Chapter Ninety-Seven: Changelings

Drina Kinsey watched the sunrise from the scrap-metal porch of her hastily assembled granny flat, nursing a cup of something dimly inspired by coffee. Automated mining machines crept along the horizon—black dragons chained by gold. Or maybe mosquitos, bloating themselves on iron-rich blood. A thin film of dawn mist was evaporating as the summer heat roused for the day.

Not summer, Drina reminded herself. Wet season. They didn’t do summer up here. 

Last night, for the second time in her life, a ship had carried Drina to a strange, too-warm country. For the second time, she’d made the journey alone. 

For the first time, someone had been waiting for her. 

Drina had to hand it to Catalpa. Arthur Callwell1 hadn’t been nearly so fast to get her settled, though she could’ve done without watching the mechanical spiders build her new home in real time. 

Home. Was that true?

“Mrs Kinsey.”

Angela Barnes marched down the red-dirt path, a carry-cooler under her arm.   

“Mrs Barnes.”

Drina had known Mrs Barnes for over twenty years. She was one of the first people she’d met in Harvey. Their children had been best friends since preschool. She still didn’t call her “Angela.” Drina wasn’t sure why. Maybe it was because she’d been a child when she’d first met the woman. Maybe it was just because Angela Barnes was Angela Barnes.

Angela set the cooler down on the porch. “Sleep well?”

Drina crooked her shoulders. “Best I could. It was… a lot.”

A lot of people, mainly. Apparently, everyone in Catalpa had been waiting for Drina. She’d felt like the Queen; if the Queen had been herded into a dingy pub the moment she made landfall. It’d gotten overwhelming once Allison had fallen asleep. When the other adults started asking the obvious question:

“Where’s her dad, Mrs Kinsey?”

What kind of answer did they expect?

“So,” said Angela, even blunter than she always was. “I take it Mr. Kinsey won’t be coming.”

Drina looked out at the ore trawlers. She didn’t answer. Angela grunted.

“Coward. No good man abandons his child.”

Drina let her shoulders rise, then slowly fall.

“Allison’s a lot.”

Angela tutted.

“My son shoots lightning from his hands. Your husband’s a coward.”

“I know. He told me what he did. To Arnold. To Allison.”

A moment’s quiet.

“Good. I wasn’t going to say. I don’t believe in sharing the worst of people. But at least he had the spine for that much.” 

Drina sighed. “I didn’t even leave a note.”

Angela hummed. “I won’t judge.” She clapped her hands. “Anyway, essentials.” She opened the cooler. It was full of cutlery, bread and spreads. “Who builds a woman a house and doesn’t give her some knives and forks? I made you some—”

“What are they like now?” Drina interrupted. “Our children?”

“…Energetic.” Angela answered. “Every day’s a lesson here. Most of them ones I never thought I’d learn. But now there’s an eleven year old in our spare room who can make people out of paint. It’s not the same. It’s not worse, but…” She looked back toward the town. A few children were already sporting in the airspace about Freedom Point. Maybe one of them was Allison. “No, not the same.”

Drina laughed.

“Ah. Someone gets it. Would you like a coffee?”

Angela tilted back her head, and sniffed.

“I’m fine, thank you. Especially without that swill you’re calling coffee. They get it from the Flying Man’s undersea castle. No, really..”

“Can’t they just go to Perth for some decent beans?”

Angela gave a small smile.

“That’s not how these people think, Mrs. Kinsey. Hard to learn common sense when you can bend the world like they do. These people think in spirals.”

Drina stared into her coffee cup, swirling the dregs around the base.

“That ghostly girl. Miri.”

Angela nodded.

“Ah. So you’ve met her. She’s a good girl. Strange, though.”

“Who is she?” Drina asked. “To my daughter?”

Angela grimaced. “I know it must be hard to fathom, but I think they mean it when they say they’re sisters.”

“But then what am I to her?” 

Angela answered honestly. “Not her mother, if that’s what you’re thinking. She knows that Allison loves you. I don’t think she’s thought much more than that.”

Drina hunched in around her cup. 

“It’s nobody’s fault, Drina. But the kids… they didn’t stop living when we weren’t watching them.”

“I met the Comet last night, Angela.” Drina muttered. “The Crimson Comet. How do you keep a pace with that?”

“You don’t,” Angela said. “You just make sure there’s a place at the table when they come back to you, and let the stories roll over you. Taking in too much of it might drown you.”  

“…Are he and that sharp-dressed man… you know.”

Angela nodded, frowning. “In sin, yes. Look, if you can’t look past some… shortcomings, you won’t have many friends in this town.” Angela pictured an awful little grin resting under two mad green eyes. “And frankly, I think we both have bigger problems.”

Drina raised a quizzical eyebrow.

“We do?” she asked.

Angela folded her arms, her bearing suddenly rigid.

“Did you meet the naked boy? David?”

“Briefly,” Drina replied. “Didn’t stick around for long. Why?”

“He’s after our children,” Angela said flatly. “In the Christian way.”

“…Arnold too?”

“Arnold too. Both of them. At once.” She shook her head. “At least Mr Rivers and his… friend are monog— ” 

That was as far as Angela got before Drina’s coffee jumped out of its cup at her. The pale brown liquid ran down her narrow face. “…Little shit.”

Drina glanced about the place. 

“Don’t bother,” said Angela. “He’s everywhere.”

Something seemed to be sing-songing from inside the bungalow.

“David and Arnold sitting in a tree—”

Angela shouted into the doorway. “I swear to God, boy, I will sew your behind into some trousers!”

“—K.I.S.S.I.N.G~”

Drina found herself laughing. So was the voice in the bungalow. 

Angela turned on the other woman, pointing at her shakily, eyes wild. “You—you don’t know him yet, Drina. That boy will drive you mad.”

“I’m gonna make out with Arnold!” David crowed. 

Angela roared and charged into the hut. “I’m gonna give you such a belting—”

Drina tuned out the noise, her eyes returning to the little shapes cavorting about the skyline, the distant figure of the Comet trying to bring them to order. She could have sworn she saw her daughter at the head.

The girl couldn’t have been older than thirteen. She was fixed to the wall with a leash. The veiled woman barely even glanced at her, simply stepping over her sprawled form towards her captor’s back. 

The woman drove her crowbar into the base of the thug’s skull, her teeth clenched as the force vibrated through half a hand of broken fingers.

“Can’t stop,” she told herself. “You stop. You stay stopped. They have to die. Keep going. Kill them all.”

The girl screamed. The woman was used to that. Couldn’t expect scared people to react well to the madwoman in the shawl muttering to herself. 

The screams rose in pitch as the guard hit the floor and the woman approached her. 

She took a knife from her belt and cut the girl’s leash. The child fell against her, clutching her legs like a fearful supplicant. 

The girl babbled something in what might’ve been Chinese. The woman was a little vague about where they were.

“It’s alright,” she said. “We’re getting you out of here.”

She looked around for a convenient reflection, settling for the room’s hard water stained window:

She took the child by the shoulder.

“Good luck in Catalpa,” she muttered as she pushed the girl through. In her mind’s eye, she saw her fall through a world of ink. All shadow and faded color, the shapes all blending into one another. It gave her a headache. The mirror world had been so sharp back when she could sleep a full night.

She left the knife half buried in the fallen guard’s torso, then let the window swallow her. A hundred smudged and fuzzy doorways opened up around her. She watched in the reflection of the blade as his comrades found his body. Then she caved a face in with her crowbar. She was only in their world for half a second, back in the mirror before he fell. They had their guns out now. She buried her weapon in another man’s eye. Back in the mirror.

It almost felt unfair. Like whack-a-mole. The throb in the woman’s fingers told her differently. 

Don’t give them an inch. 

More dead. More broken, scared people dragged across the nothing between everything. All of them to Catalpa. Eventually, the woman floated alone in the reflective void, heavy breaths wracking her bruised ribs. A million, million eyes flitted about. 

A city of rust. A vampire-pale little girl with burning eyes was dragging an olive skinned lady with the same chestnut hair as hers down the street.

“Come onnn, Mum!” the girl cried. “Mabel and Arnold are gonna be busy!”

The woman closed her eyes. She needed to rest. Inaction was its own pain, but she’d be useless again if she didn’t. 

She staggered out of the mirrors into a dimly lit motel room. She’d crashed here a day or two ago. She collapsed onto the damp smelling bed, the bloodied crowbar still clenched between throbbing fingers.

Still, the woman comforted herself, Allison Kinsey had found her mother.

Therese Fletcher hoped she hadn’t spoiled anyone’s day. 

Allison scowled as she studied the lights of the teenage girl’s mind. No good. It was just like the others. Just like all the mirror people so far. She hadn’t caught sight of her saviour’s face, too well hidden behind that threadbare scarf wrapped around her head. Allison tutted.

“Welcome-to-Catalpa,” she blurted as one word. “Doctor ladyperson’ll look after you.”

Allison made way for a flustered Nurse Pritchard and marched across the infirmary to the Crimson Comet. The superhero was standing at the bedside of a woman with a swollen purple eye, holding her hand.

“Checked everyone out,” reported Allison, not sparing the lady a glance. “Still don’t know who’s dumping them here. Can I go now?”

“Sure, Allie,” Ralph said softly. He looked over at Mrs Kinsey standing in the infirmary doorway and forced a smile. “Sorry for hogging this one, ma’am.” Ralph mussed Allison’s hair before the girl could get out of range. 

Drina looked around the sickbay, at the broken, battered girls and women lying in the open jaws of giant clams. They all were here because of Allison. Allison had saved them. And it barely seemed to phase her. Where was her daughter in all that? 

Allison darted over and took her mother’s hand. “Come on, they’re waiting!”

Mother and daughter made their way through the bright, multicoloured corridors and stairways of Freedom’s Point. People told Drina Kinsey the tower used to be a secret prison. Even more surprising, they also said they hadn’t repainted the place. 

The complex had a healthy bustle going on. Folks taking their lunch in the canteen, or patronizing the library, or waiting to petition the mad scientists in residence. A lot of people liked loitering in the tower purely for the air conditioning.

“Allie—” Drina let out a hoarse laugh. “Slow down.”  

“Sorry Mum!”

Allison was struggling not to break into a run. Her mum was here. And she had a city to show off. It was like when her mother would put her up drawings on the fridge, times a million. 

The entrance foyer of Freedom Point had undergone some changes since being lifted over a thousand feet above ground-level. A landing platform had been bolted to the front doors for Catalpa’s flying residents, and most of the space within was now taken up by a bank of egg-portals, leading to every corner of the town and a few places beyond. 

Brandon Kurtz tipped his bell-boy hat at Allison and Drina in turn. “Kinsey. Kinsey. Where to now?”

Brandon was one of Catalpa’s many human down-and-outs. He’d been an elevator operator at an Adelaide hotel for thirty years until management invested in some buttons, so Mistress Quickly had put him in charge of the central portal-hub.

“Barnes and Henderson, thanks,” answered Allison. 

“On the double.” Kurtz tapped a few buttons on his control panel. An egg-portal to the greenhouses collapsed in on itself, replaced by a domed building built of scrap-metal. A hodge podge of letters taken from a dozen disparate signs and billboards read:

BARNES AND HENDERSON SHIPPING AND PERSONNEL 

Drina’s nose wrinkled. The sight put her in mind of an overgrown lemonade stand or bush hide-out. But then, so did most of Catalpa. 

“What’s wrong, Mum?”

Allison’s mother shook her head. “Nothing, nothing.” She looked at Brandon. “These are safe, right?”

Kurtz nodded solemnly. “Absolutely.”

“…Do you know how they work?” 

“Not my department, ma’am.”

“It’s alright, Mum,” said Allison, beaming up at her mother. “I can fly you down!”

They took the portal.

Allison pulled her mother through the dirt street towards the scrap dome. The woman’s shoulders were tense. This Henderson girl (Mabel?) was a complete mystery to Drina, but that wasn’t the worst of it. 

She remembered Arnold. The rail-thin, shifty-looking boy whose Sunday best was shabbier than her daughter’s play-clothes, yet seemed to occupy most of her world. That slightly pitious kid who made her hide the coin bowl when he slunk into the house. The boy whose eyes harboured a hunger she knew too well from the war. The one who apparently was sharing her daughter with a nudist water-demon… 

Of course, if Drina had asked Allison about that, she might’ve gotten a different answer about who was being shared…

When mother and daughter walked into the dome, a woman was standing in front of the plastic school table that served as a front desk, stooping slightly to lean on a work surface designed for children2. She wore a pair of chrome-clawed metal gauntlets, and a long, high-collared cape made from an old baby-blanket3.

Arnold Barnes was scanning his eyes over an open bank-ledger book. “For what you’re offering, we can spare Dig-Dug-Doug and the Quantum Quintuplets for the afternoon on the fifth.”

Drina thought the boy looked a lot better than she’d last seen him. His figure had gone from borderline emaciated to the natural slenderness of a dancer. And when had he gotten so big

She supposed she could ask the same about Allison.

Miss-Demeanor let out a disdainful scoff. “We’re digging for uranium here! At least throw in Polychroma.”

Arnold folded his arms. “Miss Stephenson4, we have a zero discount policy for dangerous isotopes. Maybe if you set up that air-conditioner in my dad’s workshop…”

The supervillain slammed her fist down on the table. “Don’t ‘Miss Stephenson’ me! What do I look like, a tradie? Give me Polychroma or I’ll—”

Leaning against the back of the dome, Mabel Henderson cleared her throat. There was a thick binder in her lap. “Mrs Stephenson, it sounds awfully like you’re about to threaten my partner.”

Arnold smiled smugly up at Miss Demeanor. “It sounds a bit like that, yeah.”

Miss-Demeanor glared back at the girl. “You’re trying to rip me off!”

Mabel held her binder open to a page from the old Crimson Comet comic. “Do we need to bring in security?”

The supervillain hunched her shoulders and growled in her throat. “I expect your drawings to be at the dig-site noon sharpish.”

Arnold gave a casual, off-hand salute before jotting something down in his ledger. “Our guarantee, ma’am.”

Miss-Demeanor stalked out of the hut. “Allie, Mrs Kinsey,” she said perfunctorily as she walked between Allison and Drina. Allison tilted an imaginary hat.

It was strange, Drina thought, hearing her daughter’s name before her own. 


Arnold noticed the Kinseys first. “Mrs Kinsey!” He beamed and ran out from behind the desk, arms open for a hug, only to stop short of the woman and let them drop to his side.

Oh yeah, Allie’s mum.   

Arnold settled for a simple, “Great to have you here!”

Drina smiled reservedly. “It’s good to see you too, Arnold.”

He was wearing clothes. That seemed like a good sign.

“Thank God you got here when you did,” said Mabel as she walked over to Drina. “Allie was moping for months without you.” The girl held out her hand. “Mabel Henderson, pleased to meetcha.”

“She—she was?” Drina asked as she shook Mabel’s hand.

“Oh yeah,” replied Mabel. “Every time they went to pick people up from Perth, she’d come back all sad and spend all day sulking up in the clouds. And I mean, literally, up in the clouds—”

Allison punched her friend in the arm. “Shut up!”

Mrs Kinsey felt a guilty stab of relief. Allison had missed her. She still needed her.

For nine months. She’d needed her for nine months

“So,” Drina said, looking for a distraction, “what do you kids get up to here?”

Mabel answered first. “I guess I’m a… recruitment specialist?” 

Allison grinned. “Or a slavemaster.”

“Shut up.” Mabel opened her binder and narrowed her eyes slightly. 

Drina Kinsey jumped as a man in sweat-stained singlet with hulking bulldozer troughs for hands burst into existence between her and Mabel.

The new creature rumbled like an earthmover’s engine. “Who dares summon Dig-Dug-Doug?”

Mabel didn’t deign to explain herself to Dig-Dug-Doug, too busy with Mrs Kinsey. “People who need extra-hands come to me, and I whip up characters like Doug to help them out.”

Drina had no response. She just stared wide eyed at Dig-Dug-Doug, face nearly as pale as her daughter’s.

Mabel sighed. Dig-Dug-Doug vanished like a whisper. “Sorry, shoulda warned ya.”

In a small voice, Drina said, “Oh, that’s alright, Mabel.” 

She’d nearly forgotten what these children were.

“That’s Mabel’s side of the business,” said Arnold. “I move stuff for people. Sometimes I send letters out.” He tutted and shook his head. “Lotta people here who still have family out there in the world. The council checks those, though. Don’t want people doing spy stuff.”

“…People do that?”

Arnold shrugged. “Sometimes. Sometimes not even on purpose.”

The operation sounded surprisingly serious to Drina. Half of her was impressed by these two. The other half wondered if the grown-ups ran anything around here. 

A blast of thunder rattled the shop. Shouting peeled off the boom. 

Drina dropped to the floor, dragging Allison down with her. 

“Mum!”

“We’re being bombed.”

Not again, not yet…

Allison shot up out of her mother’s grip, tilted her head, and sighed. “No, we’re not.” She trotted out the door. “I’ll handle it.”

Drina tried to grab her daughter. “Wait, Allie—”

Mabel and Arnold tried to hold the woman back by the arms.

“Don’t—worry—Mrs Kinsey,” Arnold grunted. “Allie can handle—”

“Get off me!” Drina shook the children off her and ran after Allison. 

She pushed her way through the crowd thronging the street. A pillar of flame gusted above their heads. People cheered and whooped, which made Drina shove them harder than she needed to. 

Drina heard her daughter scream. Even as her blood froze at the sound, she saw a burly man hurl into the air.

I am talking!

What the—  

After what felt like hours, Drina had fought her way up the street. Miss-Demeanour and the large man Drina had just seen being tossed like a graduation cap were kneeling in the dirt on either side of Allison. On closer inspection, Drina noticed his hands appeared to be volcanos. 

Allison had an imperious expression on her face. “This is the third time this month you two’ve tried bashing each other in the street.”

The man muttered, “Bloody stupid, letting people like her stay here…”

Miss-Demeanour’s eyes quite literally flashed. She opened her mouth, baleful light escaping from between her teeth, but Allison put a hand on her and the man’s shoulders.

“We are all the same here,” Allison said sternly. She looked down at the man. “Doesn’t matter if you were arch-enemies back in the day: you’re just supers now. Krakatoa, you started it—don’t try and argue. I can read your mind—so you’re going to buy the pint at Libertalia tonight. Got it?”

 Krakatoa didn’t meet Allison’s eyes, but he did say: “Fine.”

Allison turned to Miss-Demeanour. “Miss Stephenson, you’re going to let him buy you that pint. And have lunch.”

The woman nodded. “Yes, Allison.”

The spectators let out a light cheer. Allison noticed her mother watching. “Sorry, Mum. Someone’s gotta keep them from killing each other.”

Drina didn’t say anything.

What was wrong with these people?

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1. The first Minister for Immigration from 1945 to 1949, overseeing the influx of European refugees into Australia after World War 2. Ironically, despite his staunch support for mass migration— having coined the slogan “populate or perish”—Callwell was also firmly committed to the White Australia Policy, overseeing the deportation of Malayan, Indochinese and Chinese wartime refugees, including many who had married Australian citizens in the meantime.

2. One of the many ways in which Mabel Henderson tried to keep her customers off balance.

3. A common coping mechanism among equipment-deprived supervillains.

4. Miss-Demeanor and Armagetcha never bothered making it official.

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