Released from quarantine, a worm of light swimming through the wall lead Allison down the hallway. She’d considered ignoring it, but what else was she going to do?
The worm led Allison to a stretch of wall where mosaic tile gave way to thick, rough tree bark: an elevator bank. It split open with a loud crack, closing behind the girl again as soon as she stepped into the glass carriage.
The elevator started moving without any input from Allison. She guessed that should’ve felt sinister; but sinister was the basenote of the Physician’s world. It was quite literally a part of her song now.
The ride gave Allison a few minutes to think. How long would it take for Miri to start talking again? Would she still be okay living inside her head? And what about Alberto? What if he picked on her?
The elevator arrived at the ship’s media room: a spotted green cavern lined with hundreds of smooth screens like dragon’s scales, all lit up by the same old Warner Brothers cartoon. Allison’s friends were sprawled on the sea-sponge couches, all in their super-suits apart from David. It was like the Junior Justice League had recruited Mowgli.
The Physician was standing to the left of the largest central screen. “Ah, Allie, Miri, glad you two could join us.”
The screens all went white, saving Elmer Fudd from kissing Bugs Bunny in drag.
The other Watercolours groaned.
“So much for movie day,” muttered David, arms folded petulantly.
Mabel looked at Allison. “Miri?”
Allison sighed. “It’s a long story.”
“Yes, we can discuss Allison eating one of my drones later,” said the Physician. “Now, if you girls could sit down, we can get to business.”
Allison settled hesitantly on one of the couches between David and Billy. Both boys were looking at her like she was covered in polka-dots.
“So, what do you think is more important than cartoons?”
“I’m glad you asked, Arnold. Two weeks ago, you teleported the Flying Man forty-six light-years to this world.”
The planet Enlil flashed across the screens, its great inland sea staring out at the children from within the world’s shining rings.
Arnold puffed up a little at that. “Impressive, right?”
“I suppose so,” said the Physician. Tonelessly, he said, “Play Supernova broadcast #12245 with Commonwealth English translation, timestamp ten minutes and fifty seconds.” Waving his hand, he added, “And fix the mouth movements while you’re at it, ship. I don’t want it looking like a Japanese monster movie.”
The screens shifted to what looked like an English garden-park, domed with glass beneath a sky dominated by the remnants of an exploded sun. A bald, olive-skinned woman sat in a molded tree trunk next to a floating gemstone enclosing a bubbling nucleus the size of her head. Her dress was vaguely Minoan—bare, painted breasts and a scarlet skirt that went all the way down to her ankles. She wore the plastic smile endemic to TV hosts the galaxy over:
“…Cross-species fertility services will be fully covered by the Imperial Health Trust this coming Thronal year.”
“Where’s the lady’s shirt?” asked Billy.
The Physician gave a wet, bemused blink. “Oh, William, don’t assume the entire galaxy shares your hangups.”
The crystal started to flash, emitting a deep, buzzing voice that said, “I’d like to see them try and whip up a kid for some folks we know, Glim.”
“Wait,” said David, “that’s a person? I thought it was like, a space microphone or something.”
“It’s a heggorot,” said Allison. It was good to have something to think about besides what she’d done to Miri. “It’s like a liquid brain in a diamond that flies around using electromagnetism1.”
“And he’s, what, the co-host?” asked Mabel.
“She,” corrected the Physician. “But yes. Ussi and Glim have been on Supernova forever. Nice seeing a celebrity couple go the distance.”
Allison tilted her head. “They’re… together?”
“Sure are. I managed to catch the wedding back in 1960. It was beautiful.”
The children exchanged a medley of glances and shrugs. Space was weird.
Glim was laughing off some of her wife’s banter. “…Well I for one think little webbed fingers are the tops. Now, let’s check in with”—a slight pause for emphasis—“The Man from Earth!”
Uproarious applause broke out, soundtracked by jaunty music seemingly played by an orchestra of drunken crickets. The camera panned over throngs of ecstatic audience members—many only recognizable as people rather than masonry or decorative pot-plants because they were cheering and shouting—separated from Ussi and Glim by a deep running stream2.
Allison briefly wondered what was so interesting about a guy from Earth. Then it occurred to her that Earth was probably a weird, alien planet to these people. Then she felt even dumber.
“Are they talking about—”
Done basking in her audience’s excitement, Glim gently appealed for calm3. “Alright, alright, settled down dears, I know we’re excited.” She looked over at Ussi. “So, what’s our dashing nomad been up to lately?
The camera switched to a shot of an asteroid the size and almost the shape of Texas heading towards a yellow-green planet. Ussi’s voice buzzed over the footage:
“Since his sudden arrival and trouncing of the Giggaro mind-control cartel on Enlil4, this dashing superbeing has cut a trail of heroism across the southern spiral, all while claiming to hail from the far-flung, savage world of Earth—still maintained as an anthropological preserve due to its probable status as the homeworld of the human species.”
A cutback to Glim smirking. “Embarrassing, I know.”
A rumbling chuckle from the audience.
Arnold frowned. “Savage?”
“Your people still run everything on dead plants spiced with dinosaur and die before you’re a hundred,” pointed out the Physician. “They’re just calling it like they see it.”
The scene changed again to show the Flying Man standing in the middle of a city of skyscraper-tall cacti, playfully letting what looked like overgrown, metal-plated spiders crawl up and down his body.
“He saved the living cities of Ukkes from extinction.”
The edges of the screens blurred and melded together until the whole front wall was dominated by one image: an angry, red gash in space itself, bleeding bright, baleful blood into the starry vacuum. It looked large enough to swallow the world and not even notice.
“And when the Man from Earth came across the Rift of Caxxus, whose influence has cut off multiple star-systems for centuries…”
The camera zoomed in towards the upper limits of the tear. The Flying Man—miniscule against the roiling red mass of the rift—was wrapping his fingers around the ragged, black border of real space, like a child trying to grab a rainbow. Except, somehow, he found purchase.
The Flying Man flew downwards The textured, undamaged darkness stretched after him, washing over the red like a tidal wave. Watching him made Allison twitch. She could fly too now. She could feel it in her bones. And she was stuck here watching the news.
“…He closed it.”
Back to the asteroid. It was getting painfully close to the planet.
“And just yesterday, when this rogue planetoid was bearing down on Bahora Colony…”
The asteroid exploded like it had been punched by God.
“…There he was again. And then he carved the fragments into adventure playgrounds!”
The audience was going wild again. Even Billy was clapping from the couch. Glim was laughing that perfectly manufactured laugh that newscasters reserve for human interest stories.
“Good job, Man from Earth. Reports are he’s heading towards the Throneworld itself. We’d love it if he dropped into the studio some time. Up next, are space habitats more expensive than planetbound living? Our next guest might—”
“That’s enough of that,” said the Physician, pausing the video. He turned back to the children. “Any questions?”
“Yeah,” said Mabel. “What was the point of that?
“The point,” the Physician said patiently, “is that there is a rogue godling out there, and he’s slowly but surely heading back to Earth.”
“Uh,” said Allison. “Didn’t that news lady say he was heading for Throneworld? That’s kind of the opposite direct—”
“He’ll be back someday,” the Physician insisted. “He’s put too much effort into this ghastly little planet. What we have here is a unique opportunity to prepare ourselves for his return. Normally, I’d have to keep my movements at least nominally hidden. But now that the Earth’s most conscientious watchdog is off away, we can finally hit up a few supply depots. I’ve designed a rather neat little device that should be enough to turn him inside ou—”
“Why would we be helping you?” Mabel asked.
“The news aliens said he’s been really nice. And you’re talking about turning him inside out. Why?”
The Physician considered this for a moment.
“So, the Flying Man and me have… let’s say history. History that might make him a little hesitant to work with me. Or let me live.”
Allison sighed and slumped in her seat. “Oh God, of course you do. Is that lady in the corpse-room his mum or something?”
The Physician stood stock still for half a minute, grinning like he wanted to pawn off his teeth.
Allison squinted at his mind. “Oh, for crying out loud. I knew you were evil, but that’s just… dumb!”
Billy stared aghast at the Physician. “You killed the Flying Man’s mummy?”
“To be fair,” said the Physician, “I didn’t know she was pregnant. She was more… space at the time.”
Arnold folded his arms. “This is starting to sound like a whole lotta not our problem.”
“But he thinks you’re my allies!” protested the Physician. “You were the one who banished him!” He looked at Allison. “I gave you the ability to fly!”
“I bet so I could fight the Flying Man for you,” retorted the girl.
“Well obviously! Your point?”
“We can just leave,” said David. “If Arn can send the Flying Man all the way to wherever, outer space, he can take us there too.”
“He could still find you! And next time you won’t have the benefit of surprise!”
“Doesn’t sound like we’re the ones he’s after.”
“Look,” said the Physician, “I understand you might be hesitant to get involved. But even if the Flying Man turns around now, at the rate he’s been jumping systems, we have a month before he gets back to the Sol system. So if you could just hear me out for a bit.”
The screens shifted to elaborate diagrams of sharp looking gadgets and mechanisms. One of John Smith’s fingers elongated to become a pointer stick. “So for this operation, we’ll need something in the neighbourhood of ten thousand scallops—”
The lights went out.
The walls, screens and couches instantly lit up with a dull abyssal glow. The ship floor shook violently, as if it would give at any moment, half the children left bobbing in the air, torn between natural momentum and the shipboard antigravity.
Then, the shockwave hit.
Allison felt her right eardrum pop like a balloon. The world rang like she was trapped inside a bell. She watched as her friends were slammed against the ceiling, walls, and floor. She herself collided with a screen, a shredding pain ripping across her trunk as her shoulder snapped out of its socket. It hit David the hardest, though, a curved bulkhead ramming into the nape of his neck. The others flailed and spun. David simply hung there; limp, like a doll.
That was the first half second.
Allison screamed. She thought she did, at least. She still couldn’t hear. She dug into the extra strength Zywie’s power had willed into her limbs, and kicked off from the control panel like a bullet. David first.
She struck the boy in mid-air, her dislocated shoulder ringing at the impact, and latched on with her good hand. She scanned the room.
Mabel in a corner, scrabbling frantically at her costume for something to help her move. Arnold at the opposite end of the room, a surprising lack of panic on his face. She followed his gaze- Ah. Billy. The boy was flailing, stuck in mid-air just as David had been—
A neon green burst. Billy was clutched in Arnold’s arms. The sparking boy caught Allison’s eyes, nodded, and took aim for Mabel next.
Where was the Physician?
She glanced across to where he’d been when whatever this was had begun. She saw a large, squat object, something between an octopus and a four foot long potato, a dozen suckered tendrils rooting it to wall nearby.
God, he was weird.
Her arm ached. She shut off her pain receptors. Her ears were ringing. She shut those off, too. The ringing grew louder. This confused her.
There was a disgruntled growl inside her mind.
It’s not your ears, girl, Alberto snapped. It’s the ship. She’s in pain. Ignore her. Get to the others if you must, but move!
Allison shook herself out of it just in time to watch Arnold scoop Mabel up alongside himself and Billy, the girl calling forth a great, fuzz covered gorilla to shield them with its girth. Billy was crying. Allison pushed the tableau from her mind, and slapped David in the face.
The boy didn’t move. His song was fading; becoming discordant. There was something red leaking from his ears.
“No,” she said, unable to hear herself. “Don’t you dare.” She slapped him again. “Wake up. Wake up right now!”
Oh, for shit’s sake! shouted Alberto’s voice inside her skull. That’s not how you do it!
Allison felt something moving inside her, beyond her will. Then, Alberto’s voice spoke again inside her head.
Mealy, it said, its tone hard.
I’m going to hurt you again, you little shit. Alberto commanded. Heal yourself. Now.
With a pathetic mewl, whatever was left of the boy nodded. For a moment, his half-closed eyes glowed a blue that Allison hadn’t seen in weeks. David’s form shifted into ice and back again. For a single moment, he looked merely frightened; that cobalt blue still lingering in his eyes. Then, in a snap, the green returned. He was alert.
“That was weird,” he said to deaf ears.
Consider that my rent, Alberto spat in Allison’s mind. You better survive this, Allie. I don’t want to die again because of you.
Allison wasn’t listening. She was too busy hugging her friend. Then she shook herself, healed her arm, and turned her ears back on.
“—The hell is going on?” Arnold shouted, still holding onto Mabel and Billy. “Did we hit a plane or something?”
The Physician’s new form grew a cherubic, china-blue eyed face, like a baby’s death mask. It gurgled in an all too adult sounding voice, “Not a chance. Something was aiming for us.”
Suddenly, all the screens came back to life. In Asteria’s chamber, the Flying Man stood, gazing down into his mother’s sarcophagus, shaking. The Flying Man laid a hand on the glass.
The Physician was sprouting new eyes by the second, gazing at every screen he could. Why is he on the screens?
Then he realized. The ship wanted him to see this. She was rubbing his death in his face.
A scream roared through the ship. A burning note of sorrow and hatred. The chamber vibrated. The screens burst like pricked blisters, soaking the children and the Physician with thick, orange sludge. The ship’s blood.
Another, more distant boom. The sound of bulkheads shattering.
The Physician whipped through the air towards Arnold, enveloping him and his friends like an evil baby blanket. A toothy, tubular mouth slid from his side, worming its way up to the boy’s ear.
“Send me to another planet!” he hissed. “Enlil, Triam, dusty bloody Throneworld, I don’t care! Just take me away from here!”
For a brief second, Arnold was terrified. He tried to remember one of the far off worlds he’d read off in Father Christmas’ atlas.
Then he remembered what happened to the last bloke who tried using him as their delivery boy.
The Physician’s world was bright, green light.
He found himself floating in the familiar salty broth of his greater self’s pool. The warm water almost put him at ease.
Then he saw him. His greatest hope and worst fear. His great, sacred nightmare.
The Flying Man was tearing at John Smith’s everything. Rending and burning at the last of his true, higher being. Flesh and precious knowledge was being crushed into clouds of blood in his savage hands.
John Smith shuddered with despair. He could barely keep his cells coherent. He’d lost much since fleeing his world. Centuries worth of memories and experience. Even his greater self was a shadow of what he’d been before crashing down to Earth. But now, he was truly dead. John Smith just hadn’t caught up to the rest of him yet.
The Flying Man looked up at the creature floating above him. He kicked upwards, becoming level with John Smith.
A voice like dancing knives invaded the Physician. All these years, I thought you’d had the decency to die.
What was left of the Physician curled in on itself. Mercy. Please. You’ve taken everything I was. I’m less than a ghost now.
The Flying Man closed his eyes. When he opened them again, they shone with the light of an older heaven. It washed over the Physician, till there was nothing left.
Joe Allworth breathed heavily as the water around him stopped boiling. He was taking in great lungfuls of the stuff, but that didn’t matter right now.
After all these years, the thing was dead. It was not often Joe could say he felt exhausted, or even describe the sensation, but now he could.
As the red crept back from the borders of his vision, the star-god heard a voice inside him:
It was an ancient voice. A voice that could’ve drowned out a thousand human minds. But now it was barely a whisper, burdened with centuries of suffering and pain. It was growing less steady even as Joe tried to listen.
I don’t think I’ll last much longer. Afraid you did a number on me. But at least he’s dead. Do rescue the others, though.
An image flashed into Joe’s mind. A little girl with a fish tail, lying bleeding and whimpering beside a cracked pool. One of her fins severed. Dozens of stolid, confused boy-men. Slaves.
Joe looked down at his hands.
This ship was alive. Not just alive, but a person. A person he’d torn apart. The alien had other captives. Ones even more vulnerable than Miss Winter’s poor children.
He looked up and around him. I’m sorry! For Christ’s sake, I’m sorry!
On a small, green island in the middle of the Indian Ocean, five (and a half) children appeared on the beach, holding each other tight. They fell apart onto the white shore, breathing heavily, grains of sand clinging to the orange slime that stained their bodies.
Mabel heaved. “Oh, God, that was… not fun.” She looked over at Arnold. “Where are we?”
The teleporter groaned and stretched out, before opening his atlas and weakly flicking through it. “Ah, somewhere called…” He squinted. “Guy who wrote it says it doesn’t have a name.”
“You mean Santa,” said Mabel. “Santa says it doesn’t have a name.”
“Don’t remind me.”
Allison was back on her feet, dusting herself off. “Everyone make it alright?”
“I think so,” said Billy, trying to resist licking his arm silly. “…Is the Flying Man around?”
Allison craned her right ear. “No, I think we lost him. For now.”
She caught sight of David. He was staring out at the sea in front of them. His mouth was moving, but he wasn’t saying anything.
Allison realized. The ocean. David had never even been to the beach. “David,” she said, “are you alright?”
A loud, hysterical laugh erupted from David. He pointed wildly at the white-caped waves beating gently at the shore. “They’re like sheep! Water-sheep!” With that, he ran headlong into the water and started splashing about like a madman.
Arnold walked up besides Allison. “God,” he said, grinning. “He’s like a puppy.”
“It’s salty!” David yelled, his voice full of surprise and glee. “That’s so hecking weird!”
Behind David, the water rose into a pillar over six foot tall. It bulged and started forming into the rough shape of a man.
Arnold raised an eyebrow. “What’s he up to?”
The water became flesh. Pale flesh with black choked veins. A corpse with eyes like sea-fog. The thing threw its arms around David, lifting him kicking out of the water. The boy screamed.
Arnold’s body became bright and phosphorescent. Allison’s eyes burned red with magma.
“Let go of him!”
But David wasn’t scared. He was laughing, nuzzling his cheek against the corpse’s chest.
The dead man spoke. “Finally, I have you.”
David beamed out at his friends. “Guys! Guys! Look! It’s my grandpa!”
1. This electromagnetic propulsion makes heggorots somewhat unique in that they exist within different ranges of elevation across a planet’s surface, depending on ore concentrations. They also have a tendency to sleepwalk towards magnetic north. ↩
2. A level 4 security moat filled with ballistic leeches, installed fifty years prior when the audience subjected a particularly charismatic host to sparagmos. ↩
3. Assisted by subtle infrasound implants in her throat. ↩
4. A feat that took him four hours of sustained effort. ↩