Chapter 19 – Road to Nowhere
We're on a ride to nowhere
Come on inside
Takin' that ride to nowhere
We'll take that ride
Maybe you wonder where you are
I don't care
Here is where time is on our side
Take you there, take you there
There's a city in my mind
Come along and take that ride
And it's all right, baby it's all right
And it's very far away
But it's growing day by day
And it's all right, baby it's all right
Would you like to come along?
And you could help me sing this song
And it's all right, baby it's all right
They can tell you what to do
But they'll make a fool of you
And it's all right, baby it's all right
We're on a road to nowhere
"Road to Nowhere" Talking Heads
Outside of Gotham City
"Coms check: are you hearing me clearly, now, Batman?"
"Roger Cyborg, I read you loud and clear."
Batman's gloved hands hovering over the controls of the Batwing. The sleek black craft was flying in stealth mode, moving nearly noiselessly through the night sky. The interior of the craft was pitch dark, only the light of the control panel illuminating the small cockpit. "Is there any air traffic in my vicinity?"
"Negative," Cyborg replied. Due to his highly advanced cybernetic implants, he was able to access the navigational mainframes of every air traffic command in the world. "You've got a clear path to…wherever it is that you're going?"
"But I thought you said the riot was over…?"
"Not Arkham Asylum. Arkham, Massachusetts."
Cyborg tapped into his own internal database and pinpointed the location of Arkham. He was puzzled by what he read. Arkham was a small college town, north of Boston.
"Where in Arkham are you going? You're not going to drop down right in the town square?"
"Of course not. I'm headed for the outskirts."
Up in the Watchtower, Flash and Cyborg exchanged curious glances. At best Batman was maddeningly vague about his plans.
Flash spoke into the comlink. "What are you going to do there? I know you said you didn't want backup, but..."
"I'll be fine," Batman answered shortly. "It may not lead to anything, it's just a hunch, but I want you to keep monitoring my movements from the Watchtower."
"His 'hunches' usually turn out to be the start of something bad about to happen," Flash mumbled to himself. More loudly, he said, "What do you think you're going to find?"
Batman explained. "In his journals, Randolph Carter seemed to suggest that there was a passageway from Arkham leading into the Borderlands, located in a series of underground caves. If there is one, then this would be the only possible location for it. It would have to be away from anywhere developed."
Cyborg pulled up another set of topographical 3D maps in the control center. They flashed up in the air in front of him and Flash.
"Batman, I'm looking at latest USGS maps of the northern region of New England. I don't see any cave formations."
"I'm going by Carter's directions."
Batman had shared his distant relative's journals with the other League members, or at least the relevant parts. Flash thought the guy was nutty as a fruitcake; he could hardly believe any of it, but apparently the Bats was convinced.
"Are you sure? We could be out there to you really fast, I could help you scout out-"
"No. Like I said, it might not be anything. Stay on the Watchtower, just keep an eye open for unusual events."
"What does he mean by 'unusual'?" Cyborg wondered to himself.
Standing next to his friend, Flash crossed his arms. "Anything bad!"
The flight from Gotham City to Arkham didn't take long. Batman scanned the valley below him for a suitable landing spot, and managed to detect one about a mile from the potential site he wanted to investigate, a forested area. The Batwing landed in a clearing barely large enough to accommodate the stealth aircraft. Although there was a nearly full moon, it blended in effortlessly, and anyone coming upon it would perhaps only mistake it for a large rock until they were only a few inches away from it.
Batman leapt down from the cockpit, the infrared optics in his cowl enabling him to see excellently in the dark. He paused only to look around at his surroundings. There were no people around, and unlikely to be; the populated areas of Arkham were clustered around its old university, Miskatonic. There were a few, scattered farms nearby, but mostly on the southern side of the town – he was off to the northwest. Without hesitation, he plunged into the darkness of the forest, aware that his colleagues in the Watchtower could track him easily on the ground.
"We have you on the ground now, heading due north-northwest. We'll keep following you." Cyborg's voice suggested that they would do this whether Batman preferred to work alone or not.
Bruce smiled grimly to himself, although no one could see him. "Roger that. Batman out."
Actually, he preferred to do his exploring alone, but since this mission was directly related to the Justice League – his plan to follow Superman and Wonder Woman to Themyscira – it involved the rest of the team too, which made it rather different than if he was just on Gotham crime-fighting business. This involved much more than just taking down some gangster. He had explained his reasons, and the rest of the team - minus Aquaman - had agreed to the idea, even if they were puzzled by much of how Batman had come across his suspicions.
Utilizing his prodigious memory, Bruce reviewed Carter's writings as he made his way through the thick brush, using a laser-powered cutter embedded in his wrist to clear a path. There was no trail here, and no litter, not even so much as a discarded water bottle or food wrapper, suggesting that it had been many years since anyone had ventured into this wilderness. Even local wildlife appeared to have deserted this place, judging from the quiet. It seemed as desolate as a desert, in spite of the proliferance of greenery.
"Enjoying the stroll?" A new voice piped in over his comlink, momentarily making Batman pause in surprise. It was Hal Jordan.
"This is wack," Green Lantern remarked. "I read those journals too. He said he dreamed the whole thing, didn't he? I'm all for going to Themyscira, but there's gotta be a better way there. The only thing you're going to find in the woods is bearshit! Or else you'll scare the hell out of some teenagers making out."
"Lantern, get off the line!" Batman hissed.
Faints sounds of an argument over the comlink. Bruce gritted his teeth.
"All right, all right," Hal said again. "But if you do run into any trouble, I'll be down there in a heartbeat."
Silence, again. Then Cyborg came back online. "Sorry 'bout that."
"I'll be heading in this direction for at least half a mile. Maybe it's a good idea if you maintain radio silence."
For the next hour Batman was spared his colleagues' chit-chat as he made his way through the forest. Utilizing his photographic memory, he recalled Carter's writings.
On the outskirts of Arkham, he'd written, One may come across a series of caves, concealed in the woods which once was part of the lands of the Miskaton Indians. A cleft in the valley floor was their ancient burying grounds, which were clustered with small caves which they shunned in daylight and eve. Those of the waking world may access the Borderlands through one such descent, where seventy steps are carved out of the limestone, leading to a cavern...
Years ago, Bruce had become something of an expert outdoorsman and mountaineer, when he'd traveled to the Himalayas seeking training in exotic martial arts and mental stamina. As he traveled over the land, he instinctively could sense the slight geographic changes, that he was descending slightly into a depression in the land. As he stood on the lip of a dip in the ground, he raised his gloved hand and used a small scanner to survey the ground.
"Batman, there are several rock caves directly ahead of you, just as you said," Cyborg sounded impressed.
"I'm going in the deepest one."
Cautiously, Bruce approached the mouth of the first cave. It was not a large opening, but big enough so he could enter without problem. He looked around carefully. Still, no sign of any human visitation. This place looked just as wild as it may have been in Indian times. He wondered vaguely why it hadn't been listed as a protected Native American site, but then again there were no Misktons today. He entered the darkened cave, his night-vision turned on the maximum to ensure he would not stumble or fall in the absolutely blackness of the cave. He was able to go about twenty yards inside before he saw the ground gradually start to descend.
"Still reading me?"
"Of course." The Watchtower's technology was the most advanced in the world.
Bruce had, of course, suitable rappelling gear with him in his belt, and he was able to descend into the darkness of the caves. Although he wasn't an expert caver, he was skilled enough to descend without trouble. The descent was surprisingly easy, and although he was a big man, he had little difficulty passing through the spaces, which except for a few twists and turns he'd had to squeeze through, continued steadily downwards into the darkness. One hundred, two hundred, three hundred feet...
Far above him, in orbit aboard the Watchtower, Flash and Cyborg carefully watched the 3-D projections which were beamed from the receivers implanted in Batman's cowl up to the computer mainframe of the space station. Green Lantern had gone to the galley to make himself a sandwich.
"I feel like I'm in a horror movie," muttered Flash uncomfortably. Victor turned and looked at the red-garbed speedster in surprise.
"Well, didn't you ever see The Descent?"
"C'mon, man, nothing's going to happen. He's less than a hundred miles from Boston Common, of all places."
"But what if he's right? How are we going to track him all the way to Paradise Island? Will the comms work?"
"This is just a recon mission. If they work, or not, well, we'll find out. Besides," Cyborg waved his metal fist at the screen. "There's nothing there but bats, so he's fine!"
Batman's voice came in clear through the speakers. Both of immediately returned their attention to the screen. "What's up?"
Far below the Watchtower, Bruce peered closely at the rock at his feet, then he bent down, carefully feeling the hard surface.
"The rock here…it's been formed, into steps. Someone has been here before."
Cyborg and Flash exchanged glances.
"Maybe spelunkers?" Victor suggested. "Someone...recent?"
"I don't think it was made by weekend hobbyists, somehow."
Batman stood up, carefully descended further down; now,he saw they were definitely stairs. Stairs, carved out of the greyish-white limestone rock of the cave. By somebody.
Seventy steps leading to a cavern...
"This was mentioned in Carter's journals, the steps in the cave! A stairway leading down!" Despite himself, Bruce couldn't help but feel immensely excited. Part of him always believed that if he'd lived in earlier times, he would have been an explorer, charting new territory in the blank part of the map of the world. "This has to be it!"
Cyborg and Victor however, didn't quite share in the enthusiasm.
"Well...what do you think you're going to find at the end of the stairs?"
Batman replied resolutely. "I'm going to find out."
He descended the rest of the way, deliberately forcing himself to remain calm and methodical, counting the steps as he went down, down. Finally, he reached the end, and the change in air pressure and its smell was very noticeable, but he had no trouble breathing. Yes, seventy steps, or almost. He'd not checked exactly where they'd begun, when he'd begun his descent into the unnamed cave. The ground seemed flat and stable, and he was relieved to find he was able to stand to his full height. Using the sensors also in his cowl, he knew, or rather sensed, that he'd entered a large cavern. The cave ceiling was high, he saw the shapes of cone-shaped stalactites above him, and rocks of all sizes scattered throughout the space. He also saw movement - bats, lots of them. He smiled, then thought about the very likely possibility of getting showered with bat guano. It had happened before, in the Batcave!
"I've reached the end of the stairway. I'm in a cavern, indeterminate size. I'm going to continue to explore."
Then, something else in the air – Bruce raised his head, opened his nostrils slightly. He'd recognized the small of bat guano, and ammonia, from their waste. But there was another scent his nostrils picked up, something that he'd also smelled before…all too frequently, in back alleys and in boarded-up houses and in morgues…the smell of decomposition.
Dead bodies. Corpses. That other, familiar smell. It was here, just a trace.
"I'm here," Bruce replied, very quietly. "Keep comm silence, just for a sec."
Batman paused a moment, thinking hard. He considered whether this place could be, or was, used by the Mob or some other gang to dispose of their competitors, but he discarded that theory - this was too far out of the way for them. Could it be the remains of some unlucky caver? He had to find out before he tested any other theory.
Slowly, he pressed forward into the cavern. He used his gear to determine the depth of the cave here, but his readings were indeterminate. Still, he pressed forward, half-expecting to see the remains of spelunking gear: a headlamp, harnesses, knee pads, first aid kit. But, there was still no evidence any human had passed this way.
"Batman," Cyborg's voice was muted, low. "I'm getting indistinct readings ahead of you. What do you see down there? I can't see how big this is, from where I am..."
Cyborg and Flash watched helplessly as the signal was beginning to deteriorate the further Batman descended. Victor tried to increase power to the signal, but even though it should have been able to penetrate the surface, it wasn't doing what it was supposed to.
"What's wrong with it?" Flash demanded.
"Hell if I know," Victor growled. "Batman, can you read me?"
Batman barely heard Victor's hail. He was thinking again to Carter's journals, his mind focused now on one particular passage related to the mention of the cave-system and the steps leading to a yawning black cavern and what lay beyond.
An acquaintance of mine in Boston, a painter of strange, surrealist pictures, Richard Upton Pickman by name, had actually made friends with with denizens of the abyss beneath the ground, and learned their repulsive-sounding speech. He had come to spend less and less time in his studio, which was, conveniently, located near a graveyard. He has vanished at last. Undoubtedly he has gone 'native' so to speak...
"Yes, I hear you," Bruce replied irritably.
"I really think you should come back. We can't get a solid reading on you. There's some interference we can't account for. There shouldn't be anything in that geology to block our signal strength, but something's making it very weak."
"It's probably the same thing that hides Themyscira from the rest of the world," Batman replied, as if it were obvious. "As long as you can still hear me, I'm pressing on."
Flash shook his head.
Batman walked further into the cavern, this time, now, all his senses, finely tuned from years of combat and training, were on high alert. The charnel smell was growing stronger with each step, and the air was getting somehow thicker with it. It was unpleasant, but not unbreathable. Then, his foot crunched on something. He bent down, looked at what he'd stepped on.
A thighbone. A human one.
Bruce carefully picked it up and examined it. He was also well-trained in the forensic sciences. This thighbone was old, whoever it had belonged to had died years ago, but how had it ended up here? Then...he noticed the markings on it, the way it was broken off at one end, the marrow emptied. He'd worked several cases where he'd seen this before. When victims had been eaten. Someone...something had been snacking on this.
"Batman?" Victor's voice sounded muffled, distant.
A noise. High-pitched, distant. Not like a bat's noise, but to the uneducated layperson, potentially mistakable for one. Bruce froze, his heart pounding. As he crouched low to the ground, he then saw, really saw, the ground stretching ahead of him. He'd thought it was a bed of rock, solid limestone. But he was mistaken. The thighbone he'd picked up was only one of many, scattered willy-nilly about the ground. Thighbones, rib-bones, pelvises, vertebrae, and skulls, littering the floor of the cavern everywhere.
This places was a graveyard.
Bruce was sure if he'd examined all the thousands of bones he now saw, they would reveal the same marks.
Now, a new sound, a cross between a high-pitched meep and a glibber. Distant, like the other sound...but closer than it. Then again, distinctly closer.
Bruce slowly rose from his crouching position, in a self-defensive posture, his fists clenched. He strained to see with his optics, but there was no movement he could see, anywhere. Then his mind recalled the book he'd been studying in his library, the Metropolis MOMA Arkham Art Retrospective catalogue, and its entry on Richard Upton Pickman. There was only one color plate of his art in the book - it was entitled "Ghoul Feeding."
Pickman came to repel me more and more every time I saw him. I grew convinced that his features and expressions were changing, slowly developing. He talks almost always now about diet, and evolution. Now that he has disappeared, one can only come to the inevitable conclusion...
In the impenetrable, soundless dark, Bruce gingerly called out.
"Batman, what's happening down there...?"
That glibbering noise, like someone trying to make words through a mouthful of jello, coming now, from behind him.
Batman whirled around, his cape swirling about him. The bats in the cave's ceiling flew off with a thunderous flapping of their tenebrous wings. But underneath the sound of their familiar flutter, came that odd glibbering noise again, this time louder, and from seemingly all directions. He snatched a concussion grenade from his belt, but out of the corner of his eye saw something dark and fast, racing through the carpet of bones directly at him. He spun, flinging a batarang, before something collided hard with him, knocking him sideways and senseless, and he felt himself falling...falling...
"Batman, Batman can you hear me?"
Frantically Cyborg struggled to channel more power to the weakening signal, Flash hovering close by, horrified. The 3-D scans flickered, and disappeared. For just a moment, Flash thought he caught a glimpse of something huge, and dark, with glowing lambent eyes, and he recoiled, but then it was gone.
He'd lost all contact. Batman's signal had completely disappeared from the screens. Victor's metal fist pounded the console in futility.
At that moment, Green Lantern walked into the control room, holding a peanut butter sandwich in one hand, chewing. He looked from one to another. "What's going on?"
Cyborg turned to him, his human features in dismay.
"We've lost Batman…"
AN: So...Batman begins his journey...where will he end up? However, next chapter will be back to Clark and Diana, newly separated. How is Clark faring without his Diana? Tune in next week dear readers! As always, thanks for reading this far, and please review! (BTW, saw Man of Steel and loved it!)