Barbara Gordon wheeled her chair across the floor so fast that she ran into her work desk with enough force to almost knock her to the floor. Her haste was a result of the flashing icon on her computer desktop indicating that she had an incoming message. A small window popped up on the screen informing her of the callers identity, when she saw who it was she dropped her cup of coffee that she was in the midst of pouring to the counter top and wheeled herself across the floor with all the strength in her arms. Her chair hit the desk hard and pushed her backward slightly, causing her to curse under her breath as she scrambled for the keyboard and opened the line. If Batman was contacting her he must have news of Dick and his whereabouts. She hadn't been able to sleep properly since she was informed of his kidnaping, and any news was preferable at this point to not knowing anything about his fate. Dick and Barbara had become much closer over the past months, culminating in a passionate kiss in her apartment. She often wondered what would have happened if that kiss had not been interrupted by The Huntress, Petit, and his squad of goons looking to raid Oracle of her knowledge and resources in No Man's Land. She had admitted to Dick that her feelings for him were stronger than that of simple friendship, and they always had been. She also told him that she wasn't ready to give in to those feelings due to her disability. Now that Dick was missing, she wished with all her might to have that time back so that she might tell him she did love him, and that she wanted him more than any other. She sighed in despair over the precious time wasted as the line opened. The message was audio only, and within seconds Batman's deep resonant voice filtered in over her speakers, interrupting Barbara's thoughts.
"Did you find him?" She asked with no preamble.
There was a moments silence on the line as he tried to form the words he needed, immediately her heart began to sink, it was bad news. Please don't let him be dead.
"I'm in Crete, I just landed twenty minutes ago. Nightwing isn't here, and neither is the Typhoon 313 plane they were using. I missed them." For a moment, Oracle allowed relief to wash over her entire body. There was at least a chance that he was still alive. He wasn't dead. Thank God he's not dead.
"What's your plan?" She asked.
"I'll need you to find that plane again. I know it's a huge favor to ask. They could be anywhere." Oracle immediately brought up another window and initiated her search as she spoke to the cowled crime fighter. "I can do it, I found it once I can do it again. It's going to take some time though. What are you going to do in the meantime?"
"Nightwing may be gone but there are lots of clues left in his wake. There are some dead bodies here, and wherever they came from they left tracks leading up the coastline. I'm going to backtrack them and see where they lead. I think there is plenty I can learn here while I wait for you to find them again." Oracle sighed with relief as she began her search, obviously wherever Nightwing was he was giving as good as he got. "Okay my search is initiated, I'll let you know the moment I have something, do you want me to pass on this news to the manor?"
"No reason to alarm them until we know something concrete Oracle. Contact me the instant you have the information we need."
"Will do. Good luck."
"To us both, Oracle." And as Oracle began yet another search program, an ocean away, Batman broke into a sprint along the coastline, following the tracks left by Kane's henchmen, his mind on constant alert, his body ready for action at a moment's notice. Dick may be gone from this place, but he was determined to use this time to learn as much as he could about the current situation. He had learned that whoever these dead men were, they were not the men that kidnaped Dick. They did not wear the same footwear as that which left the footprint on the floor of Dick's apartment, and yet those same footprints could be found in the area surrounding the farmhouse at which he had landed. There was also a copious amount of spent shells from many weapons. Whatever had transpired here, the forces that kidnaped Dick seemed to come out on the winning side. In the distance he noticed a small fire around a series of buildings that looked both modern and ancient. He picked up his pace and ran at full speed toward the scene of destruction. The tracks seemed to lead directly back to the scene of destruction in the distance.
When he got there he saw that the buildings were surrounded by a large wall which he easily scaled. As he alighted on the other side he saw what remained of the buildings, they were all burning to the ground and he quickly determined by the patterns of the explosions that the destruction was caused by a series of explosive charges throughout the buildings, no doubt set deliberately. Despite himself a quick smile passed across his face, this has Dick's fingerprints all over it he thought to himself. He scanned the debris and could see only one body which he cautiously made his way to through the flaming debris. As he turned the body over he felt the bile rise in his throat and willed himself to keep from vomiting. It was a disgusting sight to say the least. The first thing that struck him was the man's face. It was completely misshapen and dried blood had been pouring from his eyes, nose, and mouth. His exposed flesh had been charred by the explosion. Someone or something had literally squeezed this mans head like a grape until it literally exploded. Even Batman had rarely come across a death so gruesome. What truly intrigued Batman was the remaining clothing that hadn't been burned away. The man had been laying face down when the explosions had been set and the front of his clothes survived the explosion. Batman recognized the military dress uniform immediately. He searched the mans pockets and found a wallet, it contained a partially melted identification card, according to the card his name was Douglas Walker and he held the rank of General. In the upper right corner of the card there was an insignia exactly like the one Nightwing had ripped off the uniform of one of his attackers in Bludhaven, a skull with a knife through it. The lower half of the card was melted in several spots and poked with soot and grime. The remaining legible words read:
Colonel Phillip Young awoke with a start from a slap across his face. He couldn't remember where he was or how he had come to be here. There was nothing about his surroundings that were familiar. He tried to get up and found he was in leather restraints which bound his wrists and ankles to the metal bed. His back ached from laying on the thing, which he assumed he had been doing for quite some time. The walls were covered in white tile, devoid of any pictures or decorations other than a detailed map of the human body. In a far corner of the room three people dressed in surgical gowns and masks worked over instrument trays. Around them were heartbeat monitors and all manner of surgical equipment. Most of all however, he noticed Kane's face, only inches from his own. Inspecting him throughly. When Kane noticed that his captive was awake he smiled.
"Welcome back to the land of the living Mr. Phillip Young. It is entirely up to you how long you remain living."
Young rolled his eyes as he tried to get up and felt pain wash over his entire body like a tidal wave, "I have no idea what you're talking about or who this Phillip Young is." he lied as he strained against the leather to no avail.
"Your fingerprints say otherwise sir." Kane said as he reached to a nearby surgical instrument table and produced a printout that had a small picture of Young's face from several years earlier and data concerning the important statistics of his life.
"General Walker was smart enough to bury your military file as he did with all members of Impact Squadron, but your fingerprints are still on file from your days many years ago as a police officer with the New York Police Department. You were quite the hero back then so I have read. From there you were recruited into the service and rose through the ranks I imagine, but your files after leaving the force are of course, nonexistant. I'm content to know your name, and I am assuming your rank is rather high considering that you're here after breaching my defenses. Young was suddenly blinded as a surgical light was turned on directly over his head. "Not that it matters but the rank is Captain." It was a lie, but he wasn't giving up any information without a fight.
"A Captain you may be sir but you must understand, I cannot take your word for it. I need to know all the information that is locked up in your head." His body betraying his fear, Young swallowed hard as he listened, he was in this operating theater for an obvious reason. Torture. Skilled torture at the hands of experts and under the watchful eye of Kane There was no point in dignifying Kane's words with a reply.
"How much pain you experience Mr. Young is entirely up to you but you must understand, some pain will be necessary so that I know you are telling me the truth." Kane said as he put on a surgical mask and scanned the instruments, deciding which one he should use first. "Shall we begin?"
"This mission began with one objective, now there are several. When you began the hunt for Kane, it was simple, kill him and be done with it. That's no longer the extent of it however. Kane has Colonel Young, he has a small army behind him, and a supply of a deadly virus that could wipe out the human race. Kane thinks Major Summers and myself are dead, I saw him kill General Walker, and he sent even more of his men to kill you. He believes Impact Squadron is leaderless and without a clue as to his whereabouts. That gives us a very small window of opportunity. We have to move fast. He's going to want information from the Colonel and he won't be playing truth or dare to get it. If we don't move within the next twenty four hours Young may be dead or at the very least damaged beyond repair. I don't want that, and having served with him longer than I have I'm sure you don't want that either.
What we're going to have to do is split into two groups, myself and Major Summers on one team and the rest of Impact Squadron led by Captain Cortez on the other. The Major and I need to take point and enter Kane's compound covertly, where we will find and rescue the Colonel and disable his control over any warheads he has in his possession. We will also mark the location of his virus stores with a laser beacon, when it's activated, that's the go ahead for team two under Captain Cortez to hit the place with everything you've got and blow the place to hell while Summers and I get Young to safety."
"I have a question." Romaine said as he put up his hand in mock schoolboy manner.
"What's the question?" Nightwing asked.
"Who the fuck put you in charge?"
The question was crudely put, but very worthy of an answer. They had only been in Australia for an hour and a half when Summers, along with Nightwing, had begun issuing orders. They had arrived in the coastal town of Roebourne, Kane's Australian compound (they still had no idea what type of stronghold it was) lay directly west of them according to Nightwing's information. Murrant had stitched up his wounds and disinfected them while Summers had graciously nursed Nightwing back to health during the flight with blood transfusions, vitamin compounds injected straight into his bloodstream, and a massage (which took place in the same rear cabin Nightwing had used to talk with Walker and apply his disguise) behind closed doors. Dick couldn't believe how well this woman took care of him. She told him back in Kane's compound that she was under orders to take care of him and she was still doing it. As he lay face down on a stretcher with Summers straddling him and massaging the ache from his muscles, he smiled ear to ear with satisfaction. This woman knew what she was doing when it came to ridding a body of pain.
"I'm going to miss this treatment once the mission is over." He said as she kneaded his back muscles.
"You mean there's no Mrs. Nightwing back home to do this for you?" Dick swore he could detect a note of apprehension in her question. Was she that interested in him?
"There's no ring on my finger if that's what you mean. Usually I just sleep my aches and pains away."
"I'm amazed. A man as handsome as yourself. You should have women falling all over you."
"What about yourself? Is there a Mister Summers?" Dick asked, trying to steer the conversation away from himself.
She laughed at that and the laugh had more than just a hint of strain, "No there's no Mr. Summers except for my father. I was recruited into the Squadron from the FBI actually. I've never had time for much of a social life, much like yourself I guess. Can I ask you a question?"
Beneath her he mumbled an affirmative, she smiled at his total relaxation under her ministrations, "I do this for a living, but I don't wear a mask, I don't have a secret identity. I don't have to hide what I do and pretend I'm someone else during the day. What do you do when you're not being Nightwing?"
"Actually..... I'm a cop. Newly graduated from the academy and looking for a permanent posting."
Suddenly she began laughing, throwing her head back and filling the room with a full bodied musical laugh that was entirely genuine. "What's so funny?" he asked. It took her several minutes of laughter before she could finally answer him.
"Surely you're aware of the irony of that. By all rights you should be putting yourself in jail. Vigilantes are illegal and you enforce the law." Her laughter was infectious and he began laughing himself. He managed to turn around on his back so that he was facing her, Summers was still straddling him and her face beamed as she laughed with him.
"Maybe I should arrest myself. I can testify for the prosecution and the defense." She broke out in a renewed fit of laughter and he joined her. It was a wonderful respite from all the action and serious nature of the last several days. After a time the laughter died away and they looked into one another's eyes, not knowing what to say next.
"You know, we may be dead in the next few hours. Once Kane and his men find out we're alive they won't play nice, they'll want to make sure we're dead."
"Reminds one to live every day like it's their last doesn't it?" Again she fell silent. Dick could feel that she was trying to get up the nerve to ask him something.
"Your name really isn't Jason is it?" She asked. He was silent for a few minutes as he considered her request.
"No. I can't tell you my real name. Not that I don't want to, but if you know my name, others may be at risk, people I care for."
"I can tell you care for them a great deal." She said as she traced a finger along his shoulder, "Do you think that if you and I met under different circumstances, we could be... close? Maybe even... more than friends?"
Nightwing reached out and traced his index finger along her cheekbone and down across her chin, making her smile. "You are..... so incredibly beautiful. Not to mention intelligent, capable and independent." He replied.
"And that means?"
"It means absolutely."
She leaned forward and kissed him passionately. Despite himself and his better judgement, he kissed her back with equal force. They pressed their bodies together as their hands roamed one another's bodies freely. Dick kissed her hungrily as she chewed on his lower lip. Summers began kissing Nightwing's cheeks and forehead as he took tiny nibbles on her chin and ran his tongue to the base of her neck. Dick felt his body start to give in to lust. He had been through a lot in the last few days and this beautiful, courageous woman was the only bright spot in the entire affair. As he kissed her again and their tongues searched each other out, one lone image flashed into his mind. A beautiful redhead he had known since childhood, one he had trusted with his most intimate secrets. An image of Barbara Gordon's beautiful visage filled his mind and would not go away. He knew why. It felt like cheating on her. Although there was no spoken commitment between them, the bond between Dick Grayson and Barbara Gordon went far deeper than the spoken word, the bond was spiritual. This woman, no matter how beautiful and perfectly suited for him she might be, was not Barbara.
He broke the kiss and gently eased her away from him, an apologetic look on his face. For several seconds she merely looked at him, wondering what she had done wrong. "It's not you Stacy. It's me. I told you there is no Mrs. Nightwing back home and that's true, but there is someone I care for a great deal. A woman I feel more than friendship for, and we've just recently found our way back to one another. It wouldn't be fair to her." He looked deep into her eyes, "I would be all over you in a second otherwise, but she deserves better." She was silent for a time and he worried that she might be angry with him, he worried that it might affect their usefulness as a team. "Please don't be offended." She finally smiled at him.
"Believe it or not, I think this makes you even more adorable."
She leaned over and kissed him on the forehead as she rolled off of him and strapped on her ammo belt. Dick rose to his feet and donned the remainder of his Nightwing uniform. It felt good to be wearing it again. Before they went to brief the rest of the team, he took her hands in his and asked her again if he had offended her. She assured him that he didn't and that she respected his devotion to his loved ones. The two exited the rear cabin and began a through briefing of the others with all the information Nightwing had uncovered. Summers informed them of General Walker's death at Kane's hands and how Nightwing had discovered Kane's destination. She also informed them of Nightwing's hypophysis regarding the release of the Ebola Omega virus at the Summer Olympics in Australia. They all agreed that while there was no proof, the theory was sound and if true, the results would be disastrous.
After landing in Roebourne they received even more bad news. Three medic teams were standing by to take Sito into their care, one of the medics passed Summers an encoded communique. After decoding it and reading it over three times she swore and threw the communique to the ground. She informed them that with General Walker dead and Colonel Young missing they were being given this one last show of support with medical care before they were completely disavowed. The government was cutting them off from further resources such as weapons, current intelligence on the area, and military backup. Summers was infuriated by the response from her superiors and regretted ever sending Washington an update on their condition during the flight.
"Well at least they had the good taste to tell us we were being cut off." MacQuarrie joked as he set up his computers in the main area of the warehouse they had rented as a safe house. Summers, Cortez, and Nightwing were not amused. Some backup would have been nice, a lot would have been even better. Now they were completely on their own as the medics finished their work on Sito within two hours and left, leaving him in the care of Impact Squadron. The one member of the team who didn't leave with the medics was a rail thin man with thinning hair and a disinterested look. Summers introduced the man to Nightwing as the chief armourer for Impact Squadron, his name was Professor Quincy Quartermane.
"Just what in the hell are you supposed to be?" Quartermane asked him as Nightwing reached out to shake the man's hand. Passing behind them with an armload of weapons, Cortez answered the question, "He's our last best hope professor."
"Dear God we're in more trouble than I thought." He replied.
"Nice." Dick mumbled under his breath as Summers tried unsuccessfully to suppress a smile.
"Now pay attention Nightwing I would like you and the rest of these hooligans to take extra special care of my equipment if you please." Quartmane went on to explain how the laser beacons worked and informed them that no matter what jamming devices may be in the area, Impact Squadron's computer expert MacQuarrie would be able to pick up the signal on his computers. Nothing could block the signal sent out by the beacons. He also presented Nightwing and Summers with special wrist units that, when attached to the a computer panel, would instantly fry the operating system no matter what security systems would in place and no matter what the operating system was. Nightwing knew he would have to inform Oracle of this piece of equipment the next time he saw her, if he saw her again. Despite his gruff demeanor the professor was obviously very talented at what he did.
After an hour of explanation of the inner workings of the devices he was giving them, Quartermane packed up his things in an overstuffed briefcase and left knowing that he had already spent too much time with the now disavowed Impact Squadron.
That brought Nightwing back to the present and Romaine's "Who the fuck put you in charge?" question. Thankfully, Summers answered the question for him.
"I am in charge Romaine and if it wasn't for Nightwing we wouldn't even have a chance to finish this mission successfully and get ourselves off of the disavowed list. He has risked life and limb for us and he doesn't even know us. He could get up and leave right now but he doesn't. He even volunteered to go into Kane's Australian compound with me. So heed this order from the ranking officer in the room and stow it!! We can't save the Colonel without him." Throughout the room everyone in Impact Squadron nodded in agreement. Dick couldn't help but feel more at ease around these men as they accepted him more and more into their ranks. He even noticed Johnson elbow Romaine in the ribs to shut him up. Under pressure from the rest of the group, Romaine did indeed shut up.
"What's next Major?" MacQuarrie asked as he flipped open a laptop and booted the computer up.
"Nightwing and I are changing into street clothes and renting a jeep, we're going to drive out to the coordinates he indicated and just do some simple recon."
Colonel Young opened his mouth and tried to scream but found that he could no longer had the strength to make any noise. He looked down at his blood soaked leg and tried again to scream as he watched Kane take off a sliver of skin with his scalpel. Kane let the sliver of skin fall to the floor in an increasing pile of flesh that collected at his feet. Kane spoke for the first time since the torture had begun as he prepared for another incision.
"I have become quite well read in my short life Mr. Young. I'm particularly a fan of Shakespere. Tell me, are you familiar with The Bard's work The Merchant Of Venice? The infamous pound of flesh? I am drawing my inspiration from that very play with you now. Of course I'm sure you will tell me what I need to know before I come anywhere close extracting a pound of flesh from you don't you think?"
Young tried to lift his head again and decided that he couldn't take the sight of his bleeding leg and merely stared at the ceiling as his body trembled. "I prefer the sports section." he responded in a weak voice.
"Why am I not surprised? Well you'll soon tell me what I need to know Mr. Young. As soon as I start removing skin from a less fleshy area like your face for instance, I think you'll be telling me everything I need to know."
"And if I don't?"
"Well I won't let you die before I get the information I need from you to be sure. If this particular method doesn't work, I have a special mixture of curare and certain other drugs that will guarantee an honest answer to my every question. However, it will render you quite brain dead. I may have need of hostages some time in the future if the governments of the world try to stop me again and I would prefer a hostage with a fully functioning brain. Now, in a very short while, I will be asking you some questions, I do suggest that you answer them to the best of your ability. If you don't, things may become......" He paused and smiled as he removed another sliver of skin and let it drop to the floor as blood streaked the Colonel's leg. "Rather nasty."
A single tear escaped Young's right eye as he felt the sliver of skin rip away from his leg. He had never felt so alone and in so much pain, and yet he hoped with every fibre of his being, that Impact Squadron would not try and rescue him. He would rather die than see any more of the people under his command suffer this fate.
"Damn, Kane gives the term living in the lap of luxury a whole new meaning."
Major Summers and Nightwing were dressed in casual clothing and peering out across the desert at Kane's compound through powerful binoculars. Through an optical linkup the magnified image was being fed through to MacQuarrie's computers back in Roebourne. Anyone who saw the duo of Summers and Nightwing (who had resumed his disguise that he wore on Desolation Island) would be tourists driving the only road through the arid desert. Nightwing drove the black Jeep they had rented and immediately stopped the vehicle when he noticed the huge building on the horizon. It appeared as if it was made of crystal as the huge structure glistened in the sunlight. MacQuarrie sent them all the available information he could find on the structure back through the link and the data scrolled along in one corner of the binocular display so that both Summers and Nightwing could see it.
"According to this," Nightwing began as he read the information, "it's a biosphere. Designed and built to be completely self sufficient by a firm known as Buckley's Drugs Incorporated, a pharmaceutical company that sponsored the whole thing in 1994. The company was bought out by another larger company in 1996 and the project was abandoned. The inside of the place is a maze and houses a three story high jungle like arboretum. The pane glass has the ability to become completely opaque to simulate night and day environments. It's completely self sufficient."
Summers shook her head as the data streamed in. "I suppose it was easy for him to buy after the project was abandoned."
Over her headset, she heard MacQuarrie confirm that this was indeed the case. Kane had purchased the biosphere with the money he had made using his significant intellect on the stock market.
"How do we get into that thing?" Summers asked, "According to this information, the place is impenetrable and even removing a pane of glass will cause alarms to go off.
Dick pointed to a small structure to the left of the immense cathedral like building. The small grey building was tiny compared to the huge biosphere and went almost unnoticed. "It's the water supply for a large pool in the arboretum. According to this data it wasn't part of the original plans but the new owner had it installed merely because he liked the way it looked. If we can get in there and follow the main pipes, we should emerge in the middle of Kane's own personal jungle." Over his own earpiece, Dick heard MacQuarrie quite clearly questioning his sanity and the possible success of his plan.
"Negative thinking we don't need," Summers interjected, "Impact Squadron, it's time to lock and load."