Angela Barnes was sweltering. She’d thought she was done with hot flushes months back. It was probably the summer heat. Or the “wet” or the “build up” or whatever they called it up here. The sky was a miser rich with rain, and Angela bore its weight on her shoulders with none of its cool relief. Her skin itched. Too much Irish in her, she guessed. What Angela was sure of was that she wasn’t ill. She didn’t have time for it.
The gravy congealed on the cooling lamb chops. The steam rising from the peas and mash potatoes slowly dwindled. Two seats at the Barnes table were empty.
“Fred,” Angela said evenly, “what time did I tell Arnold and Mabel to be home?”
“Six, love,” her husband answered.
“And what time is it now?” she asked, knowing the answer down to the second.
Fred obediently glanced at his watch. “A quarter-past.” His hand crept towards his fork.
Angela clapped her hand over his. She almost fell over in her chair. “Not until everyone’s here.”
Fred laughed. “Feeling petty tonight, Ange?”
Angela winced. Blood roared in her temples “I told them. I told them—”
There was a muted thunderclap. The back screen-door rattled open and shut:
“I’m here, I’m here!”
“See?” said Fred. “No harm done.”
Arnold ran into the kitchen in plainclothes, smelling faintly of lightning. “Sorry Mum!” he said, sliding sideways into his usual chair and digging in without a second thought. He didn’t offer an apology to his father, not that the man wanted for one.
“Mistress Quickly needed me for vacuum work,” Arnold explained through a mouthful of potato and pea mush. “She was super particular about it, too.”
Angela screwed her eyes shut and banged the hilt of her knife against the table. “Don’t talk with your mouth full!” she said, a little too loud for her own liking. “We haven’t even said grace!”
Arnold swallowed so hard it hurt. “Sorry, Mum.”
“Ah, leave off him, woman,” said Fred. “What’s the point of praying when you’re hungry?” He gestured at Arnold. “Boy’ll just ask for food.”
Arnold stifled a giggle.
“It’s not about asking for—” Angela kept eyes fixed on her plate like she was trying to ward off motion sickness. Her brain felt like a fish tank in an earthquake. It sloshed. Why did Fred have to be so blasphemous in front of the boy? She closed her eyes. “Where’s Mabel?”
An arch, boyish voice drawled into the kitchen, “She’s having dinner at the Kinseys tonight.”
David was leaning against the doorframe, arms folded, smiling impishly. As usual, he was stark naked.
Angela groaned. “For crying out loud, Arnold, I made up a plate for her!”
“Sorry!” Arnold whined. “It’s not like she said she’d be home for dinner.”
Silly me, Angela fumed inside, assuming the girl who eats and sleeps here almost every night might be around for dinner. Children were beasts. What did they think she was? A machine? An automatic assembly line of meals and clean laundry?
There was no question of inviting David to eat with them. The fragile non-aggression pact between him and Angela wouldn’t survive it. But like many such doctrines, it depended on both sides keeping to their lines. David strolled over and picked up Mabel’s plate.
“Don’t touch it!” Angela snapped, inadvertently banging her knee against the underside of the table and sending the cutlery rattling. She hissed through her teeth. It felt like she’d hit solid steel.
Fred put a hand on David’s shoulder, his grip gentle but firm. “What’re you doing with my wife’s cooking, boy?”
David gave Fred six more years until calling him “boy” would go from accurate to racist. He shrugged. “Sarah doesn’t feel like cooking tonight. Says it’s too hot and that I’d probably just eat the rest of Granddad’s birthday porpoise because I’m an awful sea-goblin.” She was right1. David looked over at Angela. “Figured she might like a home-cooked meal. And everyone loves your lamb so…”
Fred held his gaze for a moment, then let go of the water-sprite. “Good lad.” He looked at his wife. “You fine with that, Ange?”
Arnold’s eyes darted nervously between David and his mother.
Angela sighed and nodded. Wastefulness was a sin, and the Lord knew Sarah had a lot on her shoulders. At least some of that burden was trying to pay her back with food tonight. “Sure, go ahead. Send Mrs Allworth my regards.”
“Cool,” said David. He plucked the plate back up and made for the door. When he passed Arnold, he pivoted downward on one foot and kissed him on the lips. Forgetting where he was for a moment, Arnold kissed him back.
David and Arnold yelped as Angela’s plate flew over the former’s head, shattering in a splattery mess against the kitchen wall. Arnold’s mother had risen from her chair, breathing heavily.
Fred shook his head, gawping slightly. “What’s gotten into ya, Ange?”
Angela pointed a shaky finger at David. “You see what he’s doing, don’t you?”
David scowled. “And what’s that, lady?”
Arnold desperately mimed “silence” at the other boy.
“Taking him. And Allison.” Angela wiped sweat from her brow. “Making them… animals. Slimy and slippery and wrong. Arnold was a good boy, Fred.”
“Still is,” Fred replied sternly.
“But he won’t be!” she snapped. “Not if this keeps up! Not with this little toe rag and his— ways.”
There was a long silence at that.
“Boyfriend,” David said flatly. “That’s the word you’re too scared to say. And fuck you.”
“Get out of my house you queer little shit!”
Nobody in the kitchen spoke. Arnold’s eyes were watering.
“And would it kill you to say grace?”
Angela slumped forwards against the table, her water glass toppling and soaking her hair.
“…Ange?” Fred wheeled over to his wife’s side. He hoisted her upright best he could. “Ange!”
David frowned. Then flinched when Arnold slapped him.
“Stop it!” Arnold yelled. “You let her up right now!”
“What—fuck. It’s not me, Arn!”
Fred put his hand over Angela’s forehead. Her skin screamed with heat. He looked at David and shouted, “Get help! For Christ’s sake, get help!”
Before David could respond, Arnold zapped him to the sickbay, followed seconds later by his parents.
Arnold fell to his knees and burst into confused tears. Somewhere out there, Elsa Lieroinen was laughing.
Chen Liu sat at his workbench, grinding a silver disk against his electric grinding wheel, fingers wrapped in blue alligator tape. There was something humbling about working with silver. It wasn’t that its colour or luster appealed less to Chen. He had a soft spot for the metal. It didn’t listen to his power. He had to work with it—browbeat and wheedle it into shape. If gold was Chen’s dog, silver was his cat.
A quick flash with a blowtorch and a sulphur bath darkened the face of the coin. The engraving work shone against the black patina. It could’ve been a roadmap for Therese. It’d turned out well, Chen thought. It felt good to do some proper jeweling again. Made him feel less “AU” and more “Chen.” But the circumstances…
There was a knock at Chen’s front door. He decided the bandana he had tied around his face counted as a mask.
“I hope this is important—”
Chen froze mid-sentence. Drina Kinsey was on his doorstop. And he wasn’t wearing a shirt.
Chen stammered. “Hey, Drina, I—” He glanced down at his bare chest. “…Sorry. Wasn’t expecting company.” He scratched the back of his neck. “Ruddy hot today, isn’t it?”
Behind her cloth mask, Drina smiled. “It’s fine. Nothing I haven’t seen before.” She flexed her eyebrows. “A bit less, actually.”
Chen blinked. “Drina!”
“Ah, lighten up.” Drina reached into her bag, removing a small newspaper package. “I made you a corn beef sandwich. Don’t worry, I had gloves on.”
“You shouldn’t have.”
Drina shrugged. “I was making some for Allie and the Barnes’. You were on my way.”
“Still,” said Chen. He glanced back into his home. “Actually, there’s something I want to drop off to the Barnes. Mind the company?”
“Not at all. Haven’t exactly had much adult conversation the last couple of weeks.”
“Just let me get cleaned up,” said Chen. “I’d invite you in, but the whole place kind of smells like rotten eggs right now.”
Drina couldn’t help but watch Chen walk back inside. Something about the way his legs moved beneath his denim trousers…
The pair walked through the deserted streets of Catalpa. All the water-fountains were cordoned off with tape. The town pool’s gate was locked: now the exclusive domain of David Barthe. Drina was sure it was a mixed blessing for the boy. Occasionally people leaned out of their windows to say hello, hungry for any human interaction. The humidity was intense today, but you could smell rain in the air. The roads were lined with drying mud. Storm clouds circled patiently in the sky. Every once in a while, the sky thundered, as though chuckling at its own reticence.
“They’ve moved some folks to the Flying Man’s… I think the word is base?” said Drina. “You know, vulnerable people. That pregnant girl that arrived with me; Lana and her baby; Sarah…”
“Sensible,” said Chen. “Measles is bloody awful if you’re really young or really old. There was an outbreak back in Chinatown when I was eleven, I think. Took an uncle and a cousin.”
“Oh, Chen,” said Drina. “I’m sorry.”
Chen shrugged. “I wasn’t there. I only heard about it in letters.”
The two walked in companionable silence for a bit.
“They had it on the ship I came on,” said Drina suddenly. “It was…” She shook her head at the memory. “I got lucky.”
“God,” said Chen. “At least here we’ve got space.”
“Yep,” said Drina. Her lip curled. “Mind you, the Flying Man’s home has air-conditioning.”
“Sometimes I wonder why Sarah doesn’t just live there,” said Chen. “It sounds very flash.”
“Be like living in her son’s tomb, wouldn’t it?” said Drina. “Besides, I think the last fortnight has reminded me how important company is.”
“True.” Chen finally unwrapped his sandwich and took a bite. “Mhmm. This is really good silverside, Drina.”
Drina blushed. “Thanks.”
They passed by Libertalia for a glass of wine. Not that they stepped inside the place. Not that “glasses” were involved. Instead, Hettie Haldor reached her marble arm (smelling faintly of the disinfectant she’d bathed in) out through a window and poured some red into paper cups. Allison had suggested the idea to the Haldors. In Florence they’d been called buchette del vino: a way for the rich to avoid taxation and for the people to avoid sobriety during plagues. In Catalpa, as everywhere, people adapted.
Drina sipped hers and smacked her lips. “…Not quite right, is it?”
“You get what you’re given,” Hettie called from within the pub.
Chen nodded. “It’s better than nothing.”
“We shouldn’t be allowing it at all.”
Chen and Drina turned to find the Crimson Comet standing in front of them. He was in full costume—wings out—with the addition of a dark red faceplate streaked with a gold comet. It gave the whole look an unfortunate raptorial quality.
“Thanks for the support, Mr. Rivers…” Hettie said.
“People don’t need a reason to stand around outside right now,” Ralph insisted.
“If it helps,” said Drina, “we’re only stopping on our way to the tower.”
Ralph raised an eyebrow. “Why’s that?”
“Delivering food to the Barnes’ and my daughter.”
Ralph rubbed his chin. “…Fair enough I suppose.” He pointed sharply at the two of them. “Don’t linger, though.” Then he called into the window, “And get me a beer if you’re doing this!”
“Sure, your majesty.”
Drina and Chen left him to his drink.
“Someone’s on a power-kick,” muttered Chen.
“Be kind,” said Drina. “Wally’s stuck under the sea.”
Sixty was no age to catch measles. Ralph was hardly any younger, but like everyone else who could call Eliza Winter a friend, he’d been immunized long ago.
“Someone has to keep things under control,” Ralph had said.
Close-Cut still insisted he wear the filter-mask he’d made for him.
They had to take the long way up to Freedom Point’s entrance. The portal-eggs were for urgent use only right now. The elevator was rigged out of a suspended platform used for window cleaning. Drina gripped the handrails with white knuckles as the cables drew them into the air. “…Not good with heights,” she said out the corner of her mouth, head turned upwards.
Chen wrapped an arm around her shoulders. “Don’t worry, I gotcha.”
Brandon Kurtz no longer stood in the front lobby. Instead, Mabel Henderson shoved a registry book at them.
“Name, date, time,” she said sternly.
Drina signed in for her and Chen. She couldn’t blame Mabel for being so serious. She’d lost one northern town before.
The Freedom Point infirmary was intended to house maybe a dozen patients. Now it held over three times that many people. Angela had been the town butcher. One of the town’s busiest, most prominent women. And she hadn’t even known she was infected. Drina and Chen could hear the chorus of coughs and wheezes before they saw the extra cots spilled out into the hallway in waves of triage. The worse the prognosis, the closer the patient was to the actual sickbay. Inside, Nurse Sandra bustled between beds; changing IV bags and bedpans; checking breathing and pulses; taking temperatures and laying moistened clothes over foreheads.
The nurse lay a stethoscope over Brandon Kurtz’ chest. His breath crackled in her ears. “Fluid up in Mr. Kurtz’ lungs.”
At the centre of the room, Allison Kinsey nodded. “Stand back.”
Her eyes glowed milky green. Brandon jerked and retched in his bed. Sputum fountained out of his mouth, spiraling through the air into a medical waste container.
Catalpa had no doctors. But Allison Kinsey had met a fair few.
“Allie,” said Drina. “You really should eat something.”
“Later,” said Allison, gently turning over an unconscious patient.
Drina saw the dark patches under her daughter’s eyes. “How much sleep are you getting?” Allison had insisted on relocating to the tower full time a week ago, over Drina’s objections.
“I just slept three nights ago.”
“It’s different for me, Mum.”
“How different?” Drina wanted to ask.
As patient zero, Angela Barnes was in one of the built in sickbay beds: the giant clam shells filled with wiggling tongues. Her face was dominated by an angry red rash. Her eyes were shut. Her husband and youngest son sat on either side of her, both masked. Nurse Sandra and Allison had warned them against touching her.
Chen approached the bed and cleared his throat. Both Barnes glared at the man:
“Not now, AU,” said Arnold blearily.
“What the fuck are you doing here?” demanded Fred.
“Language,” muttered Arnold. Someone had to say it if his mother couldn’t.
“Yeah, I know, not the person you want to see,” said Chen. He held out the two wrapped sandwiches. “Here. Corn beef.”
“Look, before you throw them in the bin, Drina made them, Not me.”
After a moment, Fred grunted and snatched the sandwiches. “Tell her me and the boy say thanks and clear off.”
Chen sighed. “There is something I wanted to give your wife, Mr. Barnes.”
Chen removed the coin he’d made from his pocket and handed it to Arnold. Engraved on the obverse was a long haired man with a thigh wound holding a pilgrim’s staff. On the reverse, a dog offering up a piece of bread. Along the edges was written “Saint Roch”2.
“Your mum’s a good woman,” said Chen. “She’s been good to me. God knows I didn’t do anything to deserve it.” He pointed at the coin. “I don’t go in for that kind of thing usually, but I know Mrs Barnes is a believer so…” He squinted his shoulder. “Seemed like something she’d like.”
Arnold closed his hand around the coin. “I think she would, Dad.”
After a long moment, Fred Barnes nodded. “Yeah.”
“Good,” said Chen. “Guess I’ll be off then.” He looked right at Angela. “Best wishes, Mrs Barnes.”
As Chen turned, he heard the beginnings of tears. Arnold was embracing his weeping father.
“She’s so strong, Arn…”
“I know, Dad.”
Chen didn’t dare say anything. Something about the way Arnold held his father told him this wasn’t the first time he’d seen the man cry.
That night, there was a town meeting. Nearly four hundred chairs spaced out at the foot of Freedom’s point, their occupants nearly all masked. A surgical conference from a political cartoon. The air reeked of mosquito repellent. In front of the crowd was a hastily erected stage with six chairs: The Catalpa City Council. The council was a fairly amorphous entity at the best of times. People wandered in and out as their interest in local governance ebbed and waned. The outbreak had only caused more shifts in its makeup. At the moment, it consisted of:
- Mistress Quickly, as the town’s chief scientist. With Close-Cut holed up in Lyonesse, she was also pulling double duty repping the supervillain crowd.
- Paul Haldor, representing the town’s baseline humans, filling in for Angela Barnes.
- The Crimson Comet, sheriff of Catalpa and standard bearer for the resident superheroes.
- Frances Robinson, sometimes called Night-Tide. A Darwinite superheroine, on the council because there was no way the supervillains were getting more seats on the council than honest to God heroes.
- Jon Griffiths, a man who appeared to be made of living red spaghetti with two bulbous ping-pong ball eyes, representing all those in Catalpa whose powers left them looking… otherwise.
- And finally, Allison Kinsey. There was once a vague idea that she represented Catalpa’s many unaccompanied children, but really, it just felt wrong to not have her around.
“…We’re pretty sure we’ve managed to break the chain of transmission,” said Allison Kinsey, her voice amplified by the button-microphone pinned to her costume’s collar. She flashed a smile that only women manning make-up counters should use. “Once we’re past the incubation period, we can get back to building our city!”
The girl clearly expected applause. Instead, she got a wave of whispers and murmurs.
In the third row, Chen leaned over to Drina and whispered, “She is way too young to be doing PR-talk…”
“Don’t have to tell me.”
“Does anyone have any questions?” asked the Crimson Comet.
A forest of raised hands.
Eenie, menie, minee…
The Comet pointed at a meaty, liver-spotted arm. “Yes, Brenda?”
Brenda McCullough cleared her throat. “How come none of you big-brains can’t just cure the measles?”
Mistress Quickly of course fielded that one. “I’m sorry to say, but none of us super-scientists are dab hands at virology.”
Brenda snorted. “You grew a little girl! How can you not fix the measles! They’ve got a vaccine in the States!”
“I’m sure you already knew this, Brenda,” said Maude, “But there’s a big difference between an inoculation and an antidote.” She folded her arms. “As for Miri’s project, most women can grow little girls, can’t they?”
A few scattered chuckles.
“And I’m not too proud to admit I had help with that,” continued Maude. “We’re supers, guys, not gods.” She spotted a nut-brown hand waving from a middle row. “And for those of us who are gods, I should remind people that divinity isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Chariots of iron and all that.”
“Bunch of bull,” grumbled Brenda.
“Please, Brenda,” said Night-Tide. “There are children here.”
“You bloody supes can do whatever miracles you like, but when it’s something we need…”
A man yelled from the back, “It’s a little convenient nobody in charge has gotten sick!”
The council all exchanged looks.
Maude smiled sourly. “I’ve caught four strains of measles on four different worlds. My immune system is way out of this planet’s league.”
“I do not have any blood,” said Mr. Griffiths, his surprisingly clear, mild voice rustling his tentacles like wind through curtains.
“I’m literally standing in for a councilwoman who got sick,” said Mr. Haldor.
“I’m a vegetarian,” explained Night-Tide. “Good woman though Mrs Barnes is, we don’t do much business.”
“Never going to let us forget that,” said Maude under her breath, hand over her mic.
“Me and Miss Kinsey were made immune to a lot of ailments by a healer we both knew,” said the Comet.
“And why can’t we get her in?”
“Therese is looking for her,” said Allison. “Big country on a big planet.”
“What I want to know is how the measles got here,” said an old man.
Maude sighed. “We’ve explained this. Mrs Barnes—”
“But how did it get here?”
“Catalpa isn’t exactly a closed community,” said Night-Tide.
“It’s obvious, isn’t it?” A man near the back rose from his seat and pointed towards the front. “It was the bloody chink!”
It took Chen a moment to realize he was talking about him. He twisted around in his chair. “Excuse me?”
Ralph groaned. “For Christ’s sake, Jared…”
“Did anyone bother testing him when he got here?” another voice asked, loudly. “God knows what he’s carrying.”
Allison, young as she was, tried to use logic, “Chen’s immune too. Just like me and Ralph.”
“His lot are dirty. They carry it with them.”
“For all we know the witch sent him here!”
Chen clenched a fist. He wanted to scream the arseholes into the ground. But anger was a privilege not afforded to men who’d done the things he’d done. But then, it also wasn’t afforded to men who looked like him.
Drina shot to her feet. “Shame on you all.”
Chen put a hand on her arm. “Drina, you don’t have to—”
Drina pulled away from him. “It’s not just about you, Chen.” She pointed at her daughter, then back at herself. “Me? My daughter? The kid you all worship? Gypsy.”
On stage, Allison swallowed. She’d never heard her mother… admit it like that before. The only reason she knew about it was the Physician, and the Physician had a weird sense of humour at the best of times.
“Are we dirty?”
Stammering. “I—I meant supervillains—”
“Thanks,” Mistress Quickly said flatly.
Drina rolled her eyes. “Pull the other one. Chen came here to help. He risked his life to save our kids, and you’re all looking for an excuse to indulge your pigshit ignorance.”
“I can take it, Drina,” said Chen.
“You made mistakes Chen,” said Drina. “Doesn’t mean you have to put up with dickheads the rest of your life.” She marched brazenly up to the stage, clambering onto it with determined awkwardness and taking her daughter by the hand. “We’re going home.”
Allison blinked and shook her head. “No I’m not.”
Drina started walking offstage, dragging Allison with her. “I won’t have you listening to this filth!”
Ralph sighed. “Allie, listen to your mother. We can manage—”
Allison pulled her hand effortlessly from her mother’s grip. “I need to be here!”
God, when’d she get so strong? “You are ten years old!”
Mother and daughter locked gazes for a moment, war passing between their eyes. Without breaking eye contact, Allison’s feet left the ground.
Drina staggered forward, trying to grab a foot. “Allie! Allie!”
Allison didn’t answer. Drina’s hands found only empty air. The girl shrunk as she rose higher, flitting around Freedom Point like a rainbow raven haunting London Tower.
Drina let out an inarticulate noise of maternal fury. She became aware of the audience staring at her in silence. She glared back at them. “You’re all ruining her.”
She stormed off into the night.
“If you haven’t gotten the hint,” said Night-Tide. “Meeting adjourned.”
If Ralph Rivers was the sheriff, and Allison Kinsey the child-empress, Maude Simmons might’ve said she was the high-priestess of Catalpa. It wasn’t that much of a stretch. There was a distinct engineering mindset in the old polytheisms. Zeus and his cronies weren’t interested in a “personal relationship” with mankind or whatever it was Christ and his dad wanted. Old gods cared about your actions, not your feelings. Orthopaxy trumped orthodoxy any day. Trying to perform a sacrifice with unexpunged sins was no different from waltzing into a clean room covered in microbes. Other than that, if the priests recited the program correctly and input the right materials (flawless black heifers, unbruised fruit, suckling babes) the gods would oblige. You didn’t have to understand why. Leave that to the philosophers. Or the theoretical physicists.
The machine they called Dr. Beaks lay across a metal gurney, cloak removed, its naked, ruined mechanisms open to the air. Mistress Quickly was performing an autopsy with designs towards resurrection. So far, her findings weren’t promising. Maude had never gone in for robots. She liked her privacy too much to invent a machine to destroy it. Still, it wasn’t the first time she’d taken one apart. But Dr. Beaks was something else. Even accounting for the structural damage, he seemed… incomplete. Like a corpse missing its skeleton. He had no wires in him. No screws or weld marks. The pieces looked like they’d been grown into shape like metal bonsai trees. She had no clue how they fit or stayed together. His manipulator arms were made of something like living—dead—modeling clay. Protean and endlessly adaptable. Running electricity through them made them shift from scalpels to syringes to tweezers. Maude had learned quickly that his “eyes” were purely cosmetic. She’d yet to locate any discrete computation in Dr. Beaks. Her running theory was that that was handled by his entire molecular structure. Blancheflor swore up and down he wasn’t remote controlled.
Maude sighed. “Goddamn it, Joseph.”
“Danny, take a note.”
The lab answered with silence, accented by the quiet hum of machines.
Doc Danny had the measles. Maude had gotten used to thinking of her assistant like her belt. Always there.
The lab’s door-alarm buzzed. Mistress Quickly glanced at a recycled television to find Mrs Kinsey shuffling her feet outside.
The doors slid open. Drina marched inside. “When will that robot be fixed?”
“At this rate… I have no idea.”
Drina ran her hands down her face. “…Then what’s the point of you? What’s the point of portals and fancy water fountains and self-building houses if my little girl has to play doctor with life and death on the line? On top of everything else!”
Religion back in the day was results oriented. If the rain didn’t fall or the crops didn’t grow, people started asking the priests difficult questions. And people didn’t change much. Maude Simmons walked over to the bench she’d set her coffee pot on and poured herself a mug. She took a sip. It tasted like cigarette ash mixed with milk. Only appropriate. “I’m sorry Mrs Kinsey. I’m sorry I can’t recreate the work of an alien god. I guess I’m not trying hard enough to steal my dead friend’s work.”
“…Sorry,” said Drina.
Maude sighed. “It’s fine. Measles is making us all crabby bitches.” She took another mug from a cupboard. “Want some coffee? It’s bloody awful.”
“…Can you make it a beer?”
The two women pulled up a chair and drank.
“It’s still perverse,” said Drina. “The way people worship her here. She’s like a cross between Baby Jesus and a farm mule.”
“Don’t have to tell me twice,” said Maude. “You have to remember, a lot of these people are literal asylum inmates.”
“They weren’t thrown in there for being mad, though.”
“That’s the thing about asylums,” said Maude. “If you weren’t mad when you went in, you’ll get there eventually. Trust me, I know.”
“Going to tell me about that?”
“Check back in a year or five. Look, Drina. These people were desperate, hounded, and loathed. I escaped that crap a long time ago, but I know what it feels like. Your daughter saved them from that. Gave them somewhere they could be free.” Maude thought about it. “Well, I did a lot of that, but Allison’s a little girl who flies and glows sometimes, you can guess who draws more eyes.”
“You don’t see them making the Queen do the washing up.”
“You assume we’re making Allison do what she does,” countered Maude. “Have you considered that maybe your daughter wants to help? That she is, in fact, a good girl?”
“Of course she’s a good girl,” snapped Drina. “But it’s not about her being good, Maude. It’s fear. She has an entire town full of people looking to her for answers, and she’s terrified she’ll fail them. You people are asking her to hold up the sky for you.”
“I’m not,” said Maude. “The others? Absolutely. And it’s not fair. What am I supposed to do about it?”
“…I don’t know.”
Both women drank.
“There is a way you can help, Drina.”
“I’d be happy to.”
“Might want to wait till I tell you how before saying that. The council’s talked it over, and we’re putting new resident pick-ups on hold. We can’t bring people into an epidemic. We’re stretched thin as it is. We’ve already prepared a message.”
“…You haven’t told Allie, have you?”
“This wasn’t a decision for her. A lot of people may have forgotten Allison is a child, but we haven’t.” Maude took a deep breath. “We want you to break the news to her. Me and Ralph, we’re too much her friends and not enough grown-ups in her head.”
Drina nodded. “I understand.”
“You’ll do it?”
“Yes.” Drina finished her beer and stood up. “Best rip the plaster off now.”
“Want me to back you up?”
“No. I can handle my own daughter.” Drina glanced at the ruins of Dr. Beaks. “You will keep trying, won’t you?”
“Of course,” said Maude. “Joe did good work. Be a shame to let it go to waste.”
Drina slipped her mask back on in the elevator up to the infirmary. “You can do this, Drina,” she kept telling herself. “She’s your daughter.”
The lights were dimmed on the infirmary floor. Patients slept in a thick soup of drugs. Drina could smell it seeping from their skin. That and urine mixed with antiseptics. Fred and Arnold lay asleep together on a cot beside Angela’s bed. Allison was holding a plastic cup filled with cold water to an old man’s lips.
“This okay, Mr. Gittelmen?” she asked softly.
Mr. Gittelmen let out a keening wheeze. His long white beard contrasted disturbingly with his scarlet spotted face. “You’re a mitzvah, girl.”
Without looking at her mother, Allison said, “Hi, Mum.”
Drina didn’t answer for a moment. She was too distracted by Mr. Gittelmen’s fingertips. They were black. Before she could say anything, Nurse Sandra grabbed her shoulder. “Allie, could me and your mother have a word?”
“Sure,” Allison answered, eyes still fixed on Mr. Gittelmen.
Nurse Sandra led Drina out of the sickbay back to the elevator bank. “You need to get that girl out of here. Now.”
“I thought she was helping you?”
“I’m a licensed nurse, Mrs Kinsey. I’m not saying a doctor wouldn’t be a help, if they had the right tools, but we don’t. And Allison isn’t a doctor.” She sighed. “She sleeps in a chair for ten minutes at a time. Sometimes she cries. Jacob Gittelmen is eighty-two years old. He has pneumonia in both lungs. Far as I can tell, his kidneys have completely packed it in. There’s necrosis in his extremities. He’s going to die, Drina. I’d give him hours. I don’t care what she’s seen or done, Allison isn’t ready for that. She thinks she can keep him alive.”
Drina found herself laughing.
Sandra frowned. “Did I say something funny?”
“No,” replied Drina. “I just thought you were all mad.”
“Take your daughter home, Mrs Kinsey. Make her sleep. Properly sleep. Play… I don’t know, Monopoly or something with her. Just don’t let her keep working.”
The laughter died fast. “Let me talk to her.”
Drina approached her daughter like her footsteps might make her shatter. “Allie, there’s something Mistress Quickly wanted me to tell—”
“We’re cancelling the resident drive,” Allison cut in.
“I saw you and Maude talking about it,” said Allison. “In your head.”
Drina suppressed a shudder. What did Allison see inside her? Inside everyone? “I know it seems heartless, Allie, but the council only wants to keep everyone safe.”
Allison nodded. “Yeah. It makes sense.” She bit her lip. “Is it bad I don’t mind?” Her breathing quickened.
Drina stepped forward and hugged her daughter. “Of course not, honey.”
Allison murmured into her mother’s mid-section. “I don’t want more people to look after…”
“It isn’t your job to look after grown ups.”
As they embraced, lights on Mr. Gittelmen’s sci-fi bed started blinking. Alarms beeped with soft, melodic urgency. Jacob groaned.
Nurse Sandra rushed over, examining the optics that ran along the edge of the bed. “We’re over the hump now. Won’t be long till Mr. Gittelmen’s gone home.”
Allison jerked weakly in her mother’s arms. “I can—”
“No,” Drina said firmly. “You can’t.”
“But his granddaughter! She’s little…”
“We’ll look after her. We’ll look after you all.” Drina looked at Nurse Sandra. “Will you be alright here?”
The nurse nodded. “Of course.” She took Jacob’s hand. “We’ll be fine.”
Drina roused Arnold awake. He squinted up blearily at her and Allison. “What is it?”
A few seconds later, Drina appeared in a green flash on her house’s veranda, carrying Allison as best she could. She awkwardly walked the door handle with one hand:
Need one of those stupid spaceship doors…
Once Drina got the door open, she staggered inside, making directly for the bedroom. She laid her daughter down on the bed. She was asleep, Thank Christ. As she watched, Allison’s costume shaped itself into polychrome pyjamas. Drina couldn’t help but smile at that.
She was considering laying down next down to Allison when she heard a knock on the door:
Drina huffed. “What now?”
Dutifully, she answered the door, finding Chen on her doorstep. He was holding a small, badly wrapped box in one hand, and a bottle of red wine in the other.
“Evening, Drina.” Chen tried to look past the woman’s shoulders. “I saw you carrying Allie inside. Something the matter?”
Drina smiled tiredly. “There is, but Chen. What brings you here?”
Chen held out the box. “I wanted to give you this.”
Drina took it into your hands. “Thank you. Can I ask why?”
“For yesterday, at that bloody meeting. Standing up for me. God knows people are still looking sideways at you for proposing child labour laws.” He smiled waggishly. “Wild pinko idea that is.”
Drina giggled. She unwrapped the box. It was a slightly battered jewelry case. Inside was a silver necklace with a ruby pendant.
“Oh, Chen…” She looked at him. “Why silver, though?”
“Oh, sorry, I—just feels weird giving people gold as a present, you know. It costs me nothing and—”
Drina smiled and raised a hand. “It’s lovely, Chen.”
Chen let out a sigh of relief. “Good.” He raised the bottle of wine. “I got this in case you didn’t think so. Hettie’s still marginally fond of us for saving her kid, I guess.”
Drina rubbed her chin and hummed. “Tell you what, I’ll take the wine, too. If you help me drink it.”
They drank it in coffee mugs, till the sun rose over Freedom’s Point. Allison didn’t hear Jacob Gittelmen’s song end.
1. She was also working on a biography of her son. Working title: Why He Should’ve Let You Explode. ↩
2. A Catholic saint, usually invoked for protection against plagues. Patron saint of bachelors, invalids, diseased cattle, and gravediggers, amongst other things. ↩