The Great Sandy Desert was slowly but steadily reclaiming Circle’s End. Its main street was clogged by sharp-toothed spinifex—nests for painted finches with bellies like the starry sky and tails like wicks of flame. Flying foxes roosted in burnt out miners’ cottages, out of reach of the feral cats prowling for hopping mice over charred and broken floors.
The only part of Circle’s End that had escaped this transformation was Mabel Henderson. Until today.
The most childish part of Mabel had feared finding her father or neighbours still lying in her hometown. But that was silly. It’d been three years. The bodies had been cleared away long ago. In some ways that was worse. Mabel couldn’t stop picturing her dad’s brain being dissected in some cold morgue. The freak-finders might as well have rounded up the ghosts and locked them up too.
Sarah Allworth put a hand on the little girl’s shoulder. “It wasn’t your fault, honey.”
Mabel didn’t look up at the old woman. “So you know about me and here? Who told you? David, I bet.”
“I don’t remember saying she could tell you.”
David was jumping between spinifex bushes. “I think she wanted her to know in case you started… crying.”
Mabel frowned. “Why would I start crying?” she asked, hands on her hips.
David shrugged. “It’s just… this was your home. And you… there’s a lot of bad here, isn’t there?”
“Yeah. That’s why I didn’t tell.”
“I don’t think Allison meant any harm,” said Sarah. “She just wanted me to understand.”
Mabel couldn’t get too mad at Allison. She was trying, in her own weird Allie way. It was more than she could say for some people, lately.
“I mean, you’re tough. I know you’re not gonna start crying, but it has to be better having people who know why this place is kinda spooky for you, right?”
“It’s not spooky!”
“Yes it is!” insisted David, stamping a foot in the dirt. “Your daddy died here! Lots of people did! Then they built a great big jail next to it for people like you! And I saw some big bats asleep in a house!”
“What do you care?” Mabel asked sourly. “We’re just… what does your granddad call us? ‘Souled animals’?”
David tilted his head. “Why wouldn’t I care? You’re my friend! You’re my first friend.”
Mabel pouted and turned her back to the boy. “Haven’t been treating me like it. These days you only play with Arnold and Allison! And that’s only because Allie’s weird like you and Arn’s’s pretty!”
“You’ve been getting all lovey dovey with Arnold too!”
“You’ve been hogging him!”
“…Not my fault he thinks I’m prettier than you.”
“You take that back!”
“Oh, for crying out loud!” cried Mrs Allworth. “We’re here for a prison break! Can you stop mooning over Arnold for five minutes?”
The children both looked at Sarah.
“…Most grown ups are weirder when David says Arnold’s pretty,” remarked Mabel.
Sarah scoffed. “My son was from outer-space and shot lasers from his eyes. What I would’ve given for queer some days.”
David looked back at Mabel, before stepping over and giving his friend a stiff hug.
“I think being all… Grandfather isn’t working anymore.”
Mabel hugged him back. “Coulda told you that ages ago.”
“Doesn’t mean I want to be Mealy again, though…”
“You weren’t Mealy for ages back at school. You were fine. Didn’t play with me nearly enough, but fine.”
“I don’t know how to go back there.”
“…You’re still mad at me, aren’t you?”
“I still love you and junk, Mabel.”
“Love ya too. Still mad. Not as much now, but still.”
Sarah looked on with approval, deciding not to spoil the moment with commentary.
Her radio-watch buzzed. Sarah raised her wrist. “That you, Ralph?”
A few miles away, crammed in a bathroom stall with his shoulders squished between the walls, the Crimson Comet hissed down his own communicator. “Who else would it be?”
“Blancheflor, for one.”
Ralph pretended to wait for the bloke in the next stall to flush before answering.
“Are Maude and the kids in?”
“Yep! Threw them to the lions myself! Can we get a move on?”
Sarah frowned. “What’s eating you, Mr. Rivers?”
“Besides the prison break masterminded by the thief and the nine year old I just watched get collared like dogs? Maybe it’s the fact I’m stuck playing nice with concentration camp guards. It’s like giving a press conference to the SS!”
“I see. Hang tight, Ralph. It’s all part of the plan”
The connection clicked off. Ralph sighed. The guards would probably send a search party if he didn’t get back to jackboot zoo.
Mrs Allworth turned back to the children. “It’s time, Mabel.”
Mabel nodded. “Okay.”
“Find somewhere shady to sit,” ordered Sarah. “I don’t trust sunscreen.”
She also didn’t trust the camera-jammer Mistress Quickly had given them. Or the gun.
Mabe quickly pointed to an adolescent desert walnut growing next to the general store.
“It was a sapling when I left…”
Mabel sat down cross legged in the dusky green shadows of the walnut’s canopy and laid her sketchbook open in her lap. Mrs Allworth and David settled either side of her.
“We’re both here if you need anything, child” said Sarah. “And keep taking sips from your water-bottle. Dehydration can sneak up on ya.”
“I know,” said Mabel.
She took a deep breath, turning her gaze down at her drawings. The skeins of pressure that always curled around Mabel’s veins flowed from her fingertips into the paper.
Not too far away, a glowing, statuesque woman with colourfully streaked white hair appeared on the desert sands. She wore a catsuit like a rainbow being eaten by a black hole.
Polychroma, Mabel called her. She’d gotten in the super way when a comet smashed into her daddy’s paint-factory. Mabel had discovered her drawings were more keen to step into reality when they had a name and story waiting for them, even just half a paragraph scribbled in the bottom corner of the page.
Next came Sam Stretch in his bubblegum pink body-glove. He got caught in a radioactive taffy-puller. Then the WAR Correspondent, the rogue photojournalist with the plutonium powered camera, cursed never to take another picture without blowing his subject to smithereens.
“Or he could buy a new camera,” pointed out David.
Mabel elbowed him in the ribs. “Thin ice, buster.”
Evolvulon, the man from the year 1000,000,000 with a telekinetic brain shaped like a planet. Mabel didn’t know if Lawrence would have laughed or winced at that, and she didn’t care. The Thing from Venus, a living puddle of liquid lead. For nostalgia’s (and her ray-gun’s) sake, the lady astronaut Mabel had finally decided was called Captain Williams.
Soon the desert was crowded with over fifty colourful characters. Titans and monsters. The Supervillain Liberation Front. Mabel was drained. She had enough power left in her for one more animation. Nothing fancy. No flying, or energy blasts, or quantum warping—whatever that meant. Maybe super-strength. Or a big, booming voice.
Mabel knew she had enough characters for the plan. Might’ve been smart to keep something in reserve.
She sighed and turned a page.
“Ooh,” said Sarah, “I like that one.”
Mabel gave her a small smile. “Thanks.”
One more figure appeared facing the Supervillain Liberation Front. He was broader than he was tall, covered in heavy armour the colour of the evening sky, with what resembled a tuning fork topped with a bubbling sunspot jutting out of his forehead. He wielded a heavy pick-axe, its blade forged from cyan light like an aurora caught in clear winter ice. A gemstone beard grew from his stoney chin, and his cheeks were riddled with craters and striations.
Or smallpox scars.
If you asked the creature his name, he would have told you his name was Garox, King of Saturn: soon-to-be ruler of Earth. Mabel would’ve told you the same thing. But she was thinking of someone else when she was drawing him. Mabel hadn’t dared give Garox that man’s name, but she couldn’t put him out of her thoughts. The gits had turned their home into a prison. They’d defiled her dad’s grave, such as it was. How could she not let him have a go at them?
In a rough, cigarette scarred voice, louder than thunder but softer than the washing tides, the alien king that had once been Drew Anderson boomed, “Time to get to work, lads. Everyone’s waiting on us.”
Mabel leaned back against the gnarled bark and smiled sadly.
Go get em’, Dad.
The Crimson Comet leaned against the kitchen bench in the Supermax break-room, sipping a mug of very bad coffee.
It was amazing. A secret, state of the art facility—where even the bloody staff kitchen looked like an unused Forbidden Planet set—and they still wouldn’t spring for a bean that didn’t taste like a bushfire.
Eleven guards were clustered around the superhero, watching him with giddy expectation like he was about to start vomiting sweets or break into song and dance.
They were about a third right: it did make Ralph want to be sick.
“Can you show us how you make your wings come out again, Mr. Comet?”
A sigh threatened to break Ralph’s false smile. He forced it down. “Sure thing!” Ralph cleared his throat. “Daedalus.”
The silvery metal mound on the Crimson’s Comet’s back unfolded into his new wing harness. An anticipatory crackle of electricity rippled across the metal
Ralph was told that was a clever reference. He wouldn’t know.
The guards whooped and applauded. Ralph felt like he was doing primary school assemblies again. If he had hated children.
The wings retracted into the backpack again. That allusion Ralph got. Mad scientists and their whimsy.
“So,” asked a young man with a schoolyard bully cast to his features, “how did you get into your business?”
Ralph gulped down the latest mouthful of liquid ash. “I got a costume and started beating up robbers till I started running into supervillains.”
“Oh,” said another guard. “I heard a burglar broke into your mansion, shot your ma, and then your dad sewed wings onto your back so you could fight crime.”
Ralph had to force his laugh not to sound derisive. Was that what those comics were pushing? He didn’t know what was more outlandish. The stuff about his wings, the idea his father knew how to sew, or him growing up in a mansion. “Maybe he did!”
A guard with a ginger cowlick protruding from under his helmet raised an eyebrow. “Wings made of solid metal?”
Ralph grinned hollowly and threw his arms up. “Why not?”
“Wings that changed shape…”
Ralph finally allowed himself to frown. “Look, boys, I’m not here to share my secret identity, you feel me?”
The murmured grunts of acknowledgment and poorly masked disappointment blended seamlessly into the office muzak.
Ralph started calculating how much more coffee he needed to drink to justify another bathroom break, but the guards refused to let the conversation die:
“Who knew Mistress Quickly had such a figure,” exclaimed one of them. “You’d think she’d be all pasty and flabby from working in a lab all day.”
Oh, God. “Guy talk.” Straight guy talk. They had invented gay bars so he could avoid this shit.
The overgrown school tough waggled his eyebrows at Ralph. “You gonna tell us how you got her out of—”
Gross straight guy talk.
I’m in Hell. Mistress Quickly killed me, and this is my Hell.
Before the Crimson Comet could either try to fake piggishness or launch into an appropriately moralistic lecture, a siren blared through the staff-room.
Red alert, red alert. All hands stand ready for potential incursion by enemy demi-humans.
The automated warning was interrupted by the shaky voice of Warden McNoll.
“Ah, could the Crimson Comet report to my office? Please?”
Oh, thank fuck.
Ralph practically tipped over the table in his haste to obey, but he couldn’t resist firing just one jab over his shoulder as he went: “Are you boys really that desperate?”
Frances McNoll was pacing back and forth in front of his space-age desk, plowing a trench in the thick shag carpet.
The Crimson Comet flung open his office door:
“What’s going on, warden? Bloody siren just about popped my eardrums!”
McNoll let out a high-pitched yelp of surprise. The last thing he needed right now was people who dressed like that bursting in on him.
“I—they…” He pointed resignedly at his desk. “Just look at the screen.”
Ralph rushed behind the work station. He whistled at the sight of the inbuilt television monitor. “Wow, colour! Wish I had one of these for the old Fortress of Solitude…”
“Focus, man, focus!”
Ralph made a show of blinking in shock.
The monitor was tuned to a camera facing out over the raw desert plains between the Supermax complex and the Circle’s End ruins, where a crowd of loudly costumed figures had gathered in a loose rabble. Some of them were only recognizable as people because they happened to be screaming and shouting, albeit mutely Many were waving bizarre weapons: startlingly streamlined ray-guns, laser-swords, or in one case, an oversized camera with a glowing green rod jutting out of it1. The whole scene was like a Georges Méliès film from a world where colour had come before talkies.
The Crimson Comet tutted gravely. “Just as I feared—”
By a stroke of kismet, Mrs Allworth chose that moment to switch on one of the gadgets Mistress Quickly left her:
The sirens died, replaced by a gravelly voice heavy with menacing bass notes:
“Circle’s End Supermax, your ears are privileged to hear the voice of Garox: Emperor of Saturn and its associated moons, and acting leader of the Supervillain Liberation Front!”
If Frances McNoll weren’t completely filled with terror right then, he might have been surprised such a voice belonged to royalty. It sounded more like colleagues he’d known whose life choices could be boiled down to “tradie,” “prison-guard,” or “prison-guarded.” A small part of him dimly recalled hearing that Saturn didn’t have a solid surface, but that was drowned out by the rest of him screaming.
Ralph, conversely, had to suppress a smile.
Garox continued, “Listen here, Circle’s End. You are harbouring one of our enemies, the blasted Crimson Comet! He has delivered three of our greatest allies into your filthy human hands: Mistress Quickly, Elsewhere, and the mighty Symphony, sum and total of us all! You have but one hour to hand over them, along with the rest of your inmates!”
Frances shook his head. “He can’t be serious…”
“Dead serious, I’m afraid,” said the Crimson Comet. “I barely escaped the SLF with my life.”
A new voice replaced Garox, this one high and wheedling:
“I am Evolvulon: man from the year One Billion AD.”
“The year One Billion?”
“I think he’s rounding up,” commented Ralph.
“The history crystals of my time reveal that all attempts at resisting the SLF are doomed to failure. We will succeed in transitioning the Earth into a supervillainy based economy. That is all.”
Ralph had wondered during the planning sessions if Evolvulon was over-egging things a bit, but given how McNoll was clutching the sides of his head and cursing at the carpet…
“Shitting fucking Hell!” The warden glared up at the Crimson Comet. “What does ‘supervillainy based economy’ even mean?”
The Comet shrugged. “I didn’t stick around for a lecture. I think it means everyone gets powers and a costume. Oh, and instead of jobs, people do heists.” The superhero smiled and twirled a finger next to his head. “Wacko, right?”
Mcnoll growled, “You brought them here.”
Ralph’s expression snapped back to solemn. “I’m sorry, Warden. I was sure I’d lost them around Kalgoorlie.” He let out a theatrical sigh. “It’s my fault.”
Frances moaned. “What am I going to do?”
“Well, you could do as they say?”
Worth a shot.
McNoll sputtered. “Are you mad? I can’t hand over a hundred and ten demis to other demis! Valour would shit down my throat!”
Ralph believed him. “Of course not, I was joking.”
“Clearly!” The warden’s knees nearly gave out beneath him. “We’re all gonna die, we’re all gonna die…”
Ralph sighed again, this time genuinely. He walked over to the warden and gently took the man by the shoulders. “Calm down, mate. We can get through this.”
Frances looked up at the superhero. The beginnings of tears were beading in the corner of his eyes. In a very small voice, he asked, “We can?”
Ralph nodded. “You just have to trust me. I have a plan.”
Those words were like pure light to Frances McNoll. Big decisions were the one aspect of authority he could do without. The warden of Circle’s End Supermax was a creature of routine and protocol; carrying out orders from higher ups so distant, they might as well have been God Himself.
One aspect Frances was very into, though, was deferring responsibility.
Within twenty minutes, the Crimson Comet was standing on the access road in front of the prison, preparing to address over two hundred and fifty guards and soldiers. Not a bad turnout. Allison no doubt would’ve liked even more of them out here, but every bit helped.
For every two true humans, there was one hulking Physician drone, their faces concealed behind armoured black gas-masks. Ralph wondered if they even had faces under there2. He could make out their muscles twitching with anticipation under their Kevlar sleeves. If what Blanchefor had told Ralph about them was true, this was probably like standing at the gates of Paradise for them.
Ralph cleared his throat. “I know you all must be frightened—”
Hundreds of shouted protests. Vain fools. But not strictly speaking incorrect.
“…Or not. The enemies we go to fight are fierce! Inhuman! But we are men. Today we fight not only for our lives, but for the future of our country! Perhaps the future of the bloody human race! And are we going to let a bunch of freaks trample on us?
A “No!” like the roaring sea.
One near the front though raised his hand like a boy in a classroom. “But the future man said he knew we’d lose…”
Ralph glared at the guard. This was no time for short-term memory.
“Well, of course he’d tell you that, wouldn’t he? Use your head!”
The dissenting guard’s neighbours all started booing and shoving the poor bastard.
Ralph raised a hand, barking. “Enough of that! We have a job to do! Follow me!”
Ralph turned and launched himself out onto the desert, scorching the road and fusing the sands below him into glass.
Behind him, a siren blared the windowed rim of the prison building closed shut like a frightened clam. Lockdown. Just as McNoll eagerly promised the Comet. Just as Allison had hoped.
Ralph came to a sharp stop with the help of his new wings. Had to give the men time to catch up. He wished he had a cigarette.
The Supervillain Liberation Front were still milling about when the Crimson Comet and his conquering army fell upon them.
Garox roared, “Attack!”
In seconds, the desert plains burned with combat. A squad of men tried to flank the WAR Correspondent, only to get blown back with the force of a focused hurricane as he manically snapped picture after picture. The villain giggled shrilly. “I’m shoo-in for the Pugilitser with these snaps!”
Ralph rolled his eyes. He wondered whether he ought to compliment or chastise Mabel for that one later.
Bullets bounced off Sam Stretch’s elongated form like raindrops on a trampoline, until a couple of drones managed to grab him by the arms, savagely pulling until the rubber-man tore in half, splattering the surrounding guards with blood like corn syrup.
Most of the guards caught in the splash-zone squirmed and groaned in disgust. A few of the less battle-high ones even screamed. The drones roared in pure, ecstatic triumph.
Evolvulon was standing serenely in the middle of the fray, fired bullets orbiting him while half a dozen guards thrashed and shouted ten feet above his head. A drone was struggling to escape the heavy liquid grasp of the Thing from Venus.
If any of the guards or dones were in any state to objectively examine their situation, they might have noticed that they’d failed to sustain any casualties. The SLF seemed content to just knock about the forces of the Supermax, even as their own numbers were slowly, painfully whittled down. One side was playing Cowboys and Indians, the other Vietnam.
Ralph was “dodging” poorly-aimed energy bolts from a lady astronaut’s laser-gun when he found himself being pulled around by his shoulders.
He found himself facing a blue-armoured brick wall of a man with a face made of rock and almost purple eyes. Garox, if Ralph recalled right.
Ralph Rivers grabbed Garox’s hands and pushed him back. Garox resisted, the force of their grappling sending shockwaves through the sand surrounding them.
The guards were cheering. The “villains” were jeering and snarling like the caricatures they were.
The fictional tyrant shouted, “You’ll pay for this, Crimson Comet!”
Garox winked. Ralph winked back.
1. Mabel thought of it as plutonium, not that plutonium ever glows green in such a manner. ↩
2. They did. The Physician deemed jaws to be a useful weapon in a pinch. ↩