33. The Lion’s Leap

Patterns are complicated, in almost all situations. When not looking at a videogame or computer design, areas where mathematics take a profound place of importance, most patterns seen by humans are not really patterns at all; there are imperfections when you get close. Even the most perfect snowflake has faint points of molecular asymmetry. What humans regard as a pattern is really an aggregated average; millions of millions of subatomic errors and near-enough-is-good-enough designs shifting against one another. The pattern the human sees isn’t the pattern the world has shown.

Lines are only straight in the human mind; concepts are only ever simple in the human mind; no matter the simple, apparently easy construct, humans have never been able to make reality as simple as their ideas. Laws. Countries. Constellations.

Genders.

Barbara had a pattern in her mind; mild mannered high school cheerleader by day, as the school tried to accommodate its newfound level of complexity, and by night, mask-wearing vigilante, leaping from rooftop to rooftop, protecting the places that these days, the police were scared to go. That was her pattern; a pattern that could hold for day after day until the end of her school years, when she’d…

… she’d…

Well, she’d come up with something.

It was easy in school. Tall, blonde, athletic, have rhythm? Welcome to being a cheerleader. Nice and kind as well? Be a well-liked cheerleader. That was all they needed, and they had a box for you to fit in. The box had always been an easy one, but Barbara couldn’t help but wonder if the box had been as kind as it had been for, say, her father with his comic books, or her mother who had, it seems, always been shaped a bit like a jelly donut. Chances are, it wasn’t going to be kind to her brother, either – already his time in school had rung loud with talk of bullies and of not fitting in. School was a machine that put you in a box and carried you a little closer to your future – Barbara was at least grateful for a comfortable box.

Guns were still a problem. Naturally, plenty of people she met were armed. Even people who weren’t doing anything wrong were armed, because that’s what life was like in a concealed carry state at night. It wasn’t even that that many people owned guns – just the people who came out at night and crept around people’s windows seemed to have the notion that they needed a gun.

Another pattern that existed only because Barbara was observing it. The spotlight fallacy, where the details a person is exposed to shape what they consider to be the norm.

Guns were often the easiest target to dismantle, too; they weren’t very big, but they were hard metal, and when Barbara flung green fire into them, it tended to cut them into pieces and leave behind something the person holding them would drop, fast. On the other hand, sometimes there was distance, and the way she moved her arm to fling a softball-sized arc of fire was too much of a tell.

Sometimes, like this time.

He was also at the edge of the rooftop, gun barrel wavering at her, finger on the trigger. These were… non-ideal circumstances. Every time she’d found herself stuck like this, though, some part of her had risen and known a way to solve it. There’d been the panic she’d induced in one man. There’d been the creeping waves of beetles, and of course, throwing Aikon at people served remarkably well. Something about that phone was damn near indestructable.

This time, however…

“Hey, Aikon,” she said, “we got a plan for a bullet…?”

Of course, without the phone in her hand, it wasn’t like she could see any response.That was awkward as heck. That put this one on her to solve.

What did Warlocks do, again? They used the little drops of memory of themselves in other people’s memories. Well, it seemed that wasn’t something that vigilantism leant itself to. Plenty of people knew there was someone masked, who roared like a lion, leaping from rooftop to rooftop. That didn’t mean they knew anything about who she was… or what she could do.

Far above, Barbara felt the shape of the stars; the tug on her mind that had formed ever since the first time. The nobility, the pride, the sense of control. There was some part of her that now stood outside herself, that looked down over everything…

Some part of her that saw the gun, the hand, the ocean, the device – wait, what?

Bang.

Guns didn’t sound like they did in the movies. Not nearly so powerful, or potent.Just like a pop, of fireworks or of breaking sticks. Maybe a thousand people clapping their hands at once could fake the sound.

Lacking for a better solution, Barbara did what the Lion would do – and as the gunshot echoed in her ears, she opened her mouth, stepped forwards, and roared. Her bandanna,masking her face, seemed to open its drawn-on lion’s muzzle, the roar seemed to echo…

And the Lion was gone.

*

The Prince stood behind Holland this time, in the doorway of the other bedroom in the house. Faded stank sheets, stained with sweat and cigarette yellowing, tousled on the bed, too hot in the summer to need blankets when they didn’t have air conditioning. Nothing here; the paper packet at the edge of the bedside table next to the ashtray, next to the folded over bike magazine next to the bare bulb lamp with its metal ring of ex-lampshade. The wardrobe, the wallpaper, all unchanged.

Just empty.

He’d been here. He’d always be here in the afternoons. With a full pack of smokes, he’d have to be here, because there was no other reason to leave before beer got cheap later at night.

Holland had spent years resenting him and now he was gone and now, rather than a feeling of relief, or even anger at the abandonment, Holland was filled with wroth at the cackling, star-patterned foe that stood in the doorway.

“You know what’s really funny,” the Prince asked, knowing that it wasn’t a question, just an effort to twist the knife. “It was you really, that did it. You, deep down, and all that confusion he had. Why couldn’t you be normal. Why couldn’t he live in a world where his kid made some sense…” The prince threw his head back, cackling, hands on the doorframe, as if slowly swelling up from within, about to burst forth with enriched stars, tumbling about the world.

“It’s what separates them all, you know. Some people just want a point where they don’t have to say ‘Why?’ any more!”

And the Prince leant forwards, head now much bigger than Holland’s, much bigger than all of Holland, and leered with a maw full of daggerlike teeth.

“When I take them all, they’ll be safe. They’ll be elsewhere. There won’t be a bellowing in the ocean, there won’t be a thing they have to deal with. There won’t be the fear, and there’ll just be those brave people like you left behind. How many people do you think are like you, you know…? Well, you know. In mind. Not just that.” The Prince cackled.

That’s when a superhero burst out of his chest, fist raised, and punched him square in the face.

*

Barbara wasn’t sure what she was doing. Really, she wasn’t. She’d stepped into the path of the bullet, she’d roared – and for the briefest instant, she’d been the outline of the stars, the lion of the sky. She’d been something more than herself, something so many believed in, something that people looked to and saw as nobility, power, stubbornness, and with a lucky number today of onlythree. That garbled instant, cast across the stars, swallowing up what she was and casting it aside – before she’d been pulled by something.

The Prince wore stars like a cloak; briefly, Barbara had been not sars, but what stars represented to many people. In that instant, she’d seen her city; she’d seen the ocean; she’d seen the world.

And here she was, hearing that cackling, that mocking, that meanness, to the nice person in the bedroom, and the only thing that she had imagined it possible to do had flowed from her hands.

The uppercut slung upwards, pushing the Prince up off the ground, throwing him off his feet as she spun around immediately, swinging her other arm around, fist closing around Aikon in her grip to give that swing some extra impact. The crack of her phone smashing into the side of the Prince’s head was echoed with the overwhelming thud of her knee then hitting him in the midsection – well, maybe the balls, she liked to imagine – before she stepped back, green fire in her hands.

The Prince staggered back from the assault;he clutched at his chest, his face, dazed, blinking. “What…” it said.

“I’m… too human. That hurt… that hurt,” it blurted, angered at the situation, terrified and confused all at once. Waving its huge taloned hands, it reached forwards, ready to eviscerate the teenagers –

before Barbara turned,blasting a green flame hole in the wall of the fibro building, grabbing Holland by a wrist, and running.

This was not… familiar. This was all flat and scrubby grass, and the sun was bright and hot as steam. Waving fronts of green danced in the winds by the roadsides, studded and decorated about with bright flares of tiny, soft yellow beads, and for the first time in a ong memory, Barbara professed the thought she always felt guilty about:

“Where the hell am I?” she asked, turning to Holland.

“Keep! Running!” came back the response, Holland pumping arms and trying to maintain pace. Good grief, this girl could run!

Behind the two escapees, the Prince staggered back, clutching at its torso; the pain magnified, the retaliation of a moment past. Its hands drawn away from its chest, it looked down at itself… and heaved a long, ragged grunt of pain.

A constellation was missing.

She had stolen his stars.

Far behind the running youths, the Prince looked at its hands. There were… seven billion people on the planet. How many… hm. How many could he disappear, to his world? Would there be enough of them…?

The Prince stroked an unchin, walking away from the smoking crater in the wall. There was one thing that could stop him, though… probably best to go deal with that. He stepped forwards from the soft sand of the mining town’s grass, and to somewhere else.

Grass slowly slid back up into its shape. The building slowly burned. Not for a kilometer of running, though, did the two youths slow down to breathe.

Holland slouched against a tree near the old creamery, the rattling of the train as it hummed past contrasting with the pounding blood that seemed to echo around everything. Hand on heart, jumper sleeves rolled up, Holland tried to gather something that could be considered wits.

“H-hi,” Holland managed, looking to Barbara. “I’m Holland…”

Blonde, tall, leggy, athletic, and astoundingly feminine looked at brunette, sickly, nervous and androgynous.

“Um, Barbara,” she said, with a twang in her voice that spoke of the United States – not just the US, but… somewhere a bit southern, somewhere where they had Charms and Mintjuleps and a burning need to Rise Again. “But, uh, you’re…”

Holland swallowed, extending a hand. “Holland.” Repetition. That had been a long-standing trick.

Barbara nodded, and smiled, taking the hand, clasping it and giving a reassuring squeeze. “Of course!” she said, nodding. “And uh,what should I use to refer to you?” she asked, smiling broadly. “I mean, for your preference – oh, um, that is, if other people don’t know…?”

She knew.

And the hand holding Holland’s was warm, and kind, and not tense or sick.

Barbara blinked in surprise, as her new friend’s arms flung around her, wrapping her up in a huge hug, a hug that could bury doubts and sadness; a hug that bespoke a strangely simple, wonderful thought: You’re not alone.

Somewhere in Barbara’s pocket, words flashed on a screen.

We do not have much
of a plan for a bullet
but you could try
winging it

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