Gotham City Docks, Shortly After Midnight
Adrenaline willed Leonard Albertstein’s legs through the labyrinth of the Gotham docks. Pallets of lumber, barge containers loaded with cheap Asian import goods, and baskets brimming with the evening’s unsold catch vied for his attention within the chaotic maze. The Knossos legend flashed through his mind as he scampered past a pallet of banded brick by the aging sheds of rock salt the city used to keep the streets passable in the harsh winters.
Leonard stopped to suck air and dared a quick glance behind him. His pursuers followed at a more leisurely pace, savoring the hunt.
“Stop running, Alberstein!” barked one of the goons giving chase, his gravelly voice carrying on the cold night air. “You’re only making it harder on yourself!”
“Yeah!” seconded the other as he lifted the pallet of brick over his head and steadied it. “The harder you make us work the harder we work you over!” He hurled the pallet the distance of a football field and narrowly missed Leonard’s head as it flew past him. It shattered on impact and left the docks a debris-strewn mess.
The vulgar display of metahuman strength provided ample motivation for Leonard to resume running. He rolled his ankle on the debris and fell but staggered to his feet. There was no time to nurse the injury. He could run or die.
A side stitch ate a hole through Leonard’s abdomen from the inside out but he limped forward past an abandoned warehouse with broken windows. He cursed the cold air for stinging his skin and the moon for being so bright. He cursed the Pit Bull that barked at him from behind the warehouse fence. But mostly he cursed himself for countless hours wasted “running” in the virtual world rather than doing the real thing.
Leonard felt like he was darting in circles but picked his way through the jumble and ducked between two metal-frame buildings to double back toward the city.
“There!” yelled one of the men. “He ducked down that alley!”
The alley’s shadows offered haven from the moon’s spotlight while Leonard scoured it for a hiding place. Hope was alive until he ran into the one thing he dreaded most, a chain link security fence separating the docks from downtown. He was trapped like the Pit Bull but with much less fight in him.
“Want to hear something funny, Leonard?” asked the smaller man as he lit a cigarette and calmly entered the alley with his superhuman partner. “The Port Authority built that fence to keep the riff-raff out of the city!”
The two men celebrated the irony with foreboding snickers and guffaws.
Leonard tugged at the steel mesh but knew it wouldn’t budge. He tried to climb but couldn’t pull himself up and even if he succeeded the top rail was lined with razor wire that would slice him to ribbons. In the end all he could do was sob as he turned and met his fate.
“Please, can’t we discuss this?” Leonard begged. “I’ll pay back every dime!”
The smaller man discarded his burnt-out match. “If only it were that easy, Leonard. Or should we call you, Silver Stallion?”
The larger man bellowed hysterically.
Leonard winced. Somehow the name didn’t sound as “cool” as when he chose it eleven months earlier.
“You know what the most pathetic thing in this world is, Leonard?” asked the man with the cigarette as he approached slowly.
Looking death in the face, Leonard’s eyes were glued to the glowing embers at the end of the man’s cigarette. He shook his head and gulped. “No sir.”
The man grabbed Leonard’s hair and removed his thick, black-rimmed glasses. He crushed them beneath his boot heel. “A man who comes to his senses too late.”
Tears rolled down Leonard’s face as he nodded in agreement. “Please don’t hurt me!”
The man tossed Leonard to his partner who grabbed the young man’s right arm and ripped it from its socket.
Leonard fell to his knees and pawed at his mangled flesh. “What have you done to me?” he stammered.
“Oops,” sighed the large thug as he raised Leonard’s still-twitching limb aloft. “My bad.”
Leonard’s revulsion was cut short by the beating he could no longer outrun.
The Aerie, the Following Morning, Within the Nest
The WGBS News homepage filled the holographic monitors floating before Oracle’s “Birds of Prey” as she dubbed them. The displays were synched to her laptop. She clicked a link at the bottom of the main page and a story filled the women’s screens. The headline read, “Man Found Dead Near Gotham Docks”.
Her “Birds” sat across from Oracle at a large, kidney-shaped meeting table and scanned the page intently.
Gypsy shook her head then shrugged. “Another murder in Gotham? That’s not so unusual.”
Oracle rolled her wheelchair from behind its custom-designed cutaway on her side of the table. “Unfortunately you’re correct, Cindy. Such headlines are so commonplace they hardly raise an eyebrow these days.”
“So why did this one catch your eye?” Gypsy asked. “Why not one of the others?”
“Aye, Skipper,” Lady Blackhawk added. “Nothing unusual about this one.”
Oracle peered at all three women over the rim of her glasses. “Look closer.”
The three women focused their attention back to the story on their screens.
Gypsy covered her mouth. “My god! They beat him to death with his own arm!”
“I doubt it,” said Flamebird. “He probably bled out first.”
Gypsy and Lady Blackhawk were aghast at her frankness.
“What?” Flamebird asked. “That’s the probable cause of death. He likely died from a loss of blood. The grisly violence was meant to send a message.”
“Bette’s correct,” said Oracle. “However, my interest exceeds the gory details.”
“I see it,” said Flamebird. “What’s a twenty-seven year old, middle class kid with a good job doing on the Gotham docks at night?”
“He’s the sixth such gruesome death in the city this month,” Oracle explained. “The majority of the victims had computer-related backgrounds.”
“Guess it hits home, eh Skipper?” asked Lady Blackhawk.
“A little too close, Zinda” Oracle replied. “I knew Leonard from online groups. He was a good Jewish kid from Jersey, a network engineer. He was supposed to be married in July.”
Lady Blackhawk dropped her head. “Sorry, Skipper.”
“Why the disproportionate number of technosexuals?” Flamebird asked.
Undaunted by the quasi-insult, Oracle fingered the clicker in her hand. “I’ve identified a common thread among the victims.”
The cover of a video game replaced the newspaper’s story on the monitors. A clown bearing an uncanny resemblance to the Joker adorned the front with a macabre grin. He held a gun to the head of a buxom blonde in his grip. A pennant jutted from the barrel with the word “BANG” in bold letters. Over his shoulder the silhouette of Gotham’s skyline rose against the backdrop of a full moon. Written across the top in a bullet-ridden, blood-soaked font was the game’s name, “The Streets of Gotham”.
“He was killed over a video game?” Gypsy asked incredulously. “A little extreme for beating the high score. Don’t you think?”
Oracle shook her head. “Leonard’s murder had nothing to do with high scores, Cindy. Games today are much more complex than those of even a decade ago. Thanks to the internet and social media they’re no longer self-contained worlds. The environment is global, the community experience shared. A few years ago developers introduced the concept of virtual property which was bought and sold with in-game currency. Over time a real-world market developed for the buying and selling of these virtual properties.”
Gypsy leaned forward. “You mean people are paying for power-ups?”
Oracle nodded. “Essentially, yes. But it goes much deeper. Codes are sold to create everything from advanced weaponry to virtual real estate. Serious money often exchanges hands.”
Gypsy shook her head in disbelief. “Why?”
“For as many reasons as there are people who play. In Streets of Gotham personal properties are hack-proof havens for not only gamers but actual criminals as well.”
“And you’re sure this kid was killed over this?” Lady Blackhawk asked.
The screen on the holographic monitors switched to screen shots of Leonard Alberstein’s in-game inventory screen.
“I got this from Leonard’s public profile in the game. You’ll notice that among the items listed is one labeled “the Stallion’s Lair”. This was the secret hideout of his character, the Silver Stallion.”
The girls giggled.
“I’m sorry,” Gypsy added, “but the Silver Stallion? That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard!”
“Maybe, but we’re not here to judge,” Oracle replied. “See the letters OLP in parentheses by the property name? This denotes the item is an offline property. Leonard paid five-thousand big ones for his virtual man-cave.”
Lady Blackhawk whistled. “What was it Barnum said? “There’s a sucker born every minute”?
“Actually it was probably rival con man David Hannum, but let’s not lose sight that a man died here,” Flamebird corrected.
Everyone turned to Bette again.
“Sue me,” she said with a shrug. “I once dated a guy with a circus background.”
Oracle had no right to feel jealous when Bette mentioned her past with Dick but the green-eyed monster stirred anyway. That was her fiancée, or could have been if she hadn’t rejected his marriage proposal. Besides, Bette didn’t antagonize her on purpose. As far as she knew, her boss and her former crush were complete strangers.
“So what’s the plan?” Gypsy asked.
“We divide into two teams,” Oracle answered. “Team one will consist of Gypsy and Lady Blackhawk. There’s an SOG convention at the Gotham Convention Center. I’ve arranged a cover for you. See what you can dig up there.”
“That leaves me,” Flamebird added. “I can’t be a team by myself.”
Oracle nodded. “That’s why I invited someone to join you.”
The Nest doors opened slowly and Black Canary shuffled into the room with the aid of a cane.
“Dinah will be your partner, Bette. The two of you will dive into the game itself.”
“So we play video games while they get to beat feet?” Flamebird asked.
Oracle nodded. “The Streets of Gotham is more than a simple video game. You’ll immerse in its virtual environment via sensory caps and an array of accessories designed to trick your brain into believing what you see and feel is real. You’ll feel every bump and bruise when you’re hit.”
“So we don’t have to hold back?” Black Canary asked.
“Because the degree of realism is so high you can inflict real-life psychosomatic damage,” Oracle replied. “Do no more than necessary to protect yourself.”
Flamebird turned to Black Canary. “Are you sure you’re up for this?”
Black Canary nodded. “Beats another day of physical therapy.”
“She’ll be fine,” Oracle replied. “I’ll monitor your progress offline and pull you out if you get in over your heads. As new characters your skills will be limited. There are surprisingly few cheats available for the game but I’ll do my best to crack the code. The game will place each of you in a random location to begin. Make your way to the main branch of the Gotham Public Library to rendezvous and proceed to 151 West 113th where you’ll find the Stallion’s Lair. Any questions?”
“What are we waiting for?” Flamebird asked. “Let’s kick some virtual ass!”
Within the Virtual World of Streets of Gotham
An hour later Black Canary materialized in a dark alley in the Streets of Gotham. It felt good to move freely but she wasn’t thrilled with the fashion choices available for female characters in the game’s costuming templates. She felt overly-exposed in the skimpy one-piece black leotard with the front open to her belly-button. Only a series of black leather strings kept her bosom from falling out completely. And what self-respecting heroine would choose high-heeled sandals that tied around her calves to fight crime? She was certain horny, fifteen year-old boys designed the game. Her fashion critique was cut short by a chilling scream.
A woman bolted from the backdoor of a business and tore through the alley toward the street. A muscular man in bright red Kevlar armor and yellow boots and gloves burst through the door after her. A matching yellow tri-corner hat topped his long, sandy hair. He dove for the woman and tackled her to the pavement. She tried to fight him off but he overpowered her easily and punched her in the face repeatedly. She begged him to stop.
“Don’t you hold out on me!” the costumed man screamed as he wailed away on the woman. His words were not only audible but appeared over his head in a text box as well. The box identified him as Red Death. “Do you understand me? I set up the tricks and you bring me the money – all of it! If you please me, then I give you your part! That’s the deal!”
Black Canary had seen enough. “Maybe she’s saving for a dream vacation away from all this glitz and glamour.”
The man halted his attack and turned to Black Canary . “Who the hell are you?”
The man released the prostitute and stood. “Well, Black Canary 8075, maybe I should teach you to mind your own business.”
Black Canary summoned Oracle. “What’s this 8075 business he’s jabbering about?”
“It’s your id tag for the identity you’ve chosen,” Oracle replied in her ear. “It differentiates you from the other 8074 players who play as Black Canary.”
“Should I be flattered?” Black Canary asked.
“I think your avatar wears the most clothes of any of them,” Oracle answered.
“No, it is then,” Black Canary added.
“Be careful, Dinah,” Oracle instructed. “He’s fifteenth-level.”
Black Canary rolled her eyes. “Please, the day I can’t take out a Speedy wannabe, is the day I’ll hang up my fishnets.”
“Hold on a sec,” said the villain in his text box. “I need to get a refill.”
“A refill?” Black Canary asked. “Of what?”
“Duh,” the villain answered. “Dr. Pepper. Be back in a sec.”
The villain’s avatar paused. A moment later he returned. “Ok, I’m good. Now where were we? Oh yeah! Prepare to taste the wrath of Red Death!”
Red Death attacked with surprising speed. His left boot caught Black Canary in the breadbasket and knocked the breath out of her. When she sprawled forward he brought his fists down on the back of her head. She tried to sweep his leg but he leaped effortlessly over her attack.
“You’ll get better,” laughed Red Death. “Are you really a girl?”
“Don’t answer…” warned Oracle.
“Of course, I am,” Black Canary replied. “Why would I play as a woman if I weren’t one?”
“Now you’re royally screwed,” Oracle moaned.
Red Death flipped over Black Canary and wrapped his left arm around her throat. His right held her in an arm bar. “Want to chat offline?” Red Death whispered in her ear. “I’ll let you win and you can get a serious power-up for beating someone so many levels higher than you.”
“Are you hitting on me?” Black Canary asked. “How old are you?”
“Fifteen,” Red Death replied. “But I’ll be sixteen soon and I already have a car.”
Black Canary positioned her left foot between Red Death’s feet. She leaned forward and rolled him over her hip, slamming him to the ground.
“That was sweet for a level one!” Red Death gushed as he popped up to his feet. He leaped and pinned Canary to the ground. “You can give me your cell or I kill your character now.”
Black Canary struggled against Red Death’s grip but he was too strong. “Last chance,” he offered.
“Ok, ok,” Black Canary sighed in resignation. “You win! Do you have a pen?”
Red Death laughed. “A pen? Really?”
“Dinah, no,” Oracle begged. “Don’t ever give out personal information online.”
“555-660-2245,” Black Canary huffed. “Now live up to your end of our bargain.”
Red Death helped Black Canary to her feet and smiled. He dropped his arms. “Ok, take me out gorgeous!”
Though her limbs felt unusually sluggish, Black Canary attacked. Her punches and kicks did little damage but the repeated blows took their toll on Red Death’s health. At last his avatar fell and blinked until it disappeared completely. A moment later Black Canary received confirmation that he was offline.
“That was dangerous Dinah,” said Oracle. “You can’t do that online, especially with minors!”
Black Canary laughed. “Relax, O. It’s a rejection number.”
“A what?” Oracle asked.
“A rejection number,” Black Canary explained. “The number dials a pre-recorded message that lets would-be paramours know they’ve been duped.”
“And I thought Red Death was the villain,” Oracle chuckled.
“He may be fifteenth level, but I’ve turned down a guy or two in my day,” Black Canary replied.
“How are you holding up physically?” Oracle asked.
Black Canary shrugged. “I could do this in my sleep but it’s good to see action even in the virtual world. It feels so real.”
“Oh no,” said Oracle.
“What’s wrong?” Black Canary asked.
“Bette’s in trouble,” Oracle replied. “You need to get to the rendezvous point now!”
Black Canary spotted a fire escape and scurried to the rooftops. “The shortest distance between point A and point B is a still a straight line, right?”
Oracle didn’t answer. Black Canary leaped from one building to the next until she reached the main branch of the Gotham Public Library. She climbed out onto a gargoyle and spotted Flamebird making a stand on the white, marble steps below. She was surrounded by the Royal Flush Gang. Black Canary wasted no time. She secured her zip line to the gargoyle and swung from the roof. She slammed into the Royal Flush Gang, scattering them like bowling pins.
“Glad you could drop by,” said Flamebird.
Black Canary released her zip line and tucked it away in her game inventory. “I was just hanging out with my favorite gargoyle and thought I’d drop in for a visit. Nice threads.”
Flamebird was dressed in a costume much like her old one that paid homage to Robin. She rolled her eyes. “It wasn’t my first choice. Can you fight in that hideous thing?”
Black Canary shook her head. “I feel like I’ve been drugged. I’m slow, my moves are limited, and I can’t hit very hard.” She clubbed the Seven of Spades who recovered from her descent from above. He stumbled back but didn’t fall.
“Welcome to the club,” said Flamebird as she kneed the Five of Hearts in the groin. “I may as well be punching peanut butter. What’s with the number after your name?”
There were no numbers above Flamebird’s avatar’s head. “Computer gibberish, I guess,” Black Canary lied.
The Two of Diamonds laughed as he rushed Flamebird. “You dumb broad it means she’s the 8075th player to play as Black Canary. Is Flamebird a real superhero or did you just make her up?”
Flamebird punched him in the nose as his cohorts moved in. “I’m an original!”
The Royal Flush gang closed ranks and drove Black Canary and Flamebird apart. Once they separated the heroes, they attacked. With each blow Black Canary’s health dropped and she found her own attacks less effective. The Eight of Clubs kicked her down the library steps and into the streets.
“Black Canary, look out!” Flamebird shrieked.
Black Canary shielded her eyes from blinding lights approaching. Were they headlights? She rolled toward the sidewalk and barely avoided being hit by a street sweeper. When she stood the Nine of Hearts clocked her across the collar bone with a tire iron. She fell.
Nine of Hearts raised the weapon high but before he could strike her, Black Canary trapped the outside of his right knee with a well-placed kick. He crumpled to the ground in agony.
“I may be a newbie but I’ve been in a scrap or two,” said Black Canary.
For her part Flamebird was doing well. She knocked two gang members’ heads together then pushed them into two other foes, sending the lot of them reeling down the steps. The young woman was impressive but just when it appeared Bette had everything in hand the Jack of Spades fired a gun.
There was an explosion of blood and then Bette slumped to the ground and rolled down the marble steps. A bright red streak followed her body to the ground.
Flamebird, no!” Black Canary cried. She tried to reach her teammate but was overwhelmed by the Royal Flush goons. They quickly wrestled her to the ground.
“Let me up and I’ll give you my phone number!” Black Canary pleaded. She hoped at least one of her attackers would fall for her ruse.
The Jack of Spades stood over Black Canary with his gun in her face. “We’re not here for romance, Blondie!”
Black Canary was getting tired of guns. “This is so getting old.”
The mission was a disaster. Flamebird was injured badly and it didn’t appear Black Canary would fare any better. They needed a miracle.
“O, you have anything else in your bag of tricks?” Black Canary asked.
“Who she talking to?” asked the Two of Diamonds.
The Six of Clubs shrugged. “I don’t know but let’s make this quick. I have a calculus final tomorrow and haven’t studied.”
“Dude, Dr. Strength is a real hard-ass, isn’t he?” the Two of Diamonds shot back.
It was apparent that the gang was made up of real-life friends as their banter devolved into their calculus class and berating their instructor for being so hard. Had they pulled the trigger, the game would have been over.
Even with the reprieve, Black Canary wasn’t sure what she could do about her situation. She couldn’t move. Her foes were stronger, faster, and had her outnumbered.
“Oh hell no!” cried the Two of Diamonds pointing to the rooftops. “We’ve got a Bat at five o’clock!”
The Royal Flush Gang turned their attention skyward. Black Canary craned her neck and peered over their shoulders. She was never so happy to see Batman in her life.
“Well boys, this doesn’t look like your day,” warned a decidedly familiar female voice from above.
“Is that…” asked one of the goons.
“The name’s Batgirl,” Oracle replied as her avatar swung from the library roof. “And you’d better check my level boys, because I have twenty-five levels of ass-kicking with your names written all over it!”
As the Royal Flush Gang scrambled to face the twenty-fifth level Batgirl, Canary propped herself up on her elbows and smiled. “Give ‘em hell, O!”