David Venter-Barthe stood at the shore of the saltwater lake, its waves gently licking at his heels. A dark stone ceiling stretched high above him, almost hidden from sight by a dark forest of heavy clouds.The stinking hot air wept with humidity.
David was in Heaven. A normal child would’ve passed out from the heat ten minutes ago, if they could even breathe the sodden air. But David was no such thing. And neither was Allison Kinsey.
David turned to look at the pale little girl, standing behind him like a ghost on the pink sands that rimmed the outer edge of the chamber. He grinned at her, saying, “The Physician’s bedroom sure is big,” before looking back out over the water, curiosity replacing humour in his smile. “Does he really live under there?”
“He has to,” replied Allison. “Years and years back the Physician’s lot hit a wall trying to make themselves smarter. They’d already gotten their brains to work as good and fast as they were ever going to—hell, they’d turned their whole bodies into brains. Only way they were gonna get smarter after that was if they got bigger.” She gestured at the lake. “And there’s loads of space underwater…”
“What about Dr. Smith? The Commodore and all them? The little Physicians?” David giggled at his choice of words. Sounded like a toyline.
“They’re just pieces of him. They crawl out of the water to experience the world for him. Then when they’re done, he eats them back up.”
David frowned. “And they’re okay with that?”
Allison shrugged. “Why would they have a problem with being whole again?”
David looked around the chamber. “Wait, if this is the Physician—the real one—shouldn’t there be… I don’t know, guns or something?” He stretched his imagination. “Water-dragons?”
Allison started wading into the water. “This ship’s his slave, David. If you had a slave, would you keep a gun next your bed?” She stopped, turning back to her friend with a smile. “Besides, the Physician is a water-dragon. Wanna come mess with him?”
David nodded vigorously. Allison had been weird all day. More talkative, but removed somehow. Constantly pursuing things David couldn’t name. Like she and the rest of them were walking through worlds that only barely met at the edges.
Still, he couldn’t say she wasn’t being fun.
The two children ran into the lake, the water rising around them with every step, till they were hanging beautifully weightless between planes of mud and the dim light of the surface.
David breathed in the water greedily. How had he lived so long without salt on his tongue?
He hadn’t, really.
Allison took the lead, kicking forward towards a phosphorescent glow in the distance, where David could feel massive amounts of water trapped and woven into organic patterns. They flew over carpets of kelp. Shaggy, but oddly fish-like insects and water-snakes armoured in bone-plate with mouths full of rusticles swam with them through the dark. David wondered if they were the Physician’s lunch.
Mud, sand, and seaweed gave way to banks of coral. Spindly, branching trees of staghorn. Tall, rainbow sea-pens like peacock tails and bushes of pulsing blue globules. Red and yellow gorgonians swaying with the current like giant, moth-eaten hand fans.
And eyes. Thousands of unblinking, china-blue eyes, all staring up at the young interlopers.
A thought rang out through the water:
Before David could think a response, Allison swooped down towards the reef, running her hands over its coral.
Before David could wonder why Allie was fondling a coral reef, a deep, resounding groan echoed through the lake. The whole cavern shook.
An enormous ball of pallid flesh tore its way out of the lakebed, rising on a hairy umbilicus to loom over the children, shucking off sand to reveal a gaping maw ringed by orange tentacles.
Allison didn’t even look up at the thing.
Can you take care of that?
David’s face screwed with determination, and he shot up at the monster… right into its mouth.
The water-sprite burst from the other side of the creature with a gout of green blood pluming like acrid smoke in the water: a bullet made of ice.
Sometimes, David had learned, it felt good to be him.
Mabel Henderson was torn. On the one hand, she physically needed to sketch Commodore Spoketooth’s mermaid. On the other, that would require not swimming with the actual-for-real mermaid.
So, the young artist settled for occasionally excusing herself from the splash fight to swim over to her sketchbook lying open at the edge of the pool.
She was detailing the mermaid’s fluke when a fat splat of water hit the drawing.
Mabel scowled, even as the paper drank the water like it’d never been there. She turned and glared at her friends. “You guys! I’m trying to draw here!”
Arnold was floating at the centre of a vortex, churned and stirred by shards of lightning from his body. “Don’t moan!” he retorted, voice cracking and rumbling with thunder. “Who the hell draws in a pool?”
Mabel rolled her eyes. “It’s called drawing from life, Arnold.”
The Commodore shouted from his deckchair, having been pulled out of A House of Pomegranates1. “Play nice, ya scallywags.”
The mermaid glanced worriedly between the two children, before looking pleadingly at Billy floating beside her. She’d lapsed back into silence when Mabel laughed at her accent.
Billy reached over and squeezed the mermaid’s hand. It was kind of neat meeting another kid with claws. “It’s okay,” he said. “Friends argue like that all the time. Took some getting used to for me, too.”
The mermaid nodded warily, but was quickly distracted by the texture of Billy’s sodden fur, rubbing his arm with undisguised fascination.
It was funny, Billy thought. The mermaid thought he was weird—who didn’t?—but she thought Arnold was, too. A furry boy was no stranger than a naked one.
“Hey,” he asked, “do you have a name?”
The mermaid bit her lip.
Before she had a chance to answer, David and Allie strolled back into the pool-chamber, still as dripping wet as when they’d left. Allison was striding with a confidence that looked frankly comical without clothes, whereas David was clearly trying to smother giggles.
The mermaid waved at the pair, crying, “Avast, mateys!” It didn’t feel exactly right for a style of speech so similar to Spoketooth’s to come out of someone so small, but it hardly registered in this place.
Allison mimed tipping her hat at the others in the pool. “Hi, guys.” She turned and gave the Commodore a cat-like smile. “Ahoy, Spoketooth.”
The Physician waved his hook in salute. “Mighty fine to see ya two again. Where did ya minnows swim to?”
David rocked back and forth on his heels. “Oh, nowhere.”
“We were just visiting you,” Allison added.
Spoketooth flashed the signature, lip-tearing Physician grin. “Oh, which one? Johannes? Nurarihyon-san?2”
A deep bass note resounded through the ship. A cracking rumbling noise broke through the hull: the sound of long-sleeping stone being roused.
“We weren’t talking about your scrapings,” retorted Allison, grinning herself. “We meant you. All of you.”
For a second, the children all felt something like a light hand pressing down on them. The water in the pool vibrated and sloshed about, before settling again. The Commodore actually stumbled, slapping his remaining hand over his pirate-hat to keep it in place.
“The hell was that?” Arnold asked loudly.
“I could ask the same question, lad!” Spoketooth shouted, staring at Allison and David. His grin had collapsed into a basset-hound frown.
“That would be the inertial dampening kicking in,” Allison answered. “You need it if you want to get from Antarctica to Melbourne at a decent clip.” She was still smiling at Commodore Spoketooth. “I think we’ll be plotting the ship’s course for the time being, Commodore.”
The Commodore quickly considered his options. Clearly, John Smith’s little wastrels had somehow subverted the navigation and propulsion systems. Such a feat required no less than the subversion of himself. His parent, birthplace, and afterlife all in one. That should’ve been the Physician’s biggest problem—it wasn’t.
Had this girl even cloaked the ship? Was he coming for them?
“Well,” said Allison, “got anything to say to that?”
The Commodore let out a dry, rattling howl, designed to scare off predators from the other side of the galaxy, and raised his hook to strike. It stopped pretending to be ratty old plastic, reforging into a barbed spear dripping with neurotoxin.
The alien tried slashing at Allison, but the little girl burst into flames. The physician’s makeshift stinger still hit her, in a sense. It just melted in the heat. Then, a blast of magma shot from her chest, embracing Spoketooth.
The Physician shrieked as his flesh burned and melted, nearly harmonizing with the shouts of shock and terror from the children in the pool. His body writhed and twisted, mutating and spagettifying in every direction as it tried to flee from the fire consuming it.
The children’s screams outlasted Spoketooth, who eventually fell sideways into the pool, extinguishing with a hiss as the water around it bubbled and steamed.
Allison and David were both laughing.
The mermaid keened and wailed, diving back down into the depths. Mabel yelled, “The fuck, Allie?”
Billy screamed through tears, “You killed him!”
David looked confusedly at his friends, before blinking from sudden comprehension. He threw his hands up reassuringly. “It’s alright, guys,” he explained. “That wasn’t all of him. We can make another Spoketooth later.”
Alberto Moretti let the fire in him die. It felt good, finally having a power that could break things. Bradbury was right. It was, in fact, a pleasure to burn.
“Why—” Arnold stammered. “Why’d you do that?”
Alberto stepped to where he’d left Allison’s super-suit, slipping it on. Conveniently, the lava stunt had dried him off. “Because he was just going to tell us what to do.”
To Arnold’s horror, this sounded perfectly normal from his friend.
“Get dressed, everyone,” Alberto ordered, his will thrumming along the strings that connected him to the Watercolours. “Mabel, grab your scrapbook. Might as well take your atlas too, Arnold.”
“Wh—where are we going?”
“Melbourne. We’re going to give Tim Valour what’s coming to him.”
1. A 1891 collection of short stories by Oscar Wilde, including stories such as “The Star-Prince” and “The Fisherman and his Soul.” ↩
2. Dr. Nurarihyon, an instantiation of the Physician stationed in Japan, named for his physical resemblance to the large-headed yōkai of Japanese folklore. Went for that angle after he realized his particular brand of transforming hero wasn’t going to market well. ↩