The exhaustion told Angela she was still alive. It had been her companion her entire adult life. The pain and fever made her wonder briefly if she was in Hell. But no. Whatever mistakes she’d made—and she’d made plenty—God kept His promises. Besides, her son was there.
Arnold knelt by her bedside, hands held together with his eyes closed. “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you”—he shook his head—“thee.”
He was a good boy.
Angela heard her husband wheeling over, back from one his rare, brief absences:
“Whatcha doing, boy?”
“Ah, praying… yeah.”
“…Budge over. You’re gonna have to show me the words. Haven’t done this since I was six.”
“Okay. Hail Mary, full of grace…”
Fred repeated after his son, “Hail Mary, full of grace…”
Angela wanted to laugh. For her husband, faith was like light to a cavefish. He was physically incapable of reverence. That should have worried her more, but how could God condemn a man like her Fred?
“Blessed art thou amongst women…”
Angela knew he meant those words, though.
Why did she love him? Was it because Fred was strong? He was, of course. The strongest man Angela knew. But she’d cared for him when he’d come home destroyed, body and soul. Because he was handsome? He was that, too, even after all these years. But the world had tried to take that from him—altered him—and she hadn’t cared. Arnold had been born from passion. If he had come home with no face, or burnt black and red, it wouldn’t have mattered. Was it that Fred was kind? Because he was. That felt like the best answer to Angela. The most sensible. But sometimes, after the world had decided it was done with him, Fred hadn’t been the easiest man to love. But that had never stopped Angela. She feared even if he were cruel or craven, she would still love him. Maybe, she simply loved Fred because he was there.
No. That couldn’t be it. She’d loved him when he was gone, too.
Perhaps there was no reason. Perhaps love just happened, damn your “reasons.” Was that how it was for God? To have no choice but to love every man, woman and child—every living thing that ever was? The very thought terrified Angela.
Time moved strangely for Angela. When she tried to pay attention to it, it froze. When she didn’t, it drained away like water through a sieve. People came and went. She tried to pray for Jacob Gittelmen and his young granddaughter when he passed, but the words kept escaping her. She was sure God got the point. After that, Allison vanished from the infirmary. Good, Angela thought. The girl was suffocating on obligation. The fact her son came and went too was also a relief. The young should not suffer for the old.
Arnold did visit her, though. Every day. He wasn’t the only one. Sometimes, Mabel joined him. Sometimes, it was Allison. Then there was one visit where Arnold wasn’t there at all.
She’d thought it was him, at first. The same light footsteps. The comforting weight on the bedsheets about her feet. The sound of hands fiddling with a scrap of paper.
She only realized who it was when he spoke.
“Our Father who art in Heaven,” David muttered. “I’m sorry if I say this wrong. I had to ask Sarah how to do it. I know this lady’s an angry bat, but please, please don’t let her die. She’s Arnold’s mum. He’s good.”
Angela forced her eyes open slightly. They were met with a blur of blue and brown. The boy was wearing his costume.
“He’s better than me, and maybe that’s why I deserved it when you took my mum away.” In an even more hushed, rushed tone, he added, “Even though that’s really dumb and mean of you.”
“But Arnold’s better, and he loves her. He doesn’t deserve for you to hurt him. So, please, keep her safe… this is dumb.” He let out a long sigh. “Amen, I guess.”
The weight left her bed.
“Shit- Hi, Arn.”
“What are you doing here?”
“Uh. Heard you were coming for a visit. Thought I’d keep you company. Didn’t want you being all pathetic.”
“…Were you praying?”
“Yeah,” admitted David. “Sarah said I should do it. I don’t think it really works when we’re both gods.”
It should’ve been a brag; a bit of boastful blasphemy. But David sounded perfectly matted-a-fact.
“Different kind of god,” said Arnold. “You’re big. He’s… everything.”
Angela loved her son.
“Whatever,” David muttered. “You doing okay?”
“I am,” said Arnold. “I think. It’s dad I’m worried about.”
“Yeah… Think he’ll… Be okay, if she doesn’t… You know.”
“Yeah. He’ll be fine. Cuz she’s gonna make it. And he knows it. You can tell it just by looking at him. He knows she’s gonna make it through with every piece of him.”
“… Thanks, Dave.”
“Heh. You’re welcome. C’mere.”
A weight at the end of the bed again as David tugged his boyfriend over for a kiss.
Angela didn’t know what to think. Fred had done that for her. She’d done the same for him. But it couldn’t be the same thing. Sin warped people like rotting wood. Her son was a good boy. Even David wasn’t—he wasn’t evil. And she couldn’t deny the Crimson Comet was a great man. The Bible spelled it out in plain English, but how could Angela be expected to ignore what her eyes and ears and bones told her?
She didn’t know. God, she was tired. But at least, for a moment, her boy was comforted. And for that, she was grateful.
Rain hissed like generations of vipers as it hammered against the Children Hall’s roof. It rained most days now in Catalpa. Drina Kinsey had picked a poor time of year to tell Allison to “go out and play.” She and Mabel lay on the attic’s wooden floor, the way they used to in the New Human Institute’s barn. Mabel’s conjured record player belted out Harry Belafonte’s “Jump in the Line” in a vain attempt to invoke sunnier days. The rain acted as complimentary static. Neither girl had the energy to dance. The only reason they bothered putting on music was that it was one of the few sensory pleasures Miri could indulge independently.
“Sometimes I have these dreams,” said Mabel. “I wake up one morning and everyone in town’s dead like in Circle’s End. It’s almost as hot as there, too.”
“That’s dumb,” Allison said. “We haven’t had any new cases in over a week. We’ve just got to wait for everyone to get better.”
“I heard Mr. Gittelmen died.”
“Yeah,” said Allison. “He did.”
“Is anyone going to tell Hannah?” asked Mabel. “She still thinks he’s just sick.”
Allison sighed. “The grown-ups will do it.”
Miri floated between the two corporeal girls like they were playing “light as a feather, stiff as a board” at a sleepover. “Was I greedy?” she asked.
“What?” said Mabel.
“If I’d just let the witch-lady take my body soon as she asked, Dr. Beaks could’ve fixed everybody.”
“It’s okay to want things, Miri,” insisted Allison.
“Okay,” said Miri. “So, could you change the record now? Something with a girl-singer.”
Allison rolled her eyes. “We just put this one on.”
After a moment, she asked, “Where do dead people go?”
Allison waved her hands above her head. “Fine, fine!”
Miri smiled innocently. “Thanks, Allie.”
Grumbling, Allison got up and took Harry Belafonte off the turntable, replacing it with a Carpenters record. The moment the needle hit the vinyl, an angry klaxon screeched.
Miri put her hands over her ears at the same time as Allison. “I don’t like this song!”
“It’s not a song.”
“UNIDENTIFIED AIRCRAFT DETECTED IN CATALPAN AIRSPACE,” droned Mistress Quickly’s mechanized voice.
Allison rose up through the ceiling and into the rain. The gun placements Maude had installed on Freedom Point buzzed like a million wasps. White laser searchlights cut blue canyons through the grey shell of cloud. Allison became solid again:
Allison burst into the sky, steam trailing off her suddenly colourful shoulders. She built up speed. The sheets of rain she flew through were warm as bathwater. If it weren’t for the circumstances of her flight, Allison might’ve been having fun. It’d been months since anyone had tried dropping anything on Catalpa. Was this something to do with Europe? Had the Russians built themselves some more new nukes? Had World War Three finally arrived?
In seconds, she pierced the clouds, passing through the ungrounded fog into that place where the sun always shines. Slanted geysers of light erupted all around her. Just in case, Allison reached for Ralph Rivers’ song, feeling her skin harden.
She scanned the open sky. High above her, she spotted a tiny black speck—a scratch on the film of the sky. From Allison’s distance, it barely moved at all, but it was managing to weave its way through a flashing maze of lasers. She decided to investigate. The combination of her flight and the Comet’s carried Allison into the upper reaches of sky, scarring the air red in her wake. The howl of the wind died in her ears. She felt the atmosphere thin against her skin. Azure blue began to fade to starry black, as though God was running out of paint. The world lay spread out beneath Allison’s feet. Arnhem Land became a toe curled in the ocean. She could see the curve of the world.
Instinctively, she stopped breathing. Ralph could never go this high in just his costume, unless he wanted to meet the ground again at terminal velocity. According to Maude, Allison only needed about ten percent of the oxygen most girls did to stay conscious. Her lungs and tissues stored it with startling efficiency. It was one of many accommodations her biology had made for flight; like how the moisture on her eyeballs neither froze nor evaporated as the temperature plummeted; her indifference to extreme G-forces; or the compass that had been lodged in her brain. That was something people forgot: most of the really good powers needed five or ten more little powers to be useful.
It took Allison a moment to believe her eyes when the speck resolved. It was a genuine Buck Rogers rocket ship, cast in jet-black, propelled through the upper atmosphere by three blue-flaming jets. It looked like it belonged in miniature on a sci-fi writer’s mantlepiece. If it flew over a suburb at the right hour, it could’ve spawned a whole generation of UFO-watchers. She could hear a song coming from inside, broadly human but with a strange metallic edge—
A laser cut through the rocket, severing its wings and engines in a scream of fire. The sound of wrenching metal was strangely muted. This high up, there was less air to carry it. The cone tumbled through the air. As Allison watched, a hatch blew, ejecting something out in the open air. She swooped towards it.
It was a man—or at least something shaped like a man—strapped into a pilot’s seat. He was covered head to toe in what looked like crinkly baking foil. His face was concealed behind a dark visor, a plastic elephant’s trunk trailing from his mouth to a pair of oxygen tanks strapped to his chest. He looked like he’d put his backpack on backwards. His song was completely untroubled, if excited. Allison tried to look inside his thoughts, but it was like trying to make out someone’s face through frosted glass.
The pilot (or cargo) gave Allison two thumbs up. Tilting her head, she glanced at the nearest bundle of futures:
She couldn’t help but laugh.
Allison left the man to his fall, instead flying towards the main body of his aircraft. At a glance, the engine section looked like it would land somewhere off the coast, but the cone’s trajectory took it upsettingly close to Catalpa itself. As she threw her back against the metal hulk, pushing against it with her supernatural momentum, she saw a parachute explode open above the falling man. It was proudly emblazoned with a Union Jack.
Far below—despite the rain, despite the measles, and very much despite the still blaring air-raid sirens—a crowd was gathering in the streets.
“Do you think it’s a spaceman?” Billy asked over the alarm.
Mabel was looking through a pair of binoculars she’d conjured, her scrapbook safely hidden in a waterproof ziplock bag. “Depends,” she said, “Is England outer-space?”
The Catalpans parted as the man landed, his parachute falling atop him. A few people gasped, though many more laughed as they saw him clearly struggling to free himself from his seat beneath the red, blue and white fabric.
The Crimson Comet stepped forward and ripped away the parachute. Its owner carefully got to his feet.
“State your intentions and don’t make any sudden moves,” said the Comet. “We don’t want any trouble.”
The pilot shed his flight suit like a cicada that’d outgrown its skin. A bronzed man with slicked back black hair nines in a crisp three piece suit and cloak stepped out.
Ralph squinted. “…Jack Lyons?”
The man looked at the Crimson Comet for a few seconds. Then he smiled. “Comet? Is that you?”
The two of them swung around at the sound of a hard, heavy thud. Allison Kinsey was floating behind them, the body of Jack Lyons’ rocket lying sideways across the street below her, rain slowly eating away at the flames.
“We’re keeping this,” she declared.
“Jack Lyons,” said Wally Grimsby, “for real?”
“Yeah,” replied Ralph. “Jack Lyons. Did a couple of missions with him back in the War. Hasn’t aged a day…”
Ralph was standing inside an old English phone box next to Libertalia Tavern. The actual phone had been ripped out and replaced with a small television. On the screen, Ralph’s boyfriend was nursing a martini at Clarks, the premier drinking establishment of the Flying Man’s undersea lair. The old supervillain was lounging in a purple bathrobe monogrammed with a red and blue diamond.
“You’re telling me! My dad used to tell me stories about Jack Lyons. Very past-tense stories.” Wally laughed. “There were kids books and everything!” He made a frame with his hands, moving it in front of his face as he listed, “Jack Lyons and the Abominable Snowman! Jack Lyons and the Mad Mahdi1! Jack Lyons and the Haunted Diving Suit! Jack Lyons and the Zulus!”
“…That last one doesn’t sound as fun.”
“It was a different time, Ralph,” said Wally. “I honestly wasn’t sure if he was real growing up.” He glanced up at the ceiling. “Hey, Blancheflor, could you check if Jack Lyons was real?”
“Working,” answered the Flying Man’s computerized assistant, followed by some confectured humming like an old librarian leafing through a reference book. It even had the sound of page turns.
“…Very much real it seems, Mr. Grimsby,” Blanceflor quickly reported. “Born in Bombay 1860 to Reginald and Padma Lyons, Jack Lyons distinguished himself as a petty officer in the British Army, before being headhunted by the crown’s nascent intelligence organs. From the 1880s to about 1902, he made a name for himself dealing with the supernatural and what we now call superhumans. After that, records become… spotty.”
“That man does not look a hundred and six,” said Ralph.
Wally shrugged. “Maybe it’s a codename.”
Ralph shook his head. “Same bloke I knew in Europe, I’d swear by it.”
“Occam’s razor then,” said Wally. “Lucky bastard’s immortal. Not that uncommon in our crowd.”
“Then where’s he been since the War?” asked Ralph.
“No idea,” replied Wally. “Isn’t the pressing question what he’s doing in Catalpa?”
“Says he’s here on behalf of the Crown. Gonna tell us more at the council meeting.”
“Send me the minutes,” said Wally. He smiled. “I was wrong, though, that isn’t the most pressing question.”
“What is it, then?”
Wally leaned forwards. “Is he handsome? Dashing, even?”
Ralph flashed a crooked grin. “Damn, Wally. I thought we had something here.”
Wally laughed. “Oh, shut up. You know I go for ugly men.”
“Thanks.” Ralph heard the air pop behind him. “There’s my ride. Talk to you tomorrow?”
“Sure,” said Wally. “Oh! Tell David he better not miss Mrs Allworth’s call if he knows what’s good for him.”
“Will do,” said Ralph. He kissed his palm, raising it to the screen. “Love ya.”
Wally repeated the gesture. “Love you too.”
The screen shut off. Ralph sighed, turned around, and stepped through the egg portal in front of the video-booth. It took him to the Freedom Point canteen. A long folding bench had been set up for the city council. Allison waved at Ralph as the rest of his fellows murmured vague greetings.
“It’s good to see you again, Crimson Comet,” said Jack Lyons. He was sitting patiently before the Catalpans on an old wooden chair, back straight, left leg folded over his right, a quiet smile playing across his lips.
“I wager I’d say the same if your entrance hadn’t been so peculiar,” said Ralph.
“I thought someone was trying to nuke us,” added Mistress Quickly. “It was almost nostalgic.”
“I apologize for any alarm I may have caused your fair town,” said Jack Lyons.
He spoke with perfect BBC pronunciation, the kind that didn’t occur in nature. It didn’t sit well with Allison. It was like Lawrence had found the fountain of youth and a tan.
“I had intended to simply take a passenger plane and wait for one of your resident drives, but when you announced the hiatus, the boffins set me up with a prototype… well, I can hardly call it a plane, can I?”
“Awful lot of trouble just to visit a town in the middle of a pandemic,” opined Paul Haldor.
“I assure you, I only intrude at the behest of the Crown. The Emp—” He stopped himself. “The Commonwealth needs assistance only your town can provide.”
“We’re all ears,” said Allison.
Lyons removed an audio-cassette from his breast pocket. “I’m sorry, I should have asked this first—does anyone have a tape-player?”
One was found. The Lyons and the council clustered around the machine as it spoke in a sober, British voice:
“This is Sir Edward Blythe of the Ministry of Paranormality. We seek the aid of Catalpa and its denizens in tracking down several British superhumans we believe to be lost in foreign territory. We believe this to be of the utmost importance to the security of both the United Kingdom and the wider Commonwealth. Her Majesty’s Government is prepared to offer Catalpa political and material aid in exchange for her assistance and discretion. Our agent will provide coordinates for further discussion of this matter. Message ends.”
Lyons opened his mouth and raised a finger. “You might want to remove the—”
“THIS MESSAGE WILL SELF DESTRUCT.”
A sizzling pop. The tape-player spewed acrid black smoke, greeted by coughing and waving hands. Jack Lyons held his cape over his mouth and nose. “I did tell Sir Blythe that I could destroy the tape myself…”
“So,” said Allison over the sound of Maude Simmons swearing about her tape player, “the Queen’s asking a bunch of outlaws for help?”
“Why not get the Yanks?” asked Night-Tide. “Don’t they have supers out the wazoo?”
“The wa—” Jack Lyons shook his head. “I myself asked the very same question”—he glanced about at the council—“no offense meant. I was told allowing the Americans to hear about this might threaten something called the special relationship.”
Maude laughed. “Ha! You know what? I believe that.”
“Will you help us?”
Lyons had been looking at the Crimson Comet when he asked that, but it was Allison who cleared her throat and answered:
“The council will talk about it. The Comet says you’re cool, so we’ll let you walk around for now.” Allison looked at Paul. “Maybe Hettie could make him lunch or something?”
Jack Lyons flashed Allison a grin. “That would be lovely, young miss.”
Allison wrinkled her nose. The man thought she was funny. This could not be tolerated.
Mistress Quickly arranged an egg-portal to Libertalia for Lyons. When it closed behind him, she said, “He’s definitely got some shit under his hat. That ship of his was nuclear powered, and the shielding is shit. He should be a baked potato made of cancer. Allie, you tried his song?”
Allison shook her head. “It made my teeth rattle. Like trying to eat a lollipop off a power-drill.”
“He’s old as sin, too,” said Ralph. “My granddad’s action-hero.”
Paul remarked, “I didn’t know we had a problem with supers here.”
“It’s still weird,” said Maude. “Doesn’t Britain have a spare Sherlock Holmes or two? Why do they need us?”
“Why not?” said Allison. “We’re great.”
“We could use the help,” Night-Tide said. “Material and medical are very similar words. We still have people fighting this.”
“Isn’t there an easy answer?” Paul said. “Allie, what happens if we help the Poms?”
Allison closed her eyes. She pictured herself saying “yes” to Jack Lyons. The future shattered and reformed into a thousand new mosaics. A few glittered.
She smiled. “We’re going to England.”
1. Specifically Muhammad Ahmad bin Abd Allah, messianic religious leader and ruler of Sudan. ↩