Disclaimer: Not my characters, not my world

Sentience

Gotham lives. Its blood of human traffic swells and pulses along its great vessels. Its heart towers over the landscape, surmounted by a 'W'. White blood cells—lymphocytes and phagocytes—speed through its blood vessles with flashing lights and wailing sirens. Compounds in need of further processing are transported to Arkham Asylum—the city's liver. Electricity crackles and surges through its nervous system. Computer neurons run checks and corrections on the lymphatic and effluent water ways, the blood vessels and even on the central and peripheral nervous systems themselves. They are ways of keeping things at a constant pressure, maintaining homeostasis. It's enough activity to light up the sky and drown out the stars. Gotham doesn't like darkness and the tipping point between the late-night stragglers turning lights off and the early risers turning them on, is met with an undefinable anxiety that shivers through the whole of the organism.

It's snowing now.

In the snow, two clockwork combatants face off again. Their movements could have been choreographed. This is not to suggest grace, though. Their movements are jerky and robotic, like pictures in a badly drawn flipbook.

One is easy to define, simple, the purple colour of a haemorrhage or bruise gives it away. He makes copies of himself and tries to bring out the latent cancerous, infectious potential in all other cells. But maybe that's wrong, maybe that's an oversimplification. If for moment, the scale is thought to be atomic rather than cellular, then he's not a cancerous cell, but a free radical. He is an unpaired electron, maybe a reactive oxygen species. He's unstable, destructive and very, very reactive. He is a chain reaction that's thousands of events long.

So what does that make the other one? This one is the colour of necrosis but almost moves like a living thing. What is he on the cellular scale? Is he a rogue lymphocyte producing an autoimmune disease, where the body attacks itself? Or maybe he's an allergic reaction—unauthorised excessive response. At best, he's a bacteriophage—a virus that only infects bacteria. This is probably the most accurate version because viruses aren't actually alive. But maybe they think they are. On the atomic scale, it's different again. Is he an antioxidant that mops up free radicals and grinds the destructive process to a halt? Some think that he's the other half of a covalent bond. If you snap a covalent bond in just the wrong way, you end up with two free radicals, equally destructive.

The purple clockwork figure giggles, his knife jerks wide. "This city is going to peel you and swallow you whole," he cackles. "But don't worry, you'll probably enjoy it, or maybe by then you'll be too numb to feel it at all."

The automaton that embodies his own greatest fear scowls, but he doesn't use words to retort. His punch wrenches around, splits skin and hydraulic fluid leaks. Neither wonders about the world contained within themselves and what parts leak out with their blood. Perhaps free radicals and antioxidants, cancer cells and lymphocytes spatter the white snow red, their own dances stilled.

There's something insidious that slides between these clockwork soldiers. They know it and they sense it. It's the reason that that they are drawn together again and again. There's a strange something flowing sluggishly through their own vessels. It is not chaos or justice or unrequited anything, despite what they both need to believe. Lots of people have ideals and causes deep down inside—profound inside. For them, it's something much worse than any of those options. They're special. Gotham City flows inside them with all the inevitability of the tide. Gotham is not a playground. It consumes them both.

"The end is always the same, however you slice it," the clockwork clown crows (he'd prefer to bat, rather than crow, but he doesn't know how). "The only ending is that we both die. Everything dies. The end." He laughs hard enough to choke at the prospect of inevitability. It's a joke that doesn't need a punch line. Though, maybe it's the other way around. The snow continues to fall, swirling slightly where chaotic laughter blows it off course.

He's half right, half true, and half sane. Maybe saner than most. The body is torn up by the million billion trillion non-human cells that make it up. They outnumber us ten to one. No joke. But it's Gotham that flows through these special individuals and it is Gotham that's going to break them down into their composite elements.

"We'll die. Gotham will live on," the black bat growls. He strikes unwittingly close to the issue and something besides the snow makes them both shiver for a moment. No one wants the world to live when they are gone. It is unsettling and obscene to think that the universe could possible go on without its centre.

The laughter would be nervous from anyone else, but from the disfigured artist it is just another voice. "Do you really think I'd let the city survive if you died first?" It's a life threat. Between them, death threats are meaningless.

They disengage for a moment. There is the plink-plink sound of cooling engines as whirring gears still. "If I died you wouldn't destroy the city. You'd spare it in my memory or you'd be too busy planing your own theatrical punch line. Or—" the clockwork crusader pauses. "Or most likely we'd end up killing each other."

The clown's eyes gleam at the admission. He steps forward without thought and for a moment the movement is graceful and alive. The vigilante does not move but still manages to seem more alive than the City, if only for a moment. Gotham is a background only in the way that radioactive fallout is a background.

A knife blade skims down reinforced Kevlar gently, barely scratching the surface. Then again, even a deep jagged knife-wound barely scratches the surface. "You get it, don't you?" It's a gleeful statement and a desperate plea all at the same time.

A black gauntlet wraps around the wrist that controls the knife. The knight in armour has felt that cold metal sliding between plates. Even if it's only scratching the surface it still hurts. Sometimes the cold is worse than the pain. In the snow it would be unbearable. "I know that we have the capacity to destroy one another."

A thought that casts no shadow slips into each of their minds. Perhaps one reason for their eternal stalemate is pragmatism. Maybe they both recognise that it's important to have someone around who could end them. Who knows, maybe it'll come in handy one day. There is only one real ending, but at least they get to choose the middle bit. Still, beginnings are always the most fun.

So the City plays with its wind up toys, its clockwork soldiers. The City is alive in a way that is beyond the scope of individuals. In the same way, they are alive beyond the scope of micro-organisms. They don't live for Chaos or Justice. They don't live for each other. Right until the only real ending, the Joker and the Batman both belong to Gotham. Gotham lives even when they don't.

Universitas saecula saeculorum—World without end