It was kindness that drove Sandra Pritchard to Catalpa. Her entire working life had been spent tending to the sick and hurting. She was a nurse and a midwife—welcoming and bidding farewell to hundreds of souls.
Sandra also had a side-business. A charity, really. She never charged more than a token fee.
Sandra Pritchard helped women who didn’t want to be pregnant. Others might have called it ugly work, but not Sandra. It was medicine, no matter what the nuns and the old men they scrapped before said. Sandra Pritchard saved lives, if only by keeping her instruments clean and sterile. It was more than could be said for other operations.
She helped mothers and daughters; wives and prostitutes; any woman who didn’t want a baby.
If Sandra were to guess, it was probably one of those women who sent the police to her door.
“I try not to be angry,” she said over late night drinks at Libertalia1. “Don’t always manage it, but I try.”
Sandra had had to leave her flat through the bathroom window, carrying only her purse and the clothes on her back. She imagined she would’ve been on the streets or in lockup before the week was up if she hadn’t remembered what was going down in Elder Park. The supers were whisking away any and all comers to the edge of the world.
And so they had. Good thing, too. Turned out they needed a nurse.
The little boy whimpered as Nurse Sandy slid the needle into his vein. She stroked his brow with her thumb as she depressed the syringe.
“Shhh, there we are. Everything’s fine.”
The boy’s breathing evened out as the sedative spread through him.
Good. Now Sandy could figure out how to help him.
The nurse surveyed Freedom Point infirmary. Over a dozen patients lay cradled in beds like open Bakelite clamshells, thousands of tiny tongues2 licking at their skin. As a nurse, Sandra could see the utility. She never had to worry about bedsores. As a human being, though, she never felt completely okay with them. The fact they could close didn’t help.
Dr. Beak glided across the chrome steel floor. He was seven feet tall, his inner mechanisms hidden by a billowing black robe. His face was a birdlike silver plague mask.
“All patients are comfortably numb, ma’am,” the robot said in a broad Southern drawl, his glass eyes flashing with every word.
It was clear the Flying Man had never intended his mechanical medic for public eyes.
“Thank you, Doc,” said Nurse Sandy. She lit a cigarette and took a puff, only to feel her skin begin to tingle. “Doc Beak!”
A red glow died in the robot’s eyes. “No lung cancer yet, Nurse. Although I would advise you to take those outside in the interest of patient safety.”
Before Sandy could try vocally programming some bedside manner into the doctor, an egg-portal bloomed in the middle of the infirmary. Her posture straightened reflexively as the Crimson Comet stepped through, Allison Kinsey in tow.
It was no surprise, really. Portals were more common in her infirmary than almost anywhere else in Catalpa. Even forgetting the mirror-folk, a town full of super-children had its fair share of accidents, and the portals made superb ambulances. Sandra did wish they’d use the corner they’d cleared for them, though.
The Comet nodded at Sandy. “Nurse Pritchard.”
“Comet,” the nurse replied.
Everyone in Catalpa by then knew the Crimson Comet’s real name, but hardly anyone could bring themselves to call him “Ralph” or “Mr. Rivers” while he was in uniform. It would be like calling the Pope “Paulie.”
Nurse Sandy turned to Allison and affected a smile. “Happy birthday, Allie.”
Allison didn’t answer the woman, instead casting her burning eyes about the ward. Fifteen people, just as Ralph had told her. All asleep. Good. Sometimes Catalpa frightened the mirror-people when they weren’t eased into things. A Romanian super-girl had screamed when she spotted Allison. Poor kid thought she was a vampire.
Is she wrong? Alberto had jeered inside Allison.
Every common human colour was represented in this batch. In age they ranged from a fifty year old woman to a sleeping baby. Allison heard the echoes of half a dozen languages in their songs. Five of them were superhuman. Their bright roar nearly drowned out the embryonic melody coming together a few floors up.
Allison shook her head. She had to wait.
She looked up at Ralph. “Where’d these ones come from?”
“Rhonda Leavence3 found them in the women’s changing room at the pool.”
Allison nodded. “That makes sense.”
They always came from mirrors. Clairvoyance once let Allison watch their arrival through a mirrored wardrobe door. Haggard refugees from the border of Looking Glass Land and Narnia.
The last man had been gently pushed through by a pair of slender hands. Bruised hands.
“Any of them hurt bad?”
The nurse sighed. “Only the usual. Most of them are badly bruised, half of them are malnourished.”
Dr. Beak added, “All patients exhibited signs of persistent stress. The cortisol in their blood would give Dracula a nervous breakdown.”
That wasn’t surprising. When the mirror-people were in a fit state to speak, not one of them reported lives of comfort. They were prisoners; modern slaves; the weak and abused.
“Two exceptions,” said Sandra. “Not to the stress, so the doctor tells me, but physically speaking, they’re both pristine. A bit too healthy, in fact.”
“Which ones?” asked Allison.
Nurse Pritchard walked over to the baby bed. He was one of the supers. His song was like if harps worked as looms. “Him, thank God. Except… he’s healthy, but…” Gently, she picked the child up, holding him against her breast. “Look.”
Allison peered at the baby. On the back of his neck, a silver pentagram shone against light olive skin. Its lines were composed of delicate, interwoven script, as though the tattooist had inked the feet of ants.
Allison’s friend Tom Long still bore the shadow of such a mark.
“The Coven,” Allison said quietly.
“A baby,” said Sandra. She shook her head. “Bunch of animals.”
The Coven were rapidly becoming the most prominent and organized supervillain team in Australian history. The five—or as of late, four—of them ruled organized crime on the west coast, and only the Devil knew how far their reach extended.
One thing was for sure, they were leaders in the superhuman slave trade. Herbert Lawrence had liberated (well, purchased) Tom from them. A few of the supers who’d fled to Catalpa since its founding had escaped from their hands. Others had been covenantor spies. Not that they’d known that themselves.
“The other one is from the Coven too,” said Dr. Beak. “No surprise. My gene-sifter says she’s the boy’s mother.”
Allison looked towards the mechanical doctor. He was standing at the bedside of a young woman—not even twenty by the looks of her. She had heavy-lidded eyes and thick, dark honey hair. Her song was a rainstorm of every strain of matter. Clouds weeping tears of glass and gold.
It was funny. Sometimes, a sound could be so constant in your life for so long, you hardly noticed its return:
“Lana,” said Allison.
That was the name the girl’s parents had given her. Herbert Lawrence had called her Ex-Nihilo.
“You know her?” asked the Comet. “Was she one of Lawrence’s?”
“Yes,” answered Allison. “One of the first after Mels and them.”
“God,” said Ralph. “First Lawrence, then the Coven. Poor thing.”
Allison strode over to her old schoolmate. “I’m gonna check her memory,” she said. “See if she got a good look at who got her out of there.”
“You sure?” asked Nurse Pritchard. “This girl’s clearly… suffered.”
Allison had tried this before with a mirror person. A Vietnamese woman, pulled from a sweep of her village by US forces. She’d come back to herself screaming of men and broken bottles.
“Gotta be done,” said Allison, taking Lana’s hand.
“Does it?” asked Sandra.
Allison shrugged. “I want to know. Least with Lana I know what to expect.”
Allison closed her eyes. “Mind the shop, Miri.”
Allison’s costume glowed and reformed into a pearlescent one-piece. Miri opened her eyes and grinned around the infirmary.
The shop bell jingled as Allison stepped out from the glare into the dusty record store. She found Alberto swigging a bottle of red behind the counter.
When Allison started constructing herself a proper mind-palace, a music store had only seemed fitting. She had pressed her knowledge into books of sheet-music and her memories onto vinyl records in lushly illustrated sleeves. A little girl covered in wheatpaste running shrieking through a school playground. A jumbled pile of fantasy and children’s paperbacks. Allison and David swimming together through an aquamarine sea.
She had shelves devoted to her parents, her friends; her life before and after starting school; and before and after the freak-finders got her and Arnold. Two shelves were given over to memories of the New Human Institute: ‘Good’ and ‘Bad’.
To her surprise, the former was more crowded than the latter.
He grinned woozy acid at the girl. “Allie! Big day today, isn’t it?” The psychic half-danced, half-staggered out onto the shag-carpet. “God, ten years years old, already.” He looked her up and down. “Few more birthdays and you won’t be able to see your feet.”
Allison glowered at her unwanted prisoner. “Shut it, Alberto. I’m busy.”
“Taking a break from pashing4 David and Arn? You know that’s just giving Bertie what he wanted.”
“Who cares? He’s dead. Also, can’t see Arnold and David having babies.”
“Fair point. Do as you feel, love the one you’re with and all that.”
Alberto was being unusually jolly, even for when he gorged himself on the memory of wine. Probably thinking about Maude’s project, Allison decided.
Alberto sucked his lips. “First Tom and Louise, now ol’ Lana. You sure one of your subjects doesn’t have coincidence powers?”
Allison put her hands on her hips. “They’re not my ‘subjects’, Alberto.”
The esper snorted. “Allie, they made your birthday a national holiday. Only other lady I know who gets that treatment is the Queen.”
“Whatever you say,” said Allison, walking past a rack of records dedicated to girls she didn’t like. “You coming?”
“Sure,” said Alberto. “Been cooped up here for ages.”
The two made their way to a door at the back of the store. It opened out onto a vast crescent of light fixed in a starless void. Its edge was rimmed by hundreds more doors, in all colours and shapes. The one unifying element were the bronze plaques affixed to each. The names of everyone in Catalpa5.
Allison and Alberto walked to their left, past the minds of Ralph, Sandra, and Maude Simmons. The Crimson Comet’s door was a rusty ship’s hatch. Nurse Pritchard’s was dark brown wood with frosted glass panels engraved with bluebirds. Mistress Quickly’s door, perhaps unsurprisingly, appeared to be a very oddly shaped plasma-globe.
They soon reached a new door. It was made of heavy black wood and carved with roses. Lana Firrens’ name was surrounded by a ring of gold circles.
“You put way too much effort into presentation,” said Alberto. “Who’s it for?”
“Me,” answered Allison. She pulled a skeleton key out of nothing and slipped it into the door’s lock.
“And what’s the point of that?”
The door opened. Allison and Alberto stepped into Lana’s mind.
They were standing on the shore of a cavernous underground lake. The black waters swarmed blue and white with glowing plankton. Swimming constellations.
With no comment or gesture, a wooden rowboat rose from the water. Allison boarded the small vessel, settling in the back seat.
She called back to Alberto, “You’re rowing.”
The reluctant gondolier muttered foul insults at the girl as he clumsily boarded the boat, taking up an oar and pushing them off onto the tides of memory.
They rowed towards the centre of the lake, where Allison knew instinctively the freshest memories lay. She may not have known the territory of Lana’s mind, but she knew the map.
There was a hole in the stony sky there, through which poured a glowing cataract. It was Lana’s mind’s eye, the sieve of senses and biases that filtered the outside world for her. Allison’s took the shape of a wireless radio. Alberto was a dumbwaiter in his vast wine-cellar.
The flow was light right now. No surprise: Lana was sleeping. That water was all dreams.
While Alberto played Charon, Allison peered over the side boat, watching the water for memory.
In many ways, the lake was a more honest space than Allison’s record shop. Memories weren’t LPs that played the same every time you put them on. They were a bin of props people used to try and recreate their lives, with only themselves for reference. Play scripts with fading letters, staged by actors who couldn’t stop ad libbing.
The records helped Allison keep her memories from drifting, but they didn’t make them any more “honest.” She’d just placed them under glass. But at least she had them. At least she could still hear her mother’s voice.
You’re being dumb, Allison told herself. They’ll come. You’ve made it so easy.
The star-plankton formed into tables and chairs as tall as trees.
A star falling from a blue sky, somehow clear as day beneath the black water.
She’s not gonna be Superman’s big sister, is she?
A blackened crater smoking in a field of golden grass. Childish hands waving fractal stones that blurred and smeared the world behind them.
“Lawrence spent a lot of time and money trying to find those space rocks,” commented Alberto. “A miracle-cure for normalcy was always one of his fantasies.”
“Should’ve asked the Physician,” said Allison, thinking back to his educator-crown and taxidermied goddess.
The Flying Man’s mother, she remembered. They were both gone now…
“Be glad he didn’t find them,” said Alberto. “Mad git would’ve mixed them into your Weet-Bix.”He stopped rowing. “Fox’s calling card, six o’clock.”
Allison scurried to the bow of the boat. A machine made of shadows towered over them—a hybrid of industrial water-purifier and octopus.
A safeguard by the Fox: the Coven’s apparent leader. Near as Allison could tell, the man wasn’t exactly a telepath. More a hypnotist. He could instill phobias stronger than life and death, or prime a man to turn homicidal if they heard a certain phrase in a crowded room.
God, that had been a mess.
“I’m guessing you’ll want to take care of that?”
Allison burst into blue and violet flames. A boil of lava bubbled into existence in her right hand. She hurled it like a discus at the shadow-machine.
The thing went up like dry paper, shrieking and flailing as it burned and crumbled into the water.
“Christ, kid, you could’ve just wished the thing to death,” said Alberto.
Allison ignored him. Sometimes you had to spice things up.
Out the corner of her eye, she spotted a new image in the water. Lana—as she was out there in real space—lying in what looked like a posh hotel room.
Allison’s flames went out. “I think I found what we’re looking over for.”
She let herself fall backwards into the lake.
A moment of bracing cold gave way to a syrupy, narcotic warmth. Allison found herself standing by Lana’s bed.
They were in a penthouse. The sort of place Allison didn’t think you could physically exist in unless you were wearing a sparkling evening gown. For whatever reason, there was a full length mirror only a few feet in front of the queen-sized bed.
Lana was breathing slowly on top of the covers, her eyelids fluttering. Clearly drugged.
The ghosts of words brushed Allison. “The baby,” “Mockery,” and “auction.”
Allison shivered, remembering the story Tom once told around the fire back at the Institute.
Lana groaned as movement drew Allison’s eyes to the mirror. She had no reflection in it, but it would’ve been stranger if she had. But there was a woman, covered head to toe in dark blue fabric, walking towards the bed.
She was cradling a baby.
Allison found herself holding her breath. This was the clearest look she’d ever got at the Mirror Mistress. Or whatever she was called.
Lana was whimpering. The light of the room became tinged with fear, but no surprise.
The Mirror Mistress raised a hand. Black cloth covered everything up to her nose, and the rest of her face was concealed by mirrored-sunglasses. “It’s okay, Ex-Nihilo. I’m getting you out of here.”
Lana’s eyes widened at the sight of her son. She tried to raise herself, only to fall back against her pillow.
The Mirror-Mistress rushed to her bedside, right through Allison’s image. Still holding the baby in one arm, she hoisted up Lana with the other.
The young woman tried to speak, but her rescuer shushed her. “Don’t talk. Just walk.”
Allison watched as they made their way slowly over to the mirror, Lana leaning against the Mirror-Mistress.
The woman was limping. Her fingers were blotched blue like a painter’s. Every step seemed to send a wince shooting up her.
But still, she kept on walking.
The penthouse refracted, shattering. Allison opened her eyes back in the infirmary just in time to see the sleeves of her costume flowing back over her arms.
“What’d you see?” asked Ralph.
“Definitely a woman,” said Allison. “Some sort of superhero.”
“I thought we already knew that,” commented Dr. Beak.
“Pretty much,” said Allison. “But she knew Lana’s name. Her other name.”
1. Catalpa’s first tavern. ↩
2. The sickbay was one of Dr. John Smith’s contributions to Circle’s End Supermax. ↩
3. A former Melbourne villainess known as “the Canary”, suspected for the murders of seven gangland figures with serrated implements throughout the early 1950s. ↩
4. Australian slang for kissing. Compare “snogging” in the United Kingdom. ↩
5. As well as some residents of nearby Yolngu communities. ↩