Gotham City, 140th Street
Alcuin & Spilsbury Towers
♪ See the moon slink down in the sky, darling. Let your wildest fantasies fly, darling. Life is cold, and the game is old. Just see how virtue repays you, you turn and someone betrays you. Betray him first, and the game's reversed! For we all are caught in the middle, of one long treacherous riddle... ♪
The haunting rendition of the old, peculiar song echoed throughout the long, spacious hallway that led to the large double doors accented by lavish lighting and freshly waxed marble floors. Agents Arthur Brown and Peyton Riley looked towards eachother, equally perplexed by what exactly they were walking into. Riley even checked her phone again to make sure that the given address was accurate, given they had both been summoned without much in the way of warning. Once Brown hesitantly took another step forward, Riley eventually followed, watching as her colleague reached up to the bizarre looking doorbell - the design of it looking as though it were something out of the steampunk era, and proceeded to press it. The sound that followed left them even more thrown, as it sounded less like a traditional doorbell and more like a three stringed harpsichord.
Instantly, the recording of the song stopped and the lights dimmed, giving the hallway itself a foreboding atmosphere that was in stark contrast to what it had been before. Rather than a figure appearing to open the doors, however, the Agents were shocked to witness the doors open by themselves. Sliding just enough for them to enter the massive penthouse suite inside, Brown and Riley looked at their surroundings with astonishment.
An emerald trim lined the walls and stairs that lead up into a second floor that was adorned with walls built of a mirrored black glass, and the floors were of a brushed metallic finish. The walls of the first floor were covered in a sound dampening honeycomb patterned nomex material, seemingly professionally installed, and the living room area wasn't so much inviting as it was militaristic - in the place of a television, there were twelve monitors. In the place of a standard coffee table and couch, there was a long conference table outfitted with multiple leather seats. And atop that was a giant screen, sitting infront of the already active monitors.
Brown took one look at it all and blurted out the first thing that came to mind.
"Jesus Christ. It's like a freakin' command center."
Riley raised an eyebrow at the monitors, specifically.
"And look at those. They aren't just the type of hardware you can buy on the street, those are top of the line Stark Screens. They cost half a million dollars each and usually only belong to members of the top brass at the Pentagon."
"A small correction, Agent. They cost roughly six hundred thousand each, placing them above the half a million dollar mark."
Both Brown and Riley turned towards the top of the staircase, as Agent Nashton appeared, seemingly out of nowhere. His cane at the ready, he began to descend the stairs while carrying a carbon fiber briefcase. Indicating that they sit at the table, Brown and Riley reluctantly agreed, as Nashton made his way to the forefront chair and gently plopped the briefcase infront of him. Producing a remote control, he held it out towards the room itself and pressed a button. A gentle concerto played over a series of hidden speakers. Nashton smiled as the confusion between his two operatives only grew.
"Just a bit of mood music. I feel like if I'm going to break the new house in, I might aswell make myself comfortable. And please, try not to touch anything. I'm in the middle of interviewing prospective housekeeping candidates, so I'd like to keep everything in optimal condition until it can be properly maintained."
Brown leaned forward.
"So when the hell were you gonna tell us that you were loaded, boss?"
"I hardly find it surprising. I mean think about it, Brown. There's nothing to directly contradict any measure of wealth in what little we knew beforehand."
Nashton raised a finger, indicating that Riley had made a fair point.
"True. But Arthur's confusion isn't entirely without merit. After all, as of this time last week, I barely even possessed a modest twenty thousand dollars to my name. This suite came at a price tag of about three hundred million. It's quite the leap, if you do even the most rudimentary math."
Brown's mouth went agape hearing those figures.
"How in... what the..."
Nashton cut him off.
"All in due time. Let's just say that I've figured out a way to game the system, if you will. But I didn't bring either of you in to show off the fruits of my discoveries, as much as I wish that were the case. You both played your part last night to the letter, yes? You were present in that audience at the Starling Fashion Show?"
Riley leaned forward, removing a file from her jacket filled with a detailed report of their compiled notes. Indeed, a little over twenty four hours ago, both Brown and Riley had been undercover at the event that was attacked by a maniac calling himself Mr. Freeze. They both put themselves in considerable danger by remaining at the event, as instructed, even whenever they were forewarned about Freeze's rampage as it was beginning. Perhaps luckily, The Batman had intervened and distracted Freeze long enough for both to remain out of sight and unharmed.
As Riley slid the file to Nashton, he picked it up and gave it a cursory glance, as if to imply that he knew what to expect. Neither Agent said a word as he scanned the documents page-by-page, though they were both a little put off. Nashton had been an eccentric figure before now, but this newly acquired wealth? The dramatic entrance, the mysterious briefcase? It all seemed a bit much, and neither of them felt like they were being included on whatever this really was. They'd assumed that this was merely a matter of delivering their report, but Nashton had insisted that both appear in person to this address - which was apparently his new home address.
"I see. So The Dark Knight subdued the frozen monolith, and yet both escaped the scene all the same. Our vigilante's getting sloppier. Or perhaps, weaker. That highly publicized struggle against Gordon's unit in The Narrows must have taken more out of him than I initially anticipated."
"He did appear to operate more sluggish than anything corroborated by previous eyewitness accounts. I suspect due to the unusual nature of the attacker himself, but Brown has an alternate theory."
Nashton raised an eyebrow.
"You have the floor, Arthur."
"Well, it's not much of a theory, just an observation. I think The Bat was distracted, not weakened. He seemed preoccupied with a woman at the event. I had her image pulled from the security feed once it went back up, and get this. She's an exact match for Carmine Falcone's daughter. And the entourage that escorted her out? All confirmed members of the Five Families."
Nashton brought his hand to his chin, his eyes still fixated on the file.
"An intriguing, if not entirely unexpected development. I'm genuinely surprised that you caught that, Arthur. A connection between Selina Kyle and The Batman certainly thickens the plot. Perhaps some sort of romantic entanglement?"
Riley cleared her throat.
"Doubtful, sir. At one point during the incident, Kyle shot him in the back of the head and attempted to finish him off once it became apparently that the blow wasn't lethal."
Nashton chuckled, loudly, closing the file with a single hand.
"While not entirely ruling my theory out, given the nature of these things, I suppose that was a bit premature on my part. Fine, so The Batman was clearly looking to split his attention between enemies. The Proverbial Iceman and The Roman's Daughter, respectively."
Brown let out a frustrated sigh.
"We wish we had more to draw on, sir, but the fight was fairly frantic and there wasn't alot to see. I think The Batman cut the lights just before he appeared, and the emergency back-up generators weren't working. Everything we witnessed came from the night-vision toggle on my phone, and that eventually went dead around the time that, erm, Mr. Freeze was seemingly taken down. Had to be an EMP. Must've been why the security feeds went down, too."
Nashton held up his remote once again, taking a seat proper at the table.
"Oh. You mean these security feeds?"
Brown and Riley looked towards the twelve monitors as, to their astonishment, fully brightened and digitally cleared up high-definition footage of both Mr. Freeze and The Batman were displayed from varying perspectives. Everything that had been barely visible in person was made crystal clear, seemingly after the fact. The Agents looked back at Nashton, who seemed positively amused.
"There was a reason that the security feeds were down for you and the authorities. I took control of them myself and rerouted the footage directly to my own private server."
Pulling up the briefcase, Nashton rested his hands on it.
"I also took the liberty of silencing all radio distress signals out to the police and the press. It was my little way of testing our cape and cowled friend in a time of extreme duress, and that test proceeded even better than I could've hoped. Within minutes, Batman appeared to try and save the day, despite his predilection for operating only in the night time hours. Which tells us something very important about our target. He cannot, and will not ignore an attack from a person of an equally extreme modus operandi."
Brown and Riley stared at Nashton with a combination of dumbfoundedness and anger. They had been risking their neck in the field, volunteering to pose as patrons for the fashion show with the foregone knowledge that it may possibly be the subject of an attack by a madman, and furthermore, that the already confirmed-to-be unstable Batman may appear. But this was all knowledge that Nashton had acquired without their help, rendering their efforts wasted.
"You mean, you were the one behind the..."
"Wait. How is that even possible? You managed to snag control of the power grid, the distress signals, and, what? Everything within a mile radius? That's insane, Edward. You would have to have a jammer of completely unparalleled power to be able to pull something like that off."
"Well, not necessarily a jammer, but it is something capable of doing all of that. And much more..."
Finally unlocking the briefcase, Nashton spun it around so that his operatives could see what lied inside. While neither had any preconceived notions of what it could've been, both found themselves more than a little disconcerted with the case's actual contents - it was a box. A seemingly normal, hexagonal wooden panelled box with some sort of raised markings decorating it. Nashton picked it up and stood, giving them an even closer look at the object in question.
"This, my esteemed colleagues, is one of the most revolutionary inventions of the twenty-first century. A virtual skeleton key to access any and all electronic signals that one wishes to bend to their will."
"It is called, appropriately, Tabula Rasa. It's original creator considered it something of a Pandora's Box, and even named it thus, but I figured upon my acquisition of it... why settle for such a cliché?"
Brown raised an eyebrow, looking at the main feature of the design - a gigantic, stylized question mark.
"What's with the logo?"
Riley brushed off Brown's question with a curt reply of her own.
"Nevermind that. Just where in the hell did you get your hands on something like that? And why are we just learning about this?"
Nashton sneered back at her for a moment.
"You're forgetting yourself, Riley. I trickle these developments to the two of you on a need-to-know basis. That was the deal, as I recall, when I selected you for field duty. The fact that I'm even presenting you with this much should be a sign of good faith, not the source of stirring up any further incertitude."
Riley went silent, as Brown inspected the box even further.
"I don't get it, boss. How does this thing work?"
Nashton smiled to himself, placing the Tabula Rasa back into it's case.
"In a manner far more complex than either of you would understand. But I assure you, I am the only authorized user of it at this point. There are a series of encryptions built into it's programming that rewrite themselves every three minutes, to avoid it being tampered with. And only I possess the master passcode."
Brown's confusion morphed into downright intrigue.
"Which you're gonna share with us, right?"
"Arthur, my friend, you wouldn't even know what to do with it if you tried. No, this is something that stays close to the chest and with me at all times. Not even my superiors are aware of this device's existence, given I that pilfered it off of a man who was going to try and use it in a bid of domestic terrorism. A failed but brilliant engineer who currently sits on death row for his many, many crimes."
Riley sat back, realizing what he was saying.
"So by using this, you're going off the reservation?"
Nashton shrugged, sitting back down.
"To a degree. But that was always to be the foregone conclusion of our time, here. The truth is, Peyton, that I've been personally assessing the situation for these past few weeks. I was told that Gotham City was a cesspool of overarching corruption and rampant criminal misconduct, but I don't think that's quite an accurate interpretation of how this town truly works. To be quite honest, I think that we're on the verge of discovering the rise of something entirely new. Something that The Batman has unwittingly ushered into existence."
Brown looked puzzled, but Riley was beginning to catch on.
"Extreme criminal personalities. Metahuman phenomena coupled with megalomania."
Nashton gave her a nod.
"More than I believe anyone is even aware of, at this point. But I've been using Tabula Rasa to tap into the private telecommunication feeds of some of the more prominent members of The Five Families. And Mr. Freeze's threat to The Batman, as I captured here..."
Pressing play on the remote, Riley and Brown turned to watch as Freeze stood over a weakened Batman, both brought to their breaking point after the end of a vicious battle.
"There is a war coming to the streets. By the time you and the rest of the city realize it, it will be far too late. He will bring an end to the Five Families, as he will to those caught in the throes of their deaths."
"Isn't the least bit of any exaggeration. Falcone and the others don't know it yet, but everything that The Roman's ever worked for is about to be entirely undone. And it is, by my estimation, a masterstroke of chaos. Chaos that will undoubtedly send The Batman reeling into a trap that we simply need to set."
Riley thought to herself for a moment.
"If you have all of this power at your disposal, why not simply use it to find out who The Batman really is? Surely, there's some sort of digital trace that you can use. Some sort of satellite footage that tracks him to wherever he goes to hide. We could mount an assault on his base and end this right now."
Nashton sighed to himself, massaging the bridge of his nose.
"Do you really take me for a fool? I've already tried that. Multiple efforts made, none particularly fruitful. Whatever electronic relay that he implements to hide himself, I have to admit that it's quite effective. And I can't unwind the spool of whatever he's using if left I'm unsure of what to look for. Tabula Rasa doesn't work that way. It works off of hard data and known quantities, of which there is very little in regards to Batman. Besides, it will be of no consequence where he hides once we enact a plan to capture him in the midst of one of these bouts with a fellow costumed sycophant."
With a realization, Brown suddenly became concerned.
"What if Freeze is the end of it, though? There's nothing to guarantee these freaks are just gonna start popping out of the woodwork, right?"
With careful contemplation over how he was going to put the next few words, Agent Nashton sat back and brought his hands together.
"I don't think you quite grasp the gravity of the situation, Arthur. Based off of the intelligence that I've gathered, Freeze isn't talking about some mere gang war that will result in a bunch of mobsters fighting one another to gain absolute control of some territorial dispute. Comparatively, that would be a considerably low-stakes endeavor."
"What he means is a war between individuals like us... and individuals like him."
Gotham City, Wayne Tower
"Nora Fries is dead."
In between attempting to fix the damage inflicted on the suit's inner-circuitry, Alfred looks up from the workbench behind me with a curious gaze as I pull up the coroner's report on Freeze's apparently late wife. It leaves me out of sorts aswell, though for entirely different reasons. But according to hospital records and an obituary in The Gotham Gazette from five years ago, the woman that Freeze stormed Snyder Stadium to see hasn't been among the living for quite some time. She died of a rare but aggressive late stage cancer at the age of 36, after a successful run as a fashion model who specialized in snow-themed photoshoots and attire based off of the name. Which was a stage name, it seems. Her real name was Nora Fields-Schivel, which links her directly with the most likely candidate for Freeze's true identity: a geneticist formerly employed by Janus Technologies named Victor Schivel. Interestingly, he seemed to go by the alias of Victor Fries, given his wife's profession and level of relative fame.
It doesn't make any sense. I saw the conviction in Freeze's face and heard the desperation hidden in his voice. He was utterly convinced that Nora was still alive, and even more specifically, that she was to be the headlining runway model for the Starling Fashion Show. Looking through Mrs. Schivel's medical history, it seems as if Victor suggested a number of different experimental treatments to the doctors at Elliot Memorial - which they had to take seriously, given his credentials. One of the later treatments, in an act of apparent despair, involved putting his wife under cryogenic stasis and freezing her so that the cancer wouldn't advance beyond the curable stage. Pulling up any relevant information on Victor Schivel's time at Janus, my eyes suddenly meet a report that may alleviate the confusion.
Weeks before her death, Victor disappeared off of the face of the Earth after a lab explosion involving the mixing of a series of dangerous, not to mention illegal chemicals that had been found by police at the scene. This man was so dedicated to curing his wife that he must've been working late night shifts, turned to illegitimate means to continue his research, and suffered an accident when the chemicals became volatile. That may explain his current condition, as theoretically, no one should have survived this. But Schivel's body was never found. And after five years, he must have figured out a means to adapt to his condition in zero degree temperatures.
"How very tragic for him. Though that doesn't quite explain what the man was doing in holding an entire arena hostage for the benefit of the deceased."
"Schivel, or Fries, suffered his accident before his wife's death. It's entirely possible that despite the evidence to the contrary, he refused to accept the reality that she was ever gone. Especially if he wasn't there to witness it. And given our encounter, I'd say it's more than a little possible that such denial mixed with grief drew him to madness."
Alfred raises an eyebrow.
"My word. So you're saying that in his delusion, his wife is out there and he simply needs to find his lost love? Perhaps 'tragic' was something of an understatement."
I narrow my eyes at the screen, looking at an employee photo of the man Mr. Freeze once was. Eyes brimming with a sense of life that no longer exists. The man I fought was a man literally driven cold to emotion. His face didn't express much of anything beyond pure, unbridled apathy. Only when I provoked him with his wife did that exterior seem to crack, showing only rage. Even without the suit and cannon, it's clear that he's far too unstable of an individual to just remain free. I need to find him and bring him in so that he can recieve care at Arkham.
"Perhaps. But that doesn't make him any less dangerous, nor does it explain where he got the technology to become whatever it is that he's become."
Alfred silently nods, standing up from the workbench and removing his soldering goggles. Stepping forward, he places an object on the console next to me, prompting me to look over. A single, dented bullet ripped from the back of my cowl. My eyes shift away, knowing exactly who took the shot.
"On the subject of tragedies. It's truly a shame that this incident had to go and reveal Ms. Kyle's true allegiances. I was becoming rather fond of her, for all of the woman's snark. As I'm sure you were aswell, lad."
I remain silent. The truth is, I've been trying not to think about it. Selina and I built up a certain rapport that started as a means for me to work my way into the social scene of Gotham's elite. She was curious about me due to my status as the recently returned figurehead of the Wayne family dynasty, and I was curious about her because of who her father is. When it became a genuine friendship, there was apart of me that felt guilt over the circumstances under how we met, and my intentions for engaging with her. Now I know better. We were both putting on an act all along, with neither party knowing the full truth. It makes me question how I should approach any future interactions with her. Obviously, I can't let on that something's changed, as it would provoke questions that I can't answer. But to let her just waltz back into my life as if nothing has...
Clearly, I'm going to have to play into the role of billionaire playboy a bit harder than I have in the past. If she's to suspect nothing, I have to remain as clueless and dimwitted as she's always believed. Maybe even continue with the odd flirtation that we'd been carrying on, though I at least know now that it's never going to go any further than that. I can't bring myself to care for an unrepentant criminal, let alone a mobster. And while I'm now aware of Selina's duplicity, I'm still not entirely sure what role she plays amongst the Five Families. So until I learn more, I'm going to have to lean on playing coy in order to extrapolate more information.
"It's certainly a lesson in trust, I'll give you that."
Standing upright from the computer, I make my way over to the chamber that houses the few spare Batsuits that I've been assembling over the last six months. There are four that are still compatible with Ace's uplink, aswell as three prototype suits from when I originally started operating as Batman. They're barebones, simply being a series of bullet-strewn cloth and leather outfits hiding armor plates that I used to manually have to strap on, but they did their job at the time. Passing them as I make my way to one of the more recent spares, I open the glass casing and begin to remove pieces.
"Alfred, have I made a difference?"
He turns to me as he approaches the work desk, paused, genuinely thrown by the question.
"Almost certainly, Bruce. As I told you following your recent hospitalization, you..."
"No, not as The Batman. As... myself. The man that my parents wanted me to be."
Alfred is at a loss for words as I turn back to him. He isn't sure how to answer the question.
"It's difficult to say, lad. You haven't necessarily gone to great lengths to put yourself out there, I'll admit, but you've been helping wherever you can as a financial figure. As I'm sure Harvey Dent would attest, given your contributions to his campaign."
Shaking my head as I throw the cape and bodysuit over my arm, I turn back around.
"Maybe. But I'm starting to think that it isn't good enough. My encounter with Freeze brought me close to death. Closer than I've ever been in my life, and I had a bit of a moment. A passing spark of clarity, I guess. And I realized that for as much as I've been doing in the mask, Bruce Wayne's been coming up short as a man that the people of Gotham can look to."
Stopping myself, I close my eyes and sigh.
"Even if I acted otherwise before, I once hoped that Batman could eventually be a symbol of virtue for this city. Someone that the people could see as a figure that inspires hope. But with the choices I've had to make lately, I don't think that's ever going to happen. The more that I do out there, the more that people fear me. And if I can't salvage my reputation as one half of the equation, maybe it's time that I started doing more with the other half."
Looking back at Alfred, I notice that he's not disagreeing with anything that I'm saying. He's been a proponent for making more use out of my family name ever since I arrived back in Gotham, but he's done a hell of a job in hiding it whenever I've brushed that concern off in the past. Maybe it's just a temporary change in my mindset, but I've given it alot of thought over the past few hours.
"If Batman is to be their enemy, Bruce Wayne should be their ally. The city needs at least one figure to inspire good."
Without saying it so much as indicating his pride with the way that he resumes his work on the damaged suit, Alfred seemingly agrees. Pulling the cowl from the mannequin and placing it along with the other items, I push the glass casing back into place and catch a glimpse of my own reflection in the place of where the empty Batsuit once sat. Maybe it's a change that's been a long time coming. A billionaire benefactor is one thing, but one could do Gotham alot of good if they were out there to be seen doing it.
"Of course, I'll need your help in navigating that performance. I'm not exactly good with crowds unless I'm beating on them..."
Alfred chuckles to himself.
"Your social diction could use a bit of work. That much is true. But I'm glad that you're finally starting to see some sense, lad. If any of this is going to work, there has to be a balance. And I believe that you have it in you to strike that balance, even more than you realize. This need to give the people an aspirational figure is something you could stand to hone in on, and it doesn't always have to be an act. You simply need to learn to hide your anger whenever you address your honest feelings."
Nodding, I make my way into the private area of the suit chamber to begin changing. Within minutes, I emerge fully suited up, sans the cowl that's now draped around the top of my shoulders. With my philanthropic intentions spelled out, the work that needs to be done tonight has to resume it's immediate priority. Bruce Wayne may have a ways to go before he can do any good, but my alter-ego has a mission at hand. Freeze is out there, somewhere, and it doesn't take a genius to realize that it's going to be a location that emits an unusual amount of cold temperatures for this time of season. Ace should be able to track that easily enough, as soon as I pay a visit to Jason Todd to get a new version of him uploaded into this suit.
"We'll talk more about this tomorrow morning. I'm planning an all-nighter."
"Are there any other types of nights for you?"
I don't even give him the satisfaction of a glare.
"Maybe not. But I've got a lead on two immediate threats to Gotham that supercede the Five Families, for once, and I'm not about to let either slip through the cracks."
Utilizing the Batcomputer, I pull up a signature of the pheromone extract that I traced to Poison Ivy. While Ace puts in the work of scanning for Freeze's hiding spot, I can go to work in finally tracking down the metahuman that nearly killed me through Jessica Jones. A woman of Ivy's considerable power is even less suited to be left unchecked, if she's truly capable of controlling the minds of others against their own will. The only problem with either Freeze or Ivy is that I don't know how I'm going to be able to subdue them once I find them. With Freeze, it may simply be a matter of catching him whenever he's not in the armor.
Ivy's another story. Obviously, I know how she's able to infect her victims. But protecting myself against an unknown extract made up of plants and toxins that don't originate to Gotham natively is going to be something of a challenge. It's not like I have an antidote at the ready in my belt for something as completely unprecedented as superhuman control of pheromones.
"Is The Batcycle back online?"
Alfred points to the area of The Cave where it usually sits, indicating that it's been brought back from Waynetech's labs and re-assembled. After Oracle originally breached my security, I had thought to keep it offline. But after their help in keeping me alive during the fight with Freeze, I've considered their interference more tolerable - to an extent. I'm still going to have Ace be on alert for any new activity within the system, but Oracle has earned at least a trial period of earning some trust. After losing my faith in Selina, it's not as if I couldn't use another ally. I just have to be more cautious.
"Keep a watch on the comms. I may need your expertise out there, tonight."
"As always, I remain entirely at your disposal, lad."
Pulling the cowl back over my face, I turn and begin to head out.
"At least there's someone I can rely on..."
Shutting Selina's betrayal out of my mind, I mount the cycle and hear the engine blast to life.
Time to go hunting.