A blaring claxon woke Therese Fletcher in her cell at Freedom’s Point. Calling it a cell might’ve been a touch harsh, if it weren’t literally true.
“You want me to change the wake-up call?” Doc Danny had asked her dutifully the first night. “Pump it up an hour or two? Change it to birdsong or something?”
Therese had shaken her head. “I was a school teacher. Seven o’clock on a Tuesday is complete luxury.”
This was true. Still, she maybe could’ve done with a gentler alarm. But Therese hated
people making a fuss over her. A surprisingly rare trait in her current profession.
About half of Catalpa still slept in the prison cells Doc Danny helped devise. They were private, climate controlled in the heart of the tropics, and now you could even have bedsheets if you wanted. They were home to older teens (at least, those who whined about being put up with the little kids), bachelors, and transients.
Therese was hurtling away from the first category into the second with every passing birthday. As for the third, she still couldn’t decide. She automatically reached down for the makeup compact lying on the floor with her left hand. She was a rightie by nature, but that hand had been a mess of broken bones for weeks. Not that it mattered anymore—a few deeply mysterious injections from Dr. Beak had mended the bones as fast as shallow bruises. Mended a lot of things that’d been steadily killing her, really. His last wonder before Elsa Lieroinen had gone all Ned Ludd on the poor robot. An early Christmas present, Therese supposed. Stolen handfuls of opiates and speed had yet to provide Therese with a stranger high than the simple absence of pain.
She clenched her fingers experimentally, then flexed them.
Fuck, that felt good.
Therese opened the compact. Her large, brown eyes stared blearily out at her from the polished glass. And behind them she knew—felt—was everything and everywhere.
She could go now, she thought. She’d helped Allison and David and the rest. She should go. Lounging around here while people all around the world—
Therese snapped the compact shut. She’d let the Mirror-Queen do her thing for the better part of a year. Some honest to God rest would do them both some good. Therese swung her legs out of bed and staggered over to a donated set of skivvies lying in university student disarray under a pair of well-worn running shoes. Whatever she ended up doing with herself, you had to keep fit.
Slacks on a weekday still felt a touch contrary to Therese. St. Mary’s hadn’t allowed its lady teachers to wear trousers to work. The New Human Institute had no such dress-code, but Therese wasn’t one for needless change. Lately, she’d been more into leggings and cloaks. If there was one thing Therese could say in favour of her recent vocation, it’d given her legs excellent definition.
Therese glanced at the compact resting on her bed, weighing the mental cost of an elevator ride followed by inevitable, mandatory small talk with Kurtz the portal-man, against courting the temptation to dive back into the fight. There was always a fight.
She sighed. Easy choice, really.
Therese Fletcher opened the mirror and rode the light out onto one of Catalpa’s dusty red streets. None of the pedestrians still filtering out of their homes paid her any mind. Women appearing in flashes of light was to be expected in that town. At least she was quiet.
About summed up Therese as a whole, really. She took a deep breath, did some stretches, and set off on her jog. She couldn’t help but watch herself: from the polished spots where the sun struck the buildings, from the faces of wristwatches, from the eyes of passersby. She’d never been an athletic woman. Sometimes just chasing after students at recess left her winded. But her last year’s labours had tempered her stride with a certain steady grace. Her breathing was easy and circular. Therese hoped neither of those were a super-thing. It felt good to have improved by her own action.
After a couple of minutes, Therese became aware of another set of footprints struggling to keep apace with her, probably attached to the set of lungs she heard huffing and puffing.
A young woman just about Therese’s age ran inelegantly alongside her. She wore a somewhat ruffled bright red pencil skirt and short-jacket with scuffed and dusted Mary-Janes. Her blonde hair—much more solidly yellow than Therese’s—was done up in a beehive slowly succumbing to colony collapse syndrome. She was also holding a tape recorder. The woman forced a grin through her exertion.
“Jessica”—a gasp—“Swift. West Australian.”
“Good morning, Miss Switt,” Therese said, eyes fixed on the path ahead.
“Therese Fletcher”—Miss Switt tripped over a rock in the dirt road, only barely keeping her footing—“correct?”
Therese nodded curtly, pointedly not stopping or slowing down.
Jessica smiled knowingly. “The Mirror Mistress?”
A few of the old superheroes that haunted Libertalia had warned Therese there was a reporter in town. The only one who seemed to have anything nice to say about the woman was the Neon Ghost, a journalist himself. Which, to Therese’s estimate, made him about as popular with his peers as a London kid with the surname “Fritz.” That had surprised her slightly. Wasn’t Superman’s girlfriend a reporter?
But then, in the few Lois Lane comics Therese dimly recalled from her adolescence, not even Superman seemed to like her much.
“Mirror-Queen,” she said, almost under her breath.
“Mirror-Queen,” Therese repeated. “I call myself ‘Mirror-Queen’.”
It was a half-truth. Therese had never said the name aloud when she was actually being Mirror-Queen. She’d barely spoken to anyone for months. It was a label purely for her own benefit. A border drawn across the map of her person. Imaginary, maybe, but still there. Still defining something. Besides, there was already a “Mistress” in town.
“I’ll be sure to spread the word!” Jessica Switt had fallen into a decent rhythm by then. Therese supposed a reporter would at least have practise chasing folks. She pressed the red button on her tape-recorder, holding it out towards the other woman. “So,” she said, only wheezing lightly, “you’re probably Australia’s newest superhero.”
“Maybe,” replied Therese. “There isn’t really a census of us.”
“What’s it like? Honest and truly?”
There was genuine curiosity in the reporter’s voice, shining through the hunger. Therese wasn’t surprised. Policemen, firemen, doctors; most folk knew at least one or the other. The books and films made about them were such well crafted frauds, most people treated them as documentaries. Not so much with superheroes. They were where the ordinary intersected with something stranger. Something higher, even.
That’s what Therese had thought before she joined their number, anyway. She’d revised her view somewhat since then. Because she was Therese Fletcher, she now assumed all the other superheroes stood at that intersection. A proper superhero should at a minimum be immune to heavy clubs, Therese reasoned. She just had extra eyes and saved a bunch on petrol.
“I—I wouldn’t know where to start…”
What did this woman want to hear? The human misery she’d waded through? The grubby catharsis when its authors got what was coming to them? The way every blow she took picked at the scab of guilt? The joyless ecstasy of a pitched fight? The way fear and cold adrenaline turned into pure exhilaration not a moment in hindsight?
The moment she realized it felt good? The thrill of taking a bastard twice her size and winning? Of knowing he deserved it? The realization that she wasn’t a right-minded woman anymore? It’d be like trying to explain colour to the blind, if colour were a drug.
Therese picked up her pace, her jog slowly morphing into a run. For now, Jessica Swift kept up. Between gasps, she got out:
“Little Kinsey says you taught at the Institute. I think people would like to know what went on in there?”
The part of Therese that got no vote wanted to smack her out. The part that got to speak stuttered, “I—I’m on my run.”
Jessica’s voice almost ran over Therese’s, “The Neon Ghost’s office, tonight at six, maybe.”
Therese didn’t hear a question mark. “Sure, sure!”
Jessica beamed. “Excellent. See you tonight, then!”
With some mutual relief, Miss Swift let herself fall behind Therese, panting as she clutched her knees.
Therese cursed her delaying tactics. This was why she went on so many dates. But at least schmoozing male teachers would rather talk about themselves than the Institute…
Her route took her through a jungle of kids engaged in some formless game. All Therese could glean was that it involved a lot of running around and squealing. David appeared to be holding court at the centre, children swarming around him like pilot fish around a tiny, laughing shark. Therese slowed, regarding the boy. She remembered Maelstrom. That sweet boy trapped inside the gleaming idol Lawrence had built around him. He’d gotten what he wanted in a way. A new creature, beyond human fear and shame. She doubted he’d be pleased.
A child ran into Therese. She didn’t stumble. Months of literally rolling with the punches taught a woman how to stay on her feet. Her eyes did go wide, though. The boy’s skin was nearly as dark as David’s, but Therese knew exactly where he was from.
“Sorry, ma’am,” the boy said in new, faltering English. “Didn’t mean to hit you.”
“No harm done, son.”
Therese had rescued Hy from a bombing in Vietnam. Therese didn’t always get their names, but she always remembered when she did. She’d carried him through a ball of fire in a broken window. And he didn’t recognise her.
David caught sight of his old teacher, cupping his hands around his mouth and shouting, “Hey Mirror-Queen!”
Therese yelped, taking off again at speed.
Once she was out of sight of the children, Therese decided to stop for a drink. Water-fountains in Catalpa doubled as public art. A spherical glass reservoir above the basin bubbled beneath an oversized metal butterfly. Moisture from the humid air beaded on its refrigerated metal wings1, running down into the crevices where they slotted into the sculpture’s thorax.
Anyone who’s lived through a Australian summer knows how good water can taste, especially at the country’s very tip. As Therese straightened herself, relishing the coolness clinging to her tongue, she heard a woman clearing her throat. She turned to find Drina Kinsey standing behind her, hands clasped in front of her skirt.
Two instincts battle inside Therese. One involved life or death hand-to-hand combat. Another, older one was to freeze like a rabbit in the middle of the road. Thankfully, it was that impulse that won out. After an agonizing second, Therese managed to step to the side. “Fountain’s free!” she exclaimed, a little too brightly.
Drina flashed a bemused smile. “Not thirsty, dear. I wanted to talk to you.”
“Oh. Of course.”
In some way, this was a longed for nightmare. Back at the Institute, Therese never questioned why none of the children’s parents ever wrote or visited. The idea that—statistically—some of them would have tried to be involved hadn’t even occurred to her. Most of her students might as well have come from the cabbage patch or been delivered by storks.
She’d been told recently that Alberto had dug that blindspot. It didn’t make Therese feel any less foolish. She’d often wished for a chance to speak to the Institute’s forgotten mothers and fathers, whilst simultaneously dreading the possibility.
Drina glanced up at the sun. “Actually, I could use a drink. Python’s?”
Therese nodded. “Sure. Do we walk or…”
Mrs Kinsey shrugged. “I’ve walked, I’ve flown, I’ve teleported. Might as well keep filling the bingo-card2.”
“Right.” Therese took the other woman’s hand. “Keep a good grip.”
It didn’t take Therese a moment to find a suitable entrance: namely the glass orb above the fountain. Drina found herself being led through a void of reflective fog like vapourized mercury. Omnipresent light dazzled her eyes, assaulting them with glimpses of places near and far, familiar and strange. Gently swaying fields of sea. Cityscapes collaged in dawn, noon, and dusk. Millions of men and women brushing their teeth in front of many-coloured tiled walls. Drina swore she spotted Jack shaving…
A few steps, and the women were standing in the former Circle’s End canteen. A new sign hung above the serving window, two black-headed serpents tangled into an ouroboros above the legend:
“How was it?” Therese asked half-apologetically. “It’s a bit different for everyone.”
Drina scrunched her features as she tried to find the most honest words. “…A lot smoother than some,” she said, finally. “Bit… troubling, though.”
“Sounds about right.”
Two fresh coffees were already steaming on a picnic cloth draped metal bench. A middle-aged lady in the kitchen called out, “Skinny flat-white extra shot and a latte for Fletcher and Kinsey?”
“Exactly right, Sam,” replied Therese.
“Don’t have to tell me, dear.”
Sam Sybil had commandeered the canteen early on. According to the ex-superhero, she was an “oracle in reverse” able to send herself messages backwards in time. Catalpa’s more probing minds balked at the implications of that, but most of her citizens were content to enjoy the best table-service in the known universe.
“What did you teach at the Institute?”
She asked the question like the Institute was merely a boarding school, and not… what it was. Like the teaching was the point, and not just something to occupy the children while they ripened. Didn’t she know? It’d been plastered all over the papers for months. Lurid speculation that was somehow wilder and more tame than anything from Lawrence’s imagination. Deniable allusions to orgies and satanic or pagan rituals. Shockingly few words for the children themselves, except perhaps what horrors they might have spawned if left to it. Like it was their idea…
“It was all a bit hodge-podge, but science, mostly,” said Therese. She smiled sadly. “I felt a bit like Columbus trying to tell the Gatehouse the Earth was flat3. Every time I tried to tell them how the world worked, they kept proving me wrong.”
“I don’t think superpowers count.”
“Of course they ‘count’! They work, don’t they—” Therese bit her lip. “I’m talking like Lawrence…”
“I wouldn’t know,” said Drina. “Never met the man.”
“He was— ” Therese struggled for an explanation. “…He made sense when you were listening to him. They say a lot of that was just mind control but the thing is—a lot of what he said—I think a lot of it did make sense.” She sighed. “And I don’t think I’ll ever be sure which is which.”
“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being curious about that kind of thing,” said Drina. “God knows I’ve been asking myself a lot of questions about my Allie’s… knacks.” Laughter pulled at the woman’s shoulders. She shook her head at some inner folly. “God, I’m doing it again. Powers. My daughter has powers.”
“You didn’t know before?”
“It was easier not to know back when she didn’t have hundreds of superpowers to choose from,” Drina explained. “Even the… knowing I guess you could call it, I just thought she was smart. It’s a nice thought. That something inside you could turn out so special.” She sipped her coffee. “Would’ve had to be from her father, though. He’s the bright one. I didn’t even finish school.”
Ever conciliatory, Therese said, “Plenty of people don’t finish high school. Nothing to be ashamed of.”
Drina laughed. “High school? Try primary.”
“It was the war. And my family was never very… settled. They tried to catch me up when I got over here, but they put me in the same room with all the little ones. I thought I was too good for that, so I left. They didn’t try too hard to keep me. I picked up enough to get by, but sometimes—” Drina shook her head. “It would be nice to know things.”
“Maybe she did get it from you,” suggested Therese. “Self-taught and all.”
Drina smiled. “You’re very kind, Miss Fletcher.” She looked down at the white swirls in her coffee. She wondered where they got milk around here4. “…What was she like there?”
Therese needed no clarification. She suddenly felt like a water-bearer in the Saharra. She wished she had more to give. “I didn’t have her in class long. Poor thing was bored to tears. Lawrence decided to have her shadow Mael—David’s father. He had trouble… touching things.”
Drina frowned, looking pensively at a spot in front of her nose and humming.
Wait, Therese thought. That’s what’s bothering her?
Still, the poor woman deserved more.
“Don’t get me wrong,” said Therese, “I saw a lot of your daughter. She has a very… you know cats?”
Drina raised an eyebrow. “Dimly familiar.”
“They’re very… proud. Graceful. Strong, for their size. Everything they do is so beautiful and self-assured. But they’re also…” Therese kneaded the air in front of her with her hands, searching for the word.
Drina finished the sentence. “…Idiots.”
Therese’s face went red. “I didn’t mean it like that—”
“No! You’ve hit it right on the head! They’re always running into things, they’re surprised by their own bloody tails. They think you’re scared of them. Just like Allison.” Drina laughed. “God help her. You know, if she was just a little girl, I could cope. If she were a little grown-up… well, I’d feel even more useless, but at least she’d be alright.” She threw her hands up. “But no, she’s… Allison. Girl can’t decide if she’s sixty or six. Frees her people, builds them a city, won’t wear a bathing suit.”
Drina exhaled deeply, head tilted towards the canteen ceiling, smiling. It was good to name the beast. Then she looked back at Therese. “…Anyway, I wanted to ask, would you consider teaching again? Here in Catalpa?”
Therese blinked. “You want me?”
“Don’t see anyone else around here with a teaching certificate.”
Talking with Therese Fletcher was a little like being telepathic sometimes. “That’s not what I meant, Therese,” said Drina. “You’ve got experience. Experience with super-kids. You are a super. You know a fair few of the children here. Who else is more qualified?”
Therese shook her head. “I’m really not, Mrs Kinsey.”
Drina reached across the bench, laying a hand on Therese’s arm. “You can’t blame yourself for what happened. Alie told me, well, that man told me himself—”
Therese looked at Drina. “Wha—oh, that. It isn’t about the Institute. I’ve always been a rubbish teacher.” She actually smiled. “Complete pushover!”
“…Aren’t you a superhero?”
Therese laid her hands flat on the table, eyes fixed down on the polka-dotted fabric. “There’s more than one kind of superhero, Mrs Kinsey. My sort—I’m not the fun kind. The Flying Man, Crimson Comet type. Bouncing kids on their biceps and pulling zoo animals out of fires. Being the Mirror-Queen is all hot blood and crunching bone. Shadows and hands over screaming mouths. It’s not the kind of thing you ought let bleed into your real life. I won’t let it. Not into a classroom. You need someone who can be strong without being cruel.”
“You don’t strike me as cruel, Miss Fletcher.”
“Not here, I’m not. Don’t have the guts. I’d say just the opposite if I was Mirror Queen right now. She can’t afford to be Miss Fletcher, and Miss Fletcher can’t afford to be Mirror Queen. You understand?”
“No,” admitted Drina. “Not really.”
“That’s alright. Not even most super-people would.”
“We still need a school,” said Drina. “I don’t know what this place will grow up to be yet. Probably something good. But the kids need to have something else, too. They can’t all be superheroes. They shouldn’t need to rely on what they are. Allison has, I think. Since birth. And God love her—maybe too much—but I don’t think it’s doing her any favours.”
“I didn’t do her any favours either,” said Therese. “You’ll find someone. Someone better.”
The two women sat in companionable silence for a minute. Therese considered ordering another coffee. Sam Sybil brought them another round before she could even open her mouth.
“Drina,” Therese said, “are you really not angry with me? For letting things go on as long as they did?”
Drina smiled tiredly. “Therese, if I was telling anyone off for leaving things too late, I’d have to start with myself.”
1. Originally the reservoir rested on top of the condenser array, but this was altered after the sun kept setting things on fire through the curved glass. ↩
2. This was literal. After filling out “the space between spaces” with Therese, all Drina Kinsey needed was “spaceship” to earn a free serve of chips at Python’s. ↩
3. Christopher Columbus, like practically everyone else in his day, knew perfectly well the Earth was round, though he did in fact underestimate its size by about twenty-five percent. ↩
4. Something the Physician called a mechanical cow, at least until the Catalpans rustled some more wholesome cattle. ↩