Batman nightwalker, p.13
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       Batman: Nightwalker, p.13

           Marie Lu
 
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  “And the rest of the conversation?” Draccon asked over her shoulder as she grabbed a thick black binder from her top shelf and pulled out a form.

  Bruce opened his mouth, still torn about how to tell Draccon about Madeleine’s recounting of her mother’s arrest—but what came out instead was “She asked me about my parents. So I told her.”

  “Then I’m glad we’re no longer sending you down there,” Draccon said, shaking her head. “It isn’t worth endangering you to risk getting some potential information out of her.” She sighed, then knelt to pull a container of folders from her bottom shelf. “Ah, here are your court papers.” For a moment, she disappeared from sight.

  Bruce thanked Detective Draccon for her concern, but a rumble of doubt lingered in the back of his mind.

  What if Madeleine was confiding in him?

  And as Draccon searched for his paperwork, Bruce reached for the document showing Madeleine’s profile. He quietly rolled it up and tucked it into the inner pocket of his jacket. He needed to get to the bottom of this girl’s mysteries; he needed to get all the information he could. And he needed to do it without the police looking over his shoulder.

  The next day, when Alfred dropped Bruce off at the entrance circle of WayneTech’s new labs, Bruce felt exhausted. His dreams had been a mess—prison halls bathed in bloody light, stairs that led down into darkness, a girl curled up tight in her inmate uniform, a menacing figure looming over him. He had dreamed of his hand against the glass, of Madeleine’s hand pressed against the opposite side, and of her telling him to be careful.

  “You seem tired,” Lucius said as he greeted him by the entrance. He was dressed all in white today, the color a striking contrast against his black skin.

  Bruce gave his mentor a smile as he fell into step with him. “Thanks. You look great, too,” he replied.

  Lucius let out a chuckle. “Glad your time at Arkham’s coming to an end soon.”

  Had Bruce already been at Arkham for so long? The dirty buckets of water and the menial labor would soon be far behind him, but so would the strange, secretive, brilliant girl locked away in the basement level, the seeming holder of information on the Nightwalkers.

  “We’ve been hard at work perfecting the smallest details,” Lucius was saying as they cut through the main lobby. The mention of Bruce’s name snapped him out of his reprieve. He looked at Lucius as the man pressed a hand against the monitor at one end of a set of sliding glass doors, then waited as Bruce did the same. Two researchers offered them each a white coat and a pair of goggles. “If Gotham City is to use our technology as a part of their security and justice system, we’ll need to make sure everything feels foolproof. The citizens need to have full faith in us, as does the city council.” He looked at Bruce. “As do you.”

  Heading down one of the lab’s corridors, Bruce felt a sense of déjà vu. He had walked these halls with his father back when Lucius was still an intern; now it felt oddly natural that Lucius would do the same with Bruce to help him learn the ropes. Thomas Wayne’s work could be seen everywhere in Wayne Industries—and especially here, in the experimental labs, Bruce could tell that the sleek lines of the halls and architecture were directly influenced by the discerning eye of his father.

  At last, they stopped before a set of metal double doors stretching from the floor right up to the ceiling. Bruce straightened in anticipation. He had been to other parts of the building dozens of times—but these doors led into the prototype factory. The last time he was in here, he was a child, and his father was still alive.

  Lucius grinned over his shoulder at Bruce while one of the other researchers typed a code into a panel beside the doorway. The panel beeped, turning green, and they walked inside.

  The room looked even larger than Bruce remembered. A metal lattice of beams crisscrossed the ceiling, the space lit up by hundreds—thousands—of lights. Around them loomed objects of all shapes and sizes: several remodeled and fully customized Humvees, encased with dark metal plates and shielded tires; sheets of razor-thin metal erected one after another in a grid; an entire row of metal racks, each one holding what looked like arm cannons that belonged in science fiction. While one of the researchers asked Lucius a question, Bruce browsed the racks, picking up a few items and inspecting them.

  He paused on a small, square device, its entire top surface a screen. When he turned it over, he saw a series of frequencies printed in the plastic.

  “Oh, that,” Lucius called out from the end of the rack, shrugging as he caught sight of Bruce analyzing the item. “It’s just a repair device. You might want that for your system at home. Its frequencies will reset your electronics if they’re on the fritz.”

  Bruce nodded casually back at Lucius, but when the man returned to talking with the researchers, Bruce popped open the back cover of the device. Madeleine’s words now came back to him, as did the memory of her staring up at her ceiling. If he could redo some of the settings on this device, he could fool it into temporarily scrambling the security cams at Arkham. With this, he could at least get to Madeleine if there was an emergency or if the Nightwalkers attacked again and he needed more information from her.

  Bruce deactivated the device’s alarm so that he could take it out of the room. Then he slipped it into his pocket and headed back to join Lucius, who was standing in front of a display.

  “What’s this?” Bruce asked.

  Lucius grinned. “Something you’ll find impressive, I think.”

  The display showcased an opaque black helmet and a black armored body suit made of latticed fabric. It gleamed under the light as if entirely made of metal, but its texture made it clear that it was as foldable and bendable as silk, armor that seemed capable of molding to fit its wearer. Bruce leaned down to study its surface closely, admiring the light reflecting off it.

  “We’ve been working on protective gear,” Lucius went on. “This is our latest experiment in wearable, bulletproof fabric, with reinforced links like microscopic chain mail, strong as steel, comfortable enough for the wearer to make full leaps and twists. Still in beta testing, of course, and not ready for prime time yet. But it can double the strength of a human. The navy commissioned it two years ago. It’s been quite a lucrative contract for us.”

  Bruce nodded along. This suit would have come in handy when he headed into the tunnel below the Bellingham building.

  They walked down several more rows before Lucius stopped them. An open row yawned to either side, dividing the lab in half, and on the other side, Bruce saw a series of cyborg-like machines, each of their metallic legs and arms as thick as his waist. Double rotors attached to their backs seemed to give them flight capabilities, and two thin lines of blue-gray light shone on their heads like a pair of narrowed eyes.

  Lucius stopped beside one of the machines and held out a hand in its direction. “Now, this! This is what you’ve been waiting to see.”

  Bruce stared up at the machine’s eyelike lights. These are the drones. It appeared to stare back at him, as if it were eerily aware of him. If Lucius was going for intimidation, he succeeded. “How do they work?” he asked, trying to tear his eyes away from the piercing gaze.

  “Well,” Lucius said, “let’s bring one out and demonstrate.”

  The drone nearest to them stirred to life, and its eyes began to glow a steady blue. Immediately, it seemed to detect them standing in front of it.

  “Ada,” Lucius said, nodding at the bot. No sooner than he said this name, the robot’s head swiveled in his direction.

  “Mr. Fox,” it replied.

  “Now,” Lucius went on, turning back to Bruce, “Ada—or our Advanced Defense Armament—has already decided, based on our heart rates, the electric signals our bodies give off, and the body language that we are all using, that you and I are friends. It has also swept the Internet to gather information about us both. Hand me your phone.”

  Bruce did as he asked. Lucius took it, held it up to his own so that the two devices were touchin
g, and installed something on Bruce’s phone. Bruce watched carefully. Lucius returned the phone a moment later. On its screen, Bruce saw an app displaying blue-and-white silhouettes of himself and Lucius, color-coding them both into a FRIENDSHIP category.

  “Now, if it were to detect someone as hostile,” Lucius went on, “it would immediately react in an appropriate manner.”

  “And how does it know if someone’s hostile?”

  “Body language. An aggressive stance. It can also understand what the person is saying, and certain words will trigger its hostility detector.” Lucius hunched his shoulders forward at the bot, then narrowed his eyes and held up his fists. “Allow me to demonstrate,” he called to Bruce without shifting his eyes away from the machine.

  Ada’s stance instantly became rigid, and the limbs unfurled, revealing two embedded sets of weapons attached to each side. It straightened, towering momentarily over Lucius. “Stand down, or you will face arrest.” At the same time, a metallic shield unfurled from one of its arms and stretched out before Bruce and the others, so fast that he barely had time to see it happen. Bruce instantly sprang back, his hands going up in defense. When Lucius put his arms up as if surrendering, the bot detected the movement and spoke again.

  “Thank you for cooperating, Mr. Fox,” the drone said. Even in Bruce’s excitement, the words sent a chill down his spine.

  “What does it do if you don’t cooperate?” he asked.

  Lucius tapped the button on his phone again, and the drone immediately went back into a passive stance. “Ada’s number one objective is to protect the officers under its charge. It will be in defensive mode at all times, and will reserve offensive modes as a last resort, when it can sense that a dangerous perpetrator is about to attack.” As Lucius delved further into the detailed inner workings, Bruce stepped forward to inspect the drone’s joints. Lucius popped open a panel on the drone’s side, pointing out a series of circuits. “Had I run away or struggled, for instance, Ada would reach out and restrain me calmly. It’s also programmed not to attack its fellow drones. They won’t open fire on each other.”

  “Impressive,” Bruce said, watching intently as Lucius showed off the wiring behind a second panel on the drone.

  “We are proposing that one of these drones accompany each police squad, and several join each SWAT team in the city. They can offer an image of assurance, boost the morale and confidence of their human counterparts, as well as act as a lightning-fast defense, protecting the lives of our city’s officers on even the most dangerous streets.”

  Bruce kept his eyes fixed on the drone’s. He had never seen AI this responsive before. His mind whirled, trying to piece together how Lucius had accomplished this. There had been an earlier drone, he remembered, a flying one that Lucius had conceptualized and scrapped years ago. Bruce thought back through the code and hardware he’d seen working in that. Had Lucius expanded on it into this?

  Madeleine would like this.

  The thought flashed through his head, here and gone in an instant. He blinked, embarrassed. She was a criminal, the type of person this drone was designed to arrest in the first place. Why would he care if she could understand enough about this technology to find it interesting?

  “Ada can fold itself into several different sizes,” Lucius went on, nodding to the bot and tapping a few more buttons on his app. As they looked on, the bot’s metal legs elongated until it stood nearly twice as tall as it originally did—and then it furled itself back down, farther and farther, limbs contracting until it stood at almost exactly the same height as Bruce. “This allows it to have a stunning degree of mobility as it goes about its protective duties.”

  “When will this roll out as a beta?” Bruce asked.

  “During the gala,” Lucius replied, folding his hands behind his back. “We’ll have it there in place of a human security detail, to impress our guests.”

  “Nice,” Bruce replied, but his thoughts were already returning to the Nightwalkers. He still didn’t know why they were stockpiling so many weapons, nor when they might strike next. His hand brushed against the frequency device he had stashed in his pocket. If he needed to talk to Madeleine again, he would need that, and if he had another confrontation like the one at the Bellingham building, he would desperately need the protection offered by the tech in this room.

  He turned to Lucius. “Can you add me into the system so that I can come in here on my own? We won’t get a chance to meet like this very often for the next few months.” He cleared his throat and gave Lucius as earnest a look as he could. “I would love to study the drones a little more.”

  “Of course.” Lucius bowed his head respectfully, a gesture he used to make to Bruce’s father. “This is your corporation, after all.”

  That night, Bruce found himself lost in another nightmare. He was wandering the dark halls of his home again. The mansion seemed to stretch endlessly in all directions, halls turning into study rooms turning into balconies overlooking nothing but shadows. Alfred was nowhere to be seen. Bruce stopped in the dining room. Someone was lounging on the couch.

  The storm raged—in Bruce’s dream, one of the large windows in the parlor shattered, scattering glass everywhere. A cold wind blew in, putting out the fire in a puff of smoke. Bruce cringed, throwing up an arm instinctively to shield his face—but when he looked again at the darkened parlor, the mysterious silhouette was no longer there. A hint of fear hummed underneath his skin, and he felt a sudden urge to run.

  A hand touched his arm. He whirled around.

  It was Madeleine.

  She looked ghostly pale in the night, an apparition, beautiful. Her dark hair hung straight and shining over her shoulders, glinting blue underneath the slivers of light slicing the floors and walls. She smiled at him as if she had been expecting him, and Bruce felt himself smile back even as his skin prickled where her hand had rested. She wasn’t supposed to be here, was she? Had he forgotten something? She was a criminal, sitting behind a thick glass barrier at Arkham Asylum. So what was she doing here? It was difficult to understand things when he was around her, as if everything that would have seemed logical only a moment ago had now turned upside down, inside out.

  “Don’t you remember?” she murmured, drawing close to him. “You got me out and brought me here.” Her voice was very quiet, raw with pain, and Bruce felt a tug on his heart at the sound. Her hands were small and cold against his chest.

  Bruce leaned toward her until they were both against the wall. It took him a moment to realize that there was blood on her hands, and it left dark streaks on his skin.

  “Do you think my brother deserved to suffer like he did?” she asked.

  No. Of course not. Bruce winced as her words brought up the familiar feelings of his parents’ absence, and as he looked away, Madeleine’s arms came up to wrap around his neck. She touched his chin, gently guiding his face back toward her.

  “Tell me the truth,” she murmured. Her eyes were so dark, the pupils black and indistinguishable from the irises. “You can’t stop thinking about me.”

  I can’t.

  She smiled. “And what exactly do you think of me, Bruce?”

  Your lips. Your eyes. The twist of your smile. The blood on your hands. I want you. I’m afraid of you.

  Bruce started to shake his head and step away—he knew she shouldn’t be here, that every fiber of his being told him that he was in grave danger—but she pulled him back toward her, tugging him down until his lips hovered over hers. Then he was kissing her, and her soft body was against his, and this—this—was everything he ever wanted. Why did he want to leave? She returned his kiss desperately. He felt light-headed—every muscle in his body had tensed in desire and in terror. He had never been with someone like her before, never been in the arms of a girl who genuinely scared him. It felt wrong, sickening…and yet, it was the greatest feeling in the world. He couldn’t pull away. He could only continue kissing her lips, then the line of her jaw, then her neck. He wanted to he
ar her sharp intake of breath, her whispering his name over and over. She wanted to be here, in his arms.

  Run, Bruce. She is here to kill you.

  Somewhere behind him came the unmistakable click of a gun barrel. Bruce flinched away from Madeleine and swung around. He was staring at a dark, blank wall. He whirled back—but Madeleine had vanished. The halls seemed to warp around him, closing in and then stretching out, and he shook his head, still dizzy from the heat of her lips on his. A sudden, bone-deep fear crept into his stomach. They were not alone here.

  Nightwalkers. They’re going to seal me in. He had to get out of the house.

  Bruce turned and ran. His steps seemed to drag through the air. He reached the front door and yanked it open, but instead of leading him outside, it only opened back into the same hall he’d just escaped from. Impossible. The broken window in the foyer was now intact. What little light there had been streaming through the windows now darkened, encasing Bruce in shadows. Somewhere in the darkness, he saw a silhouette run by. More footsteps. Whispers. The sound of a sharp object against metal.

  “Madeleine!” he called out.

  “I’m right here,” she replied behind him.

  Bruce bolted out of his dream with a rasping gasp. A roll of thunder echoed from outside, and tree branches were slapping hard against the glass of his windowpane. He sat upright in bed for a few seconds, breathing heavily, his eyes still wide and darting around his room.

  Had it really been a dream? Were the Nightwalkers here, in his home, sealing him in like Madeleine’s former victims, and hunting him down? He could still feel the burn of Madeleine’s lips, the warmth of her arms around his neck. His chest was slick with a sheen of cold sweat. Bruce stayed where he was until his breathing finally calmed down and the memory of his dream had started to fade, taking his terror with it. The storm continued to rage.

  It was just a dream. And yet, somewhere in his subconscious, he could sense Madeleine there, was both terrified of her and filled with the desire for her in his arms.

 
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