Sunday, October 28, 2007

Vasilissa the Beauty (Part 6 of 12)

"There was a need for an all-weather training and test facility that was not too far away from downtown Gotham City, so Wayne Enterprises built this," began Lucius Fox, as Sasha Bordeaux looked around. "The lighting up above can simulate nearly any kind of lighting conditions. Harnesses attached to the ceiling keep trainees from getting hurt if they fall." Sasha looked up as some of the lights came on.

It was an immense indoor facility, perhaps seven stories tall. It resembled a street of Gotham City, and along either side were facades that simulated different kinds of buildings. One facade looked like an apartment or condominium, another across from it looked like a business. The facades had balconies and other features. Farther down the room, on one side, there was a facade that looked like the side of a mountain, where climbers would scale a roughly vertical rock face. Judging from the distance between the facades and the wall of the room they were in, it was likely there were rooms inside the windows in the facades on either side of the facility, possibly even two deep in some places.

"We have contracted this out to the Gotham Police Department, especially for their SWAT team, as well as to the Gotham Fire Department and the Gotham Bureau of Investigation Hostage Rescue Team. It has also been used as a set to film movies, as well as for various types of television shows. Contestants on one show had to climb that vertical rock face over there," Fox said, pointing down the "street" as they slowly walked through the facility.

"In the early days, Mr. Wayne used to come in here two, three and even four times a week, usually at night, when the facility was available, to try out various kinds of equipment. He used to get in quite a workout climbing, rappelling.... We developed a special gun that fired a projectile across the street, imbedding in the facade opposite. The projectile carried a cable, which then stretched from where the operator was," Fox pointed up to a balcony on the right, "to where the operator wanted to go," Fox pointed up to another balcony on the left. "The operator then connected a harness he was wearing to the cable, and slid across the street on the cable. It was kind of a makeshift, portable commando wire. Another similar application of the same technology allowed the operator to rise vertically several stories very fast. There was a great deal of interest in this kind of technology among various government agencies, as well as among adventurers who were always on the lookout for a new way to have fun."

Fox looked around, smiling, then turned to Sasha. "One customer was interested in climbing a glacier in Iceland, and bought some of our experimental equipment. There were liability issues, and our legal department wrote up a long contract that basically stated he was getting his equipment 'as is', with no warranty expressed or implied, and the customer had to pay extra to cover the cost of having the contract written up!"

Sasha smiled as they looked around some more. "Bruce has a great deal of upper body strength and endurance. Just on a piece of rope, he can climb several stories very rapidly." Fox looked at Sasha again. "He was so good at it, that the staff made monkey jokes about him, and someone even went so far as to leave a bunch of exotic bananas on a rock ledge near the top there," Fox explained, pointing at the rock facade. "Bruce was so proud of himself when he went up, got the bananas, and was back down on the ground in under ten seconds, using our equipment," Fox added, nodding.

"Does he still come down here to work out?" Sasha asked, her interest in trying it herself quite evident.

"Not anymore," Fox said. He turned toward Sasha, lowering his voice, and continued, "That lower level under Wayne Manor that we were talking about...?"

Sasha nodded, as they stopped walking.

"It is an immense facility, similar to this one. There is a gymnasium down there, a computer room, a garage, and a training room similar to this one, though smaller. Bruce trains there mostly, now, coming in here a couple of times a month, usually to test something new."

Sasha looked at Fox, puzzled. "It was designed and maintained by Wayne Enterprises employees, although much of the labor was provided by contract workers from abroad who came in on special visas just for that project. Secrecy was a consideration."

"Why? What does Mr. Wayne do that requires such secrecy?"

"Nothing, really, he's just a little eccentric. Still, we do respect his right to privacy."

"Should you be telling me all this?"

"Mr. Wayne specifically asked me to, as he thought you might be interested in working in that facility and having access to it."

"That's what the additional confidentiality agreements were about, the ones that I signed yesterday?"

"Exactly." Fox looked back down the room, and the two of them continued walking. "Out in California, there was one eccentric lady, incredibly wealthy, who was convinced that if ever she stopped building her house, she would die, so for many years, work went on, around the clock, adding on entire wings to her house. It has hundreds of rooms, many of which she had never even been in when she died. It has hallways that lead to dead ends, secret passages, false doors.... Bruce Wayne is certainly not like that, but he does have some peculiarities about him, and his underground facility is among the peculiarities of the Wayne family. That facility had originally been a place where slaves escaping from the South could find temporary refuge, back in the days of the Underground Railroad. It was just a cave back then, of course. In the 1950's, with the Cold War in full swing, Bruce's grandfather had a bomb shelter put in down there. That is now the panic room. The bomb shelter had a secret trap door leading down to a sub-level. The sub-level was nicknamed 'The Batcave' because of all the bats that lived down there and bothered the workers when they were working."

Fox paused. "Again, all of this information about Wayne Manor is specifically what is covered in the confidentiality agreement, so don't talk about this with anyone. The general rule we have is not to talk about it at all outside of the underground facility at Wayne Manor. The only exceptions are when we need to plan here the work we do there, and when we are bringing a new person onto the team, as I am with you."

Sasha nodded, and they continued walking slowly.

They stopped again. "You know that once, when Bruce was young, he fell down a well and was trapped in a cave underneath Wayne Manor. Now in his adult life, it is like he has to go down there again and again, perhaps trying to overcome the trauma he suffered as a child," Fox explained, then paused. "I don't know, maybe he's trying to prove something to himself."

Sasha thought about Bruce Wayne. "He seems like he has things so together, except that he comes off as rather shallow sometimes. I guess there is more to him than meets the eye," she sighed.

"There's more to all of us than meets the eye, Sasha."

The woman, Marina Raatko, was crying, and it was hard for her and Talia al Ghul to understand each other's speech, but they were connecting on a more important level, woman-to-woman. Somehow, between broken English and broken Russian, with gestures, and building on the basis of this woman-to-woman connection, they were communicating.

"This is all I have left of her," Marina said in Russian.

"I will bring this back to you, with her," Talia promised.

It was late at night again, and he was wide awake again.

Silently, he drifted the corridors of Wayne Manor, wandering around, thinking. Something was there, drifting somewhere in the dark, lonely depths of the back of his mind, just as he was drifting the dark, lonely corridors of Wayne Manor.

From high up on the third floor balcony, a figure watched him down below, as he criss-crossed the darkness in the main gallery. A sad feeling came over the figure, as he watched the obsession and loneliness of the son he never had, a son whose time with his own father had been cut tragically short.

Down below, drifting, he paused outside a small room. The room had a light on, and he stopped in the glow through the open door. Up above, Alfred smiled, as he knew that Bruce Wayne had stopped outside the room where Wayne's bodyguard, Sasha Bordeaux, was studying.

Wayne listened, as a song faintly drifted from the room. It was a foreign song, yet one that was hauntingly familiar to him.

He stepped up to the door and knocked gently.

"Sasha?" he asked.

She looked up and smiled. He often wanted to go out late at night, and as his bodyguard, she would get ready and take him. Sometimes, though, he disappeared, and she didn't know where he was. It was important to encourage him to have her accompany him. Besides, it was usually an interesting break from her studies to do what was supposed to be her job and take Bruce Wayne downtown.

"Good evening. Are you going out?" she asked. Wayne found her accent interesting; actually, he really found it exotic and charming, but he did not want to acknowledge or admit that.

"I hadn't planned on it... I... can't sleep...." he hesitated, listening to the last few notes of a melancholy song that brought back memories for him. "That song... it sounds so sad. What is it about? What is its name?"

"In my country, it has been very popular for many years now. In English, it is usually called 'Moscow Nights', although the title translates more accurately as 'Evenings on the Outskirts of Moscow'. Do you like it?" Sasha's smile warmed. Her feelings for Bruce had warmed, too, as she had gotten to know him. He was a strong, smart, successful man, but in so many ways, he was like a little boy. She knew his parents had been murdered in front of him many years ago, and it was like part of him froze in that moment. Alfred was in some ways like a father to him, but she could tell that he never really coped with the loss of his real father, and that he especially never coped with the loss of his mother.

"Yes, I... it's just that... the song brings back memories."

Intrigued, Sasha studied him. "How is that? You have heard it before?"

"Yes, I... I heard it in Moscow some years back. I was just passing through, and spent a few days there on my way back to Gotham City from a trip to Asia. I heard that song several times during those few days."

Another song was already beginning to play, but Sasha reached over to the CD player and paused it. "Let me play it for you again," she offered.

Bruce sat down and listened, as the music filled the room with a warmth that matched the warm glow from the lamp and the warmth of Sasha's smile. The warmth from the music was a sincere but somewhat melancholy warmth, longing, distant, yet very present.

As the final notes died down, Bruce Wayne felt calmed, yet apprehensive, too, as if his temporary happiness would fade with the last of the notes.

"What is it about?"

Sasha smiled a patient smile. For the first time, she was connecting with Bruce Wayne on a personal level, instead of on a professional level. She had been hoping for this to happen for weeks now.

"Let me try to translate it for you. It will not be as poetic in English as it is in Russian," she smiled. Looking down at the lyrics, she thought for a moment, remembering the land she was from, took a deep breath, and began to translate.

"Even whispers are not heard in the garden,
Everything has died down until dawn.
If you only knew how dear to me
Are these evenings on the outskirts of Moscow.

The river moves but remains unmoving,
All bathed in a silver moonlight.
A song is heard but remains unheard,
In the silence of these nights.

Why do you, my dear, look askance,
With your head lowered so?
It is hard to express, yet hard to hold back,
Everything that is in my heart.

But the dawn is becoming brighter now,
So please, just be good,
And you, too, don't ever forget,
These summer nights on the outskirts of Moscow."

Her eyes closed, she was carried away to her country. As she slowly opened her eyes, smiling, she looked at Bruce, and noticed a sad look on his face. A tear formed in his eye, as if something had pierced his soul.

"Thank you," he whispered, then got up and hurried out of the room and disappeared down the hallway.

"Bruce," she called after him, and got up, hurrying out. Looking down the hallway, she paused, not knowing exactly where he had disappeared to. The happiness that she had felt disappeared, as the one person with whom she had hoped to share that happiness looked so lost, so forsaken, so lonely. She wanted to share her happiness with him, and for him to share his loneliness with her; she wanted to let him know that he was not alone, but now, looking at the labyrinth of Wayne Manor, she didn't even know where exactly he was, or how he had disappeared so quickly.

Devastated, she turned as she heard Alfred walk up behind her. She stepped toward him, as he reached out to hug her, in his reassuring, fatherly way.

"It's always darkest before the dawn, Sasha," Alfred soothingly explained. "And the dawn is already getting brighter." He smiled.

"Alfred, why won't he let anyone get close to him?"

"You're much closer than you think, my dear."

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