A green flash deposited Alberto and the Watercolours in a dingy alley, all holding hands in a chain. That was one advantage of telepathy: everyone was on the same page regarding their destination. The scent of salt, soy, and fat mingled with stale urine and dry-cleaning chemicals, swirling together into an awful, bracing stew.
Mabel yelped. She’d materialized right next to a gutted sturgeon. Her eyes shot daggers at Arnold and Allison. “Really, guys? You couldn’t find us a better landing spot than fish-alley?”
David shrugged. “What’s wrong with fish?”
Alberto didn’t hear any of that. He was too busy peering out from the alley, watching the residents of Chinatown stream past them unawares. He looked down at his feathered super-suit. It occurred to him that maybe him and David should’ve found some street-clothes for this excursion.
Although, the Santa-clothes were meant to be psychic…
Alberto concentrated on the suit, trying to layer shorts and a blouse over his mental image of the suit. It began to glow, quickly reshaping into a perfectly ordinary pairing of blue pants and an orange top, along with very dark sunglasses for Allison’s freak-eyes.
“Look, David, new trick! I really suggest you try it too.”
David huffed. “Fine.” He screwed his eyes shut in concentration. His watery second-skin became sand-coloured bather trunks and a green t-shirt with a blue-haired mermaid on the front.
Alberto raised Allison’s eyebrow for her. “She needs a bra, Dave.”
A pair of clamshells appeared over the mermaid’s bosom. David muttered, “First clothes, now clothes with clothes…”
Next Alberto called over to Billy, who’d dumped himself in a sad heap against a dumpster. “Billy, go invisible before anyone sees you! But keep a hand on Mabel. Last thing we need is to lose ya in the crowd.”
David wasn’t sure he liked how bossy Allison was being today. Who cared if someone saw Billy? They could take anyone who tried to mess with him.
Billy nodded, but instead of disappearing, he looked up at Allison. The fur around his eyes was still damp with tears. Even with mind-control at his disposal, it’d taken Alberto ages to calm the tiger-boy down enough to even explain the plan.
“Allie… is this right? I thought superheroes only went after baddies. Isn’t being nasty to the government more… the other kind of super-people?”
“Just because they’re government doesn’t mean they’re aren’t baddies,” said Arnold. “Heck, my dad always said it was part of the job description.”
“The Nazis were a government, too,” added Mabel, “and the Crimson Comet killed loads of them.”
Billy sniffed and nodded again. “Okay.” He shook his head, steeling himself and repeating more firmly, “Okay.”
Billy vanished. Mabel felt a furry hand taking hers.
Their oddities hidden, the children emerged from the alley into Chinatown. English, Mandarin, Cantonese and their pidgin descendants blended in the air beneath paper lanterns. The Watercolours walked past brick storefronts and restaurants, their windows filled with bilingual hànzì advertisements, terracotta lions and laughing gold Hotei statues beneath. A set of four electric lanterns hung from each curling lamppost like bundles of grapes. Coiling dragons clung to every second piece of signage. The street was filled with the descendants of hopeful gold-prospectors and railway workers. Australians going about their lives, but doomed to forever be considered foreign even to folks whose roots barely stretched back to World War Two.
Alberto could feel Billy’s awe in the back of his head. He couldn’t help but smile.
“Ch—AU grew up here,” he said idly. “Before Laurie, I mean. Can’t imagine their hometown hero’s done them any good.”
Alberto remembered Chinatown well. Lawrence had brought the whole gaggle down to visit Chen’s folks right after the war, back when the old man could still suffer the involvement of human family.
God, that hadn’t lasted long, had it?
David sidled up to Allison and whispered in her ear, “Hey, Allie.”
“Something the matter?”
David squinted up at the mid-afternoon sky. “Maybe? You said you parked the ship over the city.”
“Then where is it?”
Alberto rolled his eyes. “I cloaked it, obviously. Big flippin’ spaceship floating over Melbourne? The Flying Man would come running.” He quirked a shoulder. “Honestly, there’s like a one in four chance he’ll show up when we start the party anyway.”
“…Just one in four?”
“I guess the Flying Man isn’t too worried about the gits who shoot up little kids.”
High above, a pigeon slammed into empty air, flattening out against nothing and falling to the earth.
“…Hope nobody’s going on a helicopter tour today.”
They passed beneath the decorative hip-and-gable arch at the corner of Russel and Little Bourke, and the crowds rapidly became much more caucasian. Christmas and Boxing Day had only just passed, but that didn’t slow the city’s pulse. Hundreds of men trod the streets in near-identical suits and hats, their individuality funnelled almost entirely into the colour of their ties. The women at least got their pick of dress-patterns.
What did liven up the fashion-scene were the scattered pedestrians wearing red, finned helmets like head-mounted cadillacs: men, women, even babies in strollers. The sight baffled the children, but not nearly as much as the fact that nobody but them were giving the helmets a second glance.
“The hell are those?” asked Mabel, arm stretched behind as she held Billy’s unseen hand.
“Minerva-3000 mental privacy harnesses,” Alberto answered. “Came out a few months back. They’re supposed to protect you from esper powers.”
David tilted his head. “Huh. Do they work?”
“I got that from reading their minds: you tell me.”
Melbourne’s thought-scape was interesting, in an itchy, cortisone soaked sort of way. The Canberra bombing still cast their ashen light over everything, but it had been over a week. People had lives to attend to. Money and school-runs still needed to be made, meals prepared; even holidays celebrated, lest their children realize the world was falling apart. It reminded Alberto of Milan back in ‘44. A whole city—maybe a whole country—pantomiming normalcy in the face of an invasion they just knew in their guts was coming. Every passing scrap of mundane bullshit was cross-faded with lurid, martyrdom-hungry fantasies of big-brained supermen goose-stepping down the streets, whips in hand.
Alberto grinned. He was happy to oblige.
The children were cutting through another alley when Arnold saw something that stopped him dead. Amidst a bark-skin of fliers for local clubs and bands, along with thinly-veiled offers for female company, there was a wanted poster.
A monochrome and vacant-eyed Arnold Barnes stared out at himself, his hair freshly shorn, weakly clutching a placard with his name, vital statistics, and DDHA serial number to his chest. The boy could barely remember taking the mugshot. Must’ve been before the sedatives wore off.
INFORMATION WANTED ON DEMI-HUMAN FUGITIVE ARNOLD BARNES; WARNING, EXTREMELY DANGEROUS, DO NOT APPROACH IF SIGHTED
Arnold backed away from the poster against the alley wall like he was in danger of falling into it. He remembered what he’d said his first day at the Institute:
“What can I say? I’m a dangerous man.”
The others (including, presumably, Billy) gathered around their friend.
“What’s wrong, Arn?” Mabel asked, before catching sight of the wanted poster. “Oh.”
“Huh,” said David. “Guess the Physician wasn’t lying.” He looked at Arnold with some admiration. “Kinda badass.”
“It’s not badass!” Arnold wailed. Panicked tears were beading under his eyes. “Why do I have a wanted poster?”
“Because you exploded Canberra, Arn,” said Alberto.
“That was Lawrence!” Arnold slid down the wall till he was sitting, wrapping his arms around his legs. “He tricked me…”
The psychic tapped his foot impatiently. “And who knows that besides us and Lawrence? Besides, pretty sure you’re still an accomplice.”
Arnold made a wounded groaning noise. Billy briefly flickered back into sight next the boy, ready to apply his living plush powers, but Alberto raised a finger.
Billy vanished again, though Arnold’s shirt ruffled and creased like the air itself was giving him a hug.
“I shouldn’t be down here,” he murmured. “Someone will recognize me.”
“Because there are so few white boys with black hair in Melbourne. I mean, not as many with legs that skinny…”
David frowned. “Don’t be mean, Allie.”
Oh, so murder’s okay, but not jokes about Arnold’s chicken legs?
“Whatever. And so what if someone spots ya?” Alberto pointed at the poster. “Says right there: ‘Do not approach’.”
Alberto’s joke didn’t do much to cheer Arnold up. All he said was, “God, Mum’s going to see me on the news…”
Alberto saw how much effort it took Arnold to not to call her “Mummy.” The entire bloody country was gunning for the kid, and he was more scared of Angela Barnes.
“He kind of has a point,” said Mabel, rubbing her foot into the grimy alleyway asphalt. “People are really, really going to hate us after this.”
Alberto took a breath. “Like they don’t hate us now. Come on.” He started walking again. The others followed, all but David curling suddenly sore fingers into fists.
Alberto knew he wasn’t being particularly persuasive. But he didn’t have to be: the Watercolours would fight for him whether they really wanted to or not. Well, aside from possibly David, and he seemed pretty into the plan so far.
Still, the esper couldn’t help but think the kids would fight harder if they had true, honest rage on their side, enough to evaporate fear and the childish beginnings of morality.
What could he use to angry up their blood? A newspaper letters section? A G-Men comic? Asking random passersby for their opinion on demis till David made them explode? Alberto scoured the storm of futures and the star-cluster of human minds he was wading through for options.
Oh. Oh, that was good.
He looked over Allison’s shoulder at his compatriots. “Hey, you guys mind taking a detour?”
Shortly after the Canberra bombings and the beginning of the New Human Crisis, many observers wondered (loudly, nigh-hysterically) if the National Museum of Melbourne1 would close their popular demi-human exhibit at McCoy Hall. The museum’s response—its representatives subtly but unmistakably puffing out their chests—was that they would not be cowed by a few mutant radicals. That the recent demi-human attacks only strengthened their mandate to educate the people of Melbourne about these strange, wondersome aberrations.
In hindsight, they probably should’ve brought back the dinosaur skeletons and stuffed lions.
Even so late in the afternoon, so soon after the holidays, McCoy Hall was packed. Tourists, eager super-chasers, parents looking to cheaply entertain their bored children.
And today, five and-a-half genuine demi-humans.
The museum floor was littered with dioramas of infamous Australian supervillains. Mistress Quickly2 aiming her duster-gun at passing museum-goers. Pemulwuy standing impossibly tall atop Uluru with moulded light-up flames3 sprouting from his hands, for that double-dose of colonial smugness and extinction anxiety. Ned Kelly in his armour4.
And of course, sitting on a desert rock, counting gold bars lying in piles at his feet, clad in glammy, shiny plastic armour: AU.
Alberto gripped the velvet rope around his old friend’s display tight, his thin, pale arms shaking with barely restrained anger.
Hope you’re happy, Chen, he thought. Bloody well ruined everything.
Or maybe that had been the Flying Man, standing in minature before JFK in an exquisitely detailed scale model of the White House that late October morning in 1962, pinned under the storm-grey gaze of a giant boy.
Before he did something rash (and incendiary) to the AU diorama, Alberto tore himself away and walked over to Arnold.
He looked down at the little Flying Man model. “Do you think it’s fun, being him?” Alberto asked.
“Don’t know,” answered Arnold, not looking up from the display. “Seems to spend all his time cleaning up after the naturals.”
“Yeah, but I bet he does that for kicks. Just to show he can.”
“Why not us, though?” Arnold spoke slowly and quietly. “Why doesn’t he help us?”
Alberto decided to play devil’s advocate. “He did come to the Institute.”
Arnold scuffed. “Yeah, after the soldiers shot everyone.” He squirmed like he wanted to punch something—anything—with his whole body. “It’s his fault, you know? The only reason the freak-finders go after us is because they can’t get him.” He looked down darkly again at the miniatures on the fake fabric grass. “I thought they were meant to be grownups.”
Alberto tried to keep his face smooth and sombre. He patted Arnold on the shoulder. “Don’t worry Arn,” he reassured the boy. “They’re getting what’s coming to them.”
Alberto moved to find the others in the crowd.
“I wish I had superpowers,” said a boy with a cotton-candy encrusted mouth gawking at a statue of Hel in her custom-designed Hugo Boss SS uniform5, with shockingly more generous cleavage than her flesh and blood model had boasted. He looked up at the blonde woman standing next to him. “What about you, ma?”
The woman answered quickly, “No. I don’t think you do either, Angus. They’re an awful burden.”
Bloody liar, Alberto thought as he passed.
Aside from the supervillains, the exhibit also boasted many purely informational displays. On a raised dais were two stalks topped by two plastic human brains. Unless you were a neurologist or an x-ray machine, the only apparent difference between the specimens was that the one on the right was tinted green for whatever reason. The demi-human brain. As the informational plaque explained, the prevailing scientific consensus regarding the violent tendencies of many demi-humans—obviously demonstrated by the hero/villain paradigme—was that the part of their brains responsible for regulating their deviant abilities took up neural real-estate that in normal humans was dedicated to empathy and impulse control.
Out of nowhere, the human brain tipped to the floor.
Alberto skipped a ways. Check two.
He was disappointed to find Mabel staring at a model of Circle’s End in the corner of the hall. The recreation of the little mining township was restrained, only suggesting mass-death. It was also making sickly green guilt burn in Mabel’s skull. Alberto didn’t need that.
He took the little girl’s hand and turned her around to face the swarming crowd.
“It’s funny,” he said. “They’re so happy not to be us. But they’re also really, really jealous. There but for the grace of the Man but-why-couldn’t-he-have-picked-me, you know what I mean?”
Mabel let out a small laugh. Allison was showing off her big-people words a lot lately, but she couldn’t say she wasn’t right. “Yeah,” she said. “It’s pathetic.” She laughed again. “Wish Automata was here,” she said with a sad fondness. “Imagine if she used her power on all the mannequins…”
“You’re gonna outdo her later,” Alberto assured her. He glanced around the hall. “Know where David is?”
David was the important one here, really. Even if he hadn’t been a powerhouse, if the other children wavered, Alberto could pull them back into line. Not him.
“Ooh!” exclaimed Mabel. She started pulling Alberto through the throng. “Wait till you see what they’ve got on the other side!”
The Parliament House display had been included in the exhibition for reasons of balance. To show what good and beauty demi-humans could do for society, so long as they were properly regulated. A plasticine boy and girl, pretending that glass was ice and fibreglass was wood, frozen still in the middle of their dance, watched approvingly by two old plasticine men.
It was more perfect than Alberto could’ve hoped for. David was glaring poison at the poor, ill-proportioned recreation of his old, blue-eyed self. The version Lawrence wanted. It was so inaccurate, nobody noticed the original boy standing right in front of it. The models of Robert Menzies and Herbert meanwhile were exacting. Loving.
When they were close enough behind him for the boy to hear them over the humans, Alberto said, “Funny, isn’t it? They care more about two old men in suits than the people making miracles.”
“I hate it,” said Mabel. “They keep trying to make us into things. ”
“Yeah,” Alberto agreed. “Monsters or pets.”
David turned and looked at his friends with his grandfather’s eyes. “We’re gonna get a new display,” he said firmly. “I want to be a monster now.”
1. This being before the paradoxically named museum moved in the 1990s to Carlton Gardens from the city-block it shared with the State Library on La Trobe, Swanston, Little Lonsdale and Russell Streets. ↩
2. Real name Maude Simmons, usually known as such due to her hesitance to commit to a super-nym. ↩
3. His actual powers were earth related. ↩
4. There is still no historical evidence that Ned Kelly was in fact a superhuman. ↩
5. Nazi super-soldier with uncertain powers, generally believed to be either sonic in nature or mediated by sound. Her bottle-blond status was a state-secret. Killed in action during the fall of Berlin by the Crimson Comet. Ralph Rivers did not receive a display at the McHoy Hall exhibition, or even a mention on the plaques for Hel and her comrade Baldr, the man who couldn’t die (until he did). ↩