Warden Frances McNoll was painfully out of place in his office. He was a stolidly middle-aged civil servant whose slightly oversized midsection could’ve terminated at the waist in a complaints desk. Yet here he was parked behind what resembled a starship’s command console, bejeweled with gently flashing switches and buttons. It’d taken McNoll the better part of a month to figure them all out, with the manual.
The whole room was the nightmare brainchild of mod mad-science and baroque alien design. The walls were a mess of clashing pastels, holding up a mirrored ceiling reflecting down the pink shag carpet like a hairy sunset sky.
The decor didn’t bother the warden. He was its boss, goddamnit!
Circle’s End Supermax was a crime. A place where people were left to be forgotten or rendered down into second hand miracles, where even a life sentence was too finite. A place where the only crimes that mattered were accidents of birth and chance.
A better man would have balked at being asked to run such a place. A worse man could have nurtured it into an empire. Frances McNoll, though, was content with being called “sir.”
The DDHA and Australian prison service could’ve done much worse than put Frances McNoll in charge of the Circle’s End Supermax. He wasn’t a sadist by any standard. But fifteen years at Fremantle Gaol had thoroughly calloused McNoll’s social conscience. He didn’t question that men and women he knew as heroes, and children not ten years old were left to rot in his prison. He was courteous and obliging when Dr. John Smith and his disciples came looking for test subjects.
That was only the bare minimum for the job, though. What made Frances McNoll a perfect fit was his utterly unambitious power lust. It was the same clammy thrill he got being picked for milk monitor1 in primary school. It was what inspired awed jealousy in him watching the prefects march through the halls in grammar school. The simple, pure power to say, “No. Do this.” And wielding that power at the behest of absent authority meant he didn’t even have to think of what to say.
Not that Frances would ever have put it in those words. Far as he was consciously concerned, the chief benefits of his position were the paycheck and the excuse to not live with his family. He did hope he could retire directly after it, though—Frances wasn’t sure how you put running a secret prison on your resume.
The television screen built into McNoll’s desk cycled through different camera-views while he sipped his coffee and thumbed through a copy of Women’s Day2. Soft desert plains glowing red like the sea at dusk behind a force-field reinforced fence. Burned out hovels in the Circle’s End Quarantine Zone, empty for the moment of hazard suited scientists waving geiger counters like dowsing rods. The Level 7 holding cells: ten spheres of silver cogs sunk halfway into the floor—each containing a trapped super like a carton of eggs.
The uncertain voice crackled from the speaker on McNoll’s desk. “Uh, sir, there’s a superhero parked at the fence.”
Huh. Frances wasn’t expecting Valour till Thursday. “Buzz him—” His eyes bugged. “What?”
“I mean, fella’s all dressed up in a shiny red costume, so I’d put money on it. He just rolled up in this panel-van—oh, he’s opening the boot. He’s pulling out… some kids? And a naked lady? And they’re all tied up—” A pause. “Are we sure he’s a superhero?”
Mcnoll’s coffee sloshed out of his mug as he slammed it down on his desk. “God’s alive, Menches! Which camera?”
“F-6 should give you the best view.”
His television screen switched to a shot of the prisoners’ gate. The Crimson Comet of all bloody people was waving at the camera from behind the force-field. Except his wings were wrong. They weren’t feathered, but sharp and angular, like an art-deco angel. A little boy and girl were squirming, trussed up like hogs beside his feet. He had his hand clamped hard on the shoulder of an angry woman standing next to him in her underwear, hands bound at her waist. The superhero had placed a placard in front of him:
CAUGHT ALLISON KINSEY, ARNOLD BARNES, AND MISTRESS QUICKLY—LET’S TALK.
A broad, if confused grin spread across Frances McNoll’s face. He had a feeling a lot more people would be calling him ‘sir’ soon.
“Buzz him in.”
Ralph Rivers was swimming in his costume. He didn’t feel the heat as keenly as some men, but this was the Great Sandy Desert, and the Crimson Comet wore all leather. He bet he squelched when he moved. The weight of his new wings was strange. Too light. Maude said these things could deflect bullets, but he felt like he was wearing foam.
He was ashamed of his discomfort. It had to be nothing next to what Maude and the kids were in for.
“You sure about this?” he asked Maude.
Mistress Quickly made a good show of struggling against Ralph’s grip, grunting, “I’m standing in my knickers in the middle of a scorching desert in front of a prison stuffed full of drooly blokes—some of whom have records as long as my arm and superpowers—hundreds of miles from civilization. What makes you think I haven’t thought long and hard about this?” She glared down at Allison. “At least you picked the gay guy for this.”
Ralph looked down at Allison wriggling on the access road. “Remind me why Miss Simmons has to be naked?”
Allison sat up as best she could and shouted. “Everyone knows Mistress Quickly is just an inventor, you big meanie!”
Ralph nodded. “I guess that makes sense.” He turned his head back to Maude, but seemed to look past her. “Stay close.”
Maude felt a brush against her hand. It was reassuring.
Arnold strained against his bindings, trying to scratch the itch on his neck against the asphalt. “You sure they’re gonna come out and get us, Allie?”
“Yep,” replied Allison. “Only thing I am sure of.”
The next few minutes worth of futures were very consistent. But then the clouds of probability gave way to barren blue sky.
It was… creepy. Expected, planned for, but creepy. Funny how quickly you could grow accustomed to precognition.
Allison tried to put the rapidly approaching void out of her mind, instead focusing on the overwhelming abundance of music. Since the Institute, she’d had to content herself with the familiar rhythms of her friends. They were powerful. Comfortable. Reliable. But it was lean.
Here, song rose from the desert sands like shimmering heat. A buried orchestra of power over a hundred strong. Allison’s kind, trapped beneath the earth.
There would be silence soon. But not for long.
“Oh, great,” said Maude. “That’s real comforting.”
“Shush up,” said Ralph. “They’re coming.”
A beige uniformed man with a ruddy freckled face was trying to march confidently up to the prisoner’s gate, flanked on both sides by oversized, rifle-toting guards clad head to toe in black. The man in the middle appeared to be struggling to keep apace.
The guards’ outfits made Ralph wince. He was better dressed for the desert.
The three reached the gate.
“Well I’ll be,” said the man in the least painful looking uniform. “The Crimson Comet. Warden Frances McNoll. I’d shake your hand but…” He gestured at the force-field enclosed gate between them.
Ralph smiled. “Understood, sir. Have some prisoners for ya.”
Allison writhed on the ground. “You’ll all die! You’ll get the gas!”
Arnold joined in, “Eat your life! Eat skulls!”
For her part, Maude just stood there scowling darkly at McNoll.
“Is that the Mistress Quickly?” asked McNoll. “Does she always… underdress?”
Ralph forced a laugh and slapped Maude heartily on the back. It felt like smacking tensed steel. “Well I couldn’t let her keep her utility belt on, could I?”
“Could’ve let me keep my overalls…”
Ralph said, “Should have thought about that before trying to bring back the Black Death, young lady3.”
God, he felt like a bastard.
Mcnoll blinked. “The Black Death?”
“Yeah!” Allison cried. “Quickly was brewing it so it’d wipe out all you stupid humans!”
“I told you it was a dumb plan!” Arnold shouted. “We shoulda killed them with our bare hands.”
The warden swallowed. “I think we owe you a debt, Mr. Comet.”
“Think nothing of it,” said Ralph. “I just want them secured before they get up to any more shenanigans.”
Mcnoll nodded. “We’re on the same page then.”
The warden punched in some numbers on a keypad by the gate. The force-field vanished as the grill of the gate retracted like vines growing backwards.
The guards stepped forward. They were both nearly a head taller than Ralph, and neither had uttered so much as a word until now:
“We shall restrain the children’s powers.”
The guard’s accent was unplaceable, but there was a tension to it that reminded Allison of her parents when they’d discovered what she’d done to the shower.
She looked into the pair’s minds. The lights of their thoughts were as ordered as she remembered Mr. Thumps’ being, but wobbling with rage like stars being pulled at by gas giants. Blazing fires of anger under cold lakes of sedatives and Pavlovian conditioning.
Miserable gits. Probably doing them a favour…
The guards each removed a metal strip from their belts, both adorned with a jewel filled with glowing blue fluid. They bent down and snapped them around Arnold and Allison’s necks almost in unison.
The collars tightened like second skin. Allison gasped.
The music fled. The air became thin and empty. The entire world had become the Quiet Room.
Allison clenched her fists.
Don’t freak out, don’t freak out…
The guards proceded to hoist the children into their arms like new fathers picking a baby for the first time.
Arnold screwed his eyes shut. It felt like his mother was carrying him to bed. But wrong.
“Would it be possible for me to escort the prisoners to processing?” asked the Crimson Comet. “I worked hard to catch them. Peace of mind, you know.”
“Of course,” replied McNoll. “The men will all be clamouring for a look at you.”
The guards led the way through the gate with Maude squished between them, the Comet and McNoll following a few steps behind. They were bordered on either side by long force-field walls. Guard posts loomed over them every yard or so, manned by snipers. Allison couldn’t guess if they were human or Physician-made. As far as she could tell, they could’ve been store mannequins.
Ralph was looking ahead at the prison’s main building. It was an odd looking building—like a grounded flying saucer with a rim of glass windows. Well, Blancheflor had said an alien designed it. He also said the holding cells were all underground. A flower with deep, poisonous roots.
“Comet, I’m sorry to ask, but how’d you know where to find us? We aren’t exactly in the yellow-pages.”
“The freak-finders have me on call.” He tapped the side of his nose. “Need to know, of course.”
McNoll nodded warily. It made sense, he supposed. He’d checked the Comet’s file before he’d even stepped outside. The man was sanctioned, but the file didn’t say for what. Still, it was all very irregular. Frances didn’t like irregular. Irregular meant his bosses asking questions. His bosses asking questions meant a reminder that McNoll had bosses. That there were more rungs on the ladder, and people at the top waiting for him to slip.
Still, if he didn’t let the Crimson Comet in, his men would sulk at him for months. And he was giving him the three most wanted supervillains in the country. Tim Valour would worship him as a fucking god.
Doors of reinforced glass slid open with a hiss. A desert breeze shriveled and died in crisp climate-controlled air. Mercifully human guards immediately fell upon the drones, removing the children from their arms and cutting the ropes around their wrists and ankles. They didn’t replace the bindings with handcuffs, much to Arnold’s surprise. Not Allison’s, however. They were just kids now.
She let the walking corpses prod and poke at her. One of the men hissed in her ear, “My sister was at Royal Exhibition Hall, you little shit.”
“Was she the fat lady or the one with the wispy little beard?”
The guard slapped Allison across the face. She barely flinched. Everything felt numb right now.
Ralph frowned, resisting the urge to bolt forward and clobber the man. He did allow himself to remark, “A bit excessive.”
McNoll shrugged. “Girl’s a terrorist, Comet. Besides, not like she’s a real kid.”
The Crimson Comet raised an eyebrow. “Why’s that?”
“The stuff these kids can do, kind of disqualifies…” The warden remembered who he was talking to. “I mean—it has to vary, don’t it? For every few weirdos like her and Miss October over there, at least we get one of them that turns out proper like you.”
Allison was pushed into a small, lilac-lit room. One of the walls was dominated by a one-way window. Allison felt like she was back at McClare. Or not. At least McClare had music. At least this place probably didn’t have any pianos.
A neutral, female voice filled the room. “Please step into the circle.”
There was indeed a dark purple circle in the middle of the floor.
Curiosity pricked at Allison. “What happens if I don’t?”
“The floor will be electrified.”
Well, they were better at this than McClare. Allison trudged into the circle.
“Scanning. Please stand still.”
A wall of purple light appeared to Allison’s left, closing in on her.
The girl rolled her eyes as it washed over her. She needed to introduce this computer to Blanchey. Maybe the purple and the blue was a boy-girl thing.
“Scan complete. Inmate is clean of unwanted technology. Biology shows signs of physical enhancement, adjusting containment parameters.”
A panel in the ceiling slid open, dropping a set of folded, child-sized white coveralls in front of Allison’s feet.
“Please dress in the garment provided.”
Allison frowned at the mirror. “Doesn’t look easy to go to the bathroom in.”
“Floor will be electrified in sixty seconds.”
“Okay, okay, I’m doing it.”
She quickly stripped off and slipped into the jumpsuit.
“You will be deposited in the Juvenile Rehabilitation Area.”
The circle gave way like a trapdoor beneath Allison’s feet. She screamed as she dropped into a dark tube.
The tube quickly curved beneath her. She was sliding. It was a slide, bending and turning as she built up speen.
Even through the fog of her sudden deafness, Allison had to grin. “Wheeee!”
She turned a corner and found herself hurtling towards a light. Allison braced herself.
She shot out of the transport slide (the DDHA’s one positive contribution to mankind), landing with a thud in something thick and spongy.
Allison recovered fast, rolling over and getting back to her feet. She was standing on what felt and looked and felt like a field of grass made out of trampoline, surrounded by boundless hills and skies. But there was a hole in the world just in front of her, a dark mole in the skin of the world. The slide exit, she realized.
She stepped forward to examine it, only for the hole to close, leaving only thin air.
Allison looked around. The sky was shoddy. She swore she could see paint streaks. The clouds were cartoonishly fluffy and regular, like they’d been sourced from her old bedroom wallpaper. There was a forest in the difference, but the trees were all too-triangular illustrated pine.
Fake. The whole place was fake.
She felt a sudden urge to set it all on fire.
“Hey, new meat.”
Allison turned around to find a small crowd of children regarding her with wary fascination, all in coveralls like her own.
At the head of the crowd was an elfin looking girl with dark blue hair, next to a brown skinned older boy with a look of disdainful confusion.
“Jeez, Allie, they got you too?” Tom Long squinted. “And what the hell happened to your eyes?”
1. A staff member or student trusted to make sure school children drank their state mandated milk. ↩
2. As in all government buildings, it was seemingly the only magazine on site. ↩
3. Technically speaking, the bubonic plague had yet to be wiped out in 1965. ↩