41. The Lion’s Chase

During World War II, the fear of the Allied forces was not a major bombing strike on the capital of England, London, but rather a massive, debilitating bombing attack on cities that provided the supporting infrastructure. A nuclear blast in London would have disarrayed the central command – it would have killed a large number of people. It would not, however, have killed the country the way that a loss of say, Birmingham would have. When enemies struck at one another, they struck at facilities that built things. They pounded at airfields and they mined and bombed railways.

It was not so much the people that mattered, but the things those people could do. An engineer could repair a plane, and he could repair another plane and he could keep repairing planes. A pilot could only fly one plane at a time. It wasn’t the people who drove the war machine that mattered, it was the people who kept it working that did.

The modern world, the world of not-so-much-world-war, was no different. People pointed to the millionaires, the lucky few, the rich technologists or the spurned individuals who drove the infrastructure to take its cosmic leaps into the future. Few realised that it was the work of an army of system administrators, security analysts, electricians, plumbers, and groundskeepers that kept the entire ordinance moving forward.

It is a popular myth amongst people that one day, a large portion of the population will step out of the world and watch the ensuing mess. The myth usually features horse-like scorpions, dragons, whores and rivers of blood. What they don’t seem to realise is just how little of that is necessary.

Zombie Apocalypse fiction, suffusing and consuming as it is, spreading and choking out other, less-nimble, less-popular types of fiction, worships at this same shrine. The notion that there needs to be some massive, supernatural, terrible change in society to provoke its downfall.

All it takes for the world to crumble is for enough people to not turn up to work.

*

Spotlight had never been Holland’s place. The window displays of tall spools of cloth and singer sewing machines, glossy and white with their untouched surfaces, had always seemed a defensive front, put up to lure out peoples’ mothers – people that had them – as a sort of human barricade between the street and the fun stuff. Pillowcases and bedsettings and tablecloth racks – good grief! – were nothing interesting, but along the grey-blue pathways of pressed linoleum between display areas showing the most delightful of outdoor patio napkin rings, lurked the crafts section. A wondrous place, a place where modelling clay and brightly coloured home-made sticker systems waited for their discovery, where you could buy things that were fun without batteries, things that were fun without electricity or a big flat-screen plasma or Two To Five Players, Ages Nine And Up. Things that wanted to be creative, things that wanted to be used and made into other things, and the things they could become were things that you chose.

For some reason, Holland really envied the kids who had toys that encouraged change and creativity.

For some reason.

Barbara, on the other hand, had been slightly wowed by everything in the main street. She’d been stunned to see people crossing the street, shocked when Holland referred to the small knot of four cars at a light as ‘pretty busy,’ and when they’d stepped inside the Spotlight and she’d seen the sprawling complex that spread across three storeys and a full city block, wondered about why it was so small.

In many ways, Holland’s view of America was shaped by television, and television never took you inside a Hobby Lobby if you weren’t going to buy something at Hobby Lobby. It was a Hobby Lobby, what use did they have to be mentioned for non-advertising reasons. But Barbara came from this place of commercial palaces, places where single stores could occupy the space that Holland expected to be dedicated to entire shopping malls.

On the other hand, Barbara had gaped at the two parks that flanked the shopping district, with their towering artwork and their youth centres, so ha ha ha.

When they emerged from Spotlight, with blue and gold in bags, Holland couldn’t help but wince at the feeling of the shopping. This only worked because the government was still sending out cheques, and hadn’t looked into Matt’s existence. That process was so automated that even as the world squealed into crisis, there had to be an end coming. Then… what. Two teenagers, one really cute, one passable, taking care of themselves in a world where nobody seemed to leave the house?

Barbara stopped short, looking down at her phone. She did that a lot – Holland had always thought it was a bit of a stereotype. School had been always far enough out that nobody had reception, which meant there was no reason to spend your time staring at a phone. But Barbara spoke to her phone, which made some sense. It was her main contact point with her home.

Holland had been a little disturbed, walking through the Spotlight, by just how many people said Miss, are you here with your daughter? Which was wrong on a lot of levels, not the least of which was that Holland, wearing a full sweater over a collared shirt and sneakers, was slightly shorter than Barbara. It was like nobody expected two teenagers to go into a fabric store together, so they just didn’t see Holland as Holland.

Sliiiightly irritating, that!

Barbara leant against Holland’s arm, her hands occupied on the phone, trying to keep Holland from walking on without her. Holland turned a little, standing on the sunny pavement, and leant forwards to look in at the phone – it seemed the thing to do.

ʎɐʍʎu
ɐ ɔıɹqɐɟ ǝɥʇ ɟo ʃʃɐ ɥʇıʍ op oʇ
ƃuıʇɔǝdxǝ noʎ ǝɹɐ ʎʃʇɔɐxǝ ʇɐɥʍ

“That’s a tiny bit rude,” Barbara said, admonishing.

“Oh, oh, I’m sorry,” Holland blurted. “I just…”

“You can’t read it, can you.” Barbara asked, grinning.

“… No.”

Barbara turned the phone slightly, standing next to Holland and holding the phone out. “Okay, Holland? This is Aikon. Aikon, this is my friend Holland.”

The text –

what exactly are you expecting
to do with all of the fabric a
nyway

– remained on screen for only an instant before flashing over.

hello holland

“… Your phone can talk?”

“My phone can think.” Barbara said, grinning down at it.

to barbara and a remarkably la
rge number of other phones in
fact

Holland peered at it owlishly. “Is this…”

Barbara swallowed. “Think … Aikon is my sidekick.”

not you

Holland leant back. “You th- I wasn’t- I didn’t want-”

that was a joke

Barbara smoothed back her blonde hair with one hand and cleared her throat, looking at the phone carefully. “Aikon’s connected to mobile phone towers, which means he can…” she paused. “Hey, Aikon, what can you do?”

can’t do that dark knight thing

“Yeah, but -”

can connect to every single mob
ile phone in the world with eno
ugh time and assuming they are
on and near mobile phone recept
ion which in this country let m
e tell you is not such a picnic

“Yeah, cellphone reception is kinda hard to keep stable around here…” Holland murmured.

“Anyway, we’re going to make a superhero costume,” Barbara said, no irony in her voice at all.

oh good
then you’ll go save the day?

“The day needs saving?” Holland asked, still reading over Barbara’s shoulder.

2.3 billion people are missing

“Wait, what?!” Holland leant forwards, not even realising how much of Barbara’s personal space invasion it required.

2.3 billion people are missing

“He’s very literal.”

“Why’s it a he…?” Holland asked,giving Barbara a quizzical look.

“I-”

you want clarification?

“Yes!” the two teens blurted at once.

since the arrival of magic huma
ns have been disappearing from
industrialised and urban centre
s at a rate hard to calculate.
extrapolating that information
is challenging since mostly it
involves treating cellphone sig
nals as unique individuals but
they’re not and well basically
anyway. the point is that peopl
e are going missing and they’re
going missing fast.

Holland felt sick. Barbara’s eyes widened. “Two point three billion people?”

two point four now but that’s
a level of semantics you don’t
necessarily need to keep up. th
e rate of disappearance is incr
easing.

What?!” Barbara asked, holding the phone. “Are- are you serious?”

yes

Holland leant in and looked at the phone, as if it had eyes that could be stared into, as if it had a will that could be bullied with sheer force of bewildered, half-found strength. “Why.”

I don’t know

The phrase came out slowly, like Aikon was already nervous enough about using a pronoun, let alone admitting confusion.

Barbara put a finger on her temple. “They’re just gone.”

Holland swallowed, touching Barbara’s shoulder. “W-what about that thing? The”

prince of a thousand eyes

A pause, an unsettling quiet. The houses nobody opened, the quiet in the streets, it all made a bit more sense. “It took Matt,” Holland admitted.

Barbara bit her lip for a moment, “Was Matt your-”

“It took Matt,” Holland asserted, as obstinate as possible.

*

That night, the meal was quietly eaten. The music on Matt’s CD player was a little tinny. The costume was sewn in silence.

Aikon had started a counter. Just ratcheting upwards, numbers piled up higher, showing the steady increase from one thing to another, the rate of disappearance. The people being taken away.

Holland often wondered in these moments why nobody did things. Holland had seen in school, videos about all sorts of terrible things going on in the world. Always, the thought kept bubbling up: Why was nobody doing anything.

Barbara came to Holland after dinner, clearing her throat. “When will the outfit be done?” She asked, hunkering down to sit next to the coffee table, strewn about with needles, thread, and swatches of cloth. “I mean, just…”

“I…” Holland didn’t even know how to answer. “I mean…” There was so much stuff to organise, so much measurement to work with, and of course, Barbara might find it needed adjustments…

Barbara sat down next to Holland, swallowing. “Because… once you’re done? I need to go chase the Prince.”

Holland looked down into the blue cloth suspended between uncertain hands. “… And you don’t think you’ll come back.”

Barbara shook her head. “… Yeah.”

Holland looked up again. “It’ll probably take a week or two.” Drawing a serious breath. “… So I guess I’ll come with you.”

Barbara leant back at that, turning to look at Holland. In their short few weeks of friendship Barbara had found Holland to be many things, but outgoing wasn’t one of them. Was it her boldness that drew her friend to stand with her…? Or was it that Holland didn’t want to lose a friend?

Either way, the action was clear. Barbara grinned, grabbing Holland’s hand, clenching a fist and squeezing. “Then we’ll-OW!”

“Needles! Sorry sorry sorry!” Holland blurted, leaning back and letting the sewing fall downwards, landing messily between lap and floor. “Jeeze, I-”

Barbara laughed, sucking her thumb, bright red blood contrasting with her tanning skin. Pulling the finger from her mouth, she patted Holland on the head. “You gotta be careful. If needles are like, my kryptonite, we’re going to be in so much trouble.”

Holland looked around, uncertain, as Barbara stood, full of purpose. “Alright, so we’re going to- wait, we’re going to find him how?”

Barbara reached down for Holland’s hand. “Don’t worry. Wherever he is – I can go there.”

Looking up at her, Holland couldn’t help but tremble inwardly. There was a lion in Barbara – and when she spoke like that, that beast roared.

Holland took Barbara’s hand. Barbara took one step.

And then they weren’t there any more.

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