Allison Kinsey flew far from her body—away from Alberto’s wheedling. Listening to him felt like letting mold spread through her brain. Her shade passed through vacuum-armoured bulkheads as easily as curtains of smoke. She followed the enormous tree roots that riddled the starship like veins and arteries. Or, perhaps more accurately, like elevator shafts.
She eventually came out into an open space. It was about the size of an average master-bedroom, made larger in Allison’s eyes by its Spartan emptiness. The smooth metal floor was covered in irregular glowing lines: neon-chalk outlines for murdered furniture.
The girl wasn’t alone, either. Dr. Smith—thankfully still wearing his psi-damper—was looming over what looked like a chaise lounge upholstered in albino crocodile skin. David’s super-suit was draped across it like an unusually well behaved puddle, while the boy himself stood behind the Physician, tapping his foot impatiently with his arms folded.
“Do I really have to be here for this?”
The Physician didn’t answer him. His attention was all on the suit. He was wearing a pair of large, brass goggles. They would’ve made anyone else’s eyes seem bulbous and bug-like, but if anything they made the Physician look more normal. His long fingers were capped with silver thimbles, which he waved over the suit like a priest consecrating holy water. When Allison got a closer look at the devices, she immediately regretted it: their divots were all filled with tiny eyes.
“I knew it!” Dr. Smith exclaimed, mostly to himself. His neck cracked as his head swivelled round to grin at David. “Life-fibres! From Alqbryth!1”
David didn’t even blink at the display. “That supposed to mean something?” he asked.
Allison was waving her astral-self’s arms in David’s face. “Hellooo, Davie, Allie standing right in front of you!”
Her friend paid her no more mind than he did the air.
The Physician kept expounding, “Life-fibres are symbiotic organisms! They latch onto powered creatures and adapt to their abilities; feeding off your thoughts and emotions in exchange for putting themselves between predators and your gonads.”
David grimaced. “You mean that thing is in my head?”
The Physician wibbled. “I wouldn’t go that far. It just basks in the waste-heat of that suspicion like a lizard in the sun.” He swung his head back to the suit. “Here, watch.”
Dr. Smith made a few squeaking, clicking noises. Thinly wrought black iron vines grew from inside a bright pink circle next to the examination bed, forming into a pair of shears at their end and cutting an inch of fabric from the suit’s sleeve, offering it up to the Physician like a cat with a dead bird before retreating back into the floor. With his free hand, the doctor grabbed the rest of the costume and tossed it at its owner.
The suit splashed against David, flowing over his skin and reforming around him. The boy examined his shortened sleeve with a frown. “Great, now I’m uneven.”
Allison gave a small smirk. “I thought you didn’t care about—”
The girl trailed off as David’s suit began to glow, the sleeve’s hem regenerating before it subsided.
David whistled. “Okay, that’s pretty neat.”
“I expect you and your friends won’t ever need to worry about replacing the suits,” commented the Physician. He was fondly twirling the hoop of fabric he’d cut around his finger. “I’ve wanted to play with life-fibres for ages, but the !Quell2 guard Alqbryth like their virgin daughter.” His grin unwavering, the Physician added, “Bunch of slimy Russian nesting dolls.”
David snorted. Space racism was even weirder than regular racism. “What are you going to do with it?”
“Well, if I can get this sample to grow…” The Physician closed his hand around the life-fibres. “Don’t tell Arnold and Mabel, I want it to be a surprise.”
Allison was jumping up and down next to David. “Come on, you gotta know I’m here a little! Aren’t you a god or something?”
“Sure,” said David. “Might be funny.”
Allison scowled. She wasn’t sure why David not being able to see her right then was so annoying, but it was. Excruciatingly so. Then she realized…
“So, why’d you kiss Arnold? Do you think he’s pretty now? Is he a good kisser?”
David didn’t answer, of course. He just bounced from foot to foot, clicking his tongue boredly while he waited for the Physician to tell him he could go, or he ran out of patience and left anyway, whichever came first. Allison didn’t know why asking those questions felt good, but it did. It made her lungs feel less tight. She stepped a little closer, asking into his ear, “Would you kiss me? Wait. Would I kiss you? Hmm.”
A thought floated to the surface of David’s mind. Their pirate fight back in the river. Except David was winning, spearing Allison’s ship with needle-fangs of ice.
The real Allison frowned. “Sore loser.”
In David’s daydream, he swam over to Allison, pulling her close and pecking her on the lips. For some reason, her hair was very, very vivid.
Allison blushed, hard. Then she blew a raspberry at the boy and wafted out of the room, laughing.
Billy and Arnold were both in the media room, chasing each other over spongy sofa-mounds (or bean-bags) while on the membranous screen3, Doctor Who poured out champagne for his friends and wished the audience at home a happy Christmas4.
It was Boxing Day, Allison remembered suddenly. Christmas had only been yesterday. Part of her felt like the air ought to feel a little different, but it didn’t. Did holidays really only exist in people’s heads?
Billy leapt out from behind one of the sponges, making gun noises at Arnold while flicking his pointer fingers at him. It seemed he had slept in his costume.
Boys, Allison thought, as though she wouldn’t have done the exact same thing in his position.
Mabel was still in her fish-tank room, at the centre of a paper carpet as thick and white as the snow outside the ship. She was was drawing feverishly in Father Christmas’ sketch-pad, tearing out pages and hurling them away as soon as she was done. Allison thought it rather wasteful, until she noticed the book’s pages were regrowing as fast as Mabel could remove them.
“Neat,” Allison said to herself. She descended to the floor and reflexively bent to pick up one of the drawings. Predictably enough, her hand passed right through them.
Allison grunted in annoyance, before scouting around for some pictures facing up. She quickly found a depiction of Asteria in her coffin, all heavy, dusky pinks and purple shadows.
Just looking at it made Allison sad again. But it was also so good. Better than anyone could have expected from a child who wasn’t her.
She found more. The Physician’s ship, embedded in Mt. Erebus. A few mermaids. A redheaded boy it took Allison a few seconds to realize was Adam Sinclair. She even found herself back at Harvey Dam, burning bright in front of an awed Jenny and Matthew.
That had been a good day.
Allison looked over at Mabel, still scribbling away. “Looking good, Mabs!”
Mabel stopped drawing for a moment, and smiled.
Allison passed through cavernous storerooms, piled high with everything from canned beans to capsulized singularities. She crossed a clamshell chamber, past what looked like an aurora borealis carved out of solid ivory, undulating like a swimming manta-ray, or an eagle beating its wings. An uptick drive, Allison knew somehow. For sneaking around the light barrier.
Then she rose up through an artificial salt-lake, in which rested a bizarre coral reef, full of waving polyps and staring, china blue eyes. Allison would have remembered to tell David about it, if the place wasn’t so thick with the Physician’s song.
Soon enough, the ship fell away completely. Yesterday’s blizzard had blown over, leaving the air as still as the snow that charitably hid most of the barren black stone of Ross Island, like fresh ash from the sleeping heart of Mt. Erebus. Terror lay in the distance, sullenly regarding Allison and its twin.
Technically—thanks to poor Stratogale—Allison had been able to fly for nearly a year now, or at least had the option within earshot. She’d hardly done it, though. It made her look like the idiot who put them all in this mess anyway.
But if nobody could see her…
Allison whooped, swooping down over the icy plains until they were racing barely three feet below her face, before spinning and launching back into the fluorescent blue sky.
It was scaldingly cold. She could feel the frigid air slam into her like she was smashing through broken panes of jagged glass. But it couldn’t hurt her. Her body was safe and warm back on the ship. Allison had the vague expectation that astral projection would be like being water, but it wasn’t. David’s power made her shapeless and vast, but Alberto’s left her as herself, but woven from wind and will, separate and untouchable.
She dropped to earth, kicking grandly at a snow mound.
Her foot passed right through it.
Separate, untouchable, and insubstantial.
All Allison’s elation curdled instantly. She kicked wildy at the mound over and over, like she hoped to catch it off-guard.
Angry growls erupted from her like incoherent steam.
Stubbornly, the little hill remained still, waiting for the next blizzard to snatch it up again.
Allison stamped silently at the unyielding snow, scowling and wrapping her arms around herself. What was the use of flying and being invisible if you couldn’t mess with anything? The frustration pricked at the girl like flies crawling on the inside of her chest.
“Fucking hell!” she screamed toward the sky. It did not echo.
Some childish instinct made Allison cringe, like she was expecting a rebuke or a slap. She glanced around the rocky, snowy wastes as if Captain Scott5 was going to step out from behind a crag and clip her ear.
Then she started to laugh; loudly, with her entire body. What was she worried about? She was a ghost. And even if she wasn’t, the ship was miles away, and the only grownup in there was the Physician6.
Allison grinned. As loudly as her metaphorical lungs could muster, she shouted, “Shit!”
Her only answer was her own laughter, so she shouted again. “Fucking cunts!”
She wondered if this what Fran felt like when she was little.
Her blue streak was interrupted by an off-key, warbling chorus of low chirps and almost spectral moans.
Allison swung around, coming to face a small crowd of emperor penguins waddling about with ridiculous, butlerial nobility, a few gray-pyjama downed chicks milling among them.
A small part of Allison wondered if her swearing had attracted the birds like a psychic beacon. A much bigger part of her shot towards the penguins, yelling, “Pengies!”
She ran amongst the waddle, falling on her belly and excitedly poking and petting whichever ones wandered within arms reach. Her intangibility didn’t cross her mind, not with the suggestion of penguin feathers against her feathers.
She was cooing over a particularly large hen (not that she could tell) when—
Allison abruptly found herself standing upright, but too low to the ground. The cold felt closer to her, but strangely comfortable. Familiar, even. Her nose and lips meanwhile felt deeply wrong, and she couldn’t move her fingers. She let out of confused chip—
She was standing over the hen again, which was waddling off with haste. Penguins always look a little confused, but this one did in excess. It took Allison a moment to realize what had just happened.
I was a penguin.
Allison let out a confused giggle. She didn’t know she could do that. Alberto didn’t know he could do that, and he’d been him for nearly thirty years!
It made her wonder what else she could do now.
Parliament House—its past and its present—flashed in her secondhand memory. There really were more directions to move in than most people realized.
Allison stepped backwards through the elastic sheet that hugs space. Above her, the sun wobbled east and west, trying to wrench itself free of the protracted day. The penguins regrettably flickered away. The wind picked back up, streaming backwards around the girl.
In less than a minute, Allison was looking at herself, staring down the Physician all aglow while her friends shivered behind her. She wished she knew how to read the Physician’s lights, and finally know for sure if he was just screwing with them.
So she could travel back in time. Sort of. Allison decided to try the other direction.
If going backwards in time was like backing deeper into a corridor, going forwards was like stepping out into an open field. It was honestly daunting. There was one past, but so, so many futures. Time was an infinity of fibres being woven together by the quick fingers of seconds and hours.
Like a tightrope walker, Allison crept across one of the twines, up into a possibility of next week.
She and David were playing in the snow, making it boil and dance around them, while emperor penguins fled futility from their affection.
The girl leapt sideways. David and her future self vanished… along with the Physician’s ship.
Allison tilted her head. Better keep an eye on that.
She was about to head in search of Scott’s cabin when she felt a twitch. It was hard to identify at first, like someone was tugging at her veins.
Then she realized.
Her body was moving.
Alberto somersaulted the length of Allison’s bedroom. Or Allison somersaulted the length of her own bedroom per Alberto’s strict instructions—depending on how you looked at it.
The esper stuck the landing, suspending the little girl’s body he wore by just her hand. After a few seconds, her muscles began to protest, but Alberto silenced them with a blue circle in his mind’s eyes. He held the position for nearly a minute before getting bored and leaping back to his7 feet.
Allison body was amazing. Its movements were effortlessly graceful. Alberto felt more energised than he’d seriously believed was possible, like he could run a marathon three times over and go for seconds. Her senses were crisp and clear, and Alberto could swear her eyes came with a zoom. Even his thoughts felt faster and more fluid, running on her brain. Most surreal of all, for the first time in nearly two decades, Alberto didn’t want a smoke, or even a drink. For him, it was like waking up one day and finding he no longer craved food or air.
On top of everything, Allison’s body came preinstalled with so many extras, and that wasn’t even including her powers. It almost made up for the loss of height and certain… anatomical deficiencies.
Alberto clenched his new, small fist, just for the sake of feeling skin against skin again.
It didn’t matter, he thought to himself. The height thing would sort itself out, given time, or maybe he could make the Physician do whatever he did to those drones. As for the other problem, maybe he could find a decent shapeshifter to eat.
A cold, pale smile. Bet a mind-blind git will be less trouble than me.
“What are you doing?”
Alberto turned to find Allison’s astral self glaring at him with ill-disguised fear. You would think that would be easier with a projection, but apparently not.
Alberto smirked at Allison with her face. “Hello, Allie.” It was the first time Alberto had spoken in Allison’s body. His Italian lilt sounded odd shaped from her high, hoarse voice, even to him. He wished he could imagine how it sounded to Allison. He made a show of stretching her arms and legs. “Just breaking in the new digs. Not like you were home.”
If it had been possible for her—in the flesh or otherwise—Allison’s face would have paled. She mustered some anger to her features. “Get. Out.”
Alberto grinned and spun on his toes. “I think before I do that, we should work out a timetable. I can’t stay cooped up inside your head forever, you know. I need some time to myself now and again.”
Allison snarled, marching towards her body. “You don’t need anything!”
Just for show, Alberto raised his hand. The girl’s spectre was forced backwards.
“Oh, silly me, I forgot.” The arch smile broke. “I’m worthless, aren’t I, Allie?”
Phantom tears were trailing down Allison’s face. She pressed her hands against it the force that kept her from herself. It felt more solid than diamond. She was locked out. When she spoke, her voice came out very small. “Alberto, please…”
Alberto’s smile returned as he swept his hand, flinging Allison into the dark. Into the house without windows.
1. A moon of the gas giant Scrool in the Eastern Spiral. Unlike most worlds, where superpowers only appear after the evolution of sapient creatures, powers developed very early in Alqbryth’s biosphere. Thanks to natural selection, every native Alqbryth organism now possesses some form of super-ability, making it of great interest to both exobiologists and metaphysicists the galaxy over. ↩
2. Approximately 20,000 years ago, the !Quell’s sun began emitting harmful radiation, threatening their world with extinction. Having developed neither practical solar engineering nor interstellar travel—the !Quell en masse transferred their consciousness into a hardy nanite substrate, which could be introduced into any manner of artificial body, both biological and robotic in nature. This new versatility of form would serve them well as they expanded into space, forming into the preeminent polity of the Eastern Spiral. ↩
3. The visual displays on the Physician’s vessel are based on chromatophores—sacks of pigment granules similar to those found in cuttlefish. ↩
4. From the Christmas 1965 episode “The Feast of Steven” from the twelve part “The Dalek Masterplan”, which had only aired the previous day. It would go on to become the second Doctor Who story never aired in Australia, perhaps contributing to its long absence from the BBC archives. For many years, it and much other BBC programming (including their coverage of the first Moon landings) only existed in the eternity crystal of the Physician’s spacecraft. ↩
5. Specifically the Arctic explorer Captain Robert Falcon Scott, who despite his name, is not thought to have been a superhero. ↩
6. There were also the various Mister drones, but they were all younger than Allison. Or maybe Arkwright, but he himself would probably hate to be called “grownup” at that point in his life. ↩
7. For the sake of clarity, we shall henceforth treat Allison’s body as Alberto’s own for the duration, not that this should be misconstrued as endorsing any claim on his part. ↩