In the sleepy non-town of Mogo1 by the Tasman sea, there lived a wingless angel. He was tall and solid as stone, his eyes like chips of coal. Though no longer young by any means, he wasn’t what you would call old, either—yet his hair and beard were white as Jupiter’s.
“Poor Ralph went white in the war,” the old folks around Mogo said. Mogo had a lot of those. “Horror’s as good as bleach for hair.”
Mogo was perfect for Ralph Rivers. The town had sprung up during the Gold Rush, and hadn’t quite been able to scatter to the wind when the streams and mines dried up. Home to less than four hundred people, the local tavern was friendly, but not too friendly. Folks who passed through on Princes Highway barely noticed the little smudge of town.
Most importantly, there weren’t any super-heads in Mogo.
And sometimes, when some coded, unspoken signal passed between Ralph and a transient at the pub or the petrol-station…
It was always quick. Rough. Furtive. Tainted by the dread of betrayal or discovery. Nothing like with Vince or Finch. But he’d learned the hard way it was all men like him could hope for.
He tried never to look in their wallets. Always that little fear of seeing a wife and kids staring back.
Still, it wasn’t all bad. When he could bear to be around children, he would head up to Sydney and look in on his niece and her kids. Stop off with an old lay of his on the way back. Sometimes his family even visited him back:
“Who’s that, Uncle Ralph?” Ralph’s youngest grand-niece asked, pointing at his refrigerator.
“Hmm?” Ralph followed Josie’s finger to what she was pointing at: an old black and white photograph from the war.
Ralph was standing on an airfield (in plainclothes, of course; none of Jan’s kids were old enough for that chat) grinning at the camera besides a fair-haired little girl wrapped in an oversized German army jacket with the sleeves torn off. She didn’t look happy to be so attired. Or attired at all, for that matter. There was a strange shine to her eyes, apparent even in faded monochrome.
Ralph smiled wistfully. “Oh, that’s Fran. She’s… a friend of mine.”
Josie giggled. “She’s too little to be your friend.”
“What, we’re not friends?” Ralph asked with a mock-frown.
“No! I mean, yes but—”
Ralph chuckled and raised his hand. “I’m kidding ya, Josie. Fran was… I took care of her until I could find her a proper home.”
“Does she live close? Could we go see her?”
“Nah, she lives in WA now.”
“That’s far away.”
“It is. She has a baby boy of her own now, too.”
Josie’s eyes lit up. “A baby?” Her mother had gotten her a baby doll that Christmas, and she was very intrigued by the whole business. “Have you seen it?”
Ralph smiled at the memory of a bronze skinned toddler pressing his face against the fish-tank glass. “Just the once, a long time ago.”
God, David had to be what, seven now? Eight? When was Fran’s last letter?
Ralph had been surprised when he’d first gotten the news. Not so much by Fran having a kid out of wedlock. Even if he could judge anyone else’s romantic choices, he never expected Françoise to lead a conventional life. But with Hugo? He’d sooner have expected Alberto, or Chen. Hell, even Eliza seemed like a more likely prospect. He was glad of it, though. Hugo was the only lad there who wasn’t… prickly.
“So,” said Josie, “Why couldn’t Fran stay at your house?”
The little girl glanced about the kitchen. “Did the washing machine leak? Ours did. Daddy had to call to tear up the floor, and call a plumber, and…”
Ralph stood there as his niece rambled, hoping to God she didn’t find the lead again. How the hell did he explain this to a five year old?
Jan rescued him, plucking her daughter up from the kitchen stool. “Time for your nap, love.”
“But I’m not tired!” Josie whined against her mother’s chest.
“And that’s how I know you need it.”
Jan turned and carried Josie off to the spare bedroom, looking apologetically over her shoulder at Ralph.
Bless Jan. She never judged him. Friends with Finch, even. Still, what decent mother wanted her little girl knowing her uncle was a fag?
Life was quiet in Mogo. An endless stream of garden work and odd jobs around Eurobodalla Shire. He wasn’t short on cash. Hell, he’d bought Jan’s house for her. It was more to keep himself fossilizing alive than for the money. His occasional employers gawked and joked when they saw him hammer in nails with a closed fist or drive posts into sun-baked soil like it was water, but nothing ever came of it. If anyone talked to the freak-finders about him, they never followed up. Ralph didn’t know if his solitude was born out of goodwill, fear, or genuine obscurity. Either way, Ralph and the rest of the world were content to ignore each other.
It was a whisper of a life. The residue at the bottom of the glass. An early sunset more fit for a man thirty years Ralph’s senior. Most days spent growing steadily more vapid in front of the TV. Most evenings on an empty fishing pier, downing beer after beer as the stars moved around him. But it was bearable. Better than the black days after the war. After Fran left. After Vince. The days of broken razor-blades.
But one day, far away but everywhere, something happened:
Ralph slapped a newspaper and a carton of cigarettes on the counter. “The Australian and a carton of Winnie Blues, thanks.”
“Sure thing, Mr. Rivers.”
Ralph’s eyes fell on the paper’s front-page. There were two children, a boy and a girl. They were dancing on a frozen over lake in front of Parliament House. Their eyes were both aglow.
“…What’s this?” Ralph asked quietly.
Gary the newsagent shrugged. “Some demis put on a show for the Prime Minister. Apparently some bloke has a whole school for them out west.” He grinned at Ralph. “Glad it’s not our coast, right?”
Ralph ignored the unintended slight. He emptied his wallet out on the counter, snatched the newspaper, and ran out the door. “Keep the change!”
“But you gave me a tenner!” Gary waved the Winnie Blues carton. “And what about your fags?”
Ralph’s voice echoed down the street. “Fuck em!”
Robert Menzies had invited Herbert Lawrence and his students to Canberra. The prime minister invited Fran’s son to Parliament. All of a sudden David occupied Ralph’s every other thought. Was he happy? Did he take after Fran or his father? And who was that girl dancing with him? Did Fran have a daughter? When? Ralph certainly hadn’t been told. Not only that, she looked the same age as David. And she was too white to be Hugo’s.
He cut out the front-picture and pinned to his fridge next to Fran’s photo, proud as horses. He wrote a bittersweet, alternate biography in his head. One where he had gotten to watch David grow up.
Things were going to change now. They had to. He knew they would, eventually.
Ralph sent more letters to Françoise, congratulating David and his unknown partner. He received no answer. Ralph couldn’t blame Fran. Why should she make time for the old queen who gave her away?
The stillness soon returned to Ralph’s life. Months flowed like water through his fingers, if a little colder for that brief flush of hope.
Then Canberra was bombed. Ralph spent days at his kitchen table with the radio on, expecting police or soldiers to kick down his door any second, not sure what he would do if they did.
By the time he ventured outdoors again, the papers were proudly blaring new horrors. Turned out the bombings were the work of a demi-human cult in Western Australia, led by a mad Oxfordian psychatrist obbessed with the obsolescence of human kind and selective breeding.
David. The girl. He’d left Françoise at a human cattle ranch.
That wasn’t all. The papers said that the brave Australian soldiers were forced to put down some violent cultists.
Ralph wasn’t sure how he knew Françoise was among them. Maybe it was a bitter taste in the water. Maybe he just knew Fran would die before letting anyone or anything harm her son. The black days were back.
Before the week was out, the shattered remains of the world were ground into sand. Two photographs vied for space on the front page of The Australian: a bizarre, tear-shaped spaceship hovering over the city of Melbourne, and a blurry photograph of the five children who’d held the Royal Exhibition Building and the senior staff of the DDHA hostage. Rumour was that the ring-leaders were the very children who’d performed for the deceased prime minister that winter.
Ralph only had to glance at the paper to know those rumours were true. There was little David, wild hair and luminous eyes, dressed in water. Out of the fish-tank.
That night, Ralph Rivers stood in front of his bedroom mirror, resplendent in his old suit, minus his long destroyed wings. The golden eagle stamped above his brow glinted in the starlight drifting through the window. Ralph didn’t know what he was about to do. Go and stop David and his friends? Help them? Whatever it was, he wasn’t going to stand by and let the world slide deeper into Hell. He was a superhero, goddamnit. He was the antidote to apathy. He should’ve gotten back in the game when they started rounding up kids.
But whenever he tried to step out of the house, he remembered the feeling of arms tearing from sockets. Of flesh and bone exploding around his fist. The plaintive looks of fear and pain on soldiers’ faces. The images blurred together. He wasn’t brutalizing Germans or Italians, but David, or the girl, or Fran. Their blood sticking between his fingers…
Curled on his bed, he wept. He was useless. Utterly fucking useless.
When he could weep no more, Ralph rose and peeled off his costume, shoving it roughly under his bed.
And then, he got on with it.
“Hey Rivers,” Gary called out to Ralph as he passed the newsagent. “You hear? The Flying Man’s dead!”
“Good,” Ralph grunted, carrying a bag of fertilizer on his shoulder.
He was soon walking up the path to his flat through his garden. He saw his white cat creeping skittishly along the fence.
What’s the matter with Pearl? Ralph wondered to himself.
He unlocked the front door and stepped inside.
There were people in his sitting room. Five gaudily dressed children, an old lady, and a younger woman in skinny jeans and a pink blazer over a black undershirt. The last was grinning wickedly at Ralph from his favourite armchair.
“Hey Comet,” said Mistress Quickly. “Nice place you got here.”
Ralph didn’t answer his old enemy. He was too busy looking at the dark-skinned boy leaning against the bookcase. His eyes were like nothing he’d seen since the war.
“The Crimson Comet? What do we need him for?” Allison asked. “Bloke flies around and punches things. I’ve got the first thing covered, and the rest is pretty… simple.”
Maude extinguished the acetylene torch she was using to solder some circuitry, flipping her mask up and wiping sweat from her brow. “Never underestimate your standard flying strongman, Kinsey. Need to be flown to safety? Want a wall torn down? Need someone to complete a circuit with their bare hands? They’re good for all of the above!” Maude frowned thoughtfully. “Well, unless their secret weakness is electricity. Surprisingly common, that.” She shrugged. “Eh, most of them are heroes, they’d be up for it.”
After the party had staggered exhausted through the dimensional rift, half the North American Maestros hot on their heels, Mistress Quickly had taken being teleported into Lyonesse’s foyer well. Her only response to the grand surroundings was to mutter, “Well, Joe was holding out on me…”
Maude more or less moved into the wardrobe for a day and a half after that. Well, it was called the wardrobe. It was closer to a small warehouse, containing hundreds of different outfits on motorized racks. Apparently Joseph Allworth felt it vital he had easy access to a clown costume, eighteen zoot suits, and a hooded winter version of his Flying Man outfit.
“Why do you even need a fancy outfit?” Mrs Allworth asked as Maude tossed a full length Georgian gown into her arms. “I thought you ran around all the time in those overalls.”
“That’s just when I was robbing other dimensions, honey. It’s like working from home in your pyjamas, but with more fresh air and strangers shooting at you.” Maude jabbed her thumb towards Allison trying on some far too big dresses2 over her costume a few yards down the rack. “Plus, I don’t want to look underdressed next to that lot. Not that it’s easy to be underdressed with David around…”
Sarah chuckled. “Not if I can help it.”
“Doing the Lord’s work there, Mrs Allworth.”
“Why other dimensions?” asked Allison. “Seemed like a lot more work.”
“Bunch of reasons,” replied Maude, holding a red leather motorbike suit in front of her. “One is that nobody cares if you steal the crown jewels and Prince Philip if they never go missing.” She threw away the suit. “There’s also harm minimization. Instead of robbing a lot of people in one reality, you spread them out across multiple universes.”
Sarah hummed dubiously. “Still sounds like common thievery to me.”
Maude rolled her eyes. “With all due respect, Mrs Allworth, your son was the most painfully principled man I’ve ever met. Even he couldn’t get upset for me for robbing the Thousand Year Reich3 or the Theocracy4.”
Allison was pulling a sky-blue satin dress over her head. “So, the Maestro world got took over by the super-people?”
“Yep,” said Maude. “Whole place is like someone built a funfair out of freak-finder nightmares. They swooped in when everyone was tuckered out from the war. Theirs lasted two extra years, can ya believe it?”
“Didn’t seem like they were doing a bang-up job of running things,” commented Sarah.
“Yeah,” said Allison, twirling in her dress like she was at the centre of a whirlpool. “We’d do a way better job.”
Sarah and Maude laughed uncomfortably, sharing a look. Neither woman had been brave enough yet to talk to Allison about how casually she’d dispatched Scrapper.
Once she’d settled on an outfit, Mistress Quickly had locked herself in Lyonesse’s machining workshop, ministering over what looked like an unravelled butterfly made of circuits and wires.
The super-scientist let Allison watch her tinker from the edge of one of the workbenches, legs kicking the air as she took in Maude’s song. It was a strange tune, like a lullaby played on strings of pollen strummed by lightning. It didn’t let Allison do anything new, but it weaved stray thoughts in her head like silk threads. She’d already idly constructed a freeze-ray. Not that Maude had been overly impressed. Everyone had a freeze-ray in them. It was like the ABCs of enhanced science.
“It’s not even his powers we need,” Maude said as she guided a fuse into place with a pair of pliers. “It’s the image. I know half the supervillains in the super-max. If they’ll listen to anyone, they’ll listen to me.”
“Why’s that?” Allison hoped to God they hadn’t recruited a paper-tiger.
Maude smirked. “Kid, you’re looking at a three time winner of the Crime Olympics, and Villainy in Review’s5 Mad Scientist of the year for 1958.”
“…There’s a Crime Olympics?”
“Well, a bunch of us get drunk and see who can steal the most shit in a week. But I still won.” Maude turned around and wagged her pliers at Allison. “Trust me, I’m at the head of that herd of cats.”
Allison was beginning to suspect Mistress Quickly didn’t often have a reason to explain herself. “So you’re like the boss of the baddies… so we need a superhero to… help us?”
Maude gritted her teeth. “You’re not listening, Allie. I can wrangle the villains, but—”
“Oh, you mean we need the Comet to get the superheroes on our side.”
Maude inhaled deeply. “Yes and no. You’re right that it won’t hurt, but getting the heroes to team up with us outlaws isn’t as big an ask as you might think. We’re practically the same species. Besides, we’re already breaking them out of a desert hell-prison. Right now, the only difference between a supervillain and a superhero in Oz is attitude, far as the law is concerned. It’s the regular folks at the super-max I’m thinking about.”
Allison cocked her head. “…You think the Crimson Comet will help with the guards?”
Mistress Quickly threw her arms up. “No! I mean, yes! Quite possibly! But I mean the civilian prisoners.”
“But they’re not regular folks!” Allison retorted, a whine creeping into her voice. “They’re supers.”
Maude looked at the little girl for a moment, before smiling and shaking her head with a light laugh. “Oh, Allison. You and me? David? Even Mabel and Arnold, a bit? We might be different from the common man, but most supers? You’d hardly be able to tell the difference when they aren’t flying or throwing fireballs.”
Allison folded her arms. “I don’t believe you. Humans are boring. Even the nice ones.”
“You don’t have to believe me. But you have to understand, Allison, most of the people in that prison are scared out of their wits. Probably half-convinced themselves they deserve to be there. Their first instinct isn’t going to be to stand and fight. It’s gonna be to run and hide, or maybe curl up in a ball.” Maude stood very straight. “Nothing like a right proper superhero to get folks all revved and ready.” She turned back to her project, plucking away at it like a surgeon. “Besides, there’s our image to think about. You want people to think your little super-town is legitimate, right?”
“I don’t care what the humans think.”
“You should. Ralph Rivers might be the difference between all Australia thinking you’re the world’s biggest villain team waiting to strike, and just another friendly country town.”
Allison huffed. “Okay, okay. I’ll talk to the others about it. Billy and Mabel will be thrilled, I bet. Think he’ll even go with us?”
Maude grinned. “Of course he will. Altruism is like marching powder for superheroes.”
“What do you mean ‘no’?” Maude shouted, thrusting the large white box she was holding out between her and Ralph Rivers and shaking it. “I spent all week making this!”
“I don’t care!” cried Ralph. “You’re talking nonsense! Busting open the—what even is the super-max?”
Allison shook her head in mute disgust from the big couch. “You don’t know? It’s where our people are being locked up!”
“To be fair,” Arnold muttered out the corner of his mouth, “that’s meant to be a secret.”
Allison stuck her hand over her friend’s mouth, still scowling at Rivers. “Don’t you want to help your own kind?”
A sad, bitter sputter of laughter. “Girlie, we’re people with superpowers, not the Twelve Tribes of Israel!”
“We could be, if you helped us.”
Sarah Allworth cleared her throat from the kitchen doorway, a cup of tea in hand. “I know what Miss Quickly and the children are proposing is… audacious. But their hearts are in the right place, and I’m sure you’d be a great help.”
“I’m retired!” Ralph pointed an accusing finger at Mistress Quickly. “Who even are you?”
Maude exploded with indignation. “I was your last case!”
“So?” Ralph swung around to look at the four weirdly dressed children, all wearing looks of badly blended surprise and disappointment. “You shouldn’t be here.” Whoever out there was working up superhero costumes for kids ought to be shot, Ralph reckoned. Like dressing up preschoolers in fucking camo. “If someone looked through the window and called the freak-finders—”
“I’d feed them to a dinosaur,” Mabel finished for him.
Ralph raised a finger, made to speak, then sighed and shook his head. “You’re all goddamn mad, you know that?”
Ralph’s eyes fell on David again. In the flesh, after all these years…
Rivers pushed the other invaders and their lunatic sales-pitch out his thoughts. Whatever they were selling didn’t matter, not with David standing right there. He bent down and put his hands around the boy’s shoulders. “David, I never thought—your mother, is she…”
He didn’t dare finish.
Contempt poured from David’s eyes. His grandfather’s eyes. This man was touching him like he was Grandfather. Like he knew him at all. “Dead,” he said. “My mum’s dead.”
A new blister of despair burst inside Ralph. He’d known for weeks, but to hear it from her son’s mouth… He ran a hand along David’s cheek. “David, what happened to your eyes.”
David slapped Ralph’s hand away. “I stopped being weak.”
Ralph squeezed back tears. “You’ve met your grandfather, haven’t you?”
David answered with a cold silence that broke River’s heart. He looked away from the boy, glancing at Allison and her burning red eyes. “You’re not his sister, are you?”
“From a different mother.”
For a horrible moment, Ralph wondered if she meant that figuratively or literally. He felt a hand on his back. The old woman was looking sympathetically down at him.
“I’m sorry,” said Sarah. “I know what it’s like to lose a child.”
No. She didn’t understand. He didn’t deserve—
“Yeah,” said Mistress Quickly. “Allie, I think it’s time for the contingency plan.”
“Wait,” said Sarah, “when did we discuss—”
Ralph Rivers shuddered and jerked like someone had poured pure pins and needles down his back. A curious expression overtook his face. He patted his hands up and down his body and grimaced.
“Please stop making me be grown-ups,” Miri said with Ralph’s lightly smoke-scratched voice, “or boys.”
“Just temporary,” Allison assured her sister.
“What in God’s name have you done to the poor man?” demanded Sarah.
“Allie stuck one of the people in her head inside Mr. Rivers,” Mabel explained. “I’m just glad she picked the nice one.”
“Happened in reverse a little while ago,” added Arnold. “Tell us if you ever hear Allie talking all Italian or if she starts smoking.”
Every day, Sarah regretted not taking Joe’s potion less and less.
The front door opened. A white cat bobbed through the air, twisting and yowling all the while. Billy became visible. “Can we keep her? Please, please, please! Someone’s got to feed her!”
“Team pet. Sure, why not,” said Maude.
Everyone looked to Sarah for a final verdict. She glanced wearily at Ralph Rivers experimentally flexing his pecs.
She sighed. “Let’s just get going.”
Mistress Quickly stuck a hand in her left blazer pocket. “Liquid comfort.”
Blue light flared from the pocket, and she pulled out a long, brown square bottle. She undid the lid and handed it to Miri. “Drink this till you feel sleepy.”
Miri obeyed, only to recoil when the liquid within crossed her lips. “What even is this stuff?”
“Rum. It helps grownups sleep.”
Everyone got into a circle and started linking hands. Mistress Quickly watched Ralph Rivers suck down her booze like a baby with a very unpleasant bottle.
Man, he is going to be pissed when he wakes up.
1. Not to be confused with the nearby creek, the historical Aboriginal tracker, or the planet. ↩
2. The Flying Man was surprisingly convincing in drag. ↩
3. An unnaturally prolonged German Empire, created by soothsayers in an attempt to avert the horrors of World War 2. ↩
4. A version of Earth still dominated by the Roman Empire, ruled by Jesus of Nazareth after he got down from the cross and used it to clobber Emperor Tiberius to death. ↩
5. An irregularly published piece of samizdat popular with supervillains, canny heroes and wannabes alike. ↩