Ralph Rivers stood sobbing in the ruined hotel lobby, ankle-deep in the pulped and shredded remains of dozens of human beings. The good, bad, and the in-between all ran together.
Commissar Fyodor was patting the superhero on the shoulder with a trembling hand. “I understand, friend. There is no shame in tears…”
Ralph cast his red streaming eyes down at the newly-named Fran. She was looking up at him with complete befuddlement. How could any child be so calm in the midst of this carnage? How could she happily wear blood like it was water or mud? How could she kill so easily—so inventively—like she was just playing with a garden-hose?
Rivers felt a stab of guilt. Why did he want a child to be unhappy? Why did he want anyone to feel like he did?
He spied something out the corner of his eye: a little blonde girl as naked as Fran, but clean, and with surprisingly mundane hazel eyes. In fact, she was standing on top of the gore, frowning down at it like it was raw sewage. Or blood, for that matter.
“Eww, eww, ewwwwww!” She shot upwards, clinging to the comparatively clean ceiling and pointing down at Fran. “Make her put them back together!”
“…Hello,” Ralph said cautiously. He wrapped an arm around Fran, who didn’t seem to notice the new girl at all. “You this one’s sister?”
The child tilted her head at Ralph. “…No? My sister’s Allie!” She blinked when she examined the other girl more closely. “Is that David’s mummy? No wonder he’s so mean.”
Ralph shook his head slowly. “She’s six. And David? I don’t—”
The Crimson Comet suddenly remembered. This wasn’t now. This was a long time ago.
He remembered what happened to Fran.
Ralph hugged the memory of her tight. “Oh, Fran. I’m so sorry…”
Miri screwed her eyes shut, pushing away all the… bad she was seeing.
“Okay. Waking up time now.”
Ralph Rivers awoke with a gasp. The ghost of a headache buzzed behind his eyes. He reflexively threw the lavender bed sheets covering him to the side.
He was still in his trousers and singlet, much to his relief. All he was missing was his boots. Ralph didn’t know what would be worse: being undressed by an old woman, a trumped up supervillain, or a gaggle of schoolkids.
Definitely the last one.
Still a superhero to his bones, Ralph took stock fast.
He was in a decent sized bedroom. The decor was, simply put, funky. The walls were patterned with splotches of pink, yellow and blue watercolours. Illumination was provided by white lava-lamp ceiling. Multicoloured globs of wax1 the size of bean bags bobbed in the paraffin above the glass, strangely casting no shadows below them. There were two opaque glass doors, one in the wall to his left, the other in front of the bed.
The whole place looked like the lair of a shifty hippie on Dragnet, or so Ralph would have thought if colour television had reached Australia yet. His bed was even curvy. It definitely looked like a cell a bunch of little kids would design2.
Ralph smacked his lips. Rum. That explained the headache. Very old-fashioned sort of knock-out drug. Also explained the pressure in his bladder
Rivers swung around and got out of bed, finding his boots waiting for him on the floor.
Considerate. Too considerate.
After thoroughly checking the boots for scorpions, mousetraps, or strange, toe-based mind control devices, Ralph slipped them on and opened the side door, fingers-crossed.
“Oh thank Christ,” Ralph muttered under his breath. He desperately needed to get rid of that rum.
A thought briefly paralyzed him in front of the toilet bowl. What if this was some scheme to steal his cells and make a bio-android of him, like Dr. Sin and his Blue Asteroid?
Ralph sighed and unzipped his fly. If they wanted his DNA, they probably got it already. Besides, there was a thin line between “career superhero” and “paranoid schizophrenia.3”
Biological needs sorted, Ralph checked the thing on the dresser, picking it up and letting it unfurl in front of him.
It was his costume. Not only that, it was pristine. Ralph had always tried to keep the Crimson Comet suit in good knick—for appearances if nothing else—but he was no seamstress, and his sainted sister only had so much time on her hands. He couldn’t exactly take it to the local tailor. All the burns, bullet holes, and patch-jobs were gone. The red leather was brighter and more flexible than it’d been in nearly two decades.
Ralph was a touch offended. It was like his history had been wiped away. Was this even the original suit?
Ralph considered putting it on. If this… facility or whatever it was anywhere near a city or town, it’d be wise to protect his identity. If not, well, it’d definitely get him in the fighting spirit…
For a moment, Ralph felt the tack of blood beneath his fingers.
He dropped the costume, kicking it away.
Stupid idea, Ralph told himself. The thing could be bugged for all he knew; or even poisoned, like the shirt that did in old Al4.
A hoarse but girlish voice invaded his thoughts:
Aww, come on, don’t be a sook.
The main door exploded as Ralph Rivers burst through it into the adjoining hallway, specks of glass raining down into rich purple carpet like grains of sand.
Ralph took off in a dead run. They were in his damn head—
A soft English voice blanketed the hall. “Sir! Do control yourself! The master of this house worked very hard on that door! Also, please consider that we are under the ocean—”
Fuck! More of them! Under the sea? The submarine pirates again? They never had digs this fancy…
Ralph turned left at a fork in the corridor, running on blind instinct.
You’re going the wrong way!
That only made Ralph more confident in his choice. He sped past dozens of copper-plaqued doors, picking up speed like a freight train.
A new, Italianate voice muttered in Rivers’ ear:
Jesus, Ralph, I never took you for a pussy.
“Shut up!” Ralph spat at the unseen stranger.
He turned a corner to find a monster bearing down on him: a broad, kettle-black robot with baleful red eyes and waving pincer arms, with a body like a giant megalodon tooth pointed right at Ralph.
It boomed, “DO NOT IMPEDE MY TASK.”
“Sorry mate!” Ralph transformed into a beam of red light and cannonballed right through the mechanical beast, steel-plate and nuts and bolts washing over his face like gritty ice-water.
The poor cleaning-robot never knew what hit it.
Ralph slid to a stop by an elevator, assuming it wasn’t a teleportation cubicle or something stupid like that5. Good. Assuming he was really underwater, anything that got him closer to the surface was sorely needed.
After ten gut-churning seconds waiting for the doors to open, Ralph stepped inside and punched the top-most button.
Ralph clenched his teeth and fidgeted his feet as he felt the elevator rise. Elevator rides were the Crimson Comet’s kryptonite. Claustrophobic little coffins delivering him into fresh new hells, assuming Dr. Sin or Jimmy the Bastard6 didn’t cut the cable.
The elevator stopped midway up the constellation of backlit buttons. The doors opened with a chime.
Ralph’s face went white. The Crimson Comet was standing in front of him, young and clean-shaven, a full set of golden metal wings sprouting from his back. His skin had a rotoscoped sheen to it.
The comic-book man grinned, revealing two solid rows of white where his teeth should have been. “Stick your foot in the door for me, mate?” he asked in Ralph’s own voice.
“Nope!” Ralph punched blindly at the buttons. The doors slid shut in front of the walking flashback.
After only a few more floors, the elevator came to a stop again.
Ralph got into a boxing stance. What now?
The doors opened to reveal one of the children who’d broken into Ralph’s house: the boy with the starry black cloak.
Ralph scowled at the lad. “What do kids think you’re doing? What if I’d broken through the roof? We’d have all drowned!”
The boy snickered. “You’d have drowned.”
Ralph growled and grabbed the boy’s arm. “You kidnapped me!”
The boy raised a finger. It sparked green. “Yeah, we’re not doing this.”
Everything went green. When the light faded, Ralph found himself in what looked like a swank cocktail bar, the kind that occupied the top floors of expensive hotels. Only instead of a city-view, the curved window wall looked out onto a deep blue sea. Rich, sultry jazz singing over minor-key twelve bar blues filled the air:
“If you had prepared twenty years ago,
You wouldn’t be a-wanderin’ now from door to door,
Why don’t you do right, like some other men do…”
Ralph looked towards the source of the music. A lady was performing on a thrust stage to a garden of empty tables. A woman made of bright blue light.
“Get out of here and get me some money, too…”
“What the hell…” Ralph said aloud.
He caught sight of the clamshell footlights rimming the stage. Projectors. She was a hologram.
Ralph scratched the back of his neck in puzzlement. Seemed like a lot of effort to go to for a record player.
“Can I get ya a drink, buddy?”
Ralph swung around to face the bar. There was a bartender behind the counter, or an approximation of one. It was clearly a machine. Unlike the one he’d totalled just minutes earlier, this one was roughly human shaped. Its bean-can torso was painted like a white button-down shirt. Its head was a big silver bullet decorated with a riveted metal moustache and a cyclopic red eye like a bicycle reflector.
Ralph approached the bar cautiously. “Depends,” he said. “What are you?”
“Iszac Steel,” the robot replied in an artfully crackly baritone, his eye flashing with every word. Or was it an upside down mouth? “Bartender and receptacle of all sorrows. So, would you like a drink?”
Ralph decided to go along with the contraption. Maybe he would stay talkative. “Got any beer?”
“A hundred brews from fifty-two star-systems7,” Iszac answered proudly.
“…Anything from Earth, thanks.”
A pint-glass popped out of the countertop like a conjuring trick. Iszac pulled a beer-tap out from under the bar and filled it with amber liquid. An excellent pour, Ralph had to admit. Not too much head, but not nothing, either. He still didn’t drink.
“Where am I?”
“You’re in Clark’s! Finest drinking establishment on all of Lyonesse. Not like that dive the Sunken Sub down on level 32.”
“So this place is run by a guy called Clark?”
“Then who is Clark?”
“… You know, I never asked.8”
“Then who does run this place?”
“And who’s that?”
“He’s the one who built me.”
Ralph growled in the back of his throat. Fucking robots.
“I’ll tell you what, I’m glad you’re here,” said Iszac. “Bar hasn’t been this crowded since Mr. Allworth threw that party with all them gods and goddesses9.”
“But I’m the only one here.”
Someone cleared their throat. Loudly.
“Not quite, boss.”
Iszac pointed to a white-leather conversation pit in a far corner of the bar, near the wall-window. Mistress Quickly, the old woman, and the red-eyed little girl were all sitting around a table, watching Ralph intently.
“He’s still in plainclothes,” said Mistress Quickly. “Looks like you owe me five dollars, Allie. And that’s American dollars, girl.”
Allison grumbled at the injustice of it all. Mrs Allworth tutted to herself.
Ralph took a deep draft of his surprisingly good beer and stormed towards his captors, splashes of booze spilling on the smooth black floor. “You do know I’m a goddamn superhero, right? Don’t think I don’t still have mates in the police!”
“Sure,” said Mistress Quickly. “I’m sure the New South Wales police have some scuba gear they’re itching to break out.”
“Too deep for scuba,” said Allison, sipping lemonade from a curly straw. “They’d need to use submarines.”
“Stop being horrid,” Sarah snapped at the girls. She turned diplomatically to Ralph. “I am sorry about this… can I call you Mr. Rivers?”
Ralph sat down hard on the couch, facing Allison and Mrs Allworth. “Why not?” He looked pointedly at Allison. “Not like I have any other name these days.”
“I wanted to be there to explain things,” said Sarah, “but you woke up early.”
“It’s Miri’s fault,” Allison grouched, arms folded. “She wussed out.” She turned her head slightly and wrinkled her nose, whining at the air in front of her, “You did!” The girl’s eyelids fluttered like she’d taken a breeze to the face. Allison sighed and reached a hand out towards nothing. “Come, on, don’t cry…”
Ralph watched with a mix of horror and irritated pity. He glared at Mistress Quickly. “You seriously want this girl to storm a maximum security prison?”
“It was her idea, actually.”
“It’s not what it looks like,” cut in Sarah. “Allison has a… unique relationship with her sister.” Her mouth twitched as she tried to think of a gentle explanation.
“Lady, I’m a superhero, I’m sure I’ve heard weirder.”
“They share a body.”
Ralph thought about it for a moment, tallying. “…No, still not the strangest thing I’ve seen.”
“You haven’t met the Italian one yet,” countered Mistress Quickly.
“Stop talking about me like I’m not here!” Allison cried, her red eyes darting angrily between the two women, only to lock onto Ralph like she’d forgotten he was there. She tried to compose herself as much like a grown up as possible, folding her arms over her legs and closing her eyes before evenly intoning, “…We really, really need your help.”
Ralph was reminded of the mimic games Fran played when she was small. Those faltering, half-unconscious attempts to become something she didn’t understand. Why were these women humouring her?
Softly, Ralph said, “I’m sorry girl, but your plan…” He slapped his knees. “Like I said back home, I’m retired.”
And also, you’ll get us all killed, he didn’t say.
Allison’s eyes hardened. “Fran would’ve helped us.”
Allison almost flinched when she saw the vein on Ralph’s neck pulse. The lights behind his eyes were all white.
“Maybe she would,” Ralph said in the same cold, brittle tone Allison’s father used when she drew all over his paperwork, “but she’s dead. And being the sort who would have helped you is probably what got her killed.” He looked at Mrs Allworth. “You should be ashamed of yourself, ma’am.” Ralph jabbed his thumb at Mistress Quickly. “Nothing her lot does suprises me—”
“And yet I’m the one who didn’t pack it in my forties.”
“—But you’re old enough to be this one’s grandmother! How could you go along with this… this nuttery!”
“Afraid I’m just a mother, Mr. Rivers.”
Ralph scoffed and leaned back against the couch. “I’d hate to see how those kids turned out if this is what you let them get away with.”
“My son is dead,” Sarah said, steadily, but with a clear lump in her throat. “He died saving thousands of people, Mr. Rivers, including his murderers. I’ll say this once, don’t insult him.”
It sounded more like a threat than a plea. Ralph’s shoulders slackened. He didn’t meet Mrs Allworth’s eyes. “Sorry, ma’am. I didn’t think—”
Ralph looked around Clark’s. He connected the scope of what the old lady said, and what the newsagent had said before he’d been snatched. “Is your son…”
“He’s exactly who you think he is.”
Ralph tried to imagine this utterly ordinary looking woman bringing up the Flying Man. He’d always imagined him as some more proactive cousin of Fran’s father. Not a creature with a past.
He took a deep breath and looked back at Allison. “I still can’t help you this way. I can’t be responsible for what might happen. I’m sorry.”
“Fine,” said Allison. “We’ll start looking for someone else after we drop you off next week.”
“That might be best—next week?”
Sarah, nearly as confused as Ralph, looked at Allison. “Next week?”
“Next week,” repeated Mistress Quickly. “We’re not running a taxi service around here.”
“But Arnold can—”
Allison raised a finger at Mrs Allworth. The sheer gall of the act managed to silence the woman for the moment.
“You kidnapped me!” shouted Ralph. “I have commitments.”
“I’ve read your mind,” said Allison, “you don’t. It’ll be a month before anyone in Mogo notices you’re gone. Trust me, I checked.”
Ralph’s eyes narrowed. “You’re Alberto’s daughter, aren’t you?”
Allison smiled wryly “Yep.”
Alberto sputtered and raged in the back of Allison’s head. Sometimes having roommates was fun.
“Your dad’s a dickhead.”
Allison didn’t disagree.
Ralph was going to ask the girl if Eliza was her mother or if Lawrence roped some other poor bitch into his scheme when he remembered his predicament. “I have a cat! Who’s going to feed Pearl?”
Allison put her fingers to her temples.
A green flash deposited a deeply confused white cat beside Ralph. Chirruping, she climbed onto his familiar lap. Much comfier than the boy’s had been.
Allison called out to Iszac, “Could we get some milk for Pearl here?”
“Sure thing, little miss.”
Allison looked back at Ralph. “Happy now?”
“You kidnapped me! I don’t need an excuse to—”
Something like slowed birdsong echoed through Clark’s. There was a blue whale just outside the window.
Without a word, Ralph Rivers climbed out of the conversation pit.
“Come on, man,” complained Iszack. “Don’t scuff the leather!”
Ralph ignored the robot, stepping close enough to the glass that he felt as if he could reach right into the ocean.
The whale bellowed again. Ralph could see a child perched on its head like an oxpecker on a great elephant. His eyes shone milky white in the night-sea gloom.
“So,” said Mistress Quickly, “okay with waiting a week?”
“Sure,” Ralph said autonomically. “Could use a holiday anyway.”
“A holiday from what?” Mistress Quickly muttered under her breath. “Your couch?”
Ralph put his hand on the glass. He had to speak to the boy. Properly. At least once. He owed it to Françoise.
He pulled back his hand. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to get another drink.”
Sarah Allworth sighed and shook her head as she watched the superhero head back to the bar. “That’s a nasty trick you two pulled.”
“I once ransomed the New Year,” said Quickly. “This doesn’t really rate.”
“Besides,” said Allison. “He wants to talk to David. It wouldn’t have worked otherwise.”
1. Not exactly, but close enough. ↩
2. Or a twenty year old man. ↩
3. Also, urine is sterile. ↩
4. Short for Alcides, more widely known by the latinization of his later nomen, Hercules. Ralph Rivers had met the god on a few adventures against the Nazis during his time in Greece. ↩
5. Joe Allworth had not yet managed to source those. ↩
6. Newspapers and other facets of polite society referred to James Ulles as “the Fiend,” but everyone in the business knew what he was really called. ↩
7. Some of them were even drinkable by humans. ↩
8. Science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke. 1917-2008. ↩
9. Artemis drank all the Lemon Lime and Bitters. ↩