Darkness. Nothing but darkness.
Robin reached for his utility belt, seeking a flashlight. The belt was gone. Not to be undone, he reached for his boot.
Hope Alfred included all the gimmicks of my old costume in this one, he thought as his fingers deftly pressed a set of nearly undetectable pressure pads around the edges of the heel. He was rewarded with a soft click as the bottom surface of the heel separated from the boot. In a cavity, he quickly located a miniature penlight. “Now to see where the heck I am.”
The tiny LED emitted a narrow beam of light. Sweeping it around, Robin was startled to find that there were no walls. He was sitting on the floor in an enormous room or cavern, his ankles chained to rings in the floor.
“Ah, the prodigal son awakens!” said a high-pitched voice, seeming to come from all around him. Robin’s blood turned to ice as he recognized the speaker. “I was starting to fear that my boys might have done some serious damage bringing you down. Not that I would blame them! Why, poor Bobo won’t be able to walk upright for days, I’m sure, and Clem’s broken nose simply refused to stop bleeding!” The voice dropped into a menacingly low register. “At least, not until I blew his head off!”
“What — what do you want?” asked Robin, struggling to keep his voice steady. “Where am I?”
“What I want, little bird-boy, is quite simple — chaos! Complete and unadulterated chaos! During the Crisis, the worlds were jumbled, people, animals, and buildings were slipping through time, all those delightful little antimatter demons running amok everywhere! It was wonderful!” Again, the voice dropped, taking a thoughtful tone. “Now, I know that li’l ol’ me can’t hope to recreate that. So I’ll just have to make do now, won’t I? HAA-HAA-HAA-HAA-HAAA!”
“What about Nocturna? What have you done with her?” asked Robin, climbing to his feet.
“Surprisingly little, actually. I had great good fortune to see how you took care of her when she was injured, before you spirited her away in that balloon. From my odd little vantage point in Brainiac’s ship, I was able to snatch her up and place her in a cabin until I was ready to take my leave. She’s been most helpful, actually. Kept asking for her son — for Robin. How sweet. How touching.” The disembodied voice paused. “How could I resist using her to lure you out here?”
“She was delirious. She’s not my mother!” Robin felt a twinge in his heart as he spoke these words. While Natalia Knight was not his mother, in the months before she disappeared, he had come to think of her much like a mother. He had not even resisted when she attempted to adopt him, though he now realized that the adoption would have meant the end of his career as Robin.
Robin’s statement was ignored. A spotlight came on, a tight circle focused on the Boy Wonder. “Now, as to where you are. Quite simple. You are in Qurac. In my little compound. In fact, in my own private little television studio.” The spotlight widened, and other lights started to come on. Looking around, Robin saw that he was, indeed, in a large television studio with black-painted walls that reflected no light and cameras mounted on rolling dollies. And along one wall, bleachers were filled with strangely silent people staring straight ahead. And right in the middle of them, one lone figure smiled at him, nodding happily.
“That’s right, bird-boy! Your worst nightmare has come true! Your mother is here, right behind you! She’s been my guest for months!” Robin twisted around and spied Natalia Knight’s still form lying on a cot. He was looking away as the one person in the studio besides himself who was not in a trance leaped up and bounded over the still figures around him. “Oh, yes! We have been waiting for the right time to bring you to us, just waiting for you to finish running around with your new buddies in the New Titans, waiting for old Bat-ears to jump into the baddy-busting business in Gotham again, just waiting, waiting, waiting!” His voice rose in pitch as he spoke, so that by the time he finished it was a shriek. Robin turned as a last jump brought the mysterious speaker into the widening circle of light, so that Robin’s fears and suspicions were confirmed.
“Joker!” hissed Jason Todd under the hood of his costume.
“No, Robin, don’t you read the papers? It’s the Joker these days. Just like it’s the Batman. Ever so much more imposing, don’t you think?” The mad clown bent down, his face almost touching Robin’s, his foul breath blasting the young man’s senses. He didn’t wait for an answer but straightened up, brought one leg back, and unleashed a vicious kick to the Boy Wonder’s chest. The boy was thrown back in his chains. “Of course, for you it’s just Robin. The Robin just doesn’t have the same ring, does it? Of course, if you just add an adjective in there, it works fine. For instance, there’s the wounded Robin. Or the bleeding Robin. And, of course, there’s my favorite: the late Robin!”
“Go to hell, Joker!” said Robin, his voice low and menacing.
“Oh, I intend to, believe me, I intend to! But there are other things to do before I go! Plots to carry out, places to go, people to kill, games to play.” The Joker glanced around, as if just remembering something. “Speaking of which, I suppose it’s time to get started!”
“Started on what?”
“The reason we’re here. To introduce my new game show for exclusive worldwide broadcast.” The clown prince of crime signaled to some unseen person, and the stage lit up with multicolored lights, a brightly hued backdrop was lowered into place, and loud music started to play. Together, Robin and the Joker watched as the light on one of the cameras started to glow red. At that point, the Joker stepped in front of it, a bigger-than-usual smile on his face, and mugged for the camera.
“Good day, ladies and germs, and welcome to the first — and possibly only — episode of,” he paused for one second, “Who Wants to Knock Off a Super-Hero’s Mother?”
In the skies of Qurac, an odd craft floated on the air currents. The ultralight plane, powered by a small, battery-powered electric motor, swept in wide arcs over the desert. The lone occupant, hanging under the craft’s twenty-foot-wide wing structure, scanned the desert sands below with a high-power electronic viewfinder.
“There, over to the southwest. Looks like lights. And the infrared is picking up a couple of hotspots that may be generators,” the Batman murmured to himself. “Looks like the only logical place for Robin to have set down, and this is just about at the edge of the loop the Batplane made over Quraci airspace.” He made adjustments to the crafts controls, bringing it down toward the ground near the encampment, and tried hard not to think about the fact that his ward had already been on the ground for six hours.
Just before he landed, a voice cackled in his earphone. “Sir, I understand you won’t reply, but I feel you should know that there is a very strong broadcast signal originating near your position. It appears to be overriding television broadcast signals all over the world through a satellite distribution system. So far it is simply static, but–“ Alfred’s voice halted for a couple of seconds. “Oh, dear, sir. It’s the Joker. And he has Master Robin and Ms. Knight.”
The Batman made no reply to keep from revealing his location. The ultralight glider coasted down, landing clumsily in the sand. But it was already empty before it touched down, its occupant having leaped away while it was still twenty feet above the ground.
The Darknight Detective hit the ground in a tight ball, rolling to absorb the impact. He came up out of the ball in a dead run, heading for the nearest compound gate. His mind ran through possible scenarios and battle plans, trying to calculate how many people the compound could hold and the odds of taking a large number of them out in a hurry. The grim look on his face was a mirror of the result.
“That’s right, folks! Tonight and tonight only, I am offering you all the chance to decide the fate of a hero’s mother. At least, I think he’s a hero. But even I’m not sure.”
The Joker waved an arm toward Robin, who struggled against the shackles around his ankles. “This young man claims to be Robin. But I know Robin. I’ve fought Robin at close quarters many times over the years, and I can tell you, this is not the Robin that I know! He’s shorter, younger, and — trust me, folks — not nearly as experienced as he should be! Why, that’s not even the right costume!
“But what does this have to do with a mother, you say? Why, plenty!” The Joker moved around Robin to a cot behind him. “Here we have one Natalia Knight! She has claimed, through her delirium, to be the mother of Robin. She’s been asking for him for the last few weeks. And this,” he gestured back toward the Boy Wonder, “is the one who came to rescue her.”
The Joker turned again and walked to center stage to face the live camera. “Your job, people of the world, is this. You are the judge! Just call in to the toll-free number shown on your screen, 1-800-EXECUTE, and vote! Vote to kill the mother of this pretender to the name of Robin — or vote to save her — from now until tomorrow. Your decision will be final! HAA-HAA-HAA-HAAA! Yessirreeeee, it will be final, all right!”
The light went off on the camera, and the studio audience came to life. Two of them leaped down and started wheeling a large billboard-like display onto the stage area. Robin recognized it as a tote-board, similar to those used during elections. As soon as they plugged in the power and data lines, numbers started to appear: 287 for death, 158 to spare Natalia’s life.
Gotta shake off the pain and focus! thought Robin, trying to ignore the grating feeling in his chest. He assessed his resources, which were notably slim. He still had the tiny flashlight that had been concealed in his boot heel. The other boot, he knew, contained two metal capsules, the contents of which could be mixed to create a powerful acid, but he also knew that as soon as he reached for it he was likely to receive another kick or worse. His utility belt was gone, but he could feel hidden pockets on the gauntlets of his uniform; they were part of Alfred’s new design, but he did not know what, if anything, were in these pockets.
Standing shakily, Robin let his cape fall forward over his shoulders. He appeared to cross his arms as if simply watching the activities around him. Under the edges of the cape, his hands were busy taking inventory. He found that the gloves were fairly well-stocked. At his disposal he now had two folded batarangs, a small coil of silken line that he estimated at about twenty feet with a small grappling hook, four small capsules that perhaps held smoke or sleeping gas — or perhaps flash grenades — a set of nose filters, and a set of lockpicks. The capsules, he thought, would have to wait until he could actually take a look at them to determine their type. In the meantime, he sunk to the floor. To anyone watching, it was apparent that the struggles of the day had exhausted him and he had passed out. However, under cover of the black and gold cape, he was busily picking the locks on his shackles.