ISSUE #16 (May 2020) Written by Emma Woods Featuring:
"BLINDED BY INDIFFERENCE" PART 4
“Jesus,” Drury Walker muttered to himself, reluctant to venture deeper into the bar, doing little to disguise his distain as he looked about the crumbling locale. Like many of the buildings in Gotham’s most densely populated district, the structure was borderline unsound, the timbers holding themselves together largely out of spite, and more than a few creatures scuttled across the floor into the dark corners of the room. He sighed before straightening his jacket, resolving to get this matter over with before he caught something.
“Seriously, Arthur,” he questioned as he made his way over to a table, his one-time associate, and now long-time friend nursing a shot of whisky as if it held the secrets of the Universe. “Is there anything on this island that isn’t covered in shit?”
Arthur looked up, snapped out of whatever thoughts were bothering him, and he managed to display a weak smile. He was slimmer that Drury remembered him, wiry where he had once been robust, and his eyes were not as piercing as before. He had developed crows’ feet, Drury realised, starkly reminded now just how long it had been since they had last met.
“I wouldn’t count on it,” Arthur answered, sweeping back his long fringe from his forehead, leaning back in his chair and noticeably not downing his drink. “Gotham has to dump it’s garbage somewhere.”
Drury sat, effecting a less than truthful smile of his own, trying not to think about where his chair had been, looking about the sparsely populated bar and it’s less than savoury patrons. He wouldn’t say they were criminals necessarily, but one more missed meal would probably push them into it. When the silence threatened to become uncomfortable, he broached a subject that most defiantly was, “How’s Agnes?”
“Doing better,” Arthur cleared his throat, folding his arms as he did so, “she’s at the clinic now.”
“Well, that’s good, getting help?” Drury assumed.
“Dispensing it,” Arthur corrected, catching his former assassinate by surprise.
Drury looked incredulous, “They gave her back her licence?”
Arthur shrugged, “Don’t know. This is the Narrows; I don’t think anyone really cares.”
“Are you two…”
“No,” Arthur cut him off before Drury could even finish forming his sentence. “After what happened with Stephanie, Agnes has stayed away, just like she promised.
“Well, that’s good,” Drury repeated his earlier sentiment, sounding like a broken record, drumming the tip of his index finger against the table. “That’s really good.”
Arthur, his eyes critical, was the next one to break the silence, “Why did you call?”
Drury looked at him, considering his response, opening his mouth before closing it. With a deep sigh, he turned about to face Arthur fully, clasping his hands together and looking him in the eye. “I hear things, Arthur.”
“You hear things?” Arthur folded his arms anew, feeling an increasing need to be defensive. He had lost none of his powers of observation, and he was perhaps already searching for an exit. Old habits, old necessities.
“People still tell me things,” Drury confided. “As if they think I might still care. They never took us seriously before, but these new kids, they remember me having a costume and a fancy gun and they assume I must have been someone special. The answers always no but still, I hear things.”
Arthur didn’t take the bait, forcing his associate to continue.
“Tell me,” Drury prompted, “tell me I’m not the only one at this table who’s still thinking straight. We got out for the same reason, tell me that’s still the case.”
“I’m out,” Arthur stated flatly, “I’m done. I don’t know what people have been telling you, but Stephanie is all that matters to me now. I’m out.”
Drury watched him closely, searching for some manner of tell, but as Arthur remained neutral, he knew it was a losing battle. Of the two of them, only one was a detective. He nodded, Drury realising that he would have to be satisfied with that.
“I hope so,” Drury nodded, slowly standing up and straightening his jacket. “Because I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but things are getting crazier out there. Our old colleagues? Out of control, and the Bats are multiplying. It’s escalating Arthur, it’s no place for you or me.”
“I hadn’t noticed,” Arthur admitted, unfolding his arms and visibly relaxing. “No-one comes to the Narrows because they want to.”
Drury nodded, managing a weak smile before he turned to go. He stopped himself at the last moment, drumming his finger against the table. “I mean it Arthur, remember why you left and don’t get involved, no matter who comes calling. When you asked me to be Stephanie’s God Father, I said yes out of sentiment.”
Inhaling a deep breath, the man once known as Killer Moth looked the former Cluemaster directly in the eye, “I have no interest in actually being her father.”
Batgirl had been here less than an hour, she already hated it.
She ducked low as her adversary swung a wicked right hook, narrowly avoiding the blow of her lean opponent. Stephanie retaliated, jabbing with a quick left to his ribcage before launching upwards with a stiff uppercut. She connected both times, it made little difference, the guard wrapped in several layers of kevlar and padded plating, his uniform a tactical suit of armour covering him from head to toe, rendering him utterly indistinguishable from his colleagues and, more importantly, providing him with plentiful protection.
Batgirl would call foul, but her own suit employed many of the same principles.
Never the less, Stephanie remained relentless in her own counterattack, employing shock and awe to keep her larger foe on the defensive, a left hook to his helmet and running knee to his gut forcing him to back pedal.
No damsel was he, however, her opponent tagging Batgirl with a rabbit punch that left her ears ringing, and a kick to her gut slamming the smaller girl back against a wall.
Blunt force trauma was getting her no-where, Stephanie recalculated her attack, darting forwards and snapping out a swift jab, the knuckles of her fist connecting solidly with her opponent’s throat. He gagged, audible even through the grill of his helmet, the guard instinctively reaching for his neck. Batgirl pivoted on the spot, kicking out and slamming the sole of her boot to just beneath the guard’s kneecap, visibly breaking something important as he dropped down swiftly to a penitent position.
Not letting up, Stephanie stepped in and, after cradling the back of his head, she rammed her knee skywards and connected with her weaponised joint to the underside of his jaw. Her adversary went down after that, crumpling like a puppet with his strings cut, dropping to the floor and staying there as she remained standing.
Batgirl exhaled, steadying her nerves and taking stock of her surroundings. The entire encounter had taken less that ten seconds to play out. No-one had been alerted.
The man she only knew as Killer Moth had undergone a similar experience, not five yards away from her and forcing his own adversary to pass out, a meaty arm wrapped around the man’s throat. Broad in frame and thick with muscle, Moth radiated silent menace, attired in poorly maintained tactical gear and a modified gas mask, the grimy lenses of which opened and closed at erratic intervals with mechanical irises. He filled her with unease.
He was the only ally that she had.
“Moth,” Batgirl prompted and, after a moment’s deliberation, he let the slack guard in his grasp drop down to the gantry without snapping his neck. Inwardly, Stephanie sighed in relief, that wasn’t a bridge that she wanted to consider crossing just yet, not when she was stuck in this hellish place.
As stowaways, they had boarded the restructured oil rig from a cargo container, one owned by Wayne Enterprises and being used to facilitate human trafficking. Both on their own paths, they had followed the trail of abducted citizens of Gotham to this forsaken place, the homeless of the Narrows herded into purgatory, and Batgirl could only continue hoping that she and Killer Moth were still on the same page as to what happened next.
His name did not inspire confidence.
The Inferno was aptly named, every inch of it that she had seen reeking of the damned, rusted metal gantries warm to the touch and distant screams echoing down the narrow corridors. She knew there was a larger game at play here but, right now, Batgirl didn’t care. All she wanted was to find her people and get them the hell out of, well, hell, and back to where they belonged.
Retribution could come later.
Stephanie bit her bottom lip before she looked down what seemed like a myriad of different options as several corridors lead off from their current junction. They had been trailing the human caravan of abducted Gotham citizens when they had stumbled across this small patrol and now, short as the diversion had been, she was already at a loss as to where to go next.
Reluctantly, she admitted to herself that she missed having Bette Kane, her handler, muttering in her ear. Some advice would go down a treat right now, but that line of communication had failed long before they had reached the Inferno.
Looking back around, she was surprised to find Moth crouched over one of the guards, searching his uniform and equipment. “What are you doing?” she queried, leaning closer.
“Interrogation,” Moth answered back, the word coming out at a rasp. There was some damage there, Stephanie noticed, long standing.
Batgirl looked to her own former adversary and followed Moth’s lead, getting down onto her knees and searching the mans gear. Aside from being military grade, the equipment surrendered no further information at first glance, no insignia or allegiance on visible display. Reaching for his helmet, she released the clasp that held it locked in place about his collar, pulling it away.
“Don’t,” Moth warned, his tone low, but it was too late to make a difference, Stephanie stepping back swiftly as her former adversary’s face was revealed.
She covered her mouth and felt an intense need to vomit, the sheer extent of the mutilation that wrought upon the mans flesh sickening her to her stomach. The extensive scarification robbed him of his humanity, and it took longer than she expected to realise that the guard’s entire nose was missing, hacked off in some manner of frenzy.
Moth didn’t flinch, confirming what Stephanie suspected, “Mine is the same. They all will be.”
“Why?” Batgirl exhaled as soon as she was confident that she wouldn’t hurl. “Why do that to him?”
“Her,” Moth corrected, sombre tone unwavering, a lead connecting his own, modified mask to his former assailant’s helm. Stephanie looked at him in confusion, Moth looked back with a slow whirling of his spasming lenses. “Your opponent, she’s a woman.”
Batgirl looked back to the guard she had put down, to her heavily scarified features, and realised that it was true, some instinct in her gut telling her it was so. Stephanie couldn’t even tell anymore, so extensive was the damage that had been inflicted upon her.
“Don’t ask why,” Moth stated, getting up and pulling free the cable from his mask, meeting her at the junction. “Don’t try to understand it.”
“Don’t,” Moth placed a hand on her shoulder and turned Batgirl away, directing her down one corridor. “You will find our citizens down there. Do not detour, free them and return to the vessel we arrived in.”
Batgirl nodded before stopping, looking to the stranger beside her, a man she’d met just hours before and whose real name she didn’t know. “Where are you going?”
“No-where you should follow.”
In the end, fear was all it took to cow the masses.
As the crowd of people were herded through the tight corridors of the Inferno, it was as though the walls were closing in on them, oppressive and echoing with the memories of misery. Like a pack of beaten hounds, the train of Gothamites clung together hopelessly, led by a pair of unidentifiable guards at the front, and prodded by a second pair at the rear, all four quick to dispense dispassionate punishment to any who stepped out of line.
They were cattle, Doctor Agnes Bellinger observed as she, dirty, hungry and beaten, was shepherded alongside her neighbours, being led to slaughter. She moved at the centre of the group; the people having gravitated around her as soon as she had made her presence known inside the cargo container they had all been locked in, drawing what little strength they could find from the symbolism of her profession. It was a fragile hope that they now clung to, and she was acutely aware that it was making her a target.
Finally, once they had become truly lost in the labyrinthine structure of warm metal, they arrived at what Agnes assumed was a temporary destination. The long corridor before them was lined by cells along either side and, the moment she stepped into the prison, she came to realise that the stolen citizens of Gotham were just the tip of the iceberg. There were hundreds, if not thousands of people already here, crammed into filthy cells and waiting to face an uncertain future.
Someone wailed, indistinguishable from all those around him, spirit broken and cast asunder.
With sharp prompts, the Gothamites were herded into the nearest cage, all of them expected to fit as they were shoved inside a half dozen at a time. Panic threatened to break out, but it was over before it could present their captors a problem, Doctor Bellinger stumbling into her prison just before the door was slammed shut behind her.
As she turned about, it did not take her long to see that not all of them were being contained. One boy had been kept apart from the others, perhaps thirteen at most, held tightly by his arm as he was held back. Fear flashed in his eyes as he now stood separated and dejected, segregated from his flock in this God forsaken place.
“Where are you taking him?” Agnes demanded to know, pushing forwards and grasping the bars of her cell, temper flaring as fear was overwhelmed by righteous indignation. None of the guards looked at her, their faces obscured by featureless helmets. That made her irrationally angry, regardless of the danger such a reaction presented to her, “I said, where are you taking him?”
Still, they continued to ignore her, preparing to leave with tearful child in tow.
“Do you know who we are?” she snapped, demanding their attention, gripping the bars of her cell with white knuckled rage. “Do you know where we’re from? You don’t take from Gotham without him seeing! He’ll come for you! BATMAN WILL…”
It was the most innocuous of sounds that interrupted her, the quite ‘ting ting ting’ of a small, metal canister bouncing down the corridor, followed by a second, coming to settle at the guard’s feet. For what seemed to be the longest time, nothing came of their uninvited arrival, but Agnes knew it was a single breath before they exploded in a cloud of blinding gas and a bang of a deafening din.
Doctor Bellinger both looked away and covered her ears as shock quickly rippled down the corridor of packed prisoners, everyone disorientated as the world became a smoke laden, play of shadows. Agnes could hear the sounds of conflict, but she could barely see it, figures darting in and out of the choking clouds like phantoms fitfully passing back and forth. She could hear grunts, groans, cries of pain and the unmistakable sounds of enforced trauma, but could make no sense of who was winning.
Finally, with her ears still ringing, the smoke thinned to such a degree that Agnes could begin to see clearly, relieved to see their guards splayed out the deck and the boy freed from their captivity.
She was not prepared for what she saw next…
Batgirl took a breadth, eyes closed, composed as the adrenaline ran its course. When she exhaled, the smoke was already dissipating and all four of the guards had been incapacitated. Stephanie was disappointed to find that her fingers were still shaking.
Adrenaline, she reassured herself, it was just adrenaline.
Refocusing her attention now that the immediate danger had passed, Batgirl took in her surroundings, momentarily taken aback by the sheer number of civilians she had found locked up in cages. There were far more here than she had anticipated, certainly more than had been taken from the Narrows.
“I did not think this through,” she muttered to herself, trying to not let the numbers overwhelm her.
“Batgirl!” someone called from the cell beside her, a child, staring at her with a look of desperation, reaching out as though the vigilante were life preserver. Tugged by a flair of painful empathy, Stephanie immediately responded, moving over to the child and leaning forwards, taking the girls little hand in hers. “You came!” the child exclaimed, both realisation and recognition rippling through the ranks of abducted Gothamites.
“Of course, I did,” Batgirl reassured, the mass of humanity that had been trapped behind bars gravitating towards her, some pleading to be released. “Narrows stick together, right?”
The little girl nodded, perhaps believing it for the first time in her short life, Stephanie smiling at her as if everything was going to be alright.
“Just give me a minute, need to ask those gentlemen over there some questions,” Batgirl nodded in the direction of the prone guards, “ok?”
The little girl nodded, releasing the forgotten Districts very own Bat so that she could save the day.
Stephanie didn’t waste time, knowing that she had none to spare, moving from one guard to the next until she found what she was looking for. With her heart skipping a beat in victory, she found a set of rusted keys hooked to the belt of one of them, pulling it free and holding them up in front of her. That victory was short lived, Batgirl immediately feeling irked by the sheer number of them dangling from the chain.
“Really?” she questioned the guards that she had knocked unconscious, counting several dozen keys at least. “My house was broken into, and I don’t have this many locks.”
To further compound matters, the unmistakable wail of an alarm began to echo down the hallways, alerting the rest of the facility to the presence of an intruder. Either someone had stumbled across her handiwork, or someone had stumbled across Moth. Regardless, her window of opportunity had just shortened dramatically.
“Batgirl!” someone new called for her attention, this one older and carrying an air of authority. She spotted the older woman at the forefront of the crowd of Gothamites, holding out a hand towards her. “My name is Doctor Bellinger, give me the keys, I’ll get these people free.”
Making her way over, Stephanie handed her the chain, as she did so, the Doctor continued questioning.
“Is he with you?” Agnes wanted to know.
“He?” Batgirl shot back.
“Batman,” Doctor Bellinger confirmed, her manner terse as she was already searching for the key that would fit the lock to her cell.
Stephanie resisted the urge to bite her bottom lip. “Not so much,” she admitted, “no.”
“Terrific,” Agnes muttered under her breath before hesitating. They looked each other then, Doctor Bellinger and Batgirl and, for a moment, it looked as so Agnes might had something to say. She didn’t, burying it deep, returning to the task of freeing her neighbours. “Go on, go, I’ll unlock the doors, you keep the path clear ahead of us.”
“Right,” Batgirl nodded, turning back to the junction from which she had entered, an entire facility of alerted hostiles between her and the boat she had arrived on.
She really hadn’t thought this through.
“I know what you’re thinking,” the figure broke the silence, well-tailored and immaculate in appearance, a man at stark odds with the squalor of his surroundings. With steel girders and metallic walkways, the air was thick with the musk of rust, the heat alone cause enough for a man to perspire. He seemed to be unperturbed, idly tinkering with the objects laid out across the table, his demeanour at insufferable ease. “You’re thinking that ‘Dante’ is far too melodramatic a name to have in a place such as this.”
He smiled then, turning half way to face his guest, the expression almost bashful in his humility, “I’m afraid our benefactors can be as grandiose as they are varied. Over the last decade or so, they are become more fanciful in nature, more colourful. I blame Superman myself, but opinions differ.”
Dante made the smallest of frowns as the lights flickered, casting the room into an even deeper gloom before the ambient light returned, for all that it was worth. He shook his head in resignation before returning to task, patient and methodical.
“You want to know why you’re here?” he questioned, looking to his guest across the room, one who didn’t answer. They couldn’t, tightly bound to the chair as they were, their mouth wrapped in a gag. So covered in grime was his guest, their own filth, Dante couldn’t tell if they were male or female. Truth be told, he would have difficulty discerning the truth under the best of circumstances, he had lost seeing the point of the distinction a long time ago.
“You want to know why you’ve been separated from the others?” he continued to observe idly before plucking an object from the table, carrying it with him before he crouched before his guest.
The entrapped figure squirmed to get away, it was a pointlessly futile gesture.
Dante made the smallest of sympathetic expressions, “I’m afraid it’s not because you’re special. We have requirements, you see, necessities to keep the Inferno running. If it’s any consolation, this does mean that you’re not destined for a far more ambiguous fate.”
The expression passed, and Dante became all the more sombre, “Unfortunately, you are not suitable enough the way you…”
He paused, his concentration broken, the morbidly dour routine, the fatalistic ritual interrupted by the blaring of a siren. Dante stood up straight, his captive forgotten, his certainty shaken by that most unfamiliar of alarms. It took him a moment a realise that he didn’t know what it meant; he had never heard it before within the Inferno.
For a fleeting, smattering of heartbeats, the absolute certainty of his existence unravelled.
He reacted to it poorly.
With a scowl, he tossed his tool away, marching from the room to find his nearest subordinates, a gathering of faceless guards close to hand. “Silence that alarm!” he demanded, furious that his meticulous, well ordered realm was being violated, “Kill whatever is responsible.”
Emiko Queen blew a bubble.
She let it burst.
For the time being at least, she was alone on the deck of the Inferno, fully exposed to the cold, sea air as she took up residence on the helicopter pad. She could see clear to the horizon in every direction, and there was no cause for hope to be found in any of them.
She blew a bubble.
She let it burst.
With headphones in place, her choice in music dulled out the sound of wailing sirens, the young woman processing the change in atmosphere with bored detachment. Emiko sighed, as world weary as only a teenager could imagine herself to be, a crimson tinted hood protecting her features from the worst bite of the chill environment.
She was unaware of the full picture, but given the panic unfolding somewhere in the floors beneath her feet, she knew that someone had royally shit the bed. With a tic of irritation, she noted that her mother was trying to get her attention, a small device vibrating on her belt.
Removing just one of her headphones, Emiko replaced it in her ear with the small communicator, a tersely disapproving tone reprimanding her even before the device was settled in place.
“Daughter,” her mothers disembodied voice was quick to remind them of their respective stations, “your tardiness is unbecoming. Join me in fulfilling our duties before your lack of urgency is noticed.”
“About that,” Emiko replied back, showing little desire to get moving, continuing to look out across the grey horizon. “I seem to recall saying something about this.”
“Now is not the time.”
“I disagree,” Emiko remained calm, disenchanted even as she unslung her bow from her back, checking the tautness of the string. “Remember when I said that they were getting greedy? Remember when I said that someone was going to notice.”
“And you said that it wasn’t a problem,” the teenager reminded, warming to her subject. “You said that no-one would notice, because no-one cared.”
Emiko reached back down to her belt, retrieving a second device. It was innocuous in natures, small, unassuming, easily ignored. She held it in one hand, her thumb pressed up against its centre.
“You were wrong,” Emiko held the device up, picking her moment. “I noticed.”
She blew a bubble.
She let it burst.
Pressing the detonator, Emiko Queen brought into reality months of preparation, making good on weeks of subterfuge, infiltration and sabotage. Her mother was here to repay an old dealt, Emiko was here to flip the table.
Across the Inferno, nine locations lived up to the name and then some, explosives that she had planted detonating in sequence and rocking the entirety of the platform. Fire lit up the sky, sound deafened the unwary, and several billion dollars’ worth of riches were already lost at sea, sent sinking into the ocean by way of hull breaches and explosions.