DC Infinity Presents
Gigantic Baby Steps
Europe, The Balkans
Cassandra Cain almost couldn't believe how such a simple question had put her in the life or death situation she currently found herself in, some hundreds of miles from home, without friends or allies and about to fight the world's greatest martial artist, Lady Shiva, to the death for the second time. All because of a single question.
Who is my mother?
That was all Cassandra really wanted to know. Lady Shiva was the natural suspect in so many ways, and so Cassandra set about tracking her down. It didn't matter that Shiva had aligned herself with Nyssa, Ras Al Ghul's daughter and heir to his powerful terrorist organization. It didn't matter that Shiva was training the next generation of the League of Assassins. Cassandra Cain had had enough with the holes in her young life. It was a question that actually cost Cassandra her life, when she stepped in front of a blade intended for another.
But her mother, Shiva, wasn't about to let Cassandra Cain end her destiny in the dirt and snow of some backwards country, killed by Cain's first experiment to save some lesser martial artist. Lady Shiva submerged her daughter in the healing powers of the Lazarus Pits, and Cassandra was brought back screaming back to life.
Easily restrained in such a state, it was only then that Cassandra Cain, the Batgirl, learned of how she had been brought into this world. Her biological father Cain had come across Shiva in his travels and saw the spark of a powerful warrior within her heart, even as a young girl. To turn that small spark into a raging inferno, Cain killed Shiva's sister and Cassandra's aunt, who had until then unknowingly held the fearsome fighter back.
After all, Shiva knew she could never become the world's most feared woman so long as she faced the shame of her beloved sister.
In return for the 'favor' and to spare her life from Cain's bullets, Shiva consented to have Cain's child, Cassandra. Even when Cassandra wasn't but a day old, Shiva felt as though her daughter was the one person who could stop her. Cassandra felt the slightest pangs of heartache realizing that her biological mother had willingly left her with Cain, knowing full well how Cain would raise her.
All the training, all the abuse, Shiva foresaw it all simply as a means to an end. Cassandra Cain was birthed to end the monster her mother had now become. She was born to be used as a failsafe, a tool and weapon to stop one of the greatest human threats alive, Cassandra slowly realized.
But Lady Shiva wasn't one to go down easy, if her body language was any indication. Nyssa's ruined fortress seemed to be destined to be the final battleground of the reunited daughter and mother.
"I've given life to you three times," Shiva warned, "there won't be a fourth."
Cassandra tied her hair back, and began to mentally center herself. It was only a little harder than usual, what with the revelations her mind had to process. Within two seconds though, she was in tune with her beating heart, could feel the slight breeze on her neck and feel the dirt beneath her toes.
"I know," Cassandra answered, "I'm ready."
Shiva moved with such strength and passion it was hard to believe she'd just confessed to being Cassandra's mother. To Cassandra's unique way of perceiving the human body, Shiva moved like a snake, fluidly uncoiling from delivering a pained confession into a deadly warrior intent on achieving that one last blaze of glory.
Thankfully, it was at times like this Cassandra's training took over completely, banishing all thoughts, emotions and regrets. Only a warrior remained.
Shiva opened with a devastating roundhouse kick aimed at the left of Batgirl's head. The young heroine instantly brought both her wrists up to block the attack, just like Shiva expected. With skill only four other people possessed in the world, Shiva shifter her weight in midair, lashing out with her other foot and catching Cassandra dead center of her chest.
The blow drove almost all the air from Cass' lungs, but did nothing to impair her skill. The young woman somersaulted backwards and landed in a crouch. Shiva was on her in an instant with a neck-aimed chop at a vital nerve cluster with her right hand. Cass leaned back just enough so the palm brushed against her eye brows, and caught Shiva's wrist in her left hand. Shiva instinctively attacked with her free hand, but her daughter caught her by the wrist once again.
With Shiva's arms crossed over another in her hands, Cassandra launched her counter attack, head-butting her mother so hard she drew blood with the first time. Cassandra shifted focus again and tried to kick her foe's knee-cap, but experience won out this time. Shiva brought her foot up before the kick and brought it down perfectly and painfully atop Cass' own foot.
A shiver went down Batgirl's spine while her mother only smiled. Cassandra had control over Shiva's arms at the tactical loss of her own. Shiva had Cass' feet under control at the loss of her own. A head butt wouldn't work again because Shiva would see it coming.
"You have my eyes," Shiva observed, "yet at the same time… don't. I never noticed that. Perhaps today that will change."
Repulsion overwhelmed Cassandra as she broke the stalemate and backpedaled to a safe distance.
"Oh, did mommy scare you?" Shiva purred, "poor baby, you can be so strong, but one little push of your buttons…"
Shiva attacked again, this time leaping into the air and coming down again like a lioness. Cassandra barely avoided the first punch, and wasn't fast enough to around Shiva's foot when it crashed against her side. Cass struck back with her elbow, hitting her mother squarely in the jaw and then, straightening her arm, struck her again with a powerful back hand that made Shiva's head snap back.
The mighty Shiva stumbled, and Batgirl launched herself into the air, both feet coiled back like deadly weapons.
That was a mistake.
Shiva caught her daughter's left foot, and twisted it painfully as she moved backwards. Batgirl fell flat on her back and instead of swinging her other leg in an attempt to free herself, pulled both her legs close to her chest and kicked outwards. Shiva, her was still holding onto the leg lurched forward and met the blow with full force.
Four ribs cracked cleanly, and Shiva smiled, her usually pearly white teeth a disturbing color of red with all the blood that flowed from her mouth.
"I was beginning to worry that I'd made a mistake," Shiva confessed. Her body burned with pain, but the world's deadliest woman had endured far worse.
Cassandra climbed to her feet, favoring her uninjured leg. In her mind's eye, the fight was already over. Shiva would have to defend her damaged ribs as more damage might be lethal and it limited her counter attack options.
"You were born perfectly," Lady Shiva smiled weakly, "and to think I ever doubted you…"
This time it was Cassandra who attacked with a fury, and Shiva who was in the defensive. Shiva did her best to defend herself, but she couldn't match her younger daughter's rage.
Cassandra found herself fighting perfectly as a stream of tears trailed down her face. As much as she hated and loved Cain for what he did to her, Cassandra couldn't find it within herself to be nearly as forgiving towards her mother. Maybe it was because Cain loved her as a person whereas Shiva plainly saw her as a means to an end. Maybe it was because everything that was ever wrong in her life, Cassandra could lay at Shiva's feet. Or maybe it was just because Cassandra's one last glimmer of hope that she wasn't damned was snuffed out like a candle in a blizzard, like sand through her clenched fist. Daughter of two killers, raised by a killer as a killer. Nature and nurture were now aligned against her as absolute fact and Cassandra hated it, herself and anyone involved in making it so.
For the first time in so very long, Cassandra wanted to do more than just hurt. In her rage she didn't know what he wanted, just that merely hurting Shiva wasn't nearly enough. Cassandra grabbed her mother's hair and brought her face down crashing to her knee.
Shiva was nearly spent, at the end of her endurance and Cassandra drew her hand back to…
To do what? Cassandra found herself horrified when she realized just what she had been about to do, and stood stock still in shock.
And Shiva, marvel of human perfection (despite the beating she'd just endured) that she was, managed to take full advantage. Cass barely saw the fist and foot that collided with her head perfectly. Cass retaliated with a kick to Shiva's stomach, but it was the younger warrior who ended up retreating.
"Come now dear, make my final battle one to remember!"
Cassandra could barely choke back the bile in her throat. She'd just come closer to killing than she ever thought possible. And still Shiva wanted more.
Suddenly, unbidden, Cassandra remembered how her mother described how her father Cain had 'helped' her.
I was grateful. The chance to become someone new. No, not someone. I wanted to become something.
Then and there, Cassandra's life flashed in front of her eyes in an epiphany. Her course became as clear as day.
First, she picked up a small rock with the toes in her right foot and flung it forward like a dart. It caught Shiva in her left eye, blinding her in that eye and making her as vulnerable as a newborn baby.
Cassandra had no trouble at all moving faster and quicker than she ever had before. Darting forward, Cassandra swung her right arm across Shiva's chest with all her strength and put her right leg behind Shiva's. Lady Shiva fell backwards, and with almost superhuman speed, Cassandra shifted her body and knelt down so that her left knee was there waiting when Shiva's back came barreling back towards the earth.
Shiva gaped opened mouth as she lay across her daughter's knee. The internationally feared warrior looked into her daughter's eyes, pleading for an answer.
Cassandra offered none at first. Gingerly lifting her mother off her knee, Batgirl set her down gently on the rubble of the base.
"How…how could you do this to me?" Shiva demanded through her tears, "this is…this is worse than death!"
"Exactly," Cassandra said smugly, "you gave birth to me…for a reason, to stop you. Cain raised me to be an assassin. You both used me, like a weapon, like a thing," Cassandra spat venomously, "I kill you, I become a thing. I would rather be…a person."
"You are a failure!" Shiva roared furiously, "I should have left you dead! You are no daughter of mine!"
"I know," Cassandra smirked, "you'll just have…learn to live with yourself," Batgirl turned on her heel and began to leave, "good luck. Bitch."
Batgirl didn't get two feet before Shiva burst out into hysterical, nearly side-splitting laughter.
"You think…you think you could ever be a real person?" Shiva mocked honestly, "don't delude yourself. You're so pathetic, trying to make me like your adopted mother," Shiva laughed bitterly, in both earnest amusement and heart felt pity, "dressing up in your father's clothes, following his mantra like a puppet. I bet you would spread your legs for him in an instant, just like some…"
A batarang embedded itself into the dirt not two inches from Shiva's head. For a woman who'd regularly faced skilled martial artists in death matches, the implied threat was as intimidating as being held at gun point with a super soaker.
"You are a weapon Cassandra Cain. You were born to be a weapon, raised as a weapon, used like a weapon and you'll die a weapon."
There was something in Shiva's voice, an edge or slight quiver, something Cassandra never heard before, (regret? sorrow?), that made the young woman turn around to face her mother.
"Weapons do not think, they do not plan beyond their immediate goal. I am a person Cassandra. And I suspected that you'd be a disappointment. So before I brought you back, I visited this base's munitions storage facility, and set a timer."
The explosion was surprisingly muffled, so much so Cass barely heard it at first. But she felt the air rush past her face and turned just in time to see a wall of flame barreling towards her. Cassandra Cain attempted to dive out of the way, but before she ever touched earth again darkness overtook her.
Barbara Gordon rubbed her weary eyes. The universal crisis that had been threatening reality itself had been over for four days now (or five. Even the computer Goddess Oracle had her limits, and she had passed them twenty four hours ago) but there was enough cleanup that needed immediate attention to last several weeks at least, and Oracle was needed to coordinate it all.
At first, Oracle almost didn't notice the little blinking icon that popped up on her computer. It was a rarely used program, one to monitor members of the 'Batclan' whenever they operated outside of Gotham. Nightwing once joked it was her 'mother hen' program. Barbara clicked the icon, trying to remember who she set the program up for.
She felt a knot form in her stomach when Cassandra's file flashed across the screens. The last time Barbara had seen her successor was when the Birds of Prey dropped her off in the Balkans in search of her biological mother, to confront Shiva, the world's greatest martial artist, in the base of Nyssa Al Ghul, a woman of immense power and resources. If it was anyone else, Oracle would have thought it suicide. But Cassandra never failed to handle herself like a professional, and so Oracle didn't worry.
But that was almost a week ago, now and just before the entire world had gone to hell and back.
Still, one didn't get to be the backbone of the hero community by panicking easily, even if a loved one was in danger. With a few commands, Barbara activated Cassandra's radio frequency.
"Oracle calling Batgirl, Oracle calling Batgirl, please respond, over."
"Oracle calling Batgirl, are you there? What's your status? Over."
And once again, a foreboding silence reigned.
By now, Oracle was growing more and more concerned. Leaving the frequency open, Oracle began typing in a series of complex commands into her laptop that were transmitted to secret spy satellites in orbit, hijacked from Lex Luthor himself.
Within minutes Oracle was rewarded an overhead view of Nyssa's devastated headquarters. At any other time, that wouldn't be so worrying, but Cassandra was MIA. Barbara wasn't afraid to admit she cared deeply about the young woman. A few more clicks of her keyboard, and the satellite images went infrared. There were small fires burning all through out the entire complex, but what drew Oracle's attention was a single unmoving human heat signature.
Fear ran rampant in Barbara's mind, and things certainly didn't get better when she observed on another screen a group of at least a dozen armed men, perhaps only four miles and closing.
There was no doubt in Oracle's mind what those men were there to do. They were professional 'cleaners'. Mercenaries hired by Nyssa to ensure that nothing remained that might compromise her organization further. It would take them some time to hike over the rough terrain to reach the isolated location, but they'd be at the base soon enough, and if they found Cassandra wounded…
Oracle's mind raced. Who could get to her fast enough? Superman, Wonder Woman, all the big name metas were engaged in important cleanup. Dams, nuclear power plants and levies the world over had taken a pounding, among a million other important things. There was no one fast enough she could in good conscience pull away from those assignments. Hell, even her Birds of Prey were scattered across the United States, looking for escaped meta-convicts, murderers and rapists from The Society's big break out.
In the end, the only option was obvious. Oracle keyed in the man's code.
"Bruce, its Barbara…I think Cassandra's in trouble."
The Batplane, two generations more advanced than any military aircraft (this one especially, with technology taken from a few 'mad scientist' enemies of the JLA), sliced through the air at record shattering speeds. It had been almost forty minutes since Oracle had appraised him of Batgirl's possible situation.
In life or death situations, that might have well be a dozen lifetimes. The Dark Knight felt fear gnawing in his gut, but countered it with cold, hard reason. Cassandra Cain was perhaps the most capable of his charges, easily equaling Nightwing in terms of sheer skill.
But Batman wasn't about to take chances when it came to those he cared about. Even if Cassandra wasn't at Nyssa's base, she still needed to be found. There had been too much death, so much loss…if he had to move Heaven and Earth to find his charge, Bruce Wayne was more than willing to do just that. And no one on earth understood better than The Batman that a journey of a thousand miles started with a single step.
The Batplane slowed and eventually came to a complete and silent stop atop Nyssa Al Ghul's base. Batman took in the destruction clinically like the master detective he was. His sources had indicated Nyssa had an alliance with Mr. Freeze and was rebuilding the League of Assassins. Judging from the odd combination scorch marks, raging fires and jagged pillars of ice that still hadn't yet melted, the alliance and revamping didn't go exactly as planned. His scanners also indicated that the mercenaries Oracle had warned about had just made it to the base.
For a moment, Batman hesitating despite what he knew he had to do next. If Cassandra was here, and wasn't moving…
Unbidden, Batman's thoughts drifted back to another time when a younger charge traveled half across the world to find the truth about their mother, and how that ended. But even now, the circumstances around it having changed, the failure still weighed heavily upon Batman's shoulders.
No, Cassandra was…is different! Batman chided himself. Skilled, professional, Cassandra Cain handled anything asked of her with no complaint and asking nothing in return. Was that what made this seem almost easy, Batman wondered, that Batgirl never asked him to give of himself emotionally like Robin and Nightwing did? With a tinge of guilt, Batman began to wonder how fairly he treated Cassandra compared to his other charges.
Still, time enough for recriminations later, Batman thought. Tapping a single button on his utility belt, a silent signal activating an emergency beacon installed in all the belts of his partners. Batman was loathe to use it too often as, for it to be effective, the beacon had to broadcast on most local frequencies.
The computers picked up the emergency beacon almost the second Batman activated it. Batman's eyes widen in shock, but by the time his heart had processed the information, his mind had already created a plan of action.
Clayton Heinrich, long time member of German Special forces until two years ago, began his sweep of the dorms that housed Nyssa's special guard, known as the Ubus. They weren't the most elite of their employer's forces, but they were the most loyal by far. They were taken at birth by the Demon's Head people, and raised in secret locations all over the world to revere Ras Al Ghul, no matter who claimed that position (thankfully for the man's daughter, Nyssa who usurped the position from her father). However, such brainwashing, perfected over hundreds of years, didn't leave the servants with much in the way of imagination, limiting their usefulness, something the mercenary was thankful for. It gave him employment, after all.
Scanning the barracks, he didn't expect to really find anything of significance. Just some odd personal effects perhaps or perhaps the odd weapon laying around that hadn't had its serial number properly removed. After all, cleaners were hired for their attention to detail, and there were a surprisingly many things that could lead back to the main organization and Clayton was expected to find and destroy them all.
What he never expected was for someone to find him.
He'd just passed the lavatory when a force (the collision was so staggering in Clayton's mind it couldn't possibly be a man) slammed into him. By the time his mind registered the first blow, another two had landed. The shadow assaulted him with expect skill, depriving him of his weapons like a child picking daises while at the same time driving him backwards with ridiculous ease. The German soldier of fortune staggered backwards and when he hit the far wall of the bathroom, a hand reached out and grabbed him by the hair, and slammed his face into the toilet bowl.
Clayton struggled considerably, but his unseen foe had leverage and greater strength. What made the situation all the more terrifying was that there were no questions, no demands, no words whatsoever. Clayton's unseen foe clearly possessed the ability to kill him. The fact that he hadn't done so implied that he had much worse planned than a quick and easy death.
The air within Clayton's lungs was exhausted after thirty seconds. Just as the professional soldier began to black out, his assailant pulled his head out of the toilet abruptly, painfully wrenching the man back to reality before plunging it down again.
Clayton's courage didn't survive another ten seconds.
"What do you want! Don't kill me, please!"
The water distorted his voice, but nevertheless the message was conveyed. The pressure on his head ceased, and Clayton felt himself being pulled up to eye level with a man who man believed could sow fear into the heart of the devil himself.
Clayton Heinrich vividly remembered long nights drinking with his fellow commandos, laughing it up and mocking those they deemed inferior. Batman, more of a myth than an actual man to those who worked in the intelligence field, was a subject of frequent discussion. After all, he was reputed to be the best even though so little was known about him. The common theory among drunken soldiers up well past midnight was that Batman was some pathetic figure that other heroes took pity on, and therefore helped created a myth to protect some half wit crime fighter too pathetic to fight his own battles. After all, no one believed the man was half as dangerous as his reputation.
Now, face to face with the man, Clayton believed The Batman was greatly under estimated.
With a look of hatred, anger and yet somehow total control etched across his face, the Batman growled, "How many men and how well armed?"
Clayton no longer had any illusions about his courage. All he could think about was the tortures The Batman seemed more than willing to inflict upon him if he wasn't completely forthcoming.
Not two seconds after Clayton revealed everything he knew about his comrades along with everything he slightly suspected the Dark Knight swiftly knocked him unconscious. Removing the man's communication equipment, Batman went to work.
Derrick Bartel motioned silently for his fellow commandos, Tim Creger and Dan Castano (both former Navy Seals) to follow him into the expansive room. According to their contract, this room, holding Nyssa's Lazarus Pits, was far and away the most important. It had to be destroyed and anyone who might have had contact with it killed.
Derrick understood the logic perfectly. Anyone who gained access to the Pits would have the ability to rival Nyssa's organization for power, become an instant billionaire or any number of things. Derrick didn't have to be a scientist to know that something so powerful could be easily perverted.
Still, he was given special chemicals to neutralize the pit, and killing any hapless villager or curious Shepard who might take it upon themselves investigate the scene didn't bother the man one bit. His men flanked outwards and began scanning the rubble with their eyes. It was actually a little harder and more disturbing than Derrick had thought it.
There were corpses everywhere, some fresh and others….not . Their employer explained there had been an accident concerning the pit (and confirming to Derrick how such a thing could be perverted), but an accident didn't explain why bodies that appeared to be dead for nearly a decade were doing strewn about.
That wasn't the only thing that drew the mercenary's attention was that someone had clearly and carefully removed from around the pit. Thankfully for Derrick, the Lazarus Pit itself appeared to be mostly destroyed, buried under tons of rubble of what had once been the compound's roof. Pulling a specially made grenade from his belt, he pulled the pin and lobbed it over the pit. It exploded in a blue mist and seeped down towards the pit. According to Nyssa's scientists, it would destroy the pit chemicals completely.
"Alright, main objective is accomplished. Tim, flank left. Dan, flank right and sweep the room. I'll examine the pit and see if I can tell if I can determine anyone used it."
Tim Creger found himself at home amongst the legion of dead and decayed bodies, having killed enough men for two lifetimes. He held his laser sighted uzi with the ease of a warrior born as his eyes took in every detail of his surroundings, muscles taunt for an unexpected surprises and his ears keenly following every sound. So he almost wanted to laugh when he jumped like a little school girl because of a mosquito bite.
Running his hand across the tender area, Tim suddenly remembered that there were no mosquitoes in this climate, but by then his mind had already drifted away from his body into a peaceful and content sleep.
Derrick never expected to find anything in his sweep, but naturally he did. A young woman, partially covered in rubble who apparently had been caught in the blast that had gutted the building. She'd been caught in the blast obviously, but survived by sheer luck.
Derrick thumbed the trigger on his gun. His orders were to kill anyone lurking at the base, but the young woman didn't appear to be the least bit threatening. There existed the outside chance that she was important to someone in Nyssa's organization, and so he held off on executing her, at least until he could discern her identity. It never hurt to curry favor with employers and if she wasn't anyone important, well, a double tap to the back of the head later rather than sooner was no problem at all.
"Dan, Tim, get over here!" the mercenary ordered. He set his gun aside and began moving the rubble, "we got a live one! Think it might be one of Nyssa's people!"
Derrick only heard Dan heading towards his position, which didn't immediately register in his mind. However, when he moved a large piece of plaster off the young woman, alarms in his head started blazing. The well known Bat emblem on Cassandra's costume had a few nicks and tears, but it was still recognizable to anyone with half a brain.
It was then Derrick heard his partner's muffled scream. He turned to see his partner being assaulted by what looked like a shadow of a man.
Withdrawing his sidearm, Derrick pointed it towards Cassandra's head and shouted, "Don't move…!"
Batman acted on instinct forged from years of battle. He'd made a minor miscalculation, never expecting the mercenaries to find Cassandra before him, but that couldn't be helped. The situation simply couldn't descend into a hostage negotiation because he had no idea the extent of Cassandra's injuries, nor did he trust professional killers to keep their word.
Removing his trademark weapon from his belt, the Dark Knight threw it with uncommon passion. It collided perfectly between Derrick's eyes but not before he squeezed off a single shot.
"No…" Batman moved numbly towards his young charge, his heart in his throat and his mind flashing back towards a warehouse that had just been destroyed by a bomb of the Joker. Cassandra's young face was slick with blood, "not again…not again!"
Kneeling down, he felt for a pulse. Seconds warped into an eternity.
"She's alive…" Batman exclaimed to no one in particular, tears of joy and relief sliding down his face. Rational thought began to take back over and he saw how the bullet had just grazed Cassandra's head, "…she's alive!"
Batman began quickly and methodically removing the rubble off Batgirl all the while mentally noting possible injuries. The combined list equaled nothing good.
"Oracle, find Dr. Midnight and Mr. Terrific and get them to the Watch Tower, now!"
"Batman, what happened? Did you find her?"
"Just do as I say!" Batman scooped Cassandra up into his arms as gently as humanly possible and rushed to the Batplane. Thankfully, there was a JLA teleporter no less than ten minutes away
JLA Watchtower, 16 hours later.
It seemed almost unfair, Barbara Gordon thought to herself. Another Batgirl taken down not in combat, but by deception, something she couldn't fight against. Batman and Oracle watched over Cassandra's comatose form for a full minute before Dr. Mid-Nite began.
"I'll spare you the details, but the trauma was extensive. Unfortunately she was laying there for too long with massive head trauma. The build up of fluids in the brain…"
"Will she wake up?" Batman interrupted sharply.
"…I can't say," Mid-Nite confessed, "trauma like this is impossible. She could wake up next week. Or next month. Or never."
Oracle choked down a sob.
"I think it would be best to move her to an actual hospital within the next twenty four hours. She should stabilize by then."
"Thank you, doctor."
Dr. Mid-Nite left the two heroes alone. They waited there, observing the young woman who meant so much to them in utter silence.
"This was my fault," Batman said finally, breaking the silence, "she was always so skilled, so capable…I allowed myself to believe she was invincible."
"No…" Oracle snapped quickly as tears slowly ran down her face, "we're heroes. She's a hero and they…we…suffer trials no matter how skilled me are. You with Bane, Dick with Blockbuster, me with Joker…this is hers. She'll wake up, mark my words."
"How can you be so certain?"
"Because legends don't die like this."
Several months later
Gotham City, Mother of Mercy Hospital
When Maggie Wiggins was eight years old, she knew she wanted to be a doctor. The fact that she was a child prodigy was a great assistance in that regard. Some twenty years later, she was considered among the top twenty doctors in the world. Maggie never bragged, but she knew she could count the number of patients she'd lost on one hand in a city filled with maniacs. And that's why she asked to be assigned to this particular wing.
It was jokingly referred to as 'collateral lane'. The villains and madmen of Gotham, often too dangerous to be treated in a regular hospital, had their own hospital facilities in Black Gate and Arkham Asylum. But their victims…they had their own state of the art facility thanks to the charity of Bruce Wayne, though he wisely didn't advertise that fact. Maggie shivered when she wonder how the rogues of Gotham might react if they learned not only were there entire institutions devoted to undoing their handiwork, but that it was funded largely by one man.
Patients came and went in this wing, but sometimes there were those who had to be kept long term. There was the one time a young man ate a 'Joker Fish' on a dare and had an extremely allergic reaction, and there one time when a young woman with allergies fell into a coma when she was caught between a battle with Robin and Poison Ivy. And of course, there was her current patient.
A young Asian woman, fifteen years of age at the earliest brought in by government agents and visited every so often by a woman in a wheel chair and her husband. Her injuries were extensive, but they were properly treated and fully healed by now. All that remained now was for the young girl to wake up. According to the tests Maggie ran, that could either happen any day now, or never. Apparently she'd been exposed to some unidentified chemicals, and though all traces had since disappeared, it was impossible to say what affect it might have long term. The human body could be fickle that way, the doctor sighed as she made several notes on the young woman's chart.
Had the doctor waited another hour and a half, Ms. Wiggins might have seen just how incredible the human body was too.
Cassandra Cain shot up like a bullet, as if awaking from some terrible nightmare. Her last memories were of pain and fire, and the battle hardened teen expected to find exactly that when she awoke. It took several seconds for her mind to process that, much to her relief, that wasn't the case.
Once the shock had passed, Cassandra took a moment to calmly access her situation. A single glance outside the window told her that she was in Gotham. Even though she couldn't read the name of any street nor building, visually, Cassandra Cain had long since memorized every street in Gotham.
So she was in Gotham, Cass realized. At least that was familiar territory. Clearly some time had passed since her battle with Shiva and someone, most likely Batman, had rescued her and placed her in the hospital to recover. Why he or someone wasn't here when she awoke puzzled Cassandra slightly. The Batman would know, right?
Reflecting on the circumstances too much made her head hurt, literally. In a situation like this, Cassandra went into automatic. Remaining at the hospital was simply unacceptable. For all she knew The Joker might walk in and try to put a bullet through her head.
Cass experimented with her legs first, but they felt like solid steel, and not in a good way. The months in a coma had not been kind to her, even though she had physical therapists treating her all the while. Her legs basically ignored her first commands of movement. It took a solid five minutes of effort just to get a physical response, and it took her half an hour just move her right foot in a circle.
That might have been discouraging for anyone else, but Cassandra had been conditioned from birth. When it came to her body, where there was a will, there was a way. And there was always a will.
Nearly an hour and a half after she awoke, Cassandra was ready to leave. She silently turned off all the monitors, removed all the wires, needles and God only knows what from her body. Swinging her legs off the bed, Cassandra stood on unsteady legs and crept towards the door.
She started off with a limp, after several months of no use whatsoever her legs were unaccustomed to supporting her weight. But by the time Cassandra reached the door some twelve feet away, she walked almost normally.
Cracking the door slightly, Cassandra saw little more than a darkened hallway. Pushing the door open just enough so that she could slide past, Cassandra closed the door and simply listened.
She didn't wait long. Down the hall she heard three male voices and a TV set. Cassandra moved towards them like a wild animal on a hunt, silent, alert and deadly.
The guard station (from what Cassandra summarized) was thankfully situated with their backs to the young woman.
Three men watching TV, two leaning over the counter while a third sat in a chair watching ESPN (Cass recognized it because sometimes she and Nightwing would watch the cable station together). Even though their discipline was relaxed and they didn't seem to be the most professional to the average eye, their body language gave them away.
They were government agents, well trained and armed. The shoulder holsters looked new and un-weathered, which implied that the men were rookies, at least to this job. But their mere presence worried Cassandra instantly. She'd tangled with some 'Black-Ops' agents early in her career and for all she knew, they were the ones who found her, not Batman.
Observing them for several minutes, Cassandra determined that these three were the only other security staff in this wing. That made things simple enough.
Unsure of how her body might react if she attacked them outright, Cass opted for subterfuge.
The trio of men looked to see Cassandra standing there in her hospital gown. But Cassandra didn't see any confusion in their body language, and found that more than a little worrying.
"Holy crap…she's awake," one of the men muttered.
The two men moved towards her with concern. There was no doubt in Cassandra's mind that they knew who she was. That naturally set off alarms in her head seeing as how she had no idea who they were.
"We need to get you back to bed, ma'am," one of the men said. Neither man's body language was threatening, but Cassandra could easily tell that they were now worried about something else entirely.
Obviously, the two either hadn't been informed or didn't really believe what they'd been told about her, Cassandra thought. Almost invisibly Cassandra plucked the first man's gun from his holster and pistol whipped man number two. Cassandra elbowed Man number one in the face and flung the gun at Man Number Three's temple, instantly rendering him unconscious.
Cassandra walked past them silently and into the main wing of the hospital, unnoticed. That might have been difficult to others, but stealth was one of Cassandra's first learned skills. No one noticed the young woman. The clothes missing from the nurse's locker room wouldn't be missed until morning. The motorcycle Cassandra hotwired would be missed long before that, the young woman suspected, but she'd had the foresight to switch the plates.
It took Cassandra Cain several hours to reach a side entrance to the Batcave, a seamless trap door on the left side of the Manor. Cassandra had a little trouble finding it, even though she knew where it was, or at least where it was supposed to be. According to Tim, the narrow entry way into the cave, a former well, that had been used against Azreal during one of his unstable periods. Small and narrow, easily concealed and hidden from view even in broad daylight, it was the perfect entrance to the Batcave in Cass' mind.
But eventually, she found it. Unlike Batman or Azreal, Cassandra's slender form had little trouble navigating the narrow entryway. She was familiar with the security and bypassed the traps and other special features designed to keep curious animals out like they weren't even there.
Emerging from the wall far from the center of the Batcave, Cassandra found herself confused. Though the Batcave was never that well lit, it was still far brighter than it was now. The luminescent rocks provided the only light within the damp and dreary cave, but between that and Cassandra's photographic memory, it was more than enough.
Making her way up a flight of steel stairs towards the center of the cave, Cassandra found her dread building with each step. She could not hear the drone of the Bat-computer, the slight vibrations of the generators or the usual hum of the lights. All she heard now was the occasional squeal of the bats that inhabited the cave.
Her eyes adjusted to the lack of light easily enough, but her mind had trouble accepting the dead silence of the cave itself. There was nothing whatsoever with the cave that indicated something terrible might have happened, but Cassandra could think of no other reason why the Batcave would be shut down. Her imagination started to run wild, a million macabre scenarios running through the young woman's mind about what might have happened to her mentor to explain why he'd abandoned his base of operations.
Once Cassandra reached the operational center of the cave, her fears were confirmed as fact. The Batcomputer was off line. The vehicle bay was sealed shut and the weapons vault was locked tight, and the entire cave was covered with a blanket of dust that clearly hadn't been disturbed in months.
Cassandra looked around the cave, blinking back tears. It was obvious all means of communication had been deactivated, and without those she simply had no idea what to do. She couldn't contact anyone, Batman, Oracle, Robin or Nightwing because the radio equipment was deactivated and without that, she lacked the ability to contact anyone.
The world never seemed larger to Cassandra than when she realized how isolated she really was. Tears steaming down her cheek and exhausted beyond all measure, Cassandra fell to her knees and fell into a fitful unconsciousness, her willpower spent by the possibility that The Batman was no more.
When Cassandra awoke again much like the first time, in an unfamiliar bed in an unfamiliar room. However, unlike last time, she at least knew the house she was in and didn't have tubes and wires connected to various (and embarrassing) places. The bed was a thousand times better than the hospital bed, the sheets were made of pure silk and the room temperature was perfect.
And Cassandra breathed a deep sigh of relief when she saw who was waiting at her bedside.
"Easy there, Cass," Oracle said soothingly as she offered Cassandra a glass of water, "take it slow. You've been in a coma the last several months. I'm amazed you made it this far, kiddo."
Cassandra took a deep sip before asking, "Batman. Where is he?"
Cassandra's ability to read body language had a way of telling her a lot and nothing at all at the same time, and this was one of those instances. Oracle was terribly conflicted about Batman's current situation, no doubt disagreeing with his decision as she often did, but at the same time accepting of it all the same.
"A lot has happened in the last year, Cass…"
Oracle explained as thoroughly as she could, without going into detail. Cassandra Cain sat there silently, absorbing and processing the information. As ever, Oracle was very informative, leaving Cass with little to no questions about the state of affairs of the Bat-clan. But that didn't mean Cassandra didn't have a few questions of her own, though not nearly as important as the whereabouts of Batman.
"How did you know…where I was?"
Oracle gave a look that easily translated into 'are you serious?', and Cassandra quickly realized there was almost nowhere else she might have gone, "I placed sensors in your bed that told me you were awake. Dick was the one who found you and brought you up here."
Oracle didn't look forward to the answer of her next question, though she felt compelled to answer it all the same, "We can do a full debriefing later, but…did you find what you were looking for at Nyssa's base?"
"And…?" Oracle needled.
"I need shower," Cassandra answered as if that explained everything. Throwing the covers off, Cassandra brushed past her friend and began stripping off her stolen clothes as she stumbled towards. Oracle observed her with the critical eye of a woman well versed in physical conditioning.
Whereas most people would be lucky to be able to move after nearly a year in a coma, Cass' conditioning appeared to have saved her from the worst of the affects, all things considered. Right now Oracle could see that Cassandra was moving with the coordination and grace of an overweight desk jockey, but she didn't doubt that Batgirl would be in fighting shape in less time than it took to tell.
And that thought was like a stab in the heart to Barbra Gordon.
Cassandra wrapped the towel around her body tightly and started the water. However they washed her while in a coma (something she didn't find too pleasant to dwell on), they didn't do the job half as well as they should have. Cass felt slimy almost, like there was some film all over her skin.
Passing the bathroom mirror, Cassandra passed her own reflection and for a single second, acting on pure instinct, stiffened, thinking she'd spotted an enemy. Examining her own image closer, Cassandra saw that they'd neglected to cut her hair while she slept. The long, fine back hair was now touched her shoulders, just like…
"No…" growled the young woman, louder than she knew.
Throwing the medicine cabinet open, Cassandra pushed aside Tylenol bottles, decongestants and tooth paste looking for anything sharp.
"Not her!" No scissors were found. Cass slammed the cabinet shut. Glaring as her own reflection, Cassandra found herself overcome with rage and disgust, "I'm not you!"
Cassandra drew her fist back to shatter the mocking image she saw in the mirror when a towel plastered her in the face.
"I guess this means Shiva is your mom," Oracle summarized, her hands resting on her lap.
"…I look disgusting," Cassandra said with no small amount of self loathing.
"That's no reason to smash Bruce's bathroom. I know he wouldn't approve," Oracle snapped, "Take a shower. I'll get you some clothes, and we'll cut your hair, okay?"
"Then training," Cassandra Cain stared it her clenched fist, seeing none of the strength that had once been there. But she could still feel the will, and where there was a will…
"Yeah," Oracle sighed, her voice heavy with disappointment, "training…"
Several weeks later
Oracle stared at her monitor, grinding her teeth in a fashion that would make even the Dark Knight wince. Plastered across the monitor was Cassandra Cain, going through her morning exercises, pushing her body as close to the edge as she could get. It had been years since Barbara had been able to physically exert herself like the average crimefighter, but she'd have no right to call herself Oracle if she wasn't extremely well read, especially about the endurance of the human body. Cassandra was pushing herself more and more each day, all towards one singular goal with a passion that was unsettlingly familiar.
"Ya know, not even pedophiles don't stare that hard at their screen," a voice remarked.
"There was a reason why I made sure to purchase a particularly uncomfortable couch, Dick," Oracle warned, still staring at her screen with an almost tangible anxiety.
Dick Grayson, the hero known as Nightwing and Oracle's husband, placed his hands on her shoulders comfortingly, and glanced at the monitor. Cassandra Cain looked as if she were battling for her life, not simply training against some practice dummies.
"Man, is she getting ready to fight Bane?"
"No, she's just throwing her life away in another fashion," Oracle sighed.
"Look, this has been eating you for a while," Dick observed, "why not talk to her about it?"
"Because she won't listen. How long have I been trying now to get her to try anything resembling a normal life?"
"Things are different now. I can't imagine she took to being in a coma well emotionally. She may be as stubborn as Bruce Babs, but I've gotten through to him before. I didn't do that by giving up."
Three different types of bataranges. A pair of safety scissors. A pencil. A 22-magnum gun. A knife made of surgical grade steel and at least a half dozen throwing stars and more were strewn across a metal tray as Cassandra Cain grabbed them at random and threw them towards specially made practice dummies. Cassandra had just finished throwing a pencil into the shoulder of one dummy when she felt Oracle approaching. Cass took one look over her shoulder, scowled, and went back to her target practice.
"You ought to let me say something before you decide to ignore me," Oracle commented.
"Already know what…you're going to say," Cass stated.
"No, you know what I'm feeling. You don't know what I'm going to say."
"Want me to go to school. Want me to stop being me," Cass snapped quickly, "know that look."
"When you were dipped in the Lazarus Pit Cass, it physically de-aged you. You could pass as a fifteen year old. If you'd be willing, I could get you enrolled in a High School instead of a vocational school."
Cassandra crossed her arms and looked sideways. For someone who knew what every last tic and nuance of body language meant, she was terrible at hiding her own.
"Is this all you want from your life?" Oracle asked gently, sweeping her hands towards the empty cave. There were no personal items, no mementos, nothing to indicate the base was used for anything but training, "because it's where you're heading, young lady. I wonder if you'd even see another human being who wasn't a criminal if Bruce hadn't ordered you to live in an apartment in Gotham."
Swallowing hard, Cassandra answered, "So?"
"So there's a lot more to life than just punching people in the face and saving lives."
Cassandra thought about Brenda, and all the friends she lost when Bludhaven was destroyed by the radioactive monster Chemo.
"A lot more hurt in it too."
"Maybe so, but that's hardly the sum total of life, Cass. You're being…"
"Don't!" Cassandra snapped angrily, but it was already too late to prevent Barbara from finishing her sentence.
Oracle watched Cassandra Cain shifted from anxious and defensive to exceptionally pissed.
"Not stupid! I not stupid!" Cassandra shouted, her eyes beginning to water.
"Cass, I didn't call you stupid! Calm down!"
"You think I stupid!" accused Cassandra. Oracle didn't even get a chance to open her mouth before Cassandra took one look at her body language, and stormed off.
One of the troubles of dealing with someone who understood body language perfectly was that body language itself was far from a perfect language. In combat, body language was perfect. All the subtle nuances led to an obvious climax. In personal conversation, however, things were far more murky. Oracle thought Cassandra was being foolish for avoiding anything resembling a normal life. It wasn't too surprising considering the young woman's upbringing, but it was disappointing nevertheless. She decided to leave the matter for another day, doubtful that if she could even find Cassandra that she'd be in the mood to talk.
Not too far away, Cassandra Cain, trained from birth to be the perfect human weapon, applied all her training to stop the tears from flowing down her cheek. It wasn;t a battle she was winning.
Gotham City Docks
Jack Chifford reflected on his career and recent turn of fortune as a moderate sized boat pulled into Gotham harbor barely five minutes after midnight. Born into a rough neighborhood, he taught himself to be tough and faster and tougher than those stronger than him. He thought it was only natural he join the marines. Jack had been a professional mercenary for some six years now since he left the Marines, but it wasn't until he bought a costume from some computer geek that he was really successful. Jack had always derided the 'spandex clowns' but after a while it was obvious he wouldn't find the kind of employment (and money) he wanted without a costume, preferably one with some miles.
Jack chose the name 'Hellhound', because he'd worked alongside the original once and had always loved dogs. Growing up he made friends with every dog on the block and helped a few of his elderly neighbors (who kept the dogs largely for protection) care for and trained them. His mom called it his gift. Hell, even the dog handlers in his unit asked him for advise. Given two Venom enhanced pit bulls (made especially by him by Society scientists) and with enough combat training for a dozen men, Jack now found himself rising in the underworld faster than he ever thought possible.
But never in his wildest dreams did he imagine he'd be spear heading The Society's push into Gotham. He was leading a squad of people that, two years ago, he would have considered the biggest freaks in the world, but now thought of as soldiers in arms. The plan was to storm the collection of loose net criminal networks, convert those willing to join and brutally slaughter (as a message to others, of course) those who refused. The Society wanted control of Gotham City to put them in a better position to deal with the Dark Knight who protected it. After much discussion and debate, it was eventually decided a blitz attack would work best. The criminals of Gotham were a stubborn and insane lot, and a show of strength was needed to make them tow the line.
But in order to do that, Hellhound had to get the shipment of weapons on the boat to the dozens of Royal Flush Gang members waiting across town. Without those weapons, the battles they needed to fight would be too costly and draw too much attention. Indeed, they were the lynchpin of the plan.
That was why Hellhound was being especially careful. Three blocks away were Flush Gang members with the trucks needed to haul the hardware. Once his team confirmed it was safe to approach, he'd call them in. No need to keep them idling at the docks where they'd draw attention, even though he felt confident his small team of metahumans could handle. The super strong Solomon Grundy, shape shifting Chiller, Titans foe Trident and four senior members of the Royal Flush Gang keeping lookout on their flying cards, more than enough to handle the local costumed clowns or cops.
Thumbing the radio, Hellhound haled the men on the ship, "This is Alpha calling beta. Report."
Static was the only response.
"I repeat, this is Alpha leader calling Beta leader. Please report."
"Grundy not like this," commented swamp monster.
"Me wish we got a smarter Grundy after that freak toasted the last one," Chiller muttered under his breath, "What are your orders, Hellhound?"
"Flush Gang! Fly up there and check things out. If you see anything, get your asses back here, don't engage under any circumstances, got it?"
"Yo, got it boss," replied one of the beefier members (Ten? Jack? Hellhound had a hard enough time keeping their suits straight, let alone individual rank). The four card inspired gang activated their flying cards and floated up to inspect the vessel.
"What do we do if the shipment is compromised?" asked Chiller. The villain feared little, but an agreed upon course of action was always nice.
"We kill whoever did it," Hellhound answered casually, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world, "but lets not jump to conclusions. For all we know, the idiots broke their radio."
"You awfully calm considering what the Society's got riding on this gig," Trident noted.
"Herman and Lilly are pretty calm," Hellhound motioned towards his two mutated pitbulls, "so I see no reason not to be. Lets wait and see, okay?"
A full minute passed with nothing but silence.
"Flush Gang, come in," Hellhound radioed futilely. He was about try again when his dogs started growling.
"Heads up!" shouted Chiller. The gathered criminals looked up to see the four oversized hover platforms of the Royal Flush Gang slicing through the air towards them. Trident, Hellhound and Chiller dove for cover while Solomon Grundy stood there stupidly, catching one of the cards in his hand like it was a Frisbee while the other three embedded themselves in the cement dock around him.
Grundy examined the card as carefully as dim witted mind would allow.
"Why card have blinky thing on it?" Solomon wondered aloud.
The explosive on the hover card was a small thing, but coupled with the power source of the flying card, it was a terrible thing to behold. So were the other three explosives placed exactly the same way.
The explosion rocked the pier from one end to the other, flaming climbing two stories in the air. Trident, Chiller and Hellhound looked up, and saw a smoldering Grundy still standing, albeit in a small, shallow crater.
"Oh…" said the man monster before falling over unconscious.
Trident looked up to see a barely perceivable figure leap from the shadows of the boat into the shadows of the dock seamlessly, no louder than the whisper of a mouse.
"It's the Bat!" Trident shouted with equal parts fear and awe. Gripping his weapon tightly, he scrabbled to his feet and looked towards Hellhound, "what do we do?"
Hellhound brushed himself off as he stood up, "We fight moron."
"Are you crazy? Are you dense! That's the god damned Batman!"
"Get a hold of yourself and stop spewing shit!" snapped Hellhound, "we have over ten million dollars worth of weapons in the hold of that ship! The Society will skin us alive if we let that go without a fight!"
"And if the police show up?" Chiller inquired, "we don't have the muscle fight them and the Bat."
"They won't," assured Hellhound, "Calculator enacted an electronic blackout. We handle the Bat and we can still pull this off. Now fan out, you two. Unless you wanna tell the head honchos that you just bent over and showed pink."
Trident gathered his courage, thumbed the rigger switch that activated his weapons flame thrower for a small flame. The villain now known as Trident had, in another life, been a professional boxer before his life took a turn for the worse that eventually lead to crime and eventually, his costumed identity. But he was smarter than people gave him credit for (the idea of three different people dressing up as the same criminal was his) and he didn't buy into the superstitions that most of the criminal element did. To him, the Batman was just a man in the end and as mortal as anyone else. Trident was reasonably confident he stood an actual chance of walking away the winner today.
He couldn't have been more wrong.
A grenade thrown from the corner of Trident's vision struck his weapon dead on and exploded in a sticky white foam, jamming the weapons nozzle. Without the small flame for light, the former boxer's eyes needed a second to adjust, and for a few brief seconds, he was blind.
For his foe, that might as well been an eternity.
Trident felt a strong right hook across the face. Not the strongest he'd ever received, what with his career in boxing, but it was up there and delivered perfectly. It was followed up swift kick to the stomach that expelled the air from his lungs. Still struggling to see, Trident felt his foe grab his weapon in an attempt to disarm him. Trident naturally fought for control of his weapon and that was his final mistake.
His foe rammed their head in his, breaking Trident's nose. As the villain's mind painfully processed that fact, his opponent rabbit punched him in the kidney three times and finished him off with boot to the face.
Chiller watched his teammate fall and had to suppress a chuckle. Trident was an idiot, using his weapon as a torch. It made him an easy target, and that was why Chiller chose to trail the man. Assuming the shape of a local, overweight detective he'd been briefed on. All Chiller needed was ten seconds to get close enough with his acid gun. That was all, ten seconds.
All it took was three seconds for a batarang to collide with his skull. Darkness consumed him, and just like Trident he never really saw his assailant. He still thought their foe was The Batman.
Hellhound stood out in the open, his every instinct feeling for searching for his unseen foe. At the moment, he was thankful for his two canine friends. Jack had met a million and one odd customers in his lifetime, but not a damn one that possessed the skill to sneak up on an angry dog. The second the dogs had an unfamialer scent, he let slip their leashes and smiled at the terrible poetry about to commence. Herman and Lilly darted off silently, trained not to bark so as not to alert their prey.
Hellhound was grinning like the cat who ate the canary until he heard two sudden yelps of pain. He'd heard that sound maybe twice in his life, and it meant his babies were in danger. Unsheathing the two Sais he carried for circumstances like this, he was about to rush into the breach to save his dogs when a slim figure emerged from the shadows, Herman and Lilly at her side.
Hellhound was fully briefed on all of Gotham's protectors, from Batman to Nightwing to even the so called Birds of Prey. But the one standing before him was one he never expected to see…
Cassandra Cain strode forward confidently, regarding Hellhound with contempt.
"Attack!" Hellhound ordered. Herman and Lilly looked at Batgirl, who looked back at them, and the two turned their heads towards Hellhound and growled menacingly.
"Your dogs and me, we have…an understanding."
Hellhound didn't dare move.
"Tell the Society, what happened here today," Cassandra's withering gaze put any Drill Sergeant's to shame, and Hellhound found himself forced to look away.
"Tell them Batgirl is back. And they have made me…a bitter enemy. Make them…understand the consequences. Or else."
Batgirl melted back into the shadows, and for a moment Hellhound thought that he'd be allowed to escape, back to the Society to deliver his message. That assumption was shattered when he took his first step, and Herman and Lilly growled at him in union. The dogs had their orders from their new master, and Hellhound quickly realized if he moved more than a foot his own dogs would be turned against him.
By the time the police arrived, Hellhound was seriously considering new life options.
After all, who wanted a career where the opposition leveled four villains just as an opening statement?
Batgirl watched with satisfaction as her captures were hauled away by the police. Tonight was a success start without a doubt, but that was all it was, thought Cassandra as she swung towards Gotham proper.
It was only the beginning…