Bruce Wayne was in an alcove in the lowest level of the Vault under Wayne Tower changing into the suit. Just six months ago it was new to him as it was a necessary change to meet up with the probable capabilities of the Project. Gone was the original hard suit which offered maximum protection from small arms and most physical blows, but suffered in flexibility to an extent that hindered his skills in martial arts. That had been replaced by plate over polyweave, giving much better protection against small arms via the plates but offering less protection for the joints and against some physical blows. While a bit more agile in many positions, it was difficult to run with it on and suffered from limitations on some of the grosser physical movements such as roundhouse kicks. That one had lasted him nearly two years and was well worn in but susceptible to many of the things the Project could do.
Now came the mini-plates in polyweave with rheofluid cell backing which was somewhat lesser in the way of small arms protection but offered nearly complete mobility for all activities. Changing over to a tighter fitting boot system that went with this suit meant it became something that surrounded him and made him change some subtle motions, even in walking. This was the first suit that felt 'natural' to him and actually enhanced his physical skills and gave him added low level abilities like the surround-sonar system modulated by the small plates and rheofluid system. He could feel the distance to objects based on hardness of the fluid against his body, and learning to actually 'feel' his way in the dark without any other aid was at once easy to do and hard to master as the difference in surface meant a difference in feedback, thus changing distance that was felt.
The cape was one that had started in WMM for theatrical use by having a dramatic 'opening' effect by use of rheoplastic materials built into the cape. This also proved to be something that would not just slow descent but actually allow the user to utilize air currents to a surprising degree. ATC East XP Division had modified the cape so that these functions were expanded, and while true and actual flight was still off in the distance, falling with a fair forward velocity and utilizing thermals was well within its design envelope.
The helmet hearkened back to the suit as both were modeled after Bronze Age forms of armor. With eye holes, nose guard and long ear openings that could have external acoustic resonance chambers put on them, the helmet protected against a range of physical assaults, chem/bio assaults by using the nose filter system built into it, any of the modular Wayne Tech goggles such as IR, UV or Light Intensification, plus the chambers for the ears allowed for anything from the complete cut-off of hearing to directional pinpointing of sound to about twice normal hearing range. With redesign work done by hand in the Vault by Lucius, Alfred or Wayne himself, these items took on the more typical night-time appearance that went with his prior garb.
As he walked over to put the helmet on he added IR goggles and gave them a test cycle to ensure that they were working and properly connected inside the helmet. He had last changed the breather packs a week ago and they should be good for another month more of his typical use. Next he swung the cape on, gave it a quick activation test and then shut it down.
Lights switched off as he left and alcoves rotated and locked into place. The footsteps of the Batman could be heard and he headed towards the vehicle. When he arrived he saw Alfred removing the motorcycle from the rear area of the vehicle, and there were two cleaning packs on the floor along with a variety of containers.
"Not enough room?"
Alfred looked up and nodded.
"Yes, Master Bruce. While the two backpack sprayer systems can be suspended from the overhead bar system, the additional tanks will require floor space as the spare canister points in the rear are for oxygen bottles not for prepacked fluid tanks."
Bruce nodded and stepped forward, picking up one of the backpack cleaning systems he had picked up that morning.
"You stow the bike, I'll get these ready and put away in the vehicle."
Alfred smiled and wheeled the motorcycle down the hallway and disappearing to the right as he took it to its secure storage alcove.
Moving the packs into the vehicle was a simple procedure of lifting them up so that two loops caught on corresponding snap hooks that would keep them secure and yet could be tugged down for instant release. The back-up tanks for polyquat, reducer and compressed air he sorted out to either side of the shelving at the rear of the vehicle. Once that was done he took out webbing and fed that through the uprights of the drawer assemblies, which meant that anyone going into the vehicle would have to go single file. After securing those he started checking through the medical supplies and made sure the fold-down bunks were secure.
"I took the liberty of adding in extra masks and gloves along with simple spill protection suits in case they are needed," Alfred said standing on the ramp going into the vehicle.
"Good. I hope I don't need them. Are those the acid sprayers?" Bruce said pointing to a black oblong plastic container affixed over where one set of repair equipment used to be.
"Yes. Those are from our toy marketing division. When you suggested that an all plastic hand pump sprayer could be had for this work I was somewhat skeptical," Alfred said.
Smiling, Bruce flipped open the case and saw four of the toy spray guns arrayed on the side racks with hand squirtguns arranged six to front and rear of the larger guns.
"Children get some of the most interesting toys today," Bruce said lifting one of the larger guns.
"That they do, Master Bruce. These are tested impervious to hydrochloric acid at high concentrations and are from a competitor that uses cheaper materials and more plastic, giving it a higher endurance to acid than our units do without modification."
"Excellent," Bruce said returning the toy gun with its lethal payload to the rack and then locking it.
Turning around he gave a final check to spare battery packs, drag lines, thermite canisters, some thrown smoke devices, spare penlights and extra goggles. Alfred stepped down from the ramp as Batman turned and descended it.
"More camping and clothing equipment in the right storageway?"
"Yes, Master Bruce," Alfred said as Bruce activated the closing sequence for the ramp which lifted up while an upper portion came down and sealed them into place.
"There are life rafts and food buoys in the old pod area, as well, as you were not clear as to what you were planning for tonight."
Bruce smiled and nodded as he turned to Alfred.
"I really don't know what to do next, Alfred, I don't think Erin is safe anywhere with whatever that is coming after her. Safe is a relative term in this case and if it can track her in any way, then she is in danger."
"I would suggest a drive up to Vermont or New Hampshire, or perhaps the Adirondacks and an old lodge up there, Master Bruce. She would be relatively secure, I should think, until the first deep snowfall."
Bruce shook his head.
"If that thing stays in Gotham, she will be safe, but the people of Gotham will be at risk. I think it has some form of intelligence, Alfred, but it doesn't have our perspective on things."
Alfred raised his eyebrows.
"There are some things that can be reasoned with, others that must be endured and some that must be dealt with if they are beyond our reason and endurance."
"Just try to figure out which is which before it is figured out for you," Bruce said, "I'm off. I don't know how long this will take and if Erin decides to stay, then I will figure out how to find this thing and end this problem."
Batman turned and reached up under the car door to slide himself in and fasten the harness on his seat. Alfred stood as the engine purred to life and the vehicle moved forward, its wheels a faint whisper on the concrete. A right turn and there was a sliding of concrete and Bruce gave one side glance out the far side window at the butler standing without shadow under the lights.
He drove down the curving passage that exited to a siding of the Gotham Subway, near the intersection of the main line that went under the South Island. Within moments the door opened in front of the vehicle and he sped out onto the siding then to the main rail line, heading south. The door slid shut behind him unseen by any in the darkness.
* * *
In the basement area of the Curiosity Shop, that used to be its main floor, Dr. Gotham was helping Lewis get the last of the pieces of the old display cabinet into a cardboard boxes. These were leftovers from some prior shipping work that Henry had done for a charity, and when the cause dried up the boxes remained. Now their sturdy cardboard was still suitable for the packing of the old cabinets with plenty of stuffing in the form of newspaper and some of the ubiquitous packing materials that arrived with materials bought or bartered for, or that just showed up as gifts to the shop for services rendered.
The older and younger man now held the last sections of glass for the cabinets that they had made corners for out of other scrap cardboard. Each pane had its own box and then finally got this one situated and started putting the tape down to hold the carton closed.
"This should do it, Lewis," Dr. Gotham said as he passed the roll of tape around the side to the younger man.
"Yes it should..." he said as he moved the tape around his side of the carton before handing the roll off on the other side to Dr. Gotham letting the tape unroll over the edge as he did so.
"You know, I never did believe dad when he told me about you. He said he knew you would come back."
Dr. Gotham raised an eyebrow and used scissors to cut the tape.
"That was beyond my control, Lewis, but the shop, itself, I have made precautions for no matter where in Gotham it may be. In many ways the shop is the important part, I am just a servant in these matters, but a dutiful one," together to two slid the box to the back area of the lower floor amidst the other pieces that went to the older display cabinet. Once there the dark haired younger man looked at Dr. Gotham.
"It sounds like... you don't own the shop, Dr. Gotham."
Turning Dr. Gotham nodded at Lewis.
"Yes, in some ways that is true. I am more the one to keep it safe and ensure that it is always here, in Gotham. The shop has moved more than once in my time and that means that I have to ensure that its new home is properly situated and adorned. Your father did the right thing in making sure it had proper paperwork that has been updated over the time since I was gone until now, and while I do not agree with everything he has done, it has all been done in keeping the shop up to date so that it is not out of place in Gotham, no matter that it has been in one place for so long. For that custody I cannot repay him, but I think he has found the service to be its own reward, as I have found that to be with my own case."
Dr. Gotham trailed off and stared above Lewis' head and slowly turned around.
"Is anything wrong, Dr. Gotham?"
Inhaling the older man nodded and turned his head to look at Lewis.
"I am afraid I must go to the library..." he started.
Lewis checked his watch and shook his head.
"They will close in a few minutes. It's nearly 7 o'clock."
Dr. Gotham released his breath.
"Then I must hurry, make sure all is properly tagged here, please Lewis, as I must run to get there before it closes."
"Yes, Dr. Gotham," Lewis said as he watched the older man stride towards the stairs and then take them two at a time.
At the top of the stairs Dr. Gotham turned and picked up his coat, hat and walking stick as he went out into the shop area, where Henry was attending to a possible set of clients.
"I must run, Henry, I'm needed at the Library."
Henry looked up and frowned, then nodded.
"Take care, Dr. Gotham," he said as the middle aged couple looking at the jewelry display case had straightened and then turned to look at him, as well.
"I will, Henry. Good evening to both of you, I am sure that Henry can determine your needs as well as I."
He tipped his hat after putting it on and then shrugged the coat on as he strode towards the door, opened it and put on gloves as he turned down the street and then to the alleyway. He could feel the time ticking away as he moved into the Shambles where he was a stark piece of the landscape in motion with a determination that moved with him. Unseen denizens of the night, human and otherwise, watched his passage and none dared move while he was in such motion as it might mean something far worse than their station in life had moved them further down, still, beyond the mere physical misery of living in the Shambles.
In amongst the strewn debris of houses crumbled, walls collapsed, and only the faint outline of a few streets and alleyways in any way visible, Dr. Gotham could not run as haste like that could mean missing that one brick, one pothole, one small branch that would trip him up and cause him no end of harm beyond wasted seconds in dealing with a fall and pain. Gotham could only guide his steps if he ensured it spoke to him of where things were and he could not hear that whisper with his pulse pounding and his breath panting. Here that was necessary in the artificial darkness far from the artificial light of streetlamps and the vaguest of glows from the Interconnector washing down from above. This untrue night of untrue darkness existed within the true parts of both when they were in Gotham, and only that depth of trust and assurance of destination could he hope to get through quickly and in one piece.
As suddenly as he was in the Shambles he was out again, into normal roads and sidewalks and here he could and did do more than stride, but run. Three blocks down a church bell struck the hour and he found himself at the rear entrance to the library already having a CLOSED sign hung on the inside. He ran fast and hard past side entrance and then to the main entrance only to find each of them so adorned with a sign and the staff inside was already shutting down the main lights and were out of earshot to his hand pounding on the metal frame of the outer doors.
"Let me in! Please!" he cried out.
A staff member passing through the hallway beyond mouthed, 'We're closed, come back tomorrow'.
"It may be too late! Something is happening!"
The staff member shook his head and walked on to the other part of the corridor and out of sight.
"Who..." Dr. Gotham whispered to himself, "who could trigger that alarm? Who could drain it?"
A grim countenance came over him as he turned and rested his back against the tempered glass and bronze gilded steel frame door. He looked up into the clouds overhead and felt the first hint of a breeze from the right.
"East," he whispered, "celestial green. Yes, the East is here. North and black harbinger of slow chaos is here. South... red... already here, someplace. That leaves west and white. Who are these, exactly?"
"Kadishtu r'luhkn'a gokaya," he said softly looking into the night clouds overhead.
No hidden answers came to the hidden questions he couldn't ask as the cool sea breeze picked up and the winds only whispered of the buildings they went between and little else.
* * *
"And then there was the Curiosity shop. That guy, Swanson, basically just gave us everything we already knew. But that Dr. Gotham? Nice enough, I guess, but just strange."
Major Rhodes looked at the sheets of butcher paper on the flip chart covered with names, places, times and then looked at the flip chart with multiple pages flipped back of possibilities, all of them crossed out.
"Aloof is the word your looking for," Deputy Colton said from the other side of the table in the conference room, his chair pushed back to look at the amount of material they had on the flip chart for known people and activities, of which they had filled in a number of items about the Riverside, Convention Center and Curio Shop cases, but none of those cases intersected save for the cause of them being completely unknown. "Which isn't too far out for what we got here, as there are a lot of dead people, some driven nuts and just a lot of loose ends. I'm willing to believe they are really separate events, unrelated, you know? But without anyone being able to tag anything as the culprit for any of them... that just doesn't seem possible."
Commissioner Gordon was at the end of the table looking down it at the assembled information not just on the charts, chalkboards, cork board, but also at the open files on the table which, while strewn around, had their own sense of order to them. It was the cases that lacked any sense of order which was disturbing.
"Crimes without known actor or actors behind it, and I think we can discount this being some sort of blackmail attempt or other criminal escapade as any that had gone on this long would at least have someone try to take responsibility for them. There are no hot tipsters, none of the usual suspects have any idea of what is going on and the methodology for doing of these events is totally unknown. Also there is no motive to any of them, which is more disturbing than there being an unknown or unknowns at large doing something like this. Without a M.O. and without a methodology or any reason as to why these took place, there is no way to even identify what the motivation could be. The only unknowns left are minor."
Gordon got up and went to the flip chart that held the known information and looked at the people, places and events on it.
"We can check up on Dr. Gotham's whereabouts on Friday night to find out if anyone saw him on either island during the time in which the break-in happened. That is a loose end to tie up."
Maj. Rhodes nodded writing that down as did Colton who took out a small notebook.
"After that is his destination..." Gordon said flipping the chart back a page, "...107 Maple Court, and with Martha Culligan or her son, Bruce."
"That's generally in the same direction over the Park Crest Bridge, I think," Major Rhodes said, "I know that Maple Court is only a couple of blocks long in the Theater District so that should be easy enough to check."
Colton nodded and looked at Rhodes.
"You'll head home that way, right? I have to get to North Bridge so its the other direction for me."
Rhodes finished writing and looked up, "Yeah. And I can take the Commissioner home, too, its not that far out of the way for me. Normally I'd take the Warden Street Bridge, but late Sunday there will be no traffic on 23rd so that will be no problem for me."
Jim Gordon looked at the clock on the other side of the room.
"I'll need to order a takeout delivery for my place so there will be dinner for my wife after she gets home," he said, "maybe from Randowski's, I know she likes the veal cutlets from there and they can do a warm drop-off at 9 o'clock."
"Good place! Out of the way at 15th and Creedmore, but... if you're on the inside list for delivery, then you'll have it made, Commissioner," Major Rhodes said, "just do it before we leave so they can have a couple of hours of lead time. And they will deliver a couple of bottles of wine on the side, too."
Colton looked at him and smiled, "Sounds like a good place. Its impossible to get wine with delivery from anyone else on a Sunday. I'll have to remember that."
"Only for their 'in' list Travis. Have to be a good customer for a few years before they'll do that."
"Ahhh... good food, though?"
"If we can get back to the topic, gentlemen?"
Colton and Rhodes looked at each other and smiled.
"Sure, Jim, sorry," Colton said.
"I know, its hard to concentrate on an empty stomach," he said turning back to the flip charts.
"After that there is Erin Norris to find. She disappeared after the Curio Shop, reappears at the Convention Center, and then disappears again almost immediately. After she disappears from there we have the Riverfront killings."
"You're not suggesting that she..." Rhodes started.
Gordon stepped to the side of the chart that had the pictures of Erin Norris: mugshots, the circulation flier that the uniformed patrols had, the composite sketch from the convention center and the two best pictures of her in the Valkyrie and Edwina costumes.
"She doesn't seem like someone that can do something like this, does she?" Gordon asked.
"Right," Colton said picking up her folder from the table, "some small time jobs, a couple of prostitution raps but misdemeanors, petty theft and one possible prior break-in before the Curiosity Shop. But the rest of her background," he said flipping the sheets, "she wasn't the sharpest marble out there, you know? And her husband? I mean he does a few majors but got off easy as an accessory with a robbery, a couple of counts of possession but nothing on distribution, then goes straight... apparently... and can't tell us why they were doing a B&E at the shop."
"Plus he isn't what you would call a big-time player in anyone's book," Rhodes said picking up Ronny's folder, "he might have thought he could, maybe, get one big score but... looking at his background?"
"That's the problem," Gordon said, "of the two most likely suspects neither appears able, one is now no longer competent enough to give a coherent story, the other disappears and reappears only disappear again and together the B&E might have been the largest thing they might ever have done criminally. And that is, to be honest, small time. Neither of them have ever demonstrated anything like what is needed to do what happened at the Convention Center or Riverside."
Looking up from Ron's folder, Major Rhodes asked, "Has anyone ever demonstrated this sort of capability?"
Gordon shook his head, "No. Even this Batman has an M.O. and the ability to do a lot of things but they, at least, have plausible explanations to them. No matter how much of a pain in the ass he is for all the investigations that are now ongoing because of his activities, he has never been violent in any way like this. He has some motive and it is directed against criminals, and while his methodology slowly changes, it does have actual purpose behind it. He does disappear and reappear so fast it isn't funny... but if that is all we have as connection, then we can link up every carnival magician within 100 miles of here as a linking factor. Plus he generally leaves some notification of what has happened. There are a lot of questions about him, but they are not the same sorts of questions we have in this case."
"Sounds like you're defending him, Jim," Colton said.
Commissioner Gordon snorted.
"Have you seen the workload he has brought down on me and the Department over the last year? How many State and Federal DA's do we have involved in cases coming from here?"
"At least 8 State and 3 Federal, last I counted," Travis said, "and about twice as many PD's from Maine to Florida. Not to speak of the FBI and DEA. Then there are the cases actually going to trial..."
Rhodes whistled, "Don't get me started on that! Sometimes its twice a week on a witness stand, and I've been out of state more time in the past two years than I ever was in my entire life before that."
"No, I'm not defending him, Travis. He is one of the reasons I've had to get some handle on weeding out corruption in the Force here. If we had at least been as good as, say, Philadelphia or Chicago, we wouldn't be seeing outside started cases stretching from here into the my retirement years. The faster we get the corruption out of the GCPD, the better off we will all be."
"I hear you, Jim... its just... every officer we take out for bribery, ethics, or actually doing criminal stuff on the side... we seem to get another one deciding that going on the take is a good idea. Sometimes more than one. And its not just the high-level stuff, its the low-level stuff now. We might have had one big raid every three or four years before Batman showed up, and now we have... well with the KK and the cases from that... five in two years? And you would think with all the turnover at the bottom rungs we would be able to clear that stuff out faster. Instead the Force has the same problem."
Bill Rhodes shook his head.
"These three cases are killer. I don't know when the last case was that was as big as these three put together. Not like the KK raid, that we can at least handle. This, though, three cases in less than two days that might all be headed for the Big Red Box. Erin Norris obviously connects two of them, just by her being there, but nothing indicates she was at Riverfront. Her background discounts her from being a suspect in them. Her husband doesn't have it either and is disturbed by what happened. The Batman is ID'd at the Curio Shop, but nothing after that and its not his M. O. for the Convention Center or Riverfront. Only the description by Mr. Norris indicates a... well... something greenish, translucent, physical, mobile and having a disturbing effect on him."
"Parts of that go through all of these cases," Gordon said, "and it sounds like something out of a nightmare instead of a real animal. With nothing inside it as described by Ron Norris, and the one or two partials that have any matching to that, it is something without a real skeleton. That would fit with the Riverfront killings, if there was anything physical to connect those to the other two. And if it does see us as food..."
"Then we have a real problem on our hands," Colton said.
"It may have been tracking Erin Norris," Rhodes said, "and she has vanished after the Convention Center, which isn't good. Riverfront happened after that which would indicate..."
Gordon looked at the other two men.
"I don't think we can finish this tonight, gentlemen. Bill, you need to get home and I will go with Travis on the way home to check out the address and see if the people at Wayne Towers have any evidence of Dr. Gotham going their way on Friday night. They at least have a competent though small security force."
"That leaves us with a creature that can kill at will on the loose, Commissioner," Colton said.
"Only if that is what it is, Travis. I don't like this any more than you do, but until we can find Erin Norris or get something solid in the way of evidence, there is just nothing else we can do."
Major Rhodes started closing up the folders on the table and stacking them.
"I'll get this stuff sorted and leave it here for tomorrow. I'm sure we will have to get back to these."
Travis stood up and walked over to the coat rack and took his trenchcoat from it.
"Thank you, Bill. It has been a long day, don't spend too much time here."
"Not to worry, Jim. I can't make up anything more of this today. Maybe something will come to me after I sleep on it."
* * *
"Wait a moment, I need to switch out batteries," Barbara said as she stood with Lisa at another intersection of tracks.
"OK," Lisa said looking around at the various painted signs and indicators, plus dead lights that were on the tunnel walls.
"We have been following these TL-N signs for some time now, are you sure they are for the tunnels?"
Barbara took out the three D-cell batteries and put them in her backpack, and replaced them with fresh ones.
"Following the left tunnel intersections didn't account for the right curving of them. When we got back to Commerce Station that told me we hadn't taken the routing of the tunnels into account. Going right was putting us heading out to the North Loop, which would have us going the long way around and above the tunnels to connect up under 30th Street, and that was no good. So the central set of tracks after Commerce must go to the tunnels and they had been getting the TL-N signs. This is the only direction that slopes down and goes south," Barbara turned her flashlight on and smiled.
"And this interchange?" Lisa asked.
"This has got to be the South Loop interchange, with the North Loop the one just after the surface train interchange. And those tracks to the right, there," she said shining her light down another set of tracks diverging into another tunnel, "should complete the North Loop. Process of elimination! We have gone past all the interchanges for the loops and surface rail system, so what is left must be to the tunnels."
Lisa shook her head as she turned to look at Barbara.
"If Erin's down here she could be lost in this maze of tunnels. I don't know if you could even find your way around down here without light."
"It might be impossible, sure. But we have seen enough lichen, mold and other stuff that gives out some light, plus a few lights here and there that were left connected and somehow still surviving... if she was in bare feet she wouldn't leave any real traces and if something was on the rails to help her move..."
"What could that be, though?"
"I don't know," Barbara admitted, "It is the only lead we have, though."
Lisa smiled wanly.
"Yes, it is. Lets keep moving..."
"Right," Barbara said stepping along the empty tracks with Lisa as they moved through the interchange. They followed the curving path of the tunnel until it curved slightly back and straightened out. As they went down it they could feel the air get cooler and heard a sound from above.
"What is that?" Lisa asked softly as they heard the sound overhead.
"Mid-Gotham River. This stretch must be the tunnel," Barbara said playing her light over the tunnel side.
"There... TUNNEL SPEED 20 MAX!"
Lisa smiled as she saw one of the few remaining red lights for the system still functioning in the tunnel ahead. They walked on and heard the sound of the river increasing as they walked and felt the air which had been in their faces start to flow to their backs."
Soon a RESUME SPEED sign appeared and the noise of the river receded behind them.
"Almost there!" Barbara said.
"Gotham Central?" Lisa asked.
"Yes! One of the places you can go directly from the tunnels down here past one-way doors to the surface. Now all we have to do is find the right signs for the interchanges or else we wind up on the Outer Loop or the Cross Lines of the South Island. Plus we have to make sure that the other surface tunnel exits to the old Mid-Gotham surface line and South Gotham port rails haven't been used. And there is the repair and storage yards somewhere down here, too."
Lisa looked at Barbara.
"No one could make it out of this," she said softly.
As Barbara turned to look at Lisa they both heard a sound in the distance and they could feel a vibration along the tracks. The sound grew louder.
"That's not on this level," Barbara whispered.
There was growling with the sound, growing and then lessening, and a whisper of wind that must be a shriek to be heard so far. The sound reached a loud point and then started to lessen, not to be felt even against the tracks.
"That sounded like a real... something..." Barbara said.
"Something is down here."
"Or someone," Barbara said looking at Lisa and then gesturing forward, "Come on! It isn't coming our way."
Together they headed onwards until they came to the first interchange.
"Forward left or right?" Lisa asked.
Barbara looked at the signs which were not being helpful beyond the TL-N signs pointing the way they had come.
"I think I'm starting to figure this out..." Barbara said haltingly,"...if you want to go along the Outer Loop you have to go up and left..." she said aiming her flashlight that way, "...and that takes you to Gotham Central. Going on the inner tracks of the Outer Loop means gowing forward which slowly ramps up. Going right is Cross-Lines diagonal from south east to north west."
Lisa scanned the interchange.
"So... left?" she asked.
"That should get us up to the Outer Loop which has Gotham Central as its first stop. I think."
Lisa turned and walked next to Barbara who looked over at her.
"I know this is tough on you..." she said, trailing off.
"No. Nothing like what Erin has been through. I just want to know if... what happened to her."
Barbara nodded, looking ahead.
"I understand, really."
In the darkness of the underground they ascended slowly to yet another interchange.
"Nothing is simple down here," Barbara said, "Now lets see, we should be OK following this set of tracks since they have straightened out on this level..."
* * *
Frank Rock followed the Project going through the regrown forest until they reached dense undergrowth and older growth stands of trees. He had a flashlight out from the car while Vivian used a penlight following him. He came up beside the Project which had stopped at some rusted through fencing that had only a few steel uprights nearly rusted to nothing dotting a line across the crest of the ridge.
"Why have you stopped?" Rock asked.
"Footing is unsure. Plant growth covers small washouts ahead," it turned to Frank, "this is also marked property and this land is not covered by military regulation."
Frank smirked and looked at Vivian who came up behind them.
"Marked what?" she said.
"Private property, although I can't see any signs..." Frank said shining his flashlight over the remains of the old fencing.
"Signage indicates a firm called Axis Chemicals owns this land," the Project said.
"Axis? They went under... well longer than I've been alive!" Vivian said.
"She's right. Its condemned, the county owns it. Hazardous but those areas are marked. If the country wanted it better marked it would have put up its own signage. Its safe to go in."
The Project nodded and stepped forward, picking a path that was now overgrown having large tree roots coming up through the soil and areas where cobbles between roots and the downslope made footing unsteady.
"Damn this is pretty bad for walking up here," Vivian said.
"Better now than when the leaves are on the plants. This is poison ivy territory. The State warns about that on the public lands around here."
"Wonderful," Vivian said in a flat tone.
They continued on until the Project stopped again looking downslope to the south.
"This is the crossing path of the observed objects," it said.
Frank shined his flashlight down the slope and saw where a number of bushes were pushed aside as well as pushed down. Some trees growing in the middle of the path had nothing done to them, while vines and other plants were pushed down at their base.
"Any sign of them?"
Vivian stepped up to the edge of the crest and looked down along the path of vegetation that had been pushed aside.
"Soil hydration indicates insecure footing for normal walking."
Vivian looked down at the glistening soil and picked a pinch up between her left thumb and forefinger, and it pressed down easily.
"Nothing could walk down that," she said.
"Bears, could. Though not leaving this sort of trail," Frank said.
The Project turned to Frank.
"I have a 30% chance of causing no damage to my exterior package and a 20% chance of no damage to interior repaired components utilizing this trail," it said.
Pushing his lips together Frank nodded.
"Get a fix from here and triangulate. Find a corresponding point on Gotham that we can see, get bearings for that from the road. We are going to backtrack and take the car down."
"Affirmative," it said scanning through the trees to the faint lights of South Gotham Island and the speck or two of light from lights below.
"All right, back to the car," she said leading the way back while Frank shone his light to either side of her as they walked. Within a few minutes they were back in the car and Vivian was turning it around on the road to head back to the south. She threaded her way back down the winding road to get on the highway and turned right.
"How far do we go?"
"Zero point two five miles," the Project said.
Frank smirked as Vivian nodded.
"Yeah you can see a few of the old fence posts on the other side of the ditch, goes pretty quickly."
"Expected exit of trail is approximate between the light standards."
Looking out the window Frank nodded as Vivian pulled off the road rolling slowly past an overhead light for the roadway.
"Right about here, I think," Rock said opening the door as Vivian put on the flashers and parked the car. The three of them got out and fanned out looking for any sign of the trail.
Walking slowly along the shoulder of the road Vivian shifted her flashlight looking across the bushes and grasses on the other side of the drainage ditch.
"I think its here," she said walking into the grass to look down at the ditch. She turned to look up at Frank who came over and shifted his right food sideways into the slope leading down to the ditch.
"Looks like it. You can see where some of the dirt has been smoothed over and the grass pushed down."
The Project jumped across the ditch to the other side and walked over to the trail.
"Alignment is within triangulation error margin plus compensation for terrain," it said looking down at the trail and then back up it.
Vivian shifted to shine her flashlight into the ditch and got up to walk along it.
"Must have traveled this way," she said walking, "you can see where the sides have been pushed up a bit and the bottom is smooth."
Nodding Frank stepped back up to the edge of the ditch and followed Vivian.
"Spectrascopic analysis indicates non-structural protein in water forming a gel," the Project said.
"A gel?" Frank asked stopping to look back at the Project that had a trail of viscous fluid leading up to its thumb and forefinger of its right hand, which it was examining with a flashlight.
"Yes. These are short chain proteins in amino acid solution, pH near 7.0, low salinity. There is some organic matter decomposing within the gel, origin unknown."
Vivian stopped looking down at the ditch.
"I don't think we will find whatever it is here," she said, "the trail leads to this culvert and it goes," she said standing up and shutting off her flashlight, "over there, to the South Gotham river."
"Great," Frank said as he jogged across the road from where Vivian was standing. The Project moved through the undergrowth in steps and short jumps until it was able to look into the culvert and shined its flashlight into it.
"Protein gel is indicated in the culvert. It is clear to the other side."
Hopping over the guardrail on the river side, Frank stepped down the slope there to look from the culvert at the runoff point. He shook his head negatively looking back at the Project and then worked his way back up to the guardrail, over that and back across the road. The Project jumped across the ditch and stood next to Vivian.
"Runs off right into the river. If they went through the culvert they are gone now."
Vivian looked at the Project.
"Can you see through the water?"
"Negative after zero point five meters as turbidity limits visual range with current light modes."
"That's it, then. Whatever it was got away. Sliding downhill to a ditch, through a culvert and into the river," Vivian said shivering, "that just ain't normal."
"No, it isn't," Frank said, "back to the car and we can get to that service station where the road turns between the old Stalar Combine and Rock Oil."
Vivian nodded and looked at Frank.
"Going to call Mr. Wayne?" she asked.
"Yeah. This is just too strange. I've never heard of anything that doesn't have legs that size able to move that quickly. From sighting to getting here we took ten minutes, fifteen tops. You tell me if you could get down that slope safely in that amount of time."
"No, I couldn't, Frank. OK, back to the car. Beats me if Mr. Wayne will know what to do with the information, though."
Together they walked back to the car and got back in it. Vivian turned the flashers off and pulled onto the road.
"I'll call Martin, too," Frank said, "he might know what to do better than Bruce. I'll leave him the boat house number to call since I don't think there is much else we can do to help."
"That's the truth. You got Martin's number?"
"Yes," the Project said.
"The best damned adjutant I could ever ask for."
* * *
It moved easily through the undergrowth in the dying light of the day now turning into evening. Sliding easily over and around obstacles it and its cousins now moved over the ridge's crest and down the slope, forming cilia to help cling to the ground and letting mass shift to increase speed. It had observed food in the distance a few times but took less notice of them as each of them were not interested in mere meals. Going downhill brought darkness but that was only a chilling of atmosphere, as those beings that lived without the need for light found its absence to be of little matter. When at the bottom of the slope it waited for its cousins Shaggoth and Shoggoth as they slowed their speed to navigate in an easier fashion. Their larger size and bulk meant they had greater worries for sudden stops than did their younger cousin.
Now it could feel the water and know its flow, even when just a trickle it tasted the color of it and slid until the bright tang of galvanized steel led it under the roadway and to the river it had begun to know. As it had been in Gotham the longest recently, it led the way into the river and made sure that its cousins found the right layers of the stream to slip through, offering little resistance to it they drifted to the outflow point and then onto the small outwash beach that led back to a storm sewer pipe that had a trickle in it, with a color that tasted familiar.
Moving back into the environs of the Underworld meant threading through the chaotic maze of sewers, pumping stations, and finally to a partial block of a street that had had been covered over. Shoggoth urged caution as Gotham was not friendly to those who were intruders and that it was not good to tempt it by being obtrusive. Caution must now guide them, and that meant avoiding that tunnel complex that was the subway, which at times was easy and, due to the cut-offs and diversions of the various sewer systems, nearly impossible. It could only catch the faintest intensity of that one power source it had felt earlier, but it was constant, always there, and so long as the intensity increased it knew they were headed towards it.
Shoggoth had thrummed very softly at how familiar and yet strange this intensity was, something very close to them in type but perhaps not close to them in kind. Together they should be able to understand it and, possibly, also get that one that had affinity to Ngluioth, that one food that had escaped it and tempted it many times, being so close and then able to flee. And then there was the bad food that it had encountered, that strange one. They might have to deal with it, as well, and its demise would also be satisfying for the pain it had caused. Together they could accomplish much and the promise of a new future just might be made and the balances of power shifted to suit them better. Together they had ages of knowledge via sharing from Shoggoth and Shaggoth, understanding of strange powers from each of their experiences, wisdom of that dreaming land from Shaggoth, suppleness of youthful traits from Ngluioth and sheer power in this domain, which was the Shoggoth's to know.
Each of them could be formidable on their own, even it as the youngest was something that could not be passed over.
Together they represented an age and time now long gone. An age that cursed them to live as they did. Perhaps, just perhaps, that curse would now be their strength and it would be turned back on that which brought it on them. If they could do that, then anything was possible.
Anything at all.
* * *
Erin knew that there was more than one intersection along this line of tracks that was the Outer Loop of the South Gotham subway. Ronnie had told her that there was at least two of the old train interchanges where the subway stations were a bit higher up in the South Gotham hills. She suspected that one was behind her, in the direction that she didn't go, but also knew that they were dead ends from the inside where they were inset into hills with tunnel openings and no one living nearby as the main tracks were still used along the harbor front. He said that outside of the few stations he had investigated only the Hillcrest, Norwalk, Bank, and Commerce stations had accessways via the Underworld to the storm sewers. Gotham Central Library also had a one-way set of stairs out, and there was also the tunnel and bridge from South Gotham to the mainland. He said those were the surest ways out with the bridge being the better choice since it had a platform to get back up to the streets on the Gotham side and was a pretty easy fence climb on the mainland side.
She had wanted to head back to him, but as she walked she felt that was less and less a safe thing to do. As she came to an intersection for the Cross Lines which were a little bit familiar to her on her travel with Ron on the Curio Shop job, she also knew that getting back to the apartment was no safe haven for her. Besides she had emergency supplies from the shelter and felt that she could brave a few days in the wilderness and, maybe, wait to see what happened in Gotham from the Ridge Trail Park area. One of the old and abandoned chemical plants might even offer some shelter, so long as she stayed away from anything hazardous.
When she got to the Norwalk Station she smiled to herself and nodded. Her last real kiss with Ronnie was here, and that warmed her as she looked around at the old environs of the station. From here Ronnie had told her that the next major interchange should get her to the lower train line, which you couldn't get to due to the doors constructed of iron bars, but the other way should be the cut-off to get to Gotham Central while going ahead would lead slowly downwards to the tunnels on the southern tracks. Just a couple of minutes after leaving the station she saw the interchange, and the left portion led to its own tunnel that had iron grate doors that were secured to the tunnel walls leaving the way open.
Smiling she started walking down that tunnel and began to suspect that this wasn't a cut-off at all, but led somewhere else. 'Perhaps Ronnie hadn't really checked this out too well', she thought to herself as she walked. Within ten minutes she had come to a major cavern that was the old subway repair yard. Here there were still scattered lights that worked, and the hiss and knocks from steam pipes were heard echoing in the vast underground space.
Here was a place made for things that were far more powerful than any man: great engines and hoists, pulleys for chains of which the very links were thicker than her forearm, an overhead gantry system to move large vehicles from track to track, metal lockers rusting on a tiled floor that was at the height of a normal station, and even the partial remains of two cars along the right hand tracks.
"Wow," she said and her voice was swallowed up by the space and the low hiss of steam. Even with her lantern off she could see well enough to walk in the dim lighting and she did so, passing machine shops with rusting equipment in them. The entire room had once been flat grey color and now it was showing long signs of age with white streaks of liquid leaks and the brown of iron rust on so much equipment that was left behind because it wasn't worth salvaging.
"This feels... ancient...forgotten and lost..." she said marveling at what had been made as she got to the far side of the cavern that had multiple tracks leaving it. She stopped and looked back at the repair shop of Giants, hidden from all to see save those that dared to venture here.
"Gotham was once... so different..." she said to herself. The faintest of echoes of 'different' came from behind her, reflected by the tunnels to come back to her. Turning to the darkness she smiled and turned on her lantern. As she walked the tracks were beginning to separate and she decided that the right hand track would get her back to the main part of the Outer Loop that went under downtown on the South Island. At the place where a new tunnel started for the left side she stopped and looked down it and felt how chilly the air was.
In the distance she heard a grinding of stone against stone and then a low grumble and moan.
"What was that?" she said looking around and then looked to the left tunnel as she was certain that was the one it had come from.
Shaking her head from side to side she left that division and went to the right. As she walked further she felt a slight slope downwards and began to suspect that this wasn't going back to the main line.
* * *
Slowly he walked, letting his mind and feet guide his steps through the darkness. He knew he could close his eyes and still step just as well as he could with them open. Walking down the subway tracks he felt the warmth of the steam pipes, the constant shift of water in other pipes, effluent draining through yet others, the low hum of electricity and the cool musty air that was flowing over his face. Each of these things spoke to him, now, of something great and alive, rooted here solidly and flowing with the life of hundreds of thousands above.
In this realm of permanent shadow he felt at home for perhaps the first time in his life. He had made many comfortable places for himself throughout his life, but they were dwellings and while honored sacraments would be there, somehow not a one of them had ever been a home to him. Only back in his distant childhood did he feel as if there was a place of home for him, by the edge of the dusty Taklamakan and its shifting sea of sand. Now, hewn from the stone, this subway tunnel brought a feeling of home to him so strongly that he had to stop and marvel. He had always been a man of open skies, days and nights, and enjoying that which nature had in its variety. Now there was something so very solid down here, something that was lacking from those open spaces and it spoke to him in some way that was neither sound nor light nor taste, and yet all of them combined.
He opened his eyes as he heard a grinding in the distance.
Then a sound, a dull roar... and a grinding again... then howls echoing through the tunnels.
Stepping back to the edge of the tunnel he understood its nature and joined in it, feeling the way in which he was as the concrete poured here and that the air shifted so as to make him no different than any other part of the tunnel. The howling and grinding and rush of air was coming down the far tunnel that he now could see with lightless vision. A dull glowing in the deepest red began to suffuse the tunnel and he remained still with his eyes open moving only them, and not even blinking. What came was a chaos of shape and form, giving no clear presence and yet being present just the same. It was a vehicle, yes, but not of any type he knew or had ever imagined. Its speed and sound left impressions of blocks and slivers of shapes rushing, colliding with each other and forming nothing solid. Even in the brief instant of it being just across the tunnel from him on the other tracks he could only make out the faintest of red glows on the inside of this strange form of locomotion, and he could barely make out the tires which, themselves, gave no firm impression upon his senses. The rest was a jumble of shapes in motion around the central piece and the figure inside, a phantom inside a specter, a being of grim countenance and pointed ears.
Once it was past and truly gone, he stepped from the wall and walked across the tracks to catch the trace of sulfur and soot in the air.
"Yes," he said faintly, "you are an enigma, creature of tunnels and night. Soon this will be my home, not yours."
Turning slowly, sinuously, he slowly walked forward again.
There was something down here, calling to him so softly in the distance. It was the promise of a true home, once and for all.