“WORLD WAR THREE?”
Jan Walters was trying not to look at her mother’s copy of the Sydney Morning Herald. It was her umpteenth thoundsanth reminder that day that something awful was brewing. That week. That month. That whole stinking year.
“Can you put that down, Mum?” she asked. “I’m trying to watch TV.”
Tess Yullis (née Rivers) looked over her paper at her daughter. Hamlet’s ghostly reflection played across her eyeglasses1. “I wasn’t aware my eyes were so noisy, love.”
Mrs Yullis tutted. “Bradbury was right.”
“Don’t be a snob, Mum! For crying out loud, we’re watching Shakespeare!”
“Don’t you take that tone with me!” snapped Tess, instantly making a child of her daughter again. “What’s going on with you?”
Jan sighed. “It’s nothing. Sorry.”
Nothing thickening into something. Jan was sick of the war, and it hadn’t even started yet. Its battles were waged with heart-stopping headlines and terse newscasts. For now. It took Jan back to the very beginning of her memory. When her father and uncle both went away. When every radio sang of far off horrors.
It could be worse, Jan told herself. At least they didn’t have to worry about nukes. Life could survive this war. It still made Jan angry. It’d only taken twenty-one years for the world to run back towards the brink. Just enough time to rear a new brood of soldiers…
“Thou know’st ’tis common; all that lives must die, Passing through nature to— ”
Hamlet’s voice slurred into static. The blue-white glare of the television flushed with colour.
Tess lowered her paper and chuckled. “They really ought to start pre-empting this show.”
The image resolved. The Crimson Comet appeared on the screen. And he was crimson. On a black and white TV2.
He was standing on a white-sanded spit of beach in front of a rocky, tree-crowned hill, his metal wings spread out. Moonstone waters bordered him on either side beneath a perfect blue sky.
Jan’s mood brightened instantly. The world might be trapped in history, but at least her uncle could be a hero again.
The Comet wasn’t alone. To his right was a grey-eyed, witch-shaped woman in a forest green dress-suit and cloche hat.
To his left, a rainbow clad little girl with hot coals for eyes.
“Good lord,” said Mrs Yullis. “It’s like they’re rubbing it in with the colour.”
Jan had seen it five times before in the past eight months, but it was still a thrill.
The Comet gave the camera an offhand salute. “G’day, Australia. Crimson Comet here. Me and my friends here would like to tell you about Catalpa3.”
The girl waved brightly. “I’m Allison!”
“She’s a cute kid,” commented Jan.
“Didn’t she hold a bunch of people hostage in Melbourne?”
Oh, right, she did do that. Oh well, she could still be cute. Far away from her children.
The woman gave a curt nod. “Angela Barnes.”
The Comet continued, “For a lot of us supers, it’s been a rough few years. I know a lot of us who’ve been hassled within an inch of their lives.”
Allison chimed in, “So me and my friends have set up a place where any super who’s not really horrible can live and have fun!” There was a beat, then the girl blurted, “And their families! Especially their parents!”
She was still smiling, but Jan thought she saw something in her fiery eyes. Something pleading.
“She’s an orphan,” said Mrs Yullis. “Or might as well be. Ralph said so in a letter.”
“As Allison was saying,” said Mrs Barnes, “Catalpa is not just open to super-people. We welcome anyone who needs somewhere to go.”
“If that sounds like charity, it’s not,” said Ralph. “We’ve got a lot going on, and every hand is a big help.” He grinned waggishly. “Besides, company’s good for the soul, isn’t it?”
Angela explained, “First week of every month, we collect prospective residents—”
“And visitors!” cried Allison. “We don’t mind those!”
Angela shot Allison a glance. She clammed up.
“Yes, we do accept visitors, so long as they have basic manners.”
“Now,” said the Comet, “some of you might be saying, ‘A city full of supers? How are you still standing?’ Well, don’t worry:”
The ocean rumbled. A titan of water rose up from the sea behind the hill. It slammed great, translucent fists down onto the rocks, swamping them in white foam.
“We have very good security.”
Angela cleared her throat as if a water god wasn’t towering behind her. “Pick-up dates and locations to follow.”
Allison waved again. “See you soon!”
Mabel Henderson woke when the black of sleep turned red with sunlight. She was in her bedroom. Well, technically it was the Barnes’ guest room, but by now it was hers four nights out of five. It’d been years since she had her own room (that wasn’t a cell on an alien starship). It made her feel like royalty. And she had a bed. One that didn’t hang from the ceiling, just like grown-ups had. It didn’t matter that the walls were sheet-metal torn from prison floors and the ceiling iridescent carnival glass; in fact, that last thing was definitely a plus.
Mrs Barnes’ commanding voice rippled through her curtain door, “Mabel, breakfast!”
Mabel rushed out into the shanty’s little kitchen and took her usual place at the table. Pork and cinnamon spiced steam shrouded the ceiling. Arnold and Mr. Barnes were already attacking their breakfasts.
“Morning, Mabs!” Arnold answered through a mouthful of pancake and bacon.
“Don’t talk and chew,” Mrs Barnes snapped as she put Mabel’s plate in front of her.
Arnold swallowed. “Sorry Mum.”
Angela sat down with her own breakfast. “Don’t apologize to me, you were talking to Mabel.”
Arnold nodded and looked at his friend. “Sorry Mabel.”
Mabel nodded gravely. “I forgive you.”
Silence. The children broke into giggles.
Angela hummed in her throat.
“Lighten up, Ang,” said Fred. “Don’t want to scare Mabel away, do we?”
Fred liked Mabel. He’d never seen himself with a daughter, but he found it suited him. Or at least, Mabel suited him.
Plus, sometimes the leg braces she conjured let him play football again.
Angela liked her a lot, too. Very down to earth. More importantly, she preferred her son playing with her than—
“You got anything for Dave and Allison’s birthdays?” Arnold asked Mabel.
Mabel shrugged. “Not really?”
“The party’s tonight!”
“Did you get them something?”
“…No,” admitted Arnold.
“What do you even get for them? Dolphin food?”
“Another super?” Arnold suggested.
“A sense of perspective?” Angela muttered.
Arnold grinned. “She has telepathy, Mum.”
“She should use it more, then.”
“She’s very… in herself,” remarked Fred. He shook his head. “God, it’s like when your brothers stopped wanting presents and started asking for money.”
Angela sighed resignedly. “Don’t take His name in vain.”
Arnold looked back and forth between his parents. “Wait, you can get money for your birthday?”
“Your father said they asked for it, not that they got it,” said Angela. “We sent them to university instead.”
“Didn’t stop them from whining.”
“Can I get money?”
“Nope” answered Fred.
“Eye of the needle,” Angela reminded her son, “eye of the needle.”
Mabel laughed. Was this what families looked like? “What would you even do with money? We live in a pirate town!” Mabel prodded her pancakes with her fork. “Uncle Fred, Auntie Angela, how’d you get the honey for these?”
“I fixed Mr. Carlson4’s motorbike,” Fred replied. “Bloody big-brains in the tower couldn’t be bothered with it…”
“Don’t tell me you haven’t thought it too,” said Fred. “How long did it take them to set up your cold room?”
“Because they wanted sausages. But I want my chair electrified, suddenly I’m on a waiting list!”
“See?” said Mabel. “Favours are where it’s at.”
Fred thumped the table with the hilt of his butter-knife. “You listen to this girl, Arn!”
“Smartest thing I ever did was—”
A golden phantom rushed through the east well. Allison Kinsey appeared in her rainbow glory on top of the kitchen table. She was also bouncing.
“It’s my birthday! It’s my birthday—”
Angela barked, “Allison! Not on the table!”
Allison yelped and jumped to the floor, but not even Mrs Barnes could dispel her excitement.
She was ten. Ten whole years old. Two digits. After nine false starts, she was finally big.
She cast her eyes wildly between Mabel and Arnold. “Come on, come on! Why are you still inside? It’s been my birthday for hours.”
Fred smiled fondly. “Happy birthday, Allie.”
“Thanks Mr. Barnes!” Allison—still hopping—turned to Angela. “Sorry about the table, Mrs Barnes.”
Angela glared at the muddy shoe prints left on her hard won honey oak table. “It’s alright, Allison.”
Forgiveness is Christian, Forgiveness is Christian.
Allison went back to hounding her friends. “Come on, we still need to get David and Billy!”
“Alright, alright,” said Arnold. “Give me a sec.”
Angela winced as she watched Mabel and Arnold inhale the rest of their breakfast. She half expected one of them to choke.
Arnold and Mabel set down their cutlery performatively at the same time, intoning together:
Fred and Angela both shut their eyes as a white flash replaced the children’s pyjamas with their super-suits. They watched the three run out the front door into the morning heat.
“Last year was not good for that girl,” griped Angela.
“Look at it this way,” said Fred, “At least she was dressed this time.”
God, Angela worried about that girl.
The Watercolours burst out into Catalpa. The place had grown a lot in the last few months, but it was still hardly the sprawling metropolis Allison liked to paint it as: just a few hundred patchwork buildings radiating out semi-organically from the cross-sectioned ruins of the prison, each flowing into the next like metallic hedgerows. The streetlights were iron trees topped with solar panels, supplementing the ex-prison’s arcane power-source.
The whole town looked strangely autumnal. All reds, yellows and coppers. The Arnhem Land soil they pulled the ore from was shod through with rust. It had taken their resident geniuses a few tries to engineer a refinement process that didn’t require copious amounts of coal to remove the slag. There had been hiccups. So many that, for a time, they’d stuck to tin.
The place still managed to glimmer in the morning sun. And burn careless feet in the afternoon, at least until the shadow of the tower still embedded sideways in the ground like a crashed starship fell over it. They had renamed the thing Freedom Point. It was on the nose, but neither supervillains nor children are subtle.
Allison took off down what passed for the street. Mabel and Arnold struggled to keep up with her enhanced leg muscles.
“Wait up, Allie!” Arnold shouted, before stopping to pant and clutch at his knees. “Bloody show-off…”
Mabel reached Arnold’s side, jogging in place.
It was a hot day. For the Yolngu5, Arnhem Land had six seasons6. White folk saw no such nuance. Here, they said, there was only dry and wet. It’d been thundering in Catalpa since September, but it hadn’t felt a drop of rain. Only the weeping humidity flooding the air as the sky held her breath.
Allison loved it. She could taste the electricity on her tongue. It was like the world had its own song.
People waved and said hello to her as she passed, always using her name. An old baseline man even took his hat off for her.
“Happy birthday Allison!”
“See you at your party!”
Strangers knew her birthday. Proper strangers—not just ancient aunts and uncles from the other side of the country. It was still dizzying.
Allison vaulted over a large man carrying a crate of apples right before they would’ve collided, scooping one from the box as she sailed over him.
“For God’s sake, Allison, watch where you’re going! And consider that your birthday present!”
Allison didn’t even know that bloke’s name. But he knew hers.
Allison turned her ear to the leviathan of song that was Catalpa, searching for the notes that belonged to William St. George. She leapt and dived dolphin-like through the rough dirt paths that snaked through town. She rode mounts of vapour and blinked from solar-post to solar-post. She ran across the glassy rooftops, crossing the gaps without breaking her stride. Her costume shifted colours with every new power or glowed unrefracted white.
The symphony of Catalpa—hundreds of players strong—lifted Allison like a swelling sea. She could do anything within it. Become anything.
She was interrupted mid-thought by a mass of fur slamming into her side.
Allison fell to the dirt. Billy was standing over her, breathing heavily with a panicked smile while his tail gouged the air behind him.
Billy took off down the street. “Can’t talk!” he yelled. “Running for my life!”
Twenty kids were running (or flying or teleporting or bouncing) away from a little boy with violet hair. He snarled like a rabid dog and waved his arms over his head as he lunged after them.
Louise Michelson streaked past Allison as she clambered to her feet, yelling with laughter, “Don’t let him get you!”
A sooty flame flashed in a window. The witch-boy Liam poked his head out and cried, “One touch is all it takes!”
Mabel and Arnold flew over the chaos on a flying carpet. Arnold peered over the edge.
“Has someone got nits7 again?”
The shunned boy caught sight of the carpet. He hissed, leaping on and grabbing hold of Arnold’s neck.
The boy grinned. “You’re—”
The same grin jumped across to Arnold’s face. “—Me!”
The purple-headed child yelped and bailed off the side of the carpet.
Mabel rolled her eyes, only for Arnold to grab her hand.
The boy shuddered as he got a hold of himself again. Mabel was shaking with giddiness, eyes darting about for a new target.
Below them, Allison looked inside Mabel’s mind. The girl’s thoughts were caged by a Dyson shell of alien lights.
She flew up to the carpet. “Hey Miri.”
Mabel beamed at Allison. She pulled the still hovering girl into a hug. “Happy birthday, sis!” She released her from the hug, stumbling a step backwards as Miri molted off her.
Miri grinned around at her friends. After Mistress Quickly had loudly pointed out to her that she was literally all appearances, she’d started dressing her ghostly corpus. She usually tended towards an iridescent, monochrome one-piece. Or as she called it, “cool kid clothes.”
“Happy Allie’s birthday, guys!”
Mabel rubbed her temples. “We weren’t in the game, Miri.”
Miri frowned, abashed. “I’m sorry. Got excited.”
“S’alright,” Arnold said, lying on his back. “Least you didn’t make me eat anything gross this time.”
“What’s wrong with peppers?” asked Miri. “They’re tongue-fire!” She turned to her sister. “Oh, Allie! Louise says she’ll let me use her body for a bit at the party!”
Allison still found it surprising other kids were so willing to let Miri borrow their persons when she asked. They’d made what Alberto did to her into a game.
Or maybe it wasn’t so surprising. As if Miri ever wouldn’t give you back to yourself.
Allison gave her a small smile. “Nice of her, but you could always use ours. I won’t mind.”
Miri cocked her head. “But it’s your birthday. What’d be the point if you’re not there?”
Why didn’t Miri mind her situation as much as Allison did?
She shook her head.
Maude’ll fix us soon.
“Yeah, you’re right. Let’s go find David.”
The crocodile rocketed out of the water, only to be caught mid-air by a new geyser spewing up from the river below, its own home turned against it. The creature thrashed and snapped its long jaws, bellowing and gurgling, all it could do to try and escape the liquid tendrils clasped around its scaly trunk. Nothing in the reptile’s dim web of instinct and memory could account for this bizarre interruption of its slow, quiet wait for prey.
A naked, nut-brown boy with bright green eyes was standing on a column of water eye-level with the crocodile, jeering and poking his tongue out at it.
“What’s wrong? Can’t get me?”
The beast whipped its tail and clawed thin air, trying to lunge at the child. Pure instinct, of course. Nothing in its narrow, predatory mind could’ve told it this boy was the cause of its troubles.
David Barthe (sometimes Venter) frowned. He turned around towards the riverbank, paying the crocodile no mind.
“Sarah!” he cried, enunciating both syllables. “You’re not looking.”
Sarah Allworth—reclining in her deck chair on the white clay shore—turned the page of her Woman’s Day. Eucalyptus trees cast a web of shadows over her sundress.
Sarah lowered her sunglasses. “Yes, David, that one’s quite big.”
David bowed grandly. “Thank you, thank you, I’m here all week.”
David and the crocodile fell back into the river. The water broiled.
Sarah wasn’t worried. Nothing in the river could be more terrible than that boy.
It hadn’t taken long for Sarah to formally move to Catalpa. Even though Joe had moved out years ago, the family home felt suddenly empty. She never knew how much the possibility of his presence still filled that house. Lyonesse was even worse. It reminded her how little she’d even known him. So she told Blanceflor to keep the lights on, handed the store to her nephew, and let the super-people build her a house without ghosts.
Sarah had never thought she would retire overseas, but she was glad it was somewhere warm. She liked to think Joe would admire the move: helping build something new. And it was good to be surrounded by young people.
The water sprite marched proudly out of the river. The crocodile bobbed to the surface behind him, trapped in a block of ice like a fly in amber.
“Isn’t that cruel?” Sarah asked cooly.
David glanced back at his trophy. “…It tried to eat me.”
“Besides, they make it so the others can’t swim where they want! It’s not fair!”
Well, at least the sentiment’s there.
David didn’t live with Sarah. He was very insistent about that. He just slept in her spare bedroom when he didn’t feel like napping in the sea. And had dinner with her. And sometimes she read him bedtime stories. Or hugged him when the nightmares came back.
“I’m surprised you don’t want your own party,” said Sarah. “You’re really fine sharing the spotlight?”
David flopped down onto the dirt, basking in the sun like a seal. “Why wouldn’t I? I love Allie. Birthdays are for humans anyway. Besides, way more people are going to pay attention to me if I’m with Allison.” He smiled brightly. “We make Arn blush. It’s funny.”
Sarah allowed herself a laugh. “Don’t have anything planned for your actual birthday?”
David quirked his shoulders. “Dunno. Go swimming with Grandfather?”
“That sounds nice. I was thinking maybe I could teach you pinochle?”
“…I could do both.”
David and Sarah looked up. The rest of the Watercolours were descending through the trees on their flying Bokhara. They landed in front of the pair, Billy scrambling off the carpet and launching himself at David.
“Happy not-birthday, David!”
David hugged the tiger-boy back. “Thanks, mate.”
He let go of Billy and stepped grandly towards Allison. “Bonjour, birthday-pal.”
David kissed Allison’s hand, only for her to bend down and return it on his cheek.
Arnold did, in fact, blush.
David spun over and kissed him too. “Lighten up, Arn.”
Mabel laughed and quoted Arnold’s father, “Damn hippies.”
“Careful, David,” said Sarah. “You know how Mrs Barnes feels.”
David groaned. “Mrs Barnes isn’t here.”
Billy caught sight of the frozen crocodile. “Ooh, is that from the ice-age? I heard crocodiles were super old.”
“Nope!” said David. He clapped a hand over his bicep. “It tried messing with me!”
Billy put his hands on his hips and frowned. “You shouldn’t be mean to animals.”
“It’s a crocodile, they’re scary!”
“People think tigers are scary, too.”
David retorted, “A crocodile would totally eat a tiger if they got the chance, bud.” He looked at Allison. “Double-check, I still don’t have to wear pants tonight, do I?”
Mrs Allworth silently rolled her eyes.
“Only inside,” said Allison. “I had to fight Mrs Barnes pretty hard for that, so consider it your birthday present.”
“You know, David,” said Sarah, “I think you look very smart in your super-suit.”
David smirked. “I know, but some of us don’t need decoration.”
Arnold swished his starry cloak around himself. “I mean, if you’re fine with being plain.”
Miri flowed around David’s body, scowling. “I still want to know why you’re hogging Allie’s birthday.”
“We’re sharing our birthday, Miri,” Allison corrected her sister. “It makes it more fun.”
“You’d think you would get sharing,” added David.
Miri glanced over at Billy. “Billy, slap him for me.”
Billy promptly obeyed, claws sheathed.
David staggered backwards. “Really, Billy?”
Billy smiled sideways at Miri, “Sorry David, but you never turn down a lady.”
A note was struck. A 3D, ovoid piece of somewhere else bloomed in the air next to Mrs Allworth’s chair. Climate controlled air played at the corner of Arnold and Billy’s capes.
The Crimson Comet stepped out of the portal, in full-costume.
“Morning, Mr. Rivers,” said Sarah. “What’s the word?”
“I’m here for Allison,” the superhero said solemnly. He looked at the girl. “There’s been another delivery.”
Allison snapped to attention. “How many?”
“About fifteen this time. Mostly women and children. We could use your… insight.”
“You can say telepathy,” said Allison. “It’s not rude.”
“Right,” said Ralph. He jabbed a thumb at the portal, “Shall we take the short way?”
“Do you want us to come?” asked Arnold. “We could help!”
“It’s fine,” said Allison, walking towards the rent in space. “You guys keep playing.”
The portal collapsed behind Ralph and Allison. Miri blinked away. The rest of the children were left with the sound of the river flowing behind them.
David glanced back at the crocodile. “Hey, Billy, you think…”
1. As portrayed by Laurence Olivier in a British production of the eponymous play, aired in Australia as part of the anthology Wednesday Theatre in September 1966. ↩
2. Colour television would not be introduced to Australia until 1975. ↩
3. Named for the whaling ship used to rescue six Irish Fenian convicts from Fremantle in 1876. Other names considered included “Libertalia,” “New Atlantis,” “Kinseytown,” and “Super-Mega-Ultra-ville.” ↩
4. Formerly the Road King. ↩
5. An aggregation of Aboriginal Australian clans residing in north-eastern Arnhem Land. ↩
6. Gurnmul; Mirdawarr; Dhaarratharramirri; Rarranhdharr; Worlmamirri; and Baarramirri; each covering about two months of the western calendar. ↩
7. Commonwealth for lice. ↩