Chapter Eighty-Nine: The Harrowing

Mistress Quickly landed in soft darkness:

A slide? Who built this place? A kid?

The shadows shifted with a whir. The chute retracting, Maude guessed. The furry mass clinging to her tightened its grip.

Maude gave it a pat. “Good boy.”

Sterile white-blue light bloomed under her. She was lying on a raised mattress in the middle of a small dome made of tightly wound cogs and gears. Maude had expected that. 

What she hadn’t expected was for the entire cell floor to be a TV screen. Warden McNoll was sitting behind a black desk in front of a grey brick wall, staring up at the ceiling like Big Brother’s confused cousin. 

That’s considerate, thought Maude. Letting the inmates walk all over your face.

Warden McNoll’s upper lip bulged as he licked his teeth, clearly trying to remember his line.  After a second, he blurted, “You have been sentenced to this facility for crimes against the Commonwealth of Australia.”

“Technically,” Mistress Quickly said aloud, “I wasn’t sentenced at all. Haven’t even had a trial yet…”

Well, there were all the absentee ones. Maybe righteous indignation wasn’t her calling.

“This modular holding environment—”

“This cell, you mean.”

Why was she talking to a recording?

“…Will be your home until you have been deemed fit to reenter decent, human society, or a way is found for you to serve said society.”

“No points for guessing which comes first…” 

“As a low-powered, low-risk inmate—”

“Piss off!”

“…You are entitled by law to one hour of supervised, outdoor exercise each week. This is currently being appealed.”

Offense subsided, Maude wondered if they stitched different bits of video together, or if McNoll had to record a message for every little variation.

McNoll kept reciting, “You will receive three meals a day, as is also mandated by Australian law.” His right eye twitched. “Paid for by us, the taxpayer, because you f—”

The video skipped. Now McNoll was holding his hands together in front of him. “To continue, your prison issued furniture also functions as a toilet…”

Definitely the latter.    

The warden droned on about meal times for a while, before the floor turned dark again and the cell was filled with warm, even light. Mistress Quickly was alone, more or less.

Maude got up from the bed and ran her hand over the walls. Normally, spider threads of inspiration would be binding stray information and spontaneous insights into plans as solid as a finished product. Her fingers would twitch, hungry for materials to work into miracles. With this collar clinging to her throat, though, all Maude could’ve told you about this cell was that it looked like a bird’s nest made out of a clock, the floor talked, and it wasn’t at all dark despite a dearth of light fixtures. For her, it was like looking at a man’s face and not being able to tell if he had a nose.

So this is what being normal is like. Don’t like it. 

Could be worse, Maude told herself. Despite far too long spent staring at pictures of her brain and batteries of tests besides, Maude couldn’t shake the fear that suppressing her powers would render her… as she’d been. Before she became Mistress Quickly1

Unless it had. Looking around this cell was hardly any different from struggling through Dick and Jane readers at fourteen, trying to make sense of symbols and scratchings everyone else her age had found so self-explanatory. Maude had gone from “slow” to “impossible.” What did she know about normal

To her shame, Maude rushed over to an alcove in the wall housing a dozen, probably heavily vetted volumes. She blindly snatched up a copy of Of Mice and Men and flicked through it:

She could still read. Good.

Maude sighed in relief, slid down the wall, and waited. This whole plan was scraping her nerves like a violin bow. So much of it—so much of her future—now rested on the actions of others. Why had she agreed to it? Loyalty to her people? She was barely on the same continent as most supers, and patriotism was never Maude’s strongest instinct. Concern for the inmates? Maude was no altruist. Besides, the place was full of superheroes. Villains, too; but for all the drinks Mistress Quickly had shared with folks like Jimmy the Bastard or Close Fit2, supervillainy was no fraternity. 

It was the booty, Maude told herself. So much technology, some of it literally out of this world… but then, Maude had access to the multiverse. If she tried hard enough, she could’ve found a timeline where this facility had already been abandoned. 

Maude found herself remembering the Cuban Crisis. She’d just finished packing her bags for the Miracle Constellation3 when she’d heard the tapping at the window. At thirty-five thousand feet.

She agreed to help that curly haired bastard before he even offered her anything. God, she was a sucker sometimes. Maybe she hadn’t changed… 

After somewhere between forty-five minutes and forty-five years, Billy appeared in his super-suit on the bed, Mistress Quicky’s battle-suit tied around his waist. He was looking at a watch with a cat-shaped face. “It’s time, Miss Quickly!”

Maude shot up. “Oh, thank you more than Christ.” She held out her hands. “Toss me the suit.”

She slipped the costume on and pulled the mask down over her face. She nearly started as the communicator built into the neck snapped to life. Then, her own voice started talking through it.

“Now, Maude,” said the recording, its voice loud, slow, and forcibly cheerful. “I know you might be frightened, but I need you to do exactly what I say, alright? There’s people who need your help out there. Now, put your hand into the belt-pocket with the apple sticker on it and say ‘ballistic spray.’ That’s ‘bah-lis-tick spray.’ It’ll give you a little spray-can, like bug repellent. Spray it on the kitten-boy—”

She muted the recording. 

“You’re a bitch, Maude,” she told herself flatly. 

“Kitten boy?”

“You know it’s apt, kid.” 

Maude retrieved the “bah-lis-tick spray” and advanced towards Billy. “Alright, costume off for a second, got to bulletproof you.”

Billy crossed his arms. “Do you have to?”

For that, he caught a glob of ballistic foam in the face.

Maude shook the can. “Billy, you’re a living stuffed animal. They’d burn me at the stake if I let you get shot. Now stop whinging. Everyone should be busy gawking at the SLF, but I give us three minutes before someone glances at our camera. Now, one of us is spraying you, and I know which one we’d both rather that be.”

Billy sighed and took the spray. “Costume off.”

Soon he was covered in a layer of thick grey foam like he’d just gotten out of a concrete bubble bath. “My fur’s all sticky! And it makes my costume squelch!”

“Tough.” Maude stuck her hand into another pouch. “Gyges.” 

A ring jumped into her hand. She slipped it onto Billy’s clawed finger. The air around him shone and glinted.

“What’s this?”

“I used to get really cross at people for calling it a forcefield ring, because it’s not technically forcefields, but I can’t remember how it’s not right now, so fuck it, it’s a forcefield ring.”

Come to think of it, how did she fit all that into a ring?

Then why do I need the spray? And don’t swear!”

“Redundancy!” Maude looked around the cell, asking herself, “How do we get out of here? Vapourized time? Forcefield pliers?”

Billy cleared his throat. “Can I try?”

Maude hummed consideringly. “You aren’t going to try roaring in here, are you?”

“No…”

“Go ahead.”

Billy raised his arms over his head. Silvery mist flowed up from his palms, spreading over the dome walls down to the floor. The mist swelled.

Billy smiled to himself.

The dome collapsed into confetti over their heads, letting in blaring klaxons like the world’s worst party-horns. 

Breakout from Juvenile Rehabilitation Area… Breakout from Juvenile Rehabilitation Area.

Billy clapped his hands over his ears. Mistress Quickly’s HUD highlighted six guards rushing around where the cell had been, word balloons helpfully pointing out their guns. They were shouting dimly beneath the roar of the alarm, taking aim.

Maude hugged Billy to her side. “Hold tight!” 

She clicked her heels. The battle-suit’s glider fanned beneath the pair’s feet.

Maude and Billy shot up above a storming of bullets, speeding over row upon row of clockwork domes towards the exit. Guards shouted and fired wildly up at the pair.

A bullet winged Billy in the shoulder. His ring-aura wobbed like a second skin of jelly. As did the ballistic foam.

“Feels funny…”

Better than what I usually hear when someone gets shot. Maude glanced up at the cell-block’s ceiling. “24” was written across the steel in white block letters. Good. Now they had some idea of where they were. 

Maude shoved her hand into a weapons-pouch. 

Mirth.”

Five small metal orbs flitted into the supervillain’s hands. She looked down at Billy, still clinging to her thigh. “I suggest you hold your breath, kid.”

Maude tossed the orbs over her shoulder. They struck the floor below and bounced, before exploding into plumes of thick, pink smoke, rapidly spreading across the cell bay and swallowing the guards.

Wild, pained laughter broke out below the glider. A few aimless gouts of gunfire erupted from the smoke like fleeing fireflies. 

Well, at least the guards are having a good time, Maude thought as they zoomed out of the block.   

They soon reached a bank of four brightly coloured elevators: red, blue, green and yellow. 

Maude groaned. She felt like she was trapped on a game show. Fucking too-clever designers. She tried to remember the code. Red for surface-access and administration, blue for holding areas… 

A ghostly little girl poked her head through the yellow doors and looked around, catching sight of Mistress Quickly and Billy. She beamed. “Hi Billy!”

Billy waved. “Hey Miri!”

“I’m guessing Allison and Arnold got out alright?” asked Maude. 

“Yep! Made some friends, too! One’s pink, another’s the same colour as the Meanie, sounds meaner, but is actually nice, and there’s one girl called—”

Maude snapped her fingers. “Focus, girl.”

“Oh, yeah, we got out. Allie broke the sky!”

Maude tried to keep her eyes from rolling. “And have you found engineering?”

“The power room? Yep! Just a sec.”

Miri disappeared back into the elevator. The doors opened, revealing Miri floating beside a badly shaved young man in white scrubs vacantly prodding at the “door open” button.   

Maude and Billy filed inside the elevator. The former prodded the man in the shoulder. His only response was a slight gurgle in his throat.

“Did you drug him?”

“What’s a drug?” asked Miri. “Allie just tapped him and now he does what she wants.”

“Why didn’t you go inside him?” asked Billy.

Miri frowned. “Boy.”

Maude reminded herself to never let Allison touch her.

It turned out Mistress Quickly had no more fondness for long elevator rides than the Crimson Comet. Especially not with an imaginary girl and a zombie. She glanced at Miri’s illusionary body. Her midsection trailed off into mist like Casper the Friendly Ghost’s little sister. A concession to modesty? Pure aesthetic?

“You know,” said Maude. “I don’t dabble in biology too much, but I could probably work you up a decent body, especially with the blood I picked up in Maestro-land. Not sure how I’d move you into it right now, but it’d be a start.”

Miri was quiet for some time.

Billy nodded eagerly. “We could play more! And hug!”

Miri bit her lip. “Wouldn’t it be lonely?”

Billy tilted his head. “But you’d still have us.”

Miri looked at Maude. “…Would I be able to fly?”

Maude shrugged.

“Probably. The Grand Duchess of the House of Pancakes or whatever could fly through space, but I’m not smart enough to know what I could knock together for you right now.”

The elevator doors opened before Miri could respond. 

Maude had half-expected the reactor room to be bathed in shadow and mood lighting. That was silly. People had to work here. So no, the chamber was flooded with pragmatic, ugly fluorescent light. Not that the rest of the design was as sensible to Maude’s eyes. The roof was held up by angled pillars. Control consoles were arranged in a magician’s circle around a concave pit—all straight lines and edges, beveling down into the floor like a crater carved with a slide rule. Water cascaded down the steps into a bright blue pool at the bottom.

Technicians in white scrubs wandered around dazed like badly directed film extras. Mixed among them were over a dozen much more alert looking children.

Allison looked up from where she was crouched at the bottom of the pit. “Hey, you made it!”

An aboriginal boy smiled crookedly at one of the zombified technicians. “Looks like I owe you a fiver.”

The techie groaned.

“Forget it? Sure!” Tom waved up at Billy. “Good to see ya, Bill!”

Billy blinked. “Tom?”

Brit was sitting on top of one of the consoles, swinging her legs. “I’m here too, by the way.”

Billy only had one response to this news. “Yay!”

A little girl ran up to Maude. She was light blond, and surprisingly muscular looking for a child Allison’s age. She put Maude in mind of a more sturdy Miri.

The girl was hopping in front of her like a puppy begging for treats. “Are you really Mistress Quickly?”

“…Should I answer that?”

The girl trilled with excitement, apparently taking that for a yes. “I’m Thunder-Tiger! Huge fan of your work! My mum and dad are in the scene too, ever heard of them?”

“And they are?”

“Armagetcha and Miss-Demeanor!”

Maude decided to be kind. “Oh yeah, them. Real up and comers, them.”

Thunder-Tiger hugged herself and spun in place, grinning.

Second-generation supervillain. Tragic. Maude reminded herself never to have kids.

She looked at the water-pit, listened to the soft roar of the water. She had no idea what it did . This could not be tolerated. 

Maude spotted Arnold milling about one of the consoles and pointed at her collar. “Oi, teleporter! Get this thing off me!”

A spark. Air on her neck. Maude looked down into the pool again. 

It screamed. 

Maude laughed and broke out in a run towards the edge of the pit. She jumped, clicking her heels and riding her glider down to Allison at the central pool. “Budge over and let me look!”

Mistress Quickly got on her knees and pushed the little girl aside, peering down into the too-blue water. There was a mass the size of a fat ten year old floating in the centre. Delicate feathers of stained glass as fine as silk radiated from a central jewel, caressing the water with long, gentle strokes. 

It put Maude in mind of a drowning chandelier. 

Allison was lying sideways beside the scientist, trying not to let her offense show. “I think it’s alien. You ever heard of Dr. Smith?”

“I’d put money on it,” said Maude. She spread her arms. “Do you think a real person would build a reactor room like this?”

“…Didn’t you once kill a man with bouncy balls?”

“Shut up.” 

Maude said, “Argus,” and suddenly she could see Allison Kinsey’s deeply strange insides. 

Maude looked up and around the reactor room, sliding-scale sonar peeling away the walls. Tubes ran out from under the glass feather-star, feeding the fluid it soaked in up into the complex before returning it via the cascade.

Maude whistled. “Wow, the whole place is a giant watermill.” She pointed down at the feather-star. “That thing draws energy from the space between spaces, dumps it into the juice it’s swimming in, which is then piped to every cell, lightbulb and coffee maker in this place. Hope you haven’t stuck your finger in there, stuff would probably burn a hole in your stomach.”

Allison frowned. “What do I look like? A baby?”

Yes.”

Allison sighed. “Can you work with it?

“Oh, yeah. Shouldn’t take—”

Mistress Quickly spotted movement in the elevator shafts. “Allison, we’re about to have company.”         

Allison nodded and rose out of the pit. “Look alive people, baddies coming!”

The three access elevators disgorged twenty armed men out into the reactor room. 

Face red, neck-veins bulging like ropes beneath his skin, the squad leader screamed, “Hit the deck—”  

A bright white filament snatched the gun out of his hands, waving it over his head like a bully with a stolen toy.

“The hell—”

A pink streak raced and weaved through the guards, stripping all of them of their firearms. 

The blur came to a stop a few feet before the men, revealing Andrea clutching a bundle of automatic rifles, a few of the guns spilling from her arms and clattering on the floor.

“Looking for these?”

It was terribly unfair. Taking a human’s tools was like pulling a wolf’s teeth. What else did they have?

The guards broke out in a chorus of swearing and shouting, charging towards the girl. 

“You asked for it..”

Andrea’s eyes glowed bright red, along with those of the hissing snakes growing from her scalp. 

The front most men froze mid-run, toppling forwards when the guards behind them smacked into their backs.

Andrea screwed her eyes shut and proceeded to grow twenty five feet in size. She raised her right foot over the half-paralyzed pile of men. “Say mercy!”

Many out of synch cries of “Mercy!”

Tom golf-clapped. “Nice one, Ann.”

“I try,” said Ann. 

Tom called over to Arn, jabbing his thumb at the human pile. “Get these fools out of here.”

Arnold wondered why Tom thought he could give him orders all of a sudden. Probably because he was Tom Long, he decided. 

Languidly, the boy zapped away the guards. 

“I meant to ask,” said Allison, rolling gently in the air, “where’ve you been sending the guards?”

Arnold shrugged. “Some place I saw in my atlas. ‘Phaeacia’ it’s called. It said they liked guests.4” 

Mistress Quickly hadn’t even stopped working during the attempted incursion. From dozens of parts pulled from her belt, she had erected a metal cage like a spider lurking over the reactor pool, ready to devour whatever swum beneath its web. 

Allison floated back down to Mistress Quickly, loudly asking, “How are we going, Maude?”

Thunder-Tiger blinked. “Maude?”

Maude hissed, “Not when I’m in the suit, girl.” She cleared her throat. “Nearly done.” She shouted. “Hey Billy, ask Blanchey if we’re still connected to his quantum computers! Otherwise this thing is just the world’s most efficient paper shredder! And everything else shredder!”

Billy gulped and spoke into his watch. “You ready, Mr. Blancheflor?”

“Mistress Quickly’s set up and my processors are well on speaking terms, Master St. George.”

Billy gave the thumbs up.

Maude nodded, pleased. “Alright, all we—”

Klaxons. Again. But a new message:

This facility will self-destruct in ten minutes. All remaining personnel must make an orderly exit… 

There was a second of stunned silence. Then the children started screaming.

Arnold paced in a tight, frantic circle. “Crap, crap crap…”

“My mum and dad are in here!” cried Thunder-Tiger. “And—and—me!”

Tom took a lot of very short breaths. “Okay, everyone huddle up, Arnold can…” 

Allison wondered what everyone was panicking about. Then she remembered she hadn’t gotten around to telling anyone this was a possibility. Precognition could trip you up like that.

Electric guitar.                

“Everyone shut up!” Allison yelled with a touch of Billy’s power. “I’ll handle it!”

Xylophone. 

Allison turned transparent and floated through the ceiling like a ghost finding her way home. Up and up. She passed through a cell containing a white-haired old man, startled from his copy of Brave New World5 by the sight of her. Water tanks and layers of rock. Then a panicking cook up in the guard canteen, much to their mutual horror.  

Finally, Allison found herself in the pastel nightmare of the warden’s office.

A bullet whizzed through her wireframe body. 

Warden McNoll was standing behind his desk, a smoking Colt.45 shaking in his hands. He looked like his bones were turning to rubber. 

“Stay back!” he cried, voice warbling. “I warn ya!”

Allison returned to flesh and smiled. “You’re about to blow me up, who cares?”

The girl started walking towards the Warden.

He fired his gun again. He might as well not have bothered. Allison saw it coming before he even pulled the trigger. She dodged to the right.  

McNoll fired again. Allison dodged again, laughing. 

Frances screamed as Allison closed in. The girl grabbed his arm and grinned.

“It wouldn’t have worked anyway.”

Allison wrenched the gun down to her forehead. McNoll’s trigger finger jerked involuntarily. 

There was a bang like a whip being cracked. The warden yelped in horror. 

The bullet fell at Allison’s feet, hot and pristine. A patch of her skin the size of a penny glowed with Brit’s own light.

“See?”

Frances McNoll dropped his gun. Without thinking, he sat down in his chair and pressed a few buttons, with more certainty than he’d ever mustered before. 

He leaned towards his microphone. “Command code #23432. Cancel the self-destruct.”

There was a second of hanging quiet.

Self-destruct cancelled. 

In the back of her head, Allison felt hundreds of sighs of relief like a cool breeze. 

“You know you didn’t want to die, don’t you?” asked Allison.

“It’s what I was supposed to do…” 

“Sounds dumb.”

“What are you going to do to me?” asked McNoll. 

Allison hopped from foot to foot. “Nothing that bad. We haven’t even killed any of your guys.”

“…Can I ask you something, girl?”

“Why not?”

“What’s it like?”

“What’s what like?”

“That power. Having it inside you.”

Allison considered the question. “Pretty good, if I’m being honest.”

Somewhere, Alberto smiled.

Allison put her fingers to her temple. Okay Maude, take us away.

Many floors below, Maude gripped the handle of her trigger device. She’d kept working all through the droning automated countdown, even with muscles as stiff as concrete.

The metal spider released a bundle of metallic tubes into the reactor fluid, drawing the blue liquid up into itself. 

Beneath her mask, Maude smiled. She still wasn’t sure why she’d signed up for this. But she knew one reason she’d seen it through. These fuckers thought they could build a prison to hold Mistress Quickly. So Mistress Quickly would take their prison.

She pushed the button. 

And they were gone. 

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1. Technically before she became “Professor Wit.”

2. Wallace Grimsby, a brilliant fashion-designer turned mad scientist, specializing in the production of bespoke super-suits and high-tech armour. Originally hailing from London, Grimsby fled to Australia after drunkenly attempting to assault long time professional rival Norman Hartnell.

3. A sequence of realities linked by an outbreak of strange superhuman transformations in a long terraformed solar system.

4. A month or so after the assault of Circle’s End Supermax, a large, thought-driven galley sailed into Port Jackson Bay, Sydney, delivering those guards that hadn’t married into the local aristocracy of Phaeacia.

5. Technically a deeply strange, clumsily edited double edition of Brave New World and Adolus Huxley’s spiritual follow-up Island.

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