The fish-fin door swept open, revealing the latest stop on the Watercolours’ self-guided tour:
Billy went, “Woah…”
“Neat,” said David.
Mabel’s nose wrinkled. “Gross, you mean.”
The water-sprite shrugged. “Why not both?”
Alberto simply wondered if he’d hit the jackpot.
The room wasn’t large in terms of absolute floor space, maybe about fifteen metres end to end, but it was tall; almost arena-like in its dimensions. Similar in its architecture, too. The walls subtly beveled inwards, lined with odd ridges of purposeless shape and form. The furniture, on the other hand, put one in mind of a cluttered boutique shop. They stretched out from the middle in rings, tight enough alongside one another to leave too small of a gap for even Billy to slide through, but for a wider indentation every two or three metres.
They were pods. Wide glass cylinders as baroque as the rest of the Physician’s equipment, capped at both ends with what looked like hand-molded bone-china, the glass inlaid with a brassy metal filigree that shifted as the eye moved across it. David could feel all sorts of fluids flowing beneath the floor. They made the whole place smell faintly of trophy rooms and shoe polish.
What lay inside the pods were children. Dozens of athletic, milky skinned boys of about eleven or twelve floated curled in a viscous, yellow fluid as if trapped in lava-lamps. Their faces were caught between baby-fat and sharp, Nordic definition, and with their eyes closed, the only thing that distinguished them from each other was the colour of their hair, in which were tangled coronets not unlike the one Arkwright had worn during his transformation. The term “educator crowns” popped into Alberto’s head.
Billy had his eyes averted, uncertain whether he should look upon the bottled youths’ nakedness. Arnold was also avoiding looking at the tubes. His face was very red.
Little checca, Alberto thought to himself.
“Are these…” Billy struggled to find a plausible explanation. “…Baths?”
“Don’t think so,” Alberto said with a studious frown, rubbing Allison’s chin while squinting at the tubes. “I think these are wombs.”
“Ewww,” said Arnold.
David was getting a closer look at one of the test-tube kids: a blond. His eyes widened. “Holy heck,” he said, forcing Alberto to stifle a cackle. “This one looks like he could be Mr. Thumps’ son.”
“More like little brother,” Alberto said archly, “and they all look like that.”
“The Physician can make people,” Mabel said, sighing. “Can anyone else remember when we woulda been surprised by that? At all?”
“Not really,” answered David. Glancing upwards, he noticed holes in the ceiling, each corresponding with one of the pods below. “Wonder what those are for.”
Much to David’s surprise, he actually got an answer:
Alberto pointed at the metal floor. “See the swirls? Like in the Wizard of Oz?”
Indeed, the floor was inlaid with ribbons of what passed for carnelian, turquoise, and yellow fire-opal. They winded through the tubes and converged on a circle of rainbow hematite in the centre of the nursery. Alberto stepped into the circle and spun on his heels.
There was a solid clicking sound. The whole room began to slowly but unmistakably spin.
No, not the room; just the floor and ceiling. As they spun, the pods rose up from the floor, riding on cushions of shimmering air up through the apertures in the ceiling.
“The room’s like a merry-go-round,” explained Alberto, pointing out the grooves in the walls being eaten by the floor. “Or the plunger in a syringe. The pods use antigravity stuff to stay out of the way.”
New pods emerged from the holes left by the last set. There was another click, and the room stopped spinning.
“The floor delivers nutrients and stuff to the pods.” Alberto stepped out of the circle and gave a snide grin. “You guys ever notice the Physician’s lot build everything like they can’t pick between an adventure playground and a modern art gallery?”
The children were too busy examining the new pods to appreciate Alberto’s wit. The occupants were more mature than than their predecessors—about sixteen or seventeen. The only other difference was that their filigree was closer to gold than brass.
Alberto huffed a little. He wasn’t sure why being ignored by a bunch of little kids bugged him, but it did. “These guys are all getting sold to gangsters and politicos like Valour. A few of them are going to Vietnam.” He shrugged. “Not sure why they still draft real people, but whatever.”
Arnold looked back at Allison. “How do you know all that?”
“Those metal lines on the tanks? That’s what the Physician uses for writing.” Alberto made a show of checking Allison’s fingernails. “I can read it now.”
Arnold whistled. Alberto stood back on the rainbow circle and spun again.
The next layer of pods all contained full-grown Misters. The layer after that held full-term fetuses.
“Babies!” Billy cried in delight. None of the other children seemed to share his reaction.
Then there were toddlers, and preteens, more adolescents, and finally another batch of grown men, this time vaguely East Asian.
“Huh. The North Koreans are buying these ones1.”
The cycle of childhood repeated over and over as the Watercolours descended through the clonal-nursery. Brass became gold as boys became men before they ever opened their eyes. Even unborn, the drones all had songs, composed and shaped by their educator-crowns. Some were being sleep-trained up into bodyguards, assassins, or just all-purpose muscle. Others, though, were for the Physician’s own use: operating his equipment or helping maintain his reluctant spaceship.
Alberto paid those drones’ songs special attention.
“Wonder how long it takes the Physician to make a grown-up,” David mused.
“About three months,” answered Alberto.
“I think it’s sad,” said Billy, watching another young drone pass up through the ceiling.
“Why’s that?” asked Mabel.
“They never get to be kids.”
David nodded in agreement. Alberto, though—staring down the barrel of a second, female puberty—couldn’t bring himself to weep much for the drones.
“At least they don’t have to go to school,” pointed out Arnold. “Or get bossed around for years by people like Laurie…”
Mabel looked flatly at her friend. “They’re slaves, Arn.”
“But being a kid slave would be way worse.”
Alberto was only half-listening to the conversation. He was busy imagining himself (or herself, sadly) in one of those pods, hopefully doped to the gills, being rushed to adulthood; hair sprouting, hips flaring, breasts rising like dough—
Alberto felt Allison shake in her cage. He wondered how much of that was the prospect of being changed in of itself, and how much was the general horror of womanhood Lawrence’s stirpiculture was so good at engendering in his female students.
Would such a growth spurt even help matters2? Even if Alberto could find a shortcut back to maturity, it would be as a woman. Even now, in Allison’s still mostly boyish frame, he felt horribly incomplete. Would he still like girls, or would Allison’s biology override his own tastes? Maybe he could force Eliza—
Alberto banished the thought from his mind. There was no way he was going to throw himself on that witch’s mercy.
The Misters gave way to more varied broods. Werewolf cubs grew up into hulking beasts, lizard hatchlings became ghastly serpent-men, and surprisingly, geodes became crystal golems.
Shockingly, there were even some girls.
“Why doesn’t the Physician make more of us?” Mabel griped to Allison.
They left behind the little girls as they dipped down into adolescence. Alberto grimaced at the script on the teenagers’ tanks. “Be glad he doesn’t.”
At least they were spayed.
No more pods replaced the last batch of females. The ports in the ceiling closed, and the carousel ceased revolving.
“This the bottom floor?” asked David,
The grooves in the walls swirled into whirlpools and coalesced into five dark tunnels.
“Looks like it,” said Alberto. He found himself hopping from foot to foot. He’d never done that in his own body. “I think this is the floor where the Physician keeps all his special projects.”
“Think” his rump. Alberto knew the ship’s layout like the back of his old hand. There were songs wafting from all the tunnels: mostly animal, but a few were broadly human.
More importantly, one of them was a Physician.
Alberto ran into one of the tunnels, calling over his shoulder, “Going exploring. Meet back here?”
Mabel started down another, Billy bolting ahead of her with his cape fluttering behind him. “Sure,” she answered. “Tell me if you find something worth drawing.”
Alberto heard David and Arnold’s footsteps behind him. He didn’t mind. Might be good to have backup.
The tunnel reminded all three of them of the Nocturnal House at Perth Zoo: a dark, winding hallway with peculiar habitats cut into the walls, partitioned by what Alberto guessed were either transparent forcefields, or panes of glass. One played art-studio for crystal-spiders weaving red hot webs of molten steel. An aquarium brimmed with cuttlefish whose skin flashed mute, colourized reruns of I Love Lucy3.
“The hell are those for?” Arnold asked.
“Construction and communications?” Alberto shrugged. “Honestly, I’m not sure the Physician needs a reason to do anything.”
There was a herpetarium filled with softly glowing orange lantern-turtles, the very sight of which made David pout.
“What’s got you?” Alberto asked. He hated that he had to do that with David now. “I thought they’d be your style.”
“They are,” David grunted. He kicked at nothing. “The aquarium thing’s too small for me to swim in.”
Cells carpeted with snoring human faces. Arboretums of trees that bloomed with half-ripe bluebirds4. Some of sort of squid-like biological manipulation tool inexplicably labeled “Dandelion.” A great, four-winged roc5, fashioned from leather and polished bronze, spread its art-deco wings atop a plucking post of petrified coral. Its song was borderline sapient.
Alberto paid these wonders and horrors little mind, focusing only on the Physician’s song.
The tunnel forked, leading off towards an Olympic swimming pool set beneath an artificial, azure sky. A Physician was lounging in a deckchair, reading a dog-eared copy of Undine6.
David stared at the pool, practically salivating over it. He sniffed.
David’s suit melted off him. He ran towards the pool and dive bombed, laughing all the while.
The Physician rose from his chair. This one wore a red long coat and a Monmouth cap. One of his eyes was covered by a cheap, plastic eyepatch, and his right-hand had been replaced by a similarly cheap and nasty plastic hook. It even had a tell tale seam running along its length. His leg tapered off into a thick tree branch, complete with leaves. “Aha, me hearties! I take it you’re the scalawags the good Doctor Smith is giving passage?”
Arnold giggled and shook his head. “This is a joke, right?” He looked around the chamber. “The Physician’s got cameras set up, doesn’t he?”
Alberto ignored the boy. He was finding the Physician’s song far less upsetting than he had been, even at this close range. It would be a while before he’d try dancing to it, but he could manage to rattle off its virtues at a trendy coffee bar. More encouragingly, it was having a feedback effect with his telepathy, making the alien’s lights become more distinct and legible.
“Let me guess,” he said, “Doctor…”
The new Physician waved his hook. “Ahh, none of that. I’m Commodore Spoketooth!”
“And where do you work, Cornwall?” Alberto asked, a little too proud of himself for the joke.
Arnold added, “And why are you all pirate?”
Commodore Spoketooth chuckled nautically. “Nay, lass, I usually plow international waters.” He looked at Arnold. “As for your question, lad: why shouldn’t I?”
It was the first time anyone had directly called Alberto a girl. It stung
The surface of the pool bubbled and frothed. David’s head emerged from the water, and he wasn’t alone. A girl surfaced beside him, raven-black hair clinging to her face. She had darker skin than David, and vaguely Polynesian features. Her eyes though were large and black, with no visible pupils. A manic grin revealed some very sharp teeth.
David sputtered with excitement. “I—she…” He turned to his companion and exclaimed, “Show them!”
The girl dived back under the water. A red-scaled fluke surfaced like a sea-serpent, waving at Arnold and Allison.
David shouted, “Mermaid!” and dived back under.
Alberto and Arnold both blinked at the pool.
“Ah, what was that?” asked Arnold.
Commodore Spoketooth put his hands on his hips proudly. Alberto had to admit this Physician had a better than usual grasp of human body-language. Anything for a gimmick, he guessed.
“That’s me mermaid.”
Alberto glanced sideways at the pirate-doctor. “Your mermaid.”
“Where did you get her?”
“I made her.”
Arnold asked, “Why?”
“Do I need a reason?”
“Told ya,” Alberto whispered to Arnold.
“You land-lubbers came up with such a pretty yarn, I did ya the courtesy of making it real!”
Alberto’s curiosity was rusty, but it was piqued. “Can she breathe underwater?”
“Would be a lousy mermaid if she couldn’t.”
“I thought there wasn’t enough oxygen in water for mammals?” Sometimes, Alberto was finding, it felt good to be smart.
“Aye, lass. But I figured out these special blood-cells made out of diamonds for her7. They carry more than two hundred times the oxygen your landlubber blood.” Spoketooth smirked, revealing alternating silver and gold teeth. “Makes gills perfectly feasible for her.”
“Why is she a kid?” asked Arnold. “You can make grownups.”
Spoketooth laid his hook on the boy’s shoulder, making him flinch. “Aye, I did cook the little fry past the really fiddly years. But, sometimes, laddie, I just like to watch you children grow…”
Mercifully, David surfaced again. “Why are you guys standing around? There’s a mermaid!”
There was no way in hell Allison Kinsey could resist going swimming with a mermaid, Alberto realized. Oh well. He walked over to the pool’s edge and started lowering himself in—
David frowned. “What are you doing?”
“…I’m gonna swim with you and the mermaid.”
David looked bemused. “In clothes?”
Oh. God. Alberto wondered how believable Allison growing a sense of modesty in two days would be.
Not bloody likely, he thought.
“Um,” he said, before remembering Spoketooth, who’d wandered back to his chair. “I didn’t want to weird out the Commodore.”
The pirate looked back up from his book. “Shiver me timbers, lass! You think I care about what you scurvy dogs look like under your kit?”
“See?” said David. “Do you really want to deal with drag?”
Alberto really, really wished the little shit had picked a different phrasing.
“Don’t tell Allie to get naked if she doesn’t want to.”
Alberto turned to look at Arnold. The boy was nearly as red as the mermaid’s scales. Discomfort radiated from him like a physical force. But there was also a sense of guilty anticipation.
Hmm, Alberto thought to himself. So Arnold has some red blood in him, too. It almost seemed stranger to the psychic than the boy being a plain old fag. Say what you want about Ralph Rivers, at least he picked a team and backed it all the way.
Still, Arnold’s mortification couldn’t help but amuse Alberto. On the other hand, being lusted over by a nine year old didn’t exactly thrill him. Whatever. For now, he would avert suspicion however he must.
There was a green flash, and Allison’s super-suit fell on top of Arnold’s head. He sputtered and yelled as he threw the costume off, blanching as he got a look at Allison. The boy’s mindscape shifted. An odd swelling of pride, tinged with a relieved kind of hope as a tingling warmth spread all throughout his body.
“Huh,” Arnold said, more to himself than to Allison. “You’re just as cute as David is.”
Inside her skull, Allison Kinsey turned red as a balloon. Under Alberto Moretti, however, she also giggled.
“Perv,” Alberto said with a wink. He turned back to the pool. “Come on, you’ll miss out.”
Alberto dived. The young mermaid greeted him with an enthusiastic wave. A lime flash flowed over the water, and Arnold plunged flailing into their midst
Alberto was almost proud of the little queer.
The children frolicked with the mermaid for hours. Like everything else on the Physician’s ship, her pool was incredibly over-designed. Its bottom and walls were shrouded by beautiful, false holograms of vibrant coral reefs and tractless blue wastes in every direction. Whenever they threatened to scrape the habitat’s limits, they stretched away from their hands or feet (or fins) like a 3D treadmill.
Alberto kept up well enough with David and the mermaid, Allison’s eyes glowing almost purple with the combined glow of her and the water-sprite’s powers. Stolen grace and aquatic mastery was definitely a step up from desperately dog-paddling behind Fran back in the river.
He spun in the water, before curling into a ball and letting the world tumble around him. An unexpected glee buoyed him. It was embarrassing, but he couldn’t help himself. The cool, flowing weightlessness yielded gloriously to the strength in his new limbs as he kicked through the water. Swimming, after all, is the cousin of flight.
Maybe being a kid again wasn’t so bad. The main downside of childhood, Alberto reasoned, was that most kids were stupid. He wasn’t. Most kids were weak. He wasn’t.
Webbed hands wrapped Alberto’s chest. He twisted around to find the mermaid hugging him, nuzzling his neck.
All in all, her mind wasn’t terribly different from a human girl’s. Her lights were dominated by dull, beige brown, alternating with angry pulses of strong, bright pinks and greens, painfully fluorescent like neon-highlighters. Poor thing was stir-crazy, and quite desperately lonely.
Alberto wasn’t surprised. Poor, dumb thing was bred for the open ocean, from a species of tribes, and the Physician stuck her alone in a glorified fish-tank.
He found himself sinking into the hug. Even her scales against Allison’s legs didn’t bother—
Wait, Allison liked mermaids, didn’t she? Enough to spend a week painting them on the side of a barn. Was this feeling his, or hers? Were he and Allison… synthesizing?
Would that be so awful?
A green bolt vanished the mermaid. A second later, she plunged shrieking back down through the water amongst a plume of tiny bubbles.
Alberto kicked his way back to the surface to find Arnold trying to keep afloat as he laughed himself silly.
David and the mermaid surfaced, sharing a look of mutual annoyance. Then David grinned and took his new friend by the hand. A wave swelled beneath them, sweeping up the pair and washing them over Arnold. When it subsided, Arnold was squirming and kicking in the two’s arms as they cackled and pushed him underwater.
Between dunks, Arnold shouted, “I need to breathe you guys!”
In the innocent cruelty of both gods and children, both David and the mermaid ignored him.
Arnold’s skin lit bright green. His tormentors were suddenly ten feet in front of him.
Their victim grinned wickedly. He crackled.
A large pond’s worth of water showered down over David and the mermaid’s heads, hard enough to force them under. David and the mermaid resurfaced swearing and spitting at Arnold.
“Come on,” said Alberto, floating nearby on his back. “You kinda earned that.”
Something seemed to occur to the mermaid. She ducked under and started poking at David’s legs.
David tried to resist giggling as he grinned smugly. “Wondering how I keep up with ya with the legs? My granddad’s kinda—aah!”
The mermaid poked him somewhere tender.
Spoketooth chuckled, watching the children like an indulgent grandfather. “You must forgive her, lad. She’s never seen a landlubber-shaped boy before…”
David glared at the Physician. “She should be free.”
The mermaid surfaced again, only to blink when she saw how hard David’s expression had gotten.
Fuck, Alberto thought. He’s giving a shit. Why’s he still doing that?
The Commodore stood up. “What’s that, lad?”
David pulled the mermaid in close. “She shouldn’t be cooped up here. She belongs in the sea.”
The mermaid suddenly clung tight to David, looking at her creator with something between fear and hope.
“She’s never been outside that pool. She’d be dead inside a week.”
David waved his arms around the cavern. “You could build her a sea-palace if you wanted!”
“I could,” conceded Spoketooth. “But why should I? I made the lass, she’s my project.”
A sudden current swept the mermaid away. Like Glaucus or Poseidon (or his grandfather), David rose on a Grecian column of water, looming over Spoketooth. His eyes burned sea-form white. “I could make you.”
The Physician showed no hint of fear. “If you’re planning on sending me down to Davy Jones’ locker, lad, you should know my kind breathe water.”
“You’re also made of water.”
Arnold surreptitiously swam over to Allison. “Allie,” he whispered, “should David be doing this? I mean, I don’t want Mer-y stuck down here forever, but we kinda live here now…”
Alberto got an idea. “Let me handle it.”
The psychic climbed out of the pool and walked over to Spoketooth. He took his remaining hand and looked up at the pirate with his best impression of a guileless little girl. “Mr. Spoketooth,” he said, “I know it’s hard giving away something you love.” Bit of a strong word, but Alberto doubted the Commodore cared enough to object. “But this could be a real opportunity for you!”
Spoketooth’s eyepatch twitched. “What are you saying, lass?”
“Did you like making your mermaid?”
“I did. Best project I’d had in years.”
“Well, I think you’re right. She wouldn’t last a day alone in the sea… so why not make more of her?”
“You could make like, a whole class of mer-kids! Build them a nice village in the Bahamas or somewhere, stick some cameras about and watch them as much as you like! They’ll fight and grow up and—” Alberto looked at the mermaid, watching him and Spoketooth warily. “Can she have babies?”
“Aye, I didn’t want to half-arse it.”
“Then you’ll never run out of merpeople to watch!”
Alberto squeezed the alien’s hand.
“…Sounds like a plan!”
The psychic let go of Spoketooth, trying to dampen the grin forcing its way onto Allison’s lips.
David beamed down at the mermaid. “We’re going to make you some friends!”
The mermaid trilled with delight. “Ye be a good soul, matey!”
“…Huh,” said David.
Alberto closed his hand. He knew how the Physician’s mind worked. He knew how the ship worked. “Hey, Arnold, you mind keeping the little mermaid there company for a bit. I want to show David something.”
Arnold wasn’t sure why he couldn’t come and look at whatever, but he couldn’t really complain about hanging out with a literal mermaid. “Sure.”
David’s column of water stretched into a bridge for him. He caught up to Allison as she walked, still dripping, back into the dark hallway.
“Where are we going?” he asked.
Alberto answered, “We’re going to see the Physician. The real one.”
1. For reasons of racial sensitivity, we will not be showing you the Physician’s Asian instantiation. ↩
2. In fact, it is very difficult to accelerate an organism’s growth except from scratch. More than one of the Physician’s drones were stranded in childhood due to interruptions in the process. What became of them does not bear thinking about. ↩
3. Still in syndication in 1965, with the notable exception of “Lucy and Superman.” ↩
4. The Physician was always interested in alternatives to his growth chambers. ↩
5. A gigantic bird of prey in Middle-Eastern folklore, somewhat similar to a phoenix. ↩
6. A well loved German fairy-tale written in 1811 by fantasist Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué. ↩
7. Later human researchers would refer to this kind of nanotechnology as “respirocytes.” ↩