Thunder rolled over the desert dunes as the Crimson Comet was thrown down onto the sand.
The shadow of Garox, King of Saturn, fell over Ralph Rivers.
“Surrender, Comet!” boomed the alien. “The day of good and righteousness is done! Now is our time!”
Ralph rolled his eyes. Laying it on a bit thick, Mabel.
The superhero rose back to his feet like he bore an iron crucifix on his shoulders, making sure to take in deep, heavy breaths even as he shouted, “Not bloody likely, Garox! My boys won’t buckle!”
Cheering rang throughout the battlefield, intermixed with roars from the Physician drones.
Ralph resisted the urge to check his watch. They had to have been fighting for at least an hour. The perfect white disc of the sun was starting to slowly climb down across the empty sky, dulling the yellow sands below. Ralph and Garox had already exchanged three monologues about the struggle between good and evil. The SLF was down to less than twenty members.
One of the guards had managed to wrench the WAR Correspondent’s camera off him, annihilating villains and the landscape behind them with flash after flash like the world’s worst tourist. “You tell ‘em, Comet!”
The guard’s comrades had formed a circle around the camera’s owner, beating and kicking him the way Ralph’s old bullies used to.
The Crimson Comet winced. Prison guards and their ilk always made him uneasy. Partly it was things he’d seen in the war, partly suspicion about what drew blokes into that kind of life. There but for the grace of God went he…
A splash of paint smacked into the side of Ralph’s head. His vision shattered into bright glassy shards and reassembled into lurid, fractal kaleidoscopes.
Jagged acid rock blared in his ears, a slow voice droning, “Throw off your chains, man. Become Adam again, free in the garden…”
A shot broke through the psychedelia. Ralph found himself trapped in a gooey metallic headlock by the Thing from Venus. Garox was still stood in front of the superhero, but his gaze was turned in horror towards a tye-dyed hippie lying dead in the sand, rainbow paint leaking from a hole in his forehead.
Garox glared back at Ralph. “Hyper-Hippie will be avenged.”
For fuck’s sake, Mabel.
The Thing from Venus shoved Ralph towards Garox, who knocked down and pinned the superhero under his armoured bulk.
“This is where your kind belongs, hero! In the dirt!”
The Crimson Comet roared back, “If it’s Aussie dirt, I’ll take it!”
Ralph silently thanked Mabel. He could just lie there and squirm for five minutes if he milked this right.
Shouts hit Ralph and Garox from all sides. Bullets pinged off the both of them.
Ralph supposed he should be grateful for the support, though he wondered what the guards would be doing if he weren’t invulnerable.
He took the opportunity to survey the battlefield. Evolvulon was dead—his great brain splattered across the sand like burst watermelon. The lady astronaut had been gunned down with nary more than a resigned sigh. A human shipwreck, the mechanical Major Malfunction, lay in a pool of oil, shining like blood in the desert sun as it oozed from the tubes and wires spilling from his open midsection.
Ralph would’ve thought Mabel needed to see a shrink, if one hadn’t raised her to begin with.
One of the Physician’s combat drones stomped over and yanked Garox off Ralph, much to his disappointment. He was enjoying the break.
The drone pulled the villain off his feet up towards his visor and growled, “Surrender!”
The creature’s arms were trembling. Garox knew the answer it was was looking for:
Garox drove his gauntleted fist into the drone’s chest. Blood erupted around his wrist.
The drone shuddered, dropping the alien king. He landed on his feet.
Ralph was getting to his feet, too.
“Suppose that was a mercy,” he muttered under his breath. “Poor devils.”
There was a noise. Not an uncommon one by any means, but not one often heard. It was the sound of a soap bubble popping, magnified a thousand fold.
Ralph shut his eyes.
A wave of wind and sand blasted over the fighters. When Ralph opened his eyes again, men were coughing and clutching at their eyes.
Finally, one man said, “…What happened to the jail?”
The dust and sand settled. In the distance, you could hear the sound of earth and rock tumbling down a new cliff-face.
Ralph looked towards Circle’s End Supermax. All that lay beyond the security fence was heat-shimmered air.
He suppressed an urge to hoot.
They did it. They actually fucking did it.
All at once, the surviving villains broke out in laughter.
Garox let out the hoarse cackle of a long-time smoker. “You fell for it! You all bloody fell—” He cleared his throat and continued. “Foolish Earth-clingers, your attempts to keep us from our prize were in vain! While you struggled against the weakest of our forces, my allies spirited away your flimsy prison to my fortress on Titan, great moon of Saturn! Now, our program of villainy may truly begin!”
Garox threw his hand to the sky. “Supervillain Liberation Front, away!”
Garox vanished, along with the rest of the SLF, corpses and all.
“Jesus Christ!” a guard shouted. “Fuckers stole the jail!”
“What about the guys we left back there?”
Ralph dusted himself off and shook his head gravely. “Gone too, I’d expect.” He raised “I should’ve known this is what they were planning.” He looked around at the guards with counterfeit solemnity. “I brought them to your doorstep. I’m sorry.”
“It’s not your fault, Comet!” someone insisted. “You can’t tell what these freaks have up their sleeves!”
“What do we do now?”
The Crimson Comet turned away from the crowd and started walking towards the shadow of Circle’s End. “I get back on the trail. You fellas rest up and get word out to the freak-finders.” Ralph suppressed a grimace. “It’s all I can ask of you.”
Ralph looked back over his shoulder. “Trust me, you’ve done enough.”
The Crimson Comet became a streak of red-gold light, trailing off towards the horizon, leaving the remaining guards of Circle’s End Supermax behind.
Questions without answers. Haltering conversations miscarrying in the desert heat. Angry, frightened curses upon all super-kind—with the rare, unspoken exception of good blokes like the Comet. The hysterical, chemical stillness of the Physician’s sons.
“…Bugger this!” shouted one guard.
His fellows turned towards him in ripples.
The man glanced around at the other men. “The Crimson Comet’s the only reason we’re not stuck on fucking Jupiter or wherever! And we’re gonna let him chase after these maniacs on his own?”
A rumble of offense like an earthquake.
“I say we help a mate out! Who’s with me?”
Cheering broke out amongst the crowd. No doubt Ralph would’ve been inspired, if it weren’t so bloody annoying.
Mabel leaned back against the tree and shut her drawing book, deeply satisfied.
She’d done good, Mabel thought. Her and Dad.
“Did we do it?” asked Mrs Allworth.
“Yep,” said Mabel, smiling. “Prison’s all gone. Saw it through like, a dozen sets of eyeballs. Few robot sensors, same thing really.”
Sarah looked off into the middle distance, blinking at lights that were not there. “Good Lord…”
Mabel looked up at the old woman. “You alright, Mrs Allworth?”
Sarah shook herself. “Yes Mabel, I’m fine. I just—I never saw myself stealing a prison. A whole building, like it was a magazine or a bottle of whiskey! I never even took grapes from the grocery store. Seems more like something my Joe would’ve done…” A chuckle. “I should track down the boy who always tried sneaking chocolates from our store. Show him a real thief.” Sarah pushed her glasses up the bridge of her nose. “Not that I had much to do with it. It was you and Mr. Rivers and Miss Quickly and your friends who pulled this off.”
“Aww, don’t say that. You helped us find Mistress Quickly!”
“That was Blancheflor, if you’ll recall.”’
“But you made him help. We’d probably have had to pick apart his big computer brain if you hadn’t.”
Sarah smiled and patted Mabel’s hand. “Very kind of you to say, child.” Mrs Allworth’s face grew stern as she glanced around the derelict mainstreet. “Where’s that boy gotten to?”
Mist spiraled down from the sky in front of the pair, solidifying into David bouncing on his heels—still in his costume for once. He beamed at Mabel. “That was amazing!”
He ran over and pulled his friend up by her hands, jumping up and down and trilling, “There was explosions and punches and lasers and you beat up so many dumb humans!”
“Hope we get to do it again. Got even more villains drawn up I couldn’t fit in.”
Mrs Allworth frowned. “Never hope for more fighting, Mabel. And where were you during all this, David?”
“Watching Mabel’s baddies, duh!”
“Don’t ‘duh’ me, boy! You were supposed to be guarding her with me.”
David scoffed. “I coulda exploded anyone who got close.”
“Don’t talk like that!”
“But I could!” David looked Mabel right in the eye, stating plainly, “You are the most amazing girl I have ever met.”
Mabel grinned. “I know.”
The Crimson Comet came to a skidding stop at the top of the street, bridging the gap between him and the others at a normal run. “Right! Time to go!”
“Did they buy Da—Garox’s story?” asked Mabel.
“I think so?” replied Ralph. He glanced over his shoulder. “Thing is, now they’re following me.”
“What, why?” asked David.
“Didn’t exactly stop to ask them,” said Ralph. “I’m guessing they’re like a bunch of lost baby ducks.”
The desert quiet was dissolving. A drumroll of trundling engines and distant shouting.
Ralph’s wings folded onto his back. He hoisted up Mabel in a bridal carrying, making the girl yelp in surprise.
“How strong are your arms?” he asked Mrs Allworth.
She hummed dubiously. “…Strong enough.”
The Crimson Comet thundered across the desert, trampling the ground underfoot with the power of a one-man elephant stampede and throwing up a wall of dust and sand behind him.
In his arms, Mabel cheered. “Whoo!”
“How are we doing, Mrs Allworth?” Ralph asked over the roar of the wind.
He felt the lady’s arms tighten around his neck.
“Remembering why I didn’t let Joe take me flying, thanks!”
David flew alongside the human juggernaut, his body phantasmic mist. Looking back, he felt very silly for not realizing how easy it was to fly. Thinking like a human instead of what he was, he guessed.
Soon, Mistress Quickly’s mobile bunker came into view, rushing towards them as Ralph’s charge picked up speed.
David warbled, “Hey, wasn’t the door supposed to be open for us?”
Ralph squinted. Maude said the plane would be left ready for them to board. But the stairs were retracted, the cabin door shut.
The Crimson Comet came to a stop as hard as if he’d hit a wall.
Sarah’s grip faltered. “Oof! Bit of warning next time?”
“You can get down now, ma’am,” Ralph said evenly.
Sarah let go. Ralph set Mabel on her feet.
“What’s going on?” asked the girl.
“I’m not sure.”
Ralph started walking slowly towards the plane.
A blast of lightning sent the superhero leaping backwards.
Microphone feedback. A little boy’s voice:
“Stay back! I’m warning you!”
Ralph shook his head. “What the—”
Mabel groaned. “Allison said they might be putting some kids in the plane. One of them must’ve woken up and started playing with the buttons.”
Ralph looked behind him. Tiny, shadowed men and trucks crawling towards them like growing army ants. He was suddenly reminded that this was a plan thought up by a nine year old.
“Boy,” Mrs Allworth shouted, “we’re not going to hurt you! We’re here to help!”
“Shut up! I’ve been pounced on, knocked, and now you’ve shoved me on some weird plane! Just leave me alone!”
A bullet whistled past the group.
Ralph pulled Sarah and Mabel into his chest as his wings unfolded. “Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.”
“Not the time, ma’am!”
“Oh, don’t worry,” said David, still misty. “I’ll sort him out.”
He flew towards the plane, dispersing till he seemed one with the thin air.
Ralph grit his teeth. “Any idea what he means by ‘sort him out’, Mabel?”
It wasn’t easy for David to seep into the bunker cabin. The plane was meant to go into space when Mistress Quickly wanted. But nothing is completely airtight.
He coalesced into ice behind the child plucking away the pilot’s console.
His molecules vibrated, “Hey, kid.”
The boy swung around and shot at David, blasting away his shoulder with a stolen raygun.
David glanced at the wound as new water flowed over it and froze. “Not gonna work, mate.”
Doc Danny whimpered. He clutched his gun with both shaking hands and fired again, hitting David in the chest.
David’s neck cracked and creaked as he looked down at the bevelled hole blown through him. A sigh like wind over ice fields.
His body melted all at once, the water evaporating before it could hit the ground. The cloud drew up and around Doc Danny, plunging the young super-scientist into David’s cold glass-harp voice:
“Stop being a git and give us back our plane!”
Doc Danny squeaked, flailing and swiping at the mist.
Easiest thing would be to kill him. David seriously considered it. Wouldn’t be hard. Just scramble his brains…
That was what Grandfather would do. Without a question. But doing things the granddad way wasn’t making him happy anymore. And Mabel would be mad at him. Right when they were having fun together again—
Who cared? This kid was putting Mabel in danger. His Mabel. Screw him!
The mist swirled around Danny faster. Tiny flecks of ice bit at his skin.
She didn’t have to know. David could liquify his flesh and stash his bones on the plane somewhere. He could tell everyone he teleported away. That was something people did, sometimes…
David felt hot, angry tears leak from Doc Danny’s eyes. The boy screamed, “Piss off! I’m sick of it! I did what everyone told me, because they said I wasn’t a real super! That I should be on their side! Then they say I am a super and throw me in jail to get beat up by the rest of them. Then I try to help them, and they never-never me wherever without asking! What am I supposed to do?”
David’s mist slowed. The ice-shard melted. He condensed into boy-shape again, this time flesh and blood.
Doc Danny panted, but didn’t raise the gun again.
“You’re from the prison, right?”
“I just said that!”
David pointed a finger at one of the security monitors hanging above the controls. “Well, the guards are coming to get us.”
Doc Danny swung around to look at the screen. The remnants of the Supermax guards were indeed gaining fast, a phalanx of black trucks ahead of a line of men and drones.
The boy growled, his freckles bunching together into leopard-spots. “Like hell.”
He stabbed at a few buttons.
Outside, Ralph Rivers looked up to see a large black projectile arcing from the plane over his head.
The thing landed a few paces ahead of the guards, before exploding into a baby-blue mushroom cloud.
Screams echoed over the desert, but not quite of pain.
David looked over Doc Danny’s shoulder at the last button he pressed.
“Mozzie gas.” He squinted at the other boy. “You hit them with bug-spray?”
Doc Danny grinned sharply. “Nope. It’s gas that itches like mozzie bites.”
David laughed and slapped Danny on the back. “Okay, you’re fun. Mind letting my friends in before the idiots stop scratching their arses?”
In less than a minute, Ralph, Sarah, and Mabel were clambering up the bunker’s retractable stairs. David and Danny were standing in the middle of the cabin.
Doc Danny rubbed his arm, eyes turned down towards his feet. “Sorry for locking you out.”
“Yeah, yeah, we forgive you.” Ralph turned his eyes up towards the ceiling. “Auto-pilot, get us to rendezvous alpha, stat!”
An inauthentically placid impression of Maude’s voice said, “Crimson Comet voice-print acknowledged. Please take a seat.”
The antigravity strips under the plane’s wings lit up, buoying up the mobile bunker on a cloud of virtual particles before its jets launched it into the empty sky.
From a white leather chair next to one of the windows, Mabel watched Circle’s End disappear for the last time. She smiled at the site of the deep, wide pit where the Supermax had been.
Mabel Henderson was a lot like her father. Today, they were both miners.
Circle’s End Supermax did not appear on Titan. Instead, it re-entered real-space amongst vast tree-dotted grass plains near the Northern Territory coast, still bright green from the last wet-reason, the air spiced with the faintest suggestion of sea-salt. Just as Maude Simmons had projected, the whole complex loomed over the landscape like a new Leaning Tower, its formerly buried heights now exposed to the sky.
Clearing out the guards and staff wasn’t hard. Arnold and his new personal guard rose through the complex, scattering resisters to the winds.
One of the canteen cooks charged at the teleporter with a ladle, screaming, “You’re not getting—”
A green flash. The man was gone.
“Where’d you send him?” asked Andrea, mentally keeping tally.
Arnold grunted. “Peru.”
Meanwhile, Allison and Maude came across a long, dark chamber, its walls lined with riveted steel coffins with poison-green windows. Songs radiated from each one—tightly ordered notes of pure rage.
“So, what do we do with them?” asked Allison. “They’re sorta people.”
“Dangerous people,” elaborated Maude.
“Still, killing them might be murder, I think?”
Maude nodded. “Not the image we want right now.” She made a pinching gesture. “Put a cork in it, I think?”
They kept Frances McNoll. They had plans for him. Besides, he helped Maude decide who to let out of their cells.
“Harold Franks, no alias recorded. What’d he do?”
McNoll sighed in his chair. “He resisted confinement at Roberts.”
“Right then.” Maude checked Harold’s name on her list. “Vera West, alias Cyclone Sigma.”
“Grand larceny and assaulting a police officer.”
Maude laughed. “Amateur hour.” Check. “Name unknown, alias Ixchel. Bit of an outside reference, I respect that, but what about their resume?”
“Building without a permit.”
“The building was made out of cats.”
Just as she said, Thunder-Tiger’s parents were both there.
The little girl ran into the supervillains’ waiting arms, forming a kind of human sandwich.
Her father tried to hold back tears by focusing on Billy and Allison watching from the side. “Told ya, Thunder, in company we’re…”
His girlfriend let out a choked laugh. “Oh, shut up, John.”
Both Billy and Allison tried not to look directly at the scene. It hurt too much.
“So,” Maude said to her latest release. “You were a superhero?”
“Yep,” answered the thin young man. “The Neon Ghost. Was chasing up leads for a book when I got dunked in some concoction… they don’t have our gear here, do they?”
Maude gave the Ghost a flat look. “We both know they don’t. They’re not that stupid.”
The Ghost sighed like one of his namesakes. “Yeah. I just really liked that trenchcoat…”
All in all, they only left ten prisoners in their cells. Soon, everyone who could fly or swallow their fear of heights enough for one of the former to ferry them down was gathered in the shadow of the new tower.
Tom, surprisingly, didn’t need Allie’s help down. He simply turned transparent and walked down through the air like it was a spiral staircase.
“I didn’t know you could do that,” Billy commented when he reached the ground.
“Sure I can,” replied Tom. “I’d fall through the floor otherwise.”
Louise jumped down next to the boys and pointed to the sky. “Plane’s coming!”
Mistress Quickly’s mobile bunker descended onto the grass vertically, no runway needed. Ralph Rivers and his companions quickly disembarked and approached the crowd.
The sight of the Crimson Comet drew cheers from most of the prisoners, quickly silenced by glares from the supervillains amongst them.
Ralph swallowed. He hoped to God he could sell this to them.
An older man gently cleaved from the throng of people. Even in his off-white prison coveralls, he carried himself with a patrician stride. The wrinkles of his face and his handlebar moustache gave him the air of a graceful, intellectual walrus.
Ralph smiled crookedly when he recognized the man. “Close-Cut. I didn’t think we’d be seeing each other again.”
“Nor did I, Comet. The young lady and the children tell me you helped them spirit us away somehow.”
The Crimson Comet nodded. “A bit, yes.”
“Why would you help a prison break? You don’t exactly bat for our team.”
“This place was a concentration camp. I’m a superhero, helping folks is my job. No matter who.”
Close-Cut raised an eyebrow. “Even us criminals?”
“You knocked over a few banks and a fabric store. They’re locking up kids. Who cares?”
The supervillain nodded. “What happens now?”
Ralph took a breath. “We crack open every stinking one of these prisons. Carve out a place where kids like us can be safe. If you and yours want to help.
Murmurs and distant bird-calls.
The two men shook hands.