"Sorry, Robin. I was confirming a theory." The electronic voice replied, though Tim thought he could detect an undercurrent of thoughtfulness in the tone.
"A theory?" he asked hopefully.
He was beyond exhausted. Oracle had been out of touch for most of this and he'd only just pulled her in on the case a couple days before. They'd been trying to track down the owner of that website but it seemed like they were being blocked at every turn. It didn't make any sense. This shouldn't be as difficult as it was. They were a couple of the best hackers, and best minds, and yet they were being thwarted like amateurs. There was something going on that Tim wasn't seeing, something he felt he was missing.
"This pattern is… familiar." Oracle said. "I've encountered this sort of obstacles in a couple different places… Most notably, I was recently digging through the systems of one Lex Luthor… only to be blocked much the same way."
Tim blinked. "Luthor? You think he took Hood and Nightwing? But why?" he wondered, frowning sharply.
"I'm not certain that Luthor is our culprit, but I did dig up something about some kind of software. Very advanced. Something that could be put in a system and adapt to any hacking attempts through an almost AI structure. Something a human wouldn't be capable of, too fast to work through with human reaction time."
Tim looked thoughtful. "So it's not a person we've been dealing with this whole time, just software?"
"Subtle software, difficult to detect. I'm not sure how someone would get their hands on such a thing…"
Tim frowned deeply. It had been nearly half a day's time since Dick and Jason had gone missing… He didn't have time to chase a dead lead. But it was also the only lead he had right now.
"I'm going to make some calls. Keep me posted, Oracle." He said. He got an affirmative and pulled away from the screen he'd been working at. There was a certain Titan who could help him track down any connection Luthor might have to what was happening to his brothers.
His vision was swimming; he wasn't sure if it was from tears or whether it was in his head. All Jason knew was that he needed to hold in the cries of pain. He prayed Dick still had his eyes closed, that he wasn't watching, that he wasn't giving this crazy woman what she wanted. But it was getting harder and harder to keep quiet. He was so damn tired.
At some point his shirt had been ripped off. His back was a mess, he could feel the slashes across his shoulders trying to scab, only to crack and bleed more every time he was forced to move. There was that tender, slick feeling of electrical burns as well, searing his flesh and making him spasm. The men who were working him over seemed to be enjoying themselves, in an impersonal manner. Like he was a fetal pig in a ninth grade science class, being slowly dissected. There was something nagging at him through the haze, something that didn't click. But it was hard to think through the fresh pain lancing through him as the current was placed just alongside his spine. It was awful, his body feeling out of his control. He barely had the presence of mind to grit his teeth against the sound.
But he could take it. He had to. He wouldn't let them use him to hurt Dick like this. He wouldn't. He opened his hazy eyes again and searched for Dick's form across from him, through the blur of his vision. Even half blind he could find the shape of Dick, helped by the spotlights highlighting him all around. He could see the older man's face was turned away from him and he closed his sore eyes again in relief. Hang in there, he thought. We just need to hold on and we'll be okay. Maybe it wasn't rational. But it was all that held in the pain right now. Because in the state of mind he was in it could have been a lifetime since the torture started, and it could be eternity more before it ended. He needed some hope to hold on to…
Dick could hear the sick, wet sounds as they bloodied Jason's back, the hollow thud of flesh on flesh when they hit him, and the breathless noises of pain that Jason couldn't quite hold back. Every noise seemed to cut through him as surely as their knives were cutting Jason's skin. It took every ounce of training he'd ever had to control his expression to keep his face turned away from the camera and not outwardly show how much this was killing him inside. He wanted so badly to be strong for Jason.
But he didn't know how long he could keep this up. How long he could keep the tears at bay. He thought fervent prayers to whatever gods would listen, just wanting this to be a sick nightmare.
His prayers were interrupted by the crack of a hand against the side of his face, a sharp backhand from the small woman who had come out from behind her camera. "Everyone resists at first, Richard." She murmured to him softly, sighing a little as he reluctantly opened his eyes and looked at her. She patted his cheek where she'd hit him and he barely felt the sting through the skin crawling disgust that her touch brought out in him.
"When I get out of these chains…" he murmured in a dark whisper, his eyes full of the pain she wanted, yes, but also full of rage. "You're going to regret ever touching him. There isn't a place in the world you could hide from me." He growled, arms trembling with the startling urge to wrap around her throat. "I will track you to the end of the universe I will make you pay for every pain you put him through. I would think about that, Amy. I would think about that really hard before I decided how to proceed…"
Amy had the sense to look taken aback and a little frightened by Dick's words, taking a step back from him and clamping her lips together to cease their trembling. This was not what she had expected. She'd seen Dick in pain before, she'd seen him broken and sad and full of awful sympathy for the horribleness of the world. But she had never truly witnessed his anger, his vengeance. It was not the artistic vision she had in mind.
But she swallowed thickly and steeled herself, fists clenched at her sides. "Keep your eyes open, Richard." She said, a small tremor still heard in her voice. "Or I'll let them cut off his fingers, one at a time." She said raising her chin defiantly and heading back behind the camera. Dick was glaring at her still, a dark expression that was making her spine tingle. She swallowed again and looked at the men standing over Jason.
"Start with his fingernails, then."
"Robin, what do you have?" Batman rumbled, looking at the small young man in front of him. He was certainly the most slightly built of his robins thus far, though Bruce knew that it did not mean much in regards to Tim's overall skill. He was on par with the others in Bruce's mind, exceeding them in some areas, even. But they had each had their strengths...
It seemed his worry over his sons was making him nostalgic.
"I have a lead." Tim said firmly. "A software developed by Lexcorp. Secret, of course, and we don't have any direct connections to Luthor that will hold up if we were to go after him. But I don't think he's the one who has them anyway."
Bruce gestured for Tim to continue and the young man turned to his computer screen, bringing up windows to display the data that he and Oracle had collected. "The software that Luthor developed works as a sort of hacker stand in. It conducts all of the work that an extremely talented hacker might but in less time. From what I've gleaned, it's main purpose is to disguise the location and protect the files of the people using it. Handy for a criminal element, no doubt, since it's very difficult to crack thanks to the software's uniquely adaptable programming." He looked up at Bruce with determined eyes. "But Oracle has been tracking down money connections, figuring out who could have gotten the money together to buy the software and tech necessary to run it. While she's tracking down potential buyers, I think I've found a flaw in the software we can exploit if we can trace who we might be looking for."
He was speaking fast, anxious, Bruce could see it in the way his fingers flew over the keys, shaky and tense. He reached out, hesitating a moment, before he laid a hand on Tim's shoulder, hoping to calm him some. It was surprisingly effective, making the boy pause and take a deep breath. "I'm okay." He said, quietly. "I just want to find them…" he added, even softer, ashamed to admit the weakness. He was so worried he felt sick. He couldn't remember the last time he'd eaten anything because it all just threatened to come back up from the stress.
Bruce squeezed his shoulder carefully, searching for words. "I am worried for them too, Robin." He said finally, "Tell me how we're going to find them." He added, encouraging. Tim blinked, surprised and a little moved. He really felt like Bruce was relying on him. He smiled as much as he could, in such circumstances.
"The software is incredibly good at what it does, if we find someone who purchased it we won't be able to track down their location with it running." He said, breathing slowly and focusing again with renewed determination. "But I'm working on something that might just track the location of the software itself. Even if it isn't in the same location as the person using it, if we can get to it and disable it, it'll leave whoever is using it exposed for us to find them."
Bruce nodded, letting his hand fall away from Tim's shoulder. It was a good plan, solid. Tim had a damn good head on his shoulders, even through all this stress. Bruce was… proud. He opened his mouth to say something, maybe tell Tim he'd done a good job, he wasn't sure, but then there was a chime as Oracle's comm linked.
"If I may interrupt." Came the crisp voice. "I have a list of possible suspects. Luthor was careful to cover up his own involvement, but his customers were not nearly as prudent in hiding their own purchases…"
Dick winced at Jason's scream, feeling the tears stinging the back of his eyes, but he dared not even blink. Amy was looking at him with satisfaction as he finally started to show his despair, the camera clicking rapidly with each change in his expression.
Jason was trying to hard not to cry out, but there was something so painfully and viscerally wrong with the slow, painful pull. These Russian bastards were taking their sweet time, one of them kneeling over his back and keeping him still, while the other one gripped his pointer fingernail with a pair of pliers. He eased the nail out of its bed with awful slowness, wriggling it like a stubborn sliver. There was blood pouring over Jason's fingertip, dripping onto the already bloodstained floor. Jason was familiar with all kinds of torture, and while this wasn't the most painful he knew, there was something deeply sick and psychological about it, something that had him choking on bile in the back of his throat.
There was a low chuckle from one of the men, who commented in Russian to the other one. They shared a laugh. Jason was too out of it to catch it all or translate it all in his head. The only parts he caught were something about "too easy" and "he said this would be challenging". He who? Jason swallowed the burning acid in his throat and coughed, trying to think through the horror currently blanketing his mind. No use, though, he couldn't make the words make sense. And they'd been too quiet for Dick to have heard…
"Jason…" Dick murmured thickly, under his breath. "I'm so sorry…"
The tears fell down his face despite his attempts to hold them back. They were met with a flurry of clicks from the camera. Dick didn't even care anymore, just watching Jason with so much pain in his eyes. It had been so long, it seemed, he was so tired…
Someone sits in a dark room, sipping red wine slowly from a fine glass. There's a video feed up on the screen, sadly without sound, showing two men in chains, surrounded by camera equipment, two burly men in street clothes and one small woman. A thin hand swirls the wine in the glass, slowly, the red liquid reflecting light from the screen.
This was proving to be an interesting experiment thus far.