Our battle carried us across the rooftops of Gotham, miles on end of nothing but open air if somebody fell. It wasn’t hard to spook him into running. The second he saw that I wasn’t about to back down, he fled. Of course, I gave chase, practically clipping his heels the whole way. We flung boomerang after Batarang after boomerang after Batarang at each other, mostly missing.
That is, until I actually managed to slice his line and sent him tumbling down to the roof of the nearest high-rise.
The landing hurt. I’d had it happen to me enough times that I knew for sure what it felt like. I touched down lightly a few meters away from him, fingering another Batarang in my hand. In the heat of the moment, I didn’t question why he was suddenly some kind of acrobat. I didn’t question why I was the only one who was pursuing a dangerous criminal, a known killer. All I could think to myself was: Stop. Don’t get any closer to him. Just…just stand back and don’t let yourself do something you’ll regret.
But then, I thought about my dad, about how he was when I found him, and it was a lot harder to listen to that voice of reason in my head.
He stood on shaky legs, reaching with a trembling hand for another boomerang to throw at me. Instinct took over, pulling my arm back and snapping it forward, making my fingers release their grip on the Batarang. The gleaming black metal spun in the air, arcing down until it skewered Boomerang’s left knee. He fell to the ground, the wound spilling blood, and I took the moment to make my move.
It was like the noises of the city, the commotion of a living place down below, died away. My footsteps pounded across the roof toward Boomerang, my heartbeat filling my ears. I could hear that voice of reason again, smaller and quieter, losing power with every step.
Please. You can control yourself. Don’t do this.
But the pellet blaster was already in my hand, loaded and cocked. I was standing over him, staring him in the face. His eyes locked onto mine, and I saw the look of sheer terror in them. He knew. Even before I’d gotten started, he knew that he was in trouble. Something in me choked out the voice of reason, the last vestige of sympathy or remorse inside of me, and I leveled the blaster at Boomerang’s head and fired.
I’d be lying if I said it didn’t feel good, at least a little bit, when the blood splashed onto my boots.
It could’ve been quiet, sure. I could’ve gotten a fifty-foot range on him and just hit him with a poisoned pellet, and then nobody would’ve had to know. But he didn’t kill Dad quietly. So why did he deserve something less than what he dished out?
I was slipping the blaster back into its holster on my belt when a strange sensation crept across my body. It was a tingling, like cold fingers tickling my skin with a feathery-light touch. I was used to the feeling by that point, so I wasn’t surprised when Bruce emerged from the shadows on my left and said, “Disappointed doesn’t begin to cover what I’m feeling right now, Tim.”
I swallowed hard and dared to meet his gaze. It was harsh, unforgiving, the kind of stare I’d only ever seen him give to criminals. Somehow, though, being on the receiving end of it wasn’t as frightening as I’d thought it’d be. There again, the emotion seemed dulled, watered-down. I didn’t have to work to keep my tone even when I replied, “I guess we both know what happens now.”
Bruce nodded. “I need you to come with me.”
“I don’t have to.”
He reached out, before I could react, and gripped the back of my neck. Through the rough Kevlar of the cowl, I felt a pinprick of pain beneath his hand and found my vision swimming within a few seconds. “Yes, you do,” Bruce growled.
My last conscious thought was that I hoped he’d just take me home.
Imagine my surprise when I woke up in my own bed, in my own house. The shock of the previous night didn’t register at first, not like the way I was almost instantly aware of the warmth of the sunshine on my body, and I took my sweet time becoming fully aware, sitting up and stretching and yawning…you know, the whole nine yards. It was only after I’d climbed out of bed and was sleepily tottering down to the kitchen for some breakfast that I remembered what had happened. I practically leapt across the living room and plunged my hand into the fish tank, yanking on the hidden switch only to find that it wouldn’t budge. “No, no, no…” I muttered, tearing back up the stairs to my bedroom without even stopping to dry off my hand. When I reached my bedroom again, I jerked open the closet doors, shoved the clothes aside, and entered my combination on a keypad at the very back.
I was bouncing up and down on my toes as I waited for the door to slide open, and when it finally did, I was met with a horrifying sight. Bruce had apparently known a lot of what went into my hideaway, because where there was once a costume and gear, there was now a whole lot of nothing.
I closed my eyes and sagged back, sinking to the floor. “Goddamn it,” I breathed.
Of course, he’d brought me back here. There was no better punishment for me than waking up to find everything I’d worked so hard to build, everything I’d made for myself, just…gone. I would’ve sulked over it a little more, but the ringing of my cell phone brought my attention back to the rest of the world. I swept it off the bedside table and put it up to my ear in a single motion. “Drake,” I moaned into the mouthpiece.
“You’ve let yourself become poisoned, Tim. They’ve corrupted you, and you didn’t even fight back. It was probably only a matter of time, though. Most people don’t last as long as you have.”
I couldn’t take it anymore. The white-hot anger boiling inside of me bubbled up to the surface and came out in my hoarse shout. “This is the third time you’ve called me in six weeks! Who the hell are you and what do you want?”
“I’m surprised you can’t recognize the voice of an old friend.”
That made me pause. Old friend… I had to wrack my brain for an answer, search through every nook and cranny, before it finally registered. My throat seemed to be lined with cotton, and my mouth went dry in an instant. I stood up slowly, astonished. “Lonnie?”
There was a soft chuckle. “Better late than never, I suppose.”
I, however, was in no mood for jokes. I was still reeling. “Lonnie, what in the—how did you—did Dr. Thompkins—”
“I think I’ll let your memory explain for me.”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa, what do you mean?”
Suddenly, something that felt like a small, tightly-braided bundle of wires shot all the way down into my ear and kept on going deeper into my skull, making me cry out in pain. I tried to pull the phone away, but it was like pulling on a staked dog leash. “This is going to sting,” Lonnie warned, and then my world exploded.
A burst of multicolored light filled my vision, even as a high-pitched whining blotted out all other sounds in the room. An intense throbbing sensation began behind my eyes, then spread across my temples and into the back of my head, becoming nothing short of sheer agony. I clutched at my head, dropping to my knees as images flashed through the cacophony of colors.
I’m in Russia, surging upward on a blast of hot air provided courtesy of Red Star. I land in his ship, and my last sight is of an array of silvery missiles before the world goes dark.
I’m in a dingy alleyway, strung up by my wrists and about to be executed by the Calculator as the Riddler watches on in something like amusement. Batman and Robin come to my rescue, but they’re so different, almost…unreal.
I’m in a car with Riddler and a three-year-old Tam Fox wearing a Batman outfit for toddlers, swerving left as Harley Quinn descends on the hood with a mallet.
I’m watching a lanced with a blade shaped like the letter “A” protrude from the Joker’s chest, and as he falls away, Anarky steps out from behind him, looking happy to see me.
I’m catching Promise as she pitches forward, dead from bullet wounds in her back. I glance up to see Deathstroke, Cheshire, and Captain Boomerang there, the Calculator hanging in the background to egg them on.
I’ve won the fight, me and my allies, and we stand victorious beneath the rubble that was once Viktor Mikalek’s enormous statue. Suddenly, a shadow falls over us, and I turn to see Mikalek, looking strangely like Darkseid, jumping down on us with raised fists. Lonnie evades, but as I’m grabbing Tam to pull her with me, Mikalek’s fists hit the ground and smash a hole beneath us.
I’m falling…falling harder and faster than I’ve ever fallen before, and all I can see is darkness.
I’m watching binary code stream past my eyes. The numbers move so quickly that they form a fleeting message: Red Robin must not escape.
A snap somewhere in my brain shook me out of the memory. I dropped the cell phone and fell onto all fours, panting and sweating. I could feel every muscle in my body trembling as I struggled to regain my bearings. “Holy shit,” I gasped out, scrambling to pick up the phone again. “Lonnie, what the hell was that? How did you do that?”
“There’s no time to explain, Tim. All I can do is to congratulate you on waking up.”
“I don’t understand; what are you talking about?”
“You saw it for yourself. Your so-called ‘reality’ has been nothing but a dream, a clever world created by your imagination.”
The full weight of the realization dropped onto my shoulders all at once, and even I could hear the awe in my own voice. “I never left the Unternet.”
“Exactly, and now that you know, you’re in danger. Your only hope is to find Tam and wake her up, too. Only then will either of you stand a fighting chance.”