Chapter Eighty-Five: The Comet’s Wake

Iszac Steel was wiping down the counter of Clark’s when the menagerie of liquor bottles behind him started shaking and rattling. The mechanical barman swivelled on his base, alarmed. 

“Blanchey, my man, why didn’t you tell me we were due for a sea-quake?”

“My apologies Mr. Steel, but I detect no unusual seismic activity.”

“Then what’s—”

The bottles began exploding, one after another, glass shrapnel raining almost musically against Iszac’s metal body. Their contents swirled together above Steel’s head, flowing like a river down to the floor and forming into the shape of a child in front of the bar. Currents of blue, green and amber liquid flushed warm brown as it transfigured into flesh and blood. 

“Stupid Allie, tricking me…” 

Iszac Steel let out a burst of loud, staticky swearing. “For crying out loud, kid, some of that stuff was a thousand years old!”

“Not my fault you didn’t have a fountain or something in your stupid bar!” David shot back. “Besides, if it was so good, why did nobody drink it in a thousand years?”

A quick program query confirmed for Iszac that Mr. Allworth did indeed consider corporal punishment of children injurous to humans. 

Okay, but— 

It also turned out that Mr. Allworth didn’t discriminate between human children and the offspring of elemental chaos gods. 

Inwardly cursing Asimov and all his works, Iszac Steel settled for telling David, “You know kid, one of these days you’re going to tick off someone who can put you in your place.”

 “I doubt it,” David said over his shoulder as he stormed out of the cocktail bar. Momentarily curious, he licked at the liquor coating the back of his hand. His face screwed up in disgust.

Bleh. It tasted like too-ripe bananas, times a million. How did Alberto stomach this stuff? 

David stifled a yawn as he stalked through the halls of Lyonesse, leaving boozy footsteps behind him. He was bone-tired. It was so unfair. He’d only slept three days ago. He was a god. Why should gods need to nap?

He didn’t want to sleep. He didn’t want to dream. 

Another yawn. 

Stupid person-body… 

He could do this, David told himself. He wasn’t afraid of anything anymore.  

Instead of setting up in one of Lyonesse’s many artfully and not-so-artfully decored bedrooms, David had taken to sleeping—trying to sleep—in the moonpool in the submarine bay. Mattresses (and hammocks) were for humans. Air was for humans. He didn’t need it.

Today, he found someone sitting on top of the submarine. 

“Hello David,” said Ralph. He averted his eyes slightly from the boy’s nudity. “Mind putting your costume on, mate?”

David glared at him from the edge of the moonpool. “Yes.” 

What Ralph wouldn’t have given for a dead Nazi’s jacket. He sniffed and frowned. “Why the heck do you smell like booze?”

David sat down and dipped his legs in the water. “None of your business.” 

The water around the submarine boiled and surged. If that scared Ralph at all, it didn’t show. He gave David a melancholy smile. “Your mother used to do this when I tried giving her a bath. Not sure why a mermaid would be so against that.”

David fumed. He wasn’t sure why that made him so angry. Nothing wrong with mermaids. Except when he said it. “Mummy was not a mermaid.” 

Ralph ignored the rudeness of the boy’s tone and instead forced a chuckle.

“Hah. She’d have disagreed with you, once upon a time. Told me that was what she was every time I asked.”

“You wouldn’t have understood if she told you the truth. None of your lot do.”

 Ralph shrugged.

“Try me.”

“We aren’t people,” said David. “We’re water.”

Ralph raised an eyebrow. Gently, he asked, “Could you tell me how water is different from people?”

David scowled, but didn’t respond right away. The boy had shadows under his eyes.

“Water’s bigger,” he said eventually. “Purer. Less… muddy.”

“Muddy?” 

David nodded.

“Normal people do bad stuff just cuz someone tells them to. Normal people don’t know what’s important. Water’s… bigger,” he repeated.

Ralph had to make an effort not to just yell at the kid, yell about how wrong he was.

“I’ve seen your grandfather do some pretty awful things, you know. Ripped people apart in front of me. You telling me that’s pure?”

David shrugged.

“Sure. He’s bigger. Why should he care about you?”

Ralph chuckled.

“Because your mother cried the first time she ever ate a sausage roll.” He smiled at that, the memory making his heart a little lighter, even decades later. “Sat there on a sofa just babbling about how anything could taste so good. Water didn’t figure out sausage rolls, David. Neither did gods. That was people. That’s why you care.”

David snorted angrily.

“Whatever. Some guy out there was cool enough to make sausage rolls. So what? Does he want a cookie? He was probably just as messed up as the rest of you.”

Ralph pondered that for a moment.

“How about Arnold?”

David looked over at him.

“What?”

“Arnold.” Ralph repeated. He held out a hand a few feet above the ground. “Thin kid? About this tall? Likes to teleport stuff?”

“What about him?”

Ralph shrugged.

“Is he a fuck-up too?”

David hesitated.

“…No.”

Ralph let that hang there for a minute or two, then asked:

“Is he a person?”

“No—” came the angry reply, aborted halfway through. “—I mean. Sure, he’s a person. But he’s better!

“Better because he has powers?”

“No!” David snapped. “He’s better cuz he’s not an arse!”

Ralph sighed. That was a relief. At least the kid wasn’t completely racist. Just… biased. Ralph supposed that was understandable. He hadn’t exactly had the best of role-models back at the institute.

Ralph let the silence stretch for a bit, then he sniffed.

“Lawrence was an arse,” he murmured, shooting a sideways glance at David. The boy was glowering at the floor, not responding. Ralph nodded. “Yeah. Right old cunt, that one.”

Again, David didn’t disagree.

“… Then why’d you leave my mummy with him?”

Ralph shrugged.

“Because he wasn’t as obvious about it when I met him. Hell. He was a goddamn war hero. Some madman of an Oxford lad, wandering across Europe, rescuing supers from the concentration camps.” He shook his head. “If you’d heard that Eliza girl talking about him, you’d have thought the man was Christ himself, come to give the world a talk on human ethics.”

Ralph’s expression hardened.

“All that breeding bullshit happened later.”

David nodded, but still didn’t look at him.

“You never checked on her?”

Ralph sighed. “When your mother was twelve, Herbert caught her with a girl from town. Kissing, I mean.”

“So?”

Ralph was surprised. Then he almost laughed. The old bastard had tried so hard to keep the world from queering his stud, he’d never even warned David against it. An own goal if Ralph had ever heard one. “Look, a lot of people…” Ralph decided to narrow it down. “Lawrence didn’t like Fran being with girls because that couldn’t give her a kid.”

“What does that have to do with you?”

Ralph took a deep breath. “I like men, David.”

“So?”

Ralph frowned.

“So, Lawrence thought I was passing that stuff on to your mother. He didn’t want her learning from a fag.”

“So…Just men?”

Why was Ralph not surprised? He smiled sadly. “Yeah. Call me picky.”

“Why?”

Ralph had no answer for that beyond a bemused shrug.

“I don’t know. Maybe God’s hands slipped when he was making me.”

“Didn’t slip with Arnold,” David pointed out. “He’s extra cool for thinking I’m cute.”

Ralph just sat there for a moment. There was something uniquely odd about so brazen of a statement.

“…You like being the centre of attention, huh.”

“Why wouldn’t I?” asked David. He actually smiled. “I’m great.”

Ralph rubbed the bridge of his nose. 

“The point is that Lawrence didn’t like it. The old wanker told me to leave and said if I didn’t let him raise the girl his way, she wouldn’t have a place there.” He shrugged. “So I left. I thought he was the better father for her, and I was wrong.”

David sat there, mulling the words over.

So that was it. That was the choice that made him. That left him to Lawrence. 

That left him to Alberto.

When he spoke again, his voice was quiet.

“I haven’t slept in three days,” he muttered. “Every time I try, I get these…” He shook his head. “I dunno. These flashes. I think when Alberto was alive, he was sorta holding stuff back inside my brain. Stopping me remembering.” He shrugged. “But now, he’s stuck in Allie, and he can’t make me push it back anymore.”

He looked the Crimson Comet in the eyes, then raised a hand.

“Wanna see how bad you messed up?”

It took a few moments for the water to pool, forming into a mound, then a tower, then a human, then a boy.

It was another David, sculpted from the water; a pair of knitting needles clenched in trembling fists.

Ralph looked at the copy, then back at David, nonplussed.

David looked back, cold.

“This is what he did to me.”

Ralph turned his gaze back to the copy, just in time to watch it slam the needles through its eyes.

“You made the wrong choice,” David said. “It’s your fault.”

Ralph nearly retched. He turned back to the boy and leapt through the air, landing beside David and trying to pull him into a hug.

David flinched away from him. “Nuh uh!” 

“I want to help you, David!”

Ralph shouldn’t have shouted; he knew that. But he was only human.

David just glared at him. “You messed everything up enough already.”

He turned and started running out of the sub-bay. 

Ralph reached out. “David, wait! I’m sorry!”

David didn’t look back. Tears were stinging his eyes. Water wasn’t meant to betray him this way.

It wasn’t fair. Grandfather was supposed to have washed this ache off of him. The tide was meant to carry away the past.

It was being a person, David told himself. He only hurt because he was inside his father’s flesh. The boy evaporated. The vapour of his being wafted up through the tiny apertures between Lyonesse’s decks. 

No. He was still hurting

He drifted into the art-studio, carpeted with regenerating newspaper siphoned from other realities. He sensed Allison, Arnold, Billy’s shapes. Thank God. David needed a hug. He needed to play

Arnold looked over at the other children from where he was sketching. Sketching, not drawing. With a lead pencil, because he was doing serious art1. He frowned. “Can you two stop torturing the cat?”

Arnold’s friends were sitting across from each other, Ralph’s cat trapped between them. The middle-aged companion of a confirmed bachelor, Pearl wasn’t prepared for sustained contact with young children. Like her captors, the poor cat was mottled with bright acrylic paint stains. 

The cat mewled pathetically and made a break for it, but Billy pulled her twisting and clawing into his chest.

“We’re not torturing her,” said Billy, nuzzling his fur against the angry cat’s. “We’re playing.”

Before Arnold could respond or intercede on Pearl’s behalf, David coalesced in front of him. The water-sprite yanked him sharply to his feet and kissed him on the lips. 

After a second, Arnold pulled away, blinking at David. “Uh, hi Dave.” He wiped his mouth. “You feeling alright?”

David was grinning far too toothily in Arnold’s face, the corner of his lip twitching. The shadows under his eyes were pitch black. “Course I am! I’m the ocean! I can crush submarines with my brain! Wanna kiss again?”

Arnold patted his friend on the shoulder. “Maybe later, bud.”

“Why would you want to break submarines? They’re neat!”

David rolled his eyes at the girl. “Yeah, Miri, sure they are.”

“I’m not Miri. It’s Allie.”

David stared at her. Allie was playing with Billy? He stood there stunned. Then he shook his head. Nuh uh. Allie was his. His forced smile returned. “Nice one, Miri. You’re getting better.”

Allison looked at him flatly. “It’s Allie, David.”

“…That’s not fair,” he said quietly. “You’re supposed to be my friend, Allie.”

Allison scowled. Arnold frowned. Billy, though, just looked confused.

“Can’t she play with both of us?” he asked.

“Shut up.”

Billy got to his feet and spread his arms. “You need a hug?”

David misted forward and shoved Billy hard in the chest, knocking the younger boy back to the floor. “I don’t need a hug from a wimp!”

Billy stammered. “Wh—what did I do?”

David glared around at the other children. “Why do you like him so much? He’s lame!”     

Arnold broke the silence first: “I mean, so were you, when you were cool.”

David squinted at him. “What?”

Arnold shrugged. 

“Old David was kinda boring and sad sometimes, but he also, you know, cared about other people? And wasn’t a prick? Billy’s kinda like how old David was.”

David looked down at Billy. The other boy was sniffling now, tears running through his fur, but his eyes were hard.  

“You beat up Talos after he broke my tail. You were so cool back then.” 

For a moment, David almost felt ashamed. 

Then Billy continued. “I want that David back…”

David screamed and savagely kicked Billy in the side. 

Billy gasped and curled into a ball.

“Why does everyone want me to be like him again! Mealy was a coward!”

Allison tackled David to the floor and started punching him in the face. “I told you to stop being a dick!”

Beneath her sister’s skin, Miri cringed. The mean boy needed to be opposed, but punching was icky. The way skin and bone flexed and tore under their blows….  

An instinct long since silenced inside Allison echoed through Miri: get a grown-up.

She fled Allison’s body, diving through Lyonesse.

A few decks below, Ralph Rivers was stalking down the hall, muttering to himself. “Where the fuck did that boy go? Oh, David…”

He startled when Miri appeared in front of him.

“Mr. Ralph, Mr. Ralph! You gotta come help! The mean boy’s beating up Billy!”

“…You’re the girl from my dream!”

Miri cocked her head, before looking down at herself and smiling. “You can see me! Neat!” Her grin vanished as she remembered her mission. “Follow me!”

By the time Miri led Ralph up to the art studio—bemoaning his restrictive tangibility all the while—Allison and David were tussling like wildcats. Pearl was curled up shaking in a corner. Blood had joined the paint on the newspaper. 

“Jesus Christ!”

Ralph ran over and pried David off Allison as delicately as he could. It was like handling angry tissue-paper. 

“For God’s sake, David, stop it!”

David misted out Ralph’s arms, reforming behind Billy and twisting his right ear.

Billy screamed. Then he growled.

Billy became a blur of orange, scratching David across the face, his claws leaving livid, bleeding streaks across his face.

Billy clapped his hands over his mouth in horror. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry!”

David clenched his fists. “You’re gonna—”

The boy exploded in a green flash. 

“That’s enough of that,” said Arnold, borrowing the phrase, along with a hefty dose of stern authority, from his mother.   

“…Where’d you send him?” Ralph asked.

Arnold shrugged.

“Some place in the Gobi Desert.”

Ralph’s face went pale. “The Gobi Desert? Jesus, boy. He’ll fry!”

Allison sat up. “I doubt it. He’s made of water.”

“I figure he’d get back fine,” Arnold said. “But getting around the world should take long enough to make him cool off.”

Billy was crying softly. “I cut him…”

“He gave you a black eye, mate,” Arnold replied. “Fair’s fair.”

“A black eye isn’t as bad as making him bleed.”

“He had it coming,” said Allison.

“Yeah!” cried Miri, hovering above the scene like a pouting guardian angel.

“I don’t want to be hurty!” moaned Billy.

“It’s not your fault.” Allison said.

“What the fuck is wrong with you kids?” shouted Ralph. “Who made you lot like this?”

Billy flinched, making it almost halfway through an automatic child-apology before Arnold held up an arm.

“At least we’re still trying…” Arnold muttered under his breath. 

“Trying to do what?” asked Ralph. “Kick the shit out of each other?”  

“Trying to fight,” said Allison.

“Trying to help,” said Arnold.

Ralph scoffed. “With your barmy little prison break plan? That’s how you think you’re going to help?” 

Had Arnold been raised by a different woman, he would have sworn.

“Well, what’s the better choice, huh, genius?” he shouted. “Let a whole bunch of people rot in jail just cuz people hate them? Just sit around waiting to die like some old wanker?”

“Not all of us have the luck of being big famous superheroes,” added Allison. 

“For God’s sake!” roared Ralph. “Why does it always have to be me? Why do I have to save us all over, and over, and fucking over!”

Fuck it, no more kid gloves.

“You kids ever heard of a place called Auschwitz?”

“What’s Auswhwitz?” asked Billy. 

“Bad Nazi World War Two place,” explained Allison. Then, she turned to Ralph. “Careful what you say next. I’ve been a prisoner… And a test subject.”

Ralph let out a bitter, mirthless laugh. “You don’t know the half of it, girl. These weren’t prisons. They destroyed people there. Like rats. I saw folks whose bones were just about jutting through their skin. I saw graves flooded with women and children. Piles of ashes that used to be people.”  

Billy whimpered. Allison scoffed right back.

“Yeah, sure. You saw. Poor Ralph saw the bad stuff. But it didn’t happen to you, princess.”

The vein on Ralph’s neck pulsed. His voice shook. “Don’t you dare, you little shit. My goddamn boyfriend burned to death in my arms. His skin stuck to my suit. Nothing in your tiny nothing of a life gives you the right to talk down to me.” He grit his teeth. “The soldiers who were with me were kind. It even killed a few of the prisoners. They tried giving them food they couldn’t even stomach anymore. But they did try.” He took a deep breath. “Except the men with the pink triangles. Nobody was kind to them. They let the Jews go. They let the Gypsies and the Witnesses and the Polacks go. But not the faggots. Not the men like me and Finch! They threw them back in prison to rot!” His voice cracked. “They saw what hate does, right in front of them, and they didn’t learn a fucking thing.”

“… And where was the Crimson Comet?” asked Arnold.

“What?”

“Where were you.”

“I was right there!”

“Then why weren’t you helping them?” asked Arnold. “Not like you weren’t strong enough.”

“…I couldn’t. I mean, I needed to—if they’d known I was…” Ralph trailed off. He had no answer.

“And why can’t you help us now?” asked Allison. 

“Why do the people who spit on me keep asking me to kill for them? I’m not built for it.”

“I like boys too, you know,” Arnold answered. It was the first time he’d ever said that out loud. “I think you’re just a coward. Who said anything about killing?”

Ralph stood there for a while. Only Billy’s quiet sobs and Miri’s attempts to comfort him broke the silence.

Without a word, Ralph turned and left the children alone.

Ralph avoided the Watercolours for the next two days. David hadn’t returned yet, but nobody except Sarah seemed concerned:

“How are you kids not worried?” Sarah asked at the kitchen table, worriedly cutting at a lamb roast with a carving knife. 

Arnold was pushing around a baked potato with his fork. “Eh, his granddad hasn’t tried to kill me yet. He’s fine.”

What?

Ralph spent most of his time in the Sunken Sub, Lyonesse’s designated dive-bar. It was much cozier than Clark’s. Drebbel—a kettle-black potbelly stove of a bartender—was a far quieter creature than Iszac Steel, which suited Ralph just fine. The riveted steel walls and dim yellow lights reminded him of the bowels of ships that had carried him to Europe not so long ago. 

Most importantly, there were no windows. The sea couldn’t find him there.

Gentle, sad guitar plucks over violin strings sang from out of the jukebox: 

Play the guitar; play it again, my Johnny…

A lit cigarette tucked behind his ear, Ralph Rivers lined up a shot at the pool-table. 

He wasn’t there. He was back in Sydney, in an underground pub off some forgotten alley with walls like mossy cave-rock. The sort of joint that catered to what tactful, heartless psychiatrists called “sex variants.”

Ralph wasn’t alone, either. There was a man standing beside him, watching him squint at the billiard balls with playful contempt. If he weren’t standing next to the Crimson Comet himself, most might have called him tall. Well muscled, but so subtly you’d never suspect he was strong. 

“Just give up, Rivers. Bloody felt ripper, you are.”

Him and Finch rarely used first names. Even when they were alone. Even when they were in bed. Furtive habits die hard. And acting so familiar with each other might’ve meant admitting to themselves that it was love. 

I was always a fool for my Johnny,

For the one they call Johnny Guitar…

Both Ralph Rivers raised their cue, sliding it back past his shoulder. The one back in Sydney said, “Shut the fuck up, Finch.”

Finch—Bart bent down beside Ralph and whispered in his ear: “Make me.

What if you go, what if you stay, I love you…

Ralph had already left the table before the billiard balls stopped dancing to that old, familiar chaos. Pointless. Pool was no fun alone. He sat down at one of the barstools. “Pint of Tooheys Old please, Drebbel.”

“Coming up, Rivers,” rumbled Drebbel. “Just give the molecule-still a bit to synthesize it.”

“Thanks. Tell it to make up the next one while I’m drinking, would you?”

God, Ralph hated this place. But it didn’t matter. He wasn’t there.

What if you’re cruel, you can be kind I know.

Long ago, right at that very moment, Ralph was clutching his glass hard enough that white spider-web cracks were shooting through it. “What do you mean you’re going?”

Finch—Bart—locked eyes with Rivers. God they were blue. In Ralph’s memory, they almost blurred with Fran’s. “I mean I’m going to Europe. My number came up. That’s that.”

Ralph mutely shook his head. “You’re a cartoonist, Finch! Not a soldier.”

Finch looked taken aback. “You think just because bullets don’t bounce off me I can’t handle myself?”

Yes! Nobody can ‘handle themselves’ when they’re being shot! For God’s sake, Finch!” Ralph pointed at the grimy bar entrance. “I have to keep one eye on the door in case the cops come charging in, for having a drink together, and you want to go and shoot folks for ‘em?”

“It’s not for them, Ralph,” Bart said evenly. “People at the paper have been hearing stories. The Germans are rounding up queers in camps, Ralph. Jews, too. Whole towns worth of people.” He took a sip of his beer. “If I have to fight, at least it’s for something like that.”

The two men sat in silence together. 

“…I’m coming with you,” Ralph said finally. “You’re not going over there alone.”

Finch looked at his lover, before letting out a confused, sputtering laugh. “You? You’re a superhero! You don’t see superheroes in war-zones!” 

“The yanks have Miss Victory.”

“Alright, yeah, but you’re… you’re you.”

“So what?” asked Ralph. “If the Nazis are as bad as you say, it sounds like they could use a good Crimson Comet thumping!”

“…Who says we’ll be together? They could send you to the Pacific and me to Europe.”

“No,” Ralph said firmly. “You’re with me. I’ll make it a condition.”

Finch smiled wryly. “Won’t that give the game away, Mr. Rivers?”

“I’ll just tell them you’re my wing technician or something.” Ralph flexed one of his great biceps. “Trust me, the recruiters won’t be asking too many questions.”

Bart kissed Ralph, long and deep. “God, you’re arrogant.”

“I’ve earned it.”

There was never a man like my Johnny,

Like the one they call Johnny Guitar,

Play it again,

Johnny Guitar.”

Tears fell into Ralph’s beer, spreading out as dark gold ripples. 

He wasn’t there. He wasn’t here.

Fuck it, Ralph decided. 

He rose from his stool. “Forget the second round, Drebbel.”

“Turning in for the night?” 

“Not quite,” said Ralph. “Just need to beat the shit out of something.”

One part of Lyonesse Ralph Rivers did like was its gym. It had weight machines that could simulate Juptier’s gravitational pull times five. Dumbbells made of white dwarf star metal. An aqua-therapy pool that gave way to an underwater rabbit warren of dark tunnels2. So much for having to pull an old camper van full of rocks to get his workout.

Ralph heard the commotion before he saw it. A kid was shouting. Well, screaming, really. He could hear thumps, like a punching bag being hit wildly.    

Ralph sighed. This was sure to be productive. 

The screams increased in pitch, becoming ragged, like a creature in pain.

Ralph remembered the state David was in when Arnold sent him away. He remembered his mother and grandfather.  

Oh shit. Billy!

Ralph took off in the direction of the screams, now subsiding into sobs.

Billy wasn’t there. It was just David, curled up crying under a swaying punching bag.

“Stupid Arnold. Stupid granddad…”

Ralph approached the boy cautiously, like he was a feral cat. “…David?”

David looked up at Ralph with angry, tired eyes. “It was supposed to stop hurting. Grandfather promised!” David curled back in on himself, body shuddering with sobs. 

Ralph awkwardly patted him in the shoulder. “It’ll be alright.”

“No it won’t!” David dug his nails into his skin. “Nobody likes me! I don’t like me! Nothing works!” He let out a long wail. “I want my mummy!” 

Ralph picked David up. The boy didn’t resist. “I know.”

Ralph wasn’t equipped for this. At least this time, he wouldn’t be handing the kid over to a monster. 

Five minutes later, Ralph was knocking on Sarah Allworth’s bedroom door. 

Mrs Allworth answered in her nightgown, squinting without her owlish spectacles. She caught sight of David, still shaking. “Ah.”

“He’s missing his mother,” said Ralph. “There’s… a whole lot, really.”

Sarah nodded. “Right. Give him here then.”

Mrs Allworth had missed out on many common experiences bringing up Joe. He’d never scraped his knee, or broke his leg. He’d never gotten beaten up on the playground or come down with a bad fever. 

He had, however, pined for his mother, so many times. 

Sarah wrapped a blanket around David’s shoulders. “You want me to make you some hot cocoa?”

David nodded mutely.

“Okay, let’s go to the kitchen.”

Ralph watched Sarah lead David down the hall.

Useless. So goddamn useless.

Maude Simmons was sat at the bar of Clark’s, tapping her pencil on the rim of the beer glass which sat atop her latest, soon to be discarded plan.

“That’s not gonna work,” she muttered to herself. “Mars is shit this time of year anyway.”

She heard someone sit down on the stool next to her. Ralph.

The old superhero had his costume on, bar the mask. And the wings, of course. 

“Good to see you again, boss!” enthused Iszac. “Thirsty?”

Ralph raised his fingers. “Vodka sunrise, Steel. Long as it’s Russian vodka.” 

“You got it.”

Ralph looked at Mistress Quickly, a small smile playing his lips. “A commissar made a convert out of me back in the war.”

“Clearly,” said Quickly, not looking up from her work.

“I remember you now.”

“Took you long enough.”

“You were the one who wanted to turn all the silver into… teeth, wasn’t it?”

“Calcium.”

Ralph actually chuckled. “But why?”  

Maude’s upper lip creased in thought. “Don’t remember, honestly. Was nearly twenty years ago, now. Probably something to do with Marx. I’d just learned to read back then, and I was really into Marx.”

“Just learned to read?” repeated Ralph questioningly. “But you had to be fifteen, at least.”

Maude waved it off. “It’s a long, sad story. Sure you’ve already got plenty of those.” She looked Ralph’s suit up and down. “I take it you’re going to help, then?”

“You don’t sound too surprised.”

Maude shrugged. “Allison put money on it.”

“Sounds like her dad.”

“…I’ll explain everything wrong with that later. Still, good on you. Means I didn’t waste my time making you that new stabilizer harness.”

“…You mean my wings? Thanks a bunch.”

Iszac set down a glass of yellow liquid tapering down to deep red at the bottom in front of Ralph. The super took a long, thoughtful sip. 

“I don’t think I can kill again.”

“Even if it was them or one of the kids?” asked Maude. Fast, she added, “Sorry, just seems like something I ought to know.”

Ralph exhaled. “It’s not a moral thing, Quickly. I just… can’t.”

Mistress Quickly stuck her hand in one of her blazer pockets. “Booty 1-4.”

A classical ray-gun flew into her hand.

Ralph frowned. “Betsy? You went through my things?”

“I’m a super-thief. ‘Course I did.” She twirled the stun-ray. “I can recharge the batteries for you. Mazur was always… baroque, his stuff’s always interesting to work with.”

Ralph nodded. “That’d… you don’t know how much of a lifesaver that is.” He leaned over to examine Maude’s notes. “You got a plan, yet?”

Maude rubbed her face. “Not yet. So many variables. Be easy just to tear the roof off or vanish the walls, but there’s some real psychos in there I’d rather not deal with, you feel me? Honestly, I probably would rather get rid of the guards…” 

She trailed off.

“Say,” she said to Iszac. “Do you know how Mrs Allworth got here?”

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1. Doodles of potential new chest insignias. Jagged edges dripping flaming blood were a common motif.

2. Also containing a small art gallery and a bedroom for Palaemon.

 

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