The Once and Future Bat

a Batman Beyond fanfic
by
Mike Yamiolkoski




PART ONE

Batman felt the wind whip his cape as he crouched at the edge of Gotham Cathedral, watching the street buzz with activity. Dark clouds above threatened rain, but it was of no consequence. Batman made his rounds regardless of the weather.

He found it difficult to admit even to himself that he missed having Robin at his side on a night such as this, when Tim Drake was away at school. Something about the boy's youthful attitude and cheerful recklessness balanced Bruce's own dark and brooding temperament, and sometimes it took the most iron of his control to keep from smirking at some of Tim's more outlandish stunts. There was no way around it - watching Tim drench the Joker in two thousand gallons of baby shampoo at the Avian Products warehouse had been just plain funny. The Joker hadn't thought so.

The city had been mostly quiet since, the calm that always seemed to settle after the Joker went back to Arkham. It was almost as if the other thugs in town were given a reminder that Batman was at large, and even the worst of them was no match for the Dark Knight. Bruce frowned and put that thought from his mind - it did no good to rate his many foes on their level of danger. They were all dangerous, and as soon as he established a hierarchy, he ran the risk of giving a common purse snatcher less effort than Two-Face. All crooks posed a threat. All of them had earned an equal share of his wrath.

Sharp eyes swept the cityscape. He frequently stopped at the cathedral, as it offered a unique vantage point that allowed him to see nearly all of lower Gotham at a glance. The flashing blue lights of a police car caught his attention for a moment, but even from his distant perch Batman could tell it was only a minor incident. His hunch was confirmed when the lights went out of their own accord a moment later and the car drove on.

Batman stood and prepared to step from the tower, readying a batline to fire at the skyscraper across the street. Then he suddenly leapt backwards into the open window of the belfry, just in time to avoid the brilliant red beam that sliced through the solid stone of the ledge he'd occupied a moment before.

The jump had been reflexive in response to a whining noise off to his right - only after the fact did the details register and Batman realized that someone had fired some sort of energy beam at him. From the looks of the damage done to the tower, the weapon must have been huge, and would take some time to recharge -

A second beam sliced through the wall, a strong column, the bell itself. A crescent-shaped chunk of brass dropped from the bell and crashed down the rickety old stairs of the tower.

An instant later, the Batman followed it, plunging down the inside of the stairwell, flipping around in mid-plummet to fire his batline into the wall. It was a calculated risk - he had no idea if the ancient concrete was strong enough to hold the grappling hook and arrest his fall.

He began to swing toward one of the many windows in the tower, making his body as small as possible to fit through the narrow opening. A small chunk of concrete struck his shoulder, but he ignored it.

It was impossible to ignore the third beam that attacked the tower. This one sliced clean through the entire structure. In a corner of his mind that wasn't occupied by the mortal danger he found himself in, the Batman was struck by the remarkable power of the laser beams. He knew of no way to create a laser powerful enough to do what this one was doing, three times in rapid succession, that wasn't at least the size of the Cathedral itself - and even that was pushing the cutting edge of technology.

Then he was through the window and out into the night. The wall that formerly held the batline crumbled, along with a good part of the rest of the tower. Reaching onto the other side of his belt, Batman pulled his second line and fired it into the building across the street, a more modern structure that had the additional advantage that it wasn't collapsing to the ground around him. He felt an uncharacteristic pang of panic as he swung across the street, now in plain site of whomever was trying to kill him, but no more beams followed. Presumably, the wielder of this unknown weapon had figured that the Batman would be trapped inside the collapsing Cathedral tower.

And he was very nearly correct, as the tower was leaning slightly towards the Batman's flying form as he swung just inside the leading edge of dust and debris. Perhaps that saved his life, as the falling building that threatened him also camouflaged him until his path took him to just ten feet above street level - close enough to jump.

Batman hit the ground rolling, flipped to his feet, and ran for his life as the ancient Cathedral of Gotham reduced itself to a crashing, thundering pile of rubble after having stood for over two hundred years. An oaken beam struck the Batman directly on the back of his head and sent him into oblivion.

* * * * *

Pain. Noise. The taste of blood. Bruce opened his eyes slowly, and saw people climbing sideways through a jumble of fallen stone and dust.

His consciousness returned swiftly. The noise he heard was a combination of the sirens of approaching emergency vehicles and the shouts of rescue workers. Batman knew that there had been no other people in the tower (except, perhaps, his assailant) and tried to move. It was important to call of the rescue attempts before someone else was hurt in the unstable remains of the Cathedral.

The pain sharpened noticeably when he tried to pull his legs under him. His left knee had been badly wrenched, and his head was pounding. He felt the back of his skull - it seemed intact. His left arm hurt badly enough that it was probably fractured.

As his thought began to clarify, Bruce realized that he couldn't afford to reveal himself, even to the rescue workers. Whomever had fired at him could easily still be around, waiting for him to show himself. The risk from that laser beam was far greater than that of the debris pile itself.

Pulling himself forward with his good arm, Batman extracted himself from under the beam that had felled him and crawled the short remaining distance into the alley across the street.

No one saw him as he lifted a manhole cover and dropped into the sewer.

* * * * *

"Alfred?"

"Thank God, sir!" Alfred's relieved voice came in clearly over the Bat-boat's radio. "I just saw the tower collapse on the news. I prayed that you had chosen to deviate from your usual flight path."

Batman winced as he snapped the seatbelt around his waist and keyed the Bat-boat to take the swiftest route back to the cave. "I'm afraid I was there, Alfred. Though I'm fairly certain I was the only casualty, besides the tower itself."

"Good lord. Are you badly injured?"

Pride had its time and place - this wasn't it. "Yes. I'll need you to contact Leslie Thompson and have her meet me at the Batcave." He thought for a moment. "Tell her that it's an emergency, but that she is not to drive quickly or otherwise draw attention."

"Yes sir. If I may, what was the cause of the disaster? The news reports have been a bit vague on that point."

Batman shook his head, immediately wishing he hadn't as a fresh pain washed through him. "I don't know, Alfred."

* * * * *

"It seems you've been lucky again," Dr. Thompson said as she set Bruce's arm into a cast. "You have a sprained knee, a hairline fracture of the wrist, and a mild concussion. These injuries will get worse if you don't take care of them properly. They will get better if you take some rest. Understand?"

Leslie's car looked oddly out of place parked in the Batmobile's usual spot. Bruce had elected to leave the Batmobile hidden in the alley he'd parked it in for the night. He would rather the car spent the night in the city than lead his assassins back to the cave. It was fortunate that the old sewers around the late Gotham Cathedral had been large enough for the Bat-boat to reach him.

Bruce shook his head. "There's something very dangerous out there. Whatever it was that leveled the Cathedral was like nothing I've ever seen, or heard of. I need to know what it was and where it came from."

Leslie Thompson frowned severely at Bruce as she wrapped bandages around Bruce's arm. "You are in no condition to go swinging about the city. You can barely walk, Bruce!"

"I'm afraid Dr. Thompson has a point, Master Bruce," Alfred said, approaching with a steaming cup of tea. "You must realize you've been badly injured. I implore you to consider the consequences of not allowing yourself to heal."

Bruce nodded. "I appreciate your concerns. But... there's something different about this time. Let me show you, Alfred, if you insist on being convinced."

Bruce grunted as he stood up and limped over to the Batcomputer. He began pulling up specs on various experimental laser weapons. "These designs are some of the latest devices in various stages of research and development by the Pentagon. This one -" Bruce selected one of the specs "- is the most powerful. It could probably do the damage the weapon trained on me did."

"Who would have access to such a weapon?" Alfred asked.

"No one," Bruce replied grimly. "It exists only on paper. To build it would require at least three major breakthroughs in technology, roughly half the entire defense budget of the U.S., five years of intense labor, and a perfect diamond the size of my fist. At the end, you'd have something that would barely fit in the Batcave and could fire one beam at full power for a duration of three seconds, then take two hours to recharge for the next shot."

"I... see," said Alfred.

"Based on the angle of the beams that struck the Cathedral, the laser was probably mounted on the roof of Gotham Plaza towers, which would be incapable of supporting anywhere near the necessary weight. In addition, there's the matter of hauling it up there to begin with, which would have had to be done with no one - including me - noticing it. It's also possible that it was fired from orbit, but that rather begs the question of how it could have gotten there. Any way you look at it, what happened tonight was simply... impossible."

Alfred's mouth went dry. That was a word that his employer didn't use lightly.

"And so," Bruce said, getting to his feet, "It's more or less absolutely necessary that I figure out exactly how someone is managing to do the impossible."

"By trying to accomplish it yourself?" Dr Thompson asked, shaking her head. "Bruce, you need to give it at least forty-eight hours before you try anything more strenuous than walking a few yards at a time with the help of a cane. And it's not just me trying to stop you, it's your own body that will give out on you if you try to push yourself too hard. For God's sake, Bruce, listen to reason!"

"If I may, sir," Alfred said, "there is, perhaps, an alternative."

* * * * *

"You know I wouldn't ask you if it weren't extremely important."

"I appreciate that, Bruce. But why not ask Batgirl or Robin to cover this one?"

Dick Grayson leaned forward and drummed his fingers on the Batcomputer console. It felt strange to be back in the Batcave again after being absent from it for so long, and even stranger to be standing there in his Nightwing suit rather than the Robin suit which stood in its glass case along the wall.

"Dick," Bruce said, "you must realize that this is a matter of grave concern. Someone has managed to get their hands on a weapon so dangerous that even the U.S. Military is a full generation behind in developing its equal. We need to know where it came from."

"I'm more interested in why they chose to attack Gotham Cathedral, of all things," Grayson mused. "Surely there are more reasonable targets. What does anyone gain from destroying a historic church?"

"You know as well as I do the answer to that."

"They were after you, personally."

"Which doesn't clear anything up," Bruce said. "Rather, it muddies the issue. Not only did the perpetrator have a weapon he couldn't have had, he knew where I'd be at the moment he'd want to use it. Something like that just couldn't be portable - he'd have had to set it up in advance. Why? Why go through such tremendous effort?"

"Bruce, there's a lot of people who want very badly to kill Batman."

"Granted. But the phrase 'shooting off a cannon to kill a gnat' comes to mind. Why construct a weapon like this just to kill me? A conventional rocket launcher might have had the same effect."

Dick smiled. "You know, most people admit that a bullet would do the trick. You require a rocket launcher. And you still haven't answered my original question. Why me?"

Bruce shuffled in his seat. "Because I have a bad feeling."

Dick's smile dropped. "When you get those kinds of feelings, the odds of survival drop pretty fast."

Bruce's face was that of a man whose thoughts blocked out the rest of the world. "There's something very… mysterious about this. No, that's the wrong word, but I can't find the right one. It feels unnatural. You have more experience than Barbara, and certainly more than Tim. It needs to be you."

Dick slipped on his mask. "Where do you want me to go first?"

Bruce nodded. "Gotham Plaza Towers. Where the weapon should have been mounted, if my calculations are right. See what you can find."

Nightwing ran to his motorcycle, gunned the engine, and roared out into the tunnel that led to the surface. Bruce couldn't help but feel he'd just sent his former apprentice to his death.

TO BE CONTINUED...