Chapter 6: Fishy Back
On the far side of the world, in the walled medieval city that Vlad Tepes once called home, the gypsy fortuneteller Dika Lazarovic knew nothing about a science symposium in far away Gotham City. She knew nothing of Tim Drake, a.k.a. Robin, the Batman’s sidekick. She knew nothing of the cluster of bio-fuel experts who were attending this one particular gathering of scientists, held this one particular year at Hudson University where Tim Drake was a freshman. And she knew nothing of the subroutines in the Batcave computers, where Tim happened to be investigating one of the conference attendees in such a way that it brought the event to Batman’s attention at the very moment he learned Ra’s al Ghul was active in Gotham. Dika only knew that The Demon’s Head was a monster who preyed on her people. It was all she needed to know.
Thus, when he came to have his fortune told, she kept silent about the omens that hovered over him like a dark cloud. Ill Chance was hungry and Nemesis needed to feed. The ambitions of Ra’s al Ghul had grown proud and plump, a rich ragout for Coincidence and Fate. Ill Fortune was poised to feast on his grandiose dreams, and rather than warning him as a good seer should, she smiled beguilingly. She said the Fates took an eager interest in his endeavors—she did not say they did so the way a wolf takes an interest in a rabbit.
When he was gone, she called forth her father’s black magic. The dark arts are not evil, he taught her. That is the misconception of superstitious and cowardly minds. Dark is the power of the night, it can be used for good or ill, depending on the user. Surely, no darkness aimed at Ra’s al Ghul could be evil. So she called on the Darkness, on the power of the moon and the stars and the entities of the night, on passion, dreams, and wind.
Ra’s al Ghul, and all connected to him, would meet the fates they so richly deserved.
“When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”
That’s Samuel Johnson. Ra’s probably knew him. The quote wasn’t exactly on my mind when I woke up in the planetarium, but I would think of it later, when it was over. At that moment though, my waking was the proof of it. A drug hangover isn’t something you just blink away—unless you are chained in the base of a star ball with a brick of C4 sitting beside you. If you are, you’ll find the ticking of the timer on that detonator concentrates your mind wonderfully.
Now, even before Bruce got chatty one day and decided to explain all he knew about C4, the fact is, I knew a good bit already. I prefer the more elegant ways to open a safe than blowing a hole in it, but everyone in the business isn't that high road. And if they do it, you have to know how to do it. More to the point, you have to know how to undo it, just in case you're thrown into the path of someone playing with explosives they don't completely understand. So I do know my way around a bomb. Unfortunately, this was a DEMON bomb, which meant there wasn’t a nice, digital timer counting down, like Bruce Willis and Kiefer Sutherlan always get. There was just ticking, and I had no damn clue how long it would go on ticking before BOOM. So new plan: no defuse, just get free and run!
But again, DEMON. So the cuffs on my wrists and ankles were those bracelet things out of a Karloff movie. Not as easy to pick as you might think, and they’re a lot smaller than you’d expect. I don’t think I have pudgy wrists, and those things were tight!
Anyway, I managed to get my ankles free. Angelica has fabulous taste in accessories, Kittlemeier’s best lockpicks stowed neatly inside her barrette. I didn’t waste time on my wrists, I just stumbled out of there—emphasis on “stumbled.” Two-thirds of it was the tranquilizer still in my system, I’m sure, but that other third… When I tried to stand, my foot caught soft-and-mushy instead of solid floor, and then it hit small-and-crumbly. I was halfway out when I realized I’d been lying in a rat’s nest of shirts, towels, hairbrushes, and plastic cups—Really!
There was no time to work out why, even if my brain was capable of any thought beyond GET OUT! I made it to my feet, balance be damned, and climbed out of the pit. The auditorium was empty, so I ran for the fire door. At least it felt like running. It certainly wasn’t feline speed or feline grace, but it was as close to running as I could manage in my condition. I made it outside, and the tour busses from the Inn were sitting there, idling. The one nearest me, I could make out that there were passengers inside who weren’t getting out (or who weren’t being allowed to get out). And I saw one of those DEMON drivers had the baggage doors open.
It might seem like good news, but it wasn’t. As soon as I saw the minions, a part of me realized that the bomb inside was not scant seconds from detonating, and as soon as I had that thought, the hangover hit like a truck. I was dizzy, I was nauseous, my forehead felt very, very heavy—but only on the right side, so it seemed like my head kept tilting that way, pulling me forward and to the side, which made it very hard to work out which way the ground was. Plus, this awful headache was congealing behind my eyes and pushing all the way down into my teeth, which made it very hard to concentrate on anything.
It wasn’t feline stealth, but I managed to hide in the baggage compartment of Bus #3 before the door closed. There wasn’t a lot of luggage in there, but there was enough ‘stuff’ of an indiscriminate nature to wedge myself behind and get some cover. I sat there for about a minute before I started to fade. I was lurched awake when the bus began to move. Not sure how much time had passed. Then I was lurched again later, must’ve been fading again, when I heard this distant explosion. Still not sure if that part was real or if I dreamed it.
A plague of coincidence. That’s what the power of Dika’s ancestors called down on the Demon’s Head. Anything that could go either way would go against the interests of Ra’s al Ghul. It was not the most satisfying of curses. It was not seeing his penis wither, his bones crack, his houses burn, and his legions drowned in their own blood. Yet it was an appropriate curse for a man who would make himself a god: A plague of coincidence. Anything that could happen by chance would happen against the designs and interests of Ra’s al Ghul. It would seem as though the gods themselves were against him. Fate, Chance, Destiny, whatever glories he had tried to drape himself in before his followers must now, surely, be seen to have abandoned him. Could there be a worse torment for a man who would lead men? Abandoned by the gods. Would his followers notice? And whether they did or did not, surely Ra’s al Ghul would fear their noticing.
No, it was not seeing his penis wither or his houses burn, but it would do.
When I came to, my first priority was to get those Bride of the Mummy cuffs off my wrist. There wasn’t a lot of light in that baggage compartment, but fortunately, picking a lock is about touch and resistance. It’s instinct more than anything. I got my wrists free and then, for a long time—for what seemed like a long time—I tried to figure out what was going on out there. It did feel like we were moving, sorta, but it didn’t feel like it had before. At first I thought it was just the lack of a hangover, but eventually I realized that, not only was the movement different, I didn’t hear an engine.
It was a risk, but I worked on springing the door. When I got out… well, “free wrists” didn’t seem like such an accomplishment.
“Arthur, the fact is that they’re GONE, all of the scientists attending the symposium and Selina and Tim! The last communication I had from Selina, she thought your diversion was connected to ours.”
The face that formerly looked down from the oversize viewscreen in the Batcave now looked up from a tiny one in the Batmobile.
..:: Bruce, I appreciate that you’re upset. I just don’t understand what you—or she—are basing this on.::..
“Neither do I,” Batman admitted wearily, slowing the car before it turned onto the access ramp. “She works differently, Arthur. She thinks differently. She gets an idea, god knows where: ‘just like Batman, except with fish’ and she runs with it.”
..:: Just like…except with fish?::.. Arthur repeated incredulously.
“Don’t ask. Look, the point is she’s GONE, and under the circumstances, I’m giving her theory the benefit of the doubt.”
The ramp between the Sterling garage and the subway station wound downward, leading eventually to the satellite cave’s hangar under the Wayne Tower. Batman muted Arthur while he gave the VOX commands to transfer the call to the cave’s workstation. There wasn’t much that could be called evidence at the site of the planetarium explosion or at the university conference center, but he’d harvested all he could and brought the samples to this cave instead of the manor. He told himself it was the better choice because it was closer. But he knew the extra minutes of travel time were irrelevant. He simply didn’t want to see Alfred. With Selina and Tim both missing, he really didn’t want to face Alfred.
Arthur’s image was waiting for him on the satellite cave’s viewscreen as he mounted the stairs from the Batmobile hangar.
“Unmute,” he barked.
..:: Well, it’s true that circumstances kept me from returning to Atlantis for several weeks,::.. Arthur continued as if there had been no interruption. …:: But I’m back now, and I’m telling you, the city is fine. There is no DEMON incursion, no mysterious incidents that happened in my absence. There is nothing happening that could possibly relate to your case. If what happened with the whales and all the rest of it was a deliberate attempt to keep me occupied far from Atlantean waters, there is absolutely no evidence that it was Ra’s al Ghul behind it.::..
“What about the box you found off Fiji?”
“So it’s surface made. Sea technologies are based on magnetic and gravitational fields, not electrical ones, correct? If the box uses electricity, then it’s from the surface.”
..:: That doesn’t mean it’s DEMON, Bruce. It doesn’t even mean it was intended to upset the whales, or if it was, it doesn’t mean the purpose of upsetting them was to bring me to that part of the ocean. My experts are looking into it, and I’ve left samples for you at the Watchtower, but—::..
“Later. Arthur, I know it’s not logical. I know it’s not hard evidence. But I know in my gut that Selina was right. I know these events are connected. The timing of it, your diversions began soon after the chess set was lent, initiating the Wayne kidnapping. It all fits.”
..:: If it does, if you’re right, Bruce, what was the point of it?::..
“Ask me again in ten minutes, once I’ve confirmed this material from the planetarium debris is what I think it is.”
Most scientists know far more about the world beyond the petri dish than popular culture gives them credit for. Those who were currently the prisoners of Ra’s al Ghul realized the notorious terrorist had taken them for their expertise. And they realized that an unlucky non-expert who happened to be among them when they were taken would likely be seen as having no value and killed, so they banded together to pass Tim off as a prodigy.
Raised in a think tank, according to Dr. Matthews.
Got his first PhD at fourteen, added Dr. Hernandez.
Had a research grant on the mutation of E.coli before most kids get a driver’s license, Dr. Pelligrew mentioned.
Tim could have done without E.J. Meadows’s contribution that she had worked with his parents at the Finston Institute. That really seemed to put them on equal footing, and a woman who palled around with your mom wasn’t a good ask for the Beyonce concert. But that little worry was backburnered for the duration. Right now, E.J. Meadows was just another hostage, and his job was to keep them all alive. It was odd that they had the same attitude about him… and that was really the downside of living the kind of life he had lived.
Anyone’s first time in a life-or-death situation, their focus is entirely on it. Once you’ve spent as much time in peril as Tim had, there is room for background thought. In this case: E.J. Meadows, the irony of the scientists circling round to save him with this teen prodigy story, and the growing evidence that he was destined for the alter ego of “The Trekker.”
Ironically, it was the minions themselves foisting the last thought on him. He was trying to determine exactly how many DEMONs there were guarding them. There were between twelve and sixteen in the room with them at any given time, but they had passed three along the rail and two on the stairs as they were marched down from the busses. Tim couldn’t work out if any of those three were now in the room, and therefore one of the fifteen—no, now it was sixteen—that he’d already counted. He also couldn’t be sure if certain minions who came and went were the same ones he’d already counted, or if they represented additional troops elsewhere.
The problem was that they all dressed alike. There were only three variations in the uniform, which was how he began classifying them. Yellow checkered head dress leaves, blue one returns, you can at least be sure it’s a different guy…. It was when he realized he was classifying those slight variations in the DEMON uniform as “command, support, and red shirts” that the dejected non-crimefighter in the back of Tim Drake’s brain resigned itself to the ugly truth: he was a Trekker.
The last time we fought Ra’s, Bruce rigged up a shipping company to intercept the minions the Hairdo was trying to smuggle into Gotham. One of the sillier terms I learned in the course of that adventure was “fishy back.” Most merchandise ultimately reaches its destination by truck. If the trailers are pre-loaded and sent by train, so all they have to do is come off the flatbed and hook up to an eighteen-wheeler, it’s called piggy back. If the pre-loaded trailers are sent by air, it’s birdie back. And if by sea? Fishy back.
The three Hudson University tour busses I’d seen idling outside the hotel were all there, along with several shipping containers on the open deck of a carrier. Where we were was anybody’s guess. Lots of water in every direction—and absolutely nothing else. The good news: there didn’t seem to be any minions nearby. The bad news: the scientists were nowhere in sight, either. I checked the busses anyway, since there was no one around. Sure enough, there was a spent gas canister in each. No real surprise there. Presumably they loaded everybody onto the busses and left the Inn as planned. Continue to the expected destination by the expected route, nothing to raise anybody’s suspicions or cause any commotion in the middle of the Gotham streets. By the time they reached the planetarium, everybody is out. Unload Angelica Laperm and leave her there chained to a bomb (that part I couldn’t quite figure out yet), and then drive your sleeping prisoners to the dock and load them, busses and all, onto the escape barge. It was totally Ra’s. For the rest of us, a crime in Gotham is just that. For him, it’s an assault on The Detective’s City, and he tends to go all Blofeld with the over-plotted stratagasms.
After the busses, I searched as much of the ship as I could without being seen. Would have felt better in costume, but I managed. I finally found the scientists in what looked like the crew’s mess. Tim was with them, and from what I could see, they were passing him off as one of them. It occurred to me that they probably left Angelica for dead because she’s not a scientist. No use to Ra’s plan, so they left her behind in an explosion to be a definite BODY—bits of a body—in all the debris. Scientists go to the planetarium, planetarium blows up, scientists dead. Detective won’t come looking…
No, scratch that last part. Ra’s has to know “scientists dead” in Batman’s city, Batman WILL come looking. And will find, and will stuff every bit of planetarium shrapnel down his demon throat.
Unless… Unless he underestimated Bruce, which would not be unprecedented, and thought he was going to take us where Batman couldn’t find us. We were in the middle of an ocean, and I felt that sick nausea all over again as I thought back to my last conversation with Bruce. What if Ra’s wasn’t just planning to pass off some pig-poop miracle fuel as a substance he mined from the ocean floor? What if he planned to actually make it there? What if we were all headed for an undersea work camp he’d cooked up, thinking there’s no possible way to escape?
“As I thought,” Batman bristled, turning from the particle analyzer. “There’s a conspicuous amount of plastic, soap, and cotton fiber in the debris, consistent with the towels and toiletries at the Hudson University hotel.”
..:: I don’t see the significance,::.. Arthur said blandly.
“Ra’s has an 8th Century mindset, but he is aware the modern world exists. It’s one of his principal complaints. He doesn’t like it, but he is aware. He’ll have heard of trace DNA from the rubble of explosions used to identify the victims. He’ll have heard of the microsamples that can be harvested now, from just touching a railing or sipping from a glass.”
..::I’m familiar with it,::.. Aquaman spat viciously.
“I apologize,” Bruce said, veering from the painful subject. “My point is, the technology exists. Ra’s will know of it, but that doesn’t mean he understands it. So he has his men go through the hotel and take things from the scientists’ rooms: the towels they’ve used, shirts they’ve worn, soap, cups, toothbrushes. And he thinks if they leave these items in an explosion, it will look as if the scientists were killed in the blast. Now you should ask the question you had before.”
..:: If Ra’s is behind my diversions as well as yours, if he was the one sending me all over the Pacific that way, presumably to keep me away from Atlantis, what was the goal? ::..
“And here’s our answer. It’s not simple holding onto one captive for more than few days, let alone sixty. Sixty leading scientists from almost thirty different countries? Thirty different governments to fend off, all demanding their release? It’s impossible. It can’t be done—unless the world believes your prisoners to be dead. This DNA dodge has accomplished that, he thinks, but that illusion can’t be sustained if his prisoners show up on Google Earth. Think about it, Arthur, think about it from a ‘villain perspective’: where can you hide more than fifty men where they will never be seen, will have no possible means of escape…”
…:: And will be dependent on you for the very air they breathe, which would certainly make them more cooperative as a work force. Yes, I see your point. Atlantis would be ideal for the purpose, but Bruce, like I said, he isn’t here.::..
“Can you be sure?”
..:: I’m as sure as you would be if we were talking about Gotham. ::..
It was official: Ra’s had gone fullbore Blofeld on us. And heading for an undersea base with no possible means of escape was now the best-case scenario.
There were about two dozen minions guarding the scientists now. Two dozen that I could see from my vantage point, anyway. Four of them bothered me. They had that twitchy look, like Joker when he’s got a ha-ha-larious idea. And one of them had a box, a little larger than a paperback, hanging from his neck by a thick, braided cord.
Two of the non-twitchy minions left and returned a minute later, rolling in a television on one of those squeaky-wheel dollies. On the lower shelf of said dolly sat the cutting edge of badguy tech, circa 1974: a VHS player. The minion with the box came forward, the rest of them parting like the red sea before him as he moved. When he got to the television, he took the box off his neck and handed it off to the head minion, after which, no sea-parting for him. Head minion opened the box like it’s the holy-of-holies, and out comes… yep, a VHS tape. TV on, tape goes in the machine, and—predictably at this point—there was the Hairdo, scowling just like the king on his chess set.
He introduced himself like he was the new host of Masterpiece Theatre, and then proceeded to welcome the scientists to the service of the DEMON. The world believed them dead; they could entertain no hope of rescue. Indeed, in a sense, they were dead, for their lives as they had known them, up until this very moment when they beheld the countenance of Ra’s al Ghul, those lives were indeed over. But just as he triumphed over death and lived again on emerging from his Lazarus Pit, they too were now born again into new lives in the DEMON cult.
I hate to speak for sixty strangers, but I think it’s fair to say we were all equally horrified. But except for me and Tim, everyone else’s horror seemed to crescendo on the last words, and then relax. Everyone who didn’t know Ra’s thought he had finished. Tim and I knew better.
“Were any of you the product of civilized societies,” he wheezed, “it would not be necessary to mar this glorious day with the making of unseemly threats. You will eventually come to understand that the ways of the DEMON are not the ways of the thug. Alas, you are all, despite your superior intelligence, tainted by the diseased West. The Demon’s Head must therefore proceed with you as he would with a fine thoroughbred who has known only the whip of inferior trainers.
“Among your own people, there have been visionaries who recognize the defilement of this planet by your countrymen. In the city you just left, Poison Ivy, though a woman, has made great strides in avenging the wrongs to your environment. On the far coast of that same country, one Anton Geist recognized that your global warming is melting the ice caps, the oceans are rising, and in time, the land will be gone. ‘One way or another,’ as he put it so succinctly ‘we will all be underwater.’”
I don’t know which was more pathetic: Ivy and Geist held up as the visionaries of the West, or Ra’s singling out anyone’s oratory as “succinct.”
“Knowing that man would become extinct with the new deluge, Geist introduced a genetic anomaly into the water supply of San Diego, a self-replicating strand of DNA that converted the respiratory, auditory, ocular, and muscular systems to a marine-based model. In other words, he changed the people of Sub Diego into water-breathers.
“Mr. Geist has recently come into my employ, much as all of you have just done, and at my bidding, he has reproduced his earlier efforts. You have all ingested the mutating agent, just as the people of San Diego did, and like those who were submerged during the earthquake, should you breathe in water, you too will find yourselves permanently altered and unable to return to the land.”
Ra’s paused. The twitchy minion who had the box around his neck now stood apart from the other three. The three produced what looked like seltzer canisters and emptied the streams into his face. He just STOOD THERE, taking it, and when it was over, he proceeded to fall onto the floor and flop around like a dying fish. He spasmed, he convulsed, he gasped, he screamed, and then… he just stopped.
“Pray, keep this demonstration in mind as you contemplate your futures. Cooperation will bring rewards. Escape is not only impossible, it brings the risk of certain death, as y—”
Benefit of the doubt, “…as you have seen” and Ubu was a little fast on the stop button.
Then again, knowing Ra’s, it’s quite possible he never grasped that the video tape was a fixed length and no minion would dare tell him he’d run out of time.
To be continued...