Barbara Gordon has lived in a clock tower for the six months, nine days, and twenty minutes. There is a program that has been running for five months, nine days, and twenty minutes that counts every second, constructed hastily and panicked after the one-month mark. She has her computers, her physical networks, an overworked power generator, and a wifi connection.
She doesn’t have much else.
Long after No Man’s Land had become Gotham again, there was still the undercurrent of desperate survival instinct. Making a stockpile of food and water seemed excessive at the time (too paranoid, too Batman of a move), but careful rationing has been the only thing keeping her head above the metaphorical water for the past year.
Now she really regrets never packing a UV sunlamp in her utility belt. Vitamin D supplements weren’t doing much in ways of replacing her need for natural sunlight.
But she still has a working Internet connection. That means she can spend nine hundred and sixty minutes sending out distress calls to every person she’s ever met (however briefly), trying to hack back into her Oracle database, and watching as someone masquerades as her on the front page of The Gotham Times’ digital newspaper. She honestly isn’t even sure in what order she should be prioritizing these equally life-threatening problems.
There are more than a few crumpled pieces of paper in the trash dedicated to flowcharts and algorithms on the issue. She doesn’t find any one of them ideal.
She made a program directly linked to her comms that broadcasts her location (GPS coordinates, then relative location, then an automated message stating how long she’s been trapped). Over one hundred contacts that sometimes didn’t ping- people that no longer existed no matter what satellites she looked into, what networks she scoured. She had a few paper copies of profiles (mostly people far from Gotham, who wouldn’t be compromised if the information was discovered), all with faces and names that are nonentities.
She’s starting to feel like a nonentity herself.
Barbara only ever tries to call her dad every other week. It never goes through- the number she is trying to reach has been disconnected. She’s tried every number on the GCPD main website and, after half of a year, can’t imagine it’s something on their end.
Mysteries start to tally up. Even while locked out of her database, she maintained a majority of her programs- things like flagging when Dinah Lance’s name was mentioned in the news. Apartment complex burns down the same day a new Batgirl showed up in town. The same day someone under the name Barbara Gordon is suddenly splitting an apartment, using her lifetime-saved-up money out of the bank.
She can’t prioritize because it’s all so closely linked. She’s not sure why that, whenever she rolls out of the tower, she ends up back in the middle section of the base. There are theories on the space-time continuum that she can’t wrap her mind around while she’s too busy trying to balance her caloric intake and figure out who the fuck could get into her database, block her from accessing it, and then leave just enough wiggle room for her to stare at the encrypted files as exploit after exploit failed to do anything substantial.
Barbara’s breath blows across the microphone set in front of her. “Dad, if you get this message, please contact Batman and direct him to-” She repeats the coordinates. The automated message tacks on the months and days. She folds her hands and holds her head against them. Her throat is raw and there are few times where she actually speaks- with no one to talk to, her voice goes creaky from lack of use.
She creates a subroutine specifically for this recording of her voice, adds it to the previously existing program, and stares at the computer screen for blank minutes. Fingers hesitant against the keyboard as she types out ‘Batgirl of Burnside’ into the search bar. A news story about her fighting some C-lister named Riot Black. Technology based powers, has a supercomputer for a brain-
Barbara takes off her glasses, pinches her nose (one breath in, two short breaths out), then traces the IP address of the now remotely hosted Oracle database. The coordinates tick up and down, but seemed concentrated on Burnside College-
If she weren’t so exhausted, she knows it would’ve taken her a lot less time to realize that the new Batgirl had her files on her person, on some sort of storage device that continued to broadcast a signal throughout the day and held an IP address. Camera surveillance reveals a cellphone and a computer- neither outfitted with the necessary technology for handling a database of that size.
She closes her eyes. The solitude was the worst part. The deafening silence, the fact that the only things that ever moved were her and the generator.
Cybernetic implants. Riot Black was said to have one, which meant that the technology was feasible, and safe enough that only intentional tampering could harm it.
Barbara stares at the computer again, lips pursed, head pounding. She hasn’t been able to contact anyone to save her from her ivory tower for six months. Maybe it was time to start sending out knights instead.
She knows sending out themed fighters like this is obnoxious. She knows it’s overplaying her hand and that she’s really looking a gift horse in the mouth, being able to contact civilians and persuade them to take up arms against the new Batgirl for money. If she weren’t boxed into such a literal corner, she might even agree.
At this point, though, all she knows is that there is a girl running around, using her name, holding an implant somewhere in her body with enough information to cripple the free world. At this point, it was the highest priority to just slow her down, try and figure out her motivations. Barbara has profiles on her- she knows all of Barbara’s passwords, and has been using them gratuitously, from Instagram to Snapchat. Barbara still can’t figure out what she could hope to gain from taking on her identity, but her use of social media made it easy to find out her location. To send it to contract killers.
This isn’t something Bruce would approve of. This isn’t something her dad would approve of. But neither of them are stuck in a tower with poor ventilation and heating, sweating next to a generator running their only means of communication, while someone runs around wearing their face. Sending two characters that had disturbed her as a child was showboat-y, and a little crass, but it confirmed one terrifying fact:
The imposter was using her brain scan.
It had always been a stupid idea- she can’t even remember how she talked herself into doing it in the first place. A particularly low moment, staring at the screens of information in front of her, the decades of data all in one place. The idea that it would die when she did. The concept of Oracle, her only unique mark on the world, fading into obscurity. Panic and stupid, stupid thoughts of wanting to be remembered. She’d made a scan of her brain that could hypothetically run the Oracle systems- work as an AI if she were to die.
The night had passed and, after a shower and a nice dinner with Cass, she’d thought she’d scrubbed it from existence.
Apparently, not well enough.
The old cartoon is minimized in the corner of the screen, but the sound echoes as she watches the imposter win, watches her say a quip and smile like she means it. “She’s not human, she’s a machine!”
The internet slows, and the video pauses. Barbara pulls the video back a few seconds to let it load, remembering her father tell her she’s a hero. It freezes again and again. She’s not human, she’s a machine! She’s not human, she’s a machine!
“I guess you can’t trust any Batgirl these days.” And the Batgirl of Burnside grappling-hooks off into the sunset.
The video skips to the end without prompting, and Barbara drops her head into her hands. The tinny sound out of the computer’s speaker, “Tomorrow cries danger!”
She pulls at her skin slightly when she forces herself to eye-level with the camera, the Batgirl spending more time hopping roofs than dropping criminals. Watches as the face-recognition software pans from scene to scene and she wonders, miserably, where Cass is. A photograph from her wallet from the first time they’d celebrated her birthday, all wide smiles and bright eyes, sits in front of her now, on her main desk. She rubs her thumb over it like a worry stone since the face-recognition failed to find her during the second day Barbara hadn’t been able to leave.
She rolls backwards and digs her hand in the trash until she brings up a half-scrawled plan that curdles her stomach. Her hands shake, but her teeth are grit together in determination. She’s had everything taken from her before, she remembers Hawaiian-print shirts and pale hands, remembers the hardwood against her cheek while she laid on the ground bleeding.
Barbara smooths out the sheet of paper next to the picture of Cass, turning her eyes to watch the Batgirl of Burnside pause for a selfie in the mask.
She knows her brain scan will remember it all, too.
There was a man named Dagger Type she’d networked rather awkwardly a few years back at a Wayne Gala, with him talking avidly about the lively nightlife and how many superheroes running around Gotham- the variety, even amongst the danger. Barbara had taken his card politely, told him she’d contact him if the GCPD ever wanted a mural, and then proceeded to ignore the card over all of these years.
Eidetic memory. Remembering an obscure artist from years ago to pose as Batgirl was one of the more productive things it had done recently.
There were stages of it all- defame the Batgirl name with crime and make it flashy enough to attract the Batgirl of Burnside. Don’t get caught. Make sure the criminals get thrown out of the bus. And then... Then there was the art show. It’s an awful plan, but she has to- she has to break this Batgirl, somehow.
Barbara just has to wonder how much of herself she was breaking in the process.
There wasn’t a name for the day the Joker ruined her self-confidence, the day he made her shy away from her own naked body for the next year and a half, looking at the shower wall while trying not to cry. The panic attacks after doorbells ringing- the way she couldn’t meet her father’s eyes for weeks until tragedy boiled into anger, swelling her lungs until she thought she could kill the Joker if he rang the doorbell again. She worked hard to make herself untouchable, unkillable.
A composition of her in her weakest moments. The moment Joker put down the smoking gun and pulled off her clothes, pushed her into the positions he wanted. Cold hands on her skin, hands on her jaw forcing her mouth into the pout he wanted for the perfect picture to torture her father. Wondering how she was Batgirl and couldn’t save herself from what was happening- the earth-shaking pain that wracked her body and the tears that came when her muddled thoughts came to Batgirl. Wondering how she could even think about Bruce and Batman and Commissioner Gordon and what it all meant after that handful of minutes. Even when her pain was her own, it wasn’t.
She didn’t say any of that in the emails, though.
‘Pose provocatively in the Batgirl suit. Leave a message for a fight’. That was enough to get the results she wanted. ‘A mannequin in the Batgirl suit in a wheelchair, titled Vulnerable’. She knows how it would feel, seeing that art display. She knows because she lived it for over a year, every morning in the mirror.
She watches the Batgirl of Burnside’s face drop, her face heating until she looked like she might pop a blood vessel. Looking through the security cameras, Barbara feels the exact same way (and knows it will never leave her head), because seeing it all was different from words on paper.
When she moves to pursue Dagger Type at his studio, when she picks up the book on American Sign Language (the same book she’d used to teach Cass), Barbara leans forward, looking for any trace of recognition with the title. Instead, she goes immediately to the bridge for the confrontation, and Barbara just lets the software follow her for a few minutes, not even watching, unceasing frustration under her skin.
She’d told Dagger to use a pistol. She’d specified the exact type, what would get an emotional reaction. The Batgirl of Burnside doesn’t even flinch when she sees the gun (even when Barbara does and then chastises herself). Dagger was a performer- overzealous and eager for the spotlight. She’d asked him not to shoot to kill, just to slow down.
Camera pans around, and the bridge’s traffic cams show the Batgirl falling backwards off of the bridge. Then falling into the water- the angle was difficult to see, but it looked like the cowl had fallen off.
Barbara can work with that. It’s not a long window of time, but she can work with that.
But Dagger Type doesn’t follow the plans all the way. He showboats the costume, puts too many sparkles, makes it a theatrical production. That was his decision, not her’s, and when he pulls a gun on the crowd, she quickly types in the code for the direct line to Bruce.
The fake Barbara Gordon tackles him to the ground, wrestles the gun away from him. Through the backstage cameras, she can hear him rat her out, tell the fake about the plans, about the Batgirl in a wheelchair. She rolls her eyes at his exaggerations of her terms- she’d said he’d get fame.
She never said it wouldn’t be because of an arrest, though.
Two hours later, with Barbara trying to sleep on a folding rollaway bed, and the computer pings twice to signify a mention of the Batgirl of Burnside on social media. Barely awake, she maneuvers back into her chair, crashing into it less than gracefully, and rolls to the computer.
A picture of Batgirl posing triumphantly on the bridge, posted onto a new Instagram.
She hasn’t been able to get a goddamn nap in since the art show. Barbara stuffs her pillow to her head, teeth grit, and tries to block out the sound of her computer rapidfire notifying her that the Batgirl of Burnside had been spotted here! And here! And here! And here is a picture of her with a citizen! And another!
She was half tempted to send the entire system out the window. She could feel lost muscle under her shirt, with the peak of her ribcage- she didn’t need to add ‘poorly rested’ on top of ‘malnourished’. She’s down to a crate of protein bars and preserved fruits, and she can’t afford to burn any calories on workouts, and it leaves her with an anger she can’t sweat out. No one to talk to except for a handful of citizens, and anyone she can contact without mentioning her current situation or the name ‘Oracle’.
As determined as she is, she is also very, very tired.
Which means, as desperately as she’s trying to hack into HOOQ (she’d found that it had not only been connected to the Batgirl of Burnside, but also used a startling amount of similar algorithms to the facial-recognition software she used), she’s getting sloppy, and the girl that shares the apartment with the fake Barbara Gordon has a chance to fight it back. It’s miserable work, because she’s good, and Barbara knows this Frankie doesn’t know the sinister motivation of her roommate, is just trying to make a living, but she has to get in it, has to look around.
She’s barely a person any more. She’ll take the advantages where she can find them.
Barbara watches as the HOOQ software tracks her double to a bar. Hears her say the exact same thing that she’d been thinking lately: “Even if I rewrote it from memory, it would take nearly a year.” She pinches the bridge of her nose, because what was more annoying than hearing her thoughts vocalized was because the imposter was merely inconvenienced by the time it would take- where she was basically running on borrowed time until she ran out of food and water (and, without any water purifiers, it was only a matter of time after the water ran out and she started drinking from the faucet that Gotham’s waterways were overrun by a toxin).
She closes her hand around an empty jar of peach preserves and wheels herself to the clock tower’s face, pushing out one of the numbers like a window. She takes a long, stabilizing breath, and throws the glass jar as far as she can. It’s satisfying to hear it break, watch it shatter on the sidewalk.
People move past the tower like nothing is happening, like they can’t hear the sound, but they all step out of the way of the glass shards.
There’s a brief respite from the barrage of notifications, and Barbara spends it hurling shit out of the window. All the goddamn trash she’d had to live with for fucking months because she can’t wheel a garbage can out to the curb without finding herself miraculously back at Point A in the middle of the tower. Fistfuls of empty chip bags, dried carrot sticks, molded lettuce she’d still had to eat. Who gave a shit when the entire space she lived in didn’t goddamn exist.
It’s cathartic. It’s probably the only form of emotional release she’s gotten in months, and she’s almost disappointed when she’s down to the final can of green beans. It rattles when it hits the sidewalk, then rolls down the sidewalk. Barbara watches it, eyes sharp even in the Gotham night.
It hits a red sneaker, and a black hand reaches down to pick up the can, turning it over and looking at it. A red hoodie with an ‘R’ on it.
For the first time in six months, someone looks up and sees her. She backpedals quickly, accesses the small cameras on the outer edges of the tower, gets a name to a face. Duke Thomas.
By the time she gets back to the window, pushing herself up and out of her chair to lean over the windowsill and wave one hand madly, he’s gone. Her arms shake from holding her body weight, and she drops back down into it, both hands covering her face as she lets out a frustrated groan. She wheels back to her computer, slow, resigned, and another notification pops up: Batgirl Destroys Cuppa Joes in High Speed Chase!
Well, if you want something done right...
She rewinds the footage from the last eight hours she’d spent sleeping- watches her kiss an officer from the GCPD, her arms wrapped around his neck. Barbara knows she’s gonna hate herself for this, but she unfolds another paper out of the trash can, sees the tear marks on it.
It’s easy to fake a call from someone else’s number. And they shared a voice after all.
Barbara hates how desperate she’s become, and her hands still shake as she punches in the number for Officer Powell. She’d known it’d be easy to match them up through HOOQ, knew that Powell’s point of view towards justice would cause at least some slight guilt in whatever type of cardiovascular system this copy had. She also had his number on the GCPD page, right in front of her.
“Hey, Liam?” She makes her voice breathy, girlish. Sad. It’s not even too much of a stretch- she’s used to doing worse impressions as favors to Bruce.“S-sorry to call you so late- I know we haven’t talked much, but I... I needed someone to talk to.”
“Really, Barbara, it’s no problem- what’s going on?” She can hear his sleep-ridden voice, the yawn just under the surface. It’s too easy to be this simpler version of herself. To be young and girlish and uncomplicated.
She tells him all of Barbara Gordon’s secrets, and waits for the floor to fall out from underneath the other her.
The next day, the wrong person picks up his phone, and hears Barbara’s false trill on the other end of the line, just as she meant for it to. “I have so much to tell you. Don’t you want to hear my secrets? Don’t you?”
On the other side of the screen, the Batgirl of Burnside drops the phone in horror. Barbara hangs up and, for the first time in a long time, smiles genuinely.
In the span of five minutes, an email to the director of Burnside College is sent and a citizen’s arrest warrant is posted onto HOOQ. A reward of twenty million dollars for a person Burnside hated, any force necessary, but Barbara knows, with her brain scan, there’s no way it would ever come close to a murder.
Relief floods through her, and her shoulders droop- God, when had she gotten so tense? She could almost pass out. Or vomit. Everything crashing into place.
She didn’t notice when she’d fallen asleep, slumped against the desk, but her computer notifies her when Dinah and the Batgirl of Burnside get matched in the same area. Half-asleep, she hears Dinah speak, “You’re so concerned about your image, you let your technique slip. That’s not the Batgirl I know. She doesn’t care about celebrity. She’s not glued to her phone.”
Barbara falls back asleep, smiling and thinking she’s in a different time.
Someone kicks in the door to the clocktower, and her breath catches in her throat. Barbara finishes off the last half of her granola bar, drops the wrapper into the trash, and then starts her descent down the ramp. Her escrima sticks are in the side bag on her chair, and she definitely doesn’t know how to die quietly, but she knows she isn’t remotely close to being able to fight anyone in her current state.
Better to die fighting than die alone, she supposes.
“I swear to God, I’ve walked past this same block a million times and I never goddamn saw this place.” A hushed whisper, and two other sets of footfalls. “She has red hair, wears glasses, is in a wheelchair- she looked sick and I dunno-”
Barbara’s throat hurts. “Hello?” She could almost cry. She almost could, and that’s godawful because she has bit her tongue more than once to keep the tears back during these months. Her heart feels like it’s going to beat out of her weak ribcage.
The same voice again. “Ma’am?” It’s the boy from before- she can practically feel it. Duke Thomas rounds the corner fast, a blur of red and yellow, and he’s in front of her, at the bottom of the ramp, looking down with wide eyes. “I’m- I’m sorry for barging in in your, uh, home- you looked like you needed help and uh-”
Her eyes fall onto the Robin symbol on his chest and she chokes up, hand covering her mouth. She nods, once, twice, fast and quick until she’s shaking her head at the impossibility of the situation. “I- yes, I do need help- my name is-”
“Batgirl.” She freezes, hands dropping to clutch her armrests. Of the two girls to the sides of him, the one with cropped black hair speaks up, her eyes just as wide and surprised as Barbara’s. “You’re her.”
She really is going to pass out. She looks in between the three of them, all of them in some form of civilian version of the Robin gear (she’d seen that it’d become a popular movement in Gotham, but had never really thought about the consequence of it all). She looks around the clock tower, out the open door.
Barbara realizes she has nothing left to lose. “I- yes, I was, but now I’m-” So many years of keeping her identity secret, so many months of solitude. “I’m something else, now. I haven’t been Batgirl for a long time.”
“Oh.” There’s a pause, and Duke and the other girl exchange glasses. “I just met Batgirl the other night. She wasn’t-” She looks rather pointedly at her legs, then cuts her gaze off to the side, guiltily. “Sorry.”
“No, it’s alright.” Barbara could burst out of her skin. There were worse times to be recognized as a superhero, and being outed like this was suddenly one of the most important moments in her life. “The Batgirl running around- The one in Burnside- she’s using my identity and she’s hurting people and I don’t know what she wants but-”
The Robin shakes her head. “No, that can’t be- I just met her and-” But she shifts from foot-to-foot and she’s really looking at Barbara, and she wonders how closely she’d seen the Batgirl of Burnside. She looks right at her eyes, then her gaze lowers to way Barbara’s ribs poke out against her shirt. Barbara wonders how many other citizens Burnside’s Batgirl has left like this- wide-eyed and adoring, following without question. “You really-” She chokes on the words, and the other girl Robin steps closer.
“How long have you been in here?” She seems to come to the same conclusions as the other girl, glancing at Barbara’s hollowed cheeks, her tired stare. She then looks above and around the tower- sees the birds nests and the cobwebs. “Ma’am, we gotta get you to the hospital, even if you were Batgirl, you’ll still need medical treatment, especially living in this place.”
She moves to go to the back of Barbara’s chair, and Barbara holds up a hand to stop her. She had paused anyways, seeing no handles on the back of the chair. “I can handle myself, don’t worry about that.” She lets out a long, shaky breath, and contemplates her options. “I can’t leave, not yet, but I need you to- I need you to contact Batman. Tell him my name is Barbara Gordon and show him where I am and-” She digs in the bag attached to her chair, feels something prick her finger before she grabs onto it. “Give this to him. Tell him I’ve been lost for a long time, but I think I’ve found my way home.”
Duke takes the batarang out of her hand like it’s something precious, and his eyes are blown wide and believing, and Barbara feels the same bottoming-out relief in her gut. He nods, quickly, and puts it inside his jacket. “Really, though, I don’t think we should leave you here- is there anything you need? Food, clean water?”
She looks between the three of them, looks at how young they look and how they’re all hanging onto her every word. She wonders if this is as close as they’ve gotten to an actual member of the Gotham-dubbed ‘Bat Family’. “I don’t expect to stay here much longer, actually- I haven’t been able to leave, but...” She looks over their shoulders at the blown-wide door, and allows herself to smile. “I think you guys just gave me a way out.”
Duke nods and pulls out a cellphone. She watches the other two mimic him, quickly typing something in. “It’s, uh- we Robins call it ‘The Nest’. A guy on the other side points us where to go, tells us what’s happening.” He offers, one shrug and a somewhat apologetic smile. “Some of us are convinced it’s Batman on the other end.”
The girl with cropped hair puts away her phone first, into her skirt’s pocket. She puts her hand out, slowly, to Barbara, like she was a snake and she didn’t want to get bitten. “My name is Riko. Batgirl has always been my hero. Since I was a kid- I knew she’d gone away for a bit, but then she came back and-” Her smiles turns a little shy, and Barbara notices her hand is shaking. “It’s nice to finally meet her.”
Barbara jerks against her safety strap to grab her hand with both of her’s, nodding quickly and smiling back at her. She’s the one to pull away, and Riko looks at her hand long afterwards, like she couldn’t believe it was real. “It’s nice to meet someone who remembers who I was.” She turns to all three of them. “Anyways, don’t let an old cape like me hold you down- don’t you have a patrol to finish?”
They seem reluctant to leave.
“Isabella.” The other girl introduces herself, shaking her hand as well. “I live close by, so I’ll swing by and make sure you have something to eat by the end of the night, if you’re not planning on leaving.”
“Unfinished business.” Barbara agrees. “Thank you- really, you don’t have to do this, but I don’t plan on living here. If everything goes as planned, I’ll have my life back.”
“Alright...” Isabella responds, but the word drags like she’s unbelieving. “Just roll out and come look for a Robin if anything goes wrong- we’ll spread the word to be on the lookout for a redheaded badass in a wheelchair.”
Barbara chuckles, but only because it’s validating to hear someone discuss her. To be her own separate entity from the Batgirl of Burnside. She’ll take ‘redheaded badass in a wheelchair’. “Thank you, again.” She turns to Duke. “And, of all the people, thank you- you’re the only person to actually see me in all of this time. I could’ve been stuck here until I...”
“Really, this was nothing.” He smiles and looks away, rocking slightly on his heels. “The hero business and all- ‘s how we all are. You’d know, being Batgirl and all.”
“Oracle.” Barbara says, and she smiles, genuine and strong and feeling like she could fight whatever tried to push her back into the clock tower. “I’m Oracle, now.”
She sends a text to Frankie to come to her HOOQ office from the imposter’s phone and asks her to leave her phone behind, and then she sends a subsequent text to Frankie’s phone. Lost: the owner of this phone. Last seen near her office. Won’t you come and rescue her, Barbara? No matter how cocky she seems over text, however, it still took her a full two hours to take public transport down to Burnside, then to pick the lock on the HOOQ headquarters’ elevator lock, because there was no accessibility ramp. Then the next five minutes going up so many floors to get to the office.
And then, when she’s there on the upper floors, there’s Frankie, sitting in her office chair, waiting. She spins in the chair to face Barbara, calling her name, but freezes. “You’re not Barbara- she’s been out of the chair for months and-” She turns back to the computer- she’s shivering. “This... This has to do with these images, doesn’t it?”
Plastered from screen-to-screen on Frankie’s three-monitor setup, are pictures incriminating the false Barbara Gordon as Batgirl. Pictures clipped from the footage of Barbara trapped inside the tower. The speakers are set to low, but the recordings from the past months from Barbara’s tower are playing, one after another. “Hello, if you’re hearing this message, this is Oracle speaking- I’m currently trapped at-” The automated recording of her location. Her voice cracking. “Please, if you get this, send any aid to my location- as of right now I have been trapped for-” The automated recording of how long she’d been trapped. Last it was updated, it was seven months, twenty-two days, and fifty-two minutes.
Frankie turns to her, eyes wet and alarmed. “Oh God, Barbara. If you- if you’re still in the chair- if you’ve been trapped for all of these months then who-” Pure alarm sets off her face, and her hands jump up to press on her cheeks. She goes somewhat gray- physically sick- and Barbara maneuvers quickly to drag the trash can beside her in offering. She dry-heaves once, twice, then pushes the can away from her, fear in her eyes as she looks into Barbara’s eyes, her left hand half-covering her mouth. “Who have I been living with for the past seven months?!”
“That’s what I’m trying to figure out.” Barbara says as calmly as she can- involving civilians had been a desperation tactic, and she didn’t want to get anyone else involved now that she could take matters into her own hands. “I think that this Batgirl of Burnside is using- I made an algorithm that would assist my brain scan with locating information if I were to... be incapacitated for the time being. I know that’s the only way that she could know this much about me, and I know she’d have to have had the algorithm for a period of time-”
Frankie leans forward in her seat and reaches for Barbara’s hands. Blankly, she allows her to pick them up- she knows she’d been friends with the fake Barbara, and that she’s trying very hard not to panic, so she’ll excuse the friendly touches, the way she’s conflating the imposter to herself to make it easier to cope. “She said she had it when she signed up for college- that’s how she got into-into the program. But she’s been missing it this entire time and- and, if what you’re saying is true-” She scrunches her eyes up, turns her head away like she didn’t want to think about it. “The algorithm would be the only way the brain scan could execute actions according to your personality and memories- it’d be a means of... Of deciding what decisions were in-line with who you were.” Frankie takes a shaky breath. “Oh God, all this time...”
This is Oracle speaking- I’m currently trapped at-
Footsteps on the fire escape. Whatever skills she’d taken from the brain scan, stealth hadn’t been one of them.
Frankie jerks her head towards the door, then looks at Barbara. “No one’s supposed to be here this late.” She whispers, but it’s harsh, because she’s panicking and it’s making her voice less than the ideal quiet she was hoping for. She quickly covers her mouth again. Unshed tears gather in her eyes, and she’s scared.
Barbara reaches out a hand. “It’s the Barbara you’ve lived with all of this time- as long as you don’t... Don’t give away that you know something’s wrong, I don’t think she’ll hurt you.” She closes her eyes. “And if this comes to blows, I’ll cover you, and you get the hell out of here.”
“What are you planning on doing?” Frankie stares at her, at this complete stranger wearing the face of someone she thought was her friend. “What... What’s going to happen?”
Barbara leans forward and keys in a code on Frankie’s computer. “I’ve been setting this up for months- I think I figured out how to get my life back.” She casts an apologetic smile in Frankie’s direction. “I’m sorry for any inconvenience I’ve caused you at HOOQ.”
“That was you...?” But as soon as she’d spoken, Barbara wheeled around the corner, her bag open and the escrima sticks ready for her hands if she needs them, and she’s thinking about how long it’s been since she’s used them.
She’s thinking about how, whatever she lacks in skill, she could make up for with sheer anger.
The Batgirl of Burnside comes into the room with a purpose, but she freezes as soon as she’s behind Frankie’s desk. “Frankie...” Her voice is soft, disappointed almost. She shakes her head, disbelieving in what’s happening.
Frankie, still facing Barbara and away from the imposter, blinks her eyes a few times, before turning to face her. “Barbara... You’re Batgirl.”
At these words, a pre-recorded video of Barbara comes onto the screen. “No. You’re not. And I’m here, to take back what’s mine.”
“Frankie, we need to shut this down before it spreads to any more systems.” She’s fast, demanding. She leans over Frankie’s shoulder, her hand grasping the back of her chair. From her vantage point, Barbara sees her tense up.
“Why?” And it’s a little too accusatory- a little too out-of-character for a girl seeing her best friend come save her. Frankie, just slightly shaking, even as the hand by her thigh clutches into a fist.
“That malicious code you’ve been trying to kill?” The Batgirl says, eyebrows drawn down. “It’s my missing algorithm- the one incorporating my brain scan. Somehow it’s merged with the Hooq servers and become... sentient.”
Frankie’s eyes dart over to where Barbara is hidden and she feels acute anticipation of being caught. The Batgirl doesn’t even notice. “This thing is a copy of your mind?”
The video picks up at the words ‘copy’. “No. I am not. I am me. I am Barbara Gordon. I awoke, alone, in endless dark. Blind, deaf, silent, but aware. Then- I could see everything. I remembered myself, who I was. I woke up in the clock tower, alone with the remnants of my past. I saw myself. Me, but not me. My body, worn for vanity and gratification by some cheap imposter.”
The video cuts as Barbara’s face on the screen grows dark, angry. “And I was furious. So I sent my past to destroy her. I used her image to discredit her. I proved she could never be happy. She would never be loved. But my anger become more acute. I was only a ghost- she still wore my body. She could feel and touch what I could not. I needed to take it back.”
The video cuts off, fading back to the screen covered in images of Barbara alone in the clock tower.
“And I mean to do it.” Barbara emerges from the dark, tense, her left hand already in her bag with a hand around a stick. “Hello, me. Meet the real me.”
She falters, staring at Barbara without blinking. “I... I don’t understand.” She looks between Barbara and Frankie, then settles on Frankie. “You... Did you set this up?” And there’s anger in her voice. Sharp, knife-thin.
“I did all of this. Frankie was an unwilling accomplice.” She pushes herself closer, almost to where Frankie is sitting, practically dropping herself in between the two of them. “I want to know who made you- your body. I know you’re using my software, I know what’s running your mind. I want to know who did this and why.”
“‘Who did this?’” She echoes, then looks away. She looks as if she’s contemplating her answer, before Barbara sees her thumb move, tapping letters onto the screen, to Dinah. “Between the two of us, you should wonder, who will Dinah help? For some reason, I don’t think she even remembers us being Oracle.”
“Me being Oracle.” Barbara corrects, but it makes her uneasy- she wonders, she wonders, she wonders. She knows she can’t take Dinah on- especially with her Canary Cry. “I don’t... I don’t need her to win this fight.”
“You asked what I wanted.” She continues, and her posture is so casual that Barbara is suddenly afraid that she misjudged the situation. That she didn’t have an advantage at all. “You know what software is running me, you said- so what did you program me to do?”
“Find out information about criminals and support heroes.” Barbara’s answer is instant. Frankie’s head jerks back and forth like she’s watching a tennis match. “That was its sole function- anything beyond that is because of tampering.”
“And what happens when that sort of software suddenly finds out that it has the ability to go after the criminals and the heroes itself?” The smile is cruel. “It walks around, it mingles, and it certainly has a lot more fun than the woman sitting around typing up hints and tips for the superhero populace.”
Footsteps on the fire escape. Lighter this time, barely noticeable. Dinah.
“And, hey, audiences tend to like their heroes to be on their feet, you know.” The last jab, and Barbara pulls out the escrima sticks, half rage and half calculation- how much damage to get the implant to turn off- how much damage before she finally feels in control- how much damage before her skin stops crawling-
She doesn’t get the chance to move. Frankie’s face tints a flushed red and she lurches out of the chair, hands against the Batgirl’s chest, knocking her back. She’s weak on her legs, and her knees knock together. “On their feet, huh.” She’s shaking. There are tears in her eyes, and the Batgirl of Burnside looks like she’s going to say something to salvage the relationship, try to regain an ally. “On their feet. On their fucking feet- you piece of shit-” She pivots her hips to direct a slap, but her hand is caught by the Batgirl. She starts to twist her arm, never breaking eye contact, and Frankie’s eyes squint as she starts to pull away, her kicks slow and not always connecting.
Barbara shoves the rolling chair hard, knocking it in between the two of them, startling Batgirl enough to give Frankie her two seconds to get the hell out before she got hurt. She leans over her armrests to push her her crutches and could sigh when Frankie picks them up and, easier than she could’ve before, moves swiftly out of the room.
On her way out, Dinah forces herself in.
“Batgirl- I got your message and-” She freezes. “Oracle?!” She meets Barbara’s eyes and Barbara feels tears prick her eyes, even though that might’ve been because Batgirl had blindsided her over the temple with a punch. The moment seems to last forever before she blinks and shakes her head.
“Black Canary- so glad you could come up here- I needed the back-up for-” Barbara, back to earth, gives her a punch to the gut that has her fold like a lawn chair. “Please, Dinah- if you could-”
The message on the computer rewinds again. Hello, if you’re hearing this message, this is Oracle speaking-
In a blur of white hair and tanned skin, Dinah has the Batgirl pinned to the floor in a headlock. “Barbara- Barbara, all this time- I didn’t even know you were-” The girl in her arms moves to claw down her arm, and Barbara leans over to catch her hand and twist it. “Goddamn, is it good to have the real Barbara back.” And, even while holding a squirming and violent impersonator in her hands, the smile on Dinah’s face makes Barbara’s heart give an uneven thump. “So, Oracle, what are we dealing with here?”
“Some sort of clone- she thought she was me- long story.” The Batgirl moves for her eyes, and Barbara just leans slightly out of her reach. “She has an implant with all of my memories and most of my information. I don’t exactly know what it’s made of, but it has to have delicate circuits on the inside. We have two option: blunt trauma to the head or your sonic scream aimed towards the back of her head.”
“Well, I don’t know about your schedule, but I think we both have a lot of catching up to do, and as much as I love punching my way out of things...” Dinah tilts her head from side to side. “I’d like to cut this short. What frequency?”
“Twenty kilohertz should do the trick.” Barbara wonders if this execution should bother her. She then realizes she’s looking at a meat puppet using her brain that willingly left her to rot in a tower for seven months.
She’s never been as just as Bruce- she knows she’s toeing a line.
“Any last words?” Dinah asks and, just as she’s about to let out a screech, the imposter opens her mouth. She loosens her grip just slightly, allowing her to speech.
“You asked... Who made me.” The software looks to be glitching- no situational reference for this. “You could consider it-” Her tongue is heavily, like it isn’t cooperating with her words. “An act of God.”
She shoves Dinah off and, when she goes to catch her again, Barbara grabs onto the back of her arm, tight. She takes a few steps back and holds her arms out wide, tilting her head up. “Dinah, something’s not r-”
Barbara has seen human combustion before, and it had never been like this. Like she was a flesh-and-blood firework, like someone had pointed a finger-gun at her and cocked it back. Her blood splatters the floor, but no waste, or skin, or any organ matter. The only memory of her was a speckled bloodstain on the ground. An act of God. She looks away.
Barbara’s going to be sick.
“So, that.” Dinah heaves out a breath and looks away. “That happened.” She looks down at Barbara’s hand gripping her arm and puts her own hand over it. None of the blood touched her, which she finds suspicious. “Babs, you’re gonna want to see this.”
She really doesn’t want to, but she trusts Dinah, and she opens her eyes.
In the middle of the blood splatter is a cybernetic implant, intact and offline. “Dinah, you know I hate being pushed around but, please-” She rolls forward, so slow, noticing that her wheels don’t even leave a mark in the blood. She picks up the implant and places it in her bag. “Take me to the hospital.”
After seven months of borderline dehydration, malnutrition, and social isolation, Barbara was finally done fighting. She rolls towards the elevator, but the dark starts to close in on her, and she faints, her safety strap the only thing keeping her from dropping into the blood.
She’s in the hospital for four days, hooked up to fluids while the doctor told her she was very lucky to be alive right now- something about recent exertion and a sudden drop in her blood sugar. Barbara was barely awake for most of his check-ins, but Dinah kept her posted, sitting by her bedside and eating pudding from the hospital’s cafeteria. She sneaks her bites when the nurses aren’t looking.
When she’s discharged, no matter how many times Dinah told her not to, she goes back to the clock tower. Her father hadn’t visited her (probably didn’t even know anything had been wrong), and she needed to rectify that, but the first thing she had to do was take off all of the emergency protocols in her computer. Make sure nothing could happen before she threw herself back into mainstream society.
On her doorstep is a lasagna stuffed into a tupperware, nine bottles of water with the letter ‘O’ on it, and a box full of protein bars. A note beside it: “We take care of our own - Robin”. She smiles and shakes her head, picking up the lasagna and setting it in her lap while she fills her side bag with water bottles and protein bars.
She’s on her way up the ramp when something moves above her. She pauses on the landing and takes out one of the water bottles by the neck (Dinah had taken her escrima sticks so the hospital wouldn’t confiscate them), then proceeds to roll up the rest of the way. She grabs it again and holds it above her head, looking for the intruder.
“Barbara.” An exhale of her name. A voice she hadn’t heard in a long time. A person she couldn’t find on any of the satellites. Oh, Barbara could cry.
Cass comes out of the darkness, her clothes basic and black, with her fists wrapped in bandages. She lunges for Barbara and wraps her arms around her shoulders, burying her face in her neck, and she can feel the collar of her shirt start to soak with tears. “Barbara. Missed you- everything’s different now.”
“Hey, it’s fine, I’m back- you got me.” She smooths her hands up Cass’ back and shuts her eyes and, for the second, can pretend that everything’s back to normal.
Cass pulls away, then pulls her eyebrows together. “Do you know what’s happened? No more Dick. No more Bruce. Tim is wrong. Damian is missing.” Her eyebrows draw together. “Who is Harper Row?”
“I don’t know, Cass.” Barbara sets the lasagna down on her table, starts placing the water bottles down. She boots up her system and takes the cybernetic implant out of her bag, connects it to her computer. Whoever took the information was strong- Godlike, as the Batgirl of Burnside had put it. “But we’re going to find out.”
But they had made a mistake coming near her family.