposium wasn’t the kind of shindig any crimefighter would have on his radar. Like a hundred events that happen every day in Gotham, it was a big deal to the people involved, but not to the world at large. I said how lucky it was Tim just happened to be one of those people, and for once Bruce agreed. “Luck” isn’t something Batman acknowledges, as a rule, so I figured there was more to come. There was. He didn’t mean it was lucky because Tim’s involvement brought the symposium to our attention; he meant it was lucky because Tim wouldn’t need a cover.
“He’s already a student at Hudson, he was already invited to attend, he’s already picked out what sessions he’s attending and what papers he wants to hear. It was all set in motion without our doing a thing, so it can’t arouse any suspicion because it really is a normal part of Tim Drake’s life.”
I pointed out that Tim wasn’t just invited, he was preoccupied, if not obsessed, with making a good impression on one of the attendees. He was out to impress a woman, and I’d seen a few of those trainwrecks, up close and personal. They’re not pretty, and if it happened to Tim with this E.J. Meadows, he might not be ready to snap back in a second and take on minions.
Bruce’s response? “It’s crimefighting, he’ll be fine.”
Seriously, that was the basis for his confidence: It’s crimefighting.
“Astonishing, my lord,” Ubu said respectfully (although he saw nothing astonishing or even interesting in the story so far).
“Is it not? The Russians were making hyper-accurate surveys of the underwater canyons on the sea floor in preparation for some tactical nonsense which is not pertinent to our cause. In the course of this misadventure, they discovered something rather strange…
“Look, Selina, when I said we lucked out with Tim’s involvement, I meant because we don’t have to concoct a story to insert him into the conference. But in a way, he’s lucked out too. He’ll be there as Robin—not in costume, but on duty. Assessing his surroundings, the people, and the situation as a crimefighter. If he is on duty as Robin, he'll be less likely to make a fool of himself. The focus of the crimefighter on his task.”
The focus of the what on the what?
Again, I’d seen the trainwrecks. Men older and worldlier than Tim—some wearing masks and power rings, mind you—reduced to the primal core that can scratch itself and say “Ug,” and that’s about it. Bruce knew some of those guys, so I didn’t name names or go into detail. I just said how, you know, ‘crimefighting’ isn’t exactly a defense shield, and if the worst happened, if Tim crashed and burned in front of the hot scientist…
His response? “Not worried.”
“Because of the… focus… of the crimefighter… on his task?” I repeated, confirming it piece by piece.
His answer? “I don’t want to talk about the Lorrimer Codex.”
“And I don’t want to talk about the Rothchild Coins.”
“Or the Carolinian Crown Jewels.”
And that’s how I wound up Angelica Laperm, Wayne Foundation suit, attending the 43rd Science and Humanities Symposium as Tim’s backup.
Ubu blanched as the motorlaunch slowed to a stop with no Desertas Islands in sight, nor any oceanliner to take them further out to sea.
Everyone knew Atlantis technology was far advanced compared to the surface world. Everyone knew they had air-breathers and water-breathers living side by side on the ocean floor, because they could drain their city of water and pump it full of air. Everyone knew that, but it was one thing to know and another to trust your lungs to it.
Everyone also knew what happened to those people in Sub Diego. They might be American infidels and enemies of Ra’s al Ghul, but they had been air-breathing infidels who were now water-breathing infidels that could no longer live on the land. Infidels who could no longer live on land though no fault of their own, because they had been exposed to a chemical agent that would cause their bodies to mutate if they were submerged in water.
Ubu eyed his master carefully. He was bodyguard to Ra’s al Ghul. It could not be the Great One’s intention to alter him unless Ra’s al Ghul himself planned to permanently relocate to the ocean floor. That possibility was, of course, absurd.
The water’s surface was suddenly broken by a periscope.
“Ah, our ride,” Ra’s al Ghul said drolly.
I was never the Luthor kind of villain. I’m not an idiot when it comes to science, but I can’t sit down with an ounce of kryptonite, a roll of quarters, a car battery, and a square of tin foil and expect to create a vortex that punches a hole in the space-time continuum and hurls Superman back to 11th century England. Trying to pass myself off as a world-class scientist among other world-class scientists did not seem practical.
Bruce had the idea of my being a suit. Wayne Enterprises and the Wayne Foundation both funded scientific research, and it was financiers, not scientists, who decided what projects to back.
It seemed a perfect cover—well, not perfect. Nothing about my going undercover was my idea of a purr-anything. But once you accepted that I was going to do this asinine thing, “Wayne Foundation suit” was as good as it was going to get. As soon as the scientists realized I had the power to greenlight their research grants, they would be eager to explain whatever it was they did. And if I did get something totally wrong, they’d politely overlook it.
By the time I picked out a wig, Oracle had my bio and work history all mapped out and documented. By the time I’d memorized it, she had me registered for the conference and booked into the Hudson University Inn. And by the time I was strapped down into Angelica Laperm’s body-type and squeezed into her dowdy cocktail dress, Bruce decided how the Fop had hit on me my first year at the Foundation Christmas party.
The sub descended, and so did Ubu's mood.
It would be heresy to suggest that Ra's al Ghul, light of the East, terror of the West, apex of the age of Oneness through One Rule, was “a guy.” Ubu would be the last to suggest such blasphemy. It was simply that Ra’s sometimes wished to talk, as non-immortal non-godheads might. Ubu was at hand, so he talked to Ubu. The result was that Ubu was privy to a fair amount of information that would ordinarily be confined to inside the Demon Head’s... head. At the moment, on a sub that had been traveling downward for quite some time, that information was not very comforting.
Since becoming aware of Atlantis, Ra’s had seen it as the holy grail of world domination.
Its existence—and particularly its king—meant that 3/4 of the world’s surface was already united under one established ruler. It was not merely reconciled to monarchy, it embraced the rule of one man as its own right and true form of government, far superior to those methods experimented with, with varied success, throughout the surface world. It was always easier to supplant a recognized king, to sit on a warm throne, as it were, than to convert a populace from another social order...
The first day of the symposium, there was nothing on the schedule but registration and a cocktail party. I met the same sixty people twice and tried my best to stay focused on them, as a group, rather than the two individuals who were actually interesting. Tim had opted for this preppy urban casual look: broadcloth buttondown, no jacket or tie—but a collar, and that gave him something to fuss with.
And fuss with.
And fuss with.
I hadn’t intended to acknowledge him. He was just a student, and Angelica was a Foundation suit on the prowl. He wouldn’t really interest her, and they wouldn’t have much to talk about. But after twenty minutes of fidgeting, it didn’t matter what “Angelica” wanted, I couldn’t take it. I went over, thinking I’d just briefly introduce myself and then tell him to find something to do with his hands. But I hadn’t got any farther than “Hi there, I’m An—” when he asked what I thought of his shirt.
“It’s nice,” I told him, breaking character. “How long did you spend picking it out?”
“Half hour,” he winced. “Is that too much? I don’t want to seem like I’m trying too hard.”
I told him it was fine. I told him he was fine. And I tried to remind him, without naming names, that he'd charmed the socks off some of the most dangerous women on the planet. Know what he said when reminded he’d survived an overnight with Shiva?
“Door! Oh man, I thought that was her coming through the door just now, but it’s the other brunette with long hair. From Seattle, not Australia. E.J. Meadows is from Australia. Where the kangaroos come from. Oh God, I didn’t say that out loud, did I? I’m screwed.”
Now, if you can charm Shiva in your boxers at fourteen, you should be bulletproof with a random scientist from Down Under, but the poor kid had gotten himself into such a headspace. I had to get his mind off it.
“Tim, your problem is you’re not thinking of anything in this room, at this party, or on this planet except for that woman. We need to loosen you up. Little game of Team Larceny, juices up the dullest parties.”
“Team Larceny,” he said flatly.
“Right. The big surprise this season was the Roth-Beaumont wedding which brought Gloria Beaumont and her canary diamonds over to the South Hampton Team. Since the ruby pendant Lawrence Chandler bought for his mistress doesn’t count, since she can’t wear it outside Beverly Hills, this could be a game changer.”
“What the heck are you talking about?”
“I'm trying to make you laugh, Timothy. Get some oxygen into your face muscles. It will help.”
“Okay. Okay, I can do this. Sure, why not. Better than 'be yourself’ advice, right? I’ll play.”
“Good. Who in this room is worth Kitty’s time?”
“No one. They’re science nerds. Nobody’s got canary diamonds and nobody’s got a mistress.”
“Try harder. What do they have?”
“120-inch flat screen wall units that double as computer monitors, and instead of a password, it detects who you are through proprietary facial recognition algorithms.”
“Please tell me you’re making that up, because you know B will have to have one in each room.”
“Pretty sure WayneTech’s making the prototypes now. He’ll be—door. New door, I mean legs door, I mean... That one’s her. She just came in the door. And oh boy, look at... legs. All the pictures I saw were neck up. Didn’t figure on legs.”
“Okay then, I’m going to leave you to it. Good luck, kiddo. Remember: Shiva, boxers, fourteen, bulletproof.”
I circulated, filled up my dance card for sessions to attend the next morning, and tried not to notice one of the professors going up to Tim and walking him up to E.J. Meadows. I tried not to notice, it was none of Angelica’s business, but, well, I’m human.
From what I heard, it took him two tries to get his name right. Then he gave the helpful mnemonic that it was Drake like the duck, so it was like “Chuck the duck” except Chuck is from Charles and his name wasn’t Charles. It was Tim. Which rhymes with swim, and ducks do that, so, y’know…
So much for the Shiva-Boxers-Fourteen-Bulletproof theory.
“So it’s really more like not-Chuck the duck.”
First time I met that boy, we were in masks and there was a Vermeer on the line, silent alarm was tripped and I was in a hurry. I clonked him on the head with my whip handle. I was starting to feel very, very bad about that.
Through the second leg of the under sea journey, Ubu recalled Ra’s explaining the second attraction of Atlantis, which lay in the surface world that was his principal goal:
The great cities of every great civilization were, without exception, built upon its trading centers. On a planet all but covered with water, that nearly always meant ports. When Ra’s al Ghul controlled the seas, island nations like England would become infinitely more biddable. “Although that is hardly worth what it used to be,” the Great One hastened to add. “If only we had learned of it—Ubu, put this parchment somewhere we won't forget it—a hundred years sooner.”
Even the Detective’s city relied on the rivers that first gave it commercial life. Controlling the seas would not guarantee the conquest of Gotham, but it would certainly tip the balance heavily in Ra’s favor.
Of course, Ra’s added lightly, actual conquest of Atlantis was not on the immediate horizon. Before that milestone could be reached, he would have infinitely more power over Gotham and her protector. So much so, that the ability to choke off her river trade would be a superfluous luxury.
..:: Bruce Wayne,::.. the sexy voice graveled in my ear piece.
“Secure the line, Handsome,” I laughed.
..:: That how you talk to your boss, Ms. Laperm? ::..
“Give it a rest, Bruce. This might be Angelica’s cell phone, but I’m on the roof. Nobody can hear.”
There was a click, and I knew the line was secure. Then…
..:: How were the morning sessions? ::..
“That’s why I’m calling. This last one was mind numbing. Couldn’t follow a word of it, and with nothing to do but sit there and look interested, I started working through something I heard earlier, the first paper I went to. Working through it from a villain perspective, I mean.”
..:: The villain persp…?::..
“Well look, I’m not the Ra’s type, I admit, but I do know the mindset. And I had time on my hands. I really think I’ve cracked it.”
There was a long pause. The bat-disapproval was palpable, which is always fun, but I really hadn’t meant to bait Psychobat. I waited, and eventually he grunted.
“Okay, well, they said they had evidence to support the theory that a release of frozen methane from the ocean fifty-five million years ago was responsible for an abrupt warming of the Earth that had a devastating effect on deep-sea life.”
..:: This is the paper you couldn't follow?::..
“No, this is the one I DID follow, the first one. The scientists concluded that the escape of methane hydrates caused ocean temperatures to soar by seven to fourteen degrees over a 1,000-year period, a factor contributing to the rapid evolution of more advanced species on land, but causing the die-off of half the deep-sea species.”
..:: Granted. How is that suggestive from a ‘villain perspective?’::..
“It’s not. It’s just… Tim got off to a very rocky start with E.J. Meadows, and I spent half the night patting his back: ‘There-there, live to fight another day.’ In the course of which, he told me about his paper where he quoted this woman’s research, and it was methane hydrate too, using it as an energy source. Apparently it produces less carbon dioxide than other fossil fuels, proper production could reduce carbon dioxide emissions blah-blah-blah on a global basis. Except this stuff adds stability to the ocean floor, so drilling to get it out, not such a hot idea.”
..:: Enter the villain perspective, take what you want and undersea ecosystems be damned.::..
“No. No, nothing that ‘Bwahaha’ evil. Are you going to let me tell this or not?”
..:: Go on. ::..
“It’s two reminders of all the resources they have down there. Two reminders in a really short span of time, and in between, I'm being stalked by this Roger Genk, a none-too-clean gentleman that wants you to fund his bio-fuel project. Claims he's a decade up on the rest of the world in—I'm not making this up—pig poop. Now, I get the idea on these bio-fuels, I really do. Whatever the local waste product is, that's what we use. If they grow bananas, it’s banana waste. If they raise livestock, it’s pig poop. ‘Genk’s manure methanator is lightyears ahead of anyone else’s,’ but I was having breakfast, and you know what I’m like before coffee.”
..:: I do, and I can see where the villain perspective enters the picture.::..
“Quite. Snarl-Hiss-Growl. ‘A generous grant from Bruce Wayne could corner the agro-waste market within the decade. No one else can give you that kind of guarantee. I wouldn't even bother talking to that banana-waste crowd if I were you. Oh sure, they talk a good game with their methanol concentrators, but at what cost Ms. Laperm? Ask yourself... at what cost?’”
..:: … ::...
“You can say that again. So I get away, listen to this first session about the hydrates in the sea floor, borderline interesting stuff, fits in with what Tim said last night about Meadows. Fine. I leave that room, have to duck into the ladies’ toilet because Genk is there again, waiting for me, and now he’s got a brochure. But I dodged him, I made it into the second session, and I... I don’t know how to describe it. There were slides, there was PowerPoint, there was Latin, there was a cross-section of a yam, I think. I may have actually fallen into a coma at one point. Anyway, I’m sitting there, bored out of my mind for over an hour, when the last coherent thing I heard was ‘sea floor,’ and it… it started me thinking about Aquaman.”
..:: Arthur? ::..
“Yeah. Look, we’re assuming Ra’s is after the research on these bio-fuels from the local pig poop and whatever, right? Well, villain perspective: where’s the payoff in that? How do you monopolize something that anybody can make themselves? Well… What if they don't know they can? I’m thinking of all those resources they have on the sea floor. If you had a base in Atlantis or somewhere, you could pass off something like this banana-fuel as a rare commodity you pumped out of the ocean, something only you could mine and supply.”
..:: Plausible. ::..
“And Arthur did say there was sort of a confluence of events keeping him from getting home. He didn’t think it was a diversion, but—”
..:: But he doesn’t know Ra’s. ::..
“Exactly. Villain 101: keep the hero busy over here while you do your thing over there. It’s Aquaman, so a diversion would be ’just like Batman, except with fish.’”
..::Hardly. Black Manta or Orca—::..
“No, that’s Lex talking. Ra’s would never want to involve other villains if he could help it.”
..::Something diplomatic then, that’s the best way to keep Arthur occupied. Especially dealing with surfacers. He knows it's a part of the job, but he doesn't like it.::..
“Bruce, you’re over thinking this. It’s Ra’s. He hasn’t had a new idea since the goatee.”
..:: ’Just like Batman, except with fish?’ ::..
“In my professional bad girl opinion, yes!”
The third feature of Atlantis of particular interest to Ra’s al Ghul (as Ra's had explained it to Ubu while taking the waters at the sulfur spring the day of the blood moon): it was remote. The surface world knew little of it, almost nothing, in fact, apart from what it chose to reveal. U.S. and Soviet intelligence efforts—apart from Leontii Vasilevits, who had no inkling of his information’s significance—as well as DEMON's own efforts, had all proved equally futile.
This aspect of Atlantean secrecy, so infuriating from the outside, would be the greatest possible advantage from the inside. Since the world knew nothing of its true science and resources, one could pass off whatever one wished as Atlantean rather than reveal a less-savory provenance.
Yes, the time would come to conquer Atlantis and take full advantage of those other aspects Ra's had expounded upon at such length, but for now, this last consideration was all he needed.
Atlantean isolation. Atlantean secrecy. Atlantean remoteness.
And to make use of that, he needn’t set foot in the city itself.
The afternoon papers I attended were as dull as the morning’s. There was a banquet that night, which I wanted to skip but Tim made me promise I would be there for moral support. But then he walked through the door with E.J. Meadows, the two of them laughing and smiling like old pals. I decided the Wayne Foundation was fiercely interested in the potential of methane hydrate and I drifted over to introduce myself. When I was close enough to get the gist of the conversation (Dr. Meadows just bought a kit to build herself a computer, which she had never done before, while Tim has built three), Tim met my eyes and I understood I was free to go. Moral support was no longer required, and solicitous hovering would not be appreciated.
Outside the inn, there was a line of busses waiting to take the scientists to Robinson Park after dinner. A special program had been arranged at the planetarium. Now, it wasn’t dusk yet and it was at least an hour before Batman would be lurking, so I decided to check the busses out myself. The trip to the planetarium was the only time the scientists would be leaving the Hudson campus as a group, it was a perfect opportunity to—
I felt a light sting in my shoulder. Before I could process light sting turning into sharp pain, my fingers were going numb and the ground was spinning. I felt my knees buckle. I just worked out there was a needleish dart sticking out of my right shoulder, when it all got too fuzzy to focus.
I remember thinking the one bus driver was at an angle to have fired the dart.
I remember wondering if DEMON had replaced the drivers.
And I remember not being able to move while faces swam above me, one of them bending down to read my name tag, and the words “Wayne” and “Wayne Foundation” repeated in an accent I couldn’t identify.
The Lazarus Pit, that was the one hope Ubu could cling to. Maybe he could not conquer every last doubt about The Great One’s unknown plan, maybe he could not absolutely convince himself if he focused only on the absurdity of Ra’s al Ghul choosing to become a water-breather. But Ubu could breathe easy, so to speak, if he factored in the Lazarus Pit.
Even if it were possible that The Demon’s Head might, in a moment of Pit-induced madness, consider abandoning the surface world and focusing all his efforts on conquering the wet portion of the planet first, even if, in the grip of such an idea, he would consider for the briefest second that underwater bases could best be manned by water-breathing minions, and even if for some reason unknown and unknowable, The Demon’s Head decided that he himself (and therefore his bodyguard Ubu) should also become water-breathers, he would never, never, never abandon the life-giving force of the Lazarus Pit.
Perhaps a few minions, here or there, might be mutated for the cause, but Ra’s al Ghul himself must remain as he was. And as long as The Great One remained an air-breathing, land-based lifeform, Ubu would as well.
To be continued...