Thousands of superheroes besieged the ABC Studios at Gore Hill. Their costumes weren’t much to write home about—fishnet stockings, baby-blanket capes, and grease paint domino masks abounded. As for superpowers, the only way this league would be diverting the course of mighty rivers was if everyone picked up a shovel and started digging.
That was, in essence, the basic idea.
The news that Timothy Valour would be bootlicking the Yank witch-hunters1 on the ABC had travelled down the wire like telepathy. After years of dread, climaxed by two terrorist attacks—the first alone having completely decapitated the Australian government—there was no way the Americans could barge in with another draft. Not even a demi-draft. Not when so many of those demis were children.
That last factor had drawn the attention of Save Our Sons2. Australian supers in Vietnam got the Congress for International Cooperation and Disarmament3 and the Draft Resistance Movement involved. Anything about supers got the Friends of Clark Kent4 up and rearing. The need to scream at a broken world drew thousands more.
It was probably one of the Friends who raised the idea of dressing up like superheroes. They probably would’ve told you it was a gesture of solidarity with superhumanity. An un-ignorable reminder of all the good supers had done for mankind.
True enough, but it was also fun. Sometimes you needed fun.
The two transmission towers were lighthouses surrounded by a gaudy human sea. Tides of beer-gutted Supermen. Waves of frizzy-haired, sun spotted Wonder Women with mismatched bracelets. Even some bold knockoff Flying Men5 (and women) in off-white, sweat-darkened lycra. They broke the banks of the carpark and grounds to flood the surrounding suburb. Enterprising children sold lemon cordial from their front lawns.
And the sea roared:
“Superman stay home! Superman stay home!”
“Children are not nukes!”
“Draft pints, not supers!”
There were signs, too, of course. A vast forest of them. “REMEMBER THE COMET!” “CHILD-SNATCHERS GET THE ROPE!” and “YANKS GO HOME!” were held aloft in a thousand variations.
One protestor’s sign was very straightforward:
“GIVE US BACK OUR SON!”
“The Scarlet Hurricane” wore bright red flannel pyjamas with a dark grey apron tied around her neck. Her face was concealed from the forces of evil under a metal cooking pot, with two triangular holes cut out for her eyes.
Her muffled voice yelled, “No Valour! No Val—” She groaned and lowered her sign. “Ah, bugger it.”
Angela Barnes pulled the pot off her head, panting hard. “Lord help me…”
Her husband took the pot off his wife. Fred Barnes had chosen to come to the protest in his old dress uniform—in the vain hope someone with sway might see it and feel an ounce of shame— with a green domino mask for that Lone Ranger touch. And so hopefully people wouldn’t throw paint on him. “I told ya the helmet was a stupid idea,” he said, shouting to be heard over the chanting crowds.
Angela brushed a sweat-heavy lock of hair from her eyes. “Oh, be quiet, Fred.” Shaking her head, she raised her sign and got back to chanting.
Mrs Barnes was still shocked Fred of all people suggested this trip.
“I thought the only communists raised stinks like that,” she’d said with a tired half-smile.
Fred had grunted, “Better a communist than a Nazi.”
Even if Sydney weren’t the wolf’s lair, they needed to get away from Harvey. Away from the furtive gawking of their neighbours. The smug, tittering whispers hidden behind stage-acted sympathy. And the posters. Their son, staring dazed and scared in scratchy monochrome from every wall and noticeboard.
They could afford the trip, thanks to what Chen Liu had left in their kitchen. Angela knew that boy was a good lad, deep down. Drew and Sophie could mind the shop for them. They had to keep busy somehow, with baby Julia off with friends on some commune, away from the raptor gaze of the freak-finders.
Angela stabbed at the sky with her sign. “No Valour! No Valour!”
Hours passed like minutes, punctuated by the occasional gulp from a water-bottle and the dimming of the sky. Valour would be in the studio now, prepping for his two-minute hate. His recruitment spiel.
Angela hoped she never saw it.
An electric current threaded through the crowd. In a shout like a whisper, a woman in a yellow oilskin and a painted blue motorbike helmet asked Angela, “They take your kid, too?”
Mrs Barnes didn’t elaborate. Even in this crowd, she didn’t know what would happen if she admitted to being the mother of the boy who blew up the Prime Minister.
God help her, she was acting like she was ashamed of Arnold…
“…Fuck ‘em all,” was the woman’s only response.
The two women screamed their rage, along with hundreds of other mothers, fathers, and everyone else who dared love someone different. They bore each other’s grief like the Argo on their shoulders.
This is what it must’ve been like at Jericho.
Eventually, a man in a sequined bathrobe and a purple wizard’s hat started handing out rotten eggs and expired fruit.
Fred Barnes weighed a stinking grapefruit in his hand like it was a grenade.
The front doors of the studio opened. Timothy Valour was hustled out between two expressionless Nordic giants in midnight suits, examining his shoes with his shoulders hunched in the universal pose of harried public figures scurrying between their dens.
Produce arced through the air. Most of it splattered against the orange fluro barricades and police sentries that cut a path through the crowd to Valour’s idling helicopter.
Fred screamed, “You bastard! I’ve killed men like you! Killed them!”
Valour, of course, kept walking.
“So have I,” he muttered.
Fred Barnes didn’t hear him, though. He was too busy wishing he was more like his youngest son.
Soon, the helicopter lifted off the ground, the chopping whir of its propeller blades forming an underbeat to the chanted insults of the crowd. Timothy Valour was gone. But the protest kept going. It would take hours for that kind of energy to disperse.
Angela, just beginning to feel gentle, distant reminders of how long she’d been on her feet, spotted something.
She grabbed her husband’s shoulder. “Fred, look!”
Angela pointed at a sign a few rows back from them:
“HOW MANY DIED AT NORTHAM?”
Fred squinted. “You don’t think—”
Angela was already pushing Fred through the crowd. One small grace to being wheelchair-bound at a mass rally was that you could serve as a human snowplow.
Fred barked, his tree-trunk arms fending the slower moving members of the crowd aside, “Come on people, out of the way! Crippled veteran coming through!”
Someone shouted, “Piss off, baby killer!”
Fred flipped the bird. “Wrong war, sonny!”
In five minutes they reached the sign. It was being waved about by a young, dirty-blond man in a costume a cut above the standards of the rally. Most of the protestors had just splashed some paint on the brightest cast-offs they could find. This boy was decked out in a ruffled peppermint suit, with a powder blue eye-mask and a feathered stockman hat. The lad on his right wasn’t half-bad, either. He wore a black cloak that made Angela break into a sweat just looking at it, his mouth concealed by a kerchief almost the same shade of red as the cowlick that protruded from under his hood.
The girl next to them, though, she was the real stunner. Her costume was a pink, bedazzled leotard, paired with enormous horn-rimmed glasses. She was hanging off the arm of a crew-cut boy in old work overalls and laughing into his ear. Hopefully about how bloody out of place he looked.
Angela cleared her throat. “Excuse me.”
The youths paid her no mind.
Fred let out a commanding shout, “My wife wants to speak to you lot!”
The four teens (and a few more people besides) swivelled towards the Barnes like startled owls.
The boy in the stockman said, “Jeez, sorry mate. We didn’t hear ya!”
The costumeless one raised a finger. “Ain’t exactly a graveyard around here.”
Mrs Barnes ignored the lip. “I take it you’re from Northam? Back in WA?”
The boy in the cloak pumped his fists in the air. “Hell yeah!”
The other teens exchanged puzzled looks.
His arms wilted. “Yeah, we are,” he said in a much smaller voice.
Angela continued. “So you’d have lived near the New Human Institute.”
“‘Lived near it’?” said the one in the hat. “Lady, we’ve been there!” He actually started wagging his finger at the Barnes. “I’ll tell you what, there’s a lot about that place the papers aren’t talking about—”
“Our son was taken there,” cut in Angela, evenly.
“Maybe we should find somewhere to sit-down,” said the girl in the leotard.
The Barnes and the Northamites made their way down to the empty lot of dried-out grass and dirt that lay in the studio’s shadow, chosen as a rest spot by the protest. Belinda Waites laid out a beach towel for them to sit on. Face-painted children ran about them while their parents laughed and conversed over cheap sausages in bread.
Angela tried to ignore them. It had to have been over a year since Arnold had even been in their home. How much longer?
“Why don’t you have a costume, son?” Fred asked the lad with the crew-cut.
Eddie Taylor shrugged. “Didn’t feel like it.”
Belinda purred into his ear, “You mean you were embarrassed, love.”
Bazza grinned and shook his hat at Eddie. “You mean he’s a total Scrooge.”
Eddie waved his hands like he was shooing away flies. “Look, I’m here, aren’t I?” He gestured about at the crowd scattered across the grass. “You don’t see these people dressing up like slopers6, do ya?”
Belinda smiled wryly at the Barnes. “As you can see, my fiancé is a man of great sensitivity.”
Angela noticed a ring flashing on the girl’s finger. She tutted. “Oh, honey, you both are far too young for that.”
Fred glanced at his wife. “It worked for us, didn’t it?”
“Just because we bet it all on black and won doesn’t mean we should go telling kids to do it.”
Eddie curled his lip. “Bit late to tell us now.”
“Technically not…” said Belinda.
“So, what could your son do?” asked Al, trading one awkward subject for another. “We might’ve met him.”
Fred raised an eyebrow. “Most folks would ask his name, first.”
“Not when we’re talking about the Institute,” pointed out Al.
Fred and Angela looked at each other. A small, tight nod.
“He… zaps things away,” said Fred. “Teleportation, I think they call it.”
“Our son is Arnold Barnes,” admitted Angela. “They called him Elsewhere.”
A silence smothered under the chatter of thousands.
Bazza saw the look on the Barnes’ faces. Like they expected to be spat on.
He broke into a broad grin. “Yeah, we know him! Great kid!”
“He helped us run some supervillains out of town,” said Belinda. “He also ran a lot of our dogs to the Moon, but what can you do?”
Fred smiled. “Was in the papers, that.” The smile faltered. “They didn’t mention my boy much…”
“Wonder why?” said Belinda sourly.
“Listen,” said Fred. “What you’ve read about our Arnold since then… Canberra and Melbourne… you have to understand…”
Bazza raised his hand. “Hey man, we heard what went on at that place. If I could do a smidge of what Arn and his mates can do, I’d probably be chucking some big fits, too.”
“Yeah,” said Belinda. “I once painted my sister’s kitten with nail polish because she wouldn’t lend me her jumper. Wasn’t even my size.”
“How about we tell you how we met your son?” Bazza offered.
The story was edited somewhat. Eddie couldn’t bring himself to explain what Melusine had done to him, or how they’d been made to forget about it for months. The Barnes didn’t need that clogging their thoughts as well. Also, Eddie didn’t need Belinda knowing why they’d gone to the Institute in the first place.
Best not to mention Melusine at all, really.
Fred was laughing by the end. Angela was trying very hard to keep frowning:
“I’m going to give that boy such a belting…”
“Aww, lighten up woman!” said Fred. He shot a glance at the lads. “No harm no foul, right lads?”
“He’s right, Mrs Barnes,” said Eddie. “Should thank Arn, really. I’ll be dining out on this story when I’m a hundred.”
To Eddie’s surprise, he meant it. Funny what time could do memories like that.
Then they explained their adventure with the Frightful Three. Those brief golden days when the Institute was actually a part of Northam.
The stories were like water in the desert for the Barnes. Something of their son not filtered through hateful headlines.
“We decided to head over here after school was done,” explained Al.
“Well, Bazza decided. Hard,” said Belinda.
“Everyone was being so bloody phony.”
“Language,” Angela cautioned the boy.
“Well they were! Folks were acting like those kids were devils, when they’d been giving them free ice-creams last Sunday!” Bazza folded his arms. “Total rubbish.”
“Yeah,” said Eddie. “I used to think they were goblins too, but least I’d never talked to them.”
“Thank you for telling us about all this,” said Angela. “And for coming here. For caring.”
“Least we could do,” said Al.
“No, the least you could do would be nothing. And altogether too many folks are fine with doing noth—”
Thunder cracked the air.
Everyone glanced instinctively up at the sky. It was summer-barren. Perfect blue.
“Huh,” said Al, “someone’s car backfire?”
Another peal, its echo drowned out by younger thunder. Blast after blast ran into each other. A chorus of cannons.
Fred Barnes reached towards his wife, his expression drawn. “Reckon it’s gunfire?”
Angela put a steadying hand on her husband’s shoulder. “No, Fred. Listen.”
She remembered the thunder. Their son’s thunder.
It drowned in thousands of shouting voices.
Andrea pointed up at the sky. “Is that a bird?”
“Nope!” said Bazza. “Looks like a plane.”
It was. What looked like a large, brightly painted passenger-jet was circling low above the studio. How’d they missed that?
There was an all-pervading click. Every radio and stray piece of metal and glass started speaking with a rough, masculine voice.
“…Jesus, McNoll, you’re free to go—I’m on? Christ—just send him off somewhere!”
Distant thunder, then a forced cough.
“Good folk of Sydney. It’s me, the Crimson Comet. I’m back.”
Murmurs crested over the crowd.
“Holy shit,” whispered Fred.
Bazza slapped his mates on the shoulders excitedly. “My bloody uncle served with him.”
“Not the time for name-dropping, Bazza,” said Belinda, not taking her eyes from the studio up the hill.
None of them could make out anything different up there. Just the crowds wiggling and undulating as one, like colourful ants. A super-organism.
Angela pointed. “Look!”
Two creatures rose above the protestors. One was an angel in silhouette. The other, a sliver of sunlight shaped like a child.
The Comet spoke again:
“You’re all here for your fellow Australians. Your fellow man. And you came in the uniform of my calling. I’m honoured. The people with me are supers. All of them. Tim Valour had them crammed into a pit in the middle of the desert. I’m sure he’d have a dozen and one reasons why: but don’t matter. He threw them in jail for not being like him. They—we—just want a fair go. To be allowed to be. And we’re going to get it, if it’s the last thing we do. But we don’t want to hurt anyone. We’re not here to hold the country at gunpoint. We need your help. They can’t say no if they know you’re with us.
What do you say, superheroes? Want to come and pay Tim Valour a visit?”
An explosion of cheers. Applause like hungry flame.
“Well, let’s get going!”
Angela looked at Fred. “He has to be with them. He has to.”
The crowd in front of the studio started to bleed from the carpark, draining and narrowing down the road that made its way down the hill into the streets.
The Barnes and the Northamites rushed onto the middle of the road, the rest of the grazers on the lot following like a cargo-liner behind a tugboat.
Eddie picked up the beach towel as they left, shoving it into his fiancé’s arms. “Tie this around my neck.”
Belinda smiled bewilderedly. “What?”
“Come one, you were the one telling me to get into the spirit!”
Belinda let out a sighing laugh. “Alright, you big kid.”
She quickly and deftly affixed the towel around Eddie’s neck.
“Call me… the Electrician.”
Belinda pecked him on the cheek. “The conquering hero.”
Marching in front of the protesters were about two hundred men, women, and children in bland coveralls. The girl dressed in the sun flew above. A white-headed snake with scales of every colour
Leading the procession was the Crimson Comet, new, angular wings outspread. Beside him was an old red haired woman in a black summer dress. She was holding the hand of a brown-skinned boy dressed in water. To that child’s left was a girl dressed in a thousand comic panels, and what appeared to be a humanoid tiger dressed like country-club Robin.
And then there was the boy at the end. The one in the starry black cloak and the feathered eye-mask.
If nothing else (and there was so much more) there was no chance of Fred mistaking those eyes. Storm-grey, like his mother.
God, he looked so much like Angela.
The boy in the cloak came to a stop with the rest of his companions. The people behind them tried not to collide with their backs.
The tiger-boy tapped the one in the cloak on the shoulder, pointing at the legless man and his wife staring at them.
“They—those are your parents…”
Arnold swallowed. All his dreams and nightmares at once.
Why here? How here?
Two words, lost in the storm of the mob.
There was a flash.
Arnold stood there in his shorts and t-shirt.
Bazza waved. “Hey Arn! Good to see you all!”
Arnold broke into a run, leaping at his father’s chest and clinging to the man like a drowning child pulled from the sea.
“Dad, Mum… I…”
The boy trembled.
“Shhh,” his father sighed. “You don’t have to… anything.”
Angela wrapped her arms around her husband and son, leaning down to rest her cheek against Arnold’s head.
He nestled. “I—I did some bad things.”
Memories of Lawrence lying in his own blood. Kissing David, for some reason.
Angela’s grip tightened. “Not now.”
Never again, she told the world. Not a prayer but a demand. Never again.
The sound of small feet against the road. A high, hoarse voice:
“Mr. and Mrs Barnes?”
The elder Barnes managed to look up from their son. Allison Kinsey was standing in front of them, her costume perfect, gleaming white, blending almost obscenely with her pale skin. Her eyes were burning red.
Angela couldn’t even begin to question either of those facts. “It’s good to see you two have stuck together, Allie.”
It wasn’t a lie, but it would’ve been not too long ago. To Angela’s shame, she’d imagined the girl leading her son astray since Exhibition Hall.
“My parents, are they here too?”
Fred shook his head gently. “Afraid not, girl.”
The Barnes had invited the Kinseys along. To their shameful relief, they’d said no.
Angela sighed and straightened herself, opening her arms. “It’s alright, Allie. We’ll look after you.”
Allison looked around herself, as though worried her mother and father might suddenly appear. Then she gave Angela a quick, tight hug.
The crowd from the lot quickly assimilated into the march, taking their place just behind the liberated prisoners from Circle’s End. A few lingered up front to pet and fawn over Billy, who made no attempt to deflect the adoration.
Belinda scratched the boy behind the ear. “Good God, kid. Do you wash in fabric softener?”
Billy beamed, tail swishing. “All natural, ma’am!”
Bazza even got to shake the Comet’s hand.
“Never thought I’d meet ya. They say my uncle served with you back in the war.”
“What’s your name, son?”
The Crimson Comet blinked. “Bazza? As in, ‘Bartholomew’ Finch?”
The Comet’s smile grew a touch warmer. “Well, you’ve grown.”
Bazza suddenly recalled faint, impressionist recollections of a massive fella who’d hung around in the summer sometimes. He felt very dense.
And so they marched on, pouring out from Gore Hill into the rest of Sydney as a polychrome river. Arnold sat in his dad’s lap as his mum pushed the chair. Probably a good decision. His shoes had gone with his costume. Allison took to the sky again, leading the way like a low-flying Star of Bethlehem.
She looked back over the human train behind her, taking in the vast soundscape of their songs. She’d never seen so many people in one place, so close together. All there for one thing.
I made this happen. Me.
She felt like a grain of sand with the gravity of suns.
As little houses and corner-stores gave way to tower-blocks and shopping centres, the march came up to a police barricade. Two dozen uniformed officers pointing guns at them from behind metal walls and their own police cars.
The lead officer barked, “Stay back! Not all of you are bulletproof!”
The Crimson Comet stepped forward. Nobody fired.
“True,” he said. “We’re not all bulletproof. But I am.”
Slowly, like the beginning of rain, the cops dropped their rifles and pistols.
Ralph smiled crookedly. “Good choice, mates.”
He looked up at Allison. “Clear us a path?”
Allison cracked her knuckles.
Green lightning lashed down, banishing the cars and barricades with a boom.
The police shouted and scattered, only to be engulfed as the march fell upon them. Costumed protestors jeered and slapped the officers on the back as they passed.
For Ralph, it was as if the ground was shoving blood and adrenaline up through his feet.
Christ, what if Jan sees this? What if she doesn’t?
For the first time since he put on that costume again, Ralph Rivers felt like a superhero. He kept walking, right out of the past.
Cars stopped moving as the march approached, allowing the people to flow around them like water around rocks in the sea. Motorists smacked their dashboards as though that was where the engine lived.
They should’ve looked up at the plane still flying above the march.
David tapped the window of a yellow Holden, getting the attention of a curly-haired girl in the backseat. They shared a smile.
The door-lock hammered down.
The children both rolled their eyes, before Sarah Allworth pulled David forward.
To the old lady’s quiet amusement, she saw some folks hopping out of their cars and walking with them.
Do they even know what this is about? Does it matter?
She looked up at the sky.
You proud, son? Are we doing the right thing?
How could they not be?
The march turned a corner, slowly, by degrees. Allison spotted the Sydney Harbour Bridge, arching over the boats and blue water like an ornate coat-hanger.
She sighed even as she smiled. It would’ve been brilliant if they’d gotten to cross the bridge. A great picture in a history book.
But their target lay on this side of the water.
After the attack at Royal Exhibition Hall, the DDHA found itself in need of a new headquarters. Again.
It’d been slim pickings. Melbourne wasn’t keen to offer them more office-space, and Canberra still bore the faint scent of ash.
They’d settled on Sydney. It was good enough for everything else. Some bright-spark had even suggested the DDHA take over the Parliament of New South Wales for the duration. Not like anyone was using it. Pretty much every government function since the start of Black Summer had been held over the phone or in discrete hotel conference rooms.
They’d said no, of course. As far as the state government was concerned, putting the DDHA in another parliament building would be tantamount painting a bullseye on it.
Then, to Tim’s dull, uncaring surprise, they offered them Kirribilli House7.
It made sense. The house was centralized, set up for communication, and it wasn’t as if Menzies and his wife were using it anymore.
There were other advantages. The view of the harbour was gorgeous. A security nightmare, as had been pointed out to Tim many times, but gorgeous. Anyone with a boat and a decent rifle could shoot you dead in the back-garden. Not that Tim had been overly concerned: he barely found the time to step outside for fag in the fresh air. Besides, water put him on edge lately. Same reason he had avoided the pool. That and memories one winter old…
Kirribilli House also had creature comforts aplenty, like bedrooms. Went a long way towards making the all-nighters bearable, even if Tim was still sleeping alone. No way he was keeping Val close by. Not after the bombings.
So yes, in terms of digs, Valour’s life had improved considerably. If only the rest of his circumstances had followed that trend.
This evening—like every evening the last week and a half—he was sitting in the prime minister’s former office, endlessly mulling over the latest clusterfuck with the DOPO attache.
“I’m telling you Tim, the SLF was a fraud!”
Tim sighed. “What makes you say that?”
James Lyman glared at the DDHA chief. It was pretty much the only way he could look at people. While he had much the same indermininate middle-aged greyness as most military-intelligence men of their rank, he lacked that common stocky solidity. In fact, Tim thought he looked like an angry stick insect with curly hair.
“Think about it, Tim.” He also had an unfortunate habit of using names in conversation a touch too often. “These names the guards gave us: ‘Garox,’ ‘Hyper-Hippie,’ ‘Evolvulon.’ Have you ever heard of these guys?”
“No,” admitted Tim. “But that doesn’t prove anything. They are more supers alive now than ever. Maybe they’re just… new.”
Valour winced as Lyman spat a wad of nicotine gum into a handkerchief. Couldn’t he smoke like a normal fella? Or at least let them set up a spitoon. It put Tim uncomfortably in mind of consumptives.
“Not a single familiar name? Unlikely. Supervillains are loners at heart. They don’t band together unless they’re desperate or very impressed with each other. The idea that a bunch of freshmen villains trusting each other enough to pull a stunt like Circle’s End? Just to rescue a bunch of other villains? Ridiculous.”
“But we do have familiar faces,” countered Tim. “Allison Kinsey and Arnold Barnes.”
Tim wished he hadn’t mentioned the children. They made him feel like a bastard. An incompetent bastard.
He added, “Not to mention Mistress Quickly.”
Valour still wondered about that. Had Lawrence’s children already replaced him?
“That’s an oddity too. Quickly is a definite loner. Also hasn’t been active for a year. As for the children… there’s a certain childishness to the idea, isn’t there? The Supervillain Liberation Front, who want everyone in the world to be supervillains, too. What criminals want more competition?”
Tim had to admit, the attache had a point.
But he didn’t.
“You know, that Garox said he was an alien. Maybe they all are? Or most of them, anyway. Would explain why we haven’t heard about him, at least.”
Lyman scoffed. “Tim, do you know how unlikely it is that the rest of the Solar System hosts intelligent life?”
“There’s the Gatehouse.”
The attache leaned over the desk. “Yes there is the Gatehouse, Tim. Don’t you think they would have told us if there was an alien king running around?”
“The Gatehouse doesn’t tell us much of anything.” Tim resisted the urge to remind James of their mutual Physicians. “Besides, where does the Crimson Comet fit into this?”
“Simple. He was in on it.”
Tim clenched his fists behind the desk. He supposed he couldn’t blame Lyman for paranoia. Reaping and sowing it was his job. The man had been with the OSS back in the war. All blowup tanks and forged intel left on dead men in the sea. These days, they said he had dead Viet Cong drained and strung up near encampments like vampire victims8. Brilliant, stupid schemes were what he was wired for.
But he didn’t know Ralph Rivers. Hadn’t had his life saved by him more than he had fingers.
“The Crimson Comet is solid, Lyman.”
But then, Valour had known Herbert, too.
Lyman shrugged. “We thought Penderghast was solid.” Maybe not solid enough for some of the more… domestic uses for a sorcerer, but solid. “Nobody knows where the hell he’s been. And at the end of the day, Tim, the Crimson Comet is a super.”
That was one thing Valour had to say for the attache. He didn’t call them bloody ‘sorcerers.’
“It’s perfectly plausible he’d side with other supers”
He was right, Tim realized. Why would he expect Ralph to be alright with a boot on his lot’s necks? Why did he still think he was the good guy?
There was a dull, rising roar.
For some reason, Lyman sniffed. “Is it raining or something?”
Valour’s secretary swung the office door open. She looked breathless:
“Sir, there’s something you should—”
Windchimes. The walls became transparent. Every single one in Kirribilli House. Electrical wires and telephone cables lay suspended in glassy brick and plaster, as if Henry Gray had gone into architecture.
Everyone in the office looked through the walls at the front courtyard. It was crowded with a mix of people in white coveralls and knocked together pantomime costumes. Knocked together, that was, except the man with the metal wings and the children clustered around them.
Valour of course, recognized them all.
“Shit,” said Lyman, surprisingly evenly.
Tim staggered and gripped his desk for support as three voices sounded as one in his head:
“Timothy Valour. Come out and speak to us. Alone.”
Before Valour could take a breath, a lone voice spoke. Allison Kinsey’s:
“Oh, and Mr. Thumps.”
Timothy collected himself. “Right. Had to happen eventually.”
Against Lyman’s advice, Tim and his manservant left the see-through house to face the mob. The sight of him inspired the crowd to launch into another round of “No Valour!”
He ignored the jeers and shouts, looking darkly at the Crimson Comet. “Hello Ralph. You could’ve called ahead.”
Ralph made a pained expression. “Jesus, Tim. Secret identity, mate.”
“You know just how many Ralphs I know?” He looked at Allison standing next to the superhero.
“Who’s in charge in there? Alberto back for another round?”
“Nope,” said Allison. “But he is laughing right now.”
Without any prompting, Mr. Thumps walked over to the little girl. Gently taking her hand, he said, “Miss Kinsey, what I did to you at the Exhibition Hall…” He lowered his mask of a face. It was the closest thing to an expression that came to him. “Please forgive me. I couldn’t—”
Allison shook her head. “It wasn’t your fault, Thumps. Besides, you saved my life.”
“Sorta. Whatever you did, it was just as good.”
Allison watched the lights behind Thumps’ face grow lilac with relief. She wondered if he could tag along when it was all sorted out.
Valour was eyeing the ex-prisoners warily. The fact many of them were eyeing him back hungrily didn’t reassure him.
He looked back at Ralph. “You do know half these people are criminals, right?”
Ralph nodded. “What does it matter? It’s illegal for them to walk around in the light right now. I’m a superhero, Tim not a policeman. Me and the law are only on nodding terms.”
Valour pointed a little desperately at Arnold Barnes, still sitting in his father’s lap. “He’s killed a man, you know. And he’s not the only one!”
Arnold went pale. His father wrapped his arms around him.
“We both know what Lawrence did to them, Valour.”
Tim exhaled. What was the point? There were thousands at his gates. Hundreds of them high-supers. They were seconds away from a riot. A superpowered riot.
He caught sight of the painted plane hovering above Kirribilli House. He recognized it from some briefings. Probably not a good sign either.
This was a surrender.
“What do they want?”
Why was he still talking like Ralph wasn’t one of them?
Ralph jabbed a thumb towards David and Mrs Allworth. “Well, Davey here still wants you to explode. But we talked him out of it.”
Valour caught sight of David glaring at him with his moon-sea eyes.
Fair cop, I suppose.
The Comet laid a hand on Allison’s shoulder. “Might want to ask this one here. She got the ball rolling.”
“Alright then. What are your demands?”
Allison remembered something from the Bible. Well, something in a film, from the Bible.
She stepped forward and grinned, spreading her arms. “Let my people go.”
It was nearly impossible for a hush to fall over a crowd of that size and energy, but for Valour, its roar did grow more distant.
He took a breath. “I see.”
He turned and started back towards Kirribilli House. He looked over his shoulder. “Well, are you going to come and witness this? Ensure compliance?”
Ralph and Allison shared a look, but soon followed the DDHA chief.
One advantage to Kirribilli House’s sudden translucency was that at least nobody was surprised when Valour walked in with the Crimson Comet and a very small wanted terrorist.
Staff members shouted questions. Tim ignored them.
James Lyman tried to block his path. “Valour! The hell are you doing? We do not negotiate with terrorists!”
“I’m not negotiating, I’m capitulating.”
There was an odd freedom to it. He had no choice but to do the right thing. No compromises or politicking. If he didn’t free these people, Sydney would probably be on fire by nightfall.
And nobody remembered the Pharaoh fondly.
He found his secretary.
“Marie, I want you to get on the phone, and get the word out. Emergency order: every demi-human asylum and containment facility is to be abandoned, effective immediately.”
“But sir, what about—”
Marie’s eyes darted to the Crimson Comet and the pale girl.
“The inmates are to be left alone. Completely alone.”
Allison and Ralph Rivers watched as the young woman made the call; as mechanically as the computers that would one day replace many of her kind.
Marie lay the phone down on its receiver. “It’ll take a couple of hours for everyone to get the message… I think.”
She winced like she expected the Comet to strike her.
Instead, he gave the woman a small salute. “Thank you, ma’am.”
Marie nodded and smiled queasily.
Valour pulled a dotted map of Australia down from a chalkboard, rolling it up and handing it to Allison. It was half a head taller than her.
“They’re all marked on there.”
Soon Ralph and Allison were out the front doors again, the latter amusing herself by waving the map behind her like a cape.
Valour followed close behind.
“It’s done,” he told the crowd. “Go get your people.”
Arnold was back on his feet and in costume. Work clothes. “Alright people!” he said, voice amplified by a small metallic patch on his throat. “Orderly lines!”
It took him and Allison a little under ten minutes to whisk away all the supers. All that was left were themselves and the Barnes.
“You sure you’re fine with this?” Arnold asked.
“We trust you, son,” said Angela, laying across her husband with her arms around his neck.
Fred nodded vigorously. “Been wanting to try this for ages!”
Arnold smiled and pointed. “Three… two…”
Angela looked back out at the crowd. “God bless you all.”
Lightning lashed, sending Fred and Angela away.
Arnold and Allison took each other’s hands.
“Want to come with us?” Allison asked Mr. Thumps.
The drone shook his head with slow graveness. “I have to look after Mr. Valour and Val.”
“Okay. Hope you can visit sometime.”
“This isn’t the end, you know,” said Tim. “I’m sorry, but you’re not making peace here. You’re just robbing us.”
“We know,” said Allison. “Still, better than where we were.”
The children turned to face the part-time superheroes of Sydney. They waved with their free hands.
A lime brightness, and the supers were all gone.
Tim regarded the costumed tide of people lapping at the courtyard.
“Well, what are you still here for?”
Timothy Valour still slept alone that night. But at least he slept easy. His PSA was never reaired. It was made for a different world.
Allison Kinsey stood at the gates of McClare’s Demi-Human Asylum, her people at her back and standing before her, their collective songs colliding together like two stormfronts.
The asylum inmates were shouting for release. As Allison remembered, most of them were children. The sun had set and taken the last dregs of daylight with it, but she glowed like the daughter of the moon and sun.
She called behind her, “I’m taking requests for this one.”
“I can turn metal to sugar!”
“I can turn gravity off!”
The man they called Fo-Fum (still walking with a cane and a limp) shouted, “Use my power, kid! You get to be a giant!”
That sounded fun.
Allison’s presence expanded beyond the borders of her body. She clenched fists the size of cars. She could see herself standing twenty feet below her.
The metal walls and gates wrenched themselves out of the ground, hurtling far into the night.
The two crowds merged, before falling upon the asylum in a storm of exultant destruction.
The supers spent hours tearing that place apart. All throughout, Allison wondered what she would call her town9.
1. A term often hurled at the Department of Pyschonautics and Occultism due to their insistence on a purely magical theoretical framework for superpowers. That and some unfortunate early recruitment posters featuring the likeness of Vincent Price. ↩
2. An Australian grassroots movement largely consisting of middle-aged, middle-class women whose sons were old enough to be called up for National Service during the Vietnam War. The group is often seen as representative of a shift in public perception of the war, with opposition no longer limited to the youth and counterculture, but also the “respectable” middle-classes. However, at the time, members of Save Our Sons were often pilloried by the media as hysterical, naive mothers, or “bimbos.” ↩
3. An international pacifist movement heavily involved in the Australian “Vietnam Moratoriums.” ↩
4. A club turned protest group formed by students in Sydney University’s superhuman studies program. ↩
5. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Flying Man’s approval ratings—such as they were—rose considerably after his disappearance. ↩
6. A slur usually referring to people of Vietnamese extraction. ↩
7. The official Sydney residence of the Prime Minister of Australia until early 1966. One might ask why the prime minister needs a residence in Sydney when the national capital is Canberra, but you could also ask why they’re paid more than people who have to work with sewage for a living. ↩
8. Occult consultants had ruled out fielding actual vampires. ↩
9. She settled on Catalpa. ↩