Beneath the slowly setting sun Arnold Barnes was putting the finishing touches on his sandcastle when Mabel asked, “If David and Allison don’t come back, what should we do?”
Arnold didn’t look up from his southern turret. “They’re coming back.”
Mabel kept scratching away at her life sketch. “I know. Still, worth thinking about. Can’t exactly do the teleport trick without Allie. And pretty sure we’re not as good at fishing as David.”
Arnold hummed. “True. I guess I could zap chunks of the sea over here and see what turned up… Not sure what we’d do for water, though…”
Billy stretched in front of Mabel. Without his clothes, he looked as if a children’s illustrator had forgotten when to stop drawing. “I can make saltwater okay to drink!” he insisted. “Can make us food, too—”
“We’re not eating your food sludge,” said Mabel.
The tiger-boy whined, “But it’s sugary!”
“No.” Mabel glanced at her scrapbook resting beside her. “I guess if we didn’t want to be the Swiss Family Watercolours forever, I could make a boat…”
A black treasure galleon with a golden water-kelpie for a figurehead appeared just off the island’s shore.
Mabel grinned. “Or a spaceship…”
The sailing ship vanished, replaced by a classical, red and blue flying saucer1, its rim ringed with hemispherical divots.
“Nice,” said Arnold. He shifted to look at Mabel and Billy. “Do you think we could manage?” Guiltily, he clarified, “Without David and Allie I mean.”
“Honestly,” said Mabel, “I’m not sure how they would manage.”
The gentle churn of the waves was broken by excited splashing. David was running out of the sea, his grandfather looking on fondly as always. The little boy was wearing a sodden beret.
“Hey guys!” he trilled. He pointed to his beret. “I went to France! Same part mum’s mum was from!” He giggled. “Those kids were so confused…”
Mabel waved. “Hey Dave,” she said, adding, “You know, Allie at least left a note.”
David looked around the beach. “Oh, is Allie gone?”
“Yeah,” said Arnold. “Note said she went flying with ‘Miri’.”
Billy was looking up at the clouds. “I bet she’s already conquered America or something.”
“That’d be cool,” said Arnold. “We’d own Disneyland.”
“Ooh!” David turned towards his grandfather. “Sometime we’re going to Disneyland!”
“I don’t know what that is,” said Grandfather Ocean. He pointed a pale finger at the UFO still hovering above his domain. “Is that the work of you, larger girl?” he asked Mabel.
“Yes,” Mabel answered warily.
The Ocean looked at his grandson. “You should keep an eye on this one, too, in case you can add her blood to ours.”
David rolled his eyes. “Are you going to say that about every girl I know?”
“Only the exceptional,” said the Ocean. “You keep good company, my child.”
Mabel grit her teeth, hiding her face behind her sketchbook. She didn’t know why Allison liked David’s monster-granddad so much. Aside from him being evil, half the time he sounded like a weird, aquatic Lawrence.
Also, looking at a dead guy’s junk was gross.
Something small and white streaked down through the sky like an early falling star, landing somewhere on the other side of the island. Mabel could have sworn she heard it giggling.
“I think Allie’s back,” said Arnold.
The Watercolours circuited the island until they found Allison. The girl was… licking a tree.
“Um, Allie?” asked Arnold.
“That tree must taste really good,” said Billy.
Allison straightened and ran up to her friends, grinning maniacally. “Hi guys!” Her gaze jumped wildly between all the other Watercolours, as though she were only seeing them for the first time.
Mabel squinted at her friend. There was something… askew with Allison. Usually, she carried herself with the confidence of a young tigress. Or a kitten about to pounce at a mirror. Right now she looked like she was about to vibrate herself to death with excitement. Her grin was off too. Allison always smiled like she was surveying a kingdom laid out for the taking. Now she just looked like she’d spent all her pocket money on Windshear’s smuggled soda.
“Allison,” said Mabel slowly, lest she set her off, “did you… take something while you were away?”
“Allison” blinked, before comprehension dawned on her. “Oh, I’m not Allison.” She shot her arms out to either side of herself. “I’m Miri!”
David tilted his head. “…Wait, you’re that clone-girl Allie ate?”
“Yep,” chirped Miri. “It’s alright, I was gonna be dead anyway.”
Arnold regarded her suspiciously. “Is this another Alberto thing? Because we just did that.”
“She gave me permission!” insisted Miri. She glanced at the empty space to her left. “Tell ‘em Allie!”
The air did not speak.
Miri frowned and shook her arm. “C’mon, tell them!”
A moment of plaintive staring, and the girl closed her eyes.
Allison opened her eyes and sighed, her whole posture wilting. “It’s okay, guys,” Allison said wearily. “I’m just… having a break. Please be nice to Miri, she’s cool.”
Miri shook herself like a wet dog. “See? I’m like her…” Miri
Arnold raised an eyebrow, his arms folded. “You could’ve just been pretending to be Allison.”
Billy shoved the other boy playfully but firmly. “Aww, don’t be like that, Arn.” He stepped next to Miri and pulled her into a side-hug. “Pleased to meetcha, Miri!”
Miri nuzzled Billy so hard the pair toppled over in the sand. Miri kept on cuddling. “Oh, my God.” Miri wondered if she had one of those. She wasn’t even entirely sure what a “God” was2. It didn’t matter. She had more important quandaries to consider:
“How are you so cuddly?”
Billy purred. He might’ve been self-conscious about that not too long ago. He wiggled proudly. “Natural talent!.”
Billy’s tail swished against Miri’s leg, making her giggle. “You have a tail!” she declared. “Why don’t other people have tails? They’re so much fun!”
Billy grinned around at his friends. “I think I like her.”
The next fortnight on No-Name-Island passed relatively quietly. Miri manned the fort of her and Allison’s body for more than three days straight.
Much to David’s consternation, most of that was spent with Billy:
“Wanna come swimming, Miri?” he asked one afternoon. “There’s a dolphin pod hanging out a couple miles out!” He pointed eagerly out to sea. “We can wrestle them!”
“Maybe later,” Miri answered, not looking at the sea-sprite. She was sitting in the sand, braiding the fur on Billy’s back into tribal tattoos. “I’m doing an art!”
Billy flinched slightly as Miri’s fingers slipped. “Yeah!” he said, grinning and baring his fangs. “I’m gonna be a warrior!”
“Oh, okay,” said David. “Later then.” He turned around and started walking into the ocean, muttering, “Unless you’re too busy kissing and junk.” He kicked a rock into the water on his way past.
“I don’t get it!” David said later, pacing on top of the water in front of his grandfather. “I’m cool right? And dolphins are cool!”
“You are a beautiful, boundless creature, my child,” Grandfather Ocean assured him. “And dolphins are amenable lovers whose flesh made your mother grow strong and tall.”
“Yeah!” said David. “Who wouldn’t want to pet one? Dumb people, that’s who.” He sat down on the glassy surface of the sea, hand cupped under his chin. “It’s all because Billy’s floofy…”
“You could have fur,” said the Ocean.
David squinted at his grandfather. “I could?”
“Your body is a seeming. It is whatever you think you are. You could have the snowy pelt of a seal-cub, or the slippery skin of a dolphin.”
David rubbed his chin. “Hmm…” He took a deep breath, clenched his fists, and screwed his eyes shut in concentration. After a minute or so of this, he opened his eyes again and looked down at himself, finding only the usual brown, naked human skin.
“Stupid—” David startled when he caught sight of his shoulder. It was plated in moss.
“It’s so unfair!” he whined later walking next to Arnold along the beach.
“What’s unfair?” Arnold asked, only half-listening as he flapped his cloak in the breeze.
“It’s like I’ve been replaced!”
Arnold stared incredulously at David, before breaking down in bent over laughter.
“What?” said David. “What’s so funny?”
Arnold looked back up at his friend, mouth open like he was going to explain, only for laughter to overcome him again.
Arnold managed to stand up straight up again and wipe his eyes. He strolled ahead of David. “You’re lucky you’re pretty, Dave.”
Eventually, David figured out what he had to do. Miri thought Billy was cool. Bah! He’d show her cool…
Billy and Miri were sitting on a rocky outcrop arting and crafting when the moaning whale song washed over them.
The minke whale rose from the water, its head and jaw armoured in gleaming white and purple seashells. David rode atop her like Hannibal on his elephant. Like his mount, his body was decorated with shells, while a coral crown rested in his dark locks.
“Woah,” said Billy, setting down his homemade cup of homemade glue. Thankfully Miri had stopped trying to taste it. “It’s a whale-knight…”
“Hey guys,” David called. He thumped the whale lightly. She hardly noticed. “Like my new pet?”
The whale let out a rumble deep in its belly.
“It’s neat!” said Miri. She held out Billy’s latest latest creation: a clam with googly eyes and red paint streaked across its lower rim. “We’ve been doing stuff too! Look! Billy made it look like a face!”
David looked at Miri’s face. He didn’t know Allison’s features were capable of such unalloyed wonder.
“Billy, do the thing!”
Billy took the clam and flapped its jaws. “Hello, I’m Mr. Scallops!”
Miri squealed and clapped her hands. Her eyes were sparkling, even through the red glare.
David’s eye twitched.
Really? he thought.
“Yeah,” he said. “Cool.”
Sullenly, the boy and his whale sank back below the waves.
Thankfully for David, Miri eventually took the backseat again.
Mabel was crouched in the sea, futilely trying to wash the sand out of her hair without replacing it with salt.
Mabel stood and looked behind her. Her friend with the bloodless skin and the glowing red eyes was standing on the shore. But which one? No costume, but that wasn’t really a clue either way. She didn’t particularly look like she wanted to hug or stick anything in her mouth, and she was standing very straight, like she was issuing the entire world a challenge. In general, she seemed to lack the constant, unabashed state of “yay” in which Miri existed.
The girls strolled into the surf next to her friend. “Yeah, I’m back. How’s stuff?”
“Okay,” answered Mabel. “I finally figured out how to draw Billy’s face properly. You’d think kids would be easier when you are one.” She made a show of checking her surroundings before whispering, “I’m gonna try animating it later and make it sneak up on him.”
Allison grinned.“Only if I’m there when you do it. And I have a camera on me.”
“Heh, deal. You were gone a while, Allie.”
Allison quirked her shoulders. “Hey, Miri barely got to be alive before we merged.” Mostly in their sleep, Allison and Miri had agreed that “merged” was the least gross way of putting it. “Why shouldn’t she get to be in charge for a while?”
“True. Still, three days. Long time. You could’ve… taken shifts?”
Allison took a deep breath. “I needed a break.”
“…From being you?”
Allison stiffened for a second, before forcing a smile and splashing Mabel. “Shut up!”
It sounded like Allison meant that more than she realized. Mabel decided not to press things. Allison hadn’t, after all.
“…And if I have to I eat fish one more night!”
“Maybe if you’d try it raw for once…”
“I’d bloody throw my guts up!”
The girls turned to find David and Arnold stalking along the beach, clearly arguing, with Billy trailing trepidatiously behind them.
Mabel called over to the boys, “What are you on about?”
Arnold stopped and turned on his heels towards the girls. “I’m sick of sleeping in the sand all the time! I want a real bed!” He grimaced at his own grime and sand encrusted body. “And a shower.”
David scoffed. “We’re on a beach. Just go for a swim.”
Arnold got right up in the other boy’s face, hissing, “Do you know what sunburn on your butt is like, David?”
“Do you?” Arnold shot a look at Allison. “And how are you not a lobster by now? You’ve got paper for skin!”
“Do you see paper getting sunburn3? Stop being a wimp, Arn.”
“…I think I’m with Arnold,” said Mabel.
Allison looked at her. “Why?”
Mabel shuffled her feet in the water. “Look, we’re not like you and David. Running around naked and playing with gods or whatever all day is fun, it really is… for a while. But I miss shampoo. And food that isn’t fish.”
“You should try seaweed!” insisted David. “Or dugong!”
“No,” said Mabel firmly.”
“Yeah,” said Billy. “We’ve done it your way for a while. I’ve really liked it, but it should probably be Mabel and Arnold’s turn now.”
“Billy’s right,” said Miri, suddenly standing on the water between Allison and Mabel. “I’ve never been in a house! They sound neat! Like if someone made an island, but inside.”
“Okay,” Allison said flatly. “We just need to find a hotel that’ll let five outlaw kids with no parents or money stay as long as we want without calling the freak-finders.”
“Can’t be that hard,” said Arnold. “We have your Alberto powers.”
“Seems chancey,” said Billy. “Also, maybe evil?”
David folded his arms and pouted. “I don’t wanna go somewhere I have to wear clothes all day. Or be far away from the sea.”
Arnold shoved him. David shoved back.
There was a gurgling sound behind Mabel and Allison. Grandfather Ocean rose and formed from the water. “My child, if you wish to indulge the animals, I know of a place that might silence their complaints.”
“What place?” asked David.
“A great cave of air and metal, built by a rascal god some time ago. In my honour, I assume. An estate, I think men would call it, or a manor. It is… acceptable for creatures that breathe, and full of what you would call wonders. It’s been empty for a while now.”
“Alright,” said Billy, grinning and nodding his head, “that, I want to see.”
“It does sound fun,” Allison admitted.
Arnold only had one question:
“Is there a TV4?”
Rather than risk Arnold dropping them deep beneath the ocean, the children ventured across David’s ancestor on a sailing ship conjured by Mabel’s powers. She and Allison took shifts maintaining it while they and their friends ran around playing pirate amongst thinly-defined, phantasmic sailors. They followed in the wake of an unnaturally long-lived rogue wave, upon whose crest David and grandfather rode.
After nearly a week, the wave crashed back into the ocean. Once David stopped laughing and hugging his grandfather he broke down into sea fog and reformed on the prowl of the WS5.
“We’re here!” he crowed.
The Watercolours gathered portside, looking down at the choppy plane of slate-grey water. Winter ruled this part of the world. The sky above was lined with heavy gray clouds. Thunder rumbled somewhere below the horizon.
Mabel rubbed her shoulders. Even with her costume, the air carried a bite. She would be glad to be somewhere warm again. “Okay,” she looked at David, “how do we get down to this sea-castle or whatever?”
David smiled indulgently and rubbed his knuckles against his chest. “Don’t worry, I’ve got it covered.”
He gazed down at the sea, his eyes aglow. A small, circular patch of water froze over. Its edges curved upwards, rising into the air until the glassy ice met and closed, except for a porthole in the very top, large enough for a child or two to slip through.
David turned to Allison at the end of the line. “Allie—”
His body became a splash on the deck. His voice rose from the ice-bubble:
“Mind helping our friends into the bathysphere?”
Once Allison had lowered the last Watercolour down into the globe, it sealed shut. Everyone was wearing their costumes, apart from David. Arnold wanted to ask how his skin wasn’t sticking to the ice.
“Try not to breathe too much,” the water-sprite said.
“I wasn’t until you said that,” grumbled Arnold.
Mabel’s ship dissolved back into dreams. The bubble plunged below the waves. David’s grandfather swam in front of them, towards a light in the far gloom. The light became a rosebulb of blue and green diamond cradled in gold filigree, glowing in the storm-darkened sea like the fallen moon. Or maybe a dandelion, swaying in the current on a stalk that trailed down into the murk. It appeared to be the size of a school bus.
“Wow,” said Billy, his face as close to the ice as possible without having to leave a chunk of his fur behind.
He didn’t know it, but Miri was on her knees right next to him, her imaginary face pressed right against the window. She grinned back at her sister. “Pretty!”
“Is pretty woah,” Allison said, as though finely crafted jewels of metal and diamond were something she found all the time in the middle of the oceans. “Looks a bit small for us, though.”
They drew closer. The rosebulb grew to the size of a house. Then a manor. Then a large shopping mall.
“Holy shit,” said Mabel. “Who the hell built this place?”
“Dunno,” said David. “Granddad just says it was a god.” He shrugged. “I don’t think he’s very good at telling them apart.”
“Get in as close as possible,” Arnold told him. “I really don’t want to mess this up.”
David obeyed, bringing the icey submarine so near it was almost touching the rosebud. To Arnold’s quiet but obvious relief, its diamond walls were largely transparent.
“There!” he said, pointing at a place close to the bottom of the structure. “Pretty sure there’s a staircase through there! Everyone huddle up!”
The children all laid their hands on Arnold. The globe flashed green and crumbled away.
The Watercolours materialized in a heap on the staircase. Mabel got to her feet first. “Nice, Arn,” she said. “We’re not drowning!”
She looked around. They were in what looked like the grand foyer of a Gilded Age ocean-liner. But where those ships did their best to make their passengers feel as though they were on dry land, this space seemed to glory in the marine. The carpets and walls were all aquatic greens and blues, the latter dotted with bronze and chrome barnacles. Before the staircase was a fountain that looked like nothing more than a hole into the ocean. There were murals of sea creatures and gods everywhere. The entire front wall was a window out into the sea.
“I think we need to thank your grandpa,” said Arnold.
A calm, even voice filled the entire room. In a perfectly calculated English accent it said: “It is my unfortunate duty to inform you children that you are trespassing.”
The children all startled and scrambled to their feet. Arnold lit up with lightning. A laser-pistol appeared in Mabel’s hand. A globe of mercury materialized in front of Billy’s chest.
Allison resisted the impulse to burn. This place was too nice to scorch if it could be avoided. “And who might you be?” she asked cooly. “You that god that built this place?”
“No,” said the voice. “I am the caretaker intelligence of the residential section of the Lyonesse complex. I mind the shop while sir is away.”
“And who is ‘sir’?” asked Arnold, still glowing bright, eyes peeled for attack robots or whatever this place was going to throw at them.
“Oh, this is unexpected. On the off chance that any intruder did not already know whose home this is, sir authorized me to display this image for intimidation purposes. Please enjoy.”
A perfect holographic image appeared above the fountain.
All the colour rushed from Mabel’s cheeks. “Fuck.”
Arnold glared at David. “Your granddad’s an idiot.”
Gently, the Flying Man smiled down at the children.
1. Its shape of course was utterly impractical for an interstellar vessel. It was, however, currently in vogue with the galactic community. ↩
2. What scraps of spiritual education Miri received during her incubation period concerned the pantheistic faith of the Physician’s own shallow coastal clan. ↩
3. As Eliza Winter would have explained, it was less that Allison Kinsey skin was low in pigment as all of it was white. ↩
4. Grandfather Ocean in turn had a question of his own: “What’s a ‘TV’?” ↩
5. “Watercolours Ship” ↩