"It was only a simulation, Alfred," Wayne answered, a slight note of irritation discernable in his voice.
"Thank God for the residents of Gotham," dryly commented Alfred. "Only by reprogramming the Batsimulator were you able to salvage a victory."
"The computer assumed it would take me thirty-two minutes to rescue the people who were inside the maze," explained Wayne. "In a simulation with a similar design in the basement of Wayne Enterprises, I made it all the way to the center and back out in less than seven minutes. Assuming healthy hostages would only slow me down by three minutes, I allowed ten minutes to rescue the people from the maze." Wayne looked up from the Batcomputer again. "That's twenty-two minutes that the computer scored against me that should have been in my favor."
"And then there was the fuel-air mixture that exploded and leveled a small warehouse," Alfred commented, reading from the report.
"The warehouse contained a type of nerve gas that the Batmobile's onboard computer identified as neutralizable through incineration."
"Hostages were only yards away – they were incinerated, too."
Exasperated, Wayne swiveled his chair to face Alfred. "The simulator is not programmed for the latest upgrades of the Batmobile, which include the Batshield. The Batshield is a pyrotechnically-deployable shield made of the same material as the cape in the Batsuit – it's a kind of dynamic hardening. The hostages would have had their bells rung a little, but they would have been just fine."
"The bad guys escaped in helicopters, taking some hostages with them. One helicopter carried the mastermind, his guards and the money; the other carried the hostages." Alfred looked up from the report. "You employed a WomBat, and shot down the helicopter full of hostages."
Wayne rolled his eyes. "The simulator is programmed for version 2.8 of the WomBat; the current version in the Batmobile is version 4.1. One of the major upgrades is better performance in the presence of countermeasures. The 2.8 version transitions to a home-on-jam mode, and since the jammer was in the same helicopter as the hostages, the simulator scored that as a hit on that helicopter. But," Wayne leaned forward to make his point, "the 4.1 has a hybrid guidance scheme. In the presence of active countermeasures, the missile's onboard computer compares data that its seeker receives reflected from the target with information uplinked from the fire control system in the Batmobile. That information is derived from both laser and electro-optical targeting systems. The missile then analyzes the information it receives and weights it accordingly. It would have accurately diagnosed the countermeasures being employed, and tracked to the lead helicopter, not to the one with the jammer and the hostages."
"And magically you got aboard the helicopter with the hostages...."
Definitely irritated, Wayne interrupted Alfred. "It was not magic! I engaged the afterburner, and the Batmobile moved across the parking lot and caught the helicopter. I winched myself aboard with the grappling gear...."
"And overcame both pilots, as well as a hostage who was really one of the criminals, all in a confined space."
"In the simulator in the Batcave, I actually battled three expert martial artists, and won," Wayne answered, a note of satisfaction detectable in his voice.
Closing his eyes halfway, Alfred looked closely at Wayne. "How?" he inquired.
"I employed Batgas," Wayne answered quietly, turning away some.
"No doubt a toxic byproduct of those horrid frozen burritos you so greedily consume," Alfred commented, his eyes glancing toward the wrappers in the trash can under the Batcomputer.
At this, Sasha, whose quiet approach had gone completely unnoticed amid the verbal fencing, burst out laughing – much to the embarrassment of the two speakers.
"Have you been able to make any headway analyzing the riddles?" Wayne quickly asked, changing the subject.
"When the king wanted buildings and furniture, he sent his men to the forest, and they took the tall, straight trees. Not one of his carpenters would cast a second glance at the tree under which the man sat. When the king wanted soldiers for his army, he sent his men to the village, and they took the tall, straight men from the village; not one of his officers cast a second glance at the man who sat under the tree. The only time the king's men paid attention to the man under the tree was when there was a famine, and they were distributing food that the king had brought from other parts of the kingdom – then, the man under the tree would get an extra portion."
The tall stranger glanced down the road. In the distance was a knotted, gnarled old tree. Its branches came out, parallel to the ground from a height of six or seven feet up. He wondered how long this tree had been there, whether it could be the tree the man was telling him about.
"One by one, the tall, straight trees were cut down, until there was no more forest along the road – only the gnarled tree remained. One by one, the men from the village did not come back from service in the king's army – only the crippled man remained."
The old man noticed that the tall stranger was looking at the tree that stood along the road in the distance, and smiled.
Clearing his throat, Alfred read one:
"Detectives listened to an illegal bug,
But didn't report the criminal plan.
Crime covers up crime, swept under the rug,
All merely for wont of an honest man.
The truth is hidden by towers of lies,
But the crime of the towers is exposed in riddles.
What really happened is quite a surprise!
Dirty cops, a deal with the devil... the man in the middle."
He paused, then paraphrased the riddle: "One crime hides another, and the whole matter is brushed aside, all for lack of an honest man."
"May I see that?" asked Sasha
Alfred showed her the riddle. Sasha looked at it briefly, then looked up.
"It's not 'for lack of an honest man' – it's 'by habit of an honest man'." She looked at Wayne, then at Alfred. "Wont – w-o-n-t – means 'habit', not 'lack'."
Exchanging a glance with Alfred, Wayne then studied Sasha. "How do you know?"
"English is your native language, but I have had to study it," she commented.
"Then what do you make of this one?" Alfred handed her another of the riddles.
Sasha cleared her throat, then read aloud.
"Blue is the water by which comes the green.
Tall is the lady; she's Gotham's queen.
Under her eyes, the Roman commands,
Fueling the vices of his empire's lands.
For wont of their vices they give freedom away;
High is the price for their habits they pay.
See the green lady, she is a slave,
See her blue knights, they are but knaves.
Powerful is the Roman, this land he does rule;
King takes queen on a knight for a fool."
She looked up. "The same – by the habit of their vices, they give their freedoms away."
"What habits are we talking about?" Wayne asked, intrigued.
"In this case, narcotics – junkies trade their freedom to get their fix. In the other case..." her voice trailed off.
"Complacency!" Wayne blurted out.
"What?" Alfred asked, as Sasha looked up surprised.
"People get busy in their daily lives. They settle into habits, and regarding things that are important, become complacent, and even lazy. And, no wonder..." Wayne paused, looking back at the Batcomputer. "They work hard, trying to make ends meet. Many people work more than one job. They get home, they're tired, they want to relax or spend time with their families."
Sasha glanced at Alfred, then picked up on Wayne's commentary. "Busy lives, something has to get dropped, and too often, what gets dropped is our civic duty of monitoring our government and our elected officials. Even people who try to follow what happens in government can't keep up with all the scandals, and get to a point where they become numb to it."
"And what is happening now in Gotham requires not just attention, but absolute sleuthing on the part of our citizens," commented Alfred. "By the way, Master Bruce," Alfred turned toward Wayne. "Have you shared with Sasha the insights that you received from Dr. Villanova?"
"Huh?" Wayne looked up at the two of them.
"About 'The Demon', Master Bruce," prompted Alfred.
Sasha looked at the two of them, as Wayne turned to her. "It's the second reason why Falcone doesn't stop Aladdin. And, it's the reason why Gotham authorities aren't adequately dealing with the nuclear threat to Gotham City posed by Aladdin."
"And why is that?" Sasha asked.
"Falcone manipulates Gotham City. But, Falcone and Aladdin are both being manipulated by a third party. And, that third party is also working directly on Gotham's authorities and the people in power, manipulating them as well."
Sasha and Alfred exchanged glances. Alfred thought he already understood the situation, but wanted to hear it explained again. Sasha, for her part, was having difficulty imagining the picture that Wayne was painting.
"Aladdin would be willing to let Gotham City survive, if Gotham submitted to his will. But, Aladdin is psychotic, and will destroy Gotham, if it doesn't. The Gotham authorities are being manipulated, indirectly via Falcone, and directly, by this third party, to ensure that Gotham does not adequately deal with the threat posed by Aladdin and his nuclear weapons. And, of course, Gotham City will never submit to Aladdin's will."
"So, Gotham City will be destroyed?" Sasha asked hesitatingly.
"That's what they have planned."
"They – who?"
There was a long silence, as Sasha puzzled over the answer.
Finally, Alfred interrupted. "What are your plans, Master Bruce?"
"I am going to have dinner with Sandra. But, someone needs to pay another visit to Vasilissa."
"It's too dangerous there for Batman, Master Bruce," commented Alfred.
"And I don't think Bruce Wayne should go near escorts whose clients include organized crime figures," added Sasha.
"'The Demon' has decided that Gotham City must die," began Wayne, "and some day, Gotham City may indeed come to an end." Wayne turned and looked at the statue of the bat he had brought back from Asia. "But, it will not happen according to the schedule set by 'The Demon'."
Bruce Wayne looked back from the distant, gnarled tree, glanced at the master translating for him, then looked at the old man who was finishing his story.
"The trees are slashed for their sap and cut down for their lumber." The old man smiled. "A candle burns itself out." He paused, allowing the master time to translate. "Everyone understands the usefulness of being useful, but who understands the usefulness of being useless?"
"May I suggest that Mr. Malone pay Vasilissa a call?"
"That's exactly what I was thinking, Alfred," smiled Wayne.
"Are you planning to reprogram the criminal conspiracy, then, so you can win?"
Casting a glance at Alfred, Wayne responded, "I just think some of Batman's capabilities exceed some people's expectations."
"And, as for Gotham City...." began Alfred
"Like the hostages in the simulation, Gotham City will just have to die another day," smiled Sasha.