Oracle saw the blip of Robin’s GPS heading for her building, so she activated the hologram at the window. If anyone happened to be watching, they would see the vigilante vanish from view and assume he had swung behind the building.
“Hey, Babs,” was the predictable greeting, followed by the equally predictable, “Ooh, cold pizza. Mind if I…?”
“Sure,” Barbara nodded, putting several monitors on auto-scan. “You have a disk for me?”
“Yep, those are all the backups for the guidance system Radii-e is developing the week before it was taken. Agent Brosk thought we could compare it to the version that was recovered and see if anything was added.”
He handed over a thumb drive that was no larger than a thumbnail.
“This is new,” Barbara remarked, flipping over the slip of black plastic, affixed with a tiny, raised, silver bat silhouette.
“Prototype. B says we’ll get the real ones next month, same time as the WayneTech release.”
“Ah,” Barbara hid her grin as she slid the drive into her USB port. “The analysis will take twenty minutes or so. Will that be enough time?”
“Time for what?” Tim asked innocently.
“Come off it, Wonder Boy. You could have uploaded these files from the Redbird, they didn’t need to be walked in on a disk. So what did you want to see me about?”
“Busted, huh? Okay, well, it’s this paper I’m working on, on the sociology of superheroes.”
“Stop right there. Tim, you know that none of us are supposed to talk to you for that class. I agree with Bruce on this one; you shouldn’t be taking it. You know too much as Robin that you shouldn’t know as Tim Drake. Just look at this disk you brought me, that’s a master’s thesis right there, but there is just no way—”
“Whoa, no, timeout, flag on the play, hold.”
“I’m just trying to get a word in edgewise, Barbara. I’m not here to ‘interview’ Oracle or ask what it’s like working with Batman—or his far more interesting and talented sidekicks.”
He smiled his most charming smile, and Barbara answered with a skeptical raised-eyebrow glare.
“I wanted to ask your help as a librarian,” Tim said seriously. “See, Randy-quad is taking this media studies course where they’re watching reality shows.”
“Media studies? Reality shows? Sociology of superheroes? Whatever happened to calculus, chemistry, macroeconomics, and English composition?”
“We’ve got those too, but this is good, listen. UK series takes this modern family and plops them into a Victorian house, makes them live like it’s 1900, washing their hair with egg whites and stuff. And they’ve got all this source material: newspapers and diaries from the period. So when they find some mention of, like, fish ‘n chips, they can go out and eat that. Find an entry where some women were starting to complain about wearing corsets, or some doctor is saying they might be detrimental to breathing, the wife and daughter don’t have to wear the corsets anymore.”
“Ah, I get it. So you're thinking as long as you can find a quote or a citation for whatever it is you want to say in your paper…”
“Then I can reference it, yeah! Tim Drake doesn’t know anything more about superheroes than any other freshman with a library card.”
Barbara bit her lip, thinking it over.
“Okay,” she said finally. “I guess I can squeeze in a search here and there, in a good cause. If you let me know the subject you’re looking for, I can point you in the right direction.”
“You rock!” Tim declared.
Batman made a wide sweep of the block before approaching the window of Barbara’s new co-op. From an identity-guarding standpoint, he preferred her old location at the Clocktower, but he reluctantly accepted the fact that she would live wherever she liked, regardless of what he thought was best.
He handed over a CD-ROM:
“All the data on the Russian mob’s progression from check cashing to Medicare fraud to identity theft in L.A., Star City, Philadelphia, Detroit, and Metropolis.”
“Check,” Barbara said, inserting it into the waiting drive. “I’ll run it against the backscatter from the operation here. It’ll take a few hours, but it should give us a good idea what local talent they’ll try to recruit. If we can anticipate them, you can be waiting. Shut ‘em down in the transition phase.”
“Now the real reason you’re here?” Barbara said. “Not like I couldn’t have pulled all this off the League mainframe.”
Batman scowled, nodded, and then, incredibly, he said “There is something I thought I should tell you face to face.” This while carefully removing his cowl, which made Barbara purse her lips. Whatever was coming couldn’t possibly be good. What the hell could it be now? More protocol backlash? Another fight with Nightwing? Or maybe her father's replacement reached a decision about the Bat-Signal.
Bruce had tilted his shoulders forward to create the needed slack in his cape as he sat, and took the seat next to her.
“I’ve been seeing Selina Kyle,” he said simply. “Catwoman. And it’s become serious enough that I told her my identity. Now, by implication, that revealed Dick’s. You and Tim are not exposed, but you need to be aware of the situation. If you’re guests at the manor or interacting with Bruce Wayne and you don’t want to be comp—”
“Not an issue,” Barbara interrupted. “Catwoman’s known my identity for quite some time.”
Bruce’s head snapped back slightly as if evading a punch, then his jaw clenched, his eyes darkened, and his entire body, though still seated, seemed to grow larger and denser. Barbara could almost imagine the outline of the cowl reemerging on his face.
“Explain,” he graveled.
“It was about a year after I started functioning as Oracle. You know how the feds like to impress captured hackers into service once they’ve caught them. Dangle the threat of prosecution, force them to work on cases. They targeted me. Operation: Sibyl Snare.”
“Why am I only hearing about this now?”
“Because you tried hacking into my security, Bruce. Remember? Checking up on me, making sure I could ‘handle the stress’ of being Oracle. If you’ve forgotten, I still have the lovely digital photos from when I turned the tables on you. After all that, after I let you watch and think you were pulling one over on me and then let you have it… After that, there was no way I could come to you with a problem I couldn’t handle.”
“Go on,” he ordered.
“In a way, it was very liberating. Since I couldn’t go to you with ‘a problem I couldn’t handle,’ I did have to handle it. Myself. Solo. Independent—a lot more independent than I’d ever been as Batgirl. Looking back, that might have been the point where I faced some hard truths about that part of my life.
“Anyway, I had a problem and I had to tackle it myself. The feds had one of their tamed hackers working on something to get me. And because they knew their target was a creature of grid, they were keeping this thing completely isolated: paper reports, physical disks, the guy working on it was restricted to one computer unconnected to any network. It was like the damn thing was designed to taunt me: everything physical, non-digital, the essence of what I couldn’t do anymore.
“It was the idea of being independent, I thought of Catwoman. I figured if anybody would understand, she would. I had to do this myself, and I couldn’t do it ‘in person.’ Her computer I could hack into. Well, in a roundabout way. You had a 93% probable on a fence she used in Belgium.”
“Nutmeg, stop,” Selina squealed, jostling the laptop as she pulled the new kitten’s needle-claws from her neck. “Look, you little princess, I know you want something warm and mom-size to nap on, and right now my shoulder is it. And that’s fine as long as you don’t stab me while I read my emai… What is that?”
The screen had darkened, so the email Selina was reading appeared as a faint watermark in the darkest gray against near-black. On top of this, columns of glowing green data began to fall down the screen like rain: 1s and 0s, Japanese kanji, chemical symbols and glyphs. Through the slow rain of data, an illuminated head emerged, a head the uninitiated might call an alien, but which Selina recognized as Oracle.
:: Catwoman? :: it said—a female voice, Selina noted. Most people in the know assumed Oracle was male, except for the few that insisted it was an A.I.
A white, semi-transparent textfield opened up underneath the head, with a flashing cursor.
>> Um, yeah, Selina typed. >> How did you get in here?
:: There are a lot of things I can do, and a lot of things I can’t,:: Oracle answered. :: I need you for one of the things I can’t.::
>> If you need me for anything, then you need to give better answers than that. HOW did you get in here?
:: Igor Fabricant. He has your email, so… get into his computer, get into yours. ::
>> Thanks for finding the hole, I’ll close it soon. Now, what can I do for you?
:: I need your help acquiring some information from a secure facility. Hard copy reports, probably a CD or two.
“Of course, what else would Oracle be after,” Selina asked the cat on her shoulder. “A Monet?”
But she typed a different question:
>> What are these disks and who has them?
:: The who is easy: FBI. You’re not squeamish about breaking into federal agencies, right?::
>> Just mice, dear. Mice in bad haircuts. And the disks?
:: That’s what I’m hoping to find out. ::
>> Before we go any further, you know I don’t work for free, right?
:: I am WELL aware of that. I get funding for the things I need through a... a private donor, if you know what I mean. ::
“I see,” Bruce glowered. “So you hired her. With my money. I paid for Catwoman to break into FBI headquarters.”
“Well, she gave me a big discount since I could supply her with all the blueprints on the physical layout. Electrical, gas, water and HVAC, plus some internal activity memos so she’d know what floors had an international scope—those are still occupied after normal business hours, as a rule, because of all the overseas offices they work with—when the third shift security clocked in, who had the custodial contract, that kind of thing. Left the whole bundle, along with a special com unit, for her to pick up at the main post office. She was thrilled. Said I was the best commission she’d ever had. Took thirty percent off the top for saving her so much trouble.”
Bruce closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose as if staving off a headache.
“Go on,” he said finally.
“Well, like I said, she gave me this discount, but it was more than that. She… she really seemed to get on board with the whole thing. Like she wasn’t just some hired help I brought in for the break-in alone. My problem became her problem…”
“These offices are nice” Catwoman purred into the com on reaching the 9th floor. “All the other levels, they’re like a movie set of cold, impersonal cube farms. But this…”
:: Describe it,:: the cool, Oracle voice said calmly… at least, what had always been a cool Oracle voice. This time Catwoman heard something else, something tense and coiled underneath the calm veneer.
“The floor directory says Cyber-terrorism, Identity Theft, and—”
:: I know that,:: Oracle spat fiercely. Then she composed herself. :: Catwoman, listen, what you’re looking at right now is like—like Scarecrow toxin, okay? It’s my worst case scenario. If this doesn’t work, I wind up there. They shut me down and I wind up in that office. They call it ‘recruiting specialized skill sets,’ but I’m sure I don’t have to tell you, a job offered with the threat of criminal prosecution hanging over your head isn’t a job, it’s indentured servitude. So I need you, I need you to tell me exactly what you see. Be as brutal as possible. I want a clear picture in my mind of what I’m fighting to stay out of.::
:: Catwoman? ::
:: Catwoman? ::
“I’m here… um… okay, I would say the feds treat their tamed hackers like any keeper would treat an exotic creature they’d captured and domesticated. They’ve made a cage to resemble the creature’s natural habitat. Instead of white and gray, the cubicles are orange and yellow and green and purple. Instead of the straight rows on other floors, they’re arranged in an oval around a bin of Twinkies.”
:: Twinkies? :: Oracle said weakly.
“You wanted it brutal. There’s also an old-fashioned popcorn machine and a big plush Dilbert.”
:: Oh god. ::
“Oracle, listen to me, you did the right thing. You came to me, and we are not going to let you wind up here, you hear me?”
:: Right. Sorry. I’m sorry, Catwoman, I just… had to look into the mouth of the beast. Let’s get back to work. ::
“Already there. There are only two offices with actual honest-to-god walls, that’s got to be the supervisors. Two offices, fifty-fifty chance getting it on the first try, and here you are, three reports down in his outbox. Operation: Sibyl Snare.”
“She scanned the report and transmitted it to me. It was bad. The hacker they had was Parallel Mayhem, hacked the NASA mainframe, Sun Systems, LexCorp, Citibank. Real name: Isaac Cummings. They had him developing a worm that could infect every computer in the city within a few days, and when I connected to any infected machine, it would do a lot more than give them my location. It would create a subvirt, a virtual machine running underneath my system. Once they had that in place, finding my physical whereabouts was nothing. They could see everything I saw, even feed me bogus information as if it was coming right off my own software.
“I knew I had to get my hands on the code to create the proper countermeasures. Catwoman would have to go back in, bring me the disk, wait around for me to create the countermeasures, and then return the disk.”
“Unacceptable,” Bruce said, shaking his head as if he was discussing a current mission. “The whole notion of the worm could be a ploy to get you to bring a physical disk into the heart of your operation and trace you that way.”
“That’s exactly what Catwoman said.”
:: Oracle, look, I don’t want to tell you your business, so let me tell you about mine. You tell me to pick up a package full of blueprints at the post office, I don’t bring that home. I get a room at the Hyatt and look it over there. I haven’t been home since I picked up this com and the rest of the stuff you sent, and I don’t plan on going home until it’s at the bottom of the Hudson River. You sensing a theme here? ::
“That you’re as cautious-slash-paranoid as Batman? Yes, Catwoman, I get that, but I don’t have that luxury. I need serious computer horsepower to break down and counter program that worm. Normally, I could tap into my systems from anywhere: a laptop in a coffee shop, hotel business center, even an internet café. But the nature of this thing, I wouldn’t dare insert that disk into anything but an isolated machine.”
:: Okay fine, tell me what you need, I’ll get the equipment and set it up. ::
“You’ll ‘get’ a WayneTech supercomputer,” she said sarcastically. “You’ll just up and ‘get’ an X1E with a T-5 core and CX-1 clusters?”
:: Oracle, I don’t think you get what this whole ‘hiring Catwoman’ thing entails. You’ve got the best here. Your needs just expanded to include—what was it—A WayneTech X1E with a T-5 core and CX clusters? So now it’s part of the job. That’s what you’re paying me for, get it? ::
“So instead of going back in, getting the disks and bringing them to me here for a few hours, then taking them back, you’re going set up an alternate location with all the equipment I need, and bring the disks there.”
“If that’s the case, I have one additional stipulation,” she said finally.
:: Yes, your thirty percent discount still app— ::
“Wheelchair accessible. Your alternate location, it has to be fully accessible.”
:: Oh. I see. No problem.::
“At that point, it seemed petty to show up wearing a mask,” Barbara concluded. “I hadn’t decided how I was going to handle her coming to the Clocktower. I could have kept her isolated, ‘pass the disk through a slot’ kind of thing, wait in the elevator, keep her busy with layers of redundant security if she tried to satisfy her curiosity. Even that seemed petty, considering what she was doing to save my neck.”
“For money,” Bruce pointed out.
“I know, but still. Anyway, once she went that far, offering to set up this whole alternate location fully equipped with everything I needed, I just couldn’t bring myself to hide under a wig and a mask—that she might well see through anyway. Not like the shooting didn’t get enough press at the time. So I went as I am, no disguises, and she recognized me. She was even polite enough to say it was from some pictures taken with my father at the Police Benevolent Association events, instead of, you know… Anyway, that was it. It took almost four hours to break the encryptions, write a ‘vaccine’ to counteract the worm, and insert a back door.”
Psychobat seethed. The sheer tonnage of what he hadn’t known, what he had no glimmer of: one of his own operatives targeted, taking it upon herself to deal with the situation behind his back and without his knowledge—by employing one of his ENEMIES, no less. Recent developments aside, Catwoman was a criminal, a thief, and that Barbara would turn to her instead of… and then deciding to reveal her identity. It was absolutely…
“I want to see every scrap of information you have on this Isaac Cummings,” he graveled.
*** YEARS AFTER THAT ***
“Out of curiosity, what did you mean about there being a masters in the disk I brought?” Tim asked, finishing a second slice of pizza.
Barbara pulled the miniature thumb drive from her USB port, looked over her desk until she found a similar piece of plastic, and laid the two side-by-side in her outstretched palm.
“That’s a Sony microdrive,” she said, pointing to the green drive with the word “Sony” embossed in the plastic in place of the silver bat emblem. “They’ve been out for a couple years now. Selina used one on a case a few months back. All of a sudden, viola, WayneTech comes out with its own, just a few millimeters thinner than the Sony, and two gig bigger. Master’s dissertation at the very least. Possibly a doctorate.”
Bruce stopped at the Gordon-Grayson home after his board meeting. He delivered a Harrod’s tote for Barbara and a tie he’d bought Dick on Savile Row, then he rummaged in his pocket and pulled out a microdrive identical to the one Tim had brought, except it was blue instead of black, and bore the WayneTech logo instead of the bat emblem.
“This is new,” Barbara said, pretending she hadn’t seen one before. “Thinner than Sony’s.”
“And two gig larger,” Bruce graveled. “It’s the encryption keys for the new partition I set up on the Batcomputer.”
“Yeah, I saw that,” Barbara smiled. “K3M-W4R-CR4N3, Chemical warfare Crane?”
Bruce’s lip twitched.
“Very good,” he said, making himself comfortable on the sofa. “I must admit, when LexCorp tanked, I only bought those tech divisions to save jobs in… Metropolis. I never… expected them to produce… We have a problem here,” he said abruptly, shifting on the sofa and bending so he could look underneath.
A wave of hot, hostile breath hit his face, and the hissing little cat who had been fiercely pawing at his shoe now took a brave swipe at his nose.
“Bytes, no,” Barbara cried, wheeling over. “Here, hand him over. It’s funny, he’s usually such a sweetie with strangers.”
Bruce scowled. Just like Clark making excuses for Krypto.
“We’re not exactly strangers,” he noted. “First time we met, that thing was in a green box covered with question marks, remember?”
“Hm, I guess there could be some bad associations for him,” Barbara murmured, stroking Bytes’s fur as if he was the injured party.
ºº I am the stalking jungle cat of death,ºº Whiskers declared, eyeing his prey between the leaves of the lush jungle flora. The planter gave him the perfect cover. It was a short run from the balcony to that luscious-looking prize: the perfect size to tackle with his front paws, to clamp on tight while it struggled, and then to sink his teeth into its meaty flesh.
Selina sat sideways on the sofa, which faced the balcony so the sitter could enjoy the wonderful view of the city through the sliding glass doors. Her legs were crossed at the ankles and danged slightly over the edge of the sofa, bobbing ever so gently in time to the Miles Davis playing in the background. It was her top ankle that the jungle cat of death stalked so silently. He crouched, jostled his weight between his back feet as a prelude to pouncing, and then—his ear flicked. INTRUDER! The attack was called off as Whiskers crouched deeper into the shadows. Heavy boots landed on the balcony, and a dark cape brushed over the leaves of the lush jungle flora…
“Hey, Handsome,” Selina said happily. “You’re early, tonight. It’s barely dark.”
“I wanted to catch you before you went out,” Batman graveled.
Two-Foot in Boots. It was the new two-foot who came in from the sky, the same way Selina-Cat did when she didn’t use the door.
“Well you caught me,” Selina said, drawing a finger playfully along the top of Batman’s utility belt. “Now the real question is: what are you going to do with me?”
Whiskers walked back around the back side of the planter and peered through the leaves. Selina-Cat was no longer sitting at the sofa, but if she was, he would no longer be able to see her tasty ankle bobbing up and down. Whiskers stretched up and thrust his nose into the leaves, trying to get them back into position.
“What I’m going to do is get some answers about a hacker named Isaac Cummings.”
Whiskers trotted past the pair of them and went into the bedroom. Even though he’d just passed Selina-Cat in the living room, he looked around to make sure the coast was clear before jumping up to the bed. From there, he walked across the nightstand to the vanity, and from there, leapt to the top of the cat curio. It was narrow, but he could just fit. Walking across it, he stepped down onto the top of an étagère where Nutmeg liked to nap during the day. Finding her asleep, he licked her nose to wake her.
ºº He’s back. Two-Foot in Boots.ºº
“Isaac Cummings,” Selina’s voice said in the distance. “Why does that name sound familiar?”
Nutmeg stretched out her paws first, then pushed the stretch up into her shoulders, and finally slid it out to her rump. At the end of this process, she was standing, but still not entirely awake. She shook out her back legs, one at a time, after which, she felt awake enough to deal with Whiskers’s complaints.
ºº Two-Foot in Boots. Dark flowy cape messed up the jungle plant. Left smelly boot print, smells like clammy damp and rock.ºº
Nutmeg scratched behind her ear thoughtfully, then her chin.
“Oh yeah, Oracle’s nuisance at the FBI. Parallel Maniac, wasn’t it? Something like that?”
“Mayhem,” Batman corrected. “Parallel Mayhem. His real name is Isaac Cummings. He’s in Blackgate. He was working for the FBI, and a few months after a certain cat crossed his path, he’s left under a cloud, the original arrest resurfaces with new counts tacked on...”
“Parallel Mayhem, that’s right; that was the handle. I remember now. There was an aftermath there.”
“Well?” Batman glowered.
“Well?” Selina grinned.
Waves of silent, foreboding intensity in answer to that—foreboding intensity that terrified the most hardened criminals into speaking. From Catwoman, however, it had never produced more than a purr, or occasionally a laugh.
“Since when do I tell you bedtime stories about episodes like that?” she laughed.
“It’s been known to happen,” Batman said flatly.
“Not without encouragement.”
ºº What should we do? He’s biting Selina-Cat! ºº
ºº Don’t be such a fraidy cat, she can bite him right back, see? ºº
“Oracle made it sound like you were both sympathetic to Cummings. A crook with specialized skills forced to work for the feds. ‘There but for the grace of getting caught…’ So what changed? Why did you turn on him?”
“My special gift,” Selina said. “If there’s a target that’s something more than it seems, if there are wheels within wheels, I will somehow stumble onto that particular artifact, condo, gallery, whatever. With Cummings, it was all just a little too uncomplicated. I mean, a worm specially designed to catch Oracle, kept isolated on physical media so she HAS to get the physical disk to work on it. I found it easily enough. I got it to her easily enough. It all went off a little too smoothly; I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop. It just had to be a trap, either for her or for me or… something. It had to be more than it seemed. For two days after I couldn’t sleep. Finally, yawning through a fitting at Kittlemeier’s, it came to me. He had a bunch of gold question marks on his workbench, and that switched on the light bulb. Riddle me this: What is a computer worm?”
ºº What was that noise he made? Did he woof like a dog? ºº
ºº More like a grunt. Two-foots do that sometimes.ºº
Selina’s voice caressed each word that followed like a connoisseur speaking of a great vintage.
“A worm infiltrates a system—or gets itself brought into a system—and does its work from the inside. That’s exactly what Cummings was doing. He was the real worm. He let himself be caught, knowing the feds don’t send people like him to prison, they put them to work. As soon as I had that idea, the hacks he had done didn’t seem so random. They were a job application. Once he’s on the inside, look what they’ve got him doing: writing a superworm to infiltrate every computer in Gotham. He’s doing it right under their noses, not just with their blessing but with their help! With their protection, for Bast’s sake. It’s the best cover you could hope for, to take the risks he’d have to take, make the mistakes that are bound to happen along the way, and never risk capture.”
“Once the worm was deployed, it wouldn’t be as benign to non-Oracle systems as the FBI thought,” Batman guessed.
“That was my theory. I’m no code head like Oracle, but from what I’ve seen, a good hacker is just like a good thief, and that’s a mindset I understand. If you can’t find an exploit, you make one. What I was looking at with Cummings was the equivalent of the British government bringing me in to help revamp security in some back room of the Tower of London—and walking me right past the crown jewels twice a day in the process. That doesn’t just happen on its own.”
“What did you do about it?”
“What makes you think I felt the need to do anything about it? I’m not a crimefighter, it has nothing to do with me.”
“If every bank account in Gotham was zeroed out overnight, it would certainly… Selina, Cummings wound up in Blackgate within months of Oracle’s bringing him to your attention. You seem to be the only one who was on to him. How did it come about?”