Well, that was easy.
Maybe he shouldn’t have been surprised. Allison may have been a refined superhuman collation of the knowledge and expertise of thousands, but she was also nine. Alberto could still hear her, screaming at him from deep in the back of his head.
Calm down, Allie. If you’re not comfortable in there, I can always import playmates for ya. David, maybe?
The screaming died down to a resigned whimper: the psychic equivalent of a buzzing light fixture. Annoying, but tolerable until Alberto found himself an ice-pick. He looked at Allison’s super-suit—a depressed rainbow lying in a heap on the brass floor—glanced down at the girl’s pyjamas, and sighed. Time to bite the bullet.
Alberto undressed like he was peeling off his own skin, silently thanking God that Allison had gotten back into the habit of wearing clothes. He’d felt like a pervert whenever the kid looked down. He didn’t even want to consider what he’d do when he had to shower or take a piss. Maybe his prepubescent sweat-glands and newfound indifference to alcohol were a blessing.
Alberto pulled on the suit. It had its own song, he noticed, a strange tonal echo of Allison’s own, like a second voice harmonizing with her. He flinched as the suit shone bright white and shifted over his skin. When it settled, the esper found himself wearing a maroon-feathered body-sleeve. The torso though was smooth and black, except for a white raven in flight over his chest.
Alberto blinked down at the new look… he kind of liked it. At least the alien Santa clothes had taste.
“Your suit changed.”
Alberto jumped. David was lolling over the side of the spiral staircase. He started down the steps, minutely tripping over one of them, before glancing down quickly at the girl below in case she noticed. It was cute, especially the way his dark locks—
Alberto brushed the thought from his mind and shook his head. The last thing he needed was one of Allison’s second hand puppy-crushes. They made for an unsettling dual perspective on the little shit.
David was in front of Alberto now, leaning forward to get a better look at his outfit. The water-sprite had submerged his thoughts again. That was what Alberto got for waxing nostalgic over his mother.
The boy’s arsenic eyes drew upward. “So, how did this happen?”
Fuck, Alberto thought. He wants me to say something. He tried to purge the Italian from his throat. British but sexy, American but drunk…
Alberto shrugged. “Dunno. I guess I was using Alberto’s powers a bit…”
Luckily for the psychic, Allison Kinsey was a skilled impressionist.
David straightened, seeming to consider his friend’s half-explanation. “Makes sense.” His lip curled. “Looks cool, but I think I like the normal suit better.”
Says the nudist sea-goblin, Alberto grumbled inwardly.
David tilted his head. “You alright, Allie? Your heart’s beating really fast.”
Shit, was this boy bred for horror movies? Well, bred for something, at least…
Alberto imagined a cartoon love-heart, pictured it slow down its tempo. He felt Allison’s heart ease in her chest in response. “Yeah, just had some bad dreams,” he answered.
David clicked his tongue. “Yeah, sucked having nightmares.”
“Whatcha come over here for anyway?”
David smirked. “I need a reason?”
Alberto wasn’t sure if he preferred this over Mealy.
Thankfully, David got to the point, “John wanted me to get everyone for breakfast.”
We’re calling him ‘John’ now?
They ate in the planetarium again. The Physician had been a touch surprised when Allison requested a view of Enlil for their meal.
“I’m curious,” she said simply. “Laurie said Alberto was from there.”
“Ah,” said Dr. John. “Rainmaker rest that poor boy’s… soul, isn’t it?”
Like most of the humanish worlds, Enlil could have been mistaken for Earth by a casual observer, if you didn’t pay much mind to the number1 and shape of its continents, or the enormous inland sea that dominated one of them. And the bright, silver-purple rings that looped the planet like a halo, of course.
“Nice rings,” Arnold said, mouth full of breakfast. Unlike at Christmas lunch, the Physician had settled for serving the children cereal that morning, albeit from a clear glass box covered in odd, unfamiliar text.
“I agree,” said the Physician, still not eating.
“I didn’t even know earthy planets could have rings like that,” added Billy.
Dr. Smith said, “Any planet can have rings, William, but Enlil is the only the only one with rings like that. They’re made of some mineral from an eternity or two ago—mutated all the local fauna and human inhabitants into psychics. The locals say it also makes them more cultured and peaceful, but trust me, pure propaganda.” He looked across the table at Allison. “Like what you see, Allison?”
Alberto didn’t answer the doctor. He was too busy looking down at the world of his forebears. A world of espers. Would he have been a normal man down there?
Then he remembered his long dead, hated ancestor. The people down there had flung him across the stars, just to make him someone else’s problem. Who did that to a normal man? A man, Alberto knew, not unlike himself.
And then there was Ophelia. She wouldn’t fit in down there. She couldn’t fit in anywhere. Lawrence had seen to that.
The Physician didn’t let the lack of a response trouble him, if he even noticed. “What do you think, Mabel?”
A few feet from the dining table, Mabel lay on her stomach above the ringed world like God’s granddaughter, furiously scribbling at her sketchbook with pencils that couldn’t dull.
The girl looked up like a startled wallaby. “It’s great! Can you spin the planet ‘round for me? I’m doing a study.”
Alberto morbidly wondered what would happen if Mabel tried animating Enlil. A spinning, ringed desk globe? A whole, full-sized planet dropped right into Earth’s gravity-well? That could make for an entertaining few minutes. Or perhaps Mabel’s brain would just melt out of her ears.
The Physician grinned, raising a finger and swirling the air. Enlil spun half an orbit.
“Never change, Mabel. Unless you get better at drawing, you’re allowed to change that way.”
John Smith seemed to be in a good mood. That was his default, sure, but it felt more genuine than usual. Alberto decided this was his moment.
“Could you… turn off your psi-dampener?”
The children were all looking at Allison like she’d just asked for broken glass in her breakfast. Even Mabel had been diverted from her planetary sketching. The Physician was sitting stock still, grin fixed, eyes even more glassy and blank than usual, as if his brain had stalled to compute such an unprecedented query.
His mouth eventually creaked open. Without affect, he asked, “But Allie, don’t I revolt you?”
Alberto swallowed. How to put this? “I—you’re song’s hard to listen to, yeah. But I think that’s a… me-problem? You shouldn’t have to hide yourself just because I’m not used to you.”
Arnold looked hard at the girl. “Um, Allie, are you okay? You’re not usually so…”
“Nice?” suggested David.
“Yeah,” replied Arnold. “That.”
Alberto deeply wished Barnes was in arms reach.
Billy folded his arms. “Guys, don’t be rude because Allie’s being nice.”
Most of the time, Billy was simultaneously Alberto’s most and least favourite Watercolour, pretty much for the same reason. Right now, he was leaning towards “most.”
Alberto continued, “It’s also—my power’s about learning, right? And you know so much more than anyone else in the world, I think. I shouldn’t let being childish get in the way of this kind of opportunity.”
Did that sound like Allison? God, it sounded like Laurie.
Flattery is the true interstellar medium. The Physician let out one of his true, flooded engine chuckles. “It’s true. I do know more than anyone on this world. I’d be happy to pitch in to your education.” He put his hand over the piscine-cockroach combo pinned to his chest. “You ready?”
Alberto gripped the edge of the able.
The broach writhed and chittered, its many red-jewel eyes going dull.
Allison’s knuckles went white as Alberto was hit with the full force of the Physician’s song. He’d known what to expect, but he’d never experienced it in the driver’s seat. It was like being water-boarded: everytime the psychic thought he’d latched onto its chord structure, the song went in a new, sonically bizarre direction. Its instruments were sawteeth and fingers on styrofoam. Its entire baseline was E7 shrieked by violins stringed with chalk. Its tune was like someone tried to match the rhythm of rot and bloat. And it was so vast. A human being couldn’t accumulate so much knowledge if they lived eight lifetimes.
Everything in Alberto tried to recoil from the song, especially the part of him that was still Allison, but he forced himself to keep listening, to make it part of himself, even if it was like pouring aniseed and bile down his throat. He needed this. Already, he knew things about physics that made Einstein and Oppenheimer look like mercury gargling alchemists. He knew more about the human body than Eliza. That alone made it worth it.
Alberto let out of a long, gasping breath. “Turn it back on!”
The Physician dutifully switched the psi-dampener back on. Alberto went limp in his seat. He could feel the super-suit leech the sweat off Allison’s skin. Seemed it wasn’t only emotions it ate.
Mabel had come to Allison’s side, holding her by the shoulder, looking into her burning eyes like she expected to find broken blood vessels. “You okay, Allie?”
“Yeah,” Alberto huffed like the chainsmoker he’d once been. “I’m fine. Just… intense.”
He couldn’t take it all in. Not all at once.
Dr. Smith golf clapped. “I think that was a very good first try?” One of his eyebrows crawled up his forehead like a starving caterpillar. “Which planet is the current throneworld of the Southern Spiral?”
“The throneworld isn’t a planet.” Alberto replied automatically. “It just has a planet in the middle. Barely liveable because the gravity of the royal palace squashed it into a disc. No one goes down there unless they want to be torn apart by atmospheric rotation. Or the Empress2 wants them to be. The throne’s in orbit.”
“Palaces have gravity?” David asked, one eyebrow slightly raised.
“They do when they’re bigger than Saturn’s rings3,” Alberto muttered. “Like a giant, marble Koch snowflake. Gaudiest thing you’ve ever seen.”
“I don’t know,” said Mabel, “sounds kinda brilliant.”
“You would say that,” said Alberto, almost fondly
“You’re close,” The Physician allowed. “But I’ll have you know the planet itself does have a thriving ecosystem. Some quite impressive birds there. Six winged things that could fly straight as an arrow through a hurricane. Color of fire. Quite striking.”
“Play your song again,” demanded Alberto. “I want to learn more.”
“I don’t think that’s the best idea,” Dr. Smith said as he rose from his seat.
“I want it!”
“That sounds like Allie,” Arnold muttered to himself.
The Physician was walking towards the planetarium exit. “I know nobody’s ever had to tell you this before, Allison, but you need to pace yourself.”
“Where are you going?” Mabel asked.
“Didn’t I tell you? I have some business in Australia. Should be back in a couple days.”
Arnold looked perplexed. “You’re leaving us alone on your spaceship?”
Canned laughter. “No. I’m leaving you alone with the other six mes hanging about the place, not to mention the Misters. Not like you can ever be alone inside this ship anyway. Just call out if you need anything.”
“Can I come with?” asked Alberto.
“I don’t think bringing a wanted fugitive to work would be the best idea, Allie.” From anyone else, that would’ve been obvious sarcasm. From the Physician, it just sounded like plain fact.
Remembering something else, he turned to look at Arnold. “Arn, you’ve topped the ‘most-wanted’ list! Even beat the Coven.”
Arnold felt very queasy. “Oh.”
“Don’t worry, Arnold—even if they caught you, I’m pretty sure they’d just put you in their living-weapons program. Valour isn’t that wasteful.”
Says you, thought Alberto.
The Physician left the children alone in his 4-D planetarium, Enlil and her rings turning slowly and silently beneath them while their cereal went soggy.
David grinned around at his friends. “I’ve got so much to show you.”
Alberto and the Watercolours rode the ship’s root network, whizzing up and down and left-to-right like they were riding Willy Wonka’s glass elevator4. Their range of motion wasn’t the only similarity between the two elevator cars: the Physician’s was also made of glass, giving the kids an excellent view of the surrounding wood-grain. Apart from that, it was H-shaped—with plush chairs and a raised podium in the middle bridge5 sporting a rainbow of multicoloured buttons, which David pressed with the confident air of a boy who had no idea what he was doing.
Alberto made sure to brush against all his “friends.”
The first room they stumbled on was a dimly lit storeroom: a city of towers built from featureless silver cubes stacked almost to the ceiling, which was lined with hundreds of metallic, perversely humanoid arms.
Billy gawked at the stacks like it was the actual big city. Someone popped an idea into his head. “We should play hide and seek!”
“Sure!” Alberto piped enthusiastically. Hide and seek was perfect. He could—nay, was expected to—get away from the little brats and finally hear himself think.
Or listen to other people think, that worked too.
“Sounds good,” said Mabel. She glanced at David and Allison. “But you guys don’t get to seek.”
Even better. Now Alberto barely had to move.
David didn’t share his opinion. The boy made a choked, mortified noise and hopped angrily. “But that’s not fair!”
Alberto glared out the corner of his eye at David—though with Allison’s new eyes it hardly looked more malevolent than when she was mooning over him. Reflexively, the psychic tried tugging on a string that’d long been cut.
Maybe Lawrence had been good for something.
Mabel scoffed. “You two can just know where we all are with your eyes closed. That’s the opposite of fair!”
“He’s got a point, David,” said Alberto.
Arnold didn’t expect to hear that from the high-queen of Harvey’s playgrounds. “Since when did you care about being ‘fair’?”
Alberto sent a pulse of indifference into Arnold. “I’m trying to turn a new leaf.”
The boy shrugged. “Fair ‘nuff.”
“But Billy turns invisible!”
Mabel ignored David and looked at Billy. “Billy, you promise not to turn invisible when you hide?”
Billy swept his cape in front of his face and bowed. “You have my word.”
David shook his head, disgusted. “Like he’s not going to cheat!”
A small smile played across Mabel’s lips. “David, you really think Billy’s gonna lie?”
Behind his cape, Billy grinned.
Fittingly enough, the tiger-boy got to start off “it”. His friends scattered amongst the towers of crates while he stumbled in place with his cape over his head and counted to fifty.
Alberto ran to the far corner of the storeroom, coming to a stop and crouching in the middle of a tightly packed cluster of towers. He closed his eyes, and listened.
The Physician wasn’t lying when he said the children weren’t alone. John Smith was gone, but Alberto could hear the alien’s other rearrangements wandering around the ship, along with dozens of drones, and what might have been a few actual human beings, none of whom sounded very at ease.
And then, of course, there was the ship herself, straining against her chains and shouting for all the astral-plane to hear:
Look, lady, we’ve all got problems.
Disgust like cold slime shot up Alberto’s spine:
Alberto tried his best to tune out the ship and craned his ears for more snatches of the Physician’s song. After the massive blast of John Smith’s song, the distant polyphony of the Physician’s other shards was much more bearable, insulated by the Watercolours and the ship herself. It was the subtle difference between sitting at the back of a club while a hot jazz number played, and being chained up inside in the piano.
Disparate facts revealed themselves as facets of gleaming empirical diamonds. Bitter seeds of wisdom grew into a trees of synthesis, their branches meeting and weaving together to form a forest. Alberto shuddered. Every note was a bitter, unsweetened pill, but he could feel the margins of his mind widening with each new chord, like his brain was stretching to fit them. If he actually was the little girl whose skin he wore, it would have been the most work she’d ever put into learning anything.
Billy’s shrill, eager voice broke Alberto’s reverie, knocking him onto his back. Swearing in his head, the psychic forced a kiddish smile. “Sure did!”
Would Allison have been grumpy at being found so quickly? Eh, probably, but Alberto wasn’t feeling very method right then.
Billy was standing in the gap between two towers—legs spread and hands planted on his hips in the official superhero-cum-Charles Atlas stance. “You hid well, fair citizen!”
Alberto let out a surprisingly genuine laugh. “Thank you, brave hero!” Sarcasm sounded far gentler with the new vocal cords. “Can I go hide again?”
Billy’s pose wilted, his tail twitching agitatedly as he scratched his neck and frowned. “Um, Allie, can I talk to you about something? You’re smart.”
Alberto sighed. “Alright.” Might as well throw the kid a bone.
Billy sat down beside Allison and wrapped his cape over his knees. “…I miss Betty.”
That was it? Alberto supposed he couldn’t blame Billy. Sometimes he missed the boy’s nanny, too. She was the last girl in a long while Alberto hadn’t had to brainwash into giving him the time of day. “Sounds rough, Billy but, you know, we all miss our folks. It’s natural, I guess.”
Alberto hadn’t missed his “folks” in twenty years. Wherever they were, he doubted they spoke of him, lest he hear them somehow. As for the girl Billy thought he was talking to… Alberto wasn’t sure. Did Allison miss her parents? Yeah. But from the looks of it, every day it got more and more distant. They were just human, after all.
Alberto was beginning to wonder if he hadn’t done the world a favour.
Billy sighed. “But that’s not what’s getting me. Not really. It’s the people I don’t miss.”
Okay, mildly more interesting. “…Go on.”
“I don’t miss my mum and dad. At all.” Billy banged his fists against the floor. “I tried to cry about them last night! I pinched myself: nothing! But I cried when I thought about Betty.” His head drooped. “I’m a bad son.”
Alberto considered his response. “…So what?”
Billy looked at the girl, blinking back tears. “What?”
Alberto stood up. “Exactly! Why should you miss your parents? They didn’t give a shit about you!”
Billy felt like he should’ve been offended. Instead, he was still just confused. “But—but they took care of me…”
Alberto rolled his eyes. “They paid someone to take care of you, Billy. Now Betty, she gave a shit.” He tapped at Allison temples. “Trust me, the bloke in here, he could see under her hood.”
Billy was honestly relieved. He’d never had serious reason to doubt Betty, but a mind-reader was a hell of a character witness. Still, the sense of gratitude she’d instilled compelled him. “But mum and dad spent all that money on me! They paid for my house, and my clothes, and my food, and Betty—”
Alberto scoffed. “Oh, I stand corrected: one of the richest couples in all Australia put in the bare minimum of giving a shit for any parent who doesn’t dump their kid at the fire-station!”
Billy shook his head. “Why are you being so mean?”
“I’m not being mean to you, I’m being mean to the lazy fucks who kept you in the boonies like you were bloody Quasimodo! You know, it probably would’ve cost St. George and his hag a lot less money if they’d let you live in their house.”
Billy repeated a line that’d been fed to him every time his mother and father deigned to visit. “There’d have been a scandal… Daddy employs a lot of people…”
“Don’t be an idiot, Billy,” said Alberto, not unkindly. “Rich gits decide what’s normal. I’m pretty sure the only reason ladies wear white when they get married is because Queen Victoria or someone thought it looked neat. If St. George had wanted to, he could’ve had every posh wannabe in the country gluing tiger-fur to their kid.”
Despite his best efforts, Billy giggled.
Alberto nodded approvingly. “See what I mean? You were hard done by, Billy, you don’t owe the St. Georges anything. I don’t think anybody owes anyone anything, but if you have to miss someone, Betty’s a good choice. Hell, I’d pick Żywie over your parents, and she straight up killed a boy.”
The reminder stung Billy, but Allison was making strange, Tom Long like sense. He should’ve expected it—she was the smart one.
“You gonna try to not give a shit about not giving a shit, Bill?”
Billy sniffed. “I’ll try.”
Alberto flopped down beside the boy and patted him on the shoulder. “Good on ya.”
It felt nice doing a good deed for a change.
“You can see the future now, right? Like Alberto could.”
“I see likelihoods, but yeah.”
“Do you think I’ll see Betty again?”
When you asked Alberto to look into the future for you, it was a bit of a crapshoot whether he’d actually bother. But right now, the esper was feeling well-disposed to the tiger-boy. He looked into the mess of probability…
“Not very likely right now, sorry.”
Even less likely if Alberto pulled off what he was planning. It almost made him feel guilty.
“Oh. Thanks anyway.”
Alberto was saved from witnessing a crying jag by distant shouting. A medium-sized dragon knocked over a tower while dodging green lightning, which in turn vanished one of the blocks near the centre of another. The falling silver pillars fell against others, turning the entire chamber into a gigantic, very expensive looking game of dominos.
“The fuck?” Alberto cried as he and Billy formed quicksilver umbrellas over their heads.
When the chain reaction had run its course, the one and a half children could make out Arnold and Mabel yelling at each other.
“That was my hiding spot!” Arnold shouted.
“I’d called it first!” retorted Mabel.
David yelled over the both of them. “Fat lot of good it’s gonna do you both now.”
The entire storeroom let out a sigh, as the waving metal arms stretched down from the ceiling, plucking up the boxes and reassembling the tower.
Alberto and Billy looked at each other.
“I think we’re gonna have to find somewhere else to play,” said Billy.
1. About nine, depending how you counted one of the larger islands. ↩
2. Tiaearys (roughly translated, “she of the cold stars”) the 106th, who succeeded her father Hazoric the Bloody after his death by supernova fighting a Geroy infestation in 1957. ↩
3. The Throneworld of the Southern Spiral: A radial megastructure believed to have been constructed half a billion years ago by a group of star godlings as part of a contest. The contest in question being to see who could create the largest contiguous series of self-perpetuating structural motions. The palace is the only part of this contest that survived to the present day, and itself is only 1.348% marble, mainly the exterior. The interior workings are actually a mixture of metal counterweights and ionized compounds necessary to keep a 20,000 mile wide structure in stable rotation without it collapsing in upon itself. Rube Goldberg would be proud. ↩
4. Eliza—an early and vocal champion of Roald Dahl’s works—had taught Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in her English class the year before. ↩
5. The elevator-car sometimes also did double duty as a planetary expedition vehicle. ↩