…leapt from the rooftop, sailing into the darkness of the city skyline. He plummeted towards the ground with reckless abandon, tossing the grappling hook and line to the roof of a neighboring building at the last possible second. The soles of his boots grazed the wet pavement of the alleyway as his momentum carried him back into the air. Then, he was releasing the rope, performing the daredevil act again and again as he traversed the spiraling rooftops of his city.
His city. Yes, he decided, it was still his. For how long, that was the question.
He was gliding his way through the northern corner of the Diamond District, making for the Clock Tower that served as his new base of operations, when he spotted one of them. He swung to the roof of a building that had once housed a library, one that he had funded, and watched it’s slow progression along the streets. Through the starlight lenses of his mask, the thing held an eerie glow that was ironically appropriate.
The man crouched silently on the corner of the old building, motionless, patiently watching his prey. He was a hunter by nature. He saw no need to rush into combat with the thing. There might be others close by… The thing shambled aimlessly down the dark street. It stopped every so often and raised it’s head to the sky. It seemed to be scenting the air, looking for food. Then, it would resume it’s uneven gait, heedless of anything that stood in it’s way.
The man allowed the thing to continue it’s unearthly patrol, until it disappeared into the mouth of a darkened alleyway. Of course, everything was dark now, he reflected, the power had gone off months ago and the streetlights stood like cold, impassive sentinels, watching but unable to aid.
He leapt from the rooftop, his long cape trailing behind him like dark wings. Seconds before he touched the earth, he drew his legs under him, hitting the ground in a graceful crouch, then springing forward, allowing his momentum to carry him in a series of rolls. He was on his feet faster than the eye could follow, running to the mouth of the alley, waiting to be swallowed by the darkness.
The man paused at the entrance to the alley, allowing time for the starlight lenses to adjust to the meager light. When he could see again, he stepped forward with caution. The thing would be slow, but it would still be dangerous. Others had learned that lesson the hard way. The man did not intend to join their ranks.
The alley was littered with broken bottles and bags of trash that no garbage man would ever come to pickup. Empty pallets leaned on the side of the building to the left, to the right sat an overflowing dumpster. It was close quarters, which meant that the thing would have the advantage. The man noted this as a tactical concern only. He pressed forward with total disregard.
He smelled the thing before he actually saw it. It reeked of filth and decay, the way a festering wound smelled when it was unwrapped. It stunk of the earth and the grave it had clawed it’s way out of. The alleyway dead ended into a high brick wall ten feet beyond the dumpster. The thing stood facing it, continuing it’s death march, oblivious to the structure that stood in it’s path. It stopped suddenly, lifting it’s head to the wind again, scenting the man. It turned to face him with characteristic slowness.
Most men would have fled at the sight of the walking corpse. It’s skin, a deep plum color from the lividity of death, was stretched tight across it’s face in an inhuman mask. The facial bones were displayed in gruesome detail. It’s hair had begun to fall out in large clumps, leaving a thin, knotted mess of hair atop it’s head. It’s eyes were covered in a milky white sheen, it’s lips pulled back in an eternal grin. Mold grew in great splotches on the suit it had, presumably, been buried in.
Most men would have fled at the sight. But, he did not. He was more than a man, he was the Batman. And he feared nothing that walked his streets. The zombie opened it’s mouth, widening it’s chilling grin, and emitted a moan that seemed to stretch from the bottom of it’s very soul. It lurched forward, eager for the taste of flesh.
Batman allowed the zombie to close the short distance between them. He had little to fear from the thing, his kevlar suit would withstand more than the corpse could hope to dish out. Besides, in order for it to be a threat, it would first have to make contact. As the Batman, he had out danced the most fleet of foot, displaying speed and agility that more often than not, left his foes reeling. The undead thing might as well have been standing still. The zombie’s arms stretched out in front of it, reaching with desperation for the food it sensed. It’s nails were sharp and ragged, the skin peeling away from it’s fingertips in macabre ribbons. Batman felt one of those nails scrape, ever so lightly against the gunmetal gray of his suit, tenderly caressing the black bat emblazoned on his chest.
With lightning speed, Batman reached under his cape, bringing out one of his infamous boomarangs (batarangs, Dick had always jested). He had thrown them in combat more times than he could count, their flight a whistling crescendo that peirced the night. But, he did not throw it this night. Instead, Batman gripped it in his gloved fist, wielding it like a dagger. It’s ends were sharp points, the polished black metal gleaming in the weak starlight. He raised the weapon high above his head, the zombie close enough now for the stench to make him gag. With all the rage that had forged him into the dark vigilante he had become, Batman buried the batarang deep into the skull of the zombie.
The undead thing fell to the cold pavement, lifeless for a second time.
Then, the Batman was gone, swinging silently back into the night. A shadow fading against the moon.
…had begun to rise over a year ago.
Gotham City had fallen with surprising ease. The GCPD had been ever vigilant the first month or so, the Quick Response Team filing into the streets like a Marine Corp Tactical Unit, cornering the undead in boxed alleys, wasting little time and less ammunition in their disposal. Under the efficient, if not savage, leadership of Captain William Petit, the QRT had seemed to be winning the war. Then, things had taken a drastic turn. Gotham had been shut off from the outside world with no warning.
An island city, connected to the mainland by three bridges, Gotham had once stood proud. A city for the wealthy and the elite, as well as the poor and the criminal. It had stood proud and alone among the metropolises of the Eastern Seaboard. And the government had taken advantage of that fact.
Quick to isolate areas of major activity among the living dead, the National Guard had begun sealing off the larger cities. New York, Chicago, Metropolis, and hundreds of others stood behind barricades of razor wire and guard towers. No one entered or left. Period.
With Gotham, it had been much easier. They had simply blown the three bridges that connected her to the mainland. The underground railroad tunnels had been collapsed. Boats patrolled Gotham harbor, heavily armed and ready to fire upon any craft in the choppy waters.
The looting began immediately. GCPD had tried to hold order, Commissioner Gordon assuring the public that the isolation was a temporary measure. They would need to work together to make it through. The public had not listened. Riots became the order of the day, total anarchy in the streets. The police had become unable to deal with both the living and the dead. It had all fallen apart so easily…
Batman had suffered his own trials as well. He had lost those that he held closest. Alfred, the butler who had raised him since the death of his parents, Nightwing, Robin, and others that had comprised his inner circle. And he had brought these losses upon himself.
As Batman, he had never killed. Those who fought beside him did not kill. It was their credo, the way they separated themselves from other masked vigilantes who wprked on the fringes of the law. It was the one part of Bruce Wayne that he carried with him as the Batman. A clean conscience. A respect for life. And he had adhered to that naïve principle on the day that Alfred had lurched into the Bat Cave, a shambling moaning shell of the man he had been in life. Batman had not reacted, he had allowed the face of a man he had once loved to stay his hand. It had cost them dearly.
As he swung into the top window of the Clock Tower, he pondered what he could have done differently. It was a thought that haunted his mind like a reverberating echo, dying off only to resurface louder than before.
The inside of the Clock Tower had been converted into apartments years ago. They had been lavishly furnished and over priced. A settling place for the spoiled sons and daughters of Gotham’s elite. Barbara Gordon had made her home here shortly after the Joker had shattered her spine, ending her days as Batgirl, beginning her days as the Oracle.
Banks of silent, dark computers greeted him as he climbed through the arched window. Meager light from dozens of candles flickered unsteadily, causing shadows to dance upon the ceiling and walls. The smell of coffee, strong and good, greeted him.
The Oracle wheeled into the main room of the flat, pushing herself with surprising ease around the many obstacles littering the floor. She had given up the state of the art motorized chair that Wayne Industries had presented her, for a standard hospital chair that Batman had managed to salvage for her. Recharging the motorized chair used too much of their meager fuel supply. They had to save the generators for the computers.
“Any luck?,” Barbara asked as she handed him a cup of coffee.
He sipped the strong brew without removing his cowl. In truth, he could not remember the last time he had taken it off. “No,” he responded simply.
Babs shrugged, nonplussed. She was used to Batman’s demeanor. He gave short answers and shorter demands, both were expected to be sufficient.
Batman stood by the window that served as their only exit. He had taken out the stairs leading to upper floors of the Clock Tower shortly after the beginning. He did not need them and Barbara could not hope to use them. It made leaving her home alone safer. That and the 12 gauge shotgun he had salvaged from the burned out Police Station.
“You should sleep.”
The Batman did not reply. He kept his gaze focused to the north. To the section of the city he returned to each day.
“They might not be out there, Bruce,” she began.
“Don’t call me that!” Babs cringed under the harsh stare he leveled on her. His eyes filled with wild rage. And then it was gone, as quickly as it had come. The creases of his face, what little she could see under the cowl, smoothed into the kind, if not stern, face of the man she had known since childhood. “Just, please don’t call me that,” he said a more civil tone.
She nodded, tears brimming in her eyes. “They may not be out there,” she ventured again.
“I have to know for sure.”
She wheeled herself into the kitchenette without responding. He had set his mind and there was no room for discussion. She set about the task of making dinner, the tears fading away unshed, like so many others.
…passed with the Batman sleeping in the one bedroom of the large flat.
Barbara fired up the twin generators taken from Gotham Mercy Hospital, powering up the banks of computers that lined a whole wall of the flat. The monitors turned on in slow succession, fading in and out with the rhythm of the generators.
The computers had once been her link to the outside world, the place she had found solace from her broken body. She had become the Oracle, the eyes and ears of Batman’s world. She had become useful and had found a will to live.
Now, the computers were nothing more than a tool. She hated sitting in front of them day in and day out, searching for answers that were ever elusive. Looking for a cause, a cure, looking for anything that could shed light on the madness the world had become. Worse, she hated profiling the dead.
Batman had made her begin charting each of the walking corpses he had encountered (and summarily destroyed). They categorized them by rate of decomposition, the section of the city that been located in, gender, and hundreds of other key elements. And when all of the information gathered had been cross referenced, a startling fact had appeared on the screen.
The zombies were getting older.
In the beginning, it had been only ‘fresh’ corpses that emerged from the grave. Clawing their way back into the sunlight to feast on human flesh. And after the riots following the separation of Gotham from the mainland, ‘fresh corpses were plentiful. The constant fighting amongst the living had swelled the ranks of the dead.
But soon, older corpses had begun to rise. Bodies that were still relatively intact, containing at least some of their tissue and ligaments, were unearthing themselves. Many were grossly disfigured things that had to drag themselves along the city streets, their legs having rotted to the point of being useless. Others had somehow become naturally mummified, their skin tough like leather, their organs and tissues miraculously intact. Batman attributed this to the mineral components of Gotham’s surrounding Harbor and rivers.
When they had unearthed this fact, excuse the pun, the nightly hunts had begun. The Batman had become possessed with an idea…but she couldn’t bring herself to think it. It had changed him in ways that the violence of his life never had. It was consuming him.
“Don’t spend too much time on there. The gasoline to run those gennies is becoming harder to find.”
The sound of his voice, always so low and direct, startled her from her revelry. “No problem.” She wheeled about to face him. “I don’t think I’ll be surfing the …”
But, he was already gone. The curtains to the open window still ruffling from the breeze of his passage.
…flew through the wreckage of the city. He made his way from the Diamond District to the Upper East Side, avoiding Robinson Park. The park, once the only place in Gotham to see the beauty of nature, was Poison Ivy’s territory now. She had animated the foliage into a natural barricade, shutting out the rest of the world. Batman let her have it for the time being.
He crossed the Sprang River into the Bowery taking caution not to be seen by the camps of survivors. He was not the welcome sight he had once been in Gotham. The citizens held him to blame for not stopping this apocalypse and for once, he was unwilling to be the martyr.
He found himself in the section of Gotham once known as Crime Alley. As he always did. As he always would, until he could be sure.
This section of Gotham, no prized jewel to begin with, had suffered the worst of the rioting. It was the place where the hardcore criminal elements always resided, living by strenuous treaties and aiding each other in hiding from the law. When the panic hit, they had laid waste to Crime Alley. Molotov cocktails had flown with careless abandon, burning half the building into nothing more than hollow shells. Bullet holes riddled the cobblestone streets and brick walls. Bodies were everywhere. Fortunately, none were moving this time. It had been different on other occasions.
Still, Batman knew this section of the city better than any other. He had been coming here since he was a boy. It was not long before he was standing under the marquee of a theater that had gone out of business some twenty years prior. He walked along the front of the building, turning the corner that lead into a narrow alley. Crime Alley.
Batman scaled the wall of the theater and positioned himself in his familiar crouch at the edge of the roof. He waited. And he dozed.
In the dream, he is a small boy. He is Bruce, holding the hands of his parents as they leave the movie. The taste of popcorn, salty and heavily buttered, is still fresh on his lips. His father leads them down the alley, taking a shortcut to the taxi stand.
The alley is dark and stinks of cheap booze. Bruce does not hear the men approach, but he feels his father’s grip tighten on his hand.
Then a voice is whispering, “Have you ever danced with the devil in the pale moonlight?” and there is a shot followed by another followed by darkness.
Out of the darkness flies a bat. It’s wings pound the air as it soars through the night. It’s screech is deafening, piercing Bruce’s ears the way the gunman pierced his heart. Then, he is moaning, moaning, moaning…
…moaning. It wakes him from his light slumber.
The figures shamble through the alley. Their once fine clothes little more than tattered rags, their skin dark and leathery. They lurch about drunkenly, coming to a slow halt at the place where he has come often as Bruce Wayne to lay twin roses in their memory.
The man swoops from the building, into the dark. His hands already reaching for the weapons he has wielded in an effort to resurrect these people.
Then the deed is done. He has forever abandoned the part of himself that was Bruce Wayne. He has taken life from those he wished back from the dead.
He is forever the Bat.