by Rachel Ehrlich
Titans Tower gleamed in the bright summer sunlight. It looked as new, as energetic, as when Vic's father had first presented the building to the fledgling regrouping of the team that now counted his son as a member. It became more than their castle, their icon; it became their home.
Dick Grayson stood at the shore of Titans Island, tears of joy streaming down his cheeks. To think that he would love a building so much he would find himself crying over it. Vic would laugh, never admitting that he cared for the Tower every bit as much.
Even at this distance, he could clearly see the Tower doors as they opened, could hear the jumble of a dozen conversations as the other Titans filed out. Donna and Kory were laughing, walking arm in arm at the head of the procession. Behind them came Gar and Tara, arguing as they always did, but playfully. Joseph and Don carried on their conversation in the silence of sign language, while Hank glared at his brother from behind, uncharacteristically ignoring Wally as the speedster bumped into the larger Titan while avoiding the dead fish being thrown at him by Garth. Vic came out last, flanked by a somber Lilith and Raven, both of whom held aloft flickering candles.
Vic's armor was wrong, somehow. It covered too much of him, leaving his face a soulless mask. He gave no indication that he realized he was carrying something, or that his path took him away from the other Titans and toward Dick. Only when Vic cleared the last of the trees could Dick see what his friend was bringing to him.
A Wildebeest's severed head, its animalistic mask twisted into an evil snarl.
As he reached for the grisly present, its photoreceptor eyes flared to life. With no more warning than that, Titans Tower exploded, steel and glass shrapnel spraying across the island and over the water into Manhattan. From the wreckage rose a terrifying figure, a shadow in the shape of a lion, the very presence of which sucked all the warmth from the day and left Dick feeling chilled to the bone.
The Titans had scattered, trying to fight and flee simultaneously. Nightwing had to be there, to lead them to victory, but no matter how fast he ran up the hill, he found himself at the same distance from the Tower at which he'd begun. Of course he couldn't approach the Tower, he realized belatedly; he hadn't worn his costume, and Dick Grayson had no business fighting alongside the Titans. All he could do was watch helplessly as his teammates were struck down one by one.
Only Raven and Joseph were left now, neither of whom possessed the power to defeat the lion. It reached for them as they ran; Dick could see the terror in their eyes as it gained on them. He prayed that they would reach him first, so that they would be safe, but it was not to be. One dark paw swiped through them and they burst into flames, their bodies decaying before his eyes. As their smoldering skeletons collapsed at his feet, the lion let out a triumphant roar.
The roar echoed in Dick's scream as he jerked upright in his bed, shaking like a leaf. Even awake, the nightmare didn't end, because he knew it had been real. Joe, Raven, Danny, Charlie, Arella -- all truly dead. All because he had failed as the Titans' leader. He had taken a leave of absence to deal with Bruce's problems, and so hadn't been with the Titans to see the warning signs until it was too late.
And even if it hadn't been his fault, his friends would still be dead.
He knew himself well enough to know that sleep would not return, so he pulled on his Nightwing costume and headed out into the night. Perhaps it was just as well, for Blüdhaven was desperately in need of someone to watch over her nights. The city lay in the shadow of Gotham, just across the river from Batman's haunt, which was no longer considered a part of the United States. Even Bruce, who didn't usually play by American rules of justice, wasn't pleased with that. Nightwing fought to keep the same thing from happening to Blüdhaven.
It was definitely an uphill battle. By day he worked with the corrupt, underfunded, and short-handed police department as a cadet; by night, he prowled as Nightwing. Even then, simply keeping track of all the criminals and gangs was a momentous task, not to mention trying to stop them. From money laundering and smuggling to simple smash-and-grabs, Blüdhaven was awash in crime.
One such crime was taking place on the street below. He had automatically gone to the retail district, and sure enough, someone had targeted one of the small jewelry businesses that nestled between the larger department stores. It could be just a simple burglary, or perhaps the store owner had neglected to pay his "protection" money to Blockbuster, Blüdhaven's equivalent of a local mafia boss. Whatever the reason for the break-in, he would put an end to it.
There was no outside surveillance; whoever was inside was working alone. He swung down to street level, landing next to the barred front window, just outside of visual range from inside the shop. He smiled; the wedged-open door indicated an amateur job, which would be relatively simple to foil. Removing a smoke pellet from his gauntlet pocket, he tossed the device through the open door and dove in after it, rolling under cover of the nearby counter.
The burglar cursed as smoke filled the front room. He made no rush for the exit, though, which meant either he hadn't seen Nightwing enter or he was incredibly stupid. Or both. Nightwing didn't mind; it gave him plenty of time to get into position.
The swearing grew louder as the burglar moved to leave, which was his signal to act. Springing out from his hiding place, he incorporated a solid kick to the jaw with his cartwheel, following through with a spin and another kick, this time to the side of the knee.
His opponent remained standing, and as the smoke cleared, he could see why.
He cursed himself for assuming that the Wildebeest Society had gone under with the destruction of Azarath. They had existed before the Azarathans had taken over the group's reins, so it only made sense they would continue afterward.
The Wildebeest regarded him with undisguised annoyance, but without any recognition. A new member, perhaps, or one who had taken no part in the Azarathan affair. One who clearly didn't recognize Nightwing as Blüdhaven's new protector, or realize that he was aware of the group's M.O. -- that alone would be reason enough to try to kill him.
He dodged the expected energy blast from the Wildebeest's glove and countered with a Nightarang thrown at the man's head, slicing through the mask and partially exposing his face. It was a delaying tactic, to give him time to pull an explosive Nightarang from his gauntlet; the bomb wouldn't hurt the Wildebeest, but it might damage his cybersuit and circumvent his powers.
But before he could even prime the weapon, he was hit with a sonic blast that sent him reeling, the explosive falling from his hand. When did the Wildebeests add that to their arsenal? He staggered behind one of the counters and dropped to his knees; the barrier provided minimal protection from the sound, but it was enough that he could uncover his ears as he searched for his ear plugs.
Guarded from the sonic assault, he pulled out another explosive and prepared to throw it, but he held back, knowing that something wasn't right. Peering over the counter, he saw a small device sitting by the door, but no Wildebeest. Cautiously, he moved toward the door, keeping the counters between himself and the possible bomb the Wildebeest had left behind.
When he reached door, however, he knew he'd been had. It was a sonic projector, meant to keep him hiding behind the counters as the Wildebeest escaped. He switched it off and removed his ear plugs. As if Blüdhaven didn't have enough criminals, now he had to contend with the Wildebeests.
He picked up the sonic projector, retrieved his fallen explosive, and locked the store's front door before making his way back to the rooftop to ponder the implications of his discovery. Even if this Wildebeest didn't know who he was, it didn't mean that the others would be equally ignorant. One of them was bound to understand the threat he posed to them, and that would bring all of them out after him. His sole advantage was that they could only show themselves one at a time, or they would blow their own cover. Somehow, he would have to find a way to use that against them.
He was out again the following night, this time actively searching for information. None of the common street thugs had even heard of the Wildebeests, much less seen one. All signs were pointing to a recent arrival of the group in Blüdhaven, though when it came to the Wildebeest Society, one always had to look in the opposite direction. More likely, the group had been in Blüdhaven before he had made it his home, but they carried on their criminal activities elsewhere.
Or perhaps Blüdhaven was simply one of several Wildebeest HQ points. There had been one in New York, when Azarath had used the Wildebeests against the Titans, but that could easily have been for the convenience of the Azarathans. He sighed. There were so many questions, and as usual with the Wildebeests, very few answers that made any sense.
It was the slightest of noises, but unmistakably a footstep. He flung himself to the side as an energy blast burned through the spot where he'd been standing. One question had been answered: they definitely had at least one member who knew enough to want him dead. They hadn't waited long to come after him.
He had to stay one step ahead; the Wildebeest's cybersuit gave his opponent greatly enhanced strength in addition to the energy blast, and he was no match for that kind of physical power. That much, he knew from bitter experience.
Leaping to another rooftop, he dodged around a cooling tower to keep himself hidden from his pursuer and pulled out his escrima sticks. The Wildebeest was heavily armored, but these were new weapons for Nightwing, so the Wildebeest wouldn't be expecting them.
He peered around the side of the cooling tower and saw the Wildebeest advancing with the slow, confident gait of a predator closing in for the kill. You just keep thinking that, pal. After what you helped do to my team, I'm more than ready to take you on.
A hand grabbed his wrist in a crushing grip and he spun around, unwilling to accept what his eyes saw: another Wildebeest. They were breaking their own rules to get to him, and that was very, very bad news. One Wildebeest he could conceivably tackle; an entire group of Wildebeests diminished his chances of success considerably.
He rammed the end of his escrima stick into the Wildebeest's photoreceptor and pulled himself free. Tossing his grappling hook to a neighboring building, he swung to yet another rooftop, almost avoiding another energy blast from the first Wildebeest. It grazed his side as he landed and he stumbled, pain shooting down one leg. He had to evade them, to give himself time to plan, so he yanked his grappling hook free and ran.
Right into three more Wildebeests.
He was surrounded now; the next move was theirs. He could only hope that there was dissension in the ranks as to how they should proceed, because if they all agreed that killing him was the answer, the fight would be over shortly.
"Right," the first Wildebeest grunted as he joined up with the group. "This meddling son-of-a-bitch is all mine."
"Hold off a moment, Two," one of the others argued. "Don't you think we should bring him to Number One?"
"Hell no," Two replied. He turned to Nightwing and grabbed his jaw. "I remember you, 'pal'. You tried to frame a friend of mine the last time we tangled. Number Eight. He ended up dead. You owe me for his life, punk."
So this was it. He steeled himself for the energy blast he knew would come.
It did come, but from an unexpected source. The bolt tore through the domed steel neck of Number Two's cybersuit and he collapsed, cursing, unable to rise.
Another bolt sliced through the night air, narrowly missing one of the Wildebeests. Individually, the Wildebeests were deadly fighters, but they had never been trained to function as a team. Panic ensued as each Wildebeest sought to defend himself from the unknown attacker, who managed to fell a second one with a shot to the neck.
Nightwing used the opportunity to slip free of the Wildebeests, who paid no attention to their escaping quarry. He swung over to another rooftop and tried to track the bolts back to their source. Three of the five Wildebeests had fallen, all shot in the same place -- apparently, the cybersuit had a weak spot that his mysterious ally was exploiting.
The Wildebeests had scattered now, and the flashes of energy were coming more erratically. They seemed to be originating from the tallest building around; a good offensive position, as the building itself served as a shield against return fire. He swung over to the building's fire escape and ascended to the roof to thank his anonymous cohort for the timely rescue.
He arrived as the man stood up and holstered his weapon, the Wildebeests having either been incapacitated or fled. Instead of acknowledging Nightwing's presence, though, he continued standing at the building's ledge, scanning the streets below for -- what? More Wildebeests? Was he expecting them to be out in such numbers? If so, why?
He decided to speak up. "Thanks for the assist. They really had me going there, for a minute." His benefactor turned toward him with a warm smile, and Nightwing found himself facing a greater shock than the reappearance of the Wildebeest Society.
"Joey -- ??"
Joseph nodded, his smile fading as he noted the look on Nightwing's face. 'Is something wrong?' he signed.
It couldn't be Joseph. It couldn't be true. Dick had been standing right there when Slade killed him. And yet, he had recently met with a girl who looked just like Tara, with Tara's powers. Who was to say if she was really Tara or not, but if she was, couldn't this also be Joseph? This Joseph was still mute. Perhaps it was the thing in Azarath that hadn't been Joseph, though the memories and powers and in the end, the personality -- had all been Joseph's.
He would err on the side of caution. After what he'd been through, what all the Titans had been through, he had a hard time trusting anyone, regardless of whether or not the face was that of a friend. If it really was Joseph, he could ask for forgiveness later.
"So 'Joey' what are you doing in Blüdhaven?"
Joseph shrugged. 'I was hoping you could tell me. I don't know why they brought me here.'
Nightwing's alert mode kicked in; the last time he'd heard Joey talking about 'they', it was in reference to the Azarathans. God only knew what he was referring to this time. Nightwing wasn't sure he wanted to know, but he asked anyway. " 'They' who?"
'The Wildebeests,' Joseph replied. 'It was so long ago, it's hard to remember clearly '
He awoke abruptly from yet another nightmare. It marked the nineteenth straight night of insufficient sleep, which had long since affected his ability to function. The Titans had recently tackled a trio of common criminals, Joseph being assigned to corner IQ, along with Starfire and Raven. He'd been utterly useless, even a hindrance, unable to get out of Starfire's path when she'd been repelled by IQ's force field. The collision hadn't permanently injured either of them, but it had prevented them from capturing IQ, and he should have been able to avoid it.
If only those damn nightmares would leave him alone.
He didn't usually suffer from frightening dreams; the few times he did, they were predictably about the Jackal. But these were unlike anything he'd ever experienced. They were otherworldly, incomprehensible, and terrifying. In them, he was being pursued by a lion -- or possibly only its shadow; the dreams never made that clear. He knew that if it caught him, it would kill him. For nearly three weeks now he had fought it off, waking up just before it could engulf him in the icy blackness of its body.
It was only a matter of time before the lion caught him. The lack of sleep was affecting his dreams as well, making his efforts at resistance harder and less effective. He had considered telling the other Titans about it, but what could they do? Possibly Raven could help -- so why did he feel like she was the source of the problem? He shook his head to try and clear his thoughts. He should tell Raven.
He yawned. He'd tell her tomorrow; if he was lucky, he might be able to get a few more hours of sleep.
Barely ten minutes had passed when he felt something brush his cheek. He opened his eyes as a powerful hand clamped around his neck, pinning him to the bed. In the darkness, he could just make out a familiar shape.
Panic washed over him. His powers were useless against Wildebeest, and they both knew it. He forced himself to calm down; if he could break free of Wildebeest's grip, he could escape. Not easily, but it was possible -- with enough maneuvering room, he was both quicker and more agile than Wildebeest.
He wasn't given the chance. Swiftly and violently, Wildebeest beat him unconscious.
"But that was over six months ago!" Nightwing exclaimed, stunned. "You were with us five weeks later, when Wildebeest went after Mother Mayhem."
Joseph shook his head.
Nightwing remained unconvinced. "So you don't know that Blood's curse is over, that Mother Mayhem had a daughter? Or that Donna found out she was raised by the Titans of Myth and calls herself Troia these days?" He continued with deliberate callousness, "Or that Danny Chase, Charlie Parker, Arella, and Raven were killed by the Wildebeest Society, which was taken over by Azarath? You know, that lion-shape from your dreams?"
Joseph stared at him blankly, clearly shocked by what he'd been told. 'Raven is dead?' he asked.
So are you, Nightwing wanted to say. Instead he just nodded, watching objectively as Joseph sat down on the ledge behind him, making no attempt to wipe away the tears that ran down his cheeks. If this wasn't Joseph, it was a damn better impersonation than the Azarathans had managed.
Guilt gnawed at him. Joseph had really cared for Raven, and the blunt revelation of her death was obviously very hard on him. But it was necessary. Too many impostors, too many betrayals, too many deaths; this time, Nightwing had to be certain. There would be time for apologies afterward.
"It's been half a year," he continued, his tone gentler despite his efforts to remain firm and impersonal. "Why were they still keeping you there? How did you manage to escape?"
Joseph didn't respond. Assuming he simply hadn't heard the question, Nightwing stepped closer, and was surprised when Joseph recoiled from him. Score another point for Joseph; he was walking on the edge of an emotional collapse, and typically, had given no warning signs. The first to help out when anyone needed it, he was also the last to accept help from anyone.
Nightwing sighed. Interrogation tactics would get him nowhere. Even if this wasn't Joseph, he had no right to inflict a mental breakdown as a test of authenticity. He sat on the ledge and put his hand on Joseph's shoulder in quiet reassurance. "You were expecting the Wildebeests to be out in force tonight, weren't you?" he asked. "They're after you; I just got in the way."
'Yes.' After a brief pause, the curt answer was followed by an explanation. 'Number One got careless. We escaped last night, and he's been after us ever since '
"Nice shiner, Jess," one the interchangeable Wildebeests commented. "You back-talking Number One again?"
She ignored him, continuing to focus on the sandwiches she was making. Number One had insisted she make herself more useful by taking over the supervision of the few remaining prisoners held captive in the Wildebeests' subterranean headquarters. It was the height of irony, as she was one of those prisoners, but it was better than being locked in Number One's bedroom all day.
Anything was better than that, even listening to the irritating fool beside her prattle on with more belittling quips. Why couldn't they all just leave her alone?
She stiffened with indignation as the man's hand slid over her posterior. Her grip tightened involuntarily on the butter knife she held, knowing as she did so that it would be of no use as a weapon. "So, Jessie, is Jewish tail as good as Number One says it is?"
"Get your paw off me, mamzer," she hissed through clenched teeth. She didn't expect him to know the Hebrew word for bastard, but it didn't matter; her tone conveyed the same message. She pulled away from him, shaking as much with rage as with humiliation. "Or I'll tell Number One about your unpardonable conduct toward me. I'm sure you know he isn't the forgiving sort. And it's 'Dr. Cassel' to you -- to all of you mamzerim."
She threw the butter knife on the counter and stalked away, trying to appear more angry than upset. Thank God he didn't follow her. Maybe Number One had made it known that he considered her his personal property; if so, he hadn't done a very good job of it.
Her hair fell across her eyes and she stopped automatically to meticulously gather the unruly auburn strands, pulling them back into a bun. The only thing that was left under her control was her appearance, so she took great pains to exercise every shred of personal freedom, minuscule as it was. It was all she had left to make her feel human.
Rounding the corner on the way to the prisoners' cells, it dawned on her that she had left the sandwiches back in the kitchen. Number One wouldn't care that it was her first day with the assignment; he would hit her anyway. He enjoyed it too much to pass up an opportunity. If she was lucky, he would beat her unconscious, so she wouldn't have to be awake for the rest of what he would do to her.
The logical course of action would be to return to the kitchen for the sandwiches, but she knew the Wildebeest would be there, laughing, waiting for her to come slinking back so that he could mock her again. She could put a brave face on it, and say that she wouldn't give him the satisfaction, but that was merely self-delusion: she was afraid to go back. She was afraid of everything in this hell-hole, and her daily prayers for deliverance had gone unheeded for so long that she had forgotten what it felt like not to flinch from every touch or cry at every word.
Even the sickly yellow illumination from the lights in the dirty concrete corridor made her want to weep. She hadn't been permitted see the sun in months, not even filtered through one of the tiny, smudged basement windows that dotted the complex. No contact with family or friends, with anyone who cared what happened to her. She had never been so isolated in her life, and she didn't like it one bit.
Self-pity was forgotten momentarily as she approached the cells. As bad as her lot was, these people had it worse. Most of the captives had been held in the main compound, and were freed by the Titans after the former Number One had been killed. The original Number One, who had coerced her into providing first her knowledge of genetic engineering, and then her body, for his own edification.
Wild joy had overtaken her upon hearing the rumors of his death. He had been killed by the thing he had forced her to create, which in turn had been killed by the Titans. His death meant her freedom -- or so she had thought. She had found out otherwise when she had tried to leave.
Number Two had survived the destruction of the main compound, and had decided to appoint himself the new Number One over the remaining Wildebeests. A more violent and less intelligent man than his predecessor, he had slaughtered nearly all of the captives on the grounds that they were of no use to him. Only the few lucky enough to have come from wealthy backgrounds had been spared, to be held for ransom.
It was dubious luck at best, since people held for ransom usually turned up dead after the money had been paid.
The cells were adjacent, crammed together between storage rooms and utility nooks. Rusty old sewer pipes ran the length of the ceiling; the sound of water indicated that they were still active, though they seemed ready to dissolve with age. Water leaked from the pipe joints, making dark stains on the unpainted concrete walls and pooling in stagnant puddles along the floor. No one would ever think to look for someone here, which was probably why Number One had put them in this place. Although given Number One's sadistic personality, the fact that this was the filthiest wing of the complex might have played an even larger role in the decision.
She took out her key ring and pushed the proper key into the rusted door lock, turning it until she heard the latch draw back. Even unlocked, the heavy door didn't open easily, and it took all of her strength to shove it open.
It was a move she regretted immediately.
Had she not been a medical intern, she still would have recognized the odor. Something about the smell of human death triggered a gut reaction in everyone who encountered it, physician or not. Dead animals never smelled the same. Worse perhaps, in the case of skunks, but not the same.
She fumbled with the door, desperately trying to close it before nausea overcame her. There was a fleeting glimpse to be had of a woman's body in the corner of the cell, and then mercifully the door yielded, slamming shut on both the sight and the smell of death.
Gasping for air, she drew a shaking hand across her forehead, wiping away the beads of perspiration that had formed. Who the woman had been, or how she had died, was unknown. She would have to tell Number One, and he would blame her for that, too.
Several minutes passed while she collected herself, and then she quietly recited the Shema for the dead woman. Most likely it was the wrong religion, but it was all she knew, and as long as a blessing of some sort was said, the woman's soul wouldn't mind. That was the important part.
She followed the Shema with a prayer for finding better circumstances in the next cell. If she was confronted with another unpleasant discovery, she would lose her dinner for sure.
Hesitantly, she started toward the second door before remembering that she had left the key in the lock of the previous cell. Groping for the key, she only succeeded in dropping the entire key ring and swore in irritation. Finally, she took a deep breath and forced herself to calm down. Corpses never bothered her in medical school; why should they upset her now? The woman was a stranger, and she had seen dozens of dead strangers in the morgue. She picked up the keys from the floor and resolutely shook the dirt off of them. She had to stop this foolish dithering and get on with her work.
The cell was barely lit, and had a rank mildew smell to it. Its sole occupant was huddled in the far corner, blindfolded, his arms bound behind his back. The tattered rags that passed for his clothing appeared to be the remnants of pajamas that had started out white; even at the cleanest spots, they were a dingy gray, now. If he had shoes or socks at one point, they were long gone.
He pulled back at the sound of her approach and she stopped, realizing that he had no way of knowing she wasn't another of the Wildebeests who tormented them both. "It's OK," she told him in a calm, measured voice. "I won't hurt you. I'm as much a prisoner as you are, even though my chains are invisible. My name is Jessica." As she came closer, she saw that the cuffs which held his wrists were also attached to a cuff around his ankle, preventing him from standing -- or even moving, really. She blinked back tears; there was no call for such a restraint outside of pure cruelty. It was just the sort of thing she should have expected from Number One.
Mamzer that he was.
Searching her key ring, she found a key that looked like it might fit. It didn't, and neither did the next one, but finally she found one that did. She unlocked all the cuffs and tossed the chains behind her. Number One would have a tantrum when he found out what she'd done, but she didn't care; she couldn't be a party to such evil.
As though this tiny action could atone for all the evil she'd already done.
Her hands began to shake violently, and she knew that she could hold back her tears no longer. She began to weep, and once begun, she couldn't stop. "I'm sorry," she wailed to no one in particular. "I'm so sorry. I never wanted to hurt anyone; I never wanted to be a part of this." She was sobbing so forcefully now that she could barely speak coherently, but she rambled on regardless, needing to vent her frustrations in the only place where it was safe to do so. "God knows I certainly never wanted to become a pet whore to that khazeer shaygetz! He had no right to do this to me!"
His arms encircled her and she panicked, jerking away from him. Instead of releasing her, he held her tighter, pressing her against his chest. Only after several minutes did she realize that his grip, though firm, was gentle. One hand stroked her arm soothingly, and gradually, she found herself relaxing. "Thank you," she murmured, resting her head against his shoulder.
It was several more minutes before she noticed blindfold lying on the floor beside her; he must have removed it himself. She glanced up at his face and froze, staring into his wide, sea-green eyes.
His beautiful, familiar sea-green eyes.
If he recognized her, too, he gave no sign. His expression registered only concern, growing more intense as the color drained from her face. Even her steel blue eyes seemed to fade to gray. He released her as she pulled away, but instead of getting to her feet, she hunched her shoulders and shrank into a tight huddle, as though she expected him to hit her at any moment.
"I'm sorry," she whispered, clearly too terrified to speak at full volume. He had been kept blindfolded the entire time, but he could easily have remembered her voice; she had been the only woman present. "They made me do it. I didn't want to; it was against everything an ethical doctor stands for."
He merely looked at her, his face impassive. Finally, his hands moved with fluid grace. 'You were one of the experimenters. The one who always apologized.'
She nodded reluctantly, and uncurled enough to respond in sign language. 'Number One kidnapped me, saying he needed my medical knowledge, but he wouldn't tell me why. I didn't want to have anything to do with him, but I couldn't refuse, because -- my father, he --'. She stopped, embarrassed, then plowed onward. 'My father made unwise choices early in his career,' she explained. 'That information, made public, would ruin my father professionally and tarnish the family name. Number One threatened to release that information, and I I wasn't strong enough to tell him to go to Hell.
'First it was just the bizarre biochemical experiments, and then the genetic engineering, and the cloning -- I never expected it to get so out of hand. He just kept demanding more. And he was always promising he'd release me after the next experiment finished, but he never did.
'Then he died during a fight with the Titans, and Number Two promoted himself. The first one had kept me here through blackmail, and I thought I would be free after his death, because Number Two didn't have access to that information. But what he can't have through threats, he simply takes by force. And still I am kept here.'
She wiped at her eyes with the back of one trembling hand, wincing at the stab of pain through her bruised face. It wasn't the only mark discoloring her pale skin; her neck was ringed with identical dark bruises, and her forearms were mottled with them. He suspected the rest of her body was similarly marred, though she was careful to keep her legs fully concealed under her long skirt at all times.
If he needed more proof that she was not willingly in league with the Wildebeests, he found it in her posture. She cowered before him, her eyes meeting his only when necessary -- a classic defensive pose adopted by victims of physical abuse. Even had he been the vindictive sort, he would have had a hard time being angry with her.
'I forgive you.' Her eyes darted to his face, disbelief plainly visible in her expression. She desperately wanted his forgiveness, but how could he offer it honestly, after what she had done to him? There had been a dozen experimental attempts to alter his biochemistry, and when those had failed, half again as many bone marrow extractions for the cloning project. All of it done without anesthesia, without analgesics, without research as to what the side effects might be. Her nightmares were still haunted by the sound of his harsh, voiceless screams -- and yet he could forgive her, when she couldn't even forgive herself?
A lock of hair had worked itself free of her bun, and he gently brushed it out of her eyes, tucking it behind her ear to keep it out of her way. Her gaze had dropped to the floor the moment he had reached for her, but as he watched, it slowly returned to his face. She was still wary of any sudden movement that could herald violence, but at least he could talk to her now.
'How did you come to know sign language?' he asked, as much from genuine curiosity as from an attempt to win her trust.
She smiled shyly and put her hands to her ears. He couldn't see what she was doing, but she quickly held her hands out to show him the small devices that rested in each palm. Hearing aids.
"Congenital deafness," she explained, replacing her hearing aids one at a time. "I have a 75% loss of hearing in both ears. I learned sign language before I learned English -- or Yiddish, or Hebrew."
'I learned it when I was three,' he told her. 'It was after I ' He paused. ' lost my voice.'
'I know,' she confessed. 'Number One had a file on your medical history. It must have taken your parents a long time to --' Her hands froze in mid-sentence. "Time," she gasped, twisting her arm around to stare nervously at her watch. When she spoke again, her voice was little more than a trembling whisper. "I'm late. Oh God, he'll kill me." Her eyes closed as she fought to keep from crying yet again; a single tear escaped, trickling slowly down her cheek.
Whatever inner strength had sustained her until now finally expended itself. Her shoulders slumped in utter defeat, and the spark was gone from her eyes when she opened them once again. Even her voice had been flattened by despair. "Perhaps it's for the best," she conceded. "Death can't be worse than living like this."
'Wouldn't freedom be better than death?' he asked.
She scoffed. "Freedom isn't an option," she answered bitterly.
He stroked her cheek with his fingertips, and she looked at him questioningly. 'It is if you'll allow it. Help me free us both.'
Hope flickered in her eyes. 'How?'
He smiled. 'Trust me.' His eyes met hers, and suddenly, he was gone.
A tingling warmth spread throughout her body. She had no word for the feeling, but it was everything she had lacked in her life for the past six months -- peace, hope, joy, love. It gave her the strength to get to her feet and leave the grimy cell, striding purposefully through the gloomy corridors to Number One's room.
Her footsteps slowed as she approached the door, tension twisting in her stomach. "Don't make me go back in there. Please don't make me go back in there."
Her hands moved of their own accord. 'Don't worry. I'm with you. I won't let him hurt you.'
She wiped her sweating palms on her skirt and reached for the doorknob. The door opened silently and she slipped inside, scanning the room for Number One. He was bound to be angry, so it was imperative that she avoid him, if possible.
Maybe it would be possible after all; the room appeared to be empty. Thank God. She released the breath she hadn't even known she'd been holding.
The door slammed shut as his arm wrapped around her throat in a choke hold. Behind her -- he'd been behind her, behind the door, standing in the one place she wouldn't be able to see as she entered. "Where have you been, little kike bitch?" he growled in her ear. "How many times do I have to teach you to obey me?"
Her mind was blank with terror. She couldn't have answered him if she'd wanted to, though it wouldn't matter if she answered or not; anything she did was an excuse to beat her. Control of her body slipped away, a prelude to fainting.
Only it wasn't. Her arms reached over her head and grabbed Number One around the neck, pulling him forward and down as she bent over. He released her, trying to catch himself, but he was lying on the floor before either of them registered what had happened.
He pushed himself to his feet, his race flushed with rage. "You dare --??" he sputtered. "I'll kill you for that, you whore!"
She whirled, her foot cracking him smartly across the jaw. Built like a linebacker, Number One didn't fall from the blow, but it slowed him down enough for her to land another kick, this time to the groin. Without his Wildebeest cybersuit to protect him, he had no more defense against that move than would any man.
Predictably, it brought him to his knees, cursing even more foully than before. He was far from helpless, though, and he caught her foot as she tried to kick him again. Twisting her leg, he brought her down and grabbed her wrist so hard that her fingers instantly went numb. She cried out in pain and he grinned, pulling her closer.
She straight-armed him with her free hand, breaking his nose, and pulled herself loose from his grip. Her feet pummeled him mercilessly, striking anywhere and everywhere until he lay on the floor in front of her, unconscious. For a minute she stood over him, panting from the exertion, and then she dragged him over to the bed. She couldn't lift him onto it, but she didn't need to; the floor was good enough for dirt like him.
Angrily, she tugged open his dresser drawer and removed two pairs of handcuffs. He'd used them on her often enough for her to know where he kept them. She locked one cuff on his wrist, looped the chain around the bedpost, and locked the connected cuff on his opposite ankle. Then she repeated the process with the other pair, hog-tying him to the bed.
A pair of socks served as a gag. The tables had turned; she had the power now, and she knew what she wanted to do with it. The same drawer that held the handcuffs also held a switchblade. He'd used that on her, too. She lifted it out and snapped the blade open. She would only have to use it on him once.
'No.' She frowned at her hand, and then at her feet, which refused to move forward. "He deserves it, Joseph," she snarled. "After what he did to me, he deserves all this and worse!"
He forced her to drop the knife. 'Will that erase what he did to you?' he asked her. 'Will you sacrifice our one chance at freedom so that you can waste time on revenge?'
Put that way, it did seem like she didn't have her priorities straight. Instead of arguing the point, she went to the closet and removed a duffel bag, stuffing some of Number One's clothes into it. They'd be too big for Joseph, but it was better than the rags he currently wore. Back to the dresser for underwear and socks; impulsively, she dropped to her knees and rummaged through the bottom drawer, smiling as she pulled out his lock box. He had hundreds of dollars in cash stored here, which would be useful once they were outside.
Next she cleared out the bathroom, taking everything from toothpaste to nail clippers. The bag was beginning to get heavy, but there were only a few more items she would need to cram into it. She unlaced Number One's tennis shoes, yanked them off his feet, and shoved them into the bag.
Number One's Wildebeest suit was in a special closet. He had two suits, but she only needed one -- specifically, she needed the right glove. Not only was it the key to the lock box, but it would be her ticket out of the compound as well.
With the duffel bag slung over her shoulder, she sped through the corridors, trying to look busy without looking suspicious. Reaching the kitchen, she darted inside, thrilled to see the sandwiches she'd made earlier still sitting on the counter. She wrapped them in plastic and stuffed them in the bag before continuing down the hallway. Her immediate destination was just around the corner.
And unguarded, as usual. There was no need to guard the armory; it was inaccessible to anyone without a Wildebeest glove as a pass key, and anyone with such a key had permission to use the weapons contained within. She smiled; she had just given herself the authority to raid the cache.
She dumped two energy pistols and half a dozen power cells into the bag, resealed the door, and took a deep breath. Everything up to this point had been mere preliminaries. Now came the real challenge: escape.
A hand fell heavily on her shoulder, causing her to jump. "Calm down, Jessie," the Wildebeest leered at her. "You act like you've got something to hide."
"I don't," she snapped, "but you will, when Number One catches you harassing me again."
He laughed at her, but he removed his hand from her shoulder. "What you need is a real man, Jessie. I could give it to you in a way you'd never forget."
"No, thank you," she replied coldly, "I already have enough horrors from this place that I'll never forget." She turned and walked away, but he followed her, making crude comments the entire time. Panic gripped her; would he ruin her escape? Could she get the gun out fast enough to kill him if she had to? And if she did, would she really be able to cold-bloodedly pull the trigger?
Fortunately, she didn't have to find out. He wasn't really following her, only walking in the same direction for a short distance. With a final lewd farewell, he turned and went down a different corridor, leaving her alone near the exit. She glanced around to make sure no one was coming, then pulled Number One's glove from the bag and ran for the door.
The door slid open as she jammed the glove against the scanning pad and she stepped through into a dimly-lit, abandoned subway line, which promptly became that much darker when the door closed behind her. Unwilling to wait for her eyes to adjust, she began walking along the service walkway, using the handrail to guide her.
After several minutes, she was able to see well enough to walk unaided. Only then did she notice the intermittent ladders leading down to the tracks on her left. Without hesitation, Joseph steered her to the nearest ladder and she descended into the shadows.
'Why are we walking down here?' she asked, grimacing as she stepped on something slimy. Whatever it was, she didn't want to know.
'Look up,' he told her. She did so, biting her lip to keep from saying anything aloud. A Wildebeest was coming toward them on the walkway above, one hand holding a bag full of loot, the other clenched into an angry fist. As he approached, she could see that his mask was badly torn; his nose and part of his mouth were visible. She pressed herself deeper into the shadows and prayed he wouldn't notice her.
He didn't. They continued along as quietly as possible, until they spied a ladder leading up to the surface. She scurried up without any prodding from Joseph, prying off the grill that covered the top of the vent shaft, and pulled herself up onto the sidewalk.
The sight of the full moon shining through the clouds brought tears to her eyes. Freedom! She was giddy with excitement, running down the sidewalk as though she hadn't a care in the world. There were no other pedestrians and scant few cars out, so she dashed heedlessly across streets, stopping only after she was completely winded, nearly a mile later.
'Where are we?' she asked, looking around. It didn't look like the New York she remembered. Then again, she was from Phoenix, so maybe she just wasn't remembering the city properly; she only visited her parents there once a year, during the High Holy Days.
No such luck. 'I don't know,' he replied. 'This isn't New York.'
She frowned. Lost in an unfamiliar city was hardly ideal, but it beat captivity. She sat on a nearby stairwell and fished out one of the sandwiches from the bag, wondering what their next move should be.
'Get rid of the glove,' he said suddenly, the sharpness of his signs translating into urgency. It hadn't dawned on her before, but the gloves probably had tracking mechanisms in them -- she knew the suits were equipped with trackers as well as radios. Why not have it in the glove? Holding the sandwich in her mouth, she used the glove to open the lock box, then tossed it into the flower bed beside the stairwell. Dumping the cash into the bag, she threw the lock box after the glove. She closed up the duffel bag, stood up, and continued walking down the sidewalk, eating her sandwich as she went.
"Now what?" she whispered.
He had to wait until she'd finished her sandwich before he could answer. 'We should go to a motel. We're easy targets out on the street, and once the sun comes up, they won't be able to come looking for us.'
That was easier said than done. It took another hour of wandering before they found a motel. It looked seedy enough that she had second thoughts about staying there, but he overrode her objections and marched her into the lobby.
The smallest bills she had were fifties, but she was able to remove two of them from the bag without displaying the rest of the cash. No point in escaping Wildebeests only to fall prey to common muggers. The man behind the desk ogled her as he handed her the room key, and she snatched it from him impatiently. God, she was sick of slime balls treating her like a piece of meat! Weren't there any decent men left in this country?
Once safely in the room, she fastened all the locks, then jammed one of the chairs under the door handle. If the man at the front desk or anyone else -- had any bright ideas about getting in unannounced, he would have a difficult time of it.
Joseph immediately commandeered the bathroom and spent half an hour in the shower, remembering what it felt like to be clean once again. That was followed by a twenty minute soak in the tub to relax his cramped muscles and aching joints. The hot water stung as it touched the raw skin of his wrists and ankles, chafed by months of restraints, but overall it still felt wonderful.
Only after the water had cooled did he get out and dry off. A glance in the mirror reminded him that there was yet more to be done. It had been ages since he'd shaved, and his curly hair, already long, had gotten completely out of hand; the combination made him look like a refugee from the original Woodstock. Fortunately, there was both a razor and a comb among the items they had taken from Number One.
One thing they had forgotten, however, was pajamas. The ones he'd been wearing had gone straight into the trash, and he had every intention of leaving them there. Sleeping without clothes didn't bother him, but he knew without having to ask that it would bother Jessica. Especially since the room had only one bed. He pulled the underwear from the duffel bag; since they were boxers, they looked enough like pajamas to function as such.
She had had the same idea; when he entered the bedroom he could see the thin satin strap of her bra as it curved over the top of her bare shoulder. She was already in bed, curled on her side with her eyes closed, so he tried not to disturb her as he lay down on the empty half of the mattress. He debated sharing the covers, but it was warm enough that he didn't really need to, and doubtless she would feel better if he didn't.
He stared up at the ceiling, unable to sleep. Light from the streetlight outside the window penetrated the flimsy curtain, making the room nearly as bright as daylight, but that wasn't what was keeping him awake. It was the knowledge that although they were free, they weren't safe, and wouldn't be until they got back to New York -- maybe not even then. He didn't know where they were in relation to New York, though, or how long it would take them to return. It could well be academic, if the Wildebeests succeeded in recapturing them first.
Thirty minutes passed, and he was still too wound up. Next to him, Jessica stirred. A glance in her direction surprised him; she was looking at him with an odd expression on her face.
"Did you know I was awake?" she asked him suspiciously.
It was not a question he would have expected. 'No,' he answered truthfully.
She sat up, clutching the covers in front of her chest. "And you still didn't try anything."
If he hadn't been confused before, he was now. 'Should I have?'
"No." A bitter laugh escaped her lips. "I'm sorry, it's been so long, I've forgotten what it's like to be in the company of a gentleman." The side of her thigh was exposed, confirming his suspicion that she was bruised head to toe. He didn't usually subscribe to violence as a solution, but this once, he was pleased about what he'd done to Number One.
She brushed her hair away from her eyes, but instead of releasing her hair, she twirled the ends around her fingers. "What were you thinking about for the last half an hour?"
Probably the same things she'd been thinking about, but it wouldn't do either of them any good to dwell on that. 'My parents,' he told her. 'My mother must be very concerned by now; I don't even know how long I've been gone. God only knows what she thinks must have happened to me.'
She smiled sympathetically. "Mine, too. My parents are such worriers anyway, and here I've vanished without a trace and been gone nearly half a year. It must be worse for your parents; I don't know when the Wildebeests got you, but you were already there when I arrived."
They fell silent. She occupied herself with adjusting the covers, so that they would stay up without her holding them in place. Eventually, she brought up the topic that was on both of their minds. "You know they'll come after us." He nodded. 'Two energy pistols and your abilities won't be enough if they attack en masse,' she signed. 'They won't try to capture us; after we embarrassed Number One like that, he'll have sent them out to kill us.'
'No, they'll try to kill us. They won't succeed.'
She sighed. 'I wish I had your optimism. I used to, before I got pulled into this nightmare.' After a brief pause, she added shyly, 'In case I'm right, and this turns out to be my last night alive, I'd like to spend it with you.'
His eyes met hers, with a look that seemed to drill into her soul. Finally, he shook his head. 'You're on the rebound.'
Laughing, she replied, 'So what? You won't be taking unfair advantage of me -- not like those assholes did. If you don't want to, that's fine, but don't hold back because you think I don't want to. Trust me, I wouldn't make the offer if I didn't want to.'
Again his piercing gaze studied her face. 'How much of that offer is desire and how much is apology?'
Damn the man, how could he see through people so clearly? She shrugged, embarrassed. 'A little of both,' she admitted. 'More desire than apology, if that matters to you.'
The corners of his mouth quirked with the hint of a smile. He caught her hand, caressing her soft skin as her long, thin fingers twined around his. Gently, his lips brushed her palm and moved slowly up her arm, until at last his lips met hers and he drew her down entirely into his embrace.
'And here we are,' Joseph finished explaining. 'They knew roughly where we were, so it was only a matter of time before they caught up to us. But now that they know our exact location, they'll be back in short order.'
Nightwing stared at the spot between his feet, unsure of how to say what needed to be said. A full account of the Azarathan scenario might be more than Joseph could handle, but he had to learn sooner or later. He would find out the hard way when he saw the absence of the Tower or tried to contact one of his former teammates. No sense in prolonging the unpleasantries.
Joseph listened in tight-lipped silence as Nightwing relayed the details of the incident, ending with Raven's death. There had been more to the story, of course, but adding the machinations of Raven's evil persona to the already emotionally-trying tale would be too much information. Even the revelation that Slade had killed what they all thought was Joseph had nearly been too hard to absorb, but Joseph never interrupted him.
The silence continued long after he had concluded, but he wasn't going to be the one to break it. He was aware of Joseph's eyes on him, that intense, silent scrutiny which always seemed capable of cutting to the heart of the matter. The look had never bothered him before, but things had changed. He met Joseph's gaze, almost defiantly.
'You don't believe I'm really me.' It wasn't a question. Joseph's expression hadn't changed, but the pain in his eyes was impossible to mask. After all he'd been through, to be rejected by someone who should have been one of his closest friends was a crushing blow. Nightwing knew the feeling; Bruce had shut him out on far too many occasions. Jason's death had been tough for both of them, but Bruce hadn't been able to see past his own pain in order to help Dick. Was he now pulling the same stunt with Joseph?
He shrugged helplessly. "I'm sorry, Joey; I want to, but I saw you die. I don't know how to reconcile that with your reappearance here. People don't come back from the dead, and for the last few months, that's what you've been to everyone -- the Titans, your parents, your friends. But if you're here now, who was controlling the Wildebeest Society back in Azarath?"
"That was a clone," a woman's voice echoed from nowhere. He cast around for the source of the voice, but no one was with them on the roof. She hadn't shouted, and a quiet voice wouldn't carry from a neighboring building, so she had to be nearby.
He pinpointed her location at the same moment that Joseph rose and walked over to the fire escape ladder. Leaning over the edge of the roof, he gave her a hand up, smiling when she asked if it had been absolutely necessary to pick such a tall building. She, too, had an energy gun strapped to her waist, as well as a duffel bag slung over one shoulder. Nightwing knew who she was, but Joseph introduced her anyway.
"You heard the conversation?" he asked her.
She shook her head. "Only the last few sentences."
He frowned. "So how do you know the person I was referring to was a clone?"
"Simple," she smiled. "I created him." Evidently tired from her climb to the roof, she opted to sit on the ledge he had recently vacated. Joseph sat next to her, but Nightwing remained standing, waiting for a more complete explanation.
One she was hesitant to give. After an uneasy glance at Joseph, she crossed her arms and sighed. "Number One was unwilling to give me any more detail than he felt was essential. Not being a doctor, he had no idea what sort of information I would require, and I had to press him quite insistently for clarification. Finally, he told me that I was to alter the biochemistry of a test subject so that it would stabilize his molecular structure -- in effect, I was to counteract a natural mutation." She rolled her eyes. "I let him know that his understanding of medical science was deficient if he thought I could do something like that, but he told me to try, anyway. I figured there was no harm in trying, since I very naively assumed he had a willing test subject."
She got to her feet and began pacing, agitated by the recollection of her role in what she considered to be a profound breach of medical ethics. "After a dozen failed experiments, I confronted Number One again. I told him it was hopeless, that I would have to restructure someone cell by cell in order to change a genetic mutation. He actually listened to me," she exclaimed in amazement. "He was the one who suggested cloning. No one had ever cloned a human before, and if I was going to do it, I wanted to know why.
"That's when he told me about Azarath." She shivered, still unnerved by what she had learned. "It was some sort of collective energy being that needed a physical host to maintain its cohesion. I'm sorry, I know how that sounds, but that's what I was told. It had chosen Joseph as its host," again her gaze flicked to him, "but it wasn't able to control him. Apparently his power is both a liability and an asset; it makes him more vulnerable to possession, but it also destabilizes his body, which makes it difficult -- if not impossible -- for another being to usurp his control."
"But the clone had Joseph's powers," Nightwing interrupted. "How would Azarath benefit from an equally-unstable duplicate?"
She tapped her temple. "Clones are blank slates. If there's no mind to fight for control, then it doesn't matter if the molecular structure is less than perfectly stable."
He shook his head. "That still leaves too many unanswered questions. Why, for example, did they want the Titans as additional host bodies, if the presence of another mind prevented them from assuming complete control?"
"That was only an issue given Joseph's powers," she explained. "I suspect they could have easily overridden someone's mind in any other situation. Number One said they were made up of thousands of individuals; that's got to be more than most people can fight off alone."
"But the other question," he continued, "is why did the clone display Joseph's personality before he was killed?"
Pure horror registered on her face in the brief instant before she burst into tears. "Oh my God, oh my God," she repeated, sinking to her knees. "That wasn't supposed to happen; all the latest research indicated that a clone should be a tabula rasa, not a copy of the template. Oh my God, I can't have done this!"
Both he and Joseph moved to console her, but she pulled away from them, her eyes wild. "No! You don't understand! I'm rotsakhat a murderess! It's my fault he was even created; his death is on my hands!"
"I understand that you were held against your will and forced to do things you wouldn't normally do," he said quietly. "I understand that it could have meant your own death if you had refused. How does that make you at fault for what happened?"
"The same way the doctors at Auschwitz and Dachau and Buchenwald were at fault!" she retorted. "They, too, would claim they had no choice, that they would have been sent to the camps themselves had they resisted. But you wouldn't excuse them their atrocities on those grounds, would you?"
"They had no remorse for what they did," he replied. "That sealed their guilt even more than the actions themselves. You, on the other hand, wish that none of this had ever happened. To me, that makes all the difference."
"And what does it matter, if it is all right in your eyes? You weren't the one wronged."
Joseph reached out to her, his hand resting gently on her shoulder. 'I don't fault you, either.'
'But -- your soul,' she protested. 'He had a piece of your soul.'
'And now God has it,' he smiled. 'That's where we'll end up, anyway.'
She returned his smile, but didn't meet his eyes. 'I suppose.' Brushing her hair out of her eyes, she glanced up at Nightwing, embarrassed. "I'm sorry, I must sound so weak and foolish to you, but you have to understand, I'm not a superhero. I'm not hardened against threats and violence."
Extending his hand, he helped her to her feet. "You have the wrong idea of what it takes to be a superhero if you think we're not bothered by some of things we're faced with," he grinned.
'Like confronting the Wildebeest Society?' Joseph asked.
Nightwing nodded. "The longer we wait, the more time they'll have to plan a major offensive. We have to strike now and strike hard; even then, the most we can do is damage their current operations. I have a feeling they're too far-reaching for us to take them out permanently, especially since there's only the two of us."
"Three," Jessica corrected him. They stared at her, surprised. "If you're risking your life fighting them, then I should, too," she added defensively. "I may not be a superhero, but that doesn't make me a coward."
Nightwing didn't have a chance to object. The furiously paced sign language conversation which ensued made it plain that Joseph was already doing plenty of objecting. He watched, unable to follow the conversation, and realized for the first time how frustrating it must have been for Joseph to try to communicate with the rest of the team. Sure, they had all learned sign language; enough to understand him, perhaps, but not really enough to converse fluently. Not enough to follow sign language as it was routinely spoken, at the speed Joseph was signing now. After nearly three years, Nightwing felt his skill had not sufficiently improved from when he had first met Joseph in the Tower, and that bothered him.
Carefully, he stepped between them, interrupting their argument, and placed a hand on each of their shoulders. "If we play our cards right, none of us will have to go up against the Wildebeests directly." He turned to Jessica. "Describe their compound for me."
She related everything she could remember, from the main meeting area, to the personal rooms, to the prisoner's cellblock. The kitchen, the corridors, the proximity to the old subway line; Nightwing wanted every detail. Finally, he smiled. "This time, they've outwitted themselves. C'mon, I know exactly what to do."
"Um, Nightwing..?" Jessica called as he started off. He turned to look at her. "The Wildebeest compound is in the other direction."
"Don't worry, Jessica," he said, "we'll get to them soon enough. But our first stop is somewhere else." Jessica shrugged in acceptance and turned to Joseph; he phased into her and they followed where Nightwing led.
Her whole body ached by the time they arrived at their destination. Though Joseph knew how to navigate rooftops, her body had not gone through the rigorous training to which the Titans were accustomed, and it complained loudly to her of the rough treatment. She rubbed her sore legs and looked around.
"This looks like an old utilities building," she observed.
"The old water and sewer control plant," he explained. "It's abandoned now, like the old lines." She trailed after him as he descended rusting service ladders and picked the locks on doors that hadn't seen use in decades. When they arrived at the operation center, he spent a few minutes looking over the layout, then turned a couple of valve controls and flipped off a few switches. "All set," he announced.
"For what?" Jessica asked. "What did you do?"
"Like I said, the old sewer lines are abandoned. No one expected Blüdhaven to grow into such a large city, and the original water and electrical plants didn't have the expansion capabilities to deal with it. Instead of expensive overhauls, the city opted to build brand new systems. Of course, like most government-regulated businesses in Blüdhaven, the utilities are under the control of the crime syndicates. The businesses are legit, so they don't bring in much money, but they serve as excellent fronts for illegal operations.
"But their control of the utilities means that they know who is living where, and if you're a new criminal group in town, you don't want to attract that kind of attention. So you'd power up the old control station, set up near the old lines and use those instead, since no one is monitoring them anymore. Unfortunately for the Wildebeests, the old lines aren't maintained either, which means the system is barely operational -- you said yourself that the pipes in the cellblock were badly rusted and leaking." He pointed to the valve controls he had adjusted. "I boosted the flow to the maximum and shut off the safety valves. The pipes should burst almost immediately, but it will take a while for the compound to flood and flush the Wildebeests to the surface. In the meantime, we've got more work to do."
So saying, they were off again, back to the Wildebeest's complex on the other side of town. By the time they had arrived, Jessica could think of a dozen reasons why she would never want to be a superhero. Next time, she vowed, she wouldn't protest being left behind; she would demand it.
Nightwing walked over to where the phone lines connected to the building. Pulling a thin cable from his gauntlet, he tapped into the line and dialed a number on his mini-computer. He spoke briefly into the built-in microphone, hung up, and repeated the process with a second number. When he finished, he disconnected from the phone line and returned to where Jessica and Joseph were waiting for him.
"Blüdhaven has no shortage of criminals, but the only two the Wildebeests would really have to steer clear of are Blockbuster and the Black Mask Gang. I just let them both know that the Wildebeests are planning a hostile takeover of the territory. If I know them, those two will trace the call and have their goons out here in force for a preemptive strike." He peered over the ledge, scanning the street for any signs of unusual activity. "Their weaponry is standard, but if we're lucky, the Wildebeests won't have had time to recover their big guns, and will have to make due with whatever they're packing in their suits." He smiled at them as they joined him at the ledge. "I think this is the first time I've ever rooted for those two slimeballs to win."
Excited, she pointed down to a shifting manhole cover. "Look! Are they coming up?"
"Like rats," he agreed. He pointed to a nearby alley. "The exterminators have arrived as well, it seems."
Blüdhaven's resident gangs allowed a sizable number of Wildebeests to emerge before opening fire in a hail of bullets. Though heavily armored, the Wildebeests did have vulnerable spots, and several fell in the initial onslaught. Those who didn't fought back viciously; casualties were mounting on both sides.
Engrossed in the battle raging below, they almost didn't hear Number One's approach. It was Joseph who spun around, pushing Jessica into Nightwing and out of the line of fire. The blast hit him squarely and he dropped, fighting to remain conscious.
Jessica grabbed for her gun, horrified to find her holster empty. She had hit the ledge while trying to regain her balance; the impact must have knocked the gun free and sent it over the edge. It was a bad time to be unarmed.
Number One glared at her. "You should have killed me when you had the chance, girl," he snarled. "That stupid bit of altruism is going to cost you big time." Ignoring Nightwing, he turned to where Joseph was struggling unsuccessfully to get to his feet. "And you, gene freak -- before I'm done with you, you'll be begging me to kill you. You think I didn't know it was you in Jessie's body? Even if that girl had the spine to fight me, she's smart enough to know what would happen to her if she tried. I'm going to remind her what would happen to her, by making her watch what I do to you."
Impulsively, Jessica threw herself between Number One and Joseph, shielding him with her body. She balled her hands into fists in an attempt to stop them from shaking and scowled defiantly back at Number One. He would kill her; of that she had no doubt, but at least she would not die cowering in a corner, pleading for mercy that would not be granted. Shema Yisrael, she recited silently, Adonai elohaynu, Adonai ehad. Baruch shem kevod malchuto la-olam vaed.
He laughed. "Get out of the way Jessie; don't make me hurt you more than I'm already going to."
She spat at his feet contemptuously. "Go to Hell, ben-zonah."
Before Number One could take aim, Nightwing launched a Nightarang at him, tangling the huge Wildebeest in the attached steel cable. It wouldn't hold him indefinitely, but if Nightwing acted quickly, it wouldn't have to.
"Bad move, Nightwing," Number One growled, snapping one loop of the cable. "I was going to let you live if you stayed out of my way. Too late for that, now." Another loop of cable broke, freeing most of Number One's right arm.
The energy blast missed him by millimeters. He didn't dare move out of range, or Number One would turn his attention back to Joseph and Jessica. With a flare in one hand and an escrima stick in the other, he attacked from the left, where Number One was still struggling with the last links of cable. Too close for the Wildebeest to fire at him, he blocked a swipe from the metal-jacketed fist with the escrima stick and discharged the flare into Number One's face.
Wildebeest masks were many things, but fireproof wasn't one of them. Howling in mingled pain and fury, Number One tore at his mask, trying to remove it before the melting circuitry seared his skin. Nightwing was at him again, not wanting to allow him time to recover, but he had underestimated Number One's stamina and determination; even half-blinded, the Wildebeest let loose a shot that found its mark with surprising accuracy.
Not usually lethal, Wildebeest blasts were still agonizing. He pushed himself to his knees, forcing himself to ignore the pain and keep fighting. His hand reached for his fallen escrima stick, but Number One's foot covered it first.
"No more games," he hissed through burned lips. "Time to die, Nightwing."
The neck of his suit exploded, and Number One stiffened as his suit's circuitry failed, immobilizing him. He swayed on his feet for another moment, then slowly toppled backward, landing with a jarring impact that sent vibrations through the roof. Nightwing looked up in time to see Joseph drop his gun and collapse, exhausted. Jessica was at his side immediately, helping him sit up. He rested against the ledge and smiled at her.
Number One was still conscious, swearing to kill them all horribly when he wasn't swearing, period. Nightwing grinned; the fact that the man was still alive was the final proof he'd needed. The Joseph he remembered would never have killed for any reason, even when most people would rationalize the act as justice well served.
Jessica was coming toward him, and he waved her away to indicate he was fine. He picked up his escrima stick and looked around for the flare he had dropped. He froze. Something was wrong. Out of the corner of his eye he saw her take aim, and knew he would be too late to stop her.
She stood over Number One, firing wildly at his face, half the shots missing entirely. Nightwing hurled himself at her and grabbed her wrist, twisting the gun from her grasp. He didn't have to check Number One; the man was unquestionably dead.
She wouldn't meet his eyes. Tears ran down her face as she stared at Number One's corpse, tears of rage, of pain, of humiliation, of purest hatred. Even so, he couldn't condone such an act.
"Why?" he asked her, more harshly than he'd intended.
Now she looked up at him. "Devarim." At his blank expression, she added, "Deuteronomy. Chapter 22, verse 25." It wasnt much clarification, but it was all she was willing to give. He sighed, watching as she wandered back to Joseph and sat down beside him. As usual, Joseph offered his emotional support without judgment, wrapping her in his arms and stroking her hair as she sobbed. It wasnt the sort of closure he had anticipated, but it would have to do.
The battle on the street had also ended, with the apparent defeat of the Wildebeests. Nightwing knew better. He hadnt seen the end of the Wildebeest Society in Blüdhaven, but now at least he would be on the lookout for them.
Jessica had gotten herself under control and was helping Joseph to his feet. After everything theyd been through in Blüdhaven, he didnt expect them to want to stay any longer than they had to, but he offered anyway.
No, thank you, Joseph declined. We both have much to do in New York, what with everyone assuming were dead. And Ill have to track down my father to let him know.
"Then I have to go back to Phoenix, to let everyone there know Im OK," Jessica said. She looked up at Joseph. Im hoping that I wont have to make that trip alone.
Of course not, he smiled, kissing her hand.
"Im really glad to see you alive, Joey," he admitted. "I know the rest of the gang will be thrilled, too." He grinned, adding, "And since youll be in New York, I know a girl there by the name of Rose whod really like to meet her half-brother "
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This story is © 2000 by Rachel Ehrlich.
Dr. Jessica Cassel is © Rachel Ehrlich
All characters are DC Comics
This piece is © 2002 by the author listed above.
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