Until he woke up that morning, Alberto Moretti had thought throwing his lot in with the government was the best decision he’d ever made. His workload as one of the Commonwealth’s rarer monsters made George Jetson1 look like a coal canary. In exchange for glancing at the brains of suspected communist moles2 and oracling the movements of the Viet Cong and the Flying Man, Alberto got to enjoy a kingly expense account, an executive suite at the Hotel Canberra, and access to ministerial-grade escorts. The only real downside was that he had to live in Canberra, but Alberto could see ways out. As long as it wasn’t the Institute.
Then one morning his hangover was interrupted by the world screaming. The world shook. Hundreds of lights fluttering on the edge of Alberto’s vision were snuffed out all at once.
The hotel had been bombed. Parliament House had been bombed. The Prime Minister’s house had been bombed. Robert Menzies was dead. His bloody wife was dead. And so, so many others.
Alberto knew the culprit as soon as Timothy Valour briefed him.
“Canberra isn’t the only place that got hit.” Valour thumbed vainly at his lighter’s spark-wheel, a cigarette hanging limp and unlit from between his lips. His fingers felt numb and clumsy. Like they weren’t his own. “The Americans say the Pentagon and DOPO headquarters both had bombs go off the same minute as us3. It can’t be a coincidence.”
“Of course it isn’t,” Alberto replied. “Anywhere else?”
“One of our regional offices got wiped out.”
Alberto still found thinking of himself as part of the DDHA odd. It was like taking up Devil worship after years of Sunday school. Immensely satisfying, even thrilling4 on many levels, strange and chancy on others. “…That office wouldn’t happen to be Perth, would it?”
Timothy looked away from the esper. It was only a slight turn of his head. The old airman probably didn’t realize he was doing it. “Yes.”
Valour cut Alberto off before he could put voice to what they both were thinking. “Let’s not go jumping to conclusions, Moretti. We still don’t know who did this.”
That was what Alberto was supposed to find out. The psychic looked out the tinted, bulletproofed backseat window of the DDHA sedan he was riding in, his head lolling against the cheap imitation leather of his headrest.
The Flying Man may have doused the fires and pulled the survivors out of the fresh ruins, but Canberra’s wounds were still raw and bleeding, pouring white smoke high into the sky. A full six of the nine confirmed or suspected bombs had gone off in that drearily singular planned city. Hundreds had died in the explosions themselves, with the hospitals added more names to the casualty list seemingly every minute. And thanks to Walter Burley Griffith’s love of open vistas, you could see the results from nearly any in the city. It was like the Germans had hit King’s Park.
Alberto screwed his eyes shut. His head was throbbing. The Canberran aether burned cold with fear and knotted panic, slicked through with sickly violet paranoia. Bovegno under the blackshirts had been like this. But at least people there had learned to compartmentalize the dread. Wading through it all was like trying to navigate an arctic sea littered with depth charges. He was suddenly very grateful he had been in the countryside during the Cuban Crisis.
How did I miss this? Alberto kept asking himself through the migraine. For God’s sake, a bomb had gone off in his hotel! He’d glimpsed plenty of outlandish, far-out futures in the storm of possibility since moving to Canberra. Spontaneous Russian rearmament, alien invasion5, even Menagerie marching on the city with a herd of war-elephants, but not that. It was an intruder in the timeline. An ace of spades slipped into the tarot deck.
The car eventually came to a halt. The chauffeur (a Physician drone by the looks of him, cheap bastards) scurried to open the passenger door, and Alberto stepped out in front of Parliament House.
What was left of it.
From the terrace, the place almost looked unscathed. Then you noticed the broken windows and the charring beyond the missing front-doors, or the inescapable stench of ash and carbonized flesh. If you were to approach Parliament House from the air—as the Flying Man no doubt had—you’d see the smoking crater where the Senate and the House of Representatives used to be6. The building’s heart had been burned out. The whole complex had been cordoned off with yards of blue and white police-tape. Alberto thought it was a laughable fig-leaf. How could any of this possibly be contained?
Soldiers and coppers were milling uselessly about the grounds. Alberto could sense many of them congregating inside Allison’s living tree fort down by the lake, brandishing their respective jurisdiction’s phallic symbols at each other to try and forget their own powerlessness. Maybe that would be the new Provisional Parliament House.
All Alberto knew was that he wanted to get away from this place as soon as possible. He laid down on the sedan’s bonnet.
“Are you unwell, Mr. Moretti?” the chauffeur-minion asked flatly.
Alberto closed his eyes. It was time to be Tiresias again. “No, Mr. Whoo. I’m remembering.”
The psychic got up out of his body. Astral projection, Alberto thought was the term. The main difference he felt was that his naked mind or soul or what have you didn’t suffer nicotine cravings.
His shade climbed the ashen steps of 18 King George Terrace, up into its past. The sun flickered east, night’s shadow flowing over Alberto twice in as many moments. For a few fleeting seconds, the Flying Man hovered above the scene, his expression grave, but curious. Alberto almost thought he was looking down at him.
As if in anger, Parliament House screamed with flames. That seemed to scare the Flying Man off.
Alberto slowed his pace. Not his walking pace—or whatever one did when you’d already left your feet behind—but his pace through time. The world slowed with him.
He watched as the fire coalesced into a terrible, bulging wall of light. It began to retreat, the air in front of Alberto cooling like the tide pulling back from the sea. Specks of glass hail flew from the ground and unlucky passersby into vacant, staring window frames, fusing back together into unbroken panes.
As the explosion shrunk deeper into the building, Alberto’s spirit crept in after it—a ghost stalking the sun. The destruction led the esper up the front staircase into King’s Hall, the antechamber between the Senate and the House of Representatives. Alberto remembered it from the tour they went on back during the August trip. No snow now, only ash. He saw errant kings and prime ministers return to their portraits as the light washed over them, while scorched paint became white again. Blasted chairs and tables reassembled themselves as if Mary Poppins was starring in Bridge on the River Kwai.
Often, the light gave back people. Politicians and their harried staff. Wives and their bored children. Alberto could almost see their final thoughts. It felt like being tickled in the dark on a ghost-train.
At one point, the explosion pulled back to reveal a woman. A pretty young thing. Blonde. Some senator’s secretary, Alberto guessed. He watched as the fire gave her back her flesh, like God building an angel in real time. She looked bored. Alberto had to imagine she didn’t feel a thing.
The explosion began to collapse on itself, revealing parquetry floors of silver ash wood and jarrah as it recoiled from Alberto like a frightened beast. It spat out King George Ⅴ, stately in his bronze clothes and skin. A human king, whose power rested in the faith of other human beings. Alberto wondered how many of those were still to come
Soon the blast was small enough for a child to pick up and hold, cowering under a coffee table by a corner column. It retreated back into its egg and…
A green flash.
Alberto opened his eyes. Some iron-haired, corporeal looking bastard was looking down at him.
“Agent Moretti, is something the—”
Alberto grabbed hold of the soldier, pulled himself upright by his lapels, and hissed, “Get Timothy Valour on the phone and tell him Herbert Lawrence is a cunt.”
Allison Kinsey stood in front of the barn’s east wall against the setting afternoon sun, admiring what she had wrought. Her skin was mottled blue and green, her hair matted with half-dried paint.
Most importantly, she was very, very satisfied.
It started about a week earlier. Somehow, against all reason, Allison had found herself getting bored. Bored running around being all barbarian with David and whoever fell into their orbit. She didn’t understand how, but she knew it must be fought. It also occurred to Allison that non-Watercolours kept trespassing inside their barn. This too could not go unopposed.
David had seemed strangely unconcerned. “It’s not like there’s a big sign saying we own it.”
He was right, though. There was no sign. Allison decided to rectify that.
Painting a little over seven by thirty feet of wall by herself was easier than one might have guessed. Allison saved herself a lot of ladder hauling by borrowing Robert’s (formerly Gwydion’s) translucent platforms. The Barthe dress code meant paint-stains were a non-issue, and their hydrokinesis made for an excellent long range brush. Plus, thanks to Eliza, she only really needed about an hour of sleep a night.
A shoal of mer-children7 swirled and sported together in a loose ring under the wave-broken light of a full moon, just below the skin of the sea. Their scales glinted cerulean, electric green, and flame-red against the pearly glow. One chestnut-haired young mermaid8 floated in the middle of the halo, arms outstretched for her companions, light filtering through the delicate webs between her fingers. If you asked the artist, they were playing tag.
Allison cleared her throat, taking in Mavis’ breathy song:
Thirty seconds of foot-tapping.
I said ‘assemble!’
Arnold’s voice shouted distantly. “Alright, we’re coming! Jeez.”
Unsurprisingly, David arrived well before the teleporter, condensing from the humidity along with his mother.
“Ooh rah,” Françoise exclaimed as she looked the mural up and down. “Very nice, mon chéri.”
Floating as a boy-shaped cloud, David swirled around the painted merfolk, ice crystals ringing, “How’d you make the scales so shiny?”
Allison shrugged modestly. “Wasn’t that hard.”
Arnold finally caught up, Billy in tow. Once the former boy was done panting, he looked up at the merfolk. He nodded as cooly as he could. “Neat,” he remarked casually, only to blush when he got a good look at one of the sea-children. Allison had managed to translate his lightning into scale. “Really neat.”
Billy’s enthusiasm was far louder. He pointed a clawed finger toward the topmost mer-child. “That one has tiger-stripes!”
Allison smiled. “You noticed! I thought about giving him fur, but it looks weird underwater.”
“There’s seals,” Billy pointed out.
“How do you know that one’s a boy?” Arnold asked.
Allison frowned. “Because I painted him.”
Roland Barthes1 wouldn’t put out “The Death of the Author” for another two years, so Arnold’s only response was, “You can’t see their bits.”
Fran scowled playfully, “Don’t be rude, Arnold.”
“That’s incidental and you know it, young man.”
Allison wrinkled her nose. She was the artist, Arnold was just the consumer. She outranked him.
Suddenly, the moonlight in the painting warbled, making shadows dance on the young merfolk’s skin as they fled from the child they’d been circling. The one with the tiger-striped tail broke away from the chase, swimming down in front of Billy. His hair was a blonde mop, tinted green by the water, framing mud-brown eyes. He beamed a sharp, toothy grin, which Billy gleefully returned10.
Allison grinned too, folding her arms and glancing smugly at Arnold. “That look like a boy?”
Arnold sniffed. “Girls can have short hair too, sexist.”
“Well, whatever it is, it’s lovely,” Françoise said. She kissed Allison on the temple. “You know, Allie, there’s plenty of big, blank walls around here that could do with sprucing up…”
Allison wiggled at the compliment even as she briefly thought about objecting. It was all other people’s skill, same as always. Maestros and amateur housewives alike had all left their mark on the girl. But even if all those artists had gotten together and painted the barn themselves, they wouldn’t have made this. They wouldn’t have seen the moon from the bottom of the river like she had, or have played chasey underwater. They probably didn’t even appreciate mermaids the way Allison did11.
It was hers. No one else’s.
Seeing her creation in motion reminded Allison of something. “What’s taking Mabel so long?”
Everyone looked at Allison like Mabel was long dead.
“I think Mabel’s still having quiet time,” said Françoise.
“Still? It’s been ages!”
“Allison, what Mabel admitted at the bonfire… it was very hard for her.”
“So? How is sulking in the bush going to help with that?” Allison turned and started trotting towards the Institute’s treeline. “I’m gonna find her. We can make the merlings fight. That’ll cheer her up.”
David’s eyes shot between his friend and his mother, before seemingly asking both, “That a good idea?”
Fran shrugged. “I don’t think having friends around would hurt.”
“Course it won’t!” replied Allison. She grabbed David’s hand and started pulling him along. “Cheering up is what friends are for!”
Powerless before her might, the other children followed Allison.
Françoise watched them go. Mabel would be fine. Allie would be fine. David was more than fine.
Maybe she’d take him to see Ralph sometime.
Or his grandfather.
As the Watercolours made their way to Mabel’s hideaway—Allison following the echo of her song—the topic of conversation turned to the most recent news at the Institute:
“…Easter eggs! It’s not even Christmas yet!”
“Do we do Christmas here?” asked Billy.
Allison answered, “Nope. Mavis says they haven’t for like, ten years. Maybe this year, though.”
“Seriously, why would Laurie want to send people Easter eggs?”
Billy’s tail lashed the air thoughtfully. “Were they chocolate?”
“I don’t think so… they were more orna…ornomatic?”
“Ornamental,” Allison corrected her friend.
“Maybe they were bribes? He is in big trouble.” Allison said it like Lawrence had been caught nicking baking chocolate from the pantry.
“I’d have used chocolate ones for that,” opined Billy.
Arnold kicked up some grass. “I still don’t know why Mary’s letting him stay. What’s the use of kicking someone out if you’re just going to let them sleep on your floor in a week?”
Allison quirked her shoulders. “I don’t care. Laurie can’t do anything to us, and they’re gonna come drag him to jail soon anyway. It’s like having a pet.”
“A very beardy pet,” Billy added.
The Watercolours’ discussion on the merits of a pet Oxfordian was cut short when Bryant Cormey staggered into their path. He was clad in grass-stained flannel pyjamas, while his unkempt beard looked like it was trying to evolve into his employer’s. The teacher was brandishing one of the beers the Northamites had donated12.
“Well look who it is,” Cormey jeered, “It’s Mealy and the Watered-Downs.”
David rolled his eyes. “Really, Bryant? You’re stealing jokes from little kids now? I think Ophelia used to call us that.”
“You looking for your girlfriend?” Arnold asked with a sneer. “I think he’s still crying in Therese’s cottage!”
Allison snorted. “You scared her away, didn’t you, Cormey? Made her put on a fake-beard when you kissed?
Without thinking, Bryant threw his beer bottle at Allison.
She let the glass shatter against her suddenly bronze skin, puffing out her chest like Superman taking a few bullets from Metropolis’s dumbest crooks. “Nice try,” she buzzed robotically.
Billy fumed. “Teachers aren’t supposed to throw things!”
“Oh, fuck off, you bloody mutant pity-case.”
Billy clenched his fists, breathing slowly and deeply.
“Aww, Bill,” said Arnold, “don’t go listening to—”
Billy vanished. A trail of grass started flattening from where he stood.
Cormey smirked. “Not so tough? Just you wait, Lawrence is going to whip this place back into—”
Billy appeared behind the man and roared, sending the teacher flying over his friends’ heads. By the time Bryant had somewhat regained his bearings, the Watercolours were giggling off in the distance.
Arnold clapped Billy on the back as they ran. “Nice one, Growly.”
It wasn’t long before they reached the bush, long grass giving way to an autumn and winter’s worth of fallen leaves that crunched beneath their feet. Arnold occasionally blasted away a bramble or small tree from their path.
Then they ran into the witch. At least the Watercolours assumed she was meant to be a witch. The withered crone was decked out in a tattered robe the exact shade of dark green as a heavy duty rubbish bin.
She was clearly one of Mabel’s puppets. The shadow under her hood was too perfect. Allison seriously doubted she had anything besides a mouth and a nose under there.
“Who goes there?” the witch intoned in a voice like wind funneled through sandpaper.
“We’re here to see Mabel!” Billy replied cheerfully.
“You seek the Creator?” asked the hag. “Then you must answer these three—”
Allison huffed loudly, blowing a lock of hair from in front of her face. “Don’t be dumb, Mabs. We just want to see you.”
The witch made a sweeping gesture. “But first—”
Her arm dropped to her side like an actress who just noticed the looks on their audience’s faces. “Fine,” she said in a young girl’s voice, before turning around and starting to walk off. “Follow the crone,” she commanded, still with Mabel’s voice.
The crone led the children to a familiar clearing: the one where Arnold had teleported the earth from under the lads from Northam’s feet. The water that had filled the resulting pit during the rainy season had almost completely dried away, save a forlorn puddle waiting to be drank by the tree roots snaking through the crater-walls. Scattered about the place were the sleeping ashes of a campfire, an icebox, and a pile of books and drawing supplies resting on a picnic blanket.
It was by this dismal view Mabel had hung her hammock. She was nestled with an open copy of Walkabout, the lady astronaut occasionally nudging the hammock in absence of any breeze. “Five years in the academy and this is what you make me do…”
Mabel ignored the space-adventurer, instead listlessly greeting her friends. “Hi guys.”
Billy gazed around the clearing like he had stepped into the Taj Mahal. “Wow, great camp you got here Mabs!”
Mabel supposed this did count as camping. “Thanks.”
“Allie finished her painting,” Arnold said.
“Yeah,” Mabel said. “I kinda guessed,”
The astronaut cut-in sourly, “Almost blew our eardrums out, you mean.”
“Shush up, you.”
Allison flung herself onto the hammock with enough force she almost sent Mabel tumbling off. “Why didn’t you come look?”
Mabel scratched her hair, not looking the other girl in the eye. “I… I just… look, it’s not like it’s going to disappear, you know?”
There was something plaintive in Allison’s voice. “But it’s new.”
“You’d like it,” said Billy. “It’s got mermaids!”
That got Mabel’s interest. She looked at Allison. “…Seashell bras?”
“Stupid things… maybe later.”
Allison slumped onto her back. “Come on…”
“It’s actually pretty neat,” Arnold said. “Good…” He tried to think of an art term. “…use of space. Didn’t go over the edges or anything.”
Mabel shouted, “I’m not in the mood, alright!”
Except for Allison. “When will you be in the mood?”
Mabel spent a moment trying to figure out how to say she couldn’t know that, then gave up. “Later!”
“Well, what if I’m not in the mood later?”
Mabel blinked at the other girl. “…What?”
“What if I don’t want to show you when you are in the mood?”
“…It’s the side of a barn. You don’t need to show me.”
“Yes I do! You’re not allowed to look at it without me!”
“You can’t say that!”
“Yes I can! It’s my mural!”
“This is stupid!”
“Then can you please just be in the mood right now?”
Mabel crossed her arms and sighed. “Fine.”
Allison made a pleased noise, grabbing Mabel and pulling her into one of Cardea’s rifts.
“Well,” she said, arms spread in front of her creation, “what do you think?”
Mabel shuffled her feet. She liked the mural, she really did. And she appreciated Allison not making all the merfolk thin. She just had no space in her to be cheerful about it. “It’s good,” she mumbled. “Can we go back to my camp now?”
Allison pouted. “Sure, sure.”
A couple seconds and a few hundred yards of squeezed spacetime later, the girls were sitting back in the hammock.
“I don’t know why you’re being so weird about the Circle’s End thing,” Allison said while she picked at her toenails.
Mabel just stared at her. She couldn’t name what she was feeling. It was a bright, livid thing—beyond anger, confusion, or offense, but claiming descent from all of them.
She glanced over at the boys, as though they could somehow explain what Allison had just said. All three of them appeared to have suddenly realized they were standing on a big white “X” in the middle of the Nevada desert.
“Allie, you do know what happened to me at Circle’s End, right? What I did?”
“I was there when you said it, wasn’t I? Your powers turned on and killed a lotta people.”
“And my dad.” Mabel would’ve cried then, but she’d had plenty of time to do that the last week or so. Her grief was a snapped tendon, too weak to support her.
“Yes. It’s awful and everything, but you didn’t mean to, did you?”
Mabel sighed. “No. I didn’t. But I think… doing that to people changes something. Something inside your guts. Even when you didn’t mean to. You’re not the same after.”
Allison tilted her head. “…That doesn’t explain why you’re hiding out here?”
“No,” Allison answered flatly. “I mean, if you think about it, you wouldn’t have changed when you fessed up, you’d have changed back in Circle’s End, and none of us knew you back then.”
“…Everyone looked at me weird.”
“Maybe at the bonfire yeah, but nobody’s seen you since then. How would ya know they’d keep doing that?”
“Seems kinda likely?”
“I’m not looking at you any different.”
Mabel didn’t know how to put it kindly.
Allison pointed at David. “Davie! Did you know about this before?”
“Yeah,” David admitted.
“See, nothing’s changed for him. And David’s worth like, ten other kids.”
David was glad his blush didn’t show.
Allison leaned back, a slight smile gracing her lips. “And Fran killed people for fun when she was littler than us. Are you scared of her?”
“…Kinda?” answered Mabel.
“To be fair,” said David. “A bunch of those people were Nazis.”
Allison moved onto Billy. “What about you, Growly? You scared of Mabel?”
“No siree,” he answered with all the earnestness in the world.
The boy shrugged. “She chased me with a Dalek our first day.” He smiled. “I’ve always been scared of her.”
Mabel realised she was smiling, too. She tried shaking it off her face like a bug. She looked at Allison. “Why are you trying so hard?”
“Because I painted a very good mermaid picture and you should appreciate it more. And you’ve always tried really hard with me. Even back when I thought you were weird and scary.”
Mabel rested her head on the other girl’s shoulder. “…I’ll come back tomorrow, okay?”
“Sure,” replied Allison. “Mind if we camp here with you tonight?”
Billy squeaked in delight, running off back towards the Institute in search of sleeping bags and marshmallows.
When the sun finally set, they relit Mabel’s campfire. Allison rattled off what felt like hundreds of ghost stories, which somehow all managed to end with her roaring and flailing her arms around at everyone. Mabel swore for a moment she’d managed to grab hold of the shadow-puppets. On a dare, Billy downed some of the funny-juice, and strewed the clearing with spongy rocks and ruby quartz silly string.
They stayed up well past any notion of bedtime, but sleep claimed them all in the end. Allison was even grateful for it, after an almost entirely wakeful week of hard painting.
It was still dark when the cracks woke her up. They were distant, but sharp. Allison rubbed the sleep from her eyes. She could hear shouting: not too unusual at the post-Lawrence Institute, but this didn’t sound like the usual rough play.
Those cracks again. They sounded a little like the noise the air made when Jumpcut teleported, only—
Allison shook Mabel hard. “Mabs, wake up!” she whispered harshly. “Wake up!”
The girl jerked awake, blinking up at Allison through her lensless spectacles. “What’s going on?”
“I think someone’s shooting—”
A voice like breaking marble sliced through the trees:
You bastards! You murdering fucking bastard—
There was a terrible, awful noise.
There was a terrible, awful silence.
1. Regular access to television was one of many things Alberto appreciated about life beyond the Institute. Part of him suspected that Darren Stephens was Herbert Lawrence’s equal and opposite in the cosmos. ↩
2. Just like old times. ↩
3. Both the Pentagon and DOPO’s Washington headquarters weathered the explosions far better than their Australian counterparts, the former due to the Pentagon’s extensive structural reinforcement and the latter thanks to energy sapping enchantments placed on the grounds by Howard Pendergast. The time-zone difference also played a role in reducing casualties. ↩
4. The only time the word “thrilling” was ever used in relation to the DDHA. ↩
5. If you could call John Smith’s people coming for him an invasion. ↩
6. Like many other aspects of modern Australia, her political system is a nightmarish hybrid of Great Britain and the United States. ↩
7. Allison wondered what the proper term would be. Fry? ↩
8. Allison had considered sprinkling in some grown mermaids and mermen, but she was aesthetically opposed to seashell bras, and didn’t want to risk scandalizing Mrs Gillespie. ↩
9. No relation. ↩
10. Allison justified it to herself as an adaptation to a carnivorous diet. ↩
11. As she saw it, mermaids could go almost anywhere, and the places they couldn’t were boring. ↩
12. The fact that almost everyone at the Institute was underage didn’t seem to occur to the kindly townspeople. Alberto certainly hadn’t complained. ↩