ISSUE #15 (March 2020) Written by Emma Woods Featuring:
"BLINDED BY INDIFFERENCE" PART 3
Agnes Bellinger inhaled deeply, not fresh air, but the choking fumes of her cigarette. She held it, mouth full of smoke as she clutched her eyes tight, sat beside a dumpster in the freezing night air. She almost choked before she exhaled but, when she did, the nicotine cloud poured out from between her lips to hurriedly join the already polluted air of the Narrows. As a Doctor, Agnes should know better, in reality, she didn’t much care.
Her fingers were trembling, and she did her best to hide it, rubbing her palm against her forehead as she leant back against a brick wall. The sounds of her clinic behind her echoed out into the night to join her, the endless train of the sick and weary never leaving her be. By the standards of Gotham’s forgotten district, the facility was considered new, measured by any other metric in any other part of the city, it should be condemned.
It was the Narrow’s only clinic; it’s citizens couldn’t afford to be choosy.
“Doctor,” her visitor prompted, much of his outline obscured by the shadows, his tone low and uncompromising.
“Give me a minute!” Agnes snapped, irritable and annoyed, exhausted and mourning. She hadn’t expected to be mourning. Still sitting, she massaged the bridge of her nose with her middle finger, furiously rubbing that point between her eyes until it was red and raw. “No,” she answered what had been her visitors only question, “I won’t do it.”
Doctor Bellinger couldn’t see his disapproval, but she could feel it, bleeding off him in waves.
The judgement of Gotham come to deliver upon her the most unwanted of news.
Arthur Brown, the father of her child, was dead.
She inhaled a second breath of cancer spreading nicotine, daring it to kill her.
Batman would not be ignored, “Your child…”
“I said no!” Agnes snapped, venom lacing her tone as she expelled the mouthful of smoke. “I won’t do it; I will not take her in! If your heart bleeds for her so much, you take her in, like that little, urchin boy at your shoulder!!”
“Hey!” Robin protested, young Dick Grayson perched on a nearby ledge, the brightly coloured youth seemingly mystified as to why he had become the focus of her redirected spite. “I’m not an urchin.”
Batman didn’t speak, not at first, Doctor Bellinger feeling his scrutiny boring into her soul.
“Stephanie has lost her father,” the Dark Knight intoned. “She needs her mother.”
With her eyes screwed shut, Agnes rubbed her forehead, thinking back to the things she had done all those years before, a sin that couldn’t erased. He didn’t know, couldn’t know, the reasons why she had left. Her fingers were still trembling.
Why couldn’t she stop her fingers from trembling.
“No,” she reiterated, although her tone had lost its sharpness. Agnes felt defeated, hollowed out by her failures. “I told you, I won’t do it,” she inhaled for a third time, adamant in her position.
“Stephanie Brown doesn’t have a mother.”
If Batgirl was being honest, this hadn’t been one of her best ideas.
She stopped short of voicing the confession, at least in her present company, Stephanie and her ‘companion’ sharing a painfully cramped room aboard a vessel neither of them was supposed to be on. The ship was owned by Wayne Enterprises, its cargo was the abducted homeless of the Narrows, its destination was unknown and, although she wouldn’t admit it, the entirety of her plan had ended the moment she had snuck on board.
Now here she was, sharing space with a man she didn’t know, a stowaway much like herself, and someone she very much doubted was ‘Batman approved.’
Killer Moth was not a name that inspired confidence, saying nothing of his demeanour nor his appearance.
They sat opposite one another in the small room, one that felt as neglected as it was secluded, scarcely half a foot between them as his own bulk took up the majority of their shared space. She couldn’t see his face, which did little to instil trust, the entirety of his features obscured by a hard plated, modified gasmask, the irises of the lenses circling open and close at jittering intervals. Scar tissue ran down the length of his right arm, creeping up one side of his neck to disappear beneath his faceplate. Stephanie couldn’t tell what he was looking at.
“You should sleep,” he broke the silence, the tenor of his tone low. He moved little, Batgirl observed, the smallest of erratic twitches in his right hand betraying his own movements. Nerve damage, Stephanie had seen it before. There was a malice in his posture, despite how little he surrendered, threat. “This trip will not be short.”
Batgirl swallowed, only ever so slightly, determined to not display her unease. He was taller, broader and wider, his taunt, muscled mass dwarfing her own physique several times over, and it was not lost on Stephanie that he was positioned between herself and their only exit. She kept her eyes on him, unwavering. He had saved her from discovery not an hour before, but he had been less than kind in the act of doing so, her neck still twinging from his implied threat.
“Why are you here?” she questioned, hoping for an answer.
“The same as you,” he answered, the tremor of his breath a slight rasp. “I’m here for our neighbours.”
Batgirl paused, nipping on her bottom lip lightly as she considered her options, “You’re from the Narrows?”
The stranger didn’t answer, not for several, long moments, the irises of his lenses sliding closed before slowly scraping back open. “For now.”
Stephanie considered a further inquiry, but held it back after a moment’s hesitation. She tucked herself back into the corner, the young woman doing her best to not fidget. No, this had not been one of her better ideas but, by the sounds of it, she was going to have plenty of time to think of a better one.
When Agnes Bellinger came to, she knew that she was not alone.
Instinctively, she reached out, briefly grasping a stranger by the leg before a whimper heralded them pulling the trembling limb away. It sounded like a child, lost in the dark as she was, and Agnes had to blink several times before she realised that she wasn’t blind. It was her surroundings that were suffocating in darkness, the tight confines of a metal container lacking even a hint of illumination, her other senses filling in the blanks as best as they were able, the crying of those around her muffled as they bounced of the unforgiving walls.
With a grimace, her temples throbbing, Agnes pushed herself up to sitting, her stomach roiling from the uneven movements beneath her palms, the ground beneath her seeming to sway up and down. Were they at sea, she idly wondered as her head continued spinning, turning her thoughts to that instead of allowing them to consider that she should probably be terrified. Back at her clinic, the darkness had come to claim her, and now she was drowning in it.
She chided herself with a curl of her lip that no-one else could see, admonishing herself for indulging in such melodramatic fancy. It was unbecoming.
Searching her own pockets blindly, she happened upon what she was looking for, Agnes smiling to herself in this small victory as she held the small object in the palm of her hand. Being careful to not burn herself, she steadied her trembling fingers, attempting several times before successfully igniting her lighter.
The flame that it produced was tiny and yet, in such suffocating surroundings, it was like the dawning of a new son, casting shadows across the containers walls and bringing illumination to the blind. It was only then that she realised just how many were sharing this space with her, at least two dozen men, women and children crammed into the tight confines and shipped to God only knew where.
At first they scrambled backwards from the fresh flame, the lost of Gotham’s Forgotten District distrustful of the new stimuli, the children in particular covering their eyes. Some of them adjusted, looking upon one another for the first time with their own eyes, and Agnes found that she was holding her own breath.
They were afraid, all of them, so terribly afraid.
“It’s ok,” she spoke up, her small flame quivering as she held up her lighter. “I’m a Doctor, is anyone hurt?” she inquired, stamping out the quiver in her own voice through force of will. A few nodded, and she moved to them, another taking their only light from her so that she could expend what care she was able.
“It’s ok,” she repeated, tending to the wounded, as much for her own sake as theirs. She didn’t quite believe it, but it was what her patients needed to hear, anything that resembled even a moderation of reassurance. In truth, its what she needed to hear to.
It was with disinterest that Emiko Queen flipped a gold coin between her fingers.
With idle ease, the precious metal was made to dance across her knuckles, gliding over from one to the next as she scarcely paid it any attention. Instead the archer extraordinaire glanced about her surroundings with bored indifference, this one room alone filled with enough riches to match a small country. Gold, statues, precious artwork, a collection of valuables to tempt even the most pious of souls, and this was but one alcove aboard the fortress at sea.
They were vaults without doors, because no-one on board had the desire to steal from them. Slaves and the enslavers, with nothing in between.
Profoundly bored, Emiko tossed the liberated coin that she toyed with into the air, catching it before tossing it aside, little caring where it landed. She had explored much of the stations labyrinthian infrastructure since being dragged here by her mother and, to her eternal regret, she could only come to a singular conclusion.
The Inferno, fall all of its hellish grandeur, was a bank.
A bank for the largely insane, granted, but a bank none the less.
With a dejected sigh that could only be summoned by the truly disenchanted, the teenager found that revelation profoundly disappointing.
“You don’t approve?” Dante inquired from the doorway, announcing his presence without a hint of malice, Emiko knew better.
She hadn’t noted his arrival until he had made himself known, but Emiko would be damned if she let him know that he had snuck upon her unnoticed. The young woman continued to blank his presence for several moments longer before gracing him with a look, one that was patently unimpressed, one of her eyes obscured by her long fringe.
Dante was slick, smartly suited and distinctly at odds with his stark surroundings. He appeared banal, a bank manager of sorts, for in many ways that was exactly what he was, but Emiko had always found his mannerisms to be slightly off. For all of his precise dictation, the teen had quickly discerned that his every word was akin to a viper. The man was a snake on the cusp of shedding his skin.
Emiko did not see fit to grace him with an answer, too cool for school as she instead blew a bubble and let it burst.
“Of course, you don’t,” Dante smiled as though he had not just been insulted, smartly adjusting the cufflinks of his shirt before he advanced into the room. His pace was measured, but his intent was not. “I’ve come to believe that is the responsibility of the young, to be disappointed by their elders, to find their efforts wanting. It’s why they go on to replace the past with their own endeavours, just as they are born to.”
He paused for a moment, idling with a trinket that was likely to be priceless, “Of course, they then go on to have their own children, and those ungrateful little horrors will go on to repeat history. Truly, it amazes me that we never see it coming.”
Emiko blew a bubble.
She let it burst.
Dante smiled a little wider, it was sickeningly sincere, “I’m boring you.”
Emiko shrugged, all the while mapping in her mind the swiftest pathway to the door.
“You don’t approve of your mother bringing you here,” Dante lent back against a table, his arms folded.
Emiko rolled her eyes, deliberately indifferent.
“You don’t approve of what we do here,” Dante’s own gaze remained level, appraising her for weakness.
Emiko finally saw fit to answer him, “I’m not here to give a sh*t.”
“No,” Dante smiled a little more, enjoying his position of power, “you’re not. You, your mother, you’re here because of debt, and debts are always paid. I should know.”
Emiko blew a bubble,
She let it burst.
Without another word, the young woman made to leave the room and leave Dante behind her, the archer extraordinaire not sparing him another glance.
Somewhere at sea…
Against her better judgement, Batgirl had slept.
She had tried to keep her eyes open, to remain alert for as long as possible, but as the chronometer built into her suit’s wrist ticked the hours by, one after another, Stephanie had found it to be a fruitless task. And so, she had slept, some part of her remaining alert to her surroundings, a part of her that had learned that danger could come at any moment.
As such, Batgirl wasn’t startled when Killer Moth woke her, one grimy hand grasping her smaller shoulder, but she was initially wary of his intentions. With small, curt gestures, he alerted her to their changing circumstances, the ship that they were on finally slowing down.
To leave their place of concealment was to chance discovery, but there was nothing for it. Sooner or later they would have to emerge in order to affect a rescue and, if they were to be found, she would sooner it be in the open than trapped in a corner. They made swift progress through the ship, Batgirl more confident about her surroundings with Killer Moth at her back to guide the way, his familiarity with its layout proving to be invaluable.
She made progress from one corridor to the next, avoiding armed guards at every junction, Batgirl in turn made herself useful. Stephanie darted on ahead, her smaller stature and lithe physique aiding her in seeking cover, the dark purples and blacks of her attire all but wrapping what shadows she could find around her. Keeping silent, she surprised herself with her aptitude for scouting, creeping her way up the ship one stairwell at a time before waving the all clear.
Killer Moth followed, shockingly silent for a man of his size, evidently accustomed to going unnoticed, but there were few places he could hide now that they were in the open. His hand never strayed far from his belt; a weapon tucked inside a holster at hip for easy reach. Despite her best efforts at observation, she couldn’t make out the design.
Batgirl resisted the urge to make a face, she doubted it was set to stun.
Finally, having avoided detection, Batgirl arrived on deck, startled by the sudden blast of near artic air that washed over her the moment she emerged out into the open air. Her suit insulated her against the worst of it, but it sent a chill through her none the less. It was nothing compared to the breadth that caught in her throat following what she witnessed on the horizon.
In an effort to make sense of what she was seeing, her brain confirmed that it had once been an oil rig, but its purpose had long since been warped out of being. Decades of additions and modifications had blurred its outline into a hellscape, expanding and growing until it was trying to dominate the very ocean itself that surrounded it. It was a castle in the sea, and its residents must surely be the damned.
“Well,” Batgirl exhaled as Killer Moth joined her on the deck, the lenses of his mask slowly whirling closed as they remained crouched. Even as they watched, several gouts of fire erupted from the highest stacks as if greeting their arrival, tinting the sky a crimson hue.