“The ship woke you up, didn’t she?” Alberto blew out a puff of cloven smoke. Allison could smell it, real as anything. “Always throwing a pity-party, her. But I guess I don’t have a gaggle of Physicians crawling around inside me.” The psychic looked at Allison with a questioning smile. “You’d know the word for a group of physicians, right Allie? A herd? A college?”
Allison had drawn her bedsheets protectively up to her chin. The red glow of her eyes changed to ocean green.
Alberto put his palm to his face, shaking his head in annoyed embarrassment. “Don’t be stupid, Kinsey, you know I’m not really here. You left me bleeding out my eyeballs in the fucking bush. I’m a…” He rolled his tongue over his teeth in thought. “A metaphor. I’m your brain trying to make sense out of me.” Alberto glanced at his cigarette. “I’m not sure if I should thank you or be insulted.”
“Why are you here?” Allison asked in a whine. “You’re not—” She grabbed the sides of her head, eyes pointed down at the wrinkles of her duvet. A small, confused voice said, “…You’re not supposed to talk.”
Alberto scowled. “What? You think you can take my powers, my memories, everything except my nuts, and not get me in the bargain?” He crawled up the length of Allison’s bed till they were less than an inch apart. “You fucking ate me.”
The girl could feel the man’s breath on her face, hot and burning with alcohol. His face was flushed with hexagons. Exactly as she remembered Alberto. Exactly how he remembered himself. She almost wanted to reach out and touch him—test his solidity. She wasn’t sure if it would be better or worse if her hand passed through him. “You—you were shot. I wanted to save you…”
Alberto leaned back, face deadpan. “Yes, because most vital organs are located in the right shoulder.” He scowled. “You were just hungry.”
Allison protested. “I wasn’t—what does that even mean?”
“You know what it means, Kinsey.” Alberto got up off the bed, circling it slowly as he examined Allison with bitter, mock curiosity. “It felt good, didn’t it? Like you were full for the first time in your life.”
Allison’s only answer was a glare: hard, but glistening with gathering tears.
“Must be nice, finally being a real super.”
That broke Allison’s silence. “I was always a real super!”
“Yeah, when some of us were around for you to plagiarize. Nosferatu wasn’t as much of a parasite as you.”
“I know everything!”
Alberto was looking at his fingernails. “So do most University Challenge teams.” He sighed. “Shouldn’t be surprised you’re a massive thief. Jesus Christ, stuck in a Gypsy brat forever. My once in a species psionic powers will serve you well in making tourists think you’ve got a limp.”
“You keep making me feel yuck,” muttered Allison, arms wrapped around herself. “When I think about my mummy, or Valour”—a tense, itching heat—“…or Fran.”
“I’m sorry I’m giving you indigestion.” Alberto bent and hissed into Allison’s ear. “It might seem like I’m standing here smoking and whispering to you, but I’m not. I’m sitting alone, in a house without windows, with only our thoughts for company, shouting at the dark.”
“…I don’t care,” Allison said, mostly to herself. “You were a bad man, and I don’t care.”
Alberto straightened and drew up an eyebrow. “Is that what you think?”
“I have your memories.”
“Only when you can’t avoid them,” countered Alberto. “Take a closer look. I dare you.”
“How the hell am I supposed to do that?”
“You read our own minds! It’s like a memory-palace, but better.” Alberto let out a grunt of a laugh. “Got that from your head, by the way, ‘memory-palaces.’ I never used that trick much. Introspection is a shitty hobby. Buuuut I figure we should get to know each other now we’re headmates, hmm?”
“…Will you shut up if I do this?”
“Cross my heart. Wherever that is.”
Allison sighed and closed her eyes.
It wasn’t hard. It was almost second nature, in fact. Allison turned her newest senses inward and—
She turned inside out.
For a second Allison thought she and Alberto were in space. Inner space, perhaps. They were floating high above a Milky Way of blood-red stars, streaked through with wisps of white.
“What’s that?” asked Allison.
“Another metaphor. All those lights are memories.” Alberto squinted. “I think the red ones are mine.”
Allison stared down at the galaxy of thought, at the cobwebs of herself. Her bones thinned and hollowed inside of her. She felt small, weightless. A flake of paint on someone else’s portrait.
“There’s so much you…”
“You’re nine, I’m twenty-nine. Of course there is.”
They drew closer to the lights, or maybe the lights came up to meet them. As they neared, they began to see through the glare. There were objects hidden within the lights. Keepsakes and mementos. Old teddy bears, well-worn pencils, or—in the case of most of Alberto’s memories—bottles of spirits.
Alberto snatched a deep-blue coffin flask out from the whirling mess of booze and children’s toys. He squinted at the bottle’s embossing.
“Shitty hometown, vintage 1939. Good a place to start as any.”
He popped the bottle’s cork, and a whole sky flowed forth.
Alberto let go of the bottle, allowing it to drift off and pop like a soap bubble. He spread his arms out and exclaimed, “Welcome to Bovegno1!”
The pair were standing in a cobbled street on a cloudless winter afternoon. A humble steeple protruded above snow-powdered, dull red rooftops, dwarfed in turn by the grey-treed mountain slopes that cradled the little spit of town. But as cozy and provincial as the town should’ve been, every cottage and townhouse had been monstrously magnified, looming over Alberto and Allison like skyscrapers. Everything from the stones of the road to the frost in the windows was either broadly sketched or painstakingly precise, with greater resolution than reality itself could support. The colours were bright enough to make Allison’s eyes water. The whole place seemed somehow composed of smells: fresh bread, pasta, and woodsmoke.
“It’s a bit… impressionist,” said Allison.
“Not surprised,” replied Alberto. “I think I was about three at the time.” He pointed up the road. “There’s me now.”
A little boy wrapped in a chrysalis of woolens and scarves stood alone and distinct amidst a swirl of brushstroke people. Allison could just make out the red hexagons on his winter-flushed cheeks.
“Huh,” she said. “You were sorta… cute.”
Alberto shrugged. “S’pose I was.”
The younger Alberto vanished. Most of the colour went with him, along with the vague shadows that passed for people. Now his older self and Allison were standing in an empty, washed out Bovegno—alone, except for a tall, dark figure where the young boy had been. He felt familiar. Like a whispered of but never seen uncle.
Alberto spoke like he was reciting the oldest story in the world. “A long time ago, a stranger came to Bovegno. Nobody knew where he came from…”
Dr. Smith’s voice echoed over the memory-scape like the arch, indifferent voice of God. “…Definitely from Enlil. They like kicking their troublemakers off world. ‘Compassionate exile’ they call it.”
Alberto went on. “He was beautiful, they say. And cruel.”
Suddenly, the dark man was surrounded by fawning will-‘o-wisps.
“Nobody even recognized his language, and he never bothered to learn ours. He didn’t have to. When he spoke, you knew what he was saying. Exactly. And whatever he asked, you gave it to him. Didn’t matter if it was money, your daughter, or your own beating heart.”
“He was like you,” said Allison.
“Yes. Maybe even more.”
Now the dark man was enthroned, receiving tribute from a line of bedraggled wooden puppets, their strings all leading to the man’s palm. It looked more Czech than Italian to Allison, but then it wasn’t her imagination. Or was it? She wasn’t sure.
“For nearly twenty years, he ruled Bovegno like a king. Or maybe ‘god’ is a better word.”
The dark man tugged at the strings held. The puppets prostrated themselves, weeping.
“But then, one day…”
Another shadow—this one feminine—crept behind the throne. The man turned his head just in time to see her drive a knife into his neck.
“Someone finally told him no.”
“Why couldn’t he stop her?”
“Simple. She was his daughter.”
The man’s blood was seeping into cobblestones, running down through the cracks between till it reached Allison and Alberto’s feet.
“She was far from the only one. The stranger might have been gone, but his get would be part of Bovegno forever.”
“Yep. And the good people of Bovegno weren’t keen on a repeat performance. Telepathy—the kind I’ve got at least—doesn’t always pass on the way other powers do, but it did keep popping up. Usually they drowned us—”
Alberto chuckled. “Naturals being shitty to us supers. Shocking, innit? Still, if we were cooperative, sometimes they bundled us off to the Church to keep us safe and celibate.” A surprisingly warm laugh. “Trust me, Allie, there are some nuns2 and priests in Lombardy you do not lie to.”
Everything went dark. A thin strip of light slid open in the black. A harsh, pitiless whisper said:
“I know that’s not all you have to confess, boy.”
Daylight returned, and the two were back in 1936. The younger Alberto was being shoved around by a pair of bigger boys—or human sharks, as his memory cast them.
“Now, I’m sure a lot of us snuck under the radar. Pretty sure my ma could read papa’s mind, at least.”
“Bigol3!” one of the boys shouted gleefully as they pushed little Alberto at their friend.
The boy threw Alberto to the ground, laughing as the small boy smacked against the pavement.
Alberto looked up at his tormentors. He noticed that his nose was bleeding, dapping at the trickle of blood and rubbing it curiously between his fingers. Then he smiled.
His older self smiled, too. “But I don’t think laying low was ever going to be an option for me.”
The boy who’d thrown Alberto stopped laughing, switching his attention to the ground until he found a weighty stone and plucked it up, walking towards his friend.
The other child blinked at him. “Ohi, set dre a fa?“
The boy slammed the rock into the side of his head. Over and over. Now Alberto was laughing. Both of them.
Alberto noticed, frowning down at his companion. “Oh, come on, I was three.”
“You’re not three now,” the girl retorted.
“Please. Do I have to bring up Judith Felini?”
An anachronistically dressed little girl ran screaming out of an alley, drenched head to toe in school paste.
“And that’s not even mentioning Major Yellick…”
Allison clenched her fists. “Okay, I get it, you got picked on. So did David, but he never—” She remembered what David had told her at the dam. “You know what I mean!”
Alberto nodded slowly. “The bullying was part of it, sure. And knowing my great-great-great granddad was a space-rapist. But mostly it was knowing that I had two futures ahead of me: priest or apple-bobbing casualty.” He clapped. “Then the Blackshirts found me!”
Night fell instantly, and Alberto and Allison were standing in front of a townhouse, wary eyes in yellow lit windows watching a pair of Blackshirts shepherding a sleepy, five year old Alberto into their equally black Alfa Romeo.
“Il Duce or somebody had caught wind of what I could do—some of it, that is—and decided they could use a boy like me.”
“What about your mum and dad?” asked Allison. “I know you had those.”
Alberto looked down at the girl with genuine surprise in his eyes. Then he broke into a cackle. “Oh, oh Allie, you’re a dear sometimes.”
Alberto stuck his hand into the night air, shattering it like the surface of a pond. He pulled out another bottle: this one a red, sterling-silver handled oval labelled “Milanese Shame.”
The psychic grinned with poisonous mirth. “Here’s to Mama and Papa Morreti, and the medal that replaced me on their mantle.”
He poured the bottle out on the ground. And kept pouring. And pouring. The cherry liquorice spirit now pooled around Albert and Allison’s ankles, rising rapidly.
“Um, Alberto?” Allison said as the stuff reached her knees. “Bertie?”
Alberto shushed her. “I’m paying tribute, Allison.”
The liquor swamped them both, plunging Allison into sharp, wet darkness. Panicking, she reached for David’s song, panicked some more when she couldn’t find it… and then remembered where she was: still lying in bed, soaking in drama-queen metaphor.
She kicked upwards, out of the flood and into the shadow of a monumental building. It was a massive, Novecento-style slab of off-white brick and steel-framed windows, separate and removed from the city around it, with waves of stairs spilling out from three arches cut into its centre.
“There used to be a church here,” said Alberto. “They tore it down to build this. A church for the state. The Milanese Palace of Justice—” He smiled. “Sounds like a superhero lair when you say it in English, doesn’t it?”
Allison could just make out someone walking up palace’s steps, like Jack on the giant’s threshold. The feeling she had felt when she glimpsed her and Alberto’s entwined memories made a keen, unwelcome return. “Makes you feel small…”
“Fascist shit does that. Makes you feel like just a drop in the ocean.” Alberto’s gaze went soft. “But the ocean washes away everything, in the end.”
Allison felt something inside the man. A lonely spark of nostalgia, dancing in the cold wind of Alberto’s heart.
“Come on,” he said. “We’ve only got forever.”
With a few impossible steps, they were inside the palace. They crossed marble floors speared through by great square columns. They climbed wide staircases and strolled past bas reliefs celebrating biblical, Roman, and fascist justice: the carved classical figures of the third panel blissfully ignorant of the paradox in their subject matter.
“Over twelve hundred rooms: fascists never do anything small.”
Alberto lead Allison into a small side-office. It could’ve been any 20th century lawyer’s study: thin green carpet, a heavy looking darkwood desk in front of rows and rows of near-identical legal tomes. Except the office was strewn with children’s books and wooden toys. A seven year old Alberto was sitting behind the desk like a boy left alone in his father’s office. But instead of shuffling paperwork and pretending to boss about the secretary like a wholesome child, he was sullenly bouncing a rubber ball, idly running his eyes over his copy of Cuore.
“This room was where I spent half my childhood, waiting to justify my daily bread.”
“Still better than marching around with the Balilla all day6,” the young Alberto said, making Allison jump. His young voice was even more thickly accented than his older counterpart. “Buncha Napoleon looking midgets.”
The door opened behind Allison, and an old, Gepetto-looking man complete with apron was shoved into the room, stumbling through Allison like she was the dream and not him.
The old man caught sight of the younger Alberto, and flashed him a fragile, appeasing grin. “You must be the fenomeno 7everyone’s been talking about.”
“Guess I am,” said Alberto. He glanced lazily at a list on the desk. “What’s your name?”
“Umberto Marino.” He forced a laugh like air escaping stab-wound. “No relation, if you’re wondering.”
Alberto looked flatly at Umberto. “Sit down.”
Marini obeyed, settling in the bare sandalwood chair before the desk. “Look, kid, this… it’s all a misunderstanding. I’m just trying to run a good inn, you know? It’s bad manners to turn away guests…”
Alberto ignored the man’s pleading, instead silently studying his face. Or what lay behind it, as Allison knew full well.
“Tell you what,” Umberto pulled a green and white banknote8 from his apron pocket and slid it over to Alberto. “You clear this all up for me, and you get to keep all that money for yourself.” He winked. “And when you’re old enough to drink, it’s all on me.”
Alberto took the money and stuck it in his desk drawer. Then he rang a bell. A Blackshirt poked his head into the office.
“This fella’s been letting the partisans use a couple of his rooms. His son’s been going to meetings.”
Umberto’s face went slack. His eyes were wide and empty. Just that moment, Allison could guess, he could see his future as clearly as Alberto.
The Blackshirt strode in and pulled Umberto out of his chair. “Up you go, camerata,” he said with false, mocking cheer. “We’ve still got talking to do.”
The spell over Marino broke. He spat at Alberto, “You murdering little shit! You freak—”
The Blackshirt struck him across the temples with his bludgeon. “That’s enough of that.”
“He tried bribing me, too,” Alberto said in passing as he returned to his book.
Allison was staring aghast at the boy’s future. “What happened to him?”
“What happened to all of them,” answered the young Alberto.
Through the window, a hanged man’s shadow fell across the office wall.
“…You could’ve lied,” whispered Allison.
Alberto shrugged. “Maybe I could’ve. But what about the next poor bastard? And the one after that? Trust me, Allie, there were a lot.”
“You could’ve lied about them, too!”
Alberto laughed. “And what do you think the Blackshirts would’ve thought of that?”
“That they were doing a good job?”
“Fascists know there’s always someone out to fuck with them: they’d stop being fascists if they didn’t.”
A young woman was pushed sobbing into the office. The young Alberto didn’t even look up before he rang the bell and told the Blackshirt:
“She’s keeping her daughter outta the Balilla. Thinks it’s too ‘violent’.”
No sooner was that weeping lady roughly ushered to her fate than a teenage boy took her place.
“Planning on running away with his girlfriend.”
And so it went, on and on. Days flickered past out the window, lengthening and contracting as summers decayed into winter, while the Alberto behind the desk grew like a sapling in spring, unceasingly handing down dooms:
“Tunes into enemy-radio.”
“For God’s sake!” cried Allison. “You can read minds! You’ve got to have known they weren’t bad people!”
“Everyone else around me thought they were all traitors and cowards.” Alberto shrugged. “Who was I supposed to believe?” He looked back at his younger self. “It’s funny. They always bumped people off far away from me. I think they wanted to ‘protect my innocence’ or some shit. But I could see them dying in their eyes. And sometimes, when they actually brought me someone who hadn’t done anything, they still killed them. When it kept happening, I started making stuff up. Told the Blackshirts what they wanted to hear. Kept everyone happier, I think. I’d rather not be shot after being found innocent…”
Allison shook her head. “You didn’t think making stuff up was wrong?”
“Truth is just what the biggest guy in the room says it is.” He scowled. “And you’re one to talk. Hiding in the Physician’s bloody spaceship like you don’t know what he is…”
Allison’s eyes narrowed. “What? That he’s an alien?”
“That he’s a monster.”
“Oh, come on,” said the now nine year old Alberto. “You know he’s a bastard. He wallows in it. Never stops rubbing it in your face.”
The older Alberto picked up the baton. “Why do you think the ship’s screaming in your ear, Allie? Do you think John Smith really just found a dead goddess? I mean, the guy was mates with Bertie. Doesn’t that tell you everything?”
“…We don’t have anywhere else to go.”
“And you think I had all the options in the world?” the younger Alberto asked. “At least the Blackshirts could keep me safe…”
“I mean, that’s what I thought,” said the present Alberto.
There was a sound like thunder falling to Earth. The office window shattered, sending the past Alberto screaming under the desk.
“Then Gorla happened. Nothing had been going right for years. The Allies had taken most of the country back in ‘43. The Nazis had to whisk Il Duce up to the North. They propped him up for the rest of the war. Everyone went on and on about returning to the glory of Rome, and we were taking orders from fucking Germans!”
Alberto’s younger self crawled out into the open, treading the broken glass to look out the empty window at the rising smoke.
“The Allies bombed on a fucking school. They blew up four hundred kids and nuns. Nuns! The only survivors were a couple of kids who weren’t even in the shelters! That was when I realized I was on the wrong side: the one that was losing.”
The glass flew back into the window, and little Alberto was back behind the desk.
“Luckily, the Blackshirts were kind enough to offer me an out.”
Two burly Blackshirts sporting their best Mussolini pouts of authority marched in an old man by the arms and shoved him down in the chair like a sack of rotten potatoes.
The skin around his eyes was black and bleeding, and the red of his beard was more vivid than Allison had ever seen it, but she recognized the man immediately.
Dr. Herbert Lawrence looked at the boy behind the desk and flashed him an honest, open smile. “You must be the esper.”
The older Alberto sighed and pulled another bottle out from nowhere. “Settle in, Allie, this is a whole ‘nother cellar.”
1. A small mountain town in the province of Brescia located in the Val Trompia valley. Currently believed to be the source of nearly all of Earth’s natural espers. ↩
2. One monastic order that drew heavily from the town of Bovegno were Our Ladies of Still Grace, famous for both their strict vows of silence and their conversation. ↩
3. A Lombard insult meaning roughly “moron.” ↩
4. Essentially “little idiot.” ↩
5. “Clown.” ↩
6. The Opera Nazionale Balilla, the official Italian fascist youth organization operating from 1927 until its absorption into the Italian Youth of the Lictor ten years later. Similar organizations include the German Hitler Youth, the various Young Pioneer organizations throughout the communist world, or the Nova Australian Starbursts. ↩
7. Meaning “wonderful” “amazing” and “incredible.” Can also become fenomeno da baraccone, or circus freak. ↩
8. A 500 lira note, to be precise. ↩