The Watercolours didn’t know what they were expecting when David and Allison had shouted them awake and dragged them down to the foyer. Not this:
“So…” said Mabel, looking at Allison from the staircase like she had chicken-pox, “you want us to make our own super-country?”
Allison shrugged, floating half-reclined above the fountain. “Okay, maybe ‘country’ is a bit big. But a city? A town?” She rolled her tongue, “A village, maybe?”
Arnold said, “A… whatever just for supers?”
Allison looked down at her friend. Images of his mum and dad were burnt into the front of his mind. “Yeah,” she said, “and people we like.”
The clouds of futures between Allison and her parents thinned. She smiled inside.
“Give me a break,” Alberto hissed in her ear. “That’s just statistical noise. Might as well flip a coin and expect—”
There was a sound like a hand being clapped over Aberto’s mouth.
“Don’t be mean,” said Miri.
“So where would we put this country?” asked Billy, kneading his tail. Where did new countries even come from? Did they grow like plants?
Perched atop the fountain’s water-spout, David said, “Well, we could always—”
Allison cut him off, “We’re not gonna put it under the sea, David.”
“But me and Granddad could make an air bubble—”
Mabel recited, “And then you get bored, or fall asleep, or someone hits you on the head with a hammer.”
“Who the heck’s gonna do that?”
Mabel examined her fingernails. “Oh, I don’t know…”
“We can figure that out later,” said Allison. “There’s loads of space just in Australia. Most of the country’s just desert nobody uses1…”
“Oh, brilliant,” said David, folding his arms. “You punch me in the nuts and I get to go live in a desert, hurray.”
Allison mussed his hair with her foot. “Don’t moan, David. I’m sure you could make it way less dry.”
“And who’s gonna run the place?” asked Mabel. “Are we gonna be a parliament?”
Allison scoffed. “Boring! Leave it to the grown-ups.”
“As long as we get statues,” insisted David. “Bronze at least. And they better not put a toga or something on mine. Oh, and a stage!”
“A stage?” asked Arnold. “You think the Beatles are going to come perform?”
“No, for us!” said David. “We haven’t done a play since The Tempest!”
Mabel beamed. She thought David had forgotten. “And it’ll have arena seating!”
“Yeah! No, wait, it’ll be an arena!”
Mabel looked up at Allison. “Yeah, I’m in.”
“Sure, me too,” said Arnold.
Billy put his hands on his hips and power-stanced, declaring, “Growltiger is also in!” in his best young stentorian soprano.
David tilted his head. “Growltiger?”
Billy shrugged. “Hey, Lawrence gave it, I’ll do what I want with it.”
“Children,” said the caretaker as firmly as his speakers would allow. “This is a foolhardy and most likely doomed endeavour.”
“Who asked you?” said Allison.
“If sensible people waited to be asked, the human race would’ve died out before you mastered fire.”
Arnold smirked. “I’m pretty sure fire was some caveman kids messing around, mate.” He looked up at Allison. “So, how do we do this? We’re not gonna just find a patch of dirt and stick a flag in it, are we? Don’t even have a flag yet.”
“I could make the flag!” chirped Billy.
“Excuse me?” interrupted Mabel. “Who’s the artist here?”
“You both can!” said Allison. “Still, I got this covered: we’re gonna need people for this country, right? At least enough that nobody will want to mess with us or take it away.”
The other children nodded.
“So we’ll do a prison break!”
“I get ya,” said Arnold. “We’ll bust open Roberts or somewhere?”
“…Then where will we get the supers?” asked David.
Allison took a deep breath. Even she knew this would be a bit of a sell. “Circle’s End Supermax.”
Everyone went quiet for a moment.
“Circle’s End what?” said Mabel.
Allison descended down to the floor. “Remember when the Physician said Circle’s End has labs and stuff now?”
“Well, that’s not all. I was looking through the Flying Man’s files”—it still didn’t feel right calling him Joe—“and it turns out they’ve put a big jail there. For all the supers they couldn’t just lock up in the asylums. Some supervillains, a few old superheroes,; anyone who didn’t play nice with the freak-finders. Probably where me and Arnold would’ve ended up if Laurie hadn’t gotten us when he did. We’re gonna bust them all out, and they’re gonna help us scare the freak-finders into leaving us alone.”
“…Supervillains?” asked Billy after a few seconds. “You mean baddies.”
“They’re not all supervillains,” said Allison.
“But how many of them are?” asked Arnold.
“Thirty-six,” the caretaker answered. “Over a third of the inmates.”
Allison scowled up at the ceiling. She really needed to find where that thing kept its brain…
“Yeah,” said Mabel, “I think I’m starting to agree with the computer voice thing.”
“Glad to hear,” said the caretaker.
“Seriously, Allie,” said Arnold. “Why not one of the asylums?”
Allison sighed. “Because the asylums are for people who don’t fight back, or are weak enough for the humans to keep them locked there even if they did.”
“They kept us in them,” countered Arnold.
“Well, I mean—gaah! Look, I can see the future.”
Alberto corrected her. “Futures, love, you can see the futures.”
Allison shouted, “Shut up, Alberto!”
She quickly noticed everyone was staring at her.
Allison waved her hand. “He’s just being a pest, it’s fine. What I’m saying is, the best chance we have is teaming up with the scariest supers we can find. Otherwise pretty much everyone gets arrested and we hide here and watch Doctor Who till we’re twenty-one.”
“I don’t know why you’re all being such sooks,” said David, punching his open palm. “We can take ‘em.”
“Circle’s End is miles and miles from the sea, David,” said Mabel, voice hard.
The caretaker cleared his non-existent throat, “I hate to rain even harder on this parade, but Circle’s End is no ordinary prison.”
A holographic blueprint of what looked like a tent-peg crossed with a cross-section of an anthill materialized over David. The boy swatted at the projection, scattering it momentarily like bright grains of sand.
“Stop that! As I was saying, Circle’s End Supermax stretches far underground, and is equipped to house over two hundred and fifty top-shelf supers like yourselves.”
“Thank you, sir!” Billy said.
“Just speaking honestly, Mr. St. George. And while I hate to be morbid: the prison has plenty of cells free.”
“So it’s underground,” said Allison. “So was Veltha most of the time.” She flexed her knuckles. “Still managed to beat her up a bunch.”
“That’s not all, Miss Kinsey. The prison was constructed by our friend the Physician, with the help of a bevy of quisling super-scientists2. It has a full complement of what Miss Winter called ‘Quiet Rooms’, various high-powered pacification measures, extra-normal perimeter defenses, and a platoon of combat-grade Physician drones.”
“Like Mr. Thumps?” asked David.
“Somewhat,” said the caretaker, “although your typical Physician drone wouldn’t rip a person in half and spit into their alimentary canal as a first resort. The poor devils are less grown as they are stitched together out of concealed weaponry and chemical rage.”
“Still think I could take them.”
Allison was rubbing her chin. She’d never admit it, but the caretaker had a point. “Okay,” she said, “maybe we could use some backup.” She pointed up at the ceiling. “The Flying Man has files on loads of super-people, right?”
“Big-brains who are good at knocking over buildings and stuff?”
“Okay, give us a name.”
“No. Sir wouldn’t stand for me letting you children throw yourselves into the fray like this—”
“My son is gone, Blancheflor,” said Sarah Allworth from the top of the staircase. She looked like she was dressed to travel, in khaki shorts and a leather vest. “And God love him, he helped create the world these kids are stuck in. The least we can do is help them make a new one.”
Allison snickered. “Blancheflor?”
“Joe went through a bit of a King Arthur phase when he was a boy.”
Blancheflor said, “Ma’am, I can’t—”
“Listen here, Blanchey,” said Sarah, wagging her finger. “Joseph was your boss, right?”
“Well I’m your boss’s mom. I outrank him. Joe left this place to me, so I order you to give these kids a lead.” Sarah folded her arms. “Besides, wherever they go, I’m coming with them.”
“What?” David cried. “But you’re human! And old—”
Allison raised her fist at David. He shut up.
Blancheflor sighed. “…Understood, ma’am. Working.”
A second later, Circle’s End Supermax was replaced by the scowling full colour image of a young, dark-haired woman in oil-stained, olive green overalls. She seemed to be aiming a ray-gun of some type at the camera, one eye screwed shut with her lip set in a thin line.
“Maude Simmons, also known (most recently) as Mistress Quickly3, a still extant ‘mad-scientist’ from your own country’s east coast.”
“I know her!” said David. “She was in one of Mummy’s books!4” He tilted his head. “Why her?”
“Because she may be the smartest person on the planet,” replied Blancheflor.
“Figures she’s a girl,” Mabel whispered to Allison, making both children giggle. They almost missed what Blancheflor said next:
“I should know, she helped sir confiscate the world’s nuclear weapons.”
It didn’t take too long for Sarah and the Watercolours to get going. They would have left even sooner if the former hadn’t insisted on packing.
Mabel lifted the lid of the cooler-box and peered inside. “Check.”
“Did you look properly, dear?”
Sarah looked at Mabel over her spectacles. “Really?”
“…Fine.” Mabel shoved her face inside the cooler. “Check.”
“Thank you, Mabel. Sunscreen?”
“Yes, we have sunscreen.”
“Good.” Sarah looked over to David standing in the fountain. “Get dressed, David.”
David glared at the old woman. “No.”
“You are not going anywhere without clothes on, young man.”
David’s eyes narrowed. “It’s worked for me so far!”
Sarah’s eyes flickered upwards. “Blanchey, sweetheart, please flush all the ice-cream into the ocean at the count of ten.”
“Certainly ma’am. Ten…”
“You wouldn’t…” said David.
Sarah just stood there, smiling calmly.
David also stood his ground.
“For crying out loud!” shouted Allison. “Just do what she says!”
“I’m not gonna let her boss me around!”
Billy shouted, “If you lose us the autumn ice-cream David, I’ll… I’ll…” He breathed heavily. “…I’ll eat you!”
“Fine, fine! Costume on!”
David’s watery second skin appeared around him in a flash.
“Cancel that order, Blanchey,” said Sarah.
“Will do, ma’am,” said the caretaker, sounding not a little bemused.
“Wow,” Miri said. “She has power over the Mean One.”
“David’s not ‘the mean one’,” muttered Allison.
“Sure looks like it.”
Mrs Allworth walked over and patted David on the shoulder. “That’s a lovely costume, David. Could use some shoes, though.”
Sarah smiled kindly. “We’ll see. Ah, there’s Arnold now with my hat!”
Arnold trudged out of the foyer’s western elevator, shamefully carrying an akubra with wine corks dangling from the rim on top of his atlas. “Here you go, Mrs Allworth.”
Sarah took the hat from the boy. “Thank you, Arnold. No trouble?”
“The wardrobe made fun of me!”
“Oh, don’t mind him. Memorized those coordinates Blanchey gave you?”
Sarah clapped. “Then let’s get a move on!”
Sarah and the Watercolours joined hands in a circle, Billy and David carrying the cooler between them like a necklace clasp.
“Alright,” said Sarah, “on the count of three. Three—”
Arnold and Allison grinned. Green electricity shot through the circle and the group vanished. Thunder echoed through the empty foyer for a moment, before silence reigned.
“Why did she have to tell them my name?” the caretaker groused to himself.
That very instant, thousands of miles away, Sarah and the Watercolours appeared on a broad, rust-coloured flood-plain. A tired, summer-thinned river cut and forked through the landscape, trailing off towards banks of still green trees in the far distance.
Sarah startled, letting go of Billy and Mabel’s hands and stumbling backwards a few steps. “Never going to get used to that,” she muttered to herself, before glaring at a laughing Arnold and Allison. “I hope you two don’t think that was clever.”
Sarah quickly regained her bearings. It was beautiful countryside, wherever they were. And so warm. They’d gone from the brief, sea-filtered sunlight of a winter noon to a protracted summer twilight. A wall of gold on the horizon faded into copper above her head, fading into grey and black steel in the distance.
Sarah wondered if this is what it had been like for her son. Going from day to night in a moment, flying through seasons like time and distance were one and the same. “Where are we exactly?” she asked aloud.
Arnold was thumbing through his atlas. “We’re in the Northern Territory. The Top-End, they call it.”
She and Jonah should have let Joe take them travelling more, Sarah mused, before closing her eyes for a moment and taking a deep breath. Couldn’t get bogged down in mourning. The kids needed her. Maybe a lot more kids than she knew. She raised her arm, speaking into what looked like a wristwatch with a speaker-grill for a face. “Connection working, Blanchey?”
Blancheflor’s voice buzzed tinnily from the watch, “Loud and clear, ma’am.”
“Good. How far are we from this Mistress Quickly’s hideout?”
“3.5 kilometres west of your present location.”
God, a talking watch. Sarah felt like Jane Bond.
“I can see it!” cried Allison, looking out towards the setting sun with a hand shading her eyes. She wasn’t sure why Żywie thought she needed telescopic vision, but Allison wasn’t complaining. She could just make out the silhouette of—
“A plane?” Allison said. She looked back at Sarah and her communicator. “Does Mistress Quickly have a plane?”
“Yes,” replied Blancheflor. “A Boeing 727. She stole it back in ‘64 and kitted it out for a lair. Luckily, sir slipped a tracking device onto it.”
“And he just let a supervillain fly around for years?” asked Arnold.
A burst of static like a shrug. “He felt he owed her for the Cuban Crisis.”
“Right, let’s get going,” said Sarah, setting off towards the dark shape on the horizon.
A thought occurred to Allison. She looked a few minutes into Sarah’s future. She saw the old woman only a few yards from the plane. It seemed its shape was about the limit of what Mistress Quickly had preserved of the airliner. Its paint-job had been replaced by red and black flames, and its engines were slender, fountain-pen shaped things more at home on a UFO than an earthly airplane.
Its wings were also covered in guns, one of which swiveled around to blast Sarah square in the chest with a burst of electricity.
Allison blinked away the vision and jumped in front of Sarah. “Wait! There’s traps!”
Sarah stopped in her tracks, feeling rather silly. “Should have figured.” She didn’t bother asking how Allison knew that. She looked around at the children. “Anyone have any ideas?”
“I do,” said Allison, smiling. “Sit down and eat our sandwiches.”
Sarah raised an eyebrow. “Bit early for lunch,” she said, before looking up at the dimming sky. “Or dinner.”
“Trust me.” Allison turned around to face the images of Alberto and Miri, slouching and bouncing on her heels respectively. “You two, go check out the plane. There has to be a button or something to turn off the guns.”
Sarah watched Allison order about the air in front of her, slowly sidling up to Mabel and whispering, “Who is she talking to?”
“Allie has people living in her head. Long story.”
Miri nodded at her sister. “Sure thing!” she said even as she ran off towards the plane.
Alberto kept swaying on his feet languidly in front of Allison for a bit. The girl shot daggers at him. “Don’t be mean to her.”
Alberto sighed and turned on his heels. “Fine.”
Despite Miri’s lead, Alberto’s shade soon caught up with her, mostly because the girl kept stopping to examine every interesting weed or unusual patch of dirt:
“Lookit, Alberto! That flower’s yellow!”
“How come that lizard gets to have a blue tongue? It’s not fair!”
Alberto ignored the girl in favour of the memory of his whiskey flask, swigging from it greedily. He’d never really liked whiskey, but it was hard enough to get him buzzed in portable quantities.
Why was he doing what he was told? Because he had nothing better to do? Probably, but why was Allison loosening his leash?
Alberto glanced over at Miri. The kid was lying on her belly, watching some termites crawl through the dirt.
Oh, that was why: corroboration.
As they neared the plane, Alberto noticed Miri was circling him like a buzzard. “What are you looking at, kid?”
“Why are you wearing clothes?”
“You don’t have a body, why do you have clothes?”
“Why do you have a face? It’s called self-image. Also, fucking dignity.”
Miri giggled. “You’re funny when you curse.” She blinked and looked up at Alberto with wide eyes. “Why is cursing funny?”
Alberto smiled to himself. “Because curse words are magic, spread it around.”
When they reached the plane, Miri kicked off into the air and passed through its hull.
She’s good at ignoring gravity, Alberto thought as he followed the girl. Took me ages to stop paying attention to it. Must be the flier in her. Maybe she never got a chance to get used to being heavy.
Alberto wasn’t surprised to find the plane’s passenger seats had all been ripped out. The cabin was where a laboratory met a bachelorette pad. Chemistry kits, microscopes and centrifuges shared bench space with empty wine bottles, stale laundry and old records. Most of the windows had been covered by band posters. This was the woman who’d helped end the Cold War?
There were more exotic things, too. A cabinet where an egg hatched into a chick over and over. A rack of guns as colourful and diverse as butterflies under glass, and at the very back of the cabin, a metal plinth with what looked like a giant blue match flame burning above it.
The cockpit was about what you’d expect, bar maybe the bobblehead of the Crimson Comet on the dashboard. Much to Alberto’s delight, Mistress Quickly had preserved the upper-deck’s lounge bar. He gazed longingly at a row of spirit bottles. Maybe he could convince Allison to become an alcoholic.
Cries of annoyance from the main cabin echoed up through the aether. Alberto sighed and descended down through the floor to find Miri standing with her fists clenched.
“How do we find the right button? This place is…” Miri tried to find the words. “…Full of stuff!”
Alberto patted her shoulder. “Simple, kid. We go backwards.”
Alberto pulled the ghostly child back with him into the past, minute by minute, hour by hour.
A young lady in dirty overalls jumped backwards out of the flame at the end of the plane, gun in hand before tapping away at some buttons on the wall next to it.
Alberto grinned. “Oh my God, Allie’s going to love this.”
Miri’s eyes were wobbling. “That poor lady got burned up.”
Alberto was beginning to think he might like this kid.
They watched Mistress Quickly potter around the plane for a bit. She deposited her guns and gear back on their rack, regurgitated a few glasses of wine, flicked backwards through some magazines, and, finally, opened a hatch in the ceiling and plucked away at some buttons inside. The plane’s door swung open, a metal ramp extending down to the ground outside. Mistress Quickly exited the plane back first, carrying an empty six-pack in one hand and a fishing rod slung over her shoulder.
“There we go,” said Alberto.
A few minutes later, Sarah Allworth appeared in a green flash in the plane cabin. A little girl’s voice spoke in her head.
A bit to your left, no, your other left.
Sarah found the hatch. It was full of buttons labeled with masking tape and permanent marker. Two in particular were “SECURITY” and “DOOR”
Soon the Watercolours were gathered around the metal flame.
“So what is it?” asked Arnold.
Allison was crouched in front of the flame’s plinth, resting her hand on it and reaching into its past.
She turned and looked up at her friends. “It’s a portal.”
“I could’ve guessed that,” said Alberto.
“To another universe.”
“…Maybe not that.”
1. Something nobody told the Australian First Nations. ↩
2. Supers with primarily or purely intellectual gifts have often fallen into unique niches during periods of superhuman discrimination. The invisible nature of their talents makes them both nigh-undetectable to laymen, nourishment for paranoiacs, and too useful to dispose of. ↩
3. Ms. Simmons was one of the few supervillains in her time to forego the notoriety of using the same name for much of her career, instead going through some fifteen identities through the length of the 20th century. ↩
4. Heroes of the Outback, an attempted survey of Australia’s superheroes interrupted by the author joining their ranks while researching the book. ↩