PRSD1 specialist Paul Mars stood before a wave of journalists and gawkers, trying to keep it from breaking over the blue and white police tape stretched out in front of the Russo Family Ice-Cream Bar. It shouldn’t have been difficult. The boy was built like a more modest Rhodes Colossus. But his father always told him never to lean on folks with his size, and all those eyes pitted against him felt like whirring death-rays.
“Please folks,” he begged in his soft Californian drawl, “the police need space to do their job.”
A fish-faced man with a non-existent chin jostled his way to the head of the throng and shouted, “What are all you yanks even doing here? Is this an invasion? Think we can’t see to our own matters?”
Mars couldn’t tell if the question was accusatory or not. The Australian twang was the linguistic answer to the man sitting in the back of the bar with the perpetual grin. Or did they call them “pubs” down here? “Sir, Delta Squad is just here to lend a hand. We’re all rooting for Australia.”
Currents of laughter ran through the crowd. It didn’t sound like they were laughing with Paul.
He’d done it again, hadn’t he? At least they weren’t talking about “rubbers” again.
A young journalist in a creased sand-coloured suit threatened his notepad with a No.2 pencil. “Excuse me, Mr. Mars—yes, Miles Parker, The West Australian—can you confirm or deny that the perpetrator of this latest attack is in fact the ringleader of the Royal Exhibition Hall gang?”
Paul briefly wondered when the commentariat was going to come up with a catchier name for those kids2, before stuttering, “Well, that’s what Mr. Russo—and the police, of course—are telling us, but none of us in the squad were here when it happened, unfortunately.”
“And do you think there’s any proof to the rumours that these demi-children have a backer of some kind?”
Like he’d always been taught, Paul Mars answered frankly and honestly:
“I have no idea. Sorry.”
Paul Mars was instantly assaulted by a barrage of questions and baffled abuse. He barely managed to resist covering his ears.
“How the hell can you not know? You’re a bloody super!”
“But I’m not—”
Paul’s face went red.
A burnt, shiny scalped old man in an off-white singlet walked right up to the American. “It’s fuckin’ disgraceful, freaks like you acting like you’re on our side! You monsters got us into this mess in the first place!” He started prodding Mars in the chest. “My niece was in Boans when your kind tore a man apart! What do you have to say to that?”
Paul begged like a child in a schoolyard, “Please stop that, sir.”
The man grinned sourly, clearly lusting after a public martyrdom. People were cheering him on like he was David standing in Goliath’s shadow. “Oh, the big demi wants me to stop touching him. Make me.”
To his eternal shame, Paul briefly considered giving the old coot what he wanted.
A hydrogen bomb of a voice boomed over the commotion. “Will you all just can it?”
Paul’s superior officer was striding through and above the crowd, his legs stretched fifteen feet below him like clown stilts. “Come on, out of the way!” he shouted as civilians scrambled to obey.
Soon enough, Corporal Jinks was by Paul’s side. His legs shortened until he was a head shorter than the specialist—albeit still about three inches wider. More than anything, the corporal resembled a grey brick with eyes. He glared at the old man through sunglasses dark as space. “Why are you giving my boy Mars here a bad time, sir?” He pronounced the last word like it was the vilest slur in a drill-sergeant’s arsenal.
The old man folded his arms and tilted his nose up, apparently unintimidated by the living wall that was Corporal Jinks. “What you people do is ungodly.”
Corporal Jinks rolled his eyes. He bet this idiot hadn’t been to any kind of church in a hundred Easters.
Jinks’ neck stretched and reared upwards like a boa constrictor. He looked down at the old man. “What’s your name, sir?”
“Little logic puzzle, Mr. Wilks.” He lay a hand on Wilks’ shoulder. It snaked across the man’s back and wrapped tight around his chest.
Mr. Wilks squeaked. The crowd held its breath.
Jinks continued. “If God doesn’t like this, but I can still do it, who’s tougher?”
Mr. Wilks squeaked.
“Come on, tell me!”
The man let out a yelp. “You! You are!”
Jinks released Mr. Wilks. “Exactly right!” His cheeks bulged, forming into a kind of organic megaphone. “Now, disperse!”
The civilians scattered to the winds.
Paul sighed. He thought back to what Corporal Jinks told the squad on the plane to Australia:
“Remember boys, we’re here to win hearts and minds… and hopefully see a kangaroo.”
Jinks slapped Mars on the back. “Come on, boy, let’s see what your pals are up to.” He spotted Mr. Wilks trying to shuffle off down the street. “Hey, Wilks!” he shouted.
Wilks startled before slowly turning around to face the Americans. “…Yes?”
“You got a light?” asked Jinks with a massive grin.
Wilks nodded shakily as he pulled a pack of Redheads matches, only for Corporal Jinks to grab it off him from thirty paces.
Jinks’ arm snapped back to his side like a tape-measure. “Thanks, buddy!”
Mr. Wilks took off running as soon as he thought Jinks wasn’t watching.
“Sir, was that completely”—Paul searched for the least insubordinate way of putting it—“…nice?”
Corporal Jinks lit a cigar with one of his confiscated matches. “Paul, that man was spoiling for a rumble, so I gave him an entrée.” Smoke plumed from his nostrils. “Turned out he wasn’t hungry. Conflict resolution, eh?” He tapped at his temples. “Conflict resolution, boy. That’s just using your noggin.”
“If you say so, sir.”
Paul Mars had never planned to go into the military. He always expected to end up running the family farm until he died, or became one with the landscape itself. Paul’s sisters always joked about him becoming a superhero, but he could never see it. That required hurting people. As far as Mars was concerned, the best use of his power was keeping bottles of pop cool.
Then Vietnam happened. Then Paul’s number came up.
Paul Mars didn’t want to go to war. He looked sideways at anyone who did. But they told him at school and church and half a dozen other places that it was his duty.
Besides, better him than someone else.
He’d finally gotten up the nerve to talk about his unique talent at his draft board physical. “Excuse me, doctor,” he said as the aging military doctor rested his stethoscope on his bare back, “there’s something I need to come clean about.”
“What is it, son?” Dr. Chavez asked, bracing himself in case the young man shat himself or tried hitting on him.
Paul Mars took a deep breath. His shadow tore free from his frame, rising into the air like acrid black smoke. All the light in the little wood panelled office rushed into the cloud like dust falling into a black hole, leaving the room dark as midnight. The room became deathly cold.
Dr. Chavez tried to shout, “Jesus Christ!” but no sound escaped his mouth. It was like the words froze to death in the air.
Paul Mars’ shadow dissolved, releasing its stolen heat and energy. The sudden excitement of the atmosphere sent a few bottles and cups of stationary clattering to the floor.
“Sorry, doctor,” Paul said sheepishly, before asking, “am I disqualified?”
Dr. Chavez rubbed at his glasses. A thin layer of frost had spread across the lenses. “…Not exactly, kid.”
And with that, the Department of Psychonautics and Occultism took Mars under their wing. They told the lad he was a sorcerer. That had confused Paul. He always thought you had to read a lot of dusty books or have a chat with the Devil to be a sorcerer. The Mars family meanwhile were committed Presybtarians, and Paul’s familiarity with old tomes was limited to his great-great grandfather’s Poor Richard’s Almanack. But as one of Paul’s future teammates had explained, “sorcerer” was just the government’s new word for powered people who were clearly not bright enough to be wizards.
Comments like that aside, life in the PRSD was pretty alright. Corporal Jinks was… him, but he could be nice, in a scary sort of way. The other specialists weren’t all bad either. Sofía Verres swore far too much for a lady, but Paul tried not to judge. She’d led a hard life. As for Kerry Napes… well, Kerry Napes was… him.
Jinks and Mars passed Mr. Russo, still giving his account to the police constable:
“…She walked in bloody naked, too!3” The ice-cream man leaned forward and whispered, “It’s the fucking hippies. All those drugs they take are mutating their bloody kids!4
“God,” said the corporal, “can you imagine having that kind of power as a little kid? It’d fucking warp ya.”
“Uh, I can, sir,” replied Mars. “I was born with powers. Miss Verres too, I think.”
“Oh.” Jinks was quiet for a moment. “Good thing you boys turned out okay, then.”
Mars knew Corporal Jinks had come into his powers later than most. All the other sorcerers Paul knew had their powers at least since childhood, but Jinks was at least forty, and he’d only had powers for three years, tops. The rumour back at Lawton was that he’d jumped on a grenade in ‘Nam and ballooned like a sail in a headwind.
It was strange, Paul thought, having a commanding officer greener than him.
They found Specialist Verres chatting up a storm with a little girl across the street. The kid was wearing sunglasses even darker than Jinks’, and kept tapping at the pavers with a white cane. She was also dressed in too-big red and yellow pinstriped trousers, topped with a pink and green blouse. She looked like if circus clowns could reproduce.
“So you were a supervillain?”
Regretfully, Verres found herself frowning. A hawkishly featured Latina woman, something about how her lips were set made slight irritation look like genuine anger.
At least she’s blind, Verres thought, before feeling a prick of guilt at the idea.
“Not really,” said Verres. “I mean, I didn’t have a super-name or a costume or anything. Didn’t even know where you got one of those.” That’s what they don’t tell you about embarking on a life of crime: even that demanded capital. “I just turned car-windows into sand and scooped out whatever I found.”
“So, you were a crook… then you joined the army?”
Verres smiled resignedly. “It was either that or jail.”
The girl nodded solemnly. “I know the feeling.”
Before Verres could ask how that could possibly be true, her corporal called out, “Not sharing state secrets are we, Verres?”
Verres gave Jinks a rather sloppy salute. “No, sir, just talking to,” she looked down at the blind girl. “What was your name again?”
The girl grinned like she was stifling a giggle. “Miri- Uh, Miranda. My friends call me Miri.”
Paul Mars stepped forward and shook the little girl’s hand. “Pleased to meet you, Miri. Paul Mars.”
Miri-Miranda shook back hard. “Right back at ya. You part of this squad thing?”
Paul glanced down at his bright, starred-and-spangled PRSD uniform. “…Yes?”
Apparently Miri-Miranda caught the dubious note in Paul’s voice. She pointed to her sunglasses. “Blind.”
Verres could see the auburn-haired sorcerer’s heart breaking. God, she loved that stupid soft-face of his.
Miri-Miranda shrugged. “The cancer was a while ago, I’m used to it.”
The beginning of tears swelled in Paul’s eyes. Verres meanwhile wondered what kind of parents the girl’s were. The way they dressed her alone should’ve warranted jail-time. And she was so pale. Was this the first time they’d let her outside or something?
Corporal Jinks put a hand on the girl’s shoulder. “Well, you’re handling it like a trooper, Miss Miranda. And don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”
Miri-Miranda saluted. “Yes, sir!”
Paul watched as his corporal’s face broke out in smile lines. He wondered if the old soldier had children of his own…
“Can I ask you a question?” asked Miri-Miranda.
“Sure thing kiddo,” said Jinks.
The girl pointed to a spot about three feet to the left of the last member of Squad Delta. “Why’s that guy not wearing a shirt?”
Corporal Jinks and the others followed Miri-Miranda’s finger to Kerry Napes. The blond nineteen year old was clumsily trying to hit on a clearly uncomfortable woman about ten years his senior. While he wore the same patriotically coloured trousers as his teammates, his chest was bare, apart from a web of tattoos resembling a circuit-diagram.
Corporal Jinks grimaced, trying not to think too hard about the answer to that. “…Military secret, kid. Wait, how’d you know he didn’t have a shirt?”
Before Miri-Miranda could answer, one of the baseline soldiers attached to the squad ran up to the corporal and whispered into his ear.
Jinks’ expression flattened. “Thank you, private,” he said through gritted teeth, “dismissed.”
The soldier left, looking very relieved.
Jinks beamed at Miri-Miranda. “Sorry about this, little miss, I just need to talk to my boys for a second.”
Corporal Jinks took the two specialists aside, hopefully out of earshot of any easily panicked civilians. “It’s the DDHA, they need us for a capture.” He made a sound halfway between a grunt and a sigh. “The kid’s resisting.”
“A kid, sir?” asked Paul mournfully.
Her burning eyes hidden behind dark glass and the reflective glare of the sun, Miri watched the squad cooly.
There was something Corporal Jinks found perverse about riding a troop-carrier through a living, breathing city. Instead of gunfire, or thick tires climbing over rock and undergrowth, the APC was bombarded battered by car-horns and the pattering of millions of feet against the sidewalk. Civilians going about their lives. It felt like a threat. Not against the Corporal’s body or life, but his basic decency. A weapon of war in a school district.
“You said this was gonna stop.”
Paul Mars didn’t sound like a soldier. He sounded like a boy. He was a boy. If Jinks had been a proper hardass, he would’ve made the walls of the truck rattle cussing Mars out. Instead, he just sighed. “The Aussies say they’re ‘transitioning’.”
Flecks of glass danced along Specialist Verres’ gloved fingers, reflecting what little light they could catch in the gloom of the tarpaulin. “What he means is everyone’s too pissed off and scared to switch gears, and even if they weren’t, they wouldn’t know what to do instead.” She asked Paul, “You ever run for your life, Mars?”
Paul nodded. “Once. Bull got loose.”
Verres rolled her eyes. “Of course it did. So, did you stop running the second you were safe?”
“That’s what this is. Running because your blood’s still up and you’re too fucking terrified for anything else.” Verres sat back and folded her arms, her glass shards tucking themselves in behind her ears. “It’s just the regulars here are the ones doing the chasing.”
There was a thump against the ceiling.
“Is it hailing or something?”
Paul wrapped his arms around his stomach. Australia was confusing.
Kerry Napes was vibrating with excitement. “At last, some action!”
“…Our last capture was four days ago,” said Verres.
“Too long! This is what I’m made for!5 This land is my Eden! Little rogue sorcerers around every corner, just for us!” Napes grinned like a gassy newborn. “Definitely beats opening another fucking mall…”
Corporal Jinks shook his head silently. Overall, he considered himself lucky in terms of company. Paul Mars was, frankly, a pussy, but sometimes he reckoned he could use more of those. Jinks tended to throw the boy at the cameras whenever his arm needed to seem kind. Verres was a crook, but she was also one of the best arguments for women in the armed forces. She had a good head for reading the public mood, too. He’d even seen a scrap of decency hiding under her skin from time to time.
Kerry Napes, though, was just a dickhead. Jinks had decided early on that the man was never to be allowed near the cameras. Just on the off-chance popped a boner while thinking something vile. Or even just started swearing in the vicinity of the sound gear. Or worst of all, tried demonstrating his powers.
Napes’ skin pulsed like there were giant pill bugs crawling underneath. He smirked. “Please tell me we’re nearly there, my friends are hungry.”
“Never do that again till I’m in my ground,” Verres snapped.
Napes threw his hands up. “Well they are!”
There had to have been a mix-up, thought Jinks. Somewhere in the depths of Vietnam, some clean-cut kid was blasting Charlie with good vibes6…
The truck came to a stop. The noises outside had become more alarming.
“Look alive, boys,” ordered Jinks.
Squad Delta spilled out of the troop-carrier. They were somewhere in the City of Sterling, close enough to the beach that the air was faintly spiced with sea-salt. Policemen and ADF soldiers were shouting at people gawking from their windows and front lawns. Others were pointing their guns and screaming at a bulge in the middle of the road, scurrying about like a puppy trapped under a carpet.
“So,” said Verres, “do we actually know what this kid can do?”
“Nope!” said Jinks bitterly. “Freakin’ DDHA.”
Napes punched his palm. “The Spartans’ enemies didn’t hand them neat little reports! Why should ours?”
“Shut up, university boy,” Verres snapped.
The squad found a bureaucratically coloured man lurking on the outskirts of the fracas, frantically flicking through a ringbinder labelled DDHA Field Protocols7.
Jinks tapped him on the shoulder. The man jerked and swung around. “Oh! Y-you must be Corporal Jinks?”
“Yes,” grunted the soldier. “And you are?”
“DDHA Agent Frecks, at your service sir.”
Verres looked Frecks up and down. He looked like if James Bond had been shut inside a running washing machine. Couldn’t they have at least sprung for a black suit?
“What’s the situation?” asked Jinks.
Frecks cleared his throat. “Well, me and my partner Benson had pacified the target’s parents, with the help of the soldiers of course—”
Verres cut in, “You pointed guns at them, didn’t you?”
“And made them tea!” protested Frecks. “We’re not monsters!”
There was a second of silence before Frecks cleared his throat again. “Anyway, the girl was cooperating—basically—so we tried to go easy on her. Even let her take a teddy-bear.”
“We were walking out onto the street when she dropped the thing, so we let her pick it up—” Frecks bit his lip.
“For Christ’s sake, man, spit it out!” barked Jinks.
“Well, the moment she touched the ground, her body sort of melted into it and—”…” Flecks pointed at the living mass of tarmac currently tripping up Perth’s finest. “—That.”
Corporal Jinks hummed and rubbed his chin. He really wanted to avoid shooting a kid. Especially one who could absorb bullets. What to do, what to do…
“Poor thing,” said Paul Mars. “Must be scared to death.”
Jinks clicked his fingers, before pointing sharply at Agent Flecks. “Get all your police and troops out of here!”
Flecks sputtered. “But sir—”
“Form a cordon. Keep the news crews out of the danger zone.They’re not worth anything here anyway.”
“Brilliant idea, sir!” cried Napes. “More for us.”
Jinks turned on his heel, and backhanded the man in the jaw. Kerry swore. Jinks ignored him. “Hide him or something, Verres. The last thing we need is Napes trying to eat a ten year old.”
Over the course of the next twenty minutes, soldiers and police officers climbed into their cars and trucks and retreated out of sight. Eventually—besides the soldiers enjoying a deeply awkward afternoon tea with Mr. and Mrs Nichols—all that were left were Flecks, Benson, and the PRSD.
Paul Mars approached the roiling mass in the road—alone and slowly. He had his hands raised. He’d have waved a white flag if he had one. “Hey, Lily, isn’t it?”
The distorted lump of road melted and reformed. It became the shape of a girl, with crushed glass for eyes. Or the upper half of one, anyway. Her waist tapered off into the asphalt. A mermaid of the suburbs city. She didn’t answer.
“Can’t talk like that?” asked Paul.
The girl nodded warily.
Paul bent till he was level with the child. He tried to remember conversations with his little sisters, and shook his head, before simply planting his rear on the asphalt, and crossing his legs. He gave the girl a smile. “Look, I know this is scary. It was scary for me and my friends, too when it happened to us. But I promise, we just want you to be safe. We’re not going to take you anywhere nasty.”
The girl tilted her head.
“He’s full of shit.”
Everyone looked up. There was a little girl dressed in rainbows floating above the scene. Her eyes burned bright red, and her skin was white ash.
“…Miranda?” said Paul eventually.
“Shit,” said Verres flatly.
Allison Kinsey ignored him. “I’ve been to the place they’ll take you. I think you should beat them up.”
Lily Nichols’ avatar looked noncommittally from Allison to Paul. It was strange. As the girl’s body moved, the upper half of it seemed to become less and less a part of the asphalt. Her torso was glass now, clear as the surface of a pool, but distorted under the surface by what for all the world looked like the glowing core of a lava lamp, shifting around inside her frame like a blob of liquid light. She thought about the words for a second, then, frowned, and shook her head.
“Thank you, Lily.” Paul gave her another smile, which she didn’t quite return.
Allison cracked her knuckles. “S’okay,” she said brightly. “I can get you started.”
The next thing Paul knew, Allison was slamming into his chest with the force of a small car, sending his body sprawling end over end across the road.
Mars came to a stop when his body struck the Nichols’ station wagon. He let out a pained groan, then looked up at Allison, now standing between him and Lily.
“Miri…” His vision swam as he tried to push himself upright, only to slump on his shoulders against a car tyre.. “…That’s not nice.”
Allison saw a golden opportunity. “The name’s Symphony,” she said, “and trying to arrest little girls isn’t nice either.”
It had sounded better in her head. She was keeping the name, though. Whatever the quality of Allison’s comeback, Lily still clapped. It sounded like a minor earthquake. Paul sighed. He’d thought he was winning the girl over.
“Right,” said Verres, watching the scene with the others from between a pair of houses across the street. “Time to raise some insurance premiums…”
Verres cracked her neck around on her shoulders, and pushed. There was a pulse. Every window, every tv screen, every piece of glassware in the street exploded into thousands upon thousands of jagged, angular shards. The shards flew and swirled towards Lily and the newly dubbed Symphony, joined by dust and dirt pulled up from the lawns and sidewalks. The cloud blew around the girls like sharpened rose-petals, orbiting the rainbow child and the glass girl like the rings of Saturn, catching and distributing the light they each exuded.
Lily made distressed grinding noises, her face scrunching up with fear. Allison stood her ground. The Americans were bluffing. Their brains were telling her that as loudly as they could. This was just playtime back at the Institute. It wasn’t even sharper. Britomart hadn’t pulled her punches.
She reached for Lily’s mind.
Don’t panic. They’re not half the supers we are. Wait, idea!
Allison grabbed hold of Specialist Verres’ song. It was like organ music powered by burning petrol. At the same time, she ignited, burning as hot as she could. Then, she let out a pulse. The glass all around them glowed like the embers of a fire as it melted. Verres flinched. Then Allison brought all of it into one; a single, metre wide ball of molten glass and heat, burning like the core of the world. She held the whole of it over Lily’s head…
“Do your thing!” Allison cried.
Lily reached for the sphere.
For a moment, her road-formed avatar was simply still; an asphalt statue bereft of life. Then reality caught up to it, and it crumbled into tar and rock. As for Lily, her essence fled into the sphere, the glowing core at the centre of her crystalline form flowing into the mass of molten glass.There was a chime; like the sound of a spoon against a drinking glass, but amplified to the level of a church bell. The sphere bulged and flowed; first the tips of fingers, then a momentary glimpse of a girl’s face among the light. For a few seconds, everyone present simply stared.
When the reformation was done, Lily Nichols stood at least three metres tall, Steam playing around her molten form in a loose cloud of shimmers and distorted air. The effect was only slightly spoiled when Lily giggled, her voice now clearer than the finest record.
“Aw, jeez, this is so much better than being a wall!”
“Yeah!” Allison shouted. “How do you like us now? Flying girl and melty giant!”
“Shit!” hissed Verres. “The glass isn’t listening to me! I can’t get it back!”
Jinks said, “You never told me you could heat it up like that!”
“I can’t! It was all the kid!” she swore. “And now it’s so hot I can’t get it off of her!”
Kerry Napes giggled. “Three powers! We’ve hit the jackpot! Let me at her, boss, for the love of God!”
Jinks just barely resisted the urge to slap the specialist. Again.
Allison was addressing her new friend. “So, want to play King Kong in the city for a bit?”
Before Lily had the time to shake her head, the temperature plummeted. All sound died. A dark, private dusk fell over the girls.
Lily’s glass giant went from glowing ruby to clouded diamond. For the first time in months, Allison shivered. She tried to heat up the air, but it was like throwing water off a cliff. All the energy she put out was drawn away like breath into the wind.
She glanced over at Paul Mars. He was sitting up now. His shadow was missing. The specialist was shouting, but the sound was snatched away before it got to Allison’s ears. She growled silently, before stalking over and lifting the man by his throat. Her feet left the ground.
“Stop spoiling it!”
A shearing snap, then a cloud of powdered glass hit the girl in the eyes.
Allison let go of Mars, only for something thick, warm, and sweaty to snap shut around her body. Eyes watering, she looked down to see the corporal standing below her. Both his arms were stretched, his hands bloated. One was setting Paul back on his feet. The other was clasped tight around Allison.
“Thanks, sir,” said Paul as he dusted himself off.
“Don’t mention it.” He looked up at his squirming, thrashing captive. “And that’ll be enough of that, ‘Symphony’.”
Allison tried desperately to wiggle free of Jinks’ swollen hand. She scratched and clawed at the inside of his palm, but it was like trying to gore cookie dough.
“Stop being mean!”
Jinks glanced over at the sound of Lily’s voice, just in time to see her cross the distance between them in a flying leap. The ground shook.
Her shadow fell rapidly over the two men.
“Shit!” shouted Jinks, shoving Mars to the side and raising one rapidly swelling arm to defend himself. But Lily was larger and heavier than she or the corporal realized. She slammed into the corporal like a titan’s fist, and Jinks was sent flying into the bricks of the house Verres sheltered behind, his form hitting the wall with a wet splat.
The arm holding Allison spasmed and thudded limply to the ground, freeing her; the length of it still connected to the smear that remained of the corporal like a string of stretched spaghetti. She floated in the air and humphed.
“Serves him right.”
Paul and Verres both looked on in horror.
Lily put her hands against her mouth in horror, a stream of mumbled half-apologies flowing desperately from her lips. The apologies abruptly stopped when the corporal’s remains muttered something little girls really aren’t supposed to hear.
The human splat croaked, “Okay, Napes, your turn… just don’t kill them, alright?”
Kerry Napes jumped out from the shrubbery he’d been hiding behind. “At last!” He grinned up at Allison. “Hey kid, lonely?”
Paul and Verres both braced themselves.
Kerry’s eyes rolled backwards in his head, and then exploded, releasing a swarm of something between shrimp and wasps. The tattoos on his chest leaked gouts of blood, before cracking open to release his transformed organs. Toothed intestines spilled onto the road like wyrms from a dragon’s womb. Napes’s heart wiggled out after them on its arteries, ventricles hardening and curling like the horns of a rhino beetle. His lungs were grinning goblins, accompanied by scuttling creatures with hides of muscle and torn skin. Soon all that was left of the specialist were a few strips of epidermis and his brain, armoured by the remnants of his skull. Even that sprouted legs and scuttled away into the bushes.
The menagerie charged at the girls.
Allison shuddered. “Ewww!” She looked over at Lily. “You wanna go get your parents or whatever while I take care of those?”
The glass-giant gave a thumbs up.
Allison landed amongst the monsters. She looked around and grinned, picturing about half of Eliza Winter’s biofeedback signals. These things looked dangerous; knowledge taken from first Zywie, then, more pertinently, the Physician highlighting sets of barbed, neurotoxin laced stingers hidden amongst the swarm. She clotted her blood, and set her skin aflame. “Bring it on.”
Time slowed, or at least Allison’s perception of it. The thing that had been Kerry Napes’ heart shot a jet of blood at the girl. To her it was like watching an icicle form in mid-air. Effortlessly, she snatched up the pancreas lunging for her leg and shoved it between herself and the stream.
The creature screamed as the acid struck it. Kerry Napes’ song exploded with notes of pain. One of the disadvantages of literally throwing yourself at your enemies, Allison supposed.
She threw the melting organ aside. A couple of miscellaneous messes of bone and muscle were trying to to flank her. High on adrenaline, she leapt to the side, grabbing the heart. She dug her nails into the thing. It shrieked, spraying its deadly blood all over a cluster of vermiform veins and serpentine bowels. When it was spent, she threw it down and kicked it like a football into what she swore had once been Napes’ fibula. The eye-swarm was descending now like angry rain.
Allison pulsed, white hot. The creatures burst into flame, consumed in less than a second. She felt good.
On the other side of the street, Corporal Jinks and specialist Verres watched on, unsure whether to be horrified or impressed. As a solution, Napes’ power was almost always worse than the problem.
Lily crashed shoulder-first into her living room, catching sight of her parents cowering by the sofa. The soldiers guarding them screamed pointless, indiscernible things up at Lily, but Grandad’s old armchair toppled both of them like bowling pins.
Mr. and Mrs Nichols looked up at their daughter with something akin to awe.
“Lily?” her mother asked.
The giant picked them both up gently. Effortlessly. Like kittens. Both her parents were too stunned to make a noise.
What Lily didn’t notice was Paul Mars’ shadow floating behind her. Allison did, though, watching the family reunion as she crushed some of Napes’ remaining body parts between her hands.
Verres screamed, trying to tackle Allison with desperate, purely human strength. Almost idly, the girl noted the electricity sparking across her shoulders from Verres’ stun-stick. Allison thrust her hands out and launched the woman over her head, letting her own momentum do most of the work.
All her attention was focused on the living shadow. It reminded her of a mosquito that’d drunk its fill. It was vast and globular now, and something like thunder and lightning roiled deep within it.
All that energy, she thought. Why isn’t he blasting her?
She found Paul Mars crouching behind a picket fence. He was breathing deeply and rapidly, like he was trying to psyche himself up for something.
Oh yeah, she remembered, he’s a wimp.
An idea struck Allison.
Colonel Jinks shot upwards on his legs, before retracting them back into himself and flattening around Allison like a net, rapidly contracting..
The girl let herself burn for just a second. The sudden burst of hot air blew the colonel up like a hot air balloon, sending him at first into the air, then, as his body vented the air, just badly off course.
“Yeah?” said the ghost-child, hopping around her host.
“You know how I went inside that Thumps guy and made him shoot me?”
“Mind doing that with Paul over there?”
“…You want me to shoot you?”
Allison groaned. “No, I mean—just get inside him, will ya?”
Miri regarded the specialist, still trying to convince himself to try and blast away Lily’s glass body. He was so big. And boy.
“Fine,” she huffed.
The spectre took off running towards Mars. She collided with him and—
Miri gasped with Paul’s lungs. It was even worse than she’d expected. She had way more arms and legs than she knew what to do with, everything was sweaty, and she felt like someone had stapled a lump of raw chicken between her legs. Miri was suddenly very grateful the Physician had made her female.
She shook Paul Mars’ head, trying to focus. What do I do now?
Send his shadow-thing over to the other Americans!
“Okay,” Miri said aloud. Gosh, his voice was deep.
The void of darkness flitted over to where Jinks and Verres were trying to find their second wind. It hovered above them, threatening to rain its stolen energy down on their heads.
“The hell are you doing, Mars?” Jinks shouted. “Don’t tell me you’ve gone turncoat!”
Miri waved at them.
“Paul Mars is under new management,” called Allison. “We’re gonna keep him if you don’t go away.”
Verres looked questioningly at her superior officer. “Jinks?”
Kerry Napes brain scuttled frantically out from its hiding place, ramming the corporal’s ankles until Jinks picked it up. Despite himself, he started stroking the misbegotten thing like a frightened puppy.
He looked plaintively at Allison. “Just… don’t hurt Paul. Please.”
Allison smiled slyly. “Wouldn’t dream of it.”
Paul started walking towards his comrades. A few feet away, his shadow shrunk and reattached itself to its owner. The specialist stumbled forward like he’d been shoved.
Verres grabbed her comrade’s hand and started pulling him roughly towards the AMV. “We’re going,” she said.
A little woozily, Mars said, “But the mission—”
“Tactical retreat, Paul,” said Jinks firmly, still carrying Napes’ brain. It was going to take ages for him to grow back, but better that than dead. Hell. This might even keep him out of trouble for a while. The corporal called over his shoulder. “Miss Whatever-Your-Name-Is, I don’t approve of what your country does to children like you, but you are an absolute brat.”
Allison didn’t answer the man. Instead, she turned and walked towards Lily Nichols, still holding her parents in her palms.
“I like your power,” she said.
Something like a ghost emerged from the giant’s chest. It landed in front of Allison and solidified into a naked, red haired girl about her age. “Thanks,” she said. “Yours is pretty good too.” She tilted her head. “Flying, lava…?”
“Lotta things,” said Allison, trying not to brag for once. “How long you been a super?”
Allison grabbed her hand and high-fived her. “Same!” She pointed at Lily’s parents. “Those yours?” she asked.
“Yep!” answered Lily, pulling on the same clothes that she had been wearing when DDHA had tried to take her. “You two okay?” she called up to them.
Mr. Nichols made a small, vaguely affirmative squeaking noise. Mrs Nichols nodded slowly.
Allison smiled bemusedly. Parents. Somewhat involuntarily, her thoughts turned to her own. It had to have been a year—
She glimpsed the edge of her parents’ future.
No, she thought. They’d take me back…
In seven out of ten realities, they wouldn’t.
Somewhere far away, Lily was saying, “Gosh, I’ve never been that… is the word naughty? Feels too… little.” She giggled. “Well, whatever it was, it was fun.”
Allison marched over to her and grabbed the other girl’s hand. “Come with me,” she said, her voice low.
Lily smiled confusedly. “What?”
“I have friends. We’re all supers.” Allison tried to smile. It had too much teeth and didn’t reach her eyes. “It’ll be fun.”
Lily opened her mouth like she was about to speak, closed it again, and then tilted her head up towards her parents. “What about Mum and Dad?”
Allison sucked in a breath. “They’re not like us. Their world is too small for us. They’ll try to stuff you into it… or kick you out..”
“Um, honey,” Mrs Nichols said. “What are you girls talking about down there?”
Lily didn’t answer her mother. “Look,” she said to Allison, “you’re fun, and it’s great you saved me from those idiots. But I’m not gonna leave my parents behind. They’re my parents..” She laughed. “That’d be nuts.”
Allison’s eyes were watering. She wished it was some of Verres’ dust.
Briefly, Allison considered making Lily come with her. It wouldn’t hurt her. It’d feel just like if she decided herself…
Alberto was standing behind Lily now, raising a glass of wine in a toast with a small smile.
Okay, scratch the brainwashing. She could show Lily the future. Futures, she should say. All the things they could do together. She looked up at the the elder Nichols.
All the ways they would fail her.
She could, couldn’t she? It wouldn’t be making her do anything. Just presenting her with the options…
No. It still wouldn’t be fair.
Alberto shrugged, drained his glass, and vanished.
Allison let go of Lily’s hand. “Kay,” she said. “I get ya. Still, friends?”
Lily’s smile became sure again. “Yeah, definitely.”
Mr. Nichols said, “Maybe we should head off, Lily? I think I can hear more police sirens…”
“Yeah,” replied Lily. “Good idea.”
Allison skimmed the storm of futures. “Head north,” she said, “into the hills. Easier to hide up there.” She nodded at the still glass giant, the joints of its limbs slowly starting to crack as gravity caught up to them. “I’d take that thing with ya. Nobody’s gonna wanna mess with that thing.”
“Thanks, said Lily. She took a deep breath and stepped in front of her giant. “See ya around, Symphony.” She wafted out of her clothes into the golem. Her parents gave weak, but somewhat cheerful waves.
Allison stayed on the ground until the Nichols turned the corner out of sight. Then she burst into the air, climbing into the sky.
Why did she feel so yuck? She’d done a good deed! And for once it was actually fun. It wasn’t as though she’d found out anything she hadn’t already guessed.
Anxiety and rage thrashed inside Allison like some of Kerry Napes’ organs. She wished she could escape her body—
Allison stopped in mid-air above the Swan River. “Miri,” she said. “Do you want a turn being in charge?”
Before Miri could answer, she was.
The young creature hovered in the sky for a moment. She waved her hand in front of her face and rubbed her fingers through her hair.
Miri took a deep breath. “Costume off.”
She took off over the sea, laughing wildly.
1. Paranormal Response Squad Delta, one of over fifty superhuman task-forces assembled by the Department of Psychonautics and Occultism in the wake of the Flying Man’s appearance on the world stage. Originally stationed in Lawton, Oklahoma, Squad Delta was transferred to Irwin Barracks in the Perth suburb of Karrakatta after the December Bombings of 1965. ↩
2. Unfortunately it would be “The Brat Pack.” ↩
3. Noted posthuman psychologist Bartholemew Finch would later publish a study on variable nudity taboos in superhuman children. As he later mused, it wasn’t the easiest fodder for dinner conversation. ↩
4. In fairness to Mr. Russo, at that point in the 1960s, the American psychonautics division was still very much attempting to create superpowered humans via narcotics. ↩
5. Specifically, it was what his father paid Dr. Johannes ten thousand dollars and signed a liability waiver for. ↩
6. Corporal James Hagan was rotated into the medical corps when his healing abilities were fully demonstrated. He thus managed to avoid the front lines for the majority of the Vietnam war. ↩
7. Or “the Malleus” as a few of the more literate (and self-conscious) DDHA personal had taken to calling it. ↩