THE QUALITY OF LIFE
“Hello, Gotham! Welcome to the future of television. The Joker Network is now on the air! All Joker, all the time, on every channel! And the best part is, you can’t turn me off. I’ve got control of the airwaves, and I’m not letting go. I’ve even got control of your TV. So sit back, watch, and die laughing!”
With that announcement, the Clown Prince of Crime began transmitting lethal programming, just as he had threatened to do if his multi-million dollar ransom demand wasn’t met. For anyone who owned a television, there was no escape.
Batman didn’t need a crystal ball to know why the Bat-signal just flashed on. From the minute Joker started broadcasting, he had his array of electronic devices scanning the area for the signal’s source.
“How long will it take?” Robin asked.
“Several minutes, unfortunately. Knowing Joker, he’s probably routed it through two or three different relay towers and off a couple of satellites.”
As the seconds ticked by, the wait was agonizing, because they knew people were literally suffocating from laughter across the city. Finally, the scanner beeped.
“Got it,” Robin called while Batman powered up the Batmobile’s turbine. “It’s coming from the old Rollerama skating rink in far south Gotham.”
Robin jumped in, and the sleek black car streaked out of the Batcave.
Something troubled Batman, and he tried to think of a nice way to bring it up. “How are you feeling?”
“Excited,” Robin answered. “A little nervous, too.”
“You haven’t faced Joker before. He’s quite a handful, and I’m--”
“You’re concerned I might do something impulsive or stupid because he killed my father.”
“Don’t worry. You’ve trained me very well to evaluate the situation before acting. Besides, I know what’s at stake. Dad wouldn’t want me acting out of revenge. Joker has to face Gotham’s justice, not mine. Now if I happen to get in a little butt-kicking along the way....”
“So much the better.”
Robin smiled. “You know me well, don’t you?”
“I have to. Our lives depend on it. That’s why I emphasized teamwork so much in your training. We each must know intuitively what the other will do in a given situation and trust him to make the right choices.”
“What’s your plan?”
“When we get there, job one is to destroy his transmitter and stop the killing, regardless of anything else.”
“Even if he gets away?”
“Even if he gets away…temporarily.”
They drove on several more minutes before reaching the Rollerama.
Circling from behind, Batman took aim at the locked front doors and plowed the Batmobile right through them. As he and Robin jumped out, they were met in the lobby by four thugs. After dispatching them in fast but intense hand-to-hand action, they headed into the rink, where Joker sat at a video console monitoring his murderous broadcast.
Batman grabbed his coat and yanked him to his feet. “Your show’s just been cancelled, Joker. Low ratings.”
He gave a hearty laugh. “You’re the one who’s being terminated. Boys?”
Three men in the upstairs DJ booth took aim and raked the Dynamic Duo with machinegun fire, forcing them to drop and shield themselves with their armored capes.
When the shooting stopped, the gunmen and Joker had disappeared. Batman placed a small charge under the control console and threw an explosive-tipped Batarang at the transmitter in the corner. He and Robin dashed into the lobby as the devices detonated.
With Joker permanently off the air, they ran outside to apprehend him and his men. Batman saw a moving shadow and glanced up. “Joker’s on the roof. You go around back and stop their car.”
“I’ll use my new throwing bird to cut their tires.”
Batman shot a grappling hook over the edge of the west wall, and it snagged on a ventilation pipe. Quickly winching himself up onto the roof, he saw Joker tramping through the debris and looking for a way down.
The Clown Prince caught sight of his nemesis. “You haven’t stopped me. I’ve got copies of my ‘killer videos.’ Pretty soon I’ll be back on cable.”
“Where reruns go to die.” Batman flung a Batarang which hit him in the head.
He stumbled and fell, narrowly missing the Rollerama’s broken skylight. He did not move as the Dark Knight recovered his weapon.
Walking closer, Batman took a pair of handcuffs from his utility belt and bent over to grab Joker’s wrist.
“Surprise!” Joker leaped up and pushed him.
Thinking his foe to be knocked out, he was startled and lost his balance. With Joker laughing hysterically, he crashed through the skylight and plummeted to the floor of the rink.
Unable to get his feet down, he hit the wood planking hard with his forehead. A searing pain shot through his skull, and he lost consciousness.
The Batmobile sped homeward with Robin at the wheel. Satisfied that Joker was at least out of business, if not in custody, he wisely abandoned the chase to help his critically injured mentor.
“Alfred,” he called over the radio, “Batman’s been hurt. We’ll be there in five minutes.”
“He fell through a skylight and dropped thirty feet.”
Alfred sighed. “I’ll be ready.”
The moment the car stopped, Robin opened its canopy, and the faithful butler helped him carry Batman up to the study.
“Is he still unresponsive, Master Tim?”
“Yeah. I didn’t see him come down, but it must’ve been an awful impact.”
“Careful. Keep his neck supported. That thick cowl may have prevented a severe spinal injury.”
“Where’s Mrs. Wayne?”
“Attending a company function in his stead. I notified her, and she should arrive momentarily.”
“He needs a doctor.” Robin’s voice was edged with anxiety.
“He needs a hospital,” Alfred corrected him as they gently placed their friend on the sofa.
“How are we going to manage that?”
“You call for an ambulance. I’ll put these ‘civilian’ clothes on him.”
“What do I tell the operator?”
Alfred looked glum. “Say Mister Wayne suffered a bad fall while working.”
The paramedics put Bruce in a neck brace as a precaution and closely monitored his neurological functions on the way to Gotham General Hospital. Selina rode with them and prayed for him to come out of his coma.
A team of doctors and nurses swarmed around after the paramedics switched him to an ER bed.
“Omigod, it’s Bruce Wayne!” a nurse gasped.
“What’s the situation?” Dr. Will Blalock asked one of the paramedics.
“He fell and landed square on his forehead.”
“Breathing is shallow. Pulse and BP are normal.”
Blalock turned to the medical tech. “Order a CAT scan, stat. We need to see if his brain is swelling from a closed head injury.”
Selina stood outside and watched the commotion through the glass. She stopped the paramedics as they left with their gurney. “Is he going to be okay?”
“It’s too soon to say, ma’am. Head injuries are tricky. They may not know for another day or so.”
She cried as she walked slowly to the waiting area.
Tim came up and hugged her. “I’m so sorry.”
“Thanks. They don’t know anything yet.”
“He’s tough, and he’s in good health.”
“I hope that’s enough.”
“I think it will be. Alfred told me he’s had worse predicaments before.”
“Probably has. I just wasn’t around then.”
“Oh, I almost forgot. Miss Gordon’s watching the baby for you.”
“He has to wake up, Tim. He has to. Helena needs her daddy.”
Bruce opened his eyes. Dressed in white, he noticed he was standing on some sort of gleaming white surface. His head felt foggy, but the bright white glow surrounding him cleared his mind in a hurry.
“I think I’m going to die,” he said to no one in particular as he looked around.
A disembodied female voice asked, “Do you want to die?”
“I don’t know.” A feeling of fear started flowing through him. “I didn’t used to. Wait--that’s not quite true. After my parents were murdered, I wanted to die. Alfred and Dr. Thompkins finally got me out of that funk. I grew up and went to college. Bor-ing! Then I decided I wanted to fight crime, so I traveled the world learning from masters of self-defense and tactics. Right now, I wish I’d spent more time looking at the scenery instead.”
He started walking. “Then I became ‘Batman.’ Ooooh! A lot of good that did me. It got me fighting a bunch of psychos and living two difficult lives. What was that all about? Remind me, I need to make another donation to the police benevolence fund. Geez, I’m tired. My head is killing me. Anyway, I’ve been running around, saving Gotham from a bizarre assortment of freaks and weirdos. By all rights, I probably should’ve been killed a few hundred times. But no, I always fought back because I wanted to live. And for what? So I can do it all again the next time some jerk breaks out of Arkham?
“You know, this is making me depressed. I’ve never sat back and taken a good look at my life. Until now. Thank you, by the way, whoever you are. Nothing but hardship and pain. That’s what I remember. Some life, huh? Never a vacation, never a kind word, crazy people always out to kill you. And don’t even mention the business world. Some of those guys I deal with make Joker look like a Boy Scout. Whoever said money can’t buy happiness sure knew what he was talking about.
“Maybe I should die and finally get some rest. It’d be easier, I’m telling you. Better yet, what if I’d never been born? Then I wouldn’t have had to go through all that crap. No mourning for dead parents, no psychological scars, no Joker, no billions of dollars to look after. I wish I was never born.”
“Do you really mean it?” the female voice wondered.
“Yeah. Why, can you do something about it?”
A puff of smoke appeared in front of him. When it cleared, he saw a buxom, blue-eyed brunette in a tuxedo and fishnet stockings. Then he recognized the voice. “Zatanna?”
“At your service,” the magician replied with a smile. She pointed her magic wand at him. “Ecurb enyaw saw reven nrob!”
The white light around Bruce blinded him for several seconds, then went away.
“You have your wish, Bruce. You were never born.”
He glanced up, down, and around. “I don’t feel any different. Nothing here looks any different. Are you sure about this?”
“Looks can be deceiving, as you certainly know. Come with me.”
“We have lots of places to go and things to see. For a man who was never born, you’re about to be very busy.”
Dr. Blalock put his stethoscope across his shoulders, walked out of the ER room, and introduced himself to Selina.
She immediately stood up. “How is he?”
“Stable at the moment. The CAT scan shows no injury to the brain stem or spinal cord. He’s not paralyzed, and his vitals are steady.”
She sighed with relief. “Is he awake?”
“No. That’s what concerns us. The scan showed no signs of brain swelling yet. Now that could change, but it’s a good sign. He also does not appear to have any clotting or bleeding in the brain. Again, very good but subject to change. Was he wearing a hardhat, or did he fall on some carpet?”
“Uh, yeah, sort of.”
“Whatever it was, it provided enough of a cushion that his brain didn’t suffer the full force of the impact. If he’d landed on concrete, we’d be having a different conversation, Mrs. Wayne.”
“So why doesn’t he wake up?”
“Don’t get me wrong--his brain did suffer a major shock. Sometimes, the brain puts itself to sleep, as it were, to minimize the extent of injury. We’re transferring him up to ICU, where they can better monitor his condition.”
“What’s his prognosis?”
“If--and that’s a big if--his brain continues as is, he should be fine. Put it this way. Twenty-four hours from now, if I got the same readings from his scans and vitals, I’d say there’s a ninety percent chance of full recovery. But as I told you, it all depends on what happens inside his brain in the coming hours.”
Zatanna led Bruce down a grimy, litter-filled alley that smelled of garbage and animal waste.
“Are we in the right place, Zee?”
matter. Most of
“A lot of the streets are bad, sure, but not so…disgusting.”
“You forget, Mr. I-was-never-born, this isn’t the Gotham you knew. This is what it looks like without you.”
They emerged from the alley into a long, tawdry street overloaded with glowing neon signs which advertised all manner of fleshly indulgences. The shops and parlors they passed offered every enticement from tattoos and liquor to gambling and prostitution.
“This is horrible,” he said.
“Isn’t it? Maybe somebody makes more of an impact than you think.”
As they strolled down the sidewalk, he shook his head at the grotesque sights. “What a nightmare.”
“Imagine trying to live here.”
“Too many people have no other choice.”
He moved aside instinctively as a bar brawl spilled out into the street. “I’ve seen enough.”
“Really? This is tame, compared to some things that go on. A couple of blocks over, there’s a club where women in chains mud wrestle. The winner gets two thousand dollars. The loser gets raped.”
“Please, Zee, let’s go somewhere else.”
you wish.” She waved her wand,
and instantly they were standing on a
“Why are we here?”
“I want you to see someone.” She led him to a flophouse beside an abandoned tenement building. Empty beer bottles lay around a young man who slept next to the door.
He looked to be in his twenties, though his shaved head and muscular build made him appear older. Several knife scars and a gang tattoo acquired behind bars testified to his violent, hard life.
Bruce crouched down and looked at the man’s face. Startled, he jumped back. “Dick!”
“Precisely. The man you knew as the first Robin is a street tough who served five years in prison for killing the mobster who murdered his parents. He spends his days dealing drugs and avoiding the police.”
“Why didn’t anybody look after him when his folks died?”
“Who’d you have in mind? Because you weren’t there to take him in, he got lost in the system and decided to make his own way on the streets.”
“Dick! Dick!” Bruce shook the man’s arm.
Zatanna chuckled. “He can’t hear you. You don’t really exist, remember?”
Feeling saddened, he said, “What a shame.”
“Quite. But he’s typical. When the masters of the economy squeeze you out, you make a living however you can. Well, we should be going. You have a lot more to see.” She waved her wand, and the scene blurred.
When things came back into focus, Bruce saw they were in the hallway of a facility that looked one step above a Third World hospital. The wallpaper was peeling. What paint remained was chipping and flaking. Several people in wheelchairs sat like zombies, which, in a sense, they were.
“Where are we now?”
neglected building is the ironically named Sunrise Retirement Home,
“Zee, you’re not doing what I think you’re doing, are you?”
“Go in Room 118.”
The name on the door read, “A. Pennyworth.”
“No, Zee, this isn’t fair.”
“Bruce, life isn’t fair. I’m not conjuring anything up. I’m only showing it to you. Go ahead, look at him.”
He began crying as he knelt beside the bed. “Alfred,” he whispered.
“He can’t hear you.”
“Why is he in this--this human junkyard?”
“After Thomas and Martha Wayne died, he had nothing to do and nobody to care for. Their money went to charities, and he went looking for work. Life with no purpose or joy finally wore him down. His heart’s bad, he can barely walk, and he’s senile, so this is where he lives out his last days.”
“Are they taking decent care of him?”
“You’re kidding, right? They drug the patients to keep them passive and low-maintenance. Sometimes, there’s an ‘accidental’ overdose.”
“What an undignified ending for such a kind and generous man.”
“You might be interested to know that this place is run by a certain Dr. Jonathan Crane.”
“That’s what you knew him as. He’s just a corrupt, extremely unethical physician and administrator.”
He felt nauseous. “No more, Zee. Please. I can’t stand to see Alfred this way.”
A flick of her
wand and they stood among the dead in
“Is this where you show me my own grave, like Scrooge?”
“For the last time, Bruce, you don’t exist. People who weren’t born don’t have graves.”
“Sorry. This isn’t exactly a fun trip.”
“But a necessary one. Walk over to the marker beside the oak tree.”
no! No, it can’t be,” he
“I’m afraid so. Police Commissioner James Gordon was murdered by Two-Face six years ago.”
“Batman saved him.”
“Batman doesn’t exist. When are you going to get that through your thick head? This is not a movie. Look three graves over on the next row.”
“Two-Face. Did the police kill him for Gordon’s death?”
“Hardly. His enemies locked him away in Arkham for good. Seeing no hope of escape, he eventually hanged himself in his cell.”
“Who were his enemies?”
“You’ll find out soon enough.”
Bruce spotted an emerald-colored headstone. Trotting to it, he asked, “Riddler? Wow, some good news. They finally got Riddler.”
“Wrong again. He was killed by Joker for trying to get a piece of the action.”
Zatanna aimed her wand and transported him to a downtown intersection. “Recognize the area?”
He looked up to
see a tacky purple and green skyscraper with a revolving sign on top which screamed out, “
“What in the world--?”
“Joker is head of
all organized crime in
“Tell me I’m dreaming.”
“I wish I could, Bruce.”
“I hate to ask, but who’s the mayor?”
She immediately took him to a second floor office inside City Hall and pointed at the door. “See for yourself.”
“‘The Honorable Oswald Cobblepot?’ Penguin’s the mayor? Zee, this can’t be true.”
“Stop living in
denial. It is true. This is
“Why on earth would anyone vote for him?”
“Because he promised to bring peace to the streets. He and Joker fought a long, costly, and bloody war for control of the city. When neither one could win, they agreed to share power. Penguin got to run the government, and Joker got just about everything else. There’s even a mugger’s union now.”
“I don’t know what to say.”
“Let me tell you about Arkham Asylum. Penguin and Joker use it as a psychiatric gulag to silence their critics and political opponents. Anybody who talks seriously about reform is locked away. They tolerate no dissent or competition.”
“There’s still a police force.”
“They’ve been ineffectual since Gordon died. Joker’s had them in his back pocket for years.”
“I suppose he’s got the District Attorney, too.”
“Not directly, but Nathan Callison never seems inclined to prosecute any of Joker’s minions.”
“Dead of a heroin overdose on the night of the election. It was ruled accidental, but her friends know it was suicide. Her father drove her to it.”
“Zee, you’re depressing me again.”
“Bruce, that’s how Gotham is. Crime and drugs are normal parts of everyday life. I should also tell you your doctor friend Leslie Thompkins was murdered in a gang shootout last year.”
“Doesn’t anybody have money besides Joker?”
“The affluent long ago fled to the suburbs, leaving only the poor and those who have to stay. Without you and Batman, there’s nobody to stand up to the evil that’s strangled the quality of life out of the city.”
“It can’t be that simple.”
“Believe me, it is. Don’t you know what a difference one person’s life can make?”
“I’m beginning to.”
“Come along. We’ve got more stops to make.” She led him down another street filled with adult entertainment businesses until they came to the Gotham Public Library.
“At least people still like books.”
“You don’t want to see the trash they read,” she snorted.
“What’s here for me?”
“Not what, who. Look behind the reference counter.”
A shy-looking young woman sat at the desk. She wore little makeup, and her short brown hair contrasted with her pale skin.
“I don’t recognize her, Zee.”
“Look closer at her eyes.”
He frowned and tried to match the woman’s face in his memory. “I know Barbara Gordon was planning to go to library school, but….”
“Read her nametag.”
“B Gordon. It is her.” A puzzled look covered his face.
“Yes. The attractive, adventurous Batgirl has been reduced to a mousy librarian who’s almost afraid of her own shadow. Ever since her father was killed she’s been as spineless as a jellyfish. Her apartment has four locks, she never, ever goes out after dark, and she hasn’t had a date in four years. In fact, she’s even begun to deny any relationship to the late commissioner for fear that somebody might want to hurt her.”
“What’s wrong with these people?”
“No courage. And no one to inspire them to it.”
“What about Tim?”
“Tim Drake? Glad you asked.” She transported them to the Drake residence.
Jack Drake was watching a movie on television.
Bruce’s eyes grew. “Tim’s father is still alive?”
“Since Bruce Wayne never existed, he didn’t die at that dinner in your honor.”
“Then Tim’s okay?”
“What do you mean by ‘okay?’ Let’s look in his room.”
Tim sat in front of a computer, completely engrossed in a violent video game. He was dressed in a faded black T-shirt and ripped jeans. To Bruce’s horror, he had a nose ring, bad acne, and a half-empty pack of cigarettes.
“Meet the poster boy for Gotham’s slacker community. He has no ambition or goals. He barely graduated high school and works part-time at a burger franchise. When he isn’t playing video games, he and his friends sit around smoking and drinking.”
“But his father--surely having him around made a difference?”
“You’d think so, wouldn’t you? Like so many young people, he’s a product of his environment. Growing up in a nihilistic, hopeless town gets to you.”
“I can tell. I wouldn’t want to spend even a single day living here.”
“Then how about changing your attitude? I think you were quite selfish, going on and on about how miserable your life’s been. What do you think, now that you’ve seen how miserable everyone else would be without you?”
“You’re right, Zee. I’m bad about starting pity parties. Selina got after--wait a second. You haven’t shown me Selina.”
She grew uneasy. “No, I haven’t, and with good reason.”
“I want to see her.”
“Trust me, Bruce, you don’t.”
“Yes, I do.”
“You have no idea what you’re asking.”
He grabbed her shoulders. “I want to see her. Let me see her!”
She pulled away. “I can’t.”
“What do you mean, you can’t?”
“I can’t, Bruce. Please, don’t make me. You’ll regret it.”
“Why, is she dead?”
“Um, strictly speaking, no. She’s still alive and breathing, but….”
“Then show her to me.”
“Bruce, I beg you, please trust me on this one. You do not want to see her. It’ll do you more harm than good.”
Pulling on her lapels, he shouted, “I don’t care! Show her to me!”
“Okay, okay. Don’t hurt me, I’m only the messenger.”
He let her go. “Sorry. I just have to know what became of her without me around.”
“Prepare yourself.” She raised her wand again, and a flash of white enveloped them.
When his eyes adjusted to the dark, he noticed a chill. They were surrounded by dank, gray stone walls. Two small mice scurried across the stone floor. The only light came through a barred window twenty feet up. A chubby woman with tangled, stringy hair sat on a cot in the far corner and stared vacantly at the door.
“Zee, is this--”
“Arkham Asylum, Block D, Cell 8.”
“God, no!” He fell to his knees and sobbed.
“I told you not to do this.”
“Selina! Selina!” He got up and ran to her.
“Can’t hear you. Even if she could, I doubt she’d respond.”
“Selina, it’s Bruce,” he said through tears.
“Stop. You’ll only torture yourself if you keep that up.”
“The police arrested Catwoman for Max Shreck’s murder. She was found insane by the court-appointed psychiatrist and committed here. However, she continued to act like a cat and repeatedly tried to escape. Finally, they had enough and gave her a lobotomy. Now she’s quite docile, devoid of personality, and seldom speaks.”
He broke down again.
“I wish you had listened to me. I was trying to save you from so much heartache.”
He struggled to compose himself. “Okay, Zee, I concede. You’ve made your point.”
“Batman and I have done a lot of things to make life in Gotham better. We’ve given people hope and inhibited the spread of evil. If it weren’t for us, Gotham would turn into a wicked free-for-all.”
She applauded. “Very good, Bruce. You made an ‘A’ on your exam.”
Looking again at Selina, he said, “Whatever I have to do to prevent her from ending up like this, I’ll do it.”
“So you like your life, huh?”
“Still wish you weren’t born?”
“No. But we’ve got a big problem. I smashed my head into the floor of the Rollerama, didn’t I?”
“Yes. Unfortunately, that part is not hypothetical.”
“Will I live?”
“That depends on your will to live.”
“I want to live, Zee. I want to!”
She smiled. “As you wish. Ecurb enyaw sevil!”
With a puff of smoke, she disappeared.
He mumbled, “I want to live. I want to live.” Hearing a rush of wind, he opened his eyes.
Selina’s face was the first thing he saw. “Hi, darling.”
“I want to live.”
She touched his hand. “You’re very much alive.”
He glanced around the hospital room. “Have I been out long?”
“A day and a half.”
“I have a splitting headache. Ow!” He touched the bandages on his forehead.
“Nurse,” she called, “he’s awake.”
The nurse looked up from Bruce’s medical chart and moved closer.
He asked, “Am I going to be alright?”
“I think you’ll be just fine, Mr. Wayne,” she said.
Her resemblance to Zatanna startled him. “Zee?”
She winked and turned to leave. “Let me get your doctor.”
Dr. Steve Linkletter, the hospital’s Chief of Neurology, motioned for Selina to step away from Bruce’s ICU bedside.
“Mrs. Wayne, your husband’s latest CAT scan is very encouraging. No indication of brain swelling or bleeding. All his vital signs are normal, and his neural activity is increasing. I just gave him a mild stimulant, and he should wake up soon. When he does, we can move him to a regular room.”
“Will he have any long-term effects from the fall?”
“Mentally? I doubt it. He may not remember the accident or anything which happened just before, but that’s about it. Physically, he’ll be stiff and sore for a few days. He’s one fortunate man. It’s likely he’ll come out of this with nothing worse than a king-sized headache.”
Within half an hour, Bruce regained consciousness, much to Selina’s relief. The doctors and nurses continued to observe him, and two days later he was allowed to go home.
On the ride back to Wayne Manor, he watched the cityscape and thought about how, even with its flaws and psychos, Gotham was still a pretty decent place to live, as far as big cities go. More than ever, he felt glad to be a part of it. But one thing nagged at him.
“Selina, when I was in ICU, did I have a nurse with dark hair named Zee?”
“Not that I recall. Why?”
“Because I remember her so distinctly. She went to tell the doctor that I was conscious.”
“You had a day nurse named Ming and a night nurse named Sharon. I don’t remember a Zee. Do you, Alfred?”
“I’m afraid I don’t, either, sir.”
“I swear, there was a nurse who looked like Zatanna.”
Selina snuggled up next to him. “No offense, darling, but you were in la-la land from that concussion. It was probably all in your head.”