Before Allison could say anything more to her fellow juvenile delinquents, the rent opened in the air again, ejecting a whooping Arnold onto the spongy grass.
He scrambled to his feet, knees and shoulders bouncing with excitement. “Let’s do that again—” He blinked at the sight of the children behind Allison, rubbing his eyes and looking again. “Haunt? Brit?”
Tom and Louise both frowned.
“Ah, sorry. Force of habit.”
A ten year old girl with pink skin and quietly hissing snakes for hair asked, “You know these two?”
“Yeah,” said Louise. “They’re from the Institute.”
Allison ran over and tried her best to hug both Tom and Louise. “We thought you were dead!”
Tom stiffened, then relaxed slightly, patting the girl half-heartedly on the back. “We were kinda wondering about you, too.”
Louise asked, “What about the rest of you guys? Mabel? Billy?” Louise’s voice rose in pitch a touch. “David?”
“Yeah,” said Arnold. “We got out.”
“But I heard you all die!” insisted Allison. “Your songs went away.”
Tom sighed. “Sit down, everyone, this is going to take some explaining…”
Tom and Louise told the story of the raid like a joke they’d been forced to repeat once or twice too many at a party. The soldiers; the fire-fight; Linus and his father…
“…It was like we were taking a bath in the sun,” said Tom, “Then Apollo or whoever he was said he was taking us to where we needed to be…” He grunted. “Then me and Louise got dumped right in the bloody lobby here.” Tom cast his eyes up at the painted ceiling. “This is why nobody worships you gits anymore.”
Many floors above, heat lightning crackled across the wide desert sky. Not even a whisper reached the children.
Tom smiled bitterly. “One advantage of being underground I guess. You can cuss out the ultra-white-people much as you like.”
“I know it sounds wild,” said Louise, “but Linus was telling the truth.”
Arnold shrugged. “I can buy it. We met David’s granddad.”
“Really?” asked Louise. “What’s he like?”
“Evil. But kinda fun sometimes?” Arnold jabbed his thumb at Allison. “He liked Allie a lot.”
Everyone looked at the girl. Allison was clawing at the trampoline grass.
“Ah, you alright Allie?” asked Tom.
It was odd. For nearly two months, Allison had known in her gut that all the other Institute kids were dead. But she was wrong. Some of them were still alive. More could still be out there. She should’ve been relieved.
But some of them weren’t out there. Allison knew how they died now. Their songs lost forever all over again.
“Nope,” she answered. “But I will be soon. When we get out of here.”
The other inmates laughed derisively.
“Yeah, sure,” said a pasty skinned teenage girl with long dark hair. “I bet you’ll be gone before the Chester Fingers speech.”
Arnold lip curled. “Chester Fingers?”
A twangy “boing” taken directly from a cartoon sound effects library echoed through the sky, growing louder and closer with every repetition.
Arnold and Allison looked up. Nobody else did. A figure was bouncing between the sheep-fleece clouds like a demented transitional Superman.
Allison frowned. “The heck—”
It leapt down onto the grass in front of the kids. It was a fat party-clown in a half polka-dotted mustard shift and a blue top-hat. His eyes were glassy, manic saucers, and his big red nose bore an unfortunate resemblance to a tumour.
“Hi kids!” it screeched in a far too jaunty, generically American voice. “I’m Chester Fingers!”
Allison felt a whimper in the back of her head, barely noticeable, along with a voice sourly spitting “pagliaccio.” Was that what Miri and Alberto sounded like without telepathy? “Chester Fingers,” she said flatly. “Really?”
“That’s right, [NAME TO BE INPUT], Chester Fingers!” The clown pulled out a handkerchief and violently blew his nose, spewing streams of multicoloured ribbon from his nostrils. Then he stood perfectly still, as though holding for laughs.
Chester Fingers received none. It didn’t seem to bother him.
Fingers capered between Allison and Arnold, somesalting and bouncing. “I’m here to get you settled into the Garden, where you’ll get to play with tons of new friends while all the clever scientists work day and night to make you all normal little girls and boys!”
Allison glared fire at the clown. “Normal?”
Tom rolled his eyes. “Piss off, Fingers.”
Chester Fingers turned to the older boy and wagged a finger at him. “Now, now, Mr. Long. You already have  attitude demerits. You don’t want to miss Movie Night again, don’t you?”
Tom scoffed. “You project the bloody films on the clouds! You can see it for miles! Fake miles, but still!”
“That sounds kinda cool…” murmured Arnold.
“You’d think so,” whispered Louise. “But it’s always some weird kiddie crap where the mouths don’t match the voices and all the boys sound like old ladies. Tom reckons they get them from Mexico1. Tough on the neck, too.”
Chester Fingers threw his arms up, Apollo butterflies and emerald swallowtails escaping from his baggy sleeves only to dissolve mid-air. “Well, let’s get started on the ground tour!”
Allison and Arnold’s surroundings blurred. The ground was sliding like a treadmill beneath their feet, speeding them far away (or so it seemed) from the other inmates. Allison—biological treasure that she was—managed to keep her balance, but Arnold fell backwards on his rump.
They found themselves in front of a cluster of rabbit holes dug into a small hillside. Unfortunately, Chester Fingers had joined them:
“This is where the handy dandy Rabbit Reserve Corps delivers you kids three square meals a day and fresh clothes!”
A yellow-white rabbit lopped out of one of the “warrens” with a large brown package tied around its back.
Arnold grinned. “Bunnies!”
He saw how Allison was looking at him and quickly cleared his throat. “I mean, probably fake bunnies, right?”
Chester Fingers added something like wryness to his grin. “Who’s to say what’s real, [NAME TO BE INPUT]?”
The clown winked with an audible twinkle.
The ground shifted again. Now they were in a forest clearing, where a giant, matronly dressed goose sat on a tree stump surrounded by child-sized blow up mattresses, mumbling her way through a particularly tame version of “Hansel and Gretel” from a storybook the size of a coffee table.
“And this is Mother Goose, who is always here to tell approved bedtime stories!”
“I wonder if she does Famous Five,” remarked Arnold.
He almost startled when Chester Fingers responded, “Lucky for you, Mother Goose has indeed memorized the complete works of Enid Blyton!”
“Figures,” said Allison.
“We can never tell Billy about this.”
Again, they were carried away, this time to a shocking boring concrete toilet block in the middle of a suspiciously manicured green field.
“And these are the restrooms! Remember kids, just because we’re in the great outdoors doesn’t mean we’re animals!”
“They shoulda put a bit more imagination into this part,” said Arnold.
“Do you really want an imaginative toilet?” retorted Allison.
There was one last stop on Chester Fingers’ tour: a pond about the size of an olympic swimming pool, filled with a bright yellow water.
“Welcome to Lemonade Lake!” cheered the clown. “Where you kids can swim and wash up to your hearts’ content! Just remember, maintain a distance of one metre from other swimmers, and no mixing boys and girls. Don’t want to catch cooties, do we?”
Chester Fingers’ head shook like a bobble-head, his pupils bouncing off and around the edges of his eyes.
Allison grimaced. “Eww! Why’d they have to make it yellow?”
“Doesn’t even look like lemonade,” said Arnold. He toed the water. “It’s not even fizzy!”
“I think they’re using it the American way. It’s what they call lemon cordial there.”
Tour concluded, the floor returned Chester and the children back to where they started.
“Just so you know,” said Tom, “By now Lemonade Lake is almost exactly what it looks like.”
Chester Fingers still had speech left in him. “We at the Garden all know how scary it can be adjusting to our new home, so I hope you all are very nice to [NAME TO BE INPUT] and [NAME TO BE INPUT]. But remember, if you ever need another buddy, just call on ol’ Chester Fingers.”
Chester Fingers’… fingers detached from his hands, swimming through the air like pale, bony sea-snakes, lunging at the children and tickling them under their chins and ribs, their master giggling all the while.
Screaming broke out among the children. Arnold flailed like he was in the middle of a swarm of bees. Tom swatted at the fingers with a scowl like Hades. Louise was curled up on the grass with her hands over her head. Allison meanwhile just shut off the nerves in her skin and stood there with her eyes screwed shut.
“Eww, ewww, eww…”
Thankfully, the tickle-fest quickly concluded with Chester summoning back his fingers. The clown threw his top-hat into the air and jumped inside, tugging the rim into the hole after him. “See you at dinner, kids!”
Everyone breathed a sigh of relief.
“So yeah,” said Tom, “that Dante bloke was a bloody winger.”
After that introductions were made. The Medusa girl was called Andrea, and could paralyze people with sustained eye-contact. And move at tremendous speeds. And shrink and grow in size.
“Wow, that’s”—Allison tried to think of a word the other kids might know—“eclectic.”
“Yeah, she’s a real Billy,” said Tom, master of context-clues.
“Was that the kid who dropped dead?” asked Annie.
“No,” Tom said firmly. “The one who looks like a tiger.”
“Oh, the one you never shut up about, got it.”
“Look, there isn’t much to talk about in here.”
Tom didn’t dignify his old schoolmate with a response.
Then there was Liam, a slightly goatish boy with stubby horns growing from his forehead:
“So you’re a wizard?” asked Allison. “Like Penderghast?”
Liam shrugged. “I guess. Kinda self-taught. I think Mum’s a witch, but she’s real into God now. Still, I found an old book in the drywall. Probably that ‘evil’ Mum kept screaming about when she tried burning the house down.” He shook his head sady. “Freak-finders took it off me. But I still remember a lot” He started fretting his hands and speaking very slowly. “Or—I remember remembering, before the collar.” Liam tugged at it. “But how is knowing something a power? God, magic’s confusing.”
“I hear ya.”
Brent had skin like diamond and the strength to match. Paula could shoot garrote wire made of light from her fingers. One girl would only answer to the name “Thunder-Tiger2” and claimed to be the scion of two South Australian supervillains locked up a few floors down.
All in all, a good bunch, Allison decided, though it occurred to her that she had no way of knowing if these kids were being honest. Still, they had to be in here for a reason.
“So what’s your plan, Allie?” asked Louise.
“You don’t really think they’re getting us out of here, do ya?” asked Andrea, hair hissing and snapping at the air around her head.
“I don’t know,” said Louise. “Allison’s pretty smart. Or her power is, anyway.”
“Thanks,” said Allison.
“Doesn’t matter how smart they are,” said Liam. “Doc Danny built the stupid place, and he’s been in here long as anyone.”
“Look,” said Allison, “me and Arn—wait, who’s in here?”
“Doc Danny,” said Tom. “Mad-scientist kid. ‘Bout you and Arn’s age. He built ‘the Garden’ for the freak-finders before they threw him in.”
“Served him right,” added Angela.
Tom looked a touch queasy at that.
“Huh,” said Allison. “Like Daedalus.”
Arnold looked at her. “Who—oh, forget it…”
He remembered, but decided not to mention it. Sometimes Allie needed her moments.
“Take us to him,” said Allison.
The inmates exchanged looks.
“That might be tough,” said Andrea. “He’s hiding.”
Neither Arnold nor Allison needed to be told why.
“Can’t be that hard,” said Louise. “There’s only one place to hide here.”
Everyone trapsed to the toilet block. Allison kept her enhanced eyes trained on the horizon. She could make out the miniscule points of light that made up the “sky” like Ben-Day dots in a cheap comic, and even the seams behind them where two walls met. The illusion of distance.
Allison could feel the ground flowing subtly under her feet, too—not nearly so jarringly as during the tour, but enough they were essentially walking in place. Motion without progress. Instead, Lemonade Lake and Mother Goose’s hollow drifted past them like lily pads in a stream.
“What have you guys been up to since… you know, the thing?” asked Louise.
“Um…” Arnold wasn’t sure where to start.
Allison decided to start with the worst. “I ate Alberto.”
Louise stared at the other girl. “What?”
“I mean, I kinda… sucked his soul into my brain. So now I have his power. And everything else.”
“Then we went to live with the Physician on his spaceship,” added Arnold. “He had a mermaid!”
“Jesus,” said Tom.
“It was kinda alright until he made me eat another kid so I could fly.” Quickly, Allison added, “It’s okay, but. We’re friends now!”
Tom was beginning to wonder if he and Louise were better off in the Garden.
“And then the Flying Man killed him to death,” said Arnold.
Tom nodded thoughtfully. “Guess that figures..”
“And now we live in his house.”
Louise asked, “You live with the Flying Man?” She glanced reflexively at the simulated sky. “Is he helping you?”
“Not really,” explained Arnold. “Just his mum. The Flying Man’s dead.”
Louise wasn’t sure what she ought to ask next. “…Does she have powers too?”
Arnold shook his head. “Not really. Just sorta old.”
“…I killed Lawrence.”
Louise went silent. Horror warred with a sick smile creeping towards her lips. She wasn’t sure she should be shocked at Arnold’s admission: she’d killed too, now.
“Aww, mate,” said Tom. “Sorry you had to… that.”
A second’s quiet, then Arnold shrugged.
“He was an arse though, right?”
It went on like that until they reached the toilets. Or the toilets reached them.
Tom stood at the head of the crowd, cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted. “Oi! Danny Doc! Come on, we know you’re in there. Get on out here!”
A small whimper echoed out from the concrete block.
Tom sighed and slumped his shoulders. “Look. I’m not gonna beat you up.”
“Again,” muttered Louise.
“Not proud of it,” Tom shot over his shoulder, before turning back to the block and yelling, “These new kids want to speak to ya!”
An angry but shaky little voice, “Oh, all the new kids want to speak to me!”
“Really speak to ya! They wanna ask you about this place!”
“I’ve told you, there is no ‘secret passage’! I didn’t build the place with my hands!”
“That’s it, I’m going in there,” said Allison. She stalked towards the entrance to the boy’s toilets.
A kid darted out of the other doorway, taking off into the distance.
Allison frowned. He’d been hiding in the girl’s. The creep.
“Get back here—”
Allison shot past Tom after Doc Danny, pursuing him across the sponge carpet of the Garden. Symbols flashed in her mind’s eye, increasing the flow of adrenaline and blood to her legs, boosting her breathing and quieting protesting muscles.
…Yet she couldn’t close the distance. How was this twerp—
Oh, yeah, treadmill.
Allison bent her knees and leapt as hard as she could, sailing a full ten feet into the air.
The treadmill grass crossed the distance better than Allison ever could, pulling Doc Danny in underneath her. She landed on him with a thud, the ground flexing beneath them.
Allison flipped the boy under her on his back, finding a mousy haired boy with thick clouds of freckles. He had a fading black eye and a missing tooth. Allison doubted it was a baby one.
“I’m sorry!” he wailed. “I couldn’t say no! I don’t have powers like you—”
Allison put a finger to Doc’s mouth. “Just tell me: what happens in here when they put the prison in lockdown.”
Doc blinked. Something like hope was born inside him. Or maybe just confusion. He tried to remember the protocols he’d written (dictated) when he was seven. “…Chester Fingers calls us all for a surprise movie. Supposed to distract us.”
Allison got off him. “Thank you.”
Come on, Comet, get a move on.
The other inmates gathered around the two.
“…Is he done explaining already?” asked Louise. “Seems pretty quick.”
Allison managed a smile. “He’s told me what I need to know.”
The cartoonishly springy sound sounded again over the Garden. Chester Fingers jumped down into their midst.
“Oh lucky us, kids! It’s time for a surprise viewing of Tom Thumb and—”
Allison nodded at Arnold. “Now!”
The pair struck the most dramatic poses they could:
A white flash.
The inmates oohed and awed at the sight of Arnold and Allison suddenly in their costumes. Allison though, shuddered.
Their collars were gone.
The music swamped Allison like a flood pouring into a canyon. So many songs. Orchestras of songbirds singing in strange, rarified atmospheres. Wind howling over mountains of delicate crystal. Drums like the breath of volcanoes…
An increasingly familiar voice chirped in Allison’s ear, “Yay, you can hear me again!”
“Oh, thank fuck. It was like being shoved in a footlocker.”
Allison grabbed onto as many songs as she could at once. It was hard, carrying them all on her soul—like trying to keep her toes curled around tightrope in zero gravity—but it felt so good.
The colours of her costume ran together until they were pure, gleaming white; except for the faint, flowing rainbows of the Muse’s star on her chest.
“Wow,” said Tom. “You look neat.”
Louise looked at her friend, surprised.
“Well, she does.”
Allison looked down benignly at Doc Danny. She extended a hand for him. “You did good, Doc.”
Doc took the offered hand cautiously and pulled himself to his feet. “What happens now?”
Allison tapped a finger to his collar. “Let me get that for you—”
A green spark, and the collar vanished. Doc gasped with relief.
“I’m smart again!”
Allison tapped his neck again. The boy’s eyelids fluttered shut as sleep took him. He dissolved into green light with a thunderclap before he could hit the ground.
A murmur of confusion snaked through the inmates.
“You didn’t send him to the sun or something?” asked Tom.
“He was fragile,” answered Allison. “I sent him somewhere safe.3
Chester Fingers spoke up. “I see you two have misplaced your safety bands. Allow me to give you a big hug while we wait for replacements.”
Chester Fingers’ arms shot out, extending like pythons and coiling around Arnold and Allison, and constricting tightly around their chests. Arnold lit up with lightning, but the arm around him only fuzzed like a bad TV signal. The other children shouted and pulled at the clown’s sleeve, trying to free the boy in the cloak.
Chester Fingers beamed. “Does someone want a tickle fight?”
Again, his fingers flew from his hand, swooping at the children like greedy magpies.
“Everyone get back!”
The inmates obeyed, though mostly in a blind attempt to flee the fingers.
Allison burst into red and purple flames, becoming a white-hot coal at the centre of a hearth. Chester Fingers shimmered as the air broiled, the disruption melting him into a mess of light and force fields4.
Allison and Arnold both fell to the ground, breathing heavily.
“Okay,” said Allison. “Now—”
The grass slid fast beneath every child, rapidly carrying them away from each other.
Allison wished she hadn’t evacuated the Doc so fast.
Arnold lay on his back as the landmarks of the Garden swirled around him. He saw the toilets sailing off in the distance like a lifeboat current in a riptide.
The floor’s like a sliding puzzle.
He pointed at the toilet block. Lightning whipped from his fingers:
A mound of concrete and water exploded from under the middle of the Garden. The grass came to a screeching, grinding halt.
The children groaned and rubbed various sore spots as they collected themselves in the corners of the Garden they’d stopped in.
Arnold looked around. “Allie?”
Out of the corner of his eye, Arnold saw his friend fly at the sky: a white star in broad daylight.
Allison quickly reached the border of the false sky, clawing at it with fingers dressed in diamond skin. Thin fissures of white light spread through the blue, like cracks in a window about to shatter.
The sky vanished, revealing grey concrete riddled with lights like hundreds of spider-eyes. The “grass” was now dull and grey, like a cross between lunar wastes and kitchen sponges. A slide spiraled down from the middle of the ceiling. The whole Garden it turned out was about the size and shape of a high school auditorium.
Most importantly, there was a large, vaulted door set into the east wall, which Allison was presently smugly alighting in front of.
Arnold and the inmates ran to meet her, the former darting amongst them and teleporting away their collars all the while.
“You guys have a choice,” Allison said when all were gathered. “You can help me and Arnold mess with the people who locked you up, or we’ll send you to the same place we put Doc. No shame.”
The inmates exchanged looks.
Tom’s eyes flashed white. It was good to be able to see through little things like two foot reinforced doors again. For the first time in months, he turned wireframe, almost casually strolling through Allison and the door.
There were very muffled shouts. A few seconds later, the door turned transparent and promptly fell through the floor.
Tom was standing in a sterile white lobby. A few guards and orderlies were sunk down to their waists in the smooth, polished floors, swearing and struggling.
“Well,” said Tom. “You guys coming?”
1. In the case of Tom Thumb and Little Red Riding Hood and Santa Claus, he’d be right. ↩
2. Similar to many other children of supervillains, Thunder-Tiger was her only legal name. ↩
3. Specifically, the cabin of Mistress Quickly’s mobile bunker. ↩
4. The administration considered having the Physician produce a warden, but aside from the upkeep costing more, it also occurred to them a physical drone could be ganged up on. ↩