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By Devin Grayson
WARNER BOOKSCopyright © 2006 DC Comics
All right reserved.
Chapter OneDabir closed his eyes and tried to imagine the light. For every day spent in Gotham, he found his memories of Qurac becoming increasingly intangible. Though he could still feel the satisfying burn of the cardamom- and saffron-spiced coffee his grandmother called "qahwa" scalding his tongue and throat, he could no longer precisely recall the smell or taste of the drink. The sound of sand crunching underfoot could not seem to survive in his memory alongside the cacophony of Gotham's droning car engines, screeching subway train brakes, and taxi horns. Even on the American Coast Guard ship his father had arranged for their primary transport, the heavy, vertical shadows of Gotham City's financial district crushed all sense of grandeur from the bay, transforming one edge of the Atlantic Ocean into a queasy, polluted puddle of dull brown water that no longer even knew its own history well enough to smell of brine.
And the dusty, rich, warming light of home ... Dabir began to wonder if such undisturbed beauty had ever truly existed. Gotham's skyscrapers thrust themselves into the heavens, obliterating the stars with a flat, neon glare, plunging everything below them into cold, leaden shadow. Dabir had never imagined such darkness. Even in the terrible glare ofsummer, the shadows stretched and shifted with the changing light of day, but never fully released the Gotham City pavement from their tyranny. They were present even at night, offering no relief from the heat, but hovering grimly behind lighted storefronts and collecting with blinding solidity in every small street and alleyway. In their all-pervading ambiguousness, Dabir found the city shadows nearly as terrifying as the freeze-framed specificity of the light-autonomous ghost shadows permanently flash-burned in white onto the seared walls of Abu Dhabi.
He refused, however, to show fear, fighting against the oppression of Gotham's shadows with the entire force of his fifteen-year-old being. He held his head high and kept his posture proud. A composed young man even at home, in Gotham Dabir became cool and deliberate. He was unfailingly polite to every person to whom he was introduced and diplomatically without interest or complaint concerning his family's travel itinerary. When the dominating height of a building or the chilling inscrutability of a badly lit pathway threatened to overwhelm him, Dabir turned his attention inward, faithfully tending the smoldering coals of rage that burned constantly in his stomach.
The American servicemen on the 270-foot Cutter avoided Dabir's eyes when he passed them on the deck, but Dabir nodded to them anyway.
"They will help keep you safe," his father had asserted with absolutely no trace of irony as he had sent his son off to board the USCGC Herron. Safe? Dabir barely understood the word, except as an antonym for the predominant condition of his life. "Safe" had been annihilated, along with 1,026,039 lives and over forty-six square miles of Qurac, in the space of time it took for the international terrorist known as Cheshire to drop a stolen Russian nuclear missile on the capital city of Dabir's homeland. The atomic bombing of Abu Dhabi had not even hit its fourth anniversary, but already the world seemed eager to forget. The global community had roundly denounced the attack, the United Nations had sent monetary aid (actual relief workers were not permitted into the country for months due to radiation contamination), and eventually the American government reported Cheshire's arrest and reluctantly turned her over to Quraci custody. By the time the blast zone had been cleared, Dabir's father had been elected as the president of Qurac and the small Middle Eastern country seemed to pump out sycophantically indebted international ambassadors in even greater quantity than the radiation-tinged oil for which they were so famous.
The event quickly came to be spoken of the way people discussed the unfortunate wreckage of a building at the hands of a rampaging super-villain, or even the unintentional destruction of private property triggered by a desperate super hero seconds before his final victory. Foreigners would frown in soft embarrassment and pick invisible lint off their clothing when they noticed the small glass pieces permanently embedded into the left side of Dabir's skull, or when his father calmly listed Dabir's mother and older brother among the dead. "At least it wasn't like Hiroshima," a low-level British royal had blurted out to Dabir during a lavish dinner party in London the year before. "That is to say, at least no one was actually at war with you."
True. There had been no war. In fact, Dabir had read that the terrorist Cheshire-whose ultimate goal had apparently had something to do with blackmailing the world's more prominent governments with her missile cache-had chosen Qurac as the place to demonstrate that she meant business precisely because she assumed that no one really cared about it.
"One must understand the difference, politically, between protest and protestations," she had told an Internal Security Agency operative in one of her early debriefings. For a short time, the American tabloids had been full of her calmly tragic photos and of speculations about an undercover Central Bureau of Intelligence agent with whom she purportedly had a baby. Over and over again, she was described as "beautiful," "stunning," and even "captivating." Though most articles also referred to her as "coldhearted" and "without apparent remorse," they spent more time detailing her long, ebony hair and the exotic cast of her half-Vietnamese, half-French features. Her "real" name, the Metropolis Daily Planet finally reported, was Jade Nguyen.
Dabir, however, found her unreal, even implausible. She was impossible to make sense of. How could one woman be so powerful and so wholly unaccountable? She was photogenic, charismatic, brilliant, and, if the stories were to be believed, also an assassin, a martial artist, a sociopath, a former slave, an orphan, and the mother of a young daughter. Though she was universally despised in what remained of Qurac, to Dabir she was nothing more than an illusion-an intriguing poster girl for a disingenuous political attack. The idea of one woman dying or spending her life imprisoned to atone for the obliteration of Abu Dhabi was unsatisfying. Dabir didn't care what happened to her. He had his own ideas about who was truly to blame for the calamity that had befallen Qurac, at least insofar as it affected his family.
Dabir was startled out of his brood by the familiar voice of his cousin, Rashid. Though two years older than Dabir, Rashid's lanky, sloping frame and easy grin frequently made him appear younger than his more compact, impassive fifteen-year-old cousin. Dabir let go of the safety railing of the flight deck, which he realized he had been white knuckling, and turned to face Rashid.
"You become less intelligible every moment we stay here!" Dabir snapped in perfect English.
Rashid blinked slowly, momentarily caught off guard by Dabir's hostility, and then he smiled again, placing a sweaty hand fraternally on Dabir's shoulder.
"Relax, man, I'm just practicing my American slang. I want to impress the chicks at the dinner tonight."
Dabir sighed, looking searchingly into his cousin's angular face.
"I will do the talking," he said firmly.
Rashid nodded. He understood this to be the natural order of things. Politically and within the hierarchy of the family, Dabir was Rashid's better. There had been hints of this even when they were younger, both playing under the benevolent and watchful eye of Dabir's older brother, Amin. Dabir had always been so curious, so smart and funny and full of ideas, charmingly and inevitably leading his older cousin into lighthearted mischief. But now, without Amin and without Amin and Dabir's mother-without, too, Rashid's mother, father, and sister-Dabir's political and intellectual prominence over Rashid was secure.
Rashid sometimes felt the burden of Amin's absence even more keenly than Dabir did. Though he felt great loyalty and gratitude toward his uncle Hatim-Dabir's father-for taking him in after the loss of his own immediate family to the Abu Dhabi bombing, Rashid often wondered if Dabir could see, as he so clearly could, the pained look of resignation on Hatim's face when the Quraci president surveyed his new, post-apocalyptic brood. Rashid, who called his uncle Abu Amin (father of Amin, a title of familiar respect), was a poor substitute for Amin, and after the bombing Dabir had in many ways become a poor substitute for Dabir. Rashid literally had not seen his cousin smile since that day nearly four years ago, and felt he would have done anything to coax back, just once more, the affectionate, laughing, long-lashed playmate of his childhood. It was as if in the absence of Amin-who with his handsome face and princely social grace had made even the staunchest Quraci politicos nostalgic for the days of Middle Eastern royal families-Dabir had found it easier to become his brother than to lose him. Rashid, though older, could only rush to fill the void then left by Dabir. He embraced his new role as mischief-maker and family clown wholeheartedly, barely stopping to mourn whom he might have become on his own had he not been forced to help repopulate the thinning family ranks of the Abdul-Hakams. The reassignment of identity was not uncommon in the war-ravaged land of his birth, and Rashid was helpful and compliant by nature.
"Listen, the thing tonight's right by Robinson Park. What say we ditch the dessert course and go find out what Gothamites do for fun after dark?" Rashid hoped to tease enthusiasm out of his cousin, but instead Dabir glared up at him with an even darker frown.
"Don't be stupid. Safwan would never let us go."
"Not if we ask, but ..." Rashid stopped as he watched his cousin squint and then rub the temples of his forehead as if fighting off a bad headache. "Dabir, are you all right?"
Dabir glanced up at Rashid with a slightly startled expression and then nodded, his mouth tightening.
"I'm fine." Dabir held Rashid's gaze for a second, then turned back to the view of the Gotham Tricorner Yards.
"There's supposed to be something like two hundred people there," Rashid continued. "Safwan's going to have his hands full just answering questions about your dad. Even if he did notice us slipping out, he wouldn't be able to bust out after us without causing alarm. We could find a video game parlor ... maybe even a disco or something!"
Dabir's back was to Rashid and his voice was low, his shoulders hunched as he leaned his forearms against the ship's railing. "If you want to go, I won't stop you."
"Come on, it'll be fun! Who knows when we'll be in a city like this again -"
"I said no!" Dabir had whirled around suddenly, his eyes flashing at Rashid.
"Okay, fine! Forget it."
Dabir, who was looking over Rashid's shoulder, narrowed his eyes suddenly and Rashid craned his head to see what had caught his cousin's attention. Rashid turned the rest of the way around and together the boys stood up straighter and silently watched the approach of Safwan.
Safwan was President Abdul-Hakam's best friend, chief military adviser, and de facto bodyguard. An imposing man physically, Safwan's musculature and height were backed by his keen intelligence and resolute faith. He usually wore a traditional white thobe from shoulder to ankle and was never without his crocheted skullcap in rich hues of red, green, and black. Neither Dabir nor Rashid had ever been able to figure out his exact age, though both guessed it to be closer to fifty than forty. It was not the fine lines around his dark eyes nor the smattering of silver in his otherwise shiny, cropped black beard that suggested this, but rather the stories he told and the font of wisdom from which he pulled that had always signaled to both boys that they were dealing with a practiced and seasoned elder. Everything about Safwan demanded respect, and most people gave it instinctively without ever consciously deciding to do so.
"Salaam alaykum," Safwan said formally as he approached them. His voice was deep and rich.
First Dabir and then Rashid shook his large hand, both murmuring, "Wa alaykum as-salaam," in unison.
"There has been a change of plan," Safwan announced evenly, turning toward Dabir. "As you already know, the president was delayed in Qurac and sent the Hijra ahead without him. The ship is still scheduled to arrive in Gotham Harbor as planned, but your father was able to break free of his entanglements sooner than expected and boarded a flight early this morning. He will meet us tonight at the reception."
Rashid's expression brightened. "Aren't you going to retrieve him from the airport? We can get ourselves to the event, no problem."
Safwan shook his head, smiling faintly at Rashid. "I will be escorting you. The Americans can deliver the president safely to the reception. It would be hugely embarrassing for them if anything were to happen to him. But we are leaving early so I can properly secure the room. Please attend to your grooming now."
Dabir immediately nodded, squared his shoulders, and began walking past the Law Enforcement Detachment officers who quietly shadowed the family's every move. Rashid headed for the ship's main passageway after his cousin, but was stopped by a strong hand clamping down on his shoulder.
"Were you and your cousin quarreling just now?" Safwan demanded, pulling his hand back to fold his arms across his muscular chest. Rashid watched Dabir until he disappeared below deck, then forced himself to meet Safwan's questioning eyes.
"No, sir. I mean, yes, sir, but it's-we're all right now."
Safwan raised an eyebrow at Rashid. "Gotham is not a safe city, Rashid, and we'd do best to stick together. I require you to keep that in mind at all times."
Inwardly Rashid cringed, grateful Dabir had not been present to hear this remark. Dabir seemed to go ballistic anytime anyone expressed concern over his personal security.
"I will," he said to Safwan, offering a single nod. "I was just trying to ... you know ... loosen him up a little."
Safwan's expression did not change, but he offered a brief nod. He stood beside Rashid for a long moment, watching the bay, then he turned and briefly placed a large, reassuring hand atop Rashid's head.
"We leave in just over an hour," he said quietly, and then he turned and headed back toward the stateroom.
Rashid lingered on the flight deck looking out toward the city, enchanted by the idea that behind the darkness and the twinkling lights, thousands of human dramas were unfolding. Gotham City held the world's richest and poorest, the famous and the anonymous constantly rubbing up against one another in the overcrowded avenues and underground subways. The arts and sciences were advanced during casual conversations in badly lit neighborhood bars, and the fate of nations regularly decided in boardroom meetings held forty stories above sea level. The stories in Gotham were not just historical, they were alive. Anyone standing on a street corner in the city had the right to expect to be included in one at any second. Rashid had memorized a list of resident movie stars and politicians that he hoped to meet during his visit, and had also boned up on Gotham's legends and myths. His favorite was the one about the city's vigilante crime fighter; a strong, fierce, and unforgiving half man, half demon known to Gotham's criminals and true believers simply as "the Batman."
Dabir had combed over his memories of the Great Terror, as the day came to be known in Qurac, more than a thousand times. They were supposed to go to the beach, all of them: Dabir, his father, his mother, and Amin, who was going to start teaching Dabir how to windsurf. Dabir had been looking forward to it for weeks.
Excerpted from DC Universe by Devin Grayson Copyright © 2006 by DC Comics. Excerpted by permission.
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