The mass of whatever it was, was moving towards him and it extended a tendril that was meant to push him to the side. He was used to the feeling of standard blows impacting his armor, those from punches, kicks and even such things as tire irons, and it had handled each of those well with the underlying cell system of rheofluids transmitting such shocks over a wider area and dampening the force of those blows.
That system worked faster than any defensive maneuver he could summon up as the thing's motions did not set off his reflexes as it wasn't something anyone could train for. That it had delivered a substantial impact he couldn't question as the force of it, transmitted over his entire chest and abdomen, was akin to being slammed against a wall. Even as he gasped for breath he moved, using his left hand to grab the creature's tendril he then gave a sharp jerk downwards with his head to automatically position the goggles and nose fittings into place under his mask. Instinctively his hand moved to the hard, thin container that held the acids and only at the last moment did he consider where he was before choosing the one acid that would give fair warning that it was being used.
"Look away and don't inhale, Erin. Move slowly away," he said as his hand flashed from his belt and his thumb popped the safety top from the industrial syringe.
He couldn't take time to watch what Erin did as the mass of the thing was flowing over his armor, between the scales of it and trying to gain entry under it. The suit had been designed by Wayne Medical with the help of the Defense Division, and it was made to protect against hostile combat environments. That included biological and chemical attacks in the form of bacteria and some forms of liquid nerve agents. It was possible to get past those, but the suit had to be loosened to do that. This creature started to flow up towards the only exposed skin he had for it to reach: his face.
With a single, flowing move he pressed the syringe into its mass further down towards the base of the tendril and pressed the plunger home. The fumes from sulfuric acid mixing with the compounds inside the mass of the creature and diffusing through its water based structure could be seen as a cloud of noxious fumes, smelling deeply of rotten eggs and rotting jellyfish. Across the entire mass of the creature it shivered and then convulsed, recoiling from this invasion of its body by something that was trying to disperse within it and eat away at its structure. It pulled back from him and the tendril wriggled trying to get free of his grasp which was enhanced by the microtexture of the fabric over his hands, that allowed him to get a firm grip while still retaining near touch sensitivity.
It writhed away, parts of it sloughing off and it finally detached the entire tendril from its main mass, and it went flaccid and then started to liquify in his hand. He released it and stepped back and only then did he see Erin just a few steps away, her eyes wide and her hand over her mouth. As he turned he activated the cape to try and keep the fumes at bay for another second or two. He reached for the container of back-up eye and nose protection for her, and walked towards Erin Norris who was in a state of complete fear. Carefully he placed the goggles with mouth and nose mask over her face and the strap over the back of her head. He then reached for the container which held his mask covering and attached that to the mask of his helmet.
"Turn and walk away slowly. My cape won't keep the fumes from your skin much longer," he said in a calm, quiet voice that was changed due to the lack of resonance in his nasal passages due to the nose protection under the mask. Putting the protective mask on her got Erin's attention and she nodded, turned and started walking down the hallway as he deactivated the cape and turned to see what had happened.
The vapors and fumes were now puddled on the floor and there was some reaction between the remains of the acid and the floor tiles, as well, which caused some billowing of the fumes. This latter obscured his normal vision but his IR informed him that the creature was still there on the other side of the fumes. He started walking backwards from it. Haziness in the air was clearing as the air handlers started to move the cloud out of the way and he could see that the mass of the creature was gathering itself together. The outline of what had been a tendril could be seen on the floor as well as some larger area just at the base of it. Differences in heat within the mass of the creature's body indicated that it was still colder than the surrounding air but that it shifted mass and heat within its structure.
Then it started to shift and slide forward and skirted the area of the floor that held what had once been a part of it.
Seeing this he turned and started at a jog and came up behind Erin.
"Erin, I need you to run for the door at the end of the hall and wait for me on the platform. I will try a second time to stop this thing, or at least delay it. If I don't make it to the door and it does, run down one level to the parking garage and then out into the streets. Save yourself, for Ron. Understood?"
She looked back at him and nodded.
She tore off down the hall while he put on the protective gloves over his gauntlets. He jogged a bit more as he saw Erin nearing the door and turned. It had spread out across the floor and was gliding easily, now. His right hand went for the next syringe in line, hydrochloric acid, while his left palmed a thin pencil-shaped thermite device. He suspected it was wounded and acting more on instinct. Now he was going to bet his life that it would do so, again.
* * *
Pain such as it experienced cannot be described in human terms.
It was not just a chemical burn, but an infusion of acid into its being which, while being in a limited volume to start, could harm it deeply. Burning it could deal with, in its own way, but this was like those defensive mechanisms that creatures in its realm had developed to try and thwart off the attacks of its kind. Yet it wasn't even one of those as those toxins were understood and could be dealt with. As this seeped in it cut sensation to the tendril that it had extended, not unlike having an arm ripped off with a jagged blade. It's body reacted to try and pull back, but that just pulled the acid with its mass and made it harder to deal with.
With the need immediate and vexing it did what it had to do, which was to cut off sensation to the areas where the acid was moving, and cut off all internal flow to those areas. Then, it formed the necessary internal cilia to start moving that mass out before the acid could reach the surface and get back to it. Only once that mass was removed, eliminated, not unlike a man cauterizing the stump of a limb, save that it had no limbs and that its senses were distributed in a way that could not be fathomed, only with that could it begin to reform itself and understand this attack.
That it was an attack and a voluntary one was without question.
This demented food did not understand its place in the order of things.
Naturally defending oneself, that could be understood, but it did something highly unusual: it had stepped in front of another of its kind that it wasn't related to so as to protect it. This response was known amongst the lower orders of life in its home realm, those things that had some differentiated sense and other organs, but it was unknown amongst his kind that sort of problem. An attack upon all of its kind was responded to by all of them, but anything upon an individual was left to that individual. Some things such as hunts and other expeditions were cooperative, of course, but it was a willing cooperation of interest and without emotional investment in others. By that process predators and lower threats had been eliminated, entirely, and only those of power types that could not be challenged were left. This so very primitive and backwards reaction of this demented food was not only strange but now singled itself out as the most dangerous thing it could deal with here.
Bad and backwards thinking food must be eliminated so as to make an example to all other food animals. Any tendencies or instincts like this had to be culled from food as it was an annoyance and led to food that was not properly terrified of those above it in the food cycle.
As it gathered itself together it also recognized the offending object that had been used on it, as its senses had a chance to inspect it even as material from it had seeped into its being. Now it knew what the weapon looked and felt like, what it held and what the contents did. The container did not react to the materials, and that was important to understand: this was not a naturally made object but one purposefully made. It perfectly understood the concept of tools and their use, as its own kind made permanent ones for things that shouldn't need to be made a second time. Beyond that power served well for all sorts of things and when it was plentiful and easily replenished, it had a plethora of capability to neutralize food. In this realm it was limited to more physical types of power use, such as touch-draining, which was a lovely way to get some snacks. Older ones of its kind had told of many different forms of such uses of power, such as the shocktremblor, but those had to be mastered and still utilized much power. It understood many of these in concept, but had never actually used them, so it stuck to what it knew.
The one with affinity was on the move as was the demented food and it now moved towards them and avoided the still reactive puddle that was still reacting with the floor. As it moved it spread its leading mass out so as to gain better traction and allow it to utilize a form of attack that should be able to get it a single touch to the demented food's skin so as to kill it. Simple physical extensions it could utilize so as to distract this bad food so that it would be rendered neutral.
Then it really did need to get some decent meals from the lovely larder of snacks that surrounded it in this strange place where food gathered together.
* * *
Erin ran as fast as she could given the nature of the clothes she was wearing as high heels were not conducive to an all out run. Still she was faster than the Bat and she had heard his footsteps step soon after she was in a run. She arrived at the exit door to the stairs which led up and down to adjacent levels of the parking garage, went through to the platform turned and watched as the green moving mass had spread out across the width of the hall and was gathering more along the left side wall than the right, with the majority of the mass still visible as a morphing, moving lump behind that forward edge.
With his cape down the Bat stood and she saw his hands move first on his right side to get another of those syringes, and then on the left to take a small object from his belt. The sheen of the black gloves over his gauntlets told her that he had donned them even while she was running. His outline was eerie given the glowing mass moving down the hall was starting to outshine the dim overhead lights of this part of the convention center. He stood ready and waiting for whatever it was and she gripped the door so as to keep it open. If he fell, she wanted to know, instantly.
She debated with herself about trying to undo her shoes when she saw a glimmer of motion on the left part of the hallway and a thin column of green streak out towards the Bat. Almost she screamed, but the Batman was already in motion pivoting with his upper body as the cap of the syringe flew off. Then she saw that the tendril that was being extended had dragged with it a thin sheet of mass across the entire hallway that was sweeping up towards the Batman.
"No," she whispered to herself.
As the tendril shot towards him the Batman started a slow pivot on his left foot and she saw the tendril lose color and then, across the entire sheet of mass, a thin blue line appeared and the sheet was detaching and congealing in upon itself. Only once a thin line of the acid hit the wall on the right did she recognize that he had used it to send a stream of the stuff across the entire front of the attack. On the ground in front of him were globs of sputtering liquid that were raising some steamy smoke from the floor.
"Yes..." she whispered excitedly as the Batman stepped back once, then another time, obviously trying to see through the cloud of vapor. He then turned and started to jog towards her, and she could not see his face behind a full mouth piece that fitted over his helmet so as to render his entire face black with red eyes.
Just ten feet from the door she saw a mass of green in motion surge forward behind him.
"It's still alive!!" she yelled.
He nodded and she heard a muffled, 'shield your eyes' as he stopped, turned and held his left hand out.
The green mass had flowed over the line of steam and then thrust a large section of its body out towards the Bat. It encountered his left hand, flowed around it and tried to get a grip on it to pull him into its mass. Instead it got the glove and the thermite pencil with deadman's switch. Without the force on the switch, the chemical reaction that could not be stopped was started. Aluminum and iron oxide were mixed with a thin string of magnesium and a high intensity, single use striker which started changing the position of oxygen between iron oxide and aluminum dust. It burned at over 5,000 degrees and was being pulled into the center of the mass, and it gave out an intense, bright light that shone so hard that Erin had to look away.
There were bubbles, then pops, then steam explosions as the thing's very body supplied the water to help blow it apart.
A gauntleted hand rested on her shoulder and another let the door close, which began to shut off the intense light behind them. She looked up at the man who had saved her life, and saw that the acids had etched the front of the helmet mask and left black, dull streaks in many places. Streaks went across the goggles, and etched them, as well as across many parts of the front of his armor. Yet, for all that, it remained intact.
With the doors closing he moved his right hand to his left shoulder and took out a minigrapnel and attached it to the railing of the latticework stairs.
"Hold on to me tightly, Erin, we have to get out of here," she heard him say in a tone that was muffled by the mask.
"What?" she asked softly.
He was stepping over the railing and took his hand from her to steady himself on the edge of the platform and over the narrow open space between the stair flights that went down into the basement level of the building. Using his right hand to hold on, his left took the other grapnel out from the right upper arm holding device.
"I doubt that killed it, Erin, but it gave us seconds. We must not waste them."
She looked back at the door and saw the bright, white light flicker and then die out.
An intense green color replaced it.
Eyes wide in horror she heard a sound of slithering and saw movement in the green light. She started to step across the railing and threw her arms around the neck of her rescuer and then used her feet and naturally moved them up around his hips. Holding on tightly he stepped back from the railing and put his arms across her back so as to help center them while they fell down in the space between the stairs. She gulped and could feel the way the air compressed past each beam and how the slopes of the stairs went back and forth as they dropped. Embracing her hard he hit the slowing brakes on the single use lines knowing that they would pay out completely before the last level. The final drop of five feet he could manage, and did, and she released her legs from his hips and felt solid ground beneath them.
He handed her a key from his belt, an ordinary key to an ordinary door and he nodded to the door marked AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY.
"Get the door open, Erin."
She nodded and took the key, and stepped across the remains of another dragline at the bottom of the stairwell. There were klinking sounds of the two grapnels falling to the ground from above as she opened the door, and when she turned she saw he had cut three of them loose, folded them and put them into an empty container on his belt.
Then he looked up as did she, and they saw the green glow from above and it was starting to reach out to the edge of the ledge.
He turned and ran towards her.
"Go through and out to the main area, then follow me. We can leave it behind and gain some time."
She pushed through, ducked down into the hallway that presented itself, with just a small light here and there, then saw his shadow fall over her as he entered the hallway. It was a shadow first with overhead light casting it. Then green started to appear as he closed and sealed the door. As it opened up she stood upright and waited for him on a street corner. He appeared from out of the maintenance tunnel and he motioned to her.
"Follow me," he said from behind the full facial protection.
She removed her eye, nose and mouth protection mask from its position on her face so she could breathe freely and let the mask ride up on her forehead. As she jogged down the underground street with just a light here and there to mark maintenance points, she realized that he was heading into a dark area without lights.
"Where are we going?" she asked as they ran.
"To a Ghost Train," he said.
She didn't know if he was joking or serious, but followed along beside him and then took his hand when he motioned her to. There was a tiny penlight in the hand and she gladly took it to light her way through the Underworld of North Gotham Island. They ducked into a subway station and then went down the stairs on one side and down to the platform. There was a demonic looking vehicle on the tracks with a door open to the platform on their right. He went to it, grabbed a bar that was set just under the roofline on the inside and swung his feet up and went feet first into the vehicle. When she got to it she saw that he had jumped over the passenger side seat and was now in the driver's seat.
"Get in," he said.
She gave a glance back into the darkness and shut off her penlight. The dull, amber glow from inside the vehicle was welcoming. The light green that was starting to filter through at the top of the stairs was not. She used the bar and gave a slight twist up and then into the vehicle, letting herself slide into the seat which had a five point restraint harness. Silently the door was sliding down, the engine behind her roared to life and the car was moving on the rails, and the amber interior light went out so that only the console lights and a few other indicators now shone.
"Put the harness on, I am going for speed, not stealth," he said slowly removing the mask and sliding the goggles up into their recess and out of sight.
Fumbling for a few seconds she put it on, just as he did, and when her indicator light showed green on the console, she was then pressed back into her seat by the force of the engine roaring to full throttle.
"Time," she whispered remembering what he had said.
"We don't have much of it, Erin. Whatever it is can be killed, but not easily and to get the resources I must go to places only I can go. You are not safe alone, Erin."
As the dull red headlights lit the gloomy path ahead of the vehicle, she watched as old sidings and then stations flashed past. The rails, though having surface rust, were still reliable which was a testament to the foundries that had made them.
"Then what will we do?" she asked.
He eased up a bit on the accelerator and then punched in some numbers which lit up on a screen in the space between passenger and driver's side.
"There are some choices, Erin Norris. First I can take you to a relatively secure cave area I've set up for temporary refuge. Unfortunately it must let air and water through it, and that means it is not secure against whatever that thing is."
"You don't know what it is?" she whispered.
"No, I don't. Only by what I've seen can I gauge it's capabilities and they are many. If I left you in the cave it would be a race between me finding what I need and it finding you. And it is a hard cave system for people to navigate, even with a map."
She shivered running her hands over her arms. The costume was wonderful for show, but not so good as outside wear.
"I don't think... is there anywhere else?"
"Yes. There is a secure bomb shelter in the South Island that was put in by the old Harriman Insurance Company. The company is gone, and it's building is now used as a general warehouse near the south docks. I have checked it over, updated its seals and put in a self-contained water and air recycling system. It is not luxury but the seals might hold against this thing."
Holed up inside Gotham with that thing outside the door was not a pleasant thought.
"I... is there anywhere else?"
Batman grunted, looking ahead, letting the automatic transponder system guide the vehicle as he thought.
"Yes. I can take you to Fisherman's Park, give you a set of protective gloves with acid syringe set, collapsible outdoor gear and some one size fits all outerwear and put you in plain sight. I can find you with a transponder and you would be left on your own to find what you thought was someplace safe. You wouldn't get much sleep and you would be unable to do much to protect yourself, but distance means time, and fifty miles would get you a day, possibly two, while I dealt with finding an assured way to kill it outside of Gotham."
Erin Norris inhaled, closed her eyes and used the back of the wrist frill to dab at the corners before tears showed.
"I don't like any of those choices," she whispered.
"Neither do I, Erin. It was chasing you. By what it tried to do, at first, that was obvious. I've gotten it mad at me, now, so may be the target it will seek, first."
That brought her up short: self-pity does not last in the face of someone who has tried to save you now shifting the danger directly towards them. Others had helped her in the past, yes, but no one had ever put themselves physically in the path of something lethal to save her life. She knew that if it wasn't for the Batman, she would be dead. And he hadn't said a word about the robbery, either.
Or handing her over to the police.
He had made a promise to Ronnie.
He was keeping to it, even if it killed him.
"Can you leave me some of that acid stuff at any of the locations?"
He smiled and nodded affirmatively.
"OK. Then I choose..."
* * *
A simple attack should get this deranged food. Spread mass out over a wide front, keeping the majority back while distracting it with a build-up and thrust on one side which would cover a thin sheet it would send forward through the air at the same time. Just one tendril, one touch and this would be over and done with. It knew that it would take extreme pain to do this, but if that was necessary to demonstrate that defending yourself against it was futile, then so be it. For some reason it was acting to protect the one it had affinity with and that was the most vexing of all the things this strange and demented being had done.
Surely it was not a mate to it? They appeared to have no affinity between them, and it could not fathom why this one being would defend the other. Nothing easily explained this, and it could not take the time to apply further reason to this situation. Best to end this strange one's life, devour the one with affinity and then decide on a good plan to reinforce itself in case others were similarly demented as this one was.
The one that did not see itself as food turned to confront it, as it had expected this strange food to do. It implemented the attack knowing full well that it was about to experience pain as it had another of the devices at hand. The thrust and wave was easily done and as it moved so did the deranged one, as it had expected. Yet it did something different and instead of trying to inject the material into it, a fine, thin stream of liquid was sent forth first at the tendril and then, painfully, just under the entire sheet it was extending.
And the pain was worse, this time, much, much worse, as something within this liquid had a mixed affinity to it. Abruptly it recoiled and severed its attachment to tendril and wave, feeling how this liquid was quickly spreading through the mass it had to cut off those losses immediately. Even the fumes released from this attack were painful and tended to seep in past its surface, causing it to shed a thin layer of mass and recoil further to let those fumes spread upwards into the air. It manifested organs to see and taste the fumes from those parts it had reacted with and it got a shock to realize that it was trying to remove key elements from its mass to turn them into a salt liquid. It had recoiled fast enough to stop the rapid spread of this liquid, which ate greedily into the floor after it had removed all that it wanted from the mass it had detached.
Distance senses told it the deranged one was watching and then turned to walk further onwards. It manifested vibratory sensors and got a shock: the deranged one was sensing IT via vibrations as it walked. This was not a normally deranged food, but one with added senses and skills. That put it into a lethal category of derangement and moved it up in the priority list of things to deal with. This being was now a definitive, multivariable threat to it, and must be killed without any play.
As the liquid finally quenched in one area, it sensed the vapors thinning and it decided on a course of action.
It sent a full body tendril through that to the other side and then sent tendrils to the walls and ceiling so as to come at this one from multiple thrust angles. It changed the density of itself as it did so, allowing vibrations to pass harmlessly through it so that it would disappear to this one, nasty food. With purpose it sent a thin tendril thrust forward from its base on the floor and then gathered separate tendrils from other directions to spring against it. This would protect it from a stream attack and a liquid insertion attack.
This time the food would have its life ripped from it.
The food turned as vibratory emanations from the one it had affinity to warned it that an attack was coming. As planned the food turned to thrust its hand at it's tendril, and that would take out one of those devices, easily.
That hand had no delivery device, which was even better. It was a purely defensive reaction!
As its tendril enveloped the hand it tried to draw this food to it, but a layer around the glove came away and the tendril snapped back quickly as it hadn't expected there to be no resistance to its drag pull. It sensed a thin rod of metal within that glove covering and by the time it sensed that it was no longer a rod of metal.
Within its mass a heat unlike any ever related to it suddenly burst forth, and not just heat but light. From all parts of the spectrum. Intense ultraviolet light pierced into its mass killing inches deep into its structure, heat pierced into it as well and a steam explosion sent dead pieces of itself in many directions, dragging gobs of living material with it.
The thermite had broken up in the steam explosion sending tiny, intensely burning fragments deeper into its mass. That explosion had sent large segments of its body as much as five feet away and it momentarily turned into a gooey, sticky green pulsing mass of material spread out along floor, ceiling and walls. Thermite dots burned out quickly, and the small amount that remained at the original burn point sunk into the marble, burning it as easily as it would steel.
Consciousness returned as the living parts which had affinity with each other gathered together, and it took precious seconds to gather its living mass together so it could actually start thinking again. By the time it did that, the door had closed behind the two food and they were rapidly moving down the semi-empty space beyond it. Their flight indicated one thing: that they no longer were able to defend against it for, if they had, they would have killed it. Or at least the deranged one would.
With that basic thought it moved as fast as it could, still gathering parts of itself as it moved and sending the affinity sign to return to those small pieces that were still alive. It changed density and moved under the door and it flew open under the pressure it exerted. The two had gotten to the bottom of the semi-empty space and it started to flow over the edge to follow them. A fall of sixty feet would not even slow it down much, and it just flowed and dropped to the floor and gathered itself there to move further and get to the tunnel and space beyond to which they were fleeing.
It had figured out how to exert pressure on doors so they opened and this one did so easily, no match for material that could shift into lock mechanisms to move them. It flowed quickly as their motion was not faster than it's was. They had fled through a larger underground space and towards one of the entrances to the subway tunnel. Going all out it started to gain on them as they entered the station and then went downwards towards the tunnel.
They were seeking refuge in the tunnels!
Arriving at the top of the stairs it could only observe them as they closed up the strange vehicle and sped down the subway tunnel.
They had escaped it by mere seconds.
And it was hungry, exhausted and now understood just what sort of a threat the strange meal was.
It would not follow them through those tunnels and couldn't catch them easily.
Now it was time to eat.
And a semi-motile source near where a cave-in had happened while building the tunnels enticed it just enough to use a thin tendril to snag it as it wandered too near the platform.
That would help, but now it needed living food.
* * *
He closed up the rear of the vehicle after giving Erin the necessary protection against the syringes of acid she now had with her. That was added to a chest harness to carry equipment, which had ready spaces for the unitized equipment packs he normally carried. Now she was outfitted with some basics such as flashlight, IR goggles, nose filters and a back-up mask to cover her mouth and nose, plus gloves. What he couldn't do much about was the lack of suitable clothing, although there were some spare clothes he had in the back of the vehicle, the only thing that could be made to fit was a set of coveralls. That along with a pair of boots a few sizes too large, along with extra socks would have to do in place of the Edwina costume.
Pressing his lips together he moved to the front of the vehicle and got in, and as the gull-wing door closed down, he started the engine and moved down the tunnel. There were no good solutions on protecting Erin Norris, only places that might be more safe but no place that he now considered completely safe. Whatever this creature was it could get through the smallest of openings, which meant one either found a safe place to stay put, or you were constantly on the run and watchful.
Erin had chosen the fall-out room that the executives of the old Harriman Insurance Company had installed under their building in the mid-1960's. It had been forgotten after the company went under in 1973, and the building, itself, had been converted into a warehouse as it was convenient to the south docks. He had run across that room during his early investigations of the Underworld nearly a decade ago, and he had made sure that the seals on it were still tight, that the room was well provisioned and that the air cycling system and waste containment system would allow for up to two weeks of active habitation.
He also changed the locking mechanism for the room, then utilized a variety of methods to hide that there was even a room there. Once inside a person could remain unmolested save against direct and concentrated attacks against the concrete, steel rebar, and multiple layers of plastic and foam that formed tight seals against the external elements. It was made to accept power from the main power lines while those worked, and then use a small generator that was in its own room sealed away from the main room, which vented to the outside.
Driving down the tunnels he thought about the strange series of events that had started at the Curio Shop. With the hours now into the early part of the morning, he knew that he needed rest and time to work with Alfred and Lucius about what, exactly, it was that he was confronting. So far acids had yielded some effect, although he would need a gallon sprayer of hydrochloric acid to do some real damage to the thing. He had hoped that the thermite would prove useful against it, and while that had an effect, it in no way stopped it.
As he turned to head down the main subway tunnel underneath 26th Street he wondered if the creature was, as Lucius suggested, a bio-weapon of some sort. It didn't act like one, and had its own capability of demonstrating intent if not true intelligence. By adapting to what he did so quickly, he had to estimate that it was at least as intelligent as a human was, although it might have abilities that it might not have manifested as of yet, which meant that he had to be doubly careful in his next steps. After he had gotten some sleep he would need to see about getting a more useful capability against it and going to the Curio Shop in the early evening.
Slowing to turn into the maintenance tunnel, he activated the system to allow him to drive into the archive area. Guide lights shone dimly in the tunnel and he carefully followed them into the lowest area of the Wayne Tower building complex. He pulled the vehicle to a stop on its turntable in an alcove and the vehicle rotated as he slowly opened the door and got out of it. From a side workbench he took out a clipboard and checked off what needed to be refilled, resupplied or checked over. Luckily it was more in the former categories than the last as the vehicle functioned well that night. Only as he placed it back on the table did he see the figure of Alfred coming from down the tunnel towards him.
"Alfred I was going to leave you a note about what I..." he trailed off seeing the concerned look on Alfred's face.
"What's wrong, Alfred?"
Approaching Alfred inhaled and looked over the suited figure in front of him.
"I was afraid you might not make it back, Master Bruce. I can see that you had a severe run-in tonight, and I'm glad you were able to survive it."
Bruce opened up the cowl and slowly detached the mask and looked at it and the front of his suit, which had tiny streaks and dots of lighter colors that etched where acid or what it was reacting with had hit him.
"Oh..." Bruce whispered as he looked at the etched face on the helmet, he had known that some splashes had reached his goggles, but he wasn't prepared for the rough appearance of black turned to grey that looked back at him.
"Others were not so lucky, Bruce," Alfred said as he stepped up to check over the costume, especially at the glove and boot areas.
"Come with me and tell me what happened, Alfred, I had an encounter in the back hall area where Erin Norris was fleeing from... whatever it was I saw at the Curiosity Shop."
As they walked Alfred took off the cape and Bruce was shocked to see how ragged the fabric was and that there were places that had been completely eaten through.
"I had thought you might have witnessed it in the Main Ballroom and went out to investigate with just your normal attire on."
Bruce shook his head negatively as they reached the alcove he used to change clothes. Alfred helped to unfasten the various catch points as Bruce began to shrug it off.
"No. I had left after the last of our entries had shown up. I don't know how, but that was Erin Norris. The Valkyrie costume left me puzzled but with the contrast with the Edwina costume on, I knew it was her. I made an excuse of a midnight rendezvous to leave the table before the awards were given out. Only when I heard screams did I actually rush to find out what was happening and then...." Bruce inhaled, shaking his head.
"I see," Alfred said, "that explains your absence. I will have the livery service pick up your car in the morning after the police have left the area. You parked in one of the sub-basements, I presume?"
"Yes, the third sub-basement," Bruce said now down to the secondary layer of catches for the fluid system, which allowed the armor to be detached in sections. He was glad to see there was no damage to that system as it had saved his life.
Alfred nodded taking the armor to a hang-rack where he positioned the pieces and turned on blowers.
"Don't spray mist that, Alfred, there is evidence on the outside that we can use to try and figure out just what it is that attacked me," Bruce said.
Alfred looked back, then went to a locker and started to bring Bruce's undergarments and normal clothes to exchange with the suit.
"You may wish to express condolences to the families of the deceased, and for those others that were killed in the... ahhh... uproar..."
Sitting down on a bench to remove the leg pieces, he looked at Alfred and exhaled, slowly.
"Deceased..." he whispered, "... what from?"
Alfred raised an eyebrow as he set the underpants and pants, with socks down on the bench and helped Bruce to remove the final boot and leg sections of the suit.
"Hysteria, shock, one person trampled to death, another dead of a broken neck and skull apparently from falling some distance into the main ball room. Eight dead, total, fifteen more in the hospital with various injuries. Amongst our staff Margaret Harbaugh and Maria Daniels were both pronounced dead at the scene. Priscilla Anderson was taken away in shock and has been in a coma for four hours."
Shivering from the news, Bruce slid on his pants, then put on his socks, then shoes when Alfred had returned with them.
"That leaves... Penny? She is in charge locally for WMM under Priscilla, isn't she?"
Alfred nodded taking the last of the leggings and boot armor to their racks.
"Yes, Master Bruce. When she called she was in near hysterics. I took the call and told her to go to the hospital after the police were done interviewing her, and contact us when she got there."
"Good," Bruce said after putting on his shoes and then standing to button his shirt and put on a light sport coat that Alfred handed to him. "Contact someone from the WD and get a forensics team there that can analyze trauma and do a biochemical analysis of the area after the police leave. I will get them some samples from the costume, as well," he said eying the areas where acid and reactants had damaged his suit. "Get someone to spell off Penny. If she needs rest, make sure she gets it, even if we have to pay for a room at the hospital, its worth it. And I'll contact Gerald Brighton, he is in Perth, I think?"
"So he can get something temporary set up in the morning for WMM. For the events tonight, however, its WD and our LE group. Put the Carstairs onto this, if they are in town this weekend. I want competent, but open minded help."
"Of course. When I saw that you had activated the beacon, I took the liberty of contacting a few of our press relations, so you can make a short statement. That should allow you some freedom of action later in the day, and then a chance to rest."
As the two walked, Bruce looked at Alfred and smirked.
"I hope the press got lots of photos of what happened tonight," he said, "that would make them good for something, at least."
Alfred raised an eyebrow.
"Unfortunately as the police relate it, the professional photographers had all left or were setting up for shoots in the company display area. Of the few that were on-hand for the closing awards, none were able to get a single photograph of the cause of the mayhem. Quite truthfully, no one knows exactly what happened there."
As they waited for the Executive Elevator, Bruce turned to look at Alfred.
"Neither am I, Alfred. And I had to confront it. Its..." he trailed off and shivered "... unearthly."
"So I surmised from your first report, sir. And what came over the radio tonight confirmed that no one can exactly say what it was that caused so much terror and death tonight."
* * *
Dr. Gotham hadn't bothered to drag the bed out to set it up in the upper floor room that had been his living quarters. That bed was now next to useless as a sleeping instrument and the semi-modern sofa that had gone into the downstairs overflow of items had served him well enough. As he had decided to clean himself up he went through the clothes that hung at the rear of the upstairs shop and decided that while modern formal attire was very well suited to formalities, it didn't have the versatility of older clothing styles that allowed one to quickly move from business meeting to minor workshop endeavors with a single addition of an apron.
He had taken stock of the general informality of this modern era and concentrated on somewhat older clothes that would not be too out of place for a businessman who had to visit customers and yet still be suitable for some minor crafting. His old cloth apron would still serve, while his leather one would require weeks of slow treatment to allow it to be useful again.
As he moved through the upstairs workshop he found his old razor set along with soap cup, brush and lather brush. Going through the materials he re-found a tin of powdered soap, shook it enough to hear its contents move and decided that he could always shave slivers off of modern soap in the upstairs bathroom if the powdered could not be rejuvenated.
Trudging up the stairs with his kit and bundle of clothes, he visited the closet just outside the bathroom to get towels and then entered into a room that had been renovated as recently as a decade ago. All of the equipment in the room was familiar to him in function if not form, and the prior visit to the library had given him insight into the few changes that modernity could bring. Getting showered, shaved, and then drying off to put on clothes and finally comb out his hair had gotten him to a point where he looked like a somewhat senior shopkeeper who used a tie and suit coat while at work and visiting others, but preferred shirtsleeves for other work. He retained his glasses as they still functioned perfectly well as the laws of optics had not changed one bit in the intervening decades and the style, while grossly out of date, went with him as a man.
With that done, and the items of daily use stowed away, he headed to the downstairs shop area to go to the refrigerator at the shop on that level and also raided the pantry for some items. An efficiency gas stove had always had a place in his shop's far corner, and the ersatz efficiency kitchen retained all that was need to fry up two eggs and make some toast in a separate pan. He had never gotten addicted to coffee, preferring tea, and a major brand of tea with a uniformed man on a yellow background gave him a satisfactory pot of the beverage once he had a few of the bags in it steeping for no more than five minutes.
Although a small radio and television had been set up inside cabinets he had used for bulk storage, he didn't bother with them and he would gather what news of the day was necessary for him to hear as it would come to him, unbidden. Of all the things that being a servant of Gotham had brought him, that was, perhaps, the best as the nature of his position meant that certain ebbs and flows of daily life could be done away with, entirely as a personal matter, and observed with a detached view so as to properly gauge their meaning.
From the front of the shop a copy of the Gotham Examiner was deposited through the mail slot and it fell with a soft plop on the floor.
He smiled to himself, got up from the table and went to the main part of the shop to the front door and picked up the paper. Unfolding it he noted that while the headlines had gotten a bit smaller in size from when he had last picked up a paper, the amount of ink being used was somewhat more and definitely far more lurid than he had remembered.
'Horror Stalks Fashion Show - 8 dead in mayhem' the headline read.
"Well, at least sensationalism hasn't disappeared," he said softly to himself as he scanned the story. He stopped and started re-reading it more carefully, and noted the approximate time when the events had started to transpire. Putting down the paper and sitting back in his chair he looked at the clock and sipped his tea.
"Such is the nature of the talisman," he murmured, "chaos and death."
Taking his cup of tea with him, he walked to the front room, and sat on the stool behind the cash register. On the glass of the display cabinet next to the register was a manilla envelope which was labeled 'Martha Culligan' in Henry's now somewhat frail writing on the front, and it was filled with copies of articles.
"Now, perhaps I can find the rightful owner of the talisman so I do not have to risk any more time holding it," he said as he put down his cup and took the contents from the envelope and spread them on the counter. Piece by piece he scanned the copies of articles.
"Ah, of course she would marry... after the war... that second war..." he said sipping his tea again, leafing through the few pages that concerned the marriage, which included a photocopy of a black and white picture of the couple. Then the articles picked up a bit between single page of society gossip copies, which seemed rather light for the position the couple held, and then a few simple articles of the growing business the husband was running. One page held a small copy of the birth announcement for their son, and another business article on up-and-coming manufacturing groups. The page after that was a lurid article on the couple's murder in downtown Gotham.
Dr. Gotham reached over to pick up his tea and read the articles about that and the still on-the-loose killer. The boy had survived the attack on his parents, and there was an article of the parent's will putting the boy into the care of the estate manager. He had called on a family friend to come over and sort things out for a few months. Then the majority of the folder picked up with the boy showing up as a 'jet setter' and 'playboy' which were terms Dr. Gotham hadn't heard before, but their implications were obvious.
As he leafed through the remainder of the articles he set aside those of a gossip nature or which followed celebrities. The pile next to that was one with business articles and the slow return of the only son to the family business and his work to re-organize and clean it up. Finally the last pieces in each pile about the only son, now a young man, had formed and he was bemused that the thickness of the celebrity pile and the industrial pile were nearly equal.
"Such a busy life for one so young," he murmured to himself, "as if driven to correct the wrong that had befallen his parents."
He reached into his suit coat pocket and took out the hastily made box and set it at the center of the articles spread out on the counter.
"Is this your handiwork? Or a reaction to the ebb and flow of the life of others? Or both?"
The box containing the talisman sat there, giving no hint to the potential drivers of events behind this young man, this city.
He took up his reading glasses and started perusing the day's paper and its main articles again.
"No good description..." he whispered to himself as he read, "subtle chaos no longer."
* * *
Just a few morsels was all it really needed to replace some mass and expand a bit as it was a growing younger member of its kind, after all. Flowing up through the drain system above the Underworld it moved into the storm sewer system and sought out a small number of tidbits that were in relatively close proximity to each other. There were places where food was stacked into the sky in their dwellings and other places that had nothing to eat at all. Affinity to the water led it through the storm sewer system heading north and slightly east towards that river that flowed past this island. It couldn't tell exactly what would make the most suitable of meals for it, which food would understand its position and be horrified by it so as to properly tenderize its body and spirit for consummation at its end. Sliding beneath one dwelling structure it felt the movement of food above in a state of some mental disarray and yet concentrated on activity. The sense of space for the structure told it that there was an internal division between one part and another, where those on one side were spare, only two, and those on the other were more plentiful in the range of six or more. It was hard to tell in their mental disarray/concentration exactly how many there were.
Moving up it shifted into the lowest part of the dwelling, which was a true basement not just a lower floor that had been swallowed up by the Underworld. Though some fluid backed into the basement ahead of it, those in the floors above did not notice. Sensing the ventilation system attached to the furnace it slid into the openings of a vent and into the duct-work, sliding smoothly amongst the dust and grime, picking none of it up as its cilia shifted into the crevices to give it firm purchase on the metal. It felt water running and two food together in a confined space and slid in that direction, feeling damper air as it got closer. The vibratory sense could make out the shifts of water on skin and bodies moving against each other within that space. Easily is slid through the vent and across the ceiling over the two in the area with water coming out of a fixture. Sliding a tendril down to the door below it seeped into its cracks while more of its mass slid over the ceiling unnoticed above them. Then it let a tendril down as it covered the door entirely and decided on the more distracted of the two, the larger of them, and dripped its tendril on its head, soon covering it.
The other food became instantly alarmed and tried to disengage from contact it had with the larger food. There were vibratory sensations coming from that smaller food as the larger one struggled and the smaller dropped to the floor of the small water room. As the larger food began to lose power since it could no longer breathe, the smaller food became deliciously fearful, agitated and terrified. It took its time slowly infiltrating the body of the larger food as it collapsed and as the smaller food made contact with the door to push it open, it found that was not possible and that parts of it were now sticking to her skin. Even as it ingested the life essence and body of the larger food it began sliding slowly over the smaller to give it that most intimate of touches. The agitation became high for that smaller food until it, too, found its essential energy being tapped but slowly, far more slowly, so that it might give all that it had as a meal.
Mere minutes would pass for that food to expire and be consumed.
And the others in this dwelling had no easy escape once it flowed into the hallway unless they wished to jump from a window. That is if they ever noticed the muffled screams and thumps from the first two that were now consumed. They were distracted, these primitive foods, and that distraction lent a certain flavor to their sudden fear.