Drina Kinsey and Chen Liu ate cold chicken rolls on the beach, watching the children play in the water.
“There’s something I don’t quite understand,” said Drina between bites. “You talk as though you chose to work for these people yourself. But also some witch trapped you with a cursed tattoo?”
“Both,” said Chen. “I found them. Asked if they had any work. They were so happy to have me, they threw a party! Got me drunk as a skunk, then Jonna asked if I wanted a tat. Nobody would think of messing with me if they knew who I was running with!” He smiled darkly at his own folly. “Seemed like a banger of an idea at the time.” Chen took a bite of his roll, resisting the urge to spit out a sesame seed in front of a lady. “I think she had to get me to say yes. Magic likes it when you agree to shit you shouldn’t. Like the rules of the world were drawn up by lawyers.”
Drina nodded. “I can see that. That Elsa woman tried to trade for the body.” She looked out past the shore. Miri’s image sported and twirled above the waves, seaspray passing through her like rain through fog.
“Should’ve taken her up on it, for all the good it did…”
Chen shook his head. “Nah, you did the right thing. Those deals always come with nasty catches.”
Drina smiled sadly. “Guess the fairy tales are there for a reason.”
“The tattoo doesn’t make you do anything, though,” said Chen. “They’re more like those tags they put on bears. Or shock collars. No, the Fox was in charge of that.”
Drina had a dim mental image of a scowling man in an all orange zoot-suit. Or maybe a character from Pinocchio. “The Fox?”
“The leader. He’s like one of those stage hypnotists, except his shit works. Worst thing was, sometimes you don’t even remember he’s worked you over. Once, they were chewing out some other idiot they got working for them in front of me, the Fox said something about lemon pie and I…” The words caught in Chen’s mouth.
Drina put a hand on his shoulder. Her face told Chen he didn’t need to say it.
“They had a good laugh at that. Except the Fox. He never laughs. Not on the outside, at least.” Chen folded his arms over his knees. “Your daughter scrubbed the Fox out of my brain the hour I got here. Wouldn’t risk having me around otherwise. But I keep wondering, did she miss something? How deep could he go?” Chen looked out to sea. “Is this another trick?
“Oh, Mr. Liu,” said Drina. “I’m sorry.”
“I wanted to join them. Play stupid games…”
“Everyone makes mistakes. Nobody deserves that.”
“My mistake was cruel. There’s a difference there.”
Drina shrugged. “Maybe. Sometimes it can be hard to tell which is which. You could always warn people. It’d make recruiting harder, wouldn’t it?”
Out on the water, Allison and David were facing down each other on ice drift. From where Drina and Chen were sitting, they could’ve been dancers in a music box, carved from ivory and sun-baked clay. Even at that distance, Chen could tell they were about to spring at each other like alley cats.
Chen smiled. “So, which one are you rooting for?”
Drina cocked her head. “I suppose I have to say Allie, don’t I?”
Chen rubbed his hands together. “If you say so, ma’am.”
On the ice, David flexed his fingers at his waist like a gunslinger itching to draw. Draw what was something of a mystery, but still. Allison grinned at him:
“Make your move, coward!”
David roared and leapt at the girl—
A gold thread snaked through the air, wrapped itself around David’s ankles and started reeling him into shore. His teeth chattered as his chin juddered against the surf, then scraped on sand. The snare tightened vertically, pulling the boy screaming up into the air.
Chen furiously turned the handle of a golden fishing reel, inexpertly recreating the winding sound with his mouth. Drina was on her back with laughter.
“We got ourselves a big one today!” Chen cried. “Used to use this trick on your ma, you know.”
David flopped and flailed, thrashing his bound legs like a mer-child’s tail, too blinded with fury to do anything so simple as reduce himself to mist. “Let me go!”
Chen jeered, “Come on, at least stick around for the papers. This has to be a record!”
David kicked at nothing, the momentum of his struggles sending him spinning. “You friggin gold… bastard!”
Allison zoomed over the adults, snatching David and dragging him into the sky, back into their melee:
“You’re daughter’s a real firecracker, Mrs Kinsey,” said Chen.
Drina smiled. “Sure is.” Her expression wearied. “God, it’s going to be way less charming when she hits her teens…”
“Give her time,” said Chen.
He watched the pair fight above them. David had merged with heavy grey clouds, swinging mountainous, fleecy fists at a weaving and swooping Allison. How did something grown in Lawrence’s hothouse turn out like that? The old man talked a lot about how different the coming race would be, but Chen doubted he meant David. Was his mother’s blood so strong?
Mabel walked out of the ocean towards the picnic blanket. Unlike her friends, she’d shaped her life-fibre costume into a bathing suit. With the comic panels, it looked like Andy Warhol had gone into children’s swimwear. “See, there’s hope for Allison yet!” Chen wanted to tell Drina.
“Hey kid,” Chen said. He pointed up at the warring children. “You’ve known David a while, right?”
“Since forever,” said Mabel, bending over to fish a Coke out of the cooler box. “Why?”
“Was he always so… him?”
Mabel laughed. “God no. He used to be… look, David was always great, but he used to be a great wimp. I think his granddad scrambled his brains.”
“His grand—” Chen blinked, then glanced about nervously. “Shit, Fran’s dad’s around?”
“I guess he’s everywhere, isn’t he?”
“Oh,” said Drina. “David has family? I wouldn’t mind speaking to him—”
Chen shook his head at the woman.
“But yeah,” said Mabel. “This David’s new.” She tilted her head, dusty memories wiggling free inside her. “Well, I guess not that new. More like he was when I first met him?”
Mabel snickered. “Yeah. I remember once, Laurie was trying to pull a t-shirt over his head, and the river just kinda snuck up behind him and body-slammed him. Like a wrestler. Only people David listened to were Mels and Żywie. Sometimes.” Mabel sighed. “Didn’t last. David likes people liking him. Laurie knew that. Maybe he was the one who scrambled his brains.”
“Yeah, that sounds like him,” grunted Chen. “Manipulative bloody wanker…”
Part of him wondered if he could’ve kept that David alive. If he’d stayed. But then, if he’d stayed, David would’ve been his son. He remembered that boy at the circus. What was his life like? Was it any better?
Chen looked where Arnold Barnes was putting the finishing touches on a sandcastle, Billy St. George crouching next to them. They looked like a Victorian painting. He walked over to the pair, his boots leaving deep prints in the wet sand. “You know, I could turn that castle into gold for you two. You could take it home with you.”
“Oh?” said Billy. He grinned. “So can I!”
Arnold smiled, not looking up at the man. “Or platinum, or silver, or diamond…”
Chen laughed. “Damn. I’m obsolete.”
Billy’s eyes widened. “Don’t say that…” His voice quavered slightly.
Chen grinned. “It’s alright, kid. Arn’s right.” He ran a hand along his arm. “See. I bet I won’t last the winter.”
The boys laughed. Chen sat down next to Arnold. “You know, kid, I should’ve said this the second I got here, but I’m sorry—-”
Arnold frowned. “Nope!”
“Not talking about it.”
“I’m not having a stupid grown-up talk without pants on just to make you feel better.”
“If this is about Canberra, it was Lawrence’s—”
“It’s not about Canberra, arsehole.”
Billy gasped at the language, putting his clawed hand over his mouth.
“You threatened my mum.”
Chen stopped mid sentence.
“So,” Arnold asked. “Wanna unpack that?”
“… Sorry,” Chen muttered, backing off.
“Seriously, is saying sorry like, your hobby?” asked Arnold.
Chen stopped and sighed. “Seems like it. Practise isn’t making perfect, though.” He dug his hand into the sand, pulling up a handful. He grasped at it with his power. At first it was like trying to grip a wet bar of soap. But then Chen found purchase. Water and silica adapted to his will. Dark brown became bright yellow.
Chen blew the gold dust out of his palm. It hung in the air like a swarm of fireflies, before settling all over sandcastle. The whole creation glimmered in the sun.
The boys oohed.
“Neat, huh?” said Chen.
“Wait!” said Billy. “I wanna try something.”
A storm of mercury smoked between Billy’s hands. It fell over the sandcastle. Billy worked the air like a sculptor, tongue curled in concentration under one of his fangs. The mist evaporated. The castle was now cast in blood red glass. Arnold and Chen clapped at the sight. Billy stood and bowed modestly.
“It’s called cranberry glass,” he said. “You make it by adding gold to, well, glass.”
“Hah! Not even the best gold guy anymore,” said Chen.
Arnold looked out at the water. “Hey, Billy. Wanna air-drop?”
Billy threw his arms up. “Heck yeah!”
Arnold’s skin became phosphorescent. Lime lightning lashed at the tiger-boy. Billy screamed in delight as he appeared ten feet in the air above the ocean, tucking his arms and legs in as he landed with a splash. He surfaced, waving.
Chen and Arnold waved back from the shore.
“Did he give a speech?” Chen asked. He didn’t have to say who.
“Yeah,” said Arnold. “Don’t remember what he said really. I remember the scream, though.”He risked a guilty smile, hoping God and his mum weren’t looking. “Like a girl. Not an Allison kinda girl, either.”
That would probably haunt Arnold when he was old enough to have a working soul. Still, why spoil it for him now?
Miri appeared next to Chen. “Is your dad gold?”
Chen jumped. “Jesus!—I—what?”
No matter where Chen looked, Miri stayed in the centre of his vision, like she was stamped on his eyeball. “Is your dad gold?” repeated Miri. “You know, like how David’s granddad is water?”
“Oh. No. My dad was just a bloke.” Hastily, Chen added, “Is a bloke.”
Chen wished he hadn’t used the past tense. He hadn’t seen either of his parents in over three years. Not since Lawrence sicced the freak-finders on him. The closest thing to contact he’d had was checking their local paper’s obituary section.
Oh, God, Chen realized. They must’ve read about me.
He wondered, did people know who Mr. and Mrs Liu’s eldest son had become?
“So, you can’t turn into gold?”
“…No. No I don’t.” Chen tried to imagine that. Somehow, he doubted it’d be as fun as Fran and David made turning into water look. “Kinda glad, honestly. Old Laurie probably would’ve named me ‘Oscar’.”
Arnold and Miri both looked at Chen blankly.
“Come on, that was great.”
“Okay,” said Miri. She was watching Allison and David crash into the sand, limbs tangling. Touching.
Chen wasn’t completely clear on what Miri was, exactly. Back when he was playing Holy Ghost with Therese in the mirror-void, he’d vaguely assumed she was some exotic and detailed delusion of Allison’s they were going to foist onto the empty little girl Mistress Quickly was growing. But delusion or not, she was clearly real enough to want. Real enough to give up that want for a complete stranger.
“Hey, Miri,” said Chen. “Want to play a game?”
Miri looked away from her sister. Her expression brightened a touch. “Sure! What sort of game?”
Billy was wading out of the water, shaking his fur dry.
“Oi, Billy!” Chen called. “Mind making us some gold?”
“Sure thing Mr. Liu. How much?”
Chen glanced at Miri. “Mhmm. Seventy stone maybe? Twenty-four karat.”
Billy produced the material without question. It occurred to Chen that a canny supervillain could probably crash the world economy just by asking him nicely. In half a minute, there was a heap of perfect gold spheres between Miri and Chen, like the world’s most useless pinballs.
Miri tilted her head. “Is this the game? I don’t think it works with people who aren’t you. Or you and Allie, I guess, but only if you’re in the same place.”
Chen smiled. “Hold ya horses, I’m working.”
The gold melted together without any heat, rising and reshaping into a solid, aureate double of Miri. Or a shorter Allison, depending how you looked at it. After regarding her for a moment, Miri took a step towards her twin. The statue matched it. Miri flinched backwards, her double arching away from her in time. Miri looked behind her copy. Unlike her, this Miri left footprints. She looked at Chen.
Miri locked eyes with the gold golem. They shared a grin.
Miri swept her foot in front of her. The double matched the motion, but she sent up a curtain of sand. Miri laughed and ran for the water, the golden girl following at side, her metallic substance flowing as readily as flesh. They stomped and splashed in synch. Impact and echo, reversed.
Drina moved to Chen’s side.
“Shame she can’t feel it,” he said.
“I don’t think she cares right now.”
David strolled up to the two Miris atop the water. “What’s going on here?”
Miri swung around to face the boy and punched him in the belly. Her first passed through his navel.
David looked down at himself and grinned at her. “That only works if you’re Tom, Miri.”
Miri’s statue was frozen mid-punch. The real, if less substantial girl looked at Chen and huffed.
Chen blinked and glanced at Drina.
“Little demons,” she said fondly, “all of them.’
Therese Fletcher’s walked along the Bunda Cliffs, the Nullarbor Plain stretching brown and flat towards the horizon off her right, the Great Southern Sea flaming with the sunset on her left. When Therese had been marginally more ignorant, she’d assumed Nullarbor was an Aboriginal name. It sounded like one. But it was actually almost childishly simple Latin. “No trees,” because there weren’t any here. The soil was rough and shallow, mostly calcium from seashells. Try growing a forest from a boneyard sometime.
A sun glint off a wave whisked Therese across the ocean to a confectured main street in a California amusement park. It was about fifty years out of date, a recreation of one man’s nostalgia in pastel Americana. A castle loomed at the end of the street, enlarged by forced perspective. As Therese strolled past false storefronts, a barbershop quartet rode past on her on a bicycle built for four:
“When you wish upon a star, makes no difference who you are…”
Therese had chatted with one of the singers on their lunch break once, down in the utility corridors that ran beneath the park like an ant-colony. He said the quartet actually had twelve members, plus the odd understudy. Nobody ever noticed the switches. They only saw the costume.
A window took Therese to the very edge of her reach. She strolled down a path run through with ribbons of moonstone and turquoise, past folks dressed in solid, unbroken primary colours cut into unfamiliar fashions. A child or two pointed at her strange, mixed-up clothing, asking their parents what caste she belonged to. The Earth shone above them through layers of artificial atmosphere.
Therese glanced at her watch and sighed. Ten to six. She’d promised Miss Switt that interview…
Therese appeared across the street from the home and office of the Neon Ghost, the yet unborn Catalpa Messenger. Chen Liu was milling about in front of the door.
“Evening,” Therese called.
Chen startled. “They should put a bell on you.”
Therese walked to his side. “I’m sure a lot of people have said that about me lately. What are you doing here?” She pointed at the newspaper’s sign. “I don’t think they’re ready to tell us the cricket scores.”
Chen shook his head. “Got a radio for that. I just—that reporter lady is desperate to talk to anyone halfway interesting, right? I think I need to talk about”—he waved a hand—“all of that. Preferably with someone who doesn’t want to punch me in the jaw.”
Therese nodded. “Very wise, Chen. Definitely better than bugging Lana about it.”
“Fair cop. Why are you here?”
Therese smiled bashfully. “Miss Switt cornered me today. Bribed her to go away with an interview.”
The door swung open between the two of them. Miss Switt leaned out and beamed at Therese. “Miss Fletcher! Right on time!” She looked at Chen. “AU, right?”
“Yeah,” Chen said. “I thought we could sit down and chat.” He looked at Therese. “I mean, set a date or something, Therese was here first.”
“No, no!” Switt enthused. “This is perfect!”
She yanked them both inside with surprising strength. The interior of the Catalpa Messenger was a dim cave lit by a bare fluorescent bulb. Moths circled the light worshipfully, casting shadows like great bats over the floor. The whole space smelled of machine oil and printing ink. The Neon Ghost—Martin Lewis—was on his knees, ministering to a Heidelberg Windmill in stained overalls.
“Good evening, Mr. Lewis,” Therese said politely.
King grunted. “Not sure what good an interview is if we can’t print it.”
“It’ll make a hell of a first front page,” countered Miss Switt. She spread her hands in the air. “Heroes and villains breaking bread in strange times.”
Therese and Chen exchanged a look.
“Isn’t that the whole point of this town?” Switt declared.
“Because your lot won’t leave us alone, yes,” said Lewis.
“Didn’t you only turn into a super while writing a book about them?” asked Miss Switt, eyebrow raised.
“… Just don’t get in the way, please.” Mr. Lewis turned his attention back to his printing press. “Bloody mad-scientists. Could probably clone us newspapers if they bothered…”
Jessica Switt settled Chen and Therese in the building’s kitchenette with a couple cups of bad coffee. She sat down herself and turned on her tape recorder:
“I’m sure you two hear this one a lot, but how did you two get in the super way?”
Chen answered first. “Just born this way, love.” He flashed Switt an apologetic smile. “Sorry. Not very juicy, is it?”
“I take it you’re the only super in your family?” asked Jessica. “Not related to any superheroes or gods or aliens?”
Chen cocked his head. “That’s right. Huh. Would you believe you’re not the first person to ask me that today?”
Therese raised her hand like she was in one of her own classes. “I only got my powers last year. Right around Christmas, too.”
“Oh?” said Miss Switt. “Can you tell us about it? What set it off?”
“What set it off?” repeated Therese. “I honestly don’t know. It just sort of happened…”
Jessica turned her hand over in front of her, gently beckoning for more, “Was there a process?”
“Yes, I think so.” Therese bent her head. “You know about the New Human Institute, don’t you?”
Miss Switt nodded diplomatically. “I’ve read the stories. Can’t say how much truth is in them, but I can’t see the reality being that much better.”
“The core is there,” said Therese. “Herbert Lawrence—my employer—he wanted to breed a better class of superman, and he used what he had on hand. Love was no obstacle. Nor was age.”
Chen nodded. “I left before things got as bad as they did, but even then… he wanted me to sleep with my little sister—” He saw the look in Miss Switt’s eyes. “Adopted. But if you think that made any difference…”
“No, I understand,” “I’m surprised he was able to force this on your students. I mean, the super-kids around here don’t seem very placid.”
Chen scoffed. “Your parents must be very good people, Miss Switt.”
“Perhaps they are. Forgive my naivete, Mr. Liu. I must admit, this is all very alien to me.”
“Parents say children don’t listen to them,” said Therese. “That’s rubbish. Children don’t listen when you’re talking about bedtimes or eating their greens or drinking. But when they think your love is on the line…” She shook her head. “Gods and kings wish for that kind of loyalty.”
“Doesn’t matter anyway,” said Chen. “My… I guess brother is the only word for it, he could mess with people’s heads. Make them do what he wanted. Or what Lawrence wanted, most of the time.”
Jessica scratched something down in her notebook. “Mr. Liu—and I apologize in advance if this is something tender for you—but how did you get away if your brother could do all that?”
“I—I don’t know. He had to have let me go…” A long-delayed, terrible revelation hit Chen. “Oh, God. I think he just liked me…”
Therese continued, “I’m not sure Alberto even needed to work me over. I was young. Herbert and Mary were like mountains. I felt like an idiot whenever I tried to argue with them, even in my head.” She sighed. “Maybe that’s how he got his hooks in me. Watered that feeling like a tree. But the kids were hurting. All the time. I couldn’t let it go on. Lawrence caught me trying to call someone and told me to get out.”
Therese left out the hitting. She thought it would distract from the point.
“Wait,” said Chen, “Why did Alberto—oh.”
Chen looked at Therese with a little awe. She didn’t seem to notice.
“I was walking down the road when I realised, he was still telling me what to do.” Therese’s expression hardened. “After everything he’d done, after everything he was doing, he thought he could send me away. And I was letting him… something in me broke. And it broke the world, too.”
“There was a man?” asked Miss Switt.
Therese smiled. “You’ve been asking around.” She called over the reporter’s head, “Did you see the man, Mr. Lewis?”
“Nope,” he answered. “Fell in a vat at a chemical plant. Got a bloody terrible rash for a week, then I could turn into smoke. About as meaningful as nits.”
Therese got back to her story, “Other people say he’s a giant. Maybe he is for them, but he wasn’t for me. Just a man in a jacket. He didn’t say a word, but I trusted him. The way you trust your father when you’re very small? He walked, and I followed.” She shivered. “It was so cold. I didn’t think it was possible to be that cold in Australia, but I don’t think I was walking through somewhere else. He led me to a pool and told me to dive in.”
“You said he didn’t speak.”
“He didn’t have to. I dived and… it was like the water was a tarp over a well. I fell and fell…” Therese folded her hands on her lap. “I think that’s what did it. The diving. The choice.”
“Interesting,” said Miss Switt. “Do you think this was something inside you? Latent?”
Therese shook her head. “No. It was a change, I’m sure of it. Something reached down and… added something. But I think you’re asking the wrong question, Miss Switt.”
“You could ask half the people here about being a super. You want to know about superheroes. I wasn’t a superhero when I got my powers. Not yet.”
“Yeah,” said Chen. “Old Laurie was full of shit about a lot of things, but there’s something he used to say a lot: the mightiest super in the world is probably a green grocer.”
“Seems like a waste,” remarked Jessica.
“And what if he’s happy?” retorted Chen. “Is that a waste? Most supers, we just want to live our lives. I did, until Lawrence sicced the freak-finders on me.”
“So then, Miss Fletcher, how did you become a superhero?”
Therese took a deep breath. “I found Tim Valour. In the mirrors. I told him what happened.” A sad laugh. “He already knew! I could’ve gone to Boa Boa for all the good it did! But he still had to do something with me…”
Chen’s attention snapped right to Therese. “You met Tim?” He clenched a fist. “What did he do?”
“It could’ve been worse, I suppose,” said Therese. “He could’ve sent me to Circle’s End. Instead, he put me in a room with no windows. Nothing metal or glass. Nothing that cast a reflection. The toilet didn’t even have water in it.” She looked at the light in the main room. She knew how those moths felt. All attention focused on one source of light, neither sun nor moon. “Don’t know how long I was in there. I slept a bunch, but there wasn’t much else to do. Eventually, Tim came back.”
She remembered those dark glasses. The tan line around his ring finger. What did he think she was going to do? She’d come to him.
“He told me there’d been a raid on the Institute. People had died. Children had died.” The memory stung Therese’s eyes. “I beat at his chest. I clawed. He just stood there. But then I looked at his face… he was crying.” She shook her head. “I’m not sure he had the right, truthfully.”
Chen snarled, “Fuck no he didn’t—”
Therese held up a finger. “I escaped through the reflections in his tears. Next few nights, I slept in wintered penthouses. I raided the back rooms of pubs around the world. I raged. All my life, I felt like a ghost. Breeze against a cliff. Things just happened around me, or to me. I wanted to make things better, for once in my life. Or even just change something. I could go anywhere, but I still felt like me. An idiot with a magic wand. So I made a new woman. Someone I could slip inside like a suit of armour. Someone brighter and stranger. Someone who could do the impossible.” She looked at Martin. “Mr. Lewis, you know what I mean, right?”
The Neon Ghost stopped what he was doing. “…Yeah, Miss Fletcher. I do. The powers; I mean, they’re important. But when I was wearing that old coat and mask, it was like I could run faster, jump higher…”
Therese smiled. “Hit harder. And the way people look at you—” She sighed wistfully. “First time they see you, they think you’re a joke.” Therese clapped. “And then you’re on them. That’s what being a superhero is. Being impossible. Being bigger than yourself. It’s not a super thing, either. It’s just easier for us.”
“It’s like that for us, too,” said Chen. No use lying to himself anymore. “Supervillains I mean. I hated the name AU. Fuckin’ loathed it. It was something Lawrence built around me. But when I was being him—when I had nothing else—it was like nothing could touch me. People who sneered at my skin ran scared. And that felt good. Anger felt good. I don’t want to be AU anymore, Miss Switt. He’s a creature of spite. Stupid spite. No good for anyone. But I think I’ll miss him a bit.”
Therese spoke again, “That’s why I don’t think this town is all that strange, Miss Switt. Supervillains, superheroes. We both know what it feels like.”
Jessica Switt was writing feverishly. “This is all very enlightening. How did you two meet?”
Therese and Chen looked at one another. A nod.
“The Coven sent Chen after me for killing their men and stealing their ‘product’,” said Therese.
“She beat the shit out of me,” added Chen. He looked at Therese again. “But afterwards. You were kind.”
Decades later, a young man stands on the viewing platform of a high rise. A modest thing by global standards, but after about fifty feet the all heights register much the same to the human mind. The city of his childhood lies spread out in nightly splendour below him, lights blinking like dreaming synapses. Somewhere down there, he knows a coven is gathering.
He glances at the book lying on the glass table by his chair. He turns words over in his head:
Someone I could slip inside like a suit of armour. Someone brighter and stranger. Someone who could do the impossible.
He looks down into the streets of Perth. He imagines a living shadow, leaping between islands of darkness in that sea of light.
He would become impossible.