Batman and Catwoman in Cat-Tales by Chris DeeCat-Tales: String Theory

String Theoryby Chris Dee

Circular Reasoning


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Selina felt that, even if they were still missing a piece of the puzzle, she needed a break from the insanity of dimension hopping.  She was determined to take that break, right up until she walked into the kitchen and saw Jean Paul Valley in Bruce’s Batman costume—not even that disgusting AzBat armor he made but Bruce’s costume!  Except for the cowl, he wasn’t wearing the cowl, which somehow made it worse.  It was the look she liked best on Bruce, when he was working in the cave or finishing up the logs after patrol.  On Valley, the sight made her blood boil.

He dared take Bruce’s place, he dared call himself Batman, the memory of those encounters with that thing in Batman’s costume made her sick even now.  And now here he was, home from one of his earliest patrols in that mantle that wasn’t his (since he hadn’t gotten around to polluting the costume with his revolting new designs), and not only was he taking Bruce’s place, he was living in Bruce’s house.  Selina knew it had happened, knew he’d been living in the manor at that time, but actually seeing it, seeing him standing in the kitchen—in Alfred’s kitchen—standing in front of the stove making himself cocoa in a mug with a gold W etched on the side… It was more than she could stand. 

Neither Batman nor Superman knew what to make of it.  They’d found Luthor easily enough:  Just as Batman predicted, a house strategically coated with lead-based paint was hard to miss.  And what lead could shield from Superman’s X-ray vision was no obstacle for Batman’s terrestrial surveillance equipment.

What the preliminary scans uncovered had both men puzzled:  The security system was… substandard.  The detection grid was the sort a typical millionaire might have for a vacation house, and the modifications were a generation behind what Gotham rogues used as perimeter defenses.  For a figure of Luthor’s stature, the whole setup was absurdly inadequate. 

At first, Superman was cautiously optimistic: Luthor considered himself safe in East London.  If he thought he was perfectly concealed and undetectable, he’d see no need for advanced, first-tier defenses.  Batman never trusted an enemy’s oversight.  The more it looked like a stupid mistake, the more he suspected a trap.  But he admitted (once Superman pointed it out for the fifth time), that Luthor had been over-confident before.  So they continued into the compound.  Batman made short work of the perimeter system.  He deactivated the K-metal beams that posed the only threat to Superman, after which the Man of Steel made the kind of wall-bursting entrance for which he was feared and famous.

It was then that the minor mystery of the security mushroomed into the major mystery of Luthor himself.  Or what had been Luthor… What had once been Lex Luthor, proud, ambitious and dangerous Lex Luthor, the formidable intellect, the brilliant scientist, the ruthless industrialist, the Machiavellian politician… was huddled around a small grouping of objects like a wild, injured animal protecting its kill—or perhaps a junkie his stash.

The sight was so incongruous; Superman was shocked into an equally uncharacteristic posture, arms dropping from his hands-on-hips battle stance as he leaned forward, squinting in disbelief. 

“Luthor?” he asked, unable to reconcile this humbled, pathetic, hollow-eyed specimen with the nemesis who’d plagued him for decades.

He received no response beyond a wild-eyed stare.  Superman took a step backward—just as Batman entered the gaping hole in the wall.

Selina awoke to a noise… an insanely annoying noise… a layered, echoey, whiny tone…tones

What in god’s name was that? 

If that was the mystic sound of the universe, turning it off didn’t seem like that bad an idea…  The noise made her teeth hurt.  It made her ears hurt.  And most of all, it made her head hurt.

She opened an eye and –damn, it was bright–

Selina considered the possibility that her head hurt on its own without the noise.  She closed her eye again and tried to concentrate… Dimension hopping.  She was dimension hopping… the vortex of color… and then waking up here with that gratingly moaning whine of a noise and one whopping headache. 

She felt her head, but this didn’t feel like the “I got hit with a brick” headache she experienced on an earlier jump.  There was no throbbing lump.  Her head just hurt… and her mouth was dry. Selina groaned piteously as she realized she had a hangover.

She forced an eye open again and focused on—acoustic tiling.  She opened her other eye uncertainly and looked around.  She was in… the back room of the Iceberg Lounge?  A cold shudder vibrated up her arms and she hugged herself—at which point she noticed she was in costume.

With her movement, the insanely annoying noise pitch shifted and Selina noticed what was making it.  A few feet away, a large viney bush (or perhaps it was a small indoor tree?) was holding a glass of water in its, eh, fronds and running a leaf around the dampened rim to produce that nerve-wracking tone.  Once Selina identified the source of the sound, she saw that the bush-tree held four more glasses, while two other plants in the room held glasses of their own and were all—well, they were all doing the same thing, running moist leaves around the glasses to produce that same rim-tone… whether they were doing it to “make music” or drive her insane was anybody’s guess.

Despite her painfully dry throat, she managed to hiss at them.  The tall one waddled towards her, offered her its fullest glass, dipped a leaf into another and held its wet, leafy tendril against her forehead like a washcloth. 

“No,” she ordered, shoving it away as energetically as her hungover state would permit.  The plant did something of a doubletake, like Whiskers shooed from jumping into her lap.  She gathered that the bush-tree was trying to be helpful, so she added a milder “No, thank you.” 

It nodded, and Selina got up, steadied herself against the wall, and stepped cautiously out into the corridor—then she steadied herself again when she looked across the hall at the sign on Oswald’s… or what in her world had always been Oswald’s office door:

Toxicodendron Rydbergii Lounge
P.Isley, Proprietor

“If he’s using magic, this could be an illusion,” Batman said, so softly that only Superman’s hearing could have made out the words.

Superman looked again at the incompressible image before him, scanning the bedraggled, wild-eyed, bizarrely fretful Luthor on every spectrum his sight could perceive.  Then he listened…

“It has a heartbeat,” he noted.  Then he sniffed. “And it perspires.”  He turned his head to the side, listening intently.  “There were four staff hired from the hotel, but there are five heartbeats in the rooms beyond.  You stay with him, I’ll search them out.”

Batman grunted and, while Superman left, he watched Luthor’s eyes as they followed him out the door.  There didn’t seem to be any actual recognition of his enemy, there didn’t seem to be anything beyond an animal instinct tracking movement and color.  Batman stepped cautiously forward, and Luthor squatted lower and more fiercely around his treasures.

Batman stopped and squatted himself in order to seem less threatening, and also to meet Luthor’s eyes on the level.  What he saw there made Joker look sane. 

“Alexander, do you know where you are?” he asked sharply.

“P- P-” he whispered, as if his mouth couldn’t quite remember how to make words. 

“Power,” Batman said with disgust.

“Unlimt… limited… unlimted…” Luthor assured him, offering up one of the items he guarded.  Batman could see it was a book of brownish-gray, wrinkled paper bound in a neat but primitive fashion with thin silken twine.  The cover was marked with ambiguous Asian lettering that Batman couldn’t quite identify as Chinese, Japanese, or Korean.  He reached out to take the book, but Luthor pulled it back greedily.

“must… find… again…” he said manically.  “must see it once more… Power… Such power…”

Selina wandered into the bar of the whatever-berg Lounge and was relieved to find the empty quiet that meant it was still morning or early afternoon and they were not yet open for business.  She saw Harley Quinn in Sly’s usual position behind the bar, counting glasses from the look of it.

“Hiya, Catty,” she chirped happily when she saw Selina.  “Vine Virtuosos soothe away that hangover for ya?”

“Um, the plants were very attentive,” Selina answered guardedly. 

“That’s good.  They were so good to me when I was, y’know, in mourning.  I wound up back there so many nights.  Sniff. Poor Mistah J.” 

“Joker, um, was always so, um,” Selina stumbled, feeling that hangover + saying nice things about Joker + not knowing what had actually happened to him was really too much of a conversational challenge for anyone, so she just gave a vaguely kind smile. 

“Yeah,” Harley nodded, taking it as heartfelt sympathy.  “There’ll never be another one like my Mistah J.  Such a shame those DEMON guys cutting him up that way.  We never did find his chin, ya know.  The left index finger and the ear finally showed up behind the dumpster out back, did I tell you that?”

“I’m sure I would have remembered if you had,” Selina said diplomatically.

“Well anyway, bad weeds make good compost, like Red always says.  You want a Green Gaia for your hangover?”

“Sure,” Selina shrugged, uncertain if she wanted to drink anything served and sanctioned by Poison Ivy’s bar, but feeling at this point any clue was a good one.  She watched, fascinated, as Harley chattered with cheery indifference about Joker’s murder.  It seemed like it had happened the night of the Roxy-Ivy catfight, when TV crews from FAB! came to film Hugo’s makeover and Oswald helped Joker attack his own bar in the mistaken belief that Sly and Greg Brady were taking over his operation.  From the sounds of it, Ivy had never been dragged into the alley by Roxy Rocket.  She was still inside when Joker and Penguin entered, and not about to be taken hostage by a half-drunk Oswald kwak-a-kwa Cobblepot, she’d let fly with the pheromones.  

“I’ll take over from here, Harley,” a cool voice announced as faint whiffs of mandarin wafted from the hall leading to Oswald-Ivy’s office.  “Catty and I are overdue for a chat,” she added. 

“Sure, Red,” Harley squeaked gleefully.  She left, saying something about inventory in the basement.  Selina couldn’t help but notice that, as she passed Poison Ivy, Harley’s finger danced playfully down her friend’s arm and the leaves on Ivy’s costume fluttered excitedly.  Ivy turned her head completely to watch Harley go, blew a kiss to the back of her head, and then waited a full second after Harley had disappeared down the hall before she turned back to Selina and took her place behind the bar.

“Don’t let her go on about it,” Ivy instructed, picking up an orange and patting it affectionately before expertly zesting its peel into the mixture Harley had prepared.  “She doesn’t realize, poor dear, the role she played in…”  she smiled wickedly, holding a sharp knife over the orange. “…what happened,” she concluded, chopping the orange savagely in two with a single, vicious stroke.  She squeezed the orange into a little pot of rosewater, and heated it while she went on.

“She simply can’t handle it, that’s why they kept her so medicated at Arkham… And we certainly don’t want her going back there, now do we, Catty.”

“I had no idea,” Selina answered truthfully.

Ivy poured the steaming rosewater over the herbs, making a deliciously fragrant tisane, and then pushed the cup towards Selina with an expression of kindly sympathy that was definitely the product of an alternate reality.

“I know you have troubles of your own, Sweetie,” she said gently.  “Stop worrying about it.  Bruce will come around.  He asked you to move in in the first place, he gave you that gorgeous—oh, reminds me.”  She reached into her leaves and pulled out the pink sapphire, then slid it across the bar to Selina.  “Whatever idea Zatanna’s put into his head—Yes, you mentioned Zatanna last night around martini number four when you asked me to hold onto the ring—and whatever’s going on there with Zatanna, he will come around and ask you to come back.  Now drink your tisane.”

“Look, Pam,” Selina hedged, “Whatever I may or may not have said about Bruce, or especially about Zatanna, I really don’t think—”

“Catty, it’s not nice to argue with Mother Nature.  If I wasn’t so sure Bruce would come around on his own, I’d green him for you.  I’m that sure you two belong together and as for Zatanna, whatever that magical misfit did, does, or will do, is completely irrelevant.”

“You know we’re talking about a pretty powerful magician?” Selina asked, getting sucked into the bizarre novelty of the situation: an enlightening conversation with Pamela Isley, rational being.

“Selina, listen to me,” Gaia’s spokesmodel declared firmly, “The most powerful universal force is not the same as the most powerful force locally.  Gravity is such a big deal out in the cosmos, but here and now…”  she reached out and took Selina’s hand, which felt strangely warm, as did the spicy scents that leapt from the steaming tisane into Selina’s nostrils.  “…Biology wins every time.”

Selina withdrew her hand in a fog, and Ivy casually redirected her attention to the bar, picking up a cloth and polishing just as Sly always did in sympathetic-bartender-mode.

“You can train a vine but not a cactus, Catty, it’s that simple.  I can green your splendidly rich and scrumptiously handsome Bruce Wayne, I’ve done it.  I can green you too… but only short-term and never together, because damnit, Selina, you two work on each other more powerfully than anything else ever will.  That’s why I say: powerful magician or no, Zatanna is immaterial.  There’s something between you and Wayne that outranks anything else that comes into the vicinity.”

“Say that again,” Selina said sharply, her mind turning over the words. 

“You can train a vine but not a cactus?”

“Not that, the end,” Selina murmured thoughtfully.  It seemed like Ivy had said something awfully important right there, a feeling Selina was reasonably sure had nothing to do with the tisane or the pheromones flying through the air.

“…of course, I wasn’t exactly overjoyed at the discovery at first, I’d certainly prefer to have the billion dollar boytoy myself, not to mention the beautiful gardens out at that manor.  How do you say it, ‘Meow on a stick?’  But then I thought hey, it’s Nature’s decree, and if Nature is the final authority that even I can’t trump, then I win!  Although unfortunately, the winning in that particular case means you get Wayne, but in terms of the big picture, I win.  Nature is what it is, and nothing may touch it.” 

“Pamela,” Selina smiled with sudden inspiration, “On behalf of the universe, I just want to say:  Right Answer.  I’m not sure how I generally tip you, probably not well because, well frankly, you annoy me.  But when Bruce and I get back together, and assuming there’s still a world to plant them in, the Wayne Foundation will plant some trees.”

“How… nice,” Ivy said, pleased but confused by what sounded like a compliment inside an insult wrapped in a promise to plant trees.

“Pammy, out of curiosity—and I don’t believe I’m about to word it this way—but let’s say some would-be sorceress wasn’t as wise as you, and—”

“And tried to meddle with you and Bruce?” Ivy interrupted shrewdly.

“Maybe not ‘meddle,’ but more like the phrase you used earlier: inserted her powers into the ‘vicinity’ of whatever-it-is between me and Bruce?”

“The ‘whatever-it-is?’” Ivy said skeptically, “There’s a phrase we haven’t heard for a few years, not since you got over that sorry fixation you had on Batman.  This thing with Wayne must really have you thrown for a loop, Selina.”

“See, this is why you annoy me,” Selina chided lightly.  “Best guess, Ivy, speaking for Mother Nature, what do you think might happen?”

“My best guess?” she smiled.  “Catty, you ever hear of a nineteenth century horticulturalist named Luther Burbank?” 

Selina gave her an impatient glare. 

“I must’ve been out sick that day,” she said flatly.

“Possibly the only man in history to talk sense about plants.  He said that ‘Nature’s laws affirm instead of prohibit. If you violate her laws, you are your own prosecuting attorney, judge, jury, and hangman.’”

Luthor held out another object, and this time Batman merely leaned forward to look at it rather than reaching out to take it.  It was a small, long tray that, like the book, seemed ambiguously Asian.  It contained several jade cylinders, as if a pair of costly chopsticks had been broken into unequal pieces.

“What did you do with these things?”  Batman demanded.

“S-s-supreme… limitless… INFINITE power!!!” Luthor exclaimed, stepping backward in his agitation and kicking over a bowl of smoldering powder.  A hot coal fell out, igniting Luthor’s pantleg and then the carpet as it rolled across the floor.  Batman acted quickly, springing forward and executing a quick neck-chop.  Luthor crumpled over his coveted magic paraphernalia, and Batman angrily stamped out the fire.  Then he methodically unfolded a plastic bag from his utility belt.  He carefully bagged the book, then the tray and the jade cylinders.  The hot incense he sprayed with a neutralizing coolant before shaking it into a clear plastic vial.  Then he sprayed the urn and bagged it as well.

“You took long enough,” he growled without turning towards the door.

“I ran someone to the hospital,” Superman explained.  “That fifth heartbeat was Albert Desmond, Dr. Alchemy.  He’s catatonic.  Has been for a few days, judging by the dehydration.”

“And the staff did nothing?”

“They’re terrified.  They’re not permitted to enter this part of the house unless they’re called.  They admitted Desmond four days ago, served dinner that night, maid cleaned the guest room next day, served breakfast—and that’s it.  That’s the last they saw or heard of either Desmond or Luthor.”

“Since the start of the crisis,” Batman said soberly.  “We’ll show these items to Jason Blood to confirm it, but he’s going to tell us they’d be used for something called a ‘seeing.’  The same kind of ritual Jason and Selina were conducting in Wayne Manor, at exactly the same time.  If they had that door open when the spark ignited, it must have fed back somehow, fried something in Desmond’s psyche, whatever part of him controlled the magic.”

Superman looked skeptical.  “And Luthor?”

“Saw real power.  The most power-mad individual who ever lived saw real power beyond anything he ever imagined.  Maybe he actually touched it for a fraction of a second.  Whatever happened to him, he couldn’t handle it.  He’s been here for days madly trying to get back in.”

“So what do we do with him?”

“He’s not wanted by US agencies or Interpol, and unfortunately nothing he’s done here is illegal… But right now he’s psychotic: sleep deprivation plus psychic shock and something of an addict-withdrawal response.  Star Labs has facilities throughout the world, the medical facility in Greece is closest.  Take him there, let him sleep, detox,’ and when this is over—assuming that he, Star Labs, Greece, and Planet Earth still exist—we’ll see if he’s lucid enough to try and free himself.  If he is, he’ll have to reveal some of those bank accounts he’s got hidden since LexCorp went under, that should lead to a warrant or two.”

Selina knocked heatedly at the door to Wayne Manor and held her breath as the door swung open.  One look at Alfred’s face confirmed all Ivy had hinted about the situation with her and Bruce.

“Very pleasant to see you again, miss,” the butler said politely.  “I hope Miss Nutmeg enjoyed the cakes I sent over.”

“I’m sure she did, Alfred.  I need to talk to Bruce. I need to talk to him right now.”

“Miss Selina, no one is more eager than I for this circumstance with respect to yourself and Master Bruce to be finally resolved, that we might achieve a quick and complete return to the arrangement which brought you both such contentment.  But for the time being, miss, I really see no alternative but for you to give him the time and space he requested, so he may fully and dispassionately investigate this matter without… Miss Selina, please, you see how it is.”

“Alfred, we both know I can break in or I can track him down on patrol.  I’ll do either if I have to; it is that important.  Don’t make me go to those lengths, I really don’t want this to become a ‘Catwoman’ thing.”

“The master’s orders were very explicit, miss.”

“What’s he going to do, fire you?” she asked with a naughty grin.

“Well…” Alfred hedged, creeping the door open an inch wider, but blocking the entrance just as firmly as before.

“His orders were very explicit when he said he didn’t want that sandwich you’re going to bring him in about ten minutes,” she added, checking her watch.

“That is quite true, miss,” Alfred admitted, allowing the door to open another inch.

“We both love him, Alfred.  We both want him to be happy,” she went on, the door opening another silent inch with each phrase.  “And we both know I’m the way that happens,” she said coolly.

“Indeed, miss,” Alfred relented, stepping back and to the side to let her pass.  “He is downstairs.”

“I knew that,” Selina said quickly, heading for the clock.  “He’s in the cave, he’s at his stalactite, and he’s brooding like there’s no tomorrow—which there might not be, and that’s the part we’re going to fix.”

“I need to talk to Dr. Luthor,” Selina said without introduction.

Batman spun out of the chair at his workstation, grabbing a batarang from his belt and readying a throw before he even processed the voice.  He paused when he saw her, sighed, and replaced the batarang wearily into his belt.  Then he took off the mask, set it on the desk and turned it to face away from them, as if its very presence prevented his speaking on personal matters.

“Selina, I told you, I need time.  We both do.  This… possibility.  It complicates… everything that’s happened between us.  It—”

“TIME!” she interrupted, making a ‘Timeout’ gesture. “Did I say I came to talk to you, or did I not say quite distinctly that I needed to talk to Dr. Luthor?”

He stared, searchingly, for a long, long moment. 

You expect me to believe this isn’t about us?”

“A-eh-actually,” she stammered, “I’m not sure at this point.  But if you mean ‘us’ in the sense of Cartier’s rooftop and what goes on between the sheets?  Then no, that’s not why I came here tonight.  Although since you brought it up, I will tell you that you’re wrong about Zatanna’s magic having anything to do with our getting together, and that if you don’t believe me and try to peek into my past, using magic, with Dr. Luthor, it turns out you light a spark that annihilates all of existence.  But believe it or not, that’s not why I’m here.  I’m here, Bruce, because you’ve got the world’s leading string theorist on speeddial, and I’ve got a really important question to ask.”

He hesitated, looking past her and, from the look of it, rethinking an earlier conversation.  She guessed he didn’t take the part about lighting a spark and annihilating the universe literally (and who would!  Selina reminded herself that she didn’t quite accept that any of this was really happening, and she was the one who’d actually seen an alternate reality Hawkman bashing Batman with the grandfather clock every 43 minutes.)

As for this Bruce, that distant, haunted look had returned, and Selina guessed it was a painful conversation he was remembering, probably when he’d told her to leave the manor.  She was about to try a different approach when she saw the cold detachment of the crimefighter snap into place, stamping out any emotional considerations.

“How did you know about Luthor and the seeing?” he asked finally, the deep Bat-gravel sounding completely strained and artificial.

She sighed, patience waning. 

“At this point, Bruce, I don’t think there’s any way to answer that in a way you’re going to believe.  Short answer: I know because you gave me a pink sapphire that night at the MoMA.”

“That’s not good enough.”

Patience snapped.

“Okay, how about this,” she offered, “You want your blessed space, give me what I want and I’ll go.  Place the call and I’m out of here; you can go back to being miserable.”

“You’re giving up?  On us… on me?”

Selina felt a weird prickle she hadn’t experienced in years, not since half-forgotten denials on long distant rooftops.  He’d worked himself back into the old rock-and-hardplace, “can’t, mustn’t, want to anyway,” where they’d spent so much of their adversarial relationship.  It suggested a way to proceed:  He would deny himself.  Just like he always had.  If he wanted her, it would be an unacceptable weakness he had to conquer.  He would deny himself, and to do that he’d give her whatever she wanted to make her go away.  All she had to do was push those old buttons, make it necessary for him to get her and the temptation out of his field of vision…  All she had to do was push those old buttons and make him want her… but it wouldn’t be nearly as enjoyable as it used to be. 

Internally, Selina set her own feelings aside and let Catwoman’s deliberately seductive drawl take over:

“Oh we don’t like that, do we,” she purred.  “Maybe I should have tried that years ago, on all those rooftops, give you what you pretend you want instead of what we both know you’re aching for.”

Selina felt an eerie chill as she saw Bruce Wayne’s bare features undergo the same transformation she’d witnessed a hundred times framed by Batman’s mask:  jaw set, muscles tensed, slight sneer.  The eyes that burned into hers were ablaze with anger, longing, and bewilderment. It made her shudder that she could still get that reaction so easily.  

“You said this wasn’t about us,” he growled.

“I also said I’d go as soon as you patch me through to Dr. Luthor,” she reminded him, ruthlessly coating her voice with unspeakable promises, then dropping the alluring manner in an instant and resuming a crisp businesslike expression. 

He looked murderously angry.  Then a strange calm settled in and he silently stepped aside and gestured to the keyboard at his workstation.

“Lewis or Laura?” he asked with controlled bat-focus.

“Ex-cuse me?”

“You said you wanted to talk to Dr. Luthor; which one, Lewis or Laura?”

“Lewis OR Laura?” Selina gaped.

“Yes!” he said icily, “Lewis or Laura.  You’re so absurdly insistent you need to talk to a Dr. Luthor and you don’t know which?”

“The string theorist you’re working with, from the Foundation,” Selina said defensively.

“Yes.”

“There are two of them?”

“The Doctors Laura and Lewis Luthor are both string theorists,” Bruce replied like he was telling an idiot how to program a VCR.  “They work together, they’re brother and sister, they happen to be twins.”

“Twins.”  Selina took a deep breath and looked to the heavens, represented for the moment by a furry brown bat stretching its wings outward and scratching the back of its head on Bruce’s favorite stalactite.  “Laura and Lewis Luthor, they’re twins,” she told it, then she turned back to Bruce and announced, “The Universe is having a great deal of fun at my expense right now, and when all this is over, somebody better make it up to me.”

Selina sat, calm and poised, in the south drawing room and handed Lewis Luthor his cup of tea as gracefully as she had his sister.  Neither Bruce nor Alfred were quite so at ease watching her act so naturally as hostess when she had moved out of the manor nearly two weeks before. 

Selina, for her own part, had been terribly anxious about meeting a “Lex Luthor with hair” and “Lex Luthor as a woman” face to face.  Now that they were here, now that she’d shaken their hands and talked to them like regular people, she was completely at ease. 

“As I understand your research,” Selina began, “Everything that exists, all forms of matter and energy, the protons and electrons inside an atom, the very particles that transmit energy, are all made up of these vibrating filaments called Strings?”

“Yes, that’s correct,” Lewis said with the pleased-but-tolerant air of an expert happy that a neophyte is interested but amused that they’re stuck on page one.

“If I may ask what I’m sure is a very stupid question,” Selina went on, “filaments of what?”

Lewis looked put out and glanced warily at her sister, who beamed.

“That is the million dollar question,” Laura said enthusiastically.

“Laura, don’t,” he begged.  “Please do not do this in front of the man who has actually given us a million dollars.”  He turned back to Selina.  “They’re energy.  Vibrating filaments of energy.”

“That is the standard formula lecturers like my brother always use,” Laura said smugly.  “And then, five minutes later, they go on to say that energy and the particles that transmit energy are all made up of Strings, and they hope none of the students will catch them out.”

“So which is it?” Selina asked. 

“Energy is made of Strings,” Lewis said acidly.  “It’s the way a particular grouping of Strings vibrate that determine if the whole is ‘energy,’ say gravity or a graviton, rather than matter… We don’t actually know, that is, the theory doesn’t attempt to describe what the Strings themselves might be comprised of.  Everything mankind has ever conceived of is made of these Strings, so we don’t have any terminology, or any concepts, for what they themselves might be.”

“That’s not entirely true,” Laura said sweetly, smiling impishly at her brother. 

“No.  Laura, do not do this, not in front of Mr. Wayne, please.  He is a patron.  His foundation has underwritten our research.  This is Science, and those wild ideas of yours are not-”

“I wouldn’t be adverse to hearing the wild idea,” Bruce interjected.

Lewis held up his hands, as if distancing himself from the proceedings.

“The Strings are God,” Laura pronounced.

“Oh, COME ON!” Lewis exploded, unable to maintain the distance he’d declared only a moment before.

“I only say it that way to annoy him,” his sister explained while Lewis declared firmly, “The Strings are not God.”

“Agreed,” Laura conceded.  “But it shows how we do have words and ideas in the world outside of science, and we should be open to using them when, as scientists, we come upon something we’ve never conceived of.  So, no, Lewis, my beloved tightass brother, I’m not going to get us banished from the Institute by saying the Strings are God.  But they’re something very close.  You said we don’t have terminology for what the Strings are, but we do.  Science may not, but human beings most definitely do.”

“Laura, this isn’t science!”

“We were all people before we became scientists, Lewis.” 

“I like the way you two fight,” Selina observed. 

Laura turned to her and winked, then became serious.  “Strings are everywhere, they’re everything, they’re everyone.  They are a fundamental part of every aspect of creation, the parts that we’ve figured out, the parts we’ve only begun to discover, and the parts we haven’t even found yet.  I believe that Strings are the primal godforce, the great unifying power of creation.  I believe…” she paused, “that the Strings are Love.”

No one, even Lewis, spoke for a long moment.  Then he eyed his sister and cleared his throat.

“My brother is right, it’s not science,” she went on.  “It’s… meta-science in the most literal sense of the word meta, meaning ‘after.’  Meta-science is what we talk about among ourselves in the faculty lounge after class, and in the think tanks after the formal meetings, only at the very top where we’re open to the…”  She paused and shot a look at her brother “…the impossibly wild and preposterous idea, like maybe the earth orbits around the sun and not the other way around.  I’ll be honest, Mr. Wayne, ‘What the strings are’ isn’t science; it’s a kind of science-cum-philosophy.  There’s no real physics here, no mathematical formula we could use to predict an outcome of, say, tampering with a String’s essence in a particular way, based on this premise, and then conducting an experiment to see if the result fit our calculations.”

“Leaving the math out of it,” Selina asked gingerly, “what’s your best guess?  Your theories acknowledge that magic exists. Your theories say that magic is a way of changing how Strings vibrate.  What if it went further and tried to mess with what the Strings actually are?”

Lewis looked at Laura, who looked at Lewis, then back at Selina.

“Your girlfriend has a strangely thorough knowledge of our research, Mr. Wayne,” Lewis noted, turning to Bruce who wasn’t paying a bit of attention but staring at Selina with a hard, distant expression. 

Selina looked to Laura, “Your brother’s stalling for time, isn’t he?  You haven’t got an answer?”

“I wouldn’t know how to guess,” she admitted.

“What if I said there’s a legend among magic users,” Selina went on, looking now at Bruce, “that they crossed a line once.  They evolved an unacceptable form of magic, and the Universe stepped in and burned it right out of existence.”  She paused, willing Bruce to say something, but he only went on staring with bat-intensity, “What if I said that some people believe it’s happening again… a magician inserted her powers into the vicinity of a genuine and naturally occurring love, would… would an ‘immune response’ be in the realm of possibility?”

“Could I speak to you in private,” Bruce demanded.

Selina got up and walked quietly into the hallway as Laura and Lewis huddled together, arguing in hushed tones.

“What do you think you’re doing?” Bruce hissed angrily.

Selina felt a strange chill.  This wasn’t her Bruce and technically wasn’t her problem.  But he had gone farther down that road than any other Bruce Wayne she had encountered, he’d gone so far that he’d sent her away.  The first of these pink sapphire Bruces said “If it’s not your choice to be with me, then I’d no right to touch you.” And that’s exactly what he was preparing himself for: learning he had no right to touch her, realizing he’d have to change her back and losing all that they’d built together…  This wasn’t her Bruce, and technically he wasn’t her problem—but there was simply no way she was going to leave him in this needless, self-imposed hell.  Maybe it had no purpose as far as snuffing out the spark or saving the universe, but she wasn’t going to leave any Bruce so like her own in that kind of pain if she could help it.

“Listen to me,” she said, softly emphatic, “We’re good.  Zatanna’s magic did not make us happen, and Zatanna’s magic did not change me.  But she tried.  Bruce, some Zatanna, somewhere, tried.  And that’s why we are looking at a cosmic crisis across multiple, maybe infinite, realities if you go ahead with the seeing ritual that you’re planning.  I was never like Dr. Light, Bruce.  I was never like the Top. I never hung out with Luthor or Grodd; I never killed anybody, constructed deathtraps to kill anybody or… sacrificed black puppies to Satan, whatever the hell those guys do on Saturday night.  I certainly never had the slightest interest in taking over the world; I don’t even like hiring groundskeepers for the Catitat.  The Joker-Ra’s-Luthor thing isn’t me, and you know it.  It was NEVER me, and maybe 9/10th of the reason is what should be obvious to anybody who’s known me for ten blessed minutes: I’m not evil… But there is that one other tiny, insignificant, trifling consideration… that I fell for one of the good guys.  From day one, there’s been something there, Bruce.  And if the tiniest part of the reason I was never really one of them is because I love you, and if Zatanna tried to magically alter the Strings in the vicinity of my criminal activities and got in the way of that… the Universe decides enough is enough.  Game over.  This cost-free magic from talking-backwards girl is a malignancy that has got to go. 

“You start getting ideas and rounding up Luthors in multiple dimensions for Seeing Rituals until you actually turned off a String—and that lights a spark that bursts into flame and burns up the magic Zatara built… Which would certainly be fine with me except, minor problem, it’s going to take everything else with it.”

“That’s a preposterous theory.”

“Your big throwdown with Azrael, did he fire shuriken into the Turner in the dining room?”

“…Yes…”

“Did he booby trap the clock entrance with poison darts?”

“Yes.”

“…Did Clark mention the protocols when he talked to you about the mindwipe?”

“Yes, he did.  Selina—”

“If we had a kid, would Clark and Lois be godparents?”

“…”

“Multiple dimensions, Bruce.  Multiple Luthors, seeing rituals, shutting off a string, cosmic spark, smoldering, and when it bursts into flame, we’re all gone.”

“If what you’re saying is true, and Selina, I have to say I have my doubts, but if it’s true…”

“You’re the best strategic thinker we’ve got, Bruce, in any dimension.  You’ve got plans, you’ve got back up plans, you’ve got so many plans, I’m surprised they don’t  And you’re the scientist, and you’re the crimefighter.  You’re the one who’s railed against magic from day one because it’ll bend natural laws—”

Break natural law,” he corrected.

“Always the crimefighter,” she smiled affectionately.  “So you tell me, Dark Knight, if this is all happening because Zatanna pulled a Berliani, fucked with the strings in a way they won’t be fucked with, broke natural law you don’t get to break and set off this immune response, all these seeing rituals to burn away the infection, then what do we do to stop it?

The trio had reassembled in the Batcave, and Jason Blood looked disapprovingly over the magic paraphernalia Batman and Superman had taken from Lex Luthor.

“Dr. Alchemy was a chemist, I believe, before embarking on magickal practice?” he asked sourly.

Superman nodded.  “He began as Mr. Element, used his knowledge of chemistry to facilitate his crimes and escapes.  Until he got caught and discovered his cellmate’s ‘good luck charm’ was the famous Philosopher’s Stone—”

Jason grimaced.  “It was not the Philosopher’s Stone,” he said archly.  “There are many rocks and gems with magical properties, the Philosopher’s Stone is merely the one that became known in the mainstream world outside the true mystic community.  As an outsider, this Albert Desmond made the same assumption all non-mystics make, that he commanded the one, celebrated magical relic…  It’s not important, really, simply an amusing conceit, and explains a good deal about this hodgepodge.”  He gestured dismissively to the collection.

“More amateurs dabbling with forces they have no experience with,” Batman growled savagely.

“As opposed to what you did?” Superman said archly.

“Regardless of what may have occurred in other dimensions,” Batman replied coldly, “I commissioned a scientist to conduct scientific research, and when it came to the supernatural, we went to Jason Blood, who nobody can call amateur or inexperienced.”

Superman looked apologetically at Jason, who coughed as if he was merely waiting for the pair of them to return their attention to the artifacts.

“The book is water-damaged,” he said as if he had never been interrupted. “And the writing is worn and obscured in several passages, but it appears to be the genealogy of a family making sake in Kyushu for 53 generations.  It contains no magic or magical knowledge whatsoever.”

“None at all?” Superman asked, raising an eyebrow. 

“Polishing grains of rice to use only the purest starch elements in the exquisite Daiginjo sakes may have been a closely guarded family secret, Superman, but there’s nothing remotely mystical about it.”

“And the rest?” Batman asked flatly. 

“They evidently used fire rather than water for their seeing, burning a volatile temple incense in this urn.  A bit old-fashioned, but a functional method for seeing through time, space, or illusion.  These jade rods, however…”  He trailed off and made a helpless gesture.  “These are yagi batons, they function as a kind of antenna to draw magical energies from many sources into a specific point.  And, judging by the ash on the tip of this long one, this Dr. Alchemy and Luthor were using it as a poker to prod the fire.”

Batman glared, Superman glared, and Jason sensed he was about to become the target of another duet of disapproval—when the vortex suddenly surged upward like a geyser, bathing the Batcave in a rich purple glow, which then spun bluer as the radius shrunk around the transporter.  It slowed and collapsed into a smaller green funnel of light, then yellow, and finally a thin pillar of white, which faded to reveal Catwoman standing again in the central chamber. 

She stepped out looking happier and more contented than she had since before the whole crisis began.  Her eyes scanned the cave briefly until they located Batman, and then she walked up to him, without acknowledging Jason or Superman, and kissed his cheek tenderly.

“You’re wonderful,” she declared with a bright smile—and then turned to Superman, (who she’d evidently noticed after all) and reaffirmed “He’s wonderful.”  Then she turned to Jason while her arm snaked around Batman’s waist for an emphatic sideways hug as she repeated, “Isn’t he wonderful!”

“I think we can assume this one went better than the last,” Batman grumbled, maneuvering brusquely out of her embrace.

“World’s greatest detective,” Selina teased, pulling off her cowl.  “You did it, you came up with the answer.  We can all go on living and I don’t have to hop through any more dimensions with Luthors and cocaine and Poison Ivys that make sense.”

“I did?” Batman asked skeptically.

“Maybe not you-you, but close enough,” she said enthusiastically.  “I told him the whole thing in this last world, all of it, the theories, anomalies in the house, dead ends, alternate realities I’ve seen first hand and the ones Batman in that other world told me about…” she paused, panting, as if she’d just run a race.  “…And you had the answer!”

“Well?” he asked impatiently.

“You said that Albert Einstein said ‘We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.’  Right?”

“Yes,” he nodded warily.  We didn’t exactly create this.”

“Actually, I think ‘we’ did,” Selina laughed happily.  Then she turned to Superman and Jason.  “Could you guys give us a minute,” she asked, pointing sweetly towards the trophy room.  The two men looked at each other and shuffled awkwardly into that distant corner of the cave.  When they’d gone, Selina turned back to Batman.

“I love you, Bruce.  That’s a law of the universe that nobody gets to mess with, and if you bring magic irritants into the vicinity, it makes the universe itchy and the universe will scratch.”  She flared her claws and broke into the naughty grin.  “Which I can’t say I disapprove of, scratching the mojo right out of that t-n-u-c was my first thought and I still think it’s a good one.”

He stared for a moment.  “Are you drunk?” he asked testily.

Selina’s playfully naughty manner faded, and she continued seriously.

“We can’t solve this crisis using the same thinking that created it.  It’s an immune response, I’m certain of that now.  I’ve been running around through time and space trying to stop white blood cells from fighting off an infection.  What we need to do is help, not work against it, wipe out the infection so the white blood cells don’t have to.”

“The infection being magic?”

“The infection being Zatanna’s particular brand of cost-free magic, yes.”  She smiled broadly.  “Magic so disconnected from the powers being used that she could honk off the strings without even knowing it.  Which is definitely not my problem or yours!  You… We… may have started this, in a sense, because you don’t get to mess with what we have, and that’s what she got in the way of.  And according to Einstein, that’s exactly why it’s not our job to fix it.”

“That’s not what the quote means,” he said grimly.

“I know… but c’mon, Bruce, you’re not a magic-user, you’re as far away from that world as you can get—even in an alternate reality where you’d beaten Zatanna’s magic out of her and used it yourself, you still hated it and you still didn’t trust it.  Don’t you see, this isn’t our problem anymore.  It’s up to… Jason or Hella or… I don’t know, Etrigan, whoever is powerful enough to swipe another magician’s hoodoo.”

He looked at her sadly.

“Is this what your hero-Batman in the alternate reality told you?  That it’s not your responsibility to go hopping through dimensions?”

Her face fell as realization dawned.

“You think he just said it to get rid of me?”

“I think the idea of stopping ‘the infection’ of Zatanna’s magic has merit.  But once Superman—who is listening, by the way—relates this conversation to Jason, I suspect he’s going to tell you that no wizard, shaman or sorcerer is going to be able to strip Zatanna of her powers with a spell.  If it were that simple, magic-users would have wiped themselves out generations ago…  You’re the thief, Selina.  If we have to steal Zatanna’s powers in order to end this crisis, then you’re not finished with the dimensional travel yet.”

To be continued…


 

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