Batman and Catwoman in Cat-Tales by Chris DeeCat-Tales 58: Demon's in the Details

Demon’s in the Details
by Chris Dee

Dispatches


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Valerina glanced at the fresh dispatches, and then at the handmaid who brought them.  It was like looking back in time, at herself when she’d first come to the palace.  She had seen no more of Atlantis than the fourth dome where she grew up and went to school, and the district in the open-air part of the main dome where her grandmother lived.  Back then, a visit to the main dome seemed like the epicenter of the universe.  Much as she loved her grandmother, it was the glamour of the open-air city that thrilled her.  You could see the spirals of the palace right from her grandmother’s window!  Then when she finished school, her scores qualified her to work at the palace. Little did she think when she crept in through those gates, too frightened to even look up, that one day she would be personal aide to the king.

“Let me guess,” Valerina said to the handmaid, “before you came in right now, you stood outside the door reciting the protocol they taught at the nursery.  If you found King Orin alone, you were to address him as ‘My Liege,’ but if any consulars or ministers were present, then the first address would be ‘Your Majesty’ after which a simple ‘sire’ would suffice.”

“Is it not correct, ma’am?” the girl asked without raising her eyes.

“Not in this palace.  In front of outsiders, ‘King Orin’ is fine, but he’s not big on ceremony when it’s just him and you.  Just ‘Orin’ is fine, and once he invites you to—and he will—you can call him Arthur.”

“I- I-,” the handmaid stammered, still not lifting her eyes.

“You could not possibly,” Valerina filled in the words for her.  “I know, that’s just how I felt.  It took me two migration cycles to get it sounding natural.  You’ll get there.  You can start by looking up.”

“Ma’am?”

“Look up.  You’ll be forever bumping into things if you don’t.  That’s what he’ll say.  He likes eye contact.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Valerina would have liked to erase the ‘ma’am’ as well, but she didn’t want to load the girl down with too many corrections at once.

“Now, let’s see those dispatches,” she said instead.

It was challenging, being personal aide to the king, particularly when he was out of the palace.  He would check in twice a day, once with Vulko and once with her.  Vulko briefed him on affairs of state, and Valerina on “everything else.”  Valerina knew Vulko’s responsibility was far greater, the weight and importance of those briefings was certainly beyond the minutiae of “everything else,” but she couldn’t help but think Vulko had it easier when it came to boiling it all down.  When King Orin called in, he only wanted what he called “the broad brushstrokes,” and he expected the call to last no more than five minutes.  He said it was something to do with the Justice League satellite moving out of range, but Valerina always suspected it was really his own patience running out.  In any case, five minutes was the point where, if you had more to say, you’d be saying it to a seriously irate sea king.  Through trial and error, Valerina had determined that she could bring about two minutes worth of material to the call.  That allowed ample time for the king to ask questions and give instructions on each issue.

Sifting through and prioritizing dispatches was the hardest part of the job.  Those who lived in the palace always heard quickly when the king was away from the city for more than a day, so requests for a personal audience dropped off almost immediately, as did the follow ups.  There was no use asking if the king had reviewed this report or seen that petition if you knew he wasn’t in the city.  The problem came from outsiders.  They had no such knowledge of the king’s comings and goings, nor did they have any inkling of their relative importance (or unimportance).  They all assumed their case was the crown’s top priority.  When King Orin was in the city, he determined what took precedence, but when he was not, it fell to Valerina to decide what made the list for his two-minute briefing.

There was a note from Lorena of Sub Diego, thanking King Orin for a birthday gift.  He would want to answer that personally—which was just as well, since Valerina was unsure what Lorena’s actual status was, politically.  Vulko said that, as the head of state for an independent undersea city, she was a queen and King Orin’s equal, even though her city was much smaller and poorer than Atlantis.  King Orin, on the other hand, referred to her as a friend.  Unsure what else to do with the thank you note, Valerina consolidated the intelligence reports into a single stack, clearing a space for “personal correspondence” on the king’s desk.  One down...

There was a revised schedule from the Watchtower listing dates and times for the next two months of staff meetings, as well as an assigned rota of “monitor duty” with several squares on a grid labeled “Aquaman.”  Valerina was used to the unusual name by which surfacers referred to the sea king, but she would never get used to this concept of monitor duty, where they simply told the king of Atlantis when he was to appear and expected him to show up. 

“The Justice League forgot to send the agenda again, too” she complained to the viewscreen once Arthur checked in.  “How are you to determine which meetings require your attendance and which do not?  It’s as though they expect you to go to every meeting just because it is Satyr’s Day or whatever they call it.”

..::Saturday.  And yes, they do.::.. answered the frozen, staticy image on the viewscreen.

“They have no understanding, do they, Arthur?  Of how vast the seas are, and how insignificant their land-based concerns are, in comparison.”

..:: Valerina, would it surprise you to learn that, to a Green Lantern, the oceans are nothing but a speck compared to vastness of space?::..

“Green Lanterns do not rule in space,” Valerina replied, rather than backing down.  “Nor do they have millions of subjects, such as you do, making claims on their time.  Are the whales alright?”

Arthur smiled.  He liked having assistants who would challenge him.  He liked bright, articulate men and women who were not afraid to speak their minds—as long as they did it with respect for his office and his experience.  He liked it as long as the women didn’t do that one trick that always reminded him of Mera: making her argument and then immediately changing the subject with a question that she knew he’d want to answer at length.  So the only way he could respond to her last word on the original subject was to bring it up later, in this case after he’d told her about the whales, which made him sound like an argumentative jerk who was holding on to an issue long past its time.

“The whales are fine,” he said, figuring he had time to go into it before the JLA satellite moved out of range.  “There is a bit of a mystery about what exactly happened.  A number of males around Hawaii reported a scent as if females were in estrus outside of their regular cycle, but none of them are.  I’ve checked the area, I’ve talked to everyone I could find.  No one is in heat.  No one is ill.  No one knows where the smell came from.  The males are understandably irritable, but other than that, everyone is fine.  I’m still looking into it.  Working hypothesis at this point is that there was some sort of chemical dumping.”

..::Arthur, I know surfacers are perverse, but dumping whale hormones?  Why in Poseidon’s name?::..

“It wouldn’t have been ‘whale hormone’ they were dumping.  It would have been something else, some waste product from their manufacturing that just happened to smell that way once it reacted with the salt water.  I have a scientist colleague from the Justice League who could look into it.”

..:: We have scientists of our own,::.. Valerina objected. 

“We do,” Arthur agreed. “And Atlantis scientists know far more about whales, but far less about surface corporations.  Batman knows where their factories are, what byproducts result from their manufacturing, and which companies would be likely to dispose of those byproducts improperly in the South Pacific.”

..:: Very well.  Shall I have Vulko make contact with this ‘colleague’ or—::..

“No, it can wait.  I’ll call him myself when I return.  But Vulko can call the Watchtower and have them send the meeting agenda.”

“Mr. Drake, ‘prep’ stands for preparatory.”

Every time Tim heard that old wag from Mr. Offred, he’d wanted to scream, but now he’d have to admit, Brentwood Academy lived up to its promise.  He got into Hudson University (as well as Dartmouth and the University of Metropolis).  He came in with 12 credits, thanks to all those A.P. courses.  And he discovered that a lot of those papers he slaved over at Brentwood made a decent foundation for his freshman class work.  None of them were viable as written, but they made a solid starting point. 

Just look at his paper on methane as a greenhouse gas versus methane as an oil alternative.  It was thin, but because Mr. Offred insisted on meticulous footnoting and detailed bibliographies, Tim was able to return to his original sources and flesh out the arguments.  Professor Milpini said the finished work was so exemplary for a freshman, Tim should submit it to the Junior Science and Humanities Symposium, where it got an honorable mention.  Scored him a $25 gift card at Olive Garden and two passes to the real symposium. 

Tim was stoked.  Professor Milpini said E.J. Meadows was attending, and he’d be sure to introduce them.  It took Tim a minute to place the name, but then he realized E.J. Meadows was one of the researchers he’d quoted in his paper.  It was dumb, but he hadn’t quite thought of those names in the footnotes as real people.  He knew they were, obviously, but not in the sense of someone you’d meet at a party.  Not someone your Geo 104 professor marches you up to at a cocktail reception and says “this is the young student who’s been following your work.”

“Vulko, next time you have to call the Watchtower, check the monitor schedule first and call when Martian Manhunter is on the desk. It saves time.”

Vulko said he would remember, and Arthur apologized for snapping before he ended the transmission.

It’s not like it affected him.  So Diana was “revising” the meeting agenda, so she said she would send it when it was finished (ha, ‘finished,’ like that would happen.)  So what?  As it turned out, he wasn’t returning to Atlantis yet, so it hardly mattered that the agenda wasn’t sitting on his desk.  Vulko had plenty of time...  And that’s what really irked him.  He wasn’t going home yet.

First missing coral off the Great Barrier Reef, then a sea storm under the Indian Ocean, then this upheaval with the whales, and now—now that he was finally heading home, now that he was ready to put his feet up with a cup of hot praulla and the new Michael Connelly novel, now that he could practically taste a nice morsel of unagi in a cloud of spun sugar kelp—now he had to go all the way to the East China Sea because “King Shark” was spotted off the coast of Nagasaki.  King Shark... added to all the other irritants.

If there was one thing that got under Aquaman’s skin, it was the surface press and their penchant for naming things in his realm.  It was true there was a nemesis who plagued him from time to time, a nanaue or “man-shark” who operated in the waters around Hawaii.  It was mildly possible the reports were true, that whatever attacked bathers or fisherman off Nagasaki was the nanaue he knew as King Shark...  It was possible, but not very likely.  Japan was too far from his native waters.  But something was seen off Nagasaki, and another mutated shark was certainly possible.  He wouldn’t know until he got there and spoke to both the human witnesses and the sea life in the area.  So home was postponed, yet again.

Tim wanted to impress this E.J. Meadows, whose ample comments on methane hydrates helped him stretch his four page paper to six all those years ago without having to dig up another source.

Methane hydrates provided stability to the sea floor.  Who knew!  Tim certainly hadn’t, but that simple factoid let him pad his paper, getting Mr. Offred off his back so he could spend the next two days rescuing Stephanie from the Gully Carson gang. 

So yeah, he wanted to impress.  But he also wanted to do everything he could not to come off as a freshman science geek with no social skills.  That little worry was Dick’s fault.  Tim had never been awkward socially.  College was new, but it wasn’t all THAT different from Brentwood.  Not until Dick came around with this business about “The Talk.”

The Talk.

And Tim had fallen for it.  Hook, line, and sinker. 

Stupid.  Arthur did not consider himself a stupid man by any means.  Without false modesty, he could honestly say he had brought a broader scope to the ruling of Atlantis, thanks to his history with the surface world, and a more balanced and informed understanding of the thousand factors affecting his kingdom and its people.  Nevertheless, he was fallible.  He could stick his foot in his mouth as deep as any other man, and never was that clearer than today.  Of all the kelp-headed stupidity he’d been guilty of... 

There were vents in the Pacific, inside the deepest gorges, fathoms below where surface light could penetrate.  Vents where the icy seawater flowed deep into the Earth’s warm core through gaping cracks in its surface.  It would return to the ocean floor as geysers of superheated mineral-laden fluid.  Most sea life would find it highly toxic, but the areas around each vent had its own ecosystem: plants which fed on those concentrations of chemicals instead of surface light, and the fish that fed on them in turn.  Arthur always found it hard to communicate with these particular fish.  The sea as they knew it was as different from his world as his oceans were from the land.  Consequently, their thoughts about everything were completely foreign. 

“Communicating at all is a struggle,” he told Lorena.  “And on top of that, the chemicals interfere with my telepathy.”

“You were high?” she giggled.  “That’s why you dropped in uninvited?  You’ve got the munchies?”

Lorena was not born to the seas.  She and several hundred surfacers had been plunged into the ocean when an earthquake submerged a portion of San Diego.  Only then did they discover they’d been genetically altered to become water-breathers.  Lorena still had a surfacer’s frame of reference.  That might be why he liked visiting.

“I wasn’t high,” he insisted.  “I just get a weird ache behind my eyes and the telepathy gets fuzzy.  I dropped in since I was in the neighborhood.”

“Checking out a new seismic vent,” Lorena said skeptically.

“On Poseidon’s trident,” he grinned.

“That’s like a Boy Scout oath, right?”

Arthur glared. 

“Valerina said you’d written,” he mentioned, changing the subject.

“Not really, just a thank you note.  The scroll is lovely.  That’s it hanging in that alcove, by the way.”

He turned to look, then turned back, puzzled.

“Looks nice there.  Fits the space.”

She laughed.

“Come on, Arthur.  ‘On Poseidon’s trident,’ you’ve never seen that thing before in your life.  You staffed it out.”

“I’m sorry,” he said, abashed.  “I haven’t been in the city.  It’s been one thing after another for almost two weeks now, and I didn’t want you to think I’d forgotten your birthday, so I asked Vulko to send something.”

“Oh that I knew,” she said smugly.  “It came addressed to Queen Lorena.  That had to be Vulko’s doing.  You would know better.”

He winced. 

“Was there trouble?”

“A little.  I’m an elected mayor and my constituents are very cognizant of their rights as citizens of a democracy.  I explained that Atlantis tends to be... confused.”

“I’ll speak to Vulko,” Arthur said quietly.

“I had a better idea, actually.  We had talked about trading ambassadors.”

Arthur was astonished.  It was true they had talked about it, one day, when Sub Diego was ready.  Atlantis would establish an embassy in Sub Diego, and Lorena would send one of her people to speak for her in Atlantis.  But he never dreamed they were that far along.

“You’re ready?” he asked, unable to conceal his surprise.

“I don’t know if we’re ever ‘ready,’ in that sense.  But it’s time.  We’re stable economically; we have trade agreements with California and Mexico.  The Wayne Foundation facilitates the transactions without taking a cut, which I must say has turned me around on Bruce Wayne.”

“You trust them?” Arthur probed.  He knew Bruce’s foundation was beyond reproach, but he wanted to see if Lorena had considered the matter.

“I don’t have to trust them.  They have an office here, so I can keep an eye on them like anyone else.”

Arthur’s mouth dropped open.

“How can they possibly have an office?” he gaped.  “You don’t have the resources to seal off an entire office building and pump it full of air!”

He was thinking of Atlantis, where the palace could drain and flood rooms individually for the convenience of air- and water-breathing visitors. 

“Oh Arthur,” Lorena laughed.  “How do you THINK they would open an office here?  They hired thirty of our people.”

“Ah,” he said hoarsely.  Of course.  It was so obvious—to Lorena, to Bruce, to anyone not of Atlantis.  His subjects would find the idea so alien, it never would have occurred to them: Working for a surface company?  How utterly bizarre.

“So anyway,” Lorena said crisply, “we’re stable enough to send a permanent ambassador to Atlantis and to receive one of yours.”

He agreed, they talked over the details, and she gave him a nice dinner.  What Sub Diego knew of undersea cooking, they learned from Atlantis.  Arthur was delighted to see oyster liquor and other liquids served in little spheres of alginate skin.  It wasn’t as sophisticated as the roes and foams Atlantis chefs served this way, but Atlantis had a considerable head start.  It was still the touch of home he had been craving—and that’s what led him into trouble.  It would have been a perfect visit if he hadn’t started talking about his frustrations getting home.  That led back to talk of the vents.  Lorena didn’t see the appeal.

“It’s the same fascination surfacers had traveling to the moon,” he explained.  “So much of my world is known, if not to me personally, then to Atlantis scientists.  But this little corner, this is undiscovered country, unknown and undreamed of.  It is entirely new.”

“Arthur, how is that possible?  You told me Atlantis is thousands of years old.  How could you not know?”

“Because the vents are in these gorges between mountain ranges that dwarf the highest peeks on land.  They are mountains and canyons formed by the most volatile fault lines.  Atlanteans never found them because we’re always built on solid sea floor as far from the turbulence as possible.  We only went to the mountains in the ancient warring days.  Only a race of fools would build their civilization over such a...”

He tried to stop.  Just as soon as he realized where his words were heading, he tried to stop.  Sub Diego.  The earthquake.  IDIOT!

“Lorena, I’m sorry,” he said sincerely.

“Of course you are.  Good night, Arthur.”

Queenly good manners.  Regardless of her political title, she displayed the gracious smile of a monarch who simply didn’t notice the appalling faux pas.

If there was a downside to being king, it was all that protocol, remaining polite and good mannered with subordinates, so that when you did truly relax, there was a bit of a pressure valve effect.  Surface colleagues in the League knew that was just Arthur’s way.  Lorena wasn’t a superpowered heroine and she wasn’t in the Justice League, but she had swum alongside him in battle.  When he was with her, he was Arthur not “King Orin,” and if he’d never been coarse, he had certainly never been guarded.  He spoke exactly what was in his head.  He just didn’t think...

“I am truly sorry,” he said again, knowing it was pointless.

“No offense meant, none taken,” she said evenly before she left.

IDIOT. IDIOT. IDIOT.

No offense meant, sure.  None taken, sure.  But she was going to cry when she was alone in her room tonight.  She was going to cry for the life that had been hers before the quake, before the mutation was triggered, before a monster took it all away.  She was going to cry and it was his fault.

The Talk.  It sounded plausible.  Having a secret identity as a high school kid was an entirely different proposition from having one as an adult.  The real world wasn’t high school, adult relationships were infinitely more complicated than teenage ones, and if anyone was in a position to know that, it was Dick.  He had made the transition from Boy Wonder to Nightwing, and having lived the experience, he was here to impart his wisdom.

And Tim had bought it!

College was the time to try out identities, after all, to make that transition from the boy you were to the man you’ll become—that’s what it is for them.  For those of us who have secret lives, it’s a time to lay the foundations for a lifetime of cover stories.  You want to figure out what kind of secret identity you’ll be comfortable with, and which ones you’re equipped for. 

It made sense!  Of course Tim had bought it, it made perfect sense.  Superman could have done anything to “hide” in plain sight, but he wanted to be in a place where he’d hear first about whatever was happening in the world.  A newspaper was the logical choice, and that meant a career in journalism. 

“Yeah, but it’s way more complicated than that,” Dick had said.  Superman could have done anything?  Could he really?  Could you see him acting the jet set playboy like Bruce?  The son of Smallville farmers would have to explain where he got all that money, and okay, so it’s not hard for Clark Kent to hit the lottery.  Let’s say he does, let’s say the money is explained, can you SEE it?  Can you picture Clark at some party like Fop Wayne?  With a bimbo on each arm bragging how his new chateau in St. Moritz is even bigger than his place in St. Bart’s?

Yeah, it made perfect sense.  Tim thought it all made PERFECT SENSE.  He should take some time in these next few weeks and think through his options.  What kind of person did he really want his adult persona to be?

He sat there listening to Dick’s detailed analysis of the classic poses:  the pros and cons of “The Playboy,” “The Guy,” and “The Smallville,” as well as more obscure options called “The Keanu,” “The Hugh Grant,” and…

That’s when the truth dawned.

“There’s always ‘The Trekkie,’” Dick had said, straight-faced.  “Wally and Garth both think it’s a natural for you.”

“The Trekkie?” Tim had sputtered.

“Yeah.  I mean, as camouflage, it’s tighter than the Playboy and the Smallville put together.  No one will believe you can fight your way out of a wet paper sack, and it doesn’t matter if someone recognizes you in your uniform, because, y’know, you’re one of those guys.  The Robin getup might look really authentic, but your Darth Vader armor and Captain Kirk ‘season one’ uniform are just as good.”

Tim felt his face harden into the fierce malevolence of the bat glare.

“Pros: You are Lord of the Dungeon Masters,” Dick enthused.

He was being punked.

“Cons: Dating.  You don’t get to.  You are the stereotype, and your sex-slash-social life pretty much consists of discussing Vulcan versus Romulan mating habits on the message board at there-but-for-the-grace-of-god-dot-com.”

Not since Johnny Warlock did Tim have such a burning desire to dropkick someone’s head into a self-imploding energy ball.

“Dick, you’ve been sitting here for like half an hour, Bro.  And what I want to know is what kind of a person takes that much time to devote to pulling someone’s leg?”

Dick laughed.

“I thought you’d catch on much sooner,” he snickered.  “Like, five minutes tops.  Probably two sentences in.  Come on, it’s April Fools’ Day, Bro!”

“Oh, yeah, right,” Tim said sheepishly.  “Forgot the date.  I’ve had midterms ‘n stuff.”

That was that.  He had laughed it off at the time (making a few silent vows to revenge himself, but good, when the opportunity presented itself), but since then, he kept thinking back to it.  Maybe he bought into it because, joke or not, it was true.  He did have to give some serious thought to who his adult alter ego was going to be. 

And WHY exactly was The Trekkie “a natural” for him?  Was that part of the gag, or did he come off like some uber-nerd?  He was a freshman and his Geology professor was talking about introducing him to some researcher he’d footnoted in an academic paper.  If that wasn’t an uber-nerd, it still didn’t sound like he was on his way to “The Playboy.” 

So he stopped in the Batcave to do a little digging.  He figured he’d check E.J. Meadows’s Who’s Who listing, his biography in the Aerobiologia directory, his profile in Aquatic Geochemistry, and assuming he was still at the University of Queensland, Tim would check out his faculty page on the UQ website.  He wasn’t stalking the guy or anything.  He just wanted to find out one or two personal details, so if the conversation went that way, he was prepared to talk about something other than methane hydrate.

Well, he found a personal detail straight off.  E.J. Meadows was a woman—and she was totally, totally hot.

There was a persistent myth in the Justice League that Batman was rude.  He never bothered to correct the idea.  To do so would be to indulge in the petty, time-wasting nonsense his colleagues did, his rejection of which gave rise to the “rude” label in the first place.  He might be abrupt.  When busy people with vast responsibilities gathered for a common, serious purpose, he expected them to focus on that purpose without superfluous social preliminaries, and to stay focused without superfluous interpersonal detours.  If the less busy and less burdened saw that as rude, he really didn’t care. 

But Bruce had been raised to a high patrician standard, and in fact, he was exceedingly polite to his colleagues, much more than they imagined.  Consider this request from Arthur.  To be asked as a scientist to investigate a chemical contamination, and yet be given no data whatsoever.  Arthur had no samples of the seawater that had allegedly been contaminated and no description of the presumed contaminant.  He had no evidence, or even a guess, as to where or when the dumping might have occurred.  A study of the tides and currents in the area was pretty much useless to figure that out without knowing any key characteristics of whatever they were looking for.  Something that reacted with the saltwater instantly would obviously be dumped much closer to the point of discovery than something that took a week to transmutate—and all of that presupposed contamination from the surface and not, to name but one alternate theory, something fallen from space.  ALL of which assumed Arthur’s guess—too random to be called a hypothesis—was right that something actually had, accidentally or deliberately, been introduced into the water.  Bruce didn’t mind being consulted as a scientist, but as a scientist, the anecdotal testimony of fish really wasn’t anybody’s idea of a starting point. 

But Bruce hadn’t said any of this.  In Arthur’s mind, he was paying Batman a compliment in asking his input over that of his own Atlantean experts.  To turn around and say that any case that begins with the eyewitness evidence (or, more absurdly still, the nose-witness evidence) of a sexually frustrated whale should be left in Atlantis, that would be rude.  To add further that, if Arthur was planning to bring this to his own people, any scientist above or below sea level would want more to go on than a third party account passed on from lay witnesses (whales or not) who had no idea what had actually happened, that would be unforgivably rude.  Bruce had no desire to insult Arthur as an investigator, nor his people, his realm, their science, or for that matter, the whales.  So he’d just grunted and said he would look into it.  And that very restraint was the kind of behavior the young ones would call “rude.”

Of course, Arthur himself was not in that category of absurd, hyper-sensitive Leaguers.  He would never take offense at a curt nod or a grunt.  On the contrary, he was just as prone to offer a glottal grumble in response to some West/Rayner/O’Brien silliness as Bruce was, so much so that over the years the two of them appeared to be vying for the title of Rudest Leaguer.  Bruce had always chalked that up to their respective “day jobs.”  Unlike the other Leaguers, Bruce and Arthur were just as large and powerful in their civilian personas as they were in their hero roles.  That kind of responsibility waiting for you at home brought a low tolerance for certain kinds of personal interaction on the job—the kind that could charitably be termed ‘a lot of damned nonsense.’  That really was the most logical explanation… at least, until you considered “Ambassador” Diana.

This entire chain of thought was all, essentially, background noise, because watching a time-lapse overlay of water currents, atmospheric anomalies, and coastal manufacturing in the southern hemisphere was mind-numbingly boring.  All Bruce could do was let his conscious mind drift to some subject capable of occupying it, while his eyes absorbed the patterns of movement waiting for some variance to break it. 

“Hey, Bruce” sounded behind him—and while it wasn’t a break in the patterns on the screen, the words did promise something to occupy his attention.  It was a distraction, and distraction was welcome…

“Sit down, Tim, what’s on your mind?”

“Need some advice.”

“About that Yakuza gun buy in your log?” Bruce graveled.  “I agree there’s a GCPD undercover somewhere in that operation.  You should check the police payroll records and see if they have someone classified RH94.”

“No, uh, it’s something personal.”

It was still a distraction.  It was still welcome, at first.  Bruce’s eyes never flickered from the overlay of ocean maps and motion grids on the viewscreen, but as Tim spoke, the story that was unfolding made him reconsider the merits of boredom.

“So now I need advice from anybody OTHER than Dick.  I mean, it’s like he’s jinxed me or something.  I’m not a Trekkie, but now it’s like all I can think about is this one episode of Next Generation where Geordi is all excited because Leah Brahms—she’s this propulsion expert who designed a lot of the warp engines on the ship—is coming on board.  And he feels like he knows her, ‘cause he’d made a holographic representation of her in the holodeck to work on some crisis, and they really hit it off.  I mean, he knows it’s not really her or anything, but his hologram was based on the real Dr. Brahms’s personality profile, and they really hit it off, so he’s excited.  But then, when she shows up in person, the real Leah Brahms I mean, it’s a trainwreck.  She shows up and says ‘Oh, so you’re the jerk who’s been screwing up my designs,’ and it goes downhill from there.”

“Mhm, I see,” Bruce said mildly.

“Look, I am not a Trekkie, okay?  But that episode is all I can think of now, and I’m going to meet this woman and I cannot be THAT GUY.”

“Be yourself,” Bruce offered absently.

“I don’t even know who that is anymore,” Tim murmured.  “I mean, I know Dick’s whole thing about the identities was just setting up a prank, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true.  Tim Drake ‘the high school kid’ has run its course, and whatever my alter ego is going to be, I better figure it out soon, don’t you think?”

“Tim, ‘Tim Drake, the high school kid’ wasn’t a role you played, it was you.  Just do the same thing you’ve been doing.  Be yourself.”

“Bruce, ‘what I’ve been doing’ for the last day and a half is obsessing on an episode of Star Trek.  Day after tomorrow, I’m going to be introduced to this totally hot scientist as ‘the student whose been quoting you so much in his papers.’  I don’t want to fall on my face, that’s all.”

“Tim, there are a lot of drawbacks to a dual identity, but there are advantages too.  For one thing, you can apply the lessons learned in one life to the situations you face in the other.  What I’m saying is…

He snapped a button, pausing the time-lapse motion on the viewscreen, and turned to face Tim. 

“We have had this conversation before.”

“So not the same thing,” Tim said emphatically.  “First off, ‘Ignore the fact that she’s a hot female and just interact as you would with anyone else in that situation’ doesn’t work.  Tried it with Catwoman, tried it with Ivy, tried it with Roxy Rocket.  0 for 3, Bruce, it doesn’t work.  And if by some chance I’d forgotten that, all I’d have to do is go upstairs and try asking Selina for advice—which I did!  ‘Cause she was my first choice, Bruce, not you.  I came over here to talk to her, and you know what she’s doing?  Yoga.  Every time I go to talk to her, if it’s not in costume, it seems like she’s doing some kinda yoga stretching and I really can’t concentrate.”

“Selina was your first choice to talk to?”

“No offense, Bruce.  It’s nothing personal; it’s just the playboy thing.  I mean, in one sense, you’ve logged more man-hours on dates with gorgeous women than anybody I know.  But, c’mon, women like that don’t really count, do they?”

“Bimbos?”

“Yeah.  ‘Cause if they just want to get into Lot 61 or go to the Tommy Hilfiger party, it’s not like you can do anything wrong.  You’re their ticket in; it’s your name on the list, not theirs, so they’re gonna laugh off any dumb thing you say.  That’s not how it is with real women.  You screw up and you get that heavy sigh with the foot tap.  Or the ‘What’s wrong/Fine,’ boy, that’s a scary one...”

“You’ve given this a lot of thought.”

“I’m really considering the playboy,” Tim laughed.  “I mean, the Spice Girls alone…”

“I wouldn’t advise it,” Bruce said seriously.  “When Dick was your age, he’d had no relationships in the masked side of his life, you’ve already had two.  If you’re going to continue having social… connections as Robin, you have to accept the trade off.  Those women will not care for Tim Drake being the playboy of the western world, and their displeasure is bound to affect their working relationship with Robin.”

“Bruce, how can you reduce dating the Spice Girls two at a time to a dry tactical analysis of crimefighting alliances.”

“Being trapped at the Tribeca Rock Club with Ginger Spice while Victor Frieze put all of Warren Street into a deep freeze may have something to do with it,” Bruce graveled. 

Tim laughed and looked like he was going to ask for details, so Bruce changed the subject. 

“What kind of advice did Selina give you?”

“She didn’t.  I explained how, y’know, this is a really hot woman and I just didn’t want to fall on my face when I meet her.  And since Selina is, y’know, a really, really hot woman, I wanted her to help me not do it.”

“And she said?”

“She said ‘okay’ and then she, like, waved this invisible magic wand at me and said ‘Poof.’”

“What were you expecting her to do?”

“I don’t know, Bruce!  Maybe… I don’t know, give me a secret password or something—WHOA, what’s that? Superman?”

Bruce’s head whipped around to face the computer screen again.

“Where?”

“There was a blip, right there around Fiji.  Looked like a really small hurricane, except moving the wrong way, and then it just stopped.”

Bruce flipped back several screens until he found the blip.

“Except that’s not a weather map, it’s a sub-oceanic current.”

He pushed several buttons and overlaid keyhole satellite images over the other layers of data.

“Interesting,” he murmured.  “Look, right here.  Something was released into the water, all right, but it wasn’t dumped from the land.  Either it was teleported there magically, it came through time, it came up from below the ocean floor, or…”

“It was there already.  Opened on a timer or was opened by remote control,” Batman announced into the comlink.  “I’m sending the coordinates.  Assuming it didn’t have an auto-destruct, we’ll know more when you retrieve the mechanism.  If it did auto-destruct, there should be other evidence which may be illuminating.”

On the viewscreen, Aquaman made a face.

“You said its coming from below the ocean floor was a possibility,” he said, a strange tension in his voice.

“That is one of several highly improbable explanations,” Batman repeated.  “I included it only to be thorough.  The simplest explanation is always the most likely, Arthur.  Until we eliminate something as simple and obvious as a box dropped in the water by a couple men in a rowboat, it’s foolish to jump to the wildest, most exotic conclusions you can imagine.”

“I suppose.  It’s just…”  He shook his head, suppressing an embarrassed chuckle.  “The childhood impulse to believe in a boogey man.”

To be continued…


 

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