Maude Simmons never expected to wind up the sort of supervillain who kept little girls in jars.
“…Cell division meeting projections, hormone levels appropriate”—Maude looked up from her notepad and squinted—“Hair still the right shade of blonde.” The super-scientist rapped her knuckles against the growth-tank’s viewing window. “How we doing in there, honey?”
The little girl floating curled in the amniotic cradle didn’t answer. Good thing, too. If she had, there would have been all kinds of ethical headaches. Six months slaving over petri-dishes, wasted.
Maude sighed and set her notes down on one of the lab consoles. Everything was nearly ready. Soon, it’d be time to disconnect the umbilicus, flush the glass womb, and—
Maude didn’t even want to think about it. Growing a body for Miri was easy. Maude was no stranger to cloning and biological fabrication, as her current left hand and right kidney could attest. Maybe blending Allison’s Kinsey’s DNA with the product of a ten thousand year space eugenics project1 was more complicated than growing one of her own organs in a pig. Maybe Maude had had to sell some of Catalpa’s more interesting genomes to her biologist friend with the thing for kids in jars. Maybe Maude now had more dead fetuses on her conscience than an East-End coat-hanger. Point was, none of this was virgin territory for her.
Getting Miri into the body, that was where the map stopped. And the only people remotely qualified to talk it over with her were either fashion designers or under twelve.
As for folks who weren’t qualified, well, Libertalia was open all day.
Maude took the elevator up from her lab at the bottom of the tower. Freedom Point was something of a reversal of most modern high-rises. Everything important was tucked away down in the ground floor. That wouldn’t have been an issue if the front door wasn’t located at the top storey.
Mistress Quickly stepped out into one of the complex’s many pastel and dayglo hallways2. She didn’t make it two steps before a vertical sheet of water dropped on top of her.
The super-scientist sighed as water sizzled into steam against the green chroma key outline surrounding her body. She reached into a blazer pocket and said:
Maude pressed the switch on her cylindrical Certainty Enforcer as it landed in her hand. Some of the billowing steam coalesced mid-air into David Barthe’s naked form.
The boy tumbled to the floor at Maude’s feet. She put her hands on her hips and frowned down at the water-sprite. “Come on, David, you can do better than that.”
David didn’t look up at Maude, instead giggling into the carpet.
Silver flashed in the corner of Maude’s eye. The hall was blocked by a bank of silver mist.
She tilted her head. “Billy?”
The mist evaporated, revealing a quivering membrane of green slime.
Behind it, William St. George roared.
The membrane exploded violently, drenching everything in the corridor with goo
Maude yelled as the stuff baked against her shield, barely managing to scrape enough from her eyes to avoid being blinded with green.
Billy stood proudly in front of the mess he created. His costume was a photonegative of itself, all blacks and purples. His usual domino mask now had bat wings, and—most shockingly of all—his shirt wasn’t tucked in.
Billy grinned his fangs and pointed at Maude. “You have been pranked by…”
David, unsurprisingly unconcerned by the goo coating him, jumped to his feet and misted over to Billy’s side. “…Tiger-Rebel!”
The boys took off running down the hall, laughing like devils.
Maude turned off her protective aura, shedding the dried slime like a crust of green dandruff.
“Okay,” she said to herself. “That was alright.”
Up in Freedom’s Point library—greatly expanded using the Flying Man’s book collection at Lyonesse—Tom Long sat in his usual private corner. Today he was reading Lord of the Flies, having lived through the premise once or twice.
Tom wrinkled his nose at a particular paragraph:
“Ralph did a surface dive and swam under water with his eyes open; the sandy edge of the pool loomed up like a hillside. He turned over, holding his nose, and a golden light danced and shattered just over his face. Piggy was looking determined and began to take off his shorts. Presently he was palely and fatly naked.”
He reminded himself never to let William Golding near David. He’d probably write half a page about his boxer’s shoulders or whatever. Also, what the hell did fat kids do to this guy?
Something struck him in the back of the head; far from hard enough to hurt, but hard enough to make him twist around in his seat and shout, “Oi!”
Nobody was there. Other scattered readers loudly shushed him.
“…Sorry,” Tom muttered, warily settling back into his chair.
He managed to get a few more lines in before fog started seeping out from under a reading table.
Tom rolled his eyes. “David, Allie’s just gonna just make you dry out the books again.”
There was a crystalline chuckle. Two books shot out from the mist and hurtled towards Tom’s head. The pair of them swooped erratically at his head like disabled magpies.
Tom swiped at them like flies, shouting, “What the fuck?”
More shushing. Someone cried, “Language!”
“Oh, come on!” Tom yelled back. “I’m being pecked at by books!”
The fog rushed out from under the table, swirling into the air and forming a halo around Tom’s head. A ghostly voice moaned in his ears:
“Your snobbing has caught up to you, Tom Long!”
Tom turned intangible, letting the books pass through his wireframe body. “Snobbing? You mean snobbery, right?”
The ice was silent for a moment.
Tom glanced at one of his assailant’s titles:
Five on a Secret Trail
Tom’s flesh filled his outline again. His eyes glowed white. The corner of his lip curled quizzically.
Tom watched as Billy’s outline silently yelped and made a run for the library entrance, the fog following him like a ribbon blowing in the wind.
Tom thought about following his young friend. Asking what had gotten into him. Or just giving his ear a good twist. He sighed and sat back down, opening his book again. Maybe Billy needed to be proper stupid for a bit.
Besides, he wanted to get to the part where the rich white boys started killing each other for no reason. Sounded like a battle royale of Lawrences.
Billy and David burst into Freedom Point’s lobby, an imagined angry mob hot on their heels.
David pointed at Brandon Kurtz. “Open a portal to the beach, old man!”
Billy added, “Or else!”
Kurtz looked down at his console, one eyebrow raised. Only an hour before he’d witnessed “Tiger-Rebel” riding into the lobby on a flying ice-disk, promising doom to everyone in the tower. “Oh, are you sure I should?”
“We mean it!” insisted Billy. “Do it! Or we’ll… bite you!”
David bared his perfect teeth.
Brandon threw his hands up. “Alright, alright, just spare me, you villainous fiends!”
He put in the usual button combo for David’s preferred cove.
The boys both leapt through the egg-portal as though it was mere moments from collapsing.
A second later, Billy stuck his head back through. “Tell no one where we went!”
Kurtz suppressed a chuckle. “My hand to God, Tiger-Rebel.”
Satisfied with their reign of terror, David and Billy spent a companionable hour body-surfing and building the biggest sandcastles they could muster.
Billy roared at their latest creation, blasting the fortress across the beach.
David clapped. “Bravo!”
Billy roared again at the sky, sending a crest of clouds fleeing like startled sheep.
For a few moments, the boys just stood enjoying the sea-breeze and the tide washing in and out around their feet. David stirred circles in the foam with his toe. “Not that I care,” he said to Billy, “but why are you being so cool today?”
Billy frowned. “I’m always cool…”
David let out one of his musical laughs. “No you’re not! You’re cute!”
Billy balled his fists and snarled, “Am not!”
David danced around his friend, stomping in the water and chanting, “Cute and soft and cuddly—“
Billy growled out the corner of his mouth, sending David hurtling out to sea. He landed with a splash, surfacing laughing on his back.
When he looked back at the shore, though, Billy wasn’t laughing. He was baring his fangs in an ugly scowl:
“I’m sick of being cute! Cute’s just another word for dumb and stupid!”
An arc of water formed between Billy and David, the latter riding it over to his friend’s side.
“No it’s not!” David insisted as he splashed down. “It just means you’re fuzzy and made of hugs! And you have a tail!”
Billy kicked the water. “What’s any of that gotten me? You guys aren’t all nice all the time, and you’ve got your grandpa, Arn’s got his mum and dad, and Allie just got her mum!”
David titled his head. “…You miss your parents? Why?”
Billy looked at David like he’d asked if he missed having his tail broken. He shook his head. “Why would I want them back? They don’t give a crap about me.”
David had to suppress a smile. It was the first time he’d ever heard Billy swear.
“I want Betty…”
It took David a second to remember who Billy was talking about.
“Oh, your nanny? Yeah, she seemed nice.”
“Nice? She was more my mum than my mum!” Billy’s tail swished angrily behind him. “Why isn’t she here? I thought she loved me!”
David wrapped an arm around Billy’s shoulder. “Can’t say I know, buddy. Could be anything. Humans are stupid and weird. They have jobs and houses and clothes and stuff to worry about.” He gestured about at the cove. “Plus, we’re not exactly on the map. She might not even know you’re here.” An idea occurred to him. “Maybe you could ask Allie to let you do one of those TV things? Hell, maybe you could get Tom or anyone else with folks out there in on it.”
“…That’s a good idea.”
David polished his knuckles against his chest. “Duh. I’m me.”
Billy stared down at the churning green water. “What if she doesn’t come, though?”
David quirked his shoulders. “Just means she’s silly. Nothing about you.”
There was a familiar chorus of thunder-cracks.
Allison’s voice called out over the water, “Hey Billy, hey David!”
Billy looked at the shore. Allison, Arnold, and Mabel were standing on the sand with Mrs Kinsey.
Billy yelped and quickly uttered, “Costume on!” his super-suit appearing in its old-time bathing suit pattern, its colours his usual blue and white.
David did… not do that, instead wading out of the surf, pulling Billy along by the hand. It was nothing Drina hadn’t seen.
David strode up to Allison’s mother and took her hand, kissing it softly. He smiled up at her. “Enchante, Mrs Kinsey.”
Drina blushed. “It’s David, no?”
David bowed with a flourish, “Yes ma’am, David Barthe, at your service.”
Allison and Mabel both rolled their eyes.
“Ignore him, Mum,” said Allison. “He gets stupid like this sometimes.”
Drina Kinsey laughed. “I don’t know, love. I like a polite boy.”
That made Arnold snort.
Billy barged into the gathering and offered his hand to Drina. “Billy St. George, pleased to meetcha!”
“Oh,” said Drina. “Hello.”
She slowly, painfully reached out to take Billy’s hand, seeming to hesitate around his claws.
Billy made the last move, grabbing Mrs Kinsey’s hand. She felt her flinch.
“Billy!” cried Allison
“Sorry! Sorry!” he repeated, released Drina’s hand.
“No, no,” said Allison’s mother. “It’s fine, Billy, really. Just never shook a hand with fur before, that’s all.”
“Hey, Mrs Kinsey,” said David. “Wanna see something neat?”
Drina smiled. “Sure, why not?”
David pointed out to sea. At his silent command, paired dolphins made of water leapt from the ocean, chittering like glass chimes and glinting in the afternoon sun.
Drina clapped. “Encore!”
David bowed again. “I’m open to requests.”
Billy watched frowning as everyone shouted subjects for David to sculpt. It felt backwards. Since when was he better at making people like him? He didn’t even wear pants.
Quietly, Billy moved into the bush that backed the beach.
“…Alright,” said Drina, “how about a mermaid this time?” She looked at her daughter. “You like mermaids, don’t you, Allie?”
Allison hunched her shoulders and looked down, hiding a smile. “Mermaids are for babies…”
David twirled on his heels. “I beg to differ.”
Everyone turned in the direction of Billy’s echo. The boy was standing at the edge of one of the short cliffs that cradled the cove.
“Who wants to see me do a dive bomb?”
Mabel cupped her hands around her mouth and shouted, “Don’t be an idiot! Do you even know how deep the water is?”
“I do,” said David. He started pumping his fists in the air. “Jump! Jump! Jum—”
Mabel clapped her hand over David’s mouth.
Drina called, “Honey, please come down. You’re very high up!”
Billy peered over the precipice. Drina was right, he was very high up. But he couldn’t see any rocks sticking out of the water. David said it was okay. Well, not exactly, but he had implied it.
Billy took a deep breath and ran for the edge:
One step stone, the next air. For half a moment, Billy kicked at nothing, before gravity started grabbing at his heels—
Allison flew sideways past Billy, pulling him into her arms and making a u-turn back towards the beach.
Allison dropped Billy rough back onto the sand. “You idiot!” She pointed at David. “At least he can just make a new body!”
Drina fell upon Billy instantly. “Are you hurt?” she asked, frantically fussing over Billy in case he bruised himself against the air. She looked about at the other children. “How far are we from town?”
“About… ten miles?” replied David.
The answer made Drina gawp. “They just let you wander out into the bush? Without any grown ups watching you?”
“You’re watching us,” pointed out Billy.
“I don’t count!”
For half an hour Drina fawned over Billy, keeping him close lest he wander off a cliff again. She asked a lot of questions about what took up the children’s days in Catalpa. The answers didn’t seem to please her.
At one point, Billy transmuted some air into a molecularly seamless ruby and silver rose.
“Oh, Billy,” said Drina, admiring the sculpture. “It’s beautiful.”
Billy grinned. “Thank you, ma’am.”
When Drina was distracted asking about where exactly her daughter slept before she arrived, David sat down beside Billy.
“Nice move,” he commented.
“The rose?” asked Billy. “It was nothing.”
“That was pretty good,” said David. “But I was talking about the stunt on the cliff. Played Mrs Kinsey like a violin.”
Billy blushed under his fur. “That’s not what I was doing.”
David didn’t bother arguing the point. “You know, Billy” he said, “You and me, we could run this town.”
Billy thought the idea over.
“…You think so?”
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1. Specifically a parallel universe Princess Tilaearys, who in our reality is currently the reigning Empress of the Southern Spiral, and technical legal owner of Earth. ↩
2. Maude found the interior decor of Freedom’s Point much more explicable once Star Trek premiered the month before. ↩