One small hurdle the Provisional New Human Institute Student Government ran into regarding Operation Woolies was deciding who would actually make the trek into town. Linus was an obvious pick, with his sunny good looks, trustworthy manner, and ability to calm an angry mob with folk-songs. For some reason, the boy himself insisted that an actual adult lead the way, and Alberto (as he insisted he be called) volunteered eagerly. This of course meant Françoise would be staying behind to keep an eye on things, which in turn meant:
“What do you mean I can’t go?” David whined. He plucked at the shirt he was wearing. “But I got dressed and everything!”
“You know,” said Alberto, “that’s not usually an accomplishment.”
Fran glared at the psychic, which shut him up quick. She put her hands on her son’s shoulders. “David, I’m just not comfortable with you going into town without me. Me and your Uncle Albert—”
Uncle Albert? Alberto thought loudly at Fran. That makes me sound like that old bugger from the Captain Marvel cartoons we were supposed to pretend wasn’t fiddling with Billy Batson.
Shush, you, Fran thought back. She shook her head. “—We discussed it, and we decided that things might already be tense enough in Northam without…” The nereid bit her lip.
Alberto finished for her, “Without bringing along a brown kid.”
David blinked. “What?”
Intra-human racism had always confused the boy—even more so than most people on the receiving end of it. The whole concept felt like a tepid dress rehearsal for the posthuman oppression Lawrence was always pontificating about.
Fran sighed. “Come on Davie, you know the sort of vile things the baselines hurl at Haunt on field-trips. You remember what that young man who came to spy on us called you?”
“You exploded that guy!”
Françoise shrugged. “I will admit, in retrospect that was a bit disportionate of me. But he called you that awful word before he exploded.”
David pouted. “You never let me do anything.”
His mother folded her arms. “I let you run around naked, play on the bottom of rivers, and fight demigods all day. I don’t think the Flying Man’s mum would’ve let him get away with all that1.”
David huffed and turned on his feet, before disappearing in a puff of steam, his clothes falling in a heap like the Rapture had come and gone.
“Jesus,” said Alberto.
Françoise smiled at him. “Eh, he just woke up in a bratty mood, I think.” For some reason, she sounded pleased by that.
They were definitely taking Arnold. With him, they could buy as much food as gold and hunger would stretch, without having to worry about overburdening Mabel’s dragon on the way back. Decision made, Linus recruited both children to help break the news to Allison.
“…You don’t want me to come?”
“Allie,” Linus said, with the subtlest lilt of power to his voice, “we all love ya. Hell, you’re half the reason we’re eating something other than nougat tonight. But I think you’ve gotten a bit… rusty talking to norms.” On seeing her expression, he quickly continued, “It’s not your fault. You’ve been cooped up here a while now, and I know you don’t see—or hear—the world the same way most of us do.”
“That’s not—it’s not bad, is it?”
Linus kneeled till he was level with the little girl. “Nah. Just different. This isn’t forever. We just want to let people get used to boring folks like us before they meet the really interesting new humans.”
“Plus, someone needs to be queen while I’m gone,” said Mabel. She removed the painted tiara from her head, laying it on her friend’s brow. “All hail Allison Kinsey, Steward of Nova Australia.”
Allison saluted. “I will guard this land well!”
“Long live the Queen… also, that crown’s gonna disappear once we go, so, might wanna make your own.”
“I’m coming, too,” Sadie insisted. “It’s been ages since I’ve gotten to fly properly.”
Tiresias eyed the dark-haired girl’s baby-bump. “Well, you haven’t exactly been aerodynamic lately.”
Sadie flipped him the bird.
“Alright, I deserved that.”
“Whatever,” Sadie said. “I buffed all these gold bars and coins shiny2, why shouldn’t I get to come?”
“No, no, I agree,” replied Linus. “It’s just… if anyone asks, do ya want me to tell them we’re engaged?”
Sadie looked her friend right in the eye. Her irises were bird black. Normally that didn’t bother Linus. If anything, it was easier talking to her than either Lana or Mavis most days. Maybe because they didn’t share one or more children in common. Not today, though.
“If anyone asks, we tell them Mad Laurie is a creep. I’m not going to hide, Linus. Not like when the inspector came and Lawrence made Mabel trot our bloody portraits for him. Not like we’re the ones who did anything wrong.”
“I hear ya, Sadie, I hear ya.”
“Speaking of which,” Tiresias said, pointing between himself and Sadie, “is this going to be a problem?”
“Only if you keep talking, Bertie.”
“Fine, fine… Bertie?”
There was one last member of the expedition:
“Please, please, please, let me come,” Billy implored. The boy was on his knees, his hands clasped together in a cartoon of supplication he’d seen in storybooks. “I’ll be good, I promise!”
Linus sighed. “I’d like to take ya, Bill, but we don’t want to freak the normies out. It’s not fair, and it’s not your fault, but we don’t want you getting hurt.”
Billy jumped to his feet. “They don’t even have to see me, watch!”
Linus couldn’t; the tiger-boy had vanished.
Billy reappeared, staring at the older boy with what could only be called kitty-cat eyes. “Betty used to take me into town all the time invisible! I won’t bump into anyone, I swear!”
Lucius Owens was a steady sort of young man. Mature, sensible. Apollonian, you might even say.
He was, however, still very much a boy. And William St. George had powers even Lawrence couldn’t dream of.
Billy slammed into Linus. It was like if teddybears could hug back. “Thank you, thank you, thank you!”
And so, their fellow new humans waving them off, the six took to the sky on a great dragon. Her hide was armoured in charcoal scales, her beating wings bellying like ship-sails in the wind. They clung for dear life to the rough spurs that grew from her back, their laughter and screams lost in the roar before they reached their own ears.
All except for Sadie. She flew ahead, burgundy hair streaming behind her. Sometimes she looped back, swooping under and over the dragon or diving down to run her hands through the crowns of trees.
A few times, Alberto’s attention wandered from his terror to the mother of his daughter. He wondered if he’d ever see Ophelia soar like that3.
As he watched her, Sadie made a dead-stop in the air. The dragon almost crashed into her before Mabel reigned the beast back.
“What the hell, Sadie!” she tried shouting over the wind.
The flying girl pointed towards the road below.
They landed beside the road, Mabel sending the dragon back to the pulp-cover from whence she came.
Linus set down his bag of gold ingots. “What’s the matter, Sadie?”
“It’s the birds,” she said. “The ones in Northam. They aren’t… right.”
Arnold frowned. “What, are they sad or something?”
“…Yes, actually. They all feel really stressed out. And I’m not getting any clear pictures from them. It’s like trying to watch a muted TV set.”
Tiresias lit one of his clove cigarettes. “What do you think’s going on over there?”
“Maybe all the cats in town are having a party?” suggested Billy.
“The Physician’s trying out birdwatching?” Arnold added.
“Ah, I think we might be able to fill you in.”
The group all turned to find four bedraggled teenagers staggering through the red gravel that lined the road. The one in the lead was a black-haired girl in a ragged, persimmon sundress—a strip of which had been tied around her upper-arm, darkened brown by dried blood.
Trailing behind her were some familiar faces. Eddie Taylor stopped in his tracks, staring at them like he had run into the Devil at the crossroads. “Oh, God, it’s you lot.”
Well, Alberto thought, the memory knot’s clearly untangled.
The blond-afroed hippie strode forward towards the smaller children, pulling Arnold and Mabel into half-hug. “Everywhere! Fantasy!”
Arnold winced at the smell. “Um, hi Bazza.”
“Didn’t think we’d see you again,” Mabel added with a carefully rationed breath.
Bazza laughed. “Same here mates!” He let go of the pair, offering his hand to Linus and Sadie. “Don’t believe we’ve met.”
Linus shook first. “Lucius. Or Linus, either works. Good to finally meet you, Bazza. Wish your visit had turned out better.”
“Me too, mate.”
Linus gestured at his companion. “This is Sadie.”
Bazza took in the young woman’s condition. Not sure what the tactful acknowledgement—if any—was, he settled on the exact wrong one:
“Hello! Congratulations on the baby.”
Sadie clenched her fist, before taking a deep breath. He doesn’t know, she reminded herself. How could he?
It wasn’t just the baby. Just looking at Bazza made Sadie feel stupid and guilty. She hadn’t personally attacked him and his buddies when they came to the Institute, but she’d certainly egged on some rainbow lorikeets4. She couldn’t even remember why she’d done it. She’d been so angry back then…
Bazza finally caught sight of Billy. “Oh, my God… Crackbone Pete was right!” He ran over to the tiger-boy, looking him over like he was a work of art. “Christ, kid, you’re fantastic.”
The young man glanced back at his mates. “Fellas, Belinda, come take a look at this kid!”
Billy waved shyly at them, but the other teenagers made no reply. Both Eddie and Al were muttering to themselves and plucking at their fingers like they were being attacked by horseflies.
“Eddie,” Belinda said, pulling on her boyfriend’s arm, “who are these people? What’s wrong?”
“I—no, that can’t—we just had a piss-up…”
Al was clawing at his palms. “If that happened, he’d be dead…”
Alberto sighed. Right. Better undo the knot before their brains boiled out their ears. He inserted himself between the two lads, placing a hand on the back of each of their necks. “It’s alright, boys, this will all make sense in a sec…”
Aleister and Eddie inhaled harshly. Then they screamed.
Al shoved Alberto away. “You bastards! How the hell haven’t you been rounded up yet?”
Eddie pointed a shaking finger at Arnold. “You—you…”
“Oh now you remember me?”
“Can someone please tell me what’s happening?” Belinda shouted over the commotion.
“Run, Belinda!” Eddie cried. “They’re from Mad Laurie’s freak-farm! They tried to kill us!”
“Don’t call my friends freaks!” Billy snapped, tail swishing.
Aleister added, “I bet they’re with the Fearsome Three!”
“The who?” asked Sadie.
Linus looked at her. “Did some of the kids sneak off?”
“I don’t think—”
Alberto’s voice killed everyone else’s.
“Now,” he said, “Who the shit are the Fearsome Three?”
He already knew of course, but it needed to be explained for the future-blind.
Bazza took on the task. “…And so this Menagerie guy and his mates are making everyone in town hand over their money and jewellery and stuff, or he sics their pets on them! Or sics other people’s pets on their pets.”
“The crazy statue lady’s blocked off all the roads,” said Eddie. “We barely got away, and that was only ‘cause we were on foot.”
“Our families are still in there,” added Belinda. “God knows what they’re doing to them.”
“Things like this don’t happen in Northam!” moaned Aleister. “This isn’t bloody Perth! There hasn’t been a supervillain up here for twenty years!”
“AU attacked us in September,” said Sadie.
Aleister’s heart tried to hide in his stomach.
Bazza groaned. “Aww, you’re kidding. You’re telling me I missed out on seeing AU?”
“Lucky you,” said Mabel.
Aleister stared reproachfully at the new humans. “What are you all doing out here?”
“We were going to buy food,” answered Linus.
Eddie folded his arms. “Yeah, sure mate.”
Arnold scowled. “Yeah, because nobody ever needs to eat.”
“Can we help?” asked Billy.
Everyone stared at the boy.
“I mean, it’s not nice your town’s getting picked on, and we really do need food. And aren’t superheroes supposed to fight supervillains?”
Bazza rubbed his neck. “That’s brave of you, little guy. But these are supervillains— the real deal.”
Mabel sniffed primly. “I mean, I guess if you’ve never seen a super…”
The flying carpet raced over the road, fragments of wheel-ground glass throwing back sunlight like the surface of a deep, dark river.
At Linus’ insistence, Mabel sat in the centre with Alberto—scrapbook open in her lap—trying to watch the curve of the road from between her comrades’ backs and guide the Persian rug in her strange, wordless manner.
She tapped Bazza on his shoulder. “How long until we hit the town?”
They were heading for the Finch family home. Bazza had assured Linus he could find him a weapon there. Linus hoped he kept it tuned.
The young hippie turned to look at the little girl, clutching a ray-gun. Despite looking like someone had inflated a Buck Rogers clipping into three dimensions, Bazza still felt metal and leather under his fingers5. “At this rate? Five minutes, tops.”
Linus heard the teen. “Arnold, light up!”
Arnold nodded, and became a sunspot’s child. Aleister resisted the urge to shuffle away from the glowing boy. Or to take a swing at him with his newly created barbarian’s club.
Linus glanced over at Sadie, flying alongside them. The baseline lads had balked at the idea of her storming the town with them, but they’d shut up after seeing her smash a rock into dust against her bare belly.
“Try to take over the zoo bloke’s birds if he sets them on us!”
Sadie shook her head. “I’m not ‘taking them over’ I’m setting them free.”
“So, you ready for this?” Aleister asked Alberto.
The psychic peered out from the ball he’d curled up in. “Ready for what? I’m not doing anything till we actually find the arseholes. Cats and dogs ain’t my speciality, kid.”
“I mean, in general.”
Alberto grunted. Everything was going to plan so far, but that didn’t mean he had to like it. He wished he could take a swig from his hip flask.
“So,” Belinda said, scratching Billy behind the ear with one hand and gripping the Arcturian answer to a cattle prod in the other6, “this is probably incredibly rude, but are you sure Menagerie won’t be able to… you know.”
“I’m a person, miss… keep scratching.”
The road grew demented, bulged and warped: flash-frozen waves in a tarmacadam sea.
“Hold on tight!” Mabel cried. “We’re going up!”
The carpet crested over the ruined road, forcing its passengers’ insides into their backs like they were riding a drunk elevator.
“Shit, shit, shit,” Alberto repeated to himself over and over, as though the curses would cushion his fall.
The carpet dove down into streets defined by grey brick houses and bric-a-brac littered lawns. And dogs. Lots and lots of dogs. Dingoes, house-pets, and their feral, hybrid descendants mingled as one on the sidewalks. And they were all watching the interlopers.
Bazza started shouting directions, “Right, left—no, my left!”
“Stop talking so fast!”
A black kelpie broke away from the other dogs, leaping onto the carpet. It growled and snapped at the riders, shoving itself into Alberto’s face.
“Fuck, fuck, fuck…”
Eddie punched the kelpie right off, sending it yelping down onto the road. “Bloody hell…”
A switch flipped. The walls of dogs bolted towards the carpet, trying to claw their way aboard.
Bazza fired his gun. Spears of broken ozone lanced through the crowd, the struck dogs swallowed up by the stampede. He kept shouting directions over the chorus of howls.
Sadie managed to divert a decent number of the dogs. She couldn’t risk fighting back—or so the baselines kept telling her—unless she wanted a second skin of dog hair and blood. Instead she let the animals drape themselves on her like a hundred furs, cracking their teeth against unbreakable skin.
“All these dogs better belong to saints!” she shouted, flinging off a terrier hanging from her face.
Billy screamed over and over, wincing as his voice flung dogs backwards like leaves in a storm, many with their ears bleeding. It confused him. Shouldn’t he hate dogs?
Alberto watched as Arnold’s lightning tendrils flicked dogs beyond the town, or trapped them behind the windows of houses flowing past. Pitbulls and whippish greyhounds kept slipping past the wall of powers and laser-blasts, only to be knocked back from Alberto’s face by Eddie’s fist or Belinda’s shock-stick.
He wished he was one of those generalist telekinetics Lawrence salivated over. “Squishy folks in the centre, people!”
Then a great dane hurled itself at his side. The world spun, and he slammed against the bitumen.
Alberto scrambled to his feet, looking around wildly. The carpet was already at the other end of the street.
Growls. The dogs were forming a ring around him. The lights behind their eyes were like sharp, predatory stars.
Alberto shrieked, running blindly towards a house with thoughts within their walls.
He hammered on the door. “For the love of God, let me in!”
A bright burst of fear and blinking suspicion. Even some hot, yellow hate. The door didn’t budge.
He ran towards the house’s backgate, vaulting over it like he was ten years old again. It was an ordinary backyard, with Hills Hoist, a rusting swing set, and a half finished treehouse that appeared to be mostly exposed nails.
Alberto didn’t have time to catch his breath before a pack of border collies and kelpies forced their way over the fence.
Alberto’s lizard brain weighed his options and sent him clambering up the Hills Hoist, the dogs snapping at his shoe-leather.
Why the shit did I want this?
There was the clatter of metal against metal, then the shriek of electricity as Eddie and Belinda battered the hounds with their stun batons.
“Stay down, fuckers, stay down!”
Once all the dogs were, in fact, down—if twitching from the current running through them—the boy and girl grinned tiredly at each other.
Alberto jumped down from the clothes-line. “Hell of a girl you got there, Ed.”
“Oh, he knows.” Belinda said, brushing the hair and sweat from her face.
The flying carpet glided over the house’s roof and descended to ground level.
“Hurry up and get back on!” Mabel cried.
“Tell me we’re not far from your place, Bazza,” Alberto said as he hopped back aboard.
“No, mate, next street over.”
“Good,” the psychic replied. He glared at Mabel. “Maybe don’t fly so low this time.”
By the time they were over Gregory Street, the road was lost under a mottled carpet of fur, empty eyes and snapping teeth.
“…This is gonna be problem,” Aleister said. “Unless your chimney’s bigger than I remember.”
“It doesn’t have to be,” said Arnold. “Hey, Sadie! I have an idea!”
The girl flew over and alighted on the carpet. “What?”
The little boy whispered in her ear.
Sadie smiled. “Heh, neat.”
She wrapped her arms under Arnold’s and swooped over the street. Like a bomber-plane piloted by Zeus, they rained down lime thunderbolts. Great swaths of dog were wiped from the Earth by forests of lighting, their barks and howls lost in the storm. Within minutes, the street was clear and silent. Whoever was still in their houses clearly felt it best to stay there.
Sadie and Arnold landed in the middle of the road, the boy shouting up, “Doooone!”
The carpet landed softly, disappearing from under the party. Bazza led the way to his home.
Aleister walked beside Arnold. “Um, we’re not getting those dogs back, are we?7”
Arnold shrugged. “I like kitties.”
Bazza banged on his front door. “Mum? Dad? Jen? Is anyone in there?”
He saw a little eye on the other side of the peephole. The way it wobbled, it looked like its owner was standing on their toes. A small, muffled voice said, “Bazz?”
“Jen! You alright?”
“Could you let me and my mates in?”
“Wha—what happened to the doggies? And the thunder?”
“Taken care of.”
The rasp and click of a chain and lock being undone, and the door opened.
A short-haired, brunette little girl hugged Bazza. She was about Arnold and Mabel’s age, with torn hand-me-down jeans and fresh scratches on her face. “You’re okay!”
Linus and the others stepped through into the foyer, locking the door again behind them. “Hey, Bazza, which room’s yours?”
“Third on the left down the hall,” Bazza said, stroking his sister’s hair.
Jennifer separated from her brother, looking at Mabel and Arnold. “So, who are you lot?”
“Uh…” Arnold wasn’t sure how to answer. He hadn’t spoken to a baseline child in months. It was like how he imagined Cro-Magnon kids felt when they went over to play at the Neanderthal camp8.
Linus emerged from Bazza’s room, carrying his guitar. “Today Jen, we’re superheroes.”
The front door ripped off its hinges, falling to the floor, revealing a stone woman with crystal hair. There was a walkie-talkie in her hand.
“I hope for your sake that’s true, young man.”
1. Joe had a strict 8:30 bedtime. His mother was not a woman to cross. ↩
2. Many of the coins had even been engraved with the Institute’s Galapagos finch, or the Flying Man’s diamond. Some of these coins would later become caught in a three-way bidding war between numismatic, cult, and cape enthusiasts. A few are held by the Western Australian Museum. ↩
3. Hopefully while not seven months pregnant. ↩
4. The only reason she had escaped a thrashing was her invulnerable flesh and the child inside her. ↩
5. It had taken ages for them to find a gun in Mabel’s portfolio that only stunned the villains and creatures she summoned. ↩
6. Mabel suspected the artist traced it from a traffic light. ↩
7. The mammalian population of the Moon increased quite dramatically that day. ↩
8. Which, according to genetic evidence, was not uncommon. ↩