The Physician glided down the hall, leading his young guests deep down the halls of Ravenscroft Manor, their footsteps and his tour-guide patter reverberating off old stone:
“None of you besides Maelstrom—”
“David,” the boy cut in sharp as a knife.
The Physician kept going like nobody had interrupted him. “—Have visited me before, have you?”
“No,” David answered, his voice hard.
The Physician hadn’t asked the children any follow up questions. Hadn’t asked how their friends and David’s mother had died, or why. Nothing resembling grief, sympathy, or even curiosity. The children could have been dropping in for Christmas lunch. Part of David was relieved. What would the Physician’s kindness look like?
“The last lord’s mother sold me the place before she went back to the UK to die. English aristocrats are a lot like elephants in that respect. Her sons had killed each other.” The Physician’s fingers scuttled against his lab-coat. “Superheroes.”
Arnold was sticking close to Mabel, just managing to resist clinging to her shoulders. The Physician’s home didn’t match its owner. His only concession to modernity was that the sconces on the walls were left empty in favour of electric lights that gave off a sodium glow not quite suited for human eyes.
And the place was filthy. Arnold’s feet kept getting caught in sinkholes of rotten carpet. Long dead blue-bloods grew green and frog-like as mold and moss consumed their portraits. Cockroaches skittered in and out of the light, while rats chittered in the shadows. The whole castle smelled like week-old pyjama pants. Arnold was shocked. Weren’t aliens supposed to be shiny and antiseptic?
But then, monsters were supposed to live in caves.
“Excuse me… Dr. Smith?”
“Was the castle always so… like this?”
“Oh no,” said the Physician. Even walking behind him, Arnold swore he spotted the corners of his lips. “It took me years to get the place remotely livable. You humans keep your homes so sterile.” The Physician snatched a fat moth orbiting the light above him. When he opened his palm, the moth was gone. “Barren.”
Billy clapped at the magic trick. The other children glared him into silence.
Allison kept gritting her teeth. The Physician’s song didn’t hit her like a tidal wave the way it used to, but it was still music that had never been intended for her ears. Her new mess of senses didn’t help matters. The Physician’s whole body was one balefully bright brain. A book that had to be read left-to-right, right-to-left, crosswise and lengthwise, all at once. Looking at him was like staring at a candle flame, letting it burn a black hole right into her sight.
“Does Timothy Valour come here much?” Allison asked bitterly.
“Sometimes,” answered the Physician. “Usually he sticks to the guest house. Hell of a pinochle player. Why do you ask?”
“He sent soldiers to kill our family.”
“Oh. Yes, I think I heard about that. You blew up Parliament, apparently?”
“We didn’t!” Arnold insisted. “That was Lawrence!”
As usual, the Physician showed no sign of surprise, though Allison did see whirls form in his aura. “I didn’t think the old man had it in him. Any idea why?”
“Because he was scared,” David said. “Scared of going to jail and scared we didn’t need him.” He skipped backwards to Allison’s side, taking her hand and smiling at her. “We’re gonna kill Tim for what he did,” he said. “We’re gonna make him wish he jumped out the window.”
Mabel and Arnold shrank in on themselves. Billy’s tail was swishing like mad behind him.
Allison forced a smile. She hated that it didn’t come naturally. Why couldn’t she follow David to that cool, easy hate? Her own cut and scratched inside her like she’d swallowed a razor.
Queasy, unfamiliar images of Valour swam to the surface of her mind. That grey, flaccid old natural, scowling at him from behind his desk like a tired schoolmaster—
The Physician clapped his hands together, breaking the spell. “I’m glad you have a project, kids.”
“We don’t—” Mabel started, then trailed off. “Nevermind. Thanks, I guess?”
“It would be good if you could hold off on that for a while, though.” Once again the Physician ignored any interruptions. “I have some business that could use men like Timothy.”
David frowned. “What kinda ‘business’?”
“Don’t worry, David. I don’t expect it to stretch on much longer. Especially now that you children are staying with me.”
David grinned ferally.
The group turned a corner in time to see a man in a lichenous three piece suit wandering out of a side-room. Large, expressioness, unsettlingly Nordic—undeniably a Physician drone.
The Physician called the man-shaped creature over. “Call ahead to ship for me and tell them to prepare five cells—”
Mabel raised an eyebrow. “Cells?”
“Call them ‘rooms’ if you must. Honestly, English is such a simple language, surely you should already know all the ambiguities.”
“Wait, the ship?” asked David. “You’re taking us to your spaceship?”
“Please don’t call her a ‘the’, it’s inaccurate. But yes, I am. I figure it’ll be easier for everyone if you’re not here when the DDHA pops in.”
Billy whooped excitedly. So did Arnold. Whatever they thought of the Physician, he had a spaceship.
Dr. Smith had more instructions for his henchman. “Have them whip up dinner for them while you’re at it. Human edible this time. I don’t want another repeat of the crystalized time incident.” The Physician briefly glanced at Allison, still tensed against the tide of his song. “It’d be good if a psi-dampener was waiting for me at the table.”
The drone intoned “Yes, master,” in his kind’s trademark monotone.
Allison looked at the drone’s blank, chiseled feature, trying to focus on his short, oddly regular song, near identical to a few others echoing through the castle. She was surprised how much the resemblance to Mr. Thumps comforted her.
She wondered if he would have to die, too.
The drone marched off, while the Physician and company came to a set of chipped, weathered wooden doors, carved with married saints and worn dragons.
“So how are we going to get there?” asked Arnold. “You’re not going to drive us, are you?”
“Oh no.” The Physician snapped his long fingers. They made a sound like clapping sticks. “Think of the petrol.”
The doors swung open onto a cavernous womb of polished stone and perished tapestries that probably had once been a grand dining hall. Much of the pavers had been torn out, replaced by a raised, bronze dais like a giant’s Petri dish. Another drone was standing ready at a mad scientist’s conductor stand, a book of knobs and buttons open in front of him.
“Do you need transport, master?”
“That we do, Groove. Shipside. Try putting us down somewhere with a good view, would you?”
The drone tapped away at his control panel. The castle groaned and shook, the pavers vibrating beneath the children’s feet.
The copper plate began to froth and bubble, though David could sense no liquid within.
The Physician’s grin revealed yet more teeth. “I’ll go first, shall I?”
The star-tossed doctor stepped towards the edge of the circle like an Olympic swimmer getting ready to dive. He bent until he looked like a stunted capital L, and slowly leaned forward till he toppled in.
Arnold eyed the unexpected pool warily. “Should we…”
Allison shrugged. “If it was a trick or something he wouldn’t have gone in first.”
She ran for the pool and dive bombed.
Darkness. That didn’t surprise her. But the warmth did. She felt like she had jumped into a bubble-bath fully dressed. She fell and fell, until she found herself shooting upward—
Allison was deposited back in real space face-first. Bitter winds screamed over her, and something soft but cold pressed against her cheek. She climbed to her feet and found herself surrounded by white. Endless, rippling planes of white snow. Above the girl was a bleak, empty blue sky, broken only by the naked sun throwing down empty, cold light. Allison almost shivered, but then the warmth flowed up from the earth into her. Snowflakes melted and steamed away against her exposed skin. Allison’s suit went pale, glacial green and blue. She giggled.
“Beautiful, isn’t she?”
The Physician was standing with her back to Allison, his white lab coat fluttering like albatross wings in the blizzard. He was looking towards a range of white mountains, almost lost in the storm.
A great tooth jutted out from the rock—or perhaps a claw, threatening the sky. Raised metal ridges on its side swirled like slicks of mercury on black water around a closed, copper-green eye, from which fanned flashing silver scales. Its belly was armoured in rust-red and Afghan blue, while its tip was capped with a dull gold cone. The more Allison looked at the sleeping beast, the more she was reminded of a giant fish.
The girl stared.
“She’s supposed to look like a raindrop,” the Physician commented. “It’s hard to tell when she’s stuck in the ground like that.”
Somehow, this didn’t damper Allison’s amazement. “Woah…” A thought twinged at her. “Shouldn’t she be covered in snow?”
“Good eye. Our lady runs too hot for snow to settle on her.” The Physician caught some snow between his fingers, rubbing it. “Besides, it doesn’t fall that much around here. This is mostly just old stuff picked up by the wind. Stale, really.”
“And where is here?”
“Ross Island. Little place off the coast of Antarctica. I think your people own it, whatever that’s worth.” He pointed towards the mountain. “That right there’s called Mt. Erebus.” In a surprisingly human gesture, the Physician pulled up his sleeve and glared at a wristwatch. “What’s keeping those friends of yours?”
David clapped his hands on Allison’s shoulders.
Allison laughed and pushed the boy back. “What took you so long?”
David was staring up at the sky, turning slowly like was trying to follow a bird in the air. “Others are being wimps about it.” He stared at the Physician. “Why didn’t you tell me you lived in the snow?”
“You never asked.”
David laughed and swept his arms. Huge wings of snow formed behind his back, while his suit frosted over like a lake in winter. Again he laughed, loudly and freely.
“Allie, look! I’m a snow angel!”
Allison snorted, grabbed David, and pointed. “Look, spaceship!”
“Ooh.” David and his suit exploded into a cloud of snow, instantly swept away by the wind.
“Where do you think he’s going?” asked the Physician absently.
“Dunno. Probably getting a closer look. He can go really fast when he’s not a person.”
She spent a few moments gazing up after the boy, then a thought struck.
“Wait. How does it handle atmosphere with all those fin-ey bits on the front?”
It was the first time she’d ever heard the Physician really laugh. It didn’t sound even remotely human. That made it a little less unpleasant, somehow.
“Ms. Kinsey. I don’t mean to sound rude, but species who still need to concern themselves with atmospheric friction really don’t have any business critiquing starship design.”
“That’s not an answer.”
Another laugh, like a dying refrigerator.
“Forcefields. When your people have been nipping in and out space as long as mine have, you can compromise a bit for aesthetics.”
“You care about aesthetics?”
“Oh, deeply. My time on Earth’s been spent in a complete state of shock.”
Allison wasn’t sure why, but she giggled at that.
The Physician made a popping noise. “Wait, did David take his clothing with him?”
“Oh, yeah,” Allison said, looking down at her suit. “Father Christmas said our costumes were super-special. Didn’t you see how David’s was all watery and stuff?”
The Physician’s whole skin went taut. “Pardon me. I had just assumed it was another piece of quaint fashion sense.”
“You’re bad at humans.”
“Quite. But let’s not get distracted. You said Santa Claus gave you these?”
There was a quiet thump in the snow behind them. Allison turned, and caught sight of Arnold kneeling in the snow, his arms tight around his ribs. He was shivering.
“Arnold!” She made it halfway into the first step, when a not quite human hand closed, vice-like, around her shoulder.
“You were telling me about Santa.”
“A body that size can survive these temperatures for upwards of thirty seconds without lasting damage. And even if he doesn’t, the cold will preserve—”
The Physician took a hasty step back as the heat began to vent from Allison’s form, blasting the snow around her into a metre wide ring of water that quickly sank into the pebbles below. She set her magma off to one side, and dashed to Arnold, as close as she dared.
Arnold’s teeth were chattering, even as the air around him rapidly began to warm. “Why’s—it so—c—c—cold?”
“It’ll be alright, Arnold,” Allison called. “I’ll—”
Mabel and Billy dropped out of nothingness, and soon were both shivering like fever patients too, even with Billy’s fur working for him.
“Where are we?” Mabel managed to get out, her question turning to mist and blown back in her face.
Allison didn’t answer her question, instead yelling, “Get next to Arnold!”
Both children obeyed without question, shuddering as the warmth hit their systems like a drug.
Allison looked back at the Physician, still standing there, his arm stuck out on a jagged, broken looking angle. She shouted, “Take them to the warm!”
The Physician’s arm snapped back into place. “But they haven’t even gotten a good look— “
The magma hovered a foot or so towards the Physician.
“…You must let me have a look at that new power of yours, you kn—”
“Fine, fine, fine.”
The Physician snapped his arms and legs to his sides, and opened his mouth unnaturally wide. Then his jaw slid down his torso, expanding his mouth until it filled most of his frame.
Every cell in the Physician’s body screamed. Even with her toughened ear-drums, Allison had to clap her hands over her ears.
In the distance, a solid wall of snow slid down the face of Mt. Erebus. The Physician’s ship opened its eye. The air between its gaze and the children shimmered red. Their feet lifted off the ground.
“What’s happening?” Allison asked.
The Physician’s face was grinding and cracking back into a shape suitable for human speech. “Tractor-beam, young lady,” he said, flexing his jaw like he was checking to see if it fit properly. He hopped into the glow, snatched up by its power before his shoes hit the snow again. “Try to enjoy it.”
It was warm within the beam. Almost sauna-like. The ground cleaved farther and farther from the children as they were pulled upwards like fish caught in a riptide.
Allison leaned backwards against the air until she started tumbling head over heels, the vast plates of white and blue spinning around her.
Billy swam through the air in front of her, his cape rippling behind him like a proper superhero. At least someone was enjoying the trip.
After what could’ve been five minutes or an hour, they passed through the ship’s sullen, red eye. Allison screwed her eyes shut to shut out the glare and—
The Physician and his students found their footing again under a sky of dark steel; studded with thousands of minute, softly shining gems like fossilized stars.
Allison wiggled her toes. There was grass beneath her feet.
The Physician dusted off his jacket and looked around. “Oh, we’re on the night-shift. I’ll fix it.”
He made a circle with his pointer finger. The place rang in Allison’s ears like struck crystal. The mineral constellations above were obscured by the haze and flowering clouds of a bright, flaxen sky. There was no sun, but it was as if the air itself were charged with daylight. Dozens of trees rose from a sea of indigo grass, their branches lost in the sky; some were thinner than a human child, others had trunks like colossal marble columns. The whole field was rimmed by walls of rough, white stone.
Arnold gazed in complete wonder, remembering some of his mother’s idle speculations on the dimensions of Heaven. He looked at the Physician. “I thought you were taking us to your spaceship?”
“I did.” The Physician spread his arms out just a little too wide. “I think you would call this the lobby.”
Arnold turned around to find a copper circle exactly like the one back at Ravenscroft. He scowled, immediately rounding on Dr. Smith. “You could’ve taken us straight here, couldn’t you?”
“Of course I could’ve.”
“Then why’d you dump us in the middle of the North Pole?”
“Please, boy, the North Pole’s miles away.”
Arnold fumed and fidgeted. Billy was already running around the grass laughing when David coalesced from the ambient moisture.
“Hey guys! What took ya?”
“Freezing to death,” Mabel muttered, clutching her folder and art supplies.
The Physician clicked. “How’d you get in here, David? Ship’s airtight. It’s kind of the point of her.”
David smiled a secret smile. “There’s water in here, though.”
“Fair enough. I like your new eyes, by the way.”
David didn’t know if the Physician was being sly or just himself. He moved on. “It’s actually really neat in here—”
Fibrous, wrenching tearing. One of the larger trees cracked open at the base, widening to form a shadowed doorway.
Allison gritted her teeth. A song was pouring out of the trunk. It was… at the very least, it belonged to the same album as the Physician’s. All the same impossible, twisting notes, the same harsh, mocking motifs, just arranged a little differently. The closest comparison Allison could make were Mels and David’s songs.
A woman emerged from the tree. She was taller than the Physician, bordering on six-foot-two, and wrapped in a ballooning black dress, with red-rimmed eye-glasses that could’ve served as air-foils. Her cobweb hair was done up in a thick beehive, though Allison would’ve expected to find spiders crawling through it before honeybees. Her long, orange painted nails could’ve sliced through steel.
She caught sight of the Physician, her eyes widening behind the thick lenses of her glasses to the size of saucers. “Dr. Smith!”
Her Russian accent wouldn’t have been out of place in a Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoon. She slid towards the group. The way her body moved beneath her skirt, it looked less like she had two legs under there than a thick, solid serpent’s tail. A naga that had learned to walk.
The Physician grinned and gestured towards the lady. “Children, this is Dr. Sofia Ivanova. She handles superhuman science for the Soviets.”
Arnold frowned. “Wait, she’s a commie?” he asked, a little of his father speaking through him.
“I haven’t joined the party yet, if that’s what you’re asking, little boy.”
Dr. Ivanova leaned forward, examining the children. Up close, Allison noticed how grey her skin was. Where the Physician was jaundiced, this woman was just dead. “So, Smith, who are these dearies I’m looking at?”
“These boys and girls are from Herbert Lawrence’s kennel. Where I got Sinclair from.” The Physician gestured at each child in turn. “Sea-spawn, external teleporter, totemic animator, matter-manipulator, and that power-esper I mentioned.”
None of the children were sure what to make of that introduction.
The Physician put his bony, rubbery hands on Allison and David’s shoulders. “These two’s clothes came from Father Christmas. What brings you shipside, by the way?”
Ivanova’s fingers squirmed like hungry worms. “Ooh, I’m jealous. And I was just getting reacquainted with myself.”
“May I say you look amazing?”
“You flatter me, John.” Ivanova slid over to a fungus-covered patch of rock-wall. It was like a mossy, checkered blanquet every colour of the gradient. She tapped away, each square glowing as she touched it. The copper circle bubbled. “I need to go. Science City One has a new shipment of nelyudi1 from Ukraine.”
Mabel watched her slip into the metal. “So… Is that your sister? Mother? Girlfriend?”
“Oh no. Dr. Ivanova is just me, and I am just her.” The Physician started towards one of the trees. “So, Christmas lunch?”
1. A Russian term for superhuman that roughly translates to “inhuman.” Now commonly considered a slur. ↩