“Do you like my costume, Mr. Comet?”
Ralph Rivers looked down at Gregory Collins. The boy was dressed in a bright blue wet-suit, decked out in knee and shoulder pads slathered with gravel and glue. He’d also sticky taped flame covered streamers to his shoulders and hair.
Does he sleep with those on? Must be hell to pull them off…
There was only one possible answer:
The Crimson Comet grinned. “Nice, kid.”
Gregory veritably shook with delight. “Thank you, sir!”
Close-Cut weaved his way through chatting refugees over to Ralph and the boy, drink in hand. “Crimson1, have you talked to Anne Marie at all?”—the villain jabbed a thumb at the pregnant woman refilling her glass at the punch-bowl—“I think she was messing around with Jimmy the Bastard—”
Close-Cut trailed off when he noticed Greg Collins. The child was snickering.
Ralph put a hand on the boy’s shoulder. “Company, C.C.”
God, he sounded like Queen Victoria. At least David wasn’t there to make him sound completely ridiculous.
Wallace was now cooly regarding Gregory Collins’ costume, a finger curled under his chin.
Greg looked up at the man. “Are you a superhero, mister?”
That sounded like a “yes” to Gregory. He stuck his chest out, eager for more professional input. “What do you think of my superhero uniform?”
Ralph cast a pleading glance at his boyfriend.
Come on, Wally, be nice.
Wallace nodded, as though agreeing with Ralph’s silent request. “It’s a good start”, he said evenly. He snapped his fingers. “What’s your gimmick, though?”
Gregory titled his head. “Gimmick?”
“He’s asking what your power is,” clarified Ralph.
“Oh.” Greg opened his right hand. A red flame sparked over his palm. “I can make more fire, but…” The child glanced around the burnished metal chamber.
“Yeah,” said Ralph. “Good thought.”
“Solid,” remarked Close-Cut. “Though you’ve got a lot of blue for a fire-fella. Contrasting colours are one thing, but…”
A ribbon of water flowed out of the cooler on the table, making folks yelp as it wormed between them to Greg’s other hand.
“I can do water, too.”
Ralph didn’t know if he was relieved or deeply disappointed David wasn’t there.
Close-Cut nodded again, much more enthusiastically. “Very solid.”
Gregory grinned. A breeze troubled the hair of everyone in the room. “And air! Rock and dirt, too, but we’re real high up right now.”
Close-Cut folded his arms, an approving smile playing his lips. “I’ll take your word for it.” He started leading Greg over to the snack table. “Walk with me, talk with me.”
Ralph smiled to himself. Sometimes it was good knowing he was dating a nice bloke.
The Crimson Comet kept on mingling with the prospective new Catalpalans. This batch seemed to be an even split between supers and naturals. Good, Ralph thought. Sometimes he worried about what might happen to the community of the ratio skewed to much either direction. It also worried him that little Gregory was the only kid they’d netted in the last three pick-ups. How many lost children out there couldn’t find their way?
Although, you could make the argument they’d picked up two kids this time:
“It wasn’t a problem when me and James were just a fling, but then this…” Anne-Marie rubbed her baby-bump. “Jimmy had shadow-tentacles. I have no clue how this kid’s going to come out, and he’s been a ghost for months!”
Ralph nodded sympathetically. “James was never the most dependable kinda bloke.” He pointed over at his boyfriend, still intently discussing costume options with Greg. “And that’s coming from his lot.”
Anne let out a laugh. “God. I need to get some taste…”
“Don’t worry, Anne. This kid will be in good company.”
Anne closed her eyes for a second. “That’s the thing, Mr. Comet. I know I’m having this kid in Catalpa. I just don’t know if I’m staying.”
“Everyone’s free to come and go.”
“I might be leaving alone, too.”
This was tricky. Catalpa had plenty of orphans and abandoned children. It had yet to deal with the issue of… surrenders.
“Either way,” said the Crimson Comet. “They’ll be taken care of.”
Anne-Marie nodded. “Thank you.”
Ralph felt a tap on his arm. The olive-skinned refugee woman in the hood was at his side.
“I need to speak to Allison Kinsey,” she said. Ralph thought she sounded a little like Eliza Winter. Maybe a touch more eastern.
“Everyone will get to talk to Allison,” he reassured the woman gently.
Of course they would. No way they were letting anyone into the city without a chat with their premier mind-reader.
“It’s urgent,” she insisted.
Ralph gave the lady a sideways glance. “What’s the matter?”
The woman’s lip tightened. Her olive skin paled a touch.
“Come on, no judgement,” said the Crimson Comet. He flashed her the stock “waggish superhero” smile. “Unless you’ve stuck a bomb somewhere, I might judge that a little.”
Judging by the woman’s frown, that wasn’t Ralph’s best move. Still, she stood up on her toes and whispered in his ear:
Ralph Rivers’ eyes widened. “Oh.”
Ralph almost wished it was a bomb.
Recruitment drives were a mixed occasion for Allison. Sure, it meant new songs and new powers, but she also had to talk to a lot of grown-ups. Natural grown-ups, too. And never the ones she was waiting for…
“The way I see it,” said Jessica Switts. “Your town has a big PR problem.” She remembered she was talking to a little girl. “Oh, sorry, ‘PR’ means—“
“She knows what it means,” said Mistress Quickly on her winged pop-art throne. “She knows everything.”
“Ah,” said Miss Switts. “My point is, there’s never been as many supers in one place as your town, and nobody knows anything about you. That frightens folk.” She gave an enthusiastic realtor smile. “Me and Ron here can help you with that.”
The young photographer sitting on the velvet bench beside Miss Switts gave a shaky, bashful smile. A camera rested in his lap like a placid toddler.
Allison—curled up inside her globe chair—squinted at the pair of them. “So, you don’t want to live in Catalpa, you want to write a newspaper story about us?”
Jessica shot to her feet. “Not just a story,” enthused the reporter. “I’m talking about a whole book.” She looked up towards the ceiling and swept her hands. “A Year in Catalpa, by Jessica Switts.” Switts patted her companion on the shoulder hard enough to make the poor fella cringe. “And Ronald French, of course.” She gave Allison an eager look. “Has a ring to it, right?”
“…Uh huh,” said Maude. “The West Australian put you two up to this?”
Jessica scoffed bitterly. “Hah! If it was up to them, me and Rolf would be covering the Royal Show2 and playground dedications till we were drawing retirement.”
“It was time for a change,” Ron agreed timidly. “And I always liked the old Crimson Comet comics, so…”
Mistress Quickly and Allison exchanged a glance:
They on the up? Maude thought loudly.
Allison inspected the lights in Ron and Jessica’s heads. They hummed a litany of boredom and simmering professional resentment.
Yeah, they mean it, Allison thought at Maude. They were getting good at these mental conversations. The guy just wants to take some pictures and the lady really wants to be famous, but they’re not working for Valour or anything.
Maude looked back at the journalists. “We’ll take it to the council.”
Ron and Jessica both cheered excitedly and embraced.
Allison was about to call Ralph to bring in the next person, when she noticed a song cleaving from the crowd.
She knew its tune.
The interview chamber’s door slid open with a proper sci-fi swoosh. The Crimson Comet stood in the doorway with uncomfortable gravity, eyes cast downwards.
“Ah, Comet, good timing,” said Mistress Quickly. She noticed her head at Ron and Jess. “We were just finishing up with these two.”
Ralph didn’t answer the scientist, instead shuffling his feet against the metal floor. “Allison—“
“Move out of the way, please,” said Allison, voice too steady.
The Crimson Comet obeyed.
Drina Kinsey stood in the doorway, hands clasped in front of her dress. “Allison?”
The girl flew out of the globe-chair like a baby bird from a nest, launching herself against her mother’s chest. Mrs Kinsey just barely managed to not be bowled over.
Allison looked up from her mother’s skirt, leaving tear marks on the fabric. “Y—you came?”
She said it like she wasn’t sure this was really happening.
Drina stared down at her daughters burning eyes. “Allie, what’s happened to you?”
Allison gave up on an explanation, burying her face again.
Ron’s camera flashed a few times. Mistress Quickly slapped it down.
“What’s the matter with you?”
A young, piping voice spoke, “Allison said you’d turn up!”
Drina looked towards the back of the chamber. There was a little blonde girl in a strange one piece swimsuit who hadn’t been there a second ago. Drina thought she looked like her Allison…
“Hello?” said Drina questioningly. “Who are you.”
“I’m Miri,” the girl answered.
Allison looked back up at her mother, a dizzy smile on her face. “She’s my sister!”
1. An important step in any superhuman relationship is the establishment of public nicknames. ↩
2. An annual agricultural festival held in Perth. ↩