Chapter Ten: Fighting Blind
It turned out the original door to the basement stairs was still right where it always had been—set into the side of the base of the staircase leading up to the second floor. It had just been plastered over, heavily enough to make its presence invisible, but once you cleared that out of the way, the door could still be opened in the normal way. The plaster wasn't even damp—must've been there for a long time. Which meant The Spook had other ways of getting in and out of the basement.
Batgirl had used carving knives from the kitchen to probe and slash until she located the door. Then she'd broken up a chair to form makeshift prybars. Now she had a path cleared to let the door swing open into the hallway.
It was possible the door was booby-trapped to explode as soon as she twisted and tugged the knob—but somehow Batgirl didn't think so. The Spook could have killed her easily after the nerve gas paralyzed her, but he hadn't. For that matter, he could have planted bombs under every floor in the entire house—and maybe he had!—but if so, he wasn't bothering to set them off yet, and there wasn't much she could do to stop him if he suddenly changed his mind, so why worry about it?
She yanked the door open. As expected, nothing happened.
Five steps between the doorway and a small, square landing; then the staircase headed off to the right. Solid walls on either side of the steps. There was a light fixture in the ceiling above the landing, but someone had removed the bulb. There was a light switch just inside the door; flipping it achieved nothing.
Even though she'd believed The Spook would want her to open the door and continue, Batgirl found herself reluctant to trust the wooden steps with her weight. The noise she had made ripping open the plaster-layer of the wall must have alerted anyone in the basement that Batgirl was planning to come that way. Besides, it was the only obvious way to go. That was bad. Cain in his own way, and Batman much later, had both emphasized the value of surprise. An opponent who knew your path in advance could turn any bottleneck into a deathtrap. But finding another way to get there would take too long. Sergius was down there, and she wasn't betting the bad guys would just leave him alone while they waited for her to join them.
Which didn't mean she had to be completely stupid about this. David Cain, in this situation, would have grabbed an unconscious enemy and tossed him or her tumbling down the stairs to clear the way—testing for land mines or whatever. (And if the decoy arrived at the bottom with a broken neck? Tough.)
Batgirl didn't do things that way—but since there was no hope of maintaining the element of surprise when she went down those stairs, she might as well test them with something.
She settled for the slightly-scorched piano bench.
After it went tumbling down the stairs all the way to the bottom, she followed up by tossing down one of the pirate cutlasses. Any nasty device hooked up to a motion detector, pressure detector, metal detector, or plain old tripwire ought to react to at least one item or the other. Nothing happened, so she decided the stairs were safe. (Nobody down there had shot at the piano bench either, which was mildly encouraging.)
Light spilled through the doorway from behind her as she descended, but there was no light source within the stairwell, nor any glow downstairs. She might find a working light or she might not. If not, the further she got from the foot of the stairs, the harder it would be to see anything—
Batgirl was three steps from the bottom when the light from the hallway above . . . went out!
Maybe she should have reversed course. Instead she accelerated, working from memory to leap forward, land perched on the piano bench which had fallen on its side at the foot of the stairs, and then bound off to the right, all in pitch darkness.
Batgirl landed on carpeted floor, several feet away from the staircase, having avoided colliding with anything (or anyone) along the way. No sign of an attack. But The Spook had killed the lights when he did for a reason . . .
She had removed a pirate's belt (with scabbard still attached, and cutlass shoved back into scabbard) and buckled it around her own waist before opening the staircase door. Now her gloved fingers snapped the scabbard away from the belt, then she gripped the hilt and began poking around for traps, ambushers, pits, obstructions, anything she could get!
It would be just like a villain to leave Sergius sprawled on the floor down here; bound, gagged, unconscious; so that if Batgirl used sharp metal to scout ahead, she might cut an innocent man's artery before she realized. The scabbard effectively turned a length of sharp steel into a blunt rod, suitable for probing the gloom.
Once upon a time Batgirl had noticed a blind man making his way along a downtown sidewalk. He had radiated admirable confidence, but the most interesting thing had been how he constantly used his white-tipped cane to scout the terrain ahead of his toes. She had shadowed him for ten blocks to study the technique. For her: once seen, never forgotten! She'd figured there was no telling when such skills might come in handy.
She hadn't seriously expected to need that ability while both eyes were still working fine, though. Most places in Gotham were at least dimly lit, even in the quietest hours of the night, and she had years of practice at working in shadow.
She started filling out her mental map of spatial relationships down here. There was a wall in front of her, and immediately to the left was another, meeting the first at a right angle . . . the positions were about right for this to mean she was standing directly beneath the front left corner of the ground floor—if so, there was probably nothing beyond those particular walls except dirt and more dirt. Anything interesting was likelier to be off to her right and/or behind her.
Right came first! Simplest to explore everything on this side of the staircase first, and worry about the other side later. Batgirl pivoted to face the "rear" of the house and started slipping forward, leading with her sheathed cutlass . . .
"What are you doing, you little fool?" Oracle's computerized voice suddenly demanded, and Batgirl instantly jumped forward while swinging the sheathed cutlass to the right, searching for anyone trying to sneak up.
Oracle's "work voice" continued: "Waving swords around? Trapped in a basement? Letting someone take away all the expensive tools in your utility belt? Letting the civilian get snatched from under your nose? Do you have any idea what Batman is going to say about this blundering? I knew he was making a mistake, offering you that costume, but he nagged me into it and now, after all my efforts to train you, you still can't be trusted out in the streets without a keeper, can you?"
The sense of betrayal flooded her mind for a moment—even as she knew it shouldn't have. A voice in a dark room could be coming from anything—man, woman, machines, magic spells, who knew? Why did it even rattle her for a few seconds, as if the real Oracle had stopped loving her?
An analogy came. As a child on the streets of a faraway city, she had learned that when she was easily chilled by a sudden breeze, it meant she was becoming feverish. On most days, she could shrug off a bit of wind without thinking twice about it. On a bad day, any change of temperature could make her shiver. Then she had to hole up in some remote spot—an attic of an abandoned building, for instance, with a supply of food and bottled water—and wait a few days for the worst of it to come and go. (In those days, when she couldn't really talk and had no identification documents, going into a hospital felt unthinkably dangerous.)
This new sensation was similar, in a twisted sort of way. She had felt "normal" when she woke up here, and in the fights with costumed people who never spoke and had other odd things about their attitudes, but since around the time Sergius fell through the floor, her reactions had been . . . extreme? Exaggerated? Excessive? Well, one of those words that began with "ex-", or maybe a whole bunch of them at once. Only this time the "shivering" was mental instead of physical—bad surprises instead of sudden breezes were what triggered scary feelings—
There was no warning. The punch came in low from the side and hammered her right kidney. Batgirl staggered—and then threw herself forward, frantic to get away from her last known location before another blow followed the first. But she had dropped the sheathed cutlass in the process, so she'd have to fight without it. Not normally a big problem, if there was only one strong man throwing punches—but normally she could actually see what she was doing!
Wait. The matchbook!
When the lights went out, Batgirl had considered striking a match—and instantly rejected it. The sudden flare might just give unseen bad guys something to shoot at. Her instincts had said to stay in the dark until she had a better grip on the situation. Besides, it would have been just like a villain to have the air down here flooded with something highly flammable and then chortle as the young superhero accidentally roasted herself.
But she wasn't smelling anything like that—just mold and dust and stuff—and now she was willing to risk one match to give her a few seconds' worth of visibility. She danced to one side, very quiet on the carpet, hoping the attacker had lost track of her position as she turned back to face the way she had come. Her hand dipped into a pocket of her cape and pulled out the matchbook. Let her get something burning and she'd be able to see enough to block and counterattack—if there was only one guy, a few seconds ought to be plenty—
Batgirl's fingers yanked loose one match, then scratched its head against the rough strip on the book . . .
. . . and nothing happened.
Shock made her freeze for a moment too long, and in that moment someone hit her again, in the midsection. She managed to block a follow-up blow to the head by some combination of reflex and luck, but her attempt at a leg-sweep was easily countered.
Batgirl jumped back—she thought she barely dodged another blow in doing so—and found her back against a wall. Unwilling to stay there, she slid quietly to the left, which ought to take her toward the walled side of the staircase—and something tripped her. She rolled with it and ended up—she thought—against the wall which formed one side of the staircase, painfully aware that the attacker didn't have any trouble finding her whenever he wanted her.
She had been small and scared and lonely and unable to communicate. She had been cold and hungry and tired. She had been many unhappy things, in many times and places, but she had never felt quite so helpless in a fight with a single attacker.
This experience reminded her of Oracle's holographic files on "King Snake." The blind martial artist who preferred to strike in the dark, where his quarry's eyes would be rendered useless. Robin had reported getting around that once in a dark room; using a whistling bamboo staff to misdirect King Snake's attention just long enough for Robin to swing down from behind and knock him out a window.
On the other hand—Batman had later used night-vision goggles to kick King Snake's butt in a fight inside a dark ship, when the blind crimelord and his Ghost Dragons had tried to take over a big piece of Gotham's underworld. That night, King Snake must have felt very much the way she felt right now—
WHAM! Another blow rocked her, but Batgirl tried to grab the wrist before he could pull it back. If she could just get some leverage—
Her gloved fingers barely brushed a hand before she lost track of it again.
She threw a blind punch that impacted a man's heavily-muscled chest—bare, she thought—but bruising him there wasn't going to win this fight, and he blocked her next strike. No question about it; the attacker could see her moves! Might be goggles. Might be metahuman perceptions. Telepathy, even? Was this how ordinary people felt when Batgirl saw all their moves coming a mile away? A crushing despair that told you a continued effort was only stretching out the pain and not avoiding the final defeat?
The next few minutes were brutal.
She could ignore pain better than most, but she was still flesh and blood and bone, not a robot. Each blow her silent attacker landed was draining her strength, making it that much easier for him to repeat the process. She landed a few of her own, but not placed well enough to matter. She kept expecting to pass out . . . and eventually she did after something slammed into the side of her head.
Author's Note: Well, I sure didn't enjoy doing that to her, and I'm not satisfied with how I wrote it, but I finally decided to post it anyway and move on. I had thought I was going to reveal the identity of her attacker in this chapter, but since I ended up with Cassandra knocked unconscious while still in total darkness, I decided I'd better wait until she can see what she was up against. The attacker could have taunted her verbally and introduced himself in the process, but I finally rejected that alternative.