ONE WEEK LATER
Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman convened an executive meeting with Nightwing in the Watchtower conference room. Nightwing entered the room and seated himself at the table. Noting that he was the only other participant, he began to examine his conscience for any recent screw-ups but came up with nothing. He decided to go with a proactive stance. "So, what's all this urgency about?"
Wonder Woman looked solemn and put a printout on the table. "Our cleanup crews dug out the ruins of the T'Shal base and found the body of Queen Bee."
Nightwing listened with disinterest. "We've always known that she was in collaboration with the T'Shal. What's so surprising that she died with them?" He picked up the printout and noted that there had been an autopsy. "No autopsy report? I assume she was crushed when the building fell in, or asphyxiated in the fire."
Batman, face unreadable, pressed a button on the table lighting several screens. "Dr. Mid-Nite, thank you for joining us."
Dr. Mid-Nite stared into the screen at those present, his eyes finally lighting on Nightwing. "Ah...This is the discussion we talked about."
Seeing the doctor, Nightwing felt a sudden sense of unease. "This is about Queen Bee's autopsy, right?"
"Doctor, would you give us your findings?" Wonder Woman asked. The screen blanked out, then showed an MRI scan. The second screen depicted a slice of human brain tissue, riddled with holes.
"The image on screen one is a dissected section of Queen Bee's brain. It shows considerable degradation in the gray matter, with lesions spreading out from a central core here, and here." A pointer showed a series of filaments branching out from the largest hole to a series of smaller ones. "It's my judgment that Queen Bee died from progressive dementia as a result of these lesions."
"Do you have an opinion on how she contracted these lesions?" Batman asked tensely.
"Yes. In my opinion she was subjected to long sessions in the Machine. Her condition at death was a more advanced case of the brain damage shown by Nightwing which is, incidentally, the cause of his unprecedented mental powers," Mid-Nite cast a sympathetic glance at Nightwing, sitting frozen in his seat.
"Am I dying?" Nightwing's quiet voice sounded calm.
"Yes, and no," Mid-Nite replied. "I believe that Queen Bee developed the same enhancement of her natural psychic powers that you have, except that she overused them." Mid-Nite's face took on a look of disgust. "Or, she was forced to. I think that the so-called energy weapon that the T'Shal have been using against our forces was actually Queen Bee using bolts of mental energy."
"Like what you used to save Batman," Superman added. Nightwing nodded dumbly.
"You're condition has not progressed as far as Queen Bee's," Dr. Mid-Nite said, gesturing to the other screen. "Here is your MRI scan, taken yesterday, showing your current condition. The original lesions have grown larger and have spread, but they're smaller and not so comprehensive."
"What treatment can you offer?" Batman asked.
"There is a drug that seems to slow progression when infused into the brain, pentosan polysulphate , that has been used experimentally." Dr. Mid-Nite replied. "But, this is cutting edge medicine, Nightwing's condition is something so new we don't have a name for it. What it most resembles, prion diseases like Kuru, Mad Cow disease and Creutzfeldt–Jakob, have no cure. We can try the pentosan but the best suggestion that I can make is that under no circumstances should Nightwing use these powers. Each use will cause further degradation in his neurological condition until the degeneration causes death."
"If I don't use these powers, will the lesions heal by themselves?" Nightwing asked, eyes glued to the screens. "What kind of symptoms could I expect if I get worse?"
Mid-Nite's voice took on a note of compassion. "I hope that the lesions will heal naturally over time. If the condition progresses, you would suffer from memory loss, hallucinations and personality changes followed by changes in gait, trembling and seizures, then paralysis and eventually death."
"I see," Nightwing's face had gone white. "Is there anything else I need to know?"
Dr. Mid-nite shook his head. "No, that covers it. We'll start treatments tomorrow."
Nightwing replied. "Understood." He stood up and nodded at Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman. "I'll be going now. I have... a lot to think about." As he moved toward the doorway, Batman got up as if to follow him, then sat down again, his eyes following Nightwing out the door.
"There has to be something we can do for him," Batman said angrily. "We have the most advanced science at out command!" He turned to Superman. "And I don't understand why Nightwing had to learn about it this way! He should have been able to learn that he's dying in decent privacy!"
Superman laid a hand on Batman's shoulder. "I'm sorry, Bruce, but you know that we have a war to fight and a planet to save. Nightwing isn't just your son, he's also the most powerful weapon we possess."
Batman looked into Superman's blue eyes. "No. No! You are not going to use him! We can fight the T'Shal conventionally the way we always have!" He glared at Wonder Woman and back at Superman. "You don't need him."
"At this point in time, we don't," Wonder Woman said gently. "But we needed to know the extent of Nightwing's condition as much as Nightwing himself did. Dr. Mid-Nite is over-extended as it is, this was the only time he could spare. I'm sorry."
Batman stood up, glaring even more fiercely at his friends. "I'll see you both later. Right now, I have a sick child to comfort." He strode out of the room, shoulders stiff.
Nightwing sat in his room staring into space, his mask discarded and his gloves pulled off. His life had always been lived on the edge; he cheated death regularly. As a child trapeze artist, he'd routinely swung fifty feet above the sawdust ring without a net. Later, he had laughed at risk as Robin, trusting Batman implicitly to rescue him from any danger. Even his leisure activities were inherently dangerous, rock climbing, sky diving, rappelling. He'd been asked before whether he feared death and his answer had always been that no, death came to everyone. Why should he be afraid? Now he realized the sheer stupidity of that response. The weight of the years he might lose already tugged at him. He'd never expected to live to an old age, but he'd barely started...His fist clenched. The Joker he could fight; Two-Face could be beaten in court. Even the T'Shal had their weaknesses. He bowed his head and ran a hand through his hair. What do I do now? he wondered. Bruce would undoubtedly drag him to all the world's foremost specialists, ignoring the opinion of the greatest doctor known to the League. He'd try to prod WayneTech to produce some miracle drug. That would only postpone the inevitable. If he couldn't live his life, he didn't want it extended. Better he go out now, doing some good in the process. He'd talk to Superman about it tomorrow.
Batman tapped on Nightwing's door and entered to find the room in semi-darkness. Dick sat on his bed, knees drawn up to his chin, looking much like the nine year old Bruce had taken in so many years ago. Batman pulled the desk chair over to face the bed and sat down, leaning forward with elbows on his knees. "Dick, talk to me."
Not looking up, Dick replied in a muffled voice, "Nothing to discuss, is there?"
"I think there is," Bruce said evenly. "This isn't any different from what we do, day to day. We face death regularly."
Dick looked up, blue eyes bloodshot and moist. "This is nothing like our daily life, Bruce, and you know it!"
"We can treat it. It might go away by itself," Bruce rested both hands upright on his knees. "You can't lose hope."
"Find me a mission," Dick said fiercely. "Get me a mission and let me be useful before I become useless!"
Bruce's face went cold. "No. I won't help you kill yourself. There is a way out of this. You might heal spontaneously."
"Do you know the likelihood of my recovering spontaneously from brain lesions? I did some computer research and the answer is never! Get me a mission, Bruce," Nightwing looked up at his mentor. "If you care about me, let me go out with dignity."
Bruce said nothing and just stared at him, then got up to leave.
"And Bruce," Nightwing added. "Don't tell anyone. Especially, don't tell the team."
Bruce nodded silently, opened the door and left Nightwing alone in the semi-darkness.