“I am opposing a social order in which it is possible for one man who does absolutely nothing that is useful to amass a fortune of hundreds of millions of dollars, while millions of men and women who work all the days of their lives secure barely enough for a wretched existence.“Eugene v. debs; “Statement to the court upon being convicted of violating the sedition act”; September 18, 1918
Perhaps Too Convenient
In 1934, there was nothing more exclusive than being a billionaire.
Except, perhaps, being the Man of Steel.
You could count on one hand the number of billionaires in the United States: Lex Luthor and Henry Ford were, somewhat consistently, the wealthiest or second wealthiest man in America, depending on the day of the week that you looked into it. Number four and five were banker and former Secretary of the Treasury, Andrew Mellon, and famed “oil man” H.L. Hunt, respectively.
The third wealthiest man in the United States, as was customary for him, was taking dinner in his home at Wayne Manor, joined by his adoptive family.
Dick Grayson didn’t much care for the food Alfred typically had prepared at Wayne Manor, but tonight they were eating his favorite: barbecued spareribs. A specialty of Alfred’s and one that he, not the cooks, tended to for several hours, starting at an hour that would be very early for most families, Alfred would head out to the pit at 4:30 a.m. to start the charcoal, then come back inside for black coffee. About an hour later, he follows this with placing the “overnight-rubbed” ribs on indirect heat, adding some quantity of additional wood at some point or points after the meat is placed, and then muttering to himself for the next six to seven hours.
Dick Grayson was eleven years old, and had been living with Alfred and Bruce for almost a year when he asked Alfred if he could help with the ribs. Alfred replied that a pit master must be an apprentice first, often for several years, before he receives the blessing of his mentor.
Dick insisted that he wanted to study under Alfred who dismissed him several times before letting him brush the sauce onto the ribs to “sizzle and caramelize,” (the final step in the grilling process). For a number of years, Dick “helped” Alfred with this step, or occasionally with getting Alfred a fresh cup of black coffee.
The apprenticeship Dick Grayson would eventually take on was not one that was conducive to waking up at four thirty in the morning.
So it was that this evening, two of the three men finished their meals while the youngest among them, maroon-stained cloth napkin still tucked into his collar, went on a long trek to the kitchen to get more ribs.
“He’s a growing boy,” noted Alfred.
“I want the next mayor to be an everyman, but I don’t think that picking pork from your teeth in a debate would be a particularly sympathetic look,” retorted Bruce, wiping his fingers clean with a damp, warm towelette. They were available in a lidded, silver chafing bowl in the middle of the dinner table. “Did you have a chance to read this?” Bruce motioned to the brass-fastened “scientific paper” that sat next to Alfred’s elbow.
Non-Röntgenian Vision; An Exploration from Inference was a title that Alfred Pennyworth had toiled over before deciding to move on to the rest of the paper. To call it self-aggrandizing or non sequitur would be to understate the chaos of the piece.
From what Alfred understood, it was about Superman’s ability to see or not see through certain materials, and theorized that he was unable to discern materials behind lead shielding.
“If he’s unable to see through such materials…” Alfred’s mouth was agape.
“Convenient, wouldn’t you say?” Bruce replied, beaming.
Bruce had come to the same conclusion on his read of the paper, and had set off to do some research. That netted him what appeared to be an unremarkable story about a Dutch businessman who was buying up lead mines and traders, with the hopes to present a demonstration of its ability to stop Superman surveilling you.
The experiment, which was hardly an experiment was a challenge to Superman’s ability to see through lead; the dutchman offered a reward of one hundred thousand USD to an orphanage in Metropolis’ Southside if Superman would show up and prove, conclusively, that he could see through the material.
The Man of Steel didn’t show up, and orders for NIVAShield® were overwhelming.
Dick reappeared licking his thumbs with a plate full of ribs (and one jutting out of his mouth) and joined the other two men at the table.
“S’goin’ on?” Dick said, finding their excitement inscrutable.
“It would appear our friend,” Alfred looked quickly toward the ceiling, “has trouble seeing through lead.”
“Weird,” Dick snapped back, chewing a bit of fat off of the bone in his hand. A beat, then “Oh! The mi––“ he stopped himself before speaking the words aloud. “Well if we’re going downstairs, I guess I better set these back in the kitchen. Can’t take them down there. Mildew everywhere. Too damp. But holy cow, are these good. They’re always good Al, but these taste like they came from an actual holy cow.”
“I do suspect that the cow who once contained these ribs has a few holes in it,” Alfred quipped in one of his dry, almost English, bouts of humor.
Myotis lucifugus, or “Little Brown Bats” are a species of mouse-eared vesper bats commonly found in New Jersey.
There are two types of batcall: constant frequency, and frequency modulated.
Constant frequency batcalls are used to detect objects in a bat’s range, and frequency modulated calls are used to determine the distance of those objects: prey, predators, walls, et cetera.
Batcalls are microsecond-long pulses of audio that are frequently at the upper range of human hearing if not outside of that range altogether. Echolocation, a sense also used by dolphins, uses silences between the pulsed calls to form a more accurate assessment of a bat’s environment; the space between silence and a bat’s identification of its unique call tell the bat a more-or-less exact distance between the bat itself and the other objects in the night sky.
Leading chiropterologists theorize that bats use the Doppler effect to determine their place in space as they fly, hunt, or roost.
Before the proliferation of humans, bats lived mostly in forests and natural caverns on every continent in the world, save Antarctica. Humans have created problems and solutions for bats; they are an extraordinarily adaptable creature, and for each cave that became a tourist attraction or forest that became a mansion, a church, or warehouse, or an old mine would become divested and abandoned. And bats are willing to use abandoned mines or industrial sites as hibernacula (no relation) when a cavern is not readily available.
One such abandoned mine was located beneath an overgrown pine barren on what is now described as the “western acreage” of Wayne Manor. Argentiferous Galena is Lead Sulfide which has a higher-than normal occurrence of Silver.
When the mine was active, it was an economically important site for the jobs it provided in Gotham County, but also for the minerals being extracted. However, as the deposits of lead grew less accessible, and the occurrence of silver lower and lower in concentration, the mine became more expensive to operate than the resources it provided.
It was, at last, fully decommissioned for mining operations following a land rights dispute, and eventually purchased as a parcel of land that may have been originally intended to be developed; speculators found that the original disputes persisted and that developing above a soft-metal extraction operation in a state of disrepair was the type of thing you only did if you were interested in making all of your money in insurance fraud, which was to say nothing of the difficulty of providing unpolluted water to any development that may have sprung forth.
And so it was that the property became a bit of a quagmire for anyone investing in it, but became an ideal roost for more than 75,000 little brown bats.
It also became the base of operations for a criminal organization in Gotham called the Yīnyǐng. Conjecturally, the bookmakers, capos, and crime bosses in Gotham’s once-flourishing ecosystem of underworld crime suspected that there were as many as fifty Yīnyǐng. And they began to suspect that the Yīnyǐng were recruiting new members from their own foot soldiers.
The reality, which is so frequently less complex than Gotham’s underground would have you believe, was that being a henchman was not particularly rewarding work.
When faced with the choice of making three sawbucks a week, and possibly be confronted by what one tabloid described as “demon shades sent straight from hell!” or make almost twenty-four dollars a week at one of the factory jobs in downtown Gotham (and, if you put in your time, you could actually have a share of the profits!). Well, a man, honest or otherwise, could be nudged into making good choices when truly good choices were available to him. And what is a henchman if not a man? A good job with an honest living and a willingness to “look the other way when it came to criminal records” wasn’t a hard choice at all, and it was a good choice, to boot.
In fact, the mythos of the Yīnyǐng were much larger than the organization itself. There was usually only one patrolling member, and there had never been more than three people who could truly call themselves “initiates.”
And at this moment, in an abandoned mine filled with little brown bats emitting the screeches of dusk’s first hunt, the Yīnyǐng: Alfred Pennyworth, Bruce Wayne, and Dick Grayson convened their clandestine business.
“So, am I correct to assume this is about the campaign?” Dick Grayson said, turning his eyes to the ceiling of the cave.
“As it happens, your assumptions are correct,” came a snappy reply from Bruce. “There is evidence –– though not sufficient evidence –– that suggests that his ability to visualize private settings is hindered by a natural resource that we happen to very conveniently have in abundance,” Bruce spread his arms wide. Life wasn’t a story, but sometimes, reality felt quite like a plot device.
Dick cradled his chin in his hand, tapping his index finger against his lips, and thought. Bruce noticed he and Alfred were both doing the same, then stood up straight and opened his mouth to speak.
“We’ve been talking about developing some experiments to test what kind of things get his attention,” he began. “Al and I actually began to perform one, but thought that it might give too much away. We can do quite a bit without exposure, and certainly without putting us or the people we care about at great risk.”
“And you two wiseguys didn’t think that someone else, or multiple someone else’s might already be deep into this ‘research?’ Why perform experiments ourselves, or allow unknowing subjects to perform them when we can just cheat?” Dick wasn’t as talented a thinker as Alfred or Bruce, but he had a talent for putting things plainly, and for taking an outside view on things.
“Do you really think we can afford to trust someone else’s observations when we’re talking about literal Godlike power? Su––Saturn is all four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Is total annihilation worth the risk?” Alfred was blunt, and both Dick and Bruce had to consider his words carefully.
“I think we may be letting perfect be the enemy of good here,” Dick quipped.
“Perfect beats good every single time; and we may very well be facing a perfect threat, an unstoppable force that’s also an immovable object,“ Bruce cut in. “…and thus far all of our defenses are superficial at best.” He walked off toward a large desk with a switchboard array –– complete with an integrated microfiche, wireless, two-way communication radio, a telephotography machine, and many other gadgets of variable utility –– and began to sketch.
Alfred Pennyworth and Dick Grayson were developing a simple verbal conversation code while Bruce Wayne sketched feverishly. Simple substitutions of words like “Saturn” for “Superman” or “Apollyon” for “Alien” would be easy enough to learn for now, even if they didn’t place a particularly high priority on operational security.
“When Mister Bruce is working on his high concept ideas, it is best to give him time,” was a maxim that Alfred Pennyworth often issued to anyone bold enough to even appear to have an inclination to be a bother when Bruce was holding pencil and pad. “He once took two years to develop a preliminary list of traits that a master detective would have,” Alfred further explained to Dick.
As dusk more forcefully asserted itself into evening, the din of the bats began to wane as more and more of them left to hunt, and Alfred and Dick could be seen discussing and demonstrating sparring techniques. Bruce stood up from his workstation, murmured something to himself, and approached, sketches and notes in hand.
“Well Bruce, lead is a soft metal and easy to work with, but…” Dick opened his mouth to continue, then closed it and thought for a moment. “But a couple hundred bits of lead in this armor isn’t going to be enough to stop a guy who’s supposed to be ‘more powerful than a locomotive.’”
“You’ve missed a detail,” Bruce responded, smiling a bit to himself.
Alfred relieved Dick of the sketches, turning them around in his hand while the latter hovered over them, trying to read them upside down.
“Tubes,” remarked Alfred. “And I see our friend Vlad is back.” Bruce rolled his eyes at that. “But what is inside the tubes, Mr. Stoker?”
“Non-Newtonian fluid,” Bruce gushed.
“Hm,” uttered Alfred.
“Hey, Holy Roman Empire, can we have that in something other than latin, please?”
Bruce pinched the bridge of his nose, annoyed at the way Dick sometimes reveled so willfully in his own ignorance.
“Non-Newtonian fluids don’t follow the traditional expectations of liquids,” Alfred supplied. “For example: your blood runs rapidly through your veins as pressure is supplied by your pumping heart, but it –– usually –– leaves a cut slowly. But what will this do Mister Bruce?”
“I’m reasonably confident it will break a fall. But better than that, if my hypothesis is correct, it’ll possibly work as an on-demand glider and maybe even stop bullets.” Bruce was trumpeting the words, but then pulled back. “I should revise that. It should slow bullets down enough to make them much less lethal.”
“But Saturn is basically an omnipotent god from beyond the stars. How will this stop him?”
“Well, I don’t even know if this will work,” Bruce began, “but short, manual bursts of pressurized gas into the tubes will cause the cornstarch solution to thicken in the chest piece.” He pointed to his sketch. “Between that and the lead birdshot scattered throughout the innermost layer, slugs should slow down to the point that they don’t kill. Now here, in the cape though, that’s where it becomes more interesting. The capillaries in the cape have a constant flow of pressurized gas when you want to use them, which stiffens them into almost a Da Vinci glider shape –– yes Al, like bat wings –– when held close to the body, it acts like a parachute, but, when held out from the body, it should make jumping to an adjacent rooftop considerably less reliant on the initial jump.”
“I saw him in Metropolis. I don’t know if he was moving at his top speed, but force still equals mass times velocity. If he’s as heavy…or dense rather…as I think he is, he could shatter a human with a punch. But the goal of this isn’t to survive a punch from him, it’s hoping he’ll hold back so that we conceivably could survive an escape from him, and make it much less convenient for him to pursue. If this has the utility of making Gotham’s underworld believe that we’re also metahumans, well, all the better. ”
“Won’t gas be too heavy?” Dick asked skeptically. “Or run out before getting to the next rooftop?”
“No, I don’t think so. In the armor, just quickly hitting the gas when you hear the gunshot should increase the viscosity of the liquid enough so that a bullet would hit something already viscous –– that’s why you don’t need four inches of fluid in the armor –– as for gliding, after a moment, the upward force of the air while falling should be be enough to keep the veins thick and sustain the glide.” Bruce held up a small, silver cartridge. “I think a dozen or two of these attached to a utility belt would do the trick. They’ll need to be refilled before every patrol, but they’re cheap, light, and, ideally, won’t even impact maneuverability too much.”
“Sounds like it’s going to be a late evening,” advised Alfred.
“Should I assume this won’t be a patrol night?” asked Dick.
“We’re going to be able to do some testing tonight, but maybe not in-field,” answered Bruce. A beat, then: “Actually, maybe there is someone I could drop in on.”