Arnold zapped the doctors and nurses to Catalpa immediately after the meeting. He had to demonstrate with some rocks to assure them he wouldn’t disintegrate them. After that, an early dinner was prepared for the Catalpans. Perhaps wisely, Sir Edward did not join them. Jack Lyons did, though. Billy made sure to secure the chair next to him. As it turned out, Billy had read all his books:
“Did you really fight Zeus?” he asked breathlessly
“That’s what I was told. I didn’t probe too deeply. All I knew was, a man with lightning for spit and an impressive beard was causing a ruckus at the Seven Stars1, and Mr. Collins—that was Sir Edward’s predecessor—wanted me to see him off. Said his presence in the United Kingdom risked a diplomatic incident with his wife.”
Billy tilted his head. “Mrs Collins?”
Jack laughed. “No, lad. Hera, Zeus’s wife. She has a temper.”
“Oh. I knew someone who was Apollo’s son.” Billy drooped his head. “He died.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“What’d you do?”
“Well, we tussled for a while. Didn’t get either of us far. I suppose it wouldn’t, him being immortal. Eventually, we sat down for a few pints, and I arranged him a boat ride to Cyprus.”
“…So, you didn’t use the Royal Exchange’s weathervane to deflect his lightning back at him?”
Jack Lyons chuckled and ruffled Billy’s hair. Luckily for him, Billy was a rare child who didn’t resent such a gesture. “I’m afraid the good people at Blackie & Son2 sometimes took creative liberties, son.”
“Leave the poor man alone, Billy,” Ralph Rivers, now in plainclothes, said from across the long table. “He’s barely touched his dinner!”
Indeed, Jack Lyon’s beef wellington was nearly intact, bar a few polite bites taken from the corner.
Jack smiled, a touch wanly. “It’s no trouble, Mr. Rivers. I do not need much.” He looked down fondly at Billy. “And William here is delightful company.”
Billy looked fit to burst.
Mistress Quickly hadn’t bothered changing out of her battle-suit. Her helmet sat next to her plate as she chatted with Dr. Death. “So, how long have you been a super?”
“Since I was fourteen.”
Mistress Quickly smiled knowingly. “Let me guess…”
She and Dr. Death pointed at each other, saying as one, “There was a man!” The pair shared a laugh.
“Yeah,” said Dr. Death. “My dog was sick. My father told me I had to put him down. Happened right as I pulled the trigger. Dads can be right bastards.”
“Don’t I know it,” said Maude.
They put Mabel and Allison in the same room that night. They also furnished Allison with files on Roundtable’s missing roster. She had to admit, as manufactured as the team clearly was, its individual members appeared to be legit, some with superheroic careers stretching back over twenty years. They were like the Monkees: a fake band with real talent. She was currently lying on top of her bed, looking over the file of one Metropole:
Real name unknown, answers to “Quinn Backerloo.” Homeless until approximately the age of fourteen, Backerloo claims to have been birthed by the city of London itself. This claim is still under investigation.
His black and white file photo depicted a lanky, barefoot young man with long, light hair wearing a two-piece suit that appeared to be made of transit maps.
“Heh.” Allison angled the file toward Mabel’s bed. “Reminds me of your costume.”
Mabel set down her pencils and looked up from the file of Animal Kingdom—a versatile shapeshifter with an unfortunate predilection for cheetah-print. She had taken to colouring in the file-photos after Allison was done with them. She squinted. “Looks a bit like Jesus. If Jesus was a bum.” She returned to her scribbling. “My suit’s better.”
Backerloo also claims to be able to “speak” to cities and towns. Again, this claim is being investigated. What is beyond question is Bakerloo’s ability to manipulate civic architecture.
Allison dearly hoped she would get to try that. It sounded like LEGO’s cool older cousin that smoked.
Backerloo has expressed great discomfort in rural environs, and protested his inclusion in the expedition, calling it—and we quote— “Bloody pointless.” However, it was the belief of Ministry scientists that his unique abilities might aid in the unearthing of buried man made structures…
Poor git, Allison thought. People were mean sometimes. She tossed the file over to Mabel and picked another file off her nightstand. This one was for Dr. Merlin, the leader of the team:
Alphonsus Summers credits his occult powers to a summer spent in the Otherworld as a page of the faerie king Oberon3, having been switched with a changeling when he was eight years old. He claims to have ingratiated himself to the monarch, and negotiated his own return to the world we know. This claim has yet to be verified…
Dr. Merlin’s photo was monochrome like all the others, but Allison could feel the purple radiating off his waistcoat.
“Still weird,” commented Mabel, “sending all those superheroes to dig up dead kings.”
Allison shrugged. “It’s happened before, kind of. You know Himmler?”
“Swedish bloke, right?”
“Nah, German. One of Hitler’s mates. When our guys were beating up their guys in Italy, he sent their best SS goons in just to get a book by Tacitus about how cool Germans were.”
“Roman guy. Wrote about Germans the way Lawrence talked about us.”
“Not like that. I don’t think he ever even went to Germany4.” Allison threw Dr. Merlin’s file like a frisbee. “What colour do you think that guy’s vest is?”
Mabel examined the photo inside. “Purple. Definitely purple.”
Roundtable had their own flying strongman, of course. Or flying strongwoman, in this case. Gloriana (real name Clarice Foster) had the holy trinity of superhero abilities: flight, super-strength, and invulnerability, plus the power to summon weapons forged of golden light. She was beautiful, but regally so, her tight, dark curls styled after the young Queen’s own. She wore a white body glove with shining metal shoulder armour and greaves, doubtless more for aesthetics than protection. A foil unicorn’s head was stamped on her chest. People like Gloriana were the holy grail of every government superhero program; not so much because of their strategic value as much as their symbolic worth. Everyone wanted to own a Flying Man.
You could always eat her, Alberto said inside Allison. Complete your set. Miri’s been lonely since we stopped talking. Allison felt the echo of a leering smile. Hell, I’ve been lonely, too. Could use a girlfriend.
Allison tossed away Gloriana, replacing her file with one stamped “STARRY KNIGHT.” The name made Allison smile. Starry Knight’s file contained two photos. One was of a grizzled man with clearly greying temples in what Allison guessed was a flight suit. He did not look like the kind of man who called himself “Starry Knight.” The other photo depicted the exact point where a diving suit became a spacesuit. The technological equivalent of those clever apes whose great-grandchildren would be people. The chrome plated helmet did indeed have a certain knightly cast to it, with its sloping design and narrow, black visor. Its swollen, Charles Atlas chest was fitted with a hand-wheel you’d expect to find on a submarine hatch, and its body was studded with large rivets. A metallic cape flowed from its back.
If Starry Knight’s file was to be believed, the first human beings in space had been British5. The clinical language employed failed to conceal the writer’s smugness about that. Anthony Peake had been a flying ace in the Great War, afterwards becoming an early member of the British Interplanetary Society6. Three years later—after a series of fortunate bequeathments, donations by curious industrialists, and the enlistment of at least one retired supervillain—Peake’s experience as a pilot got him nominated for captain of an audacious attempted moonshot. Peake and his three crewmates were loaded into the Astral Victoria—Britain’s first space vehicle—and launched into the void by something called a “gravity catapult” with hopes of making contact with the Gatehouse7.
Four days later—whether due to human error, mechanical failure, or interference by the Gatekeeper themselves—the Astral Victoria plummeted from the sky into the Mediterranean Sea. Only Anthony Peake emerged alive—alive and changed.
Mr. Peake is extremely hesitant to remove his spacesuit in company. While we initially speculated a physiological root for this behaviour, Dr. Hamish Clanranald8instead credits survivor’s guilt and possibly latent agoraphobia…
Allison found herself overwhelmed with pity. She turned to the page detailing Starry Knight’s powers:
Anthony Peake describes his power as manipulating the geometry of spacetime. What this translates to in practise is the ability to warp both distance, and gravity…
Something buzzed inside Allison’s skull. She closed her eyes, turning to the storm of futures:
Arnold, rising screaming into the sky…
The Crimson Comet, struggling to take a single step…
Trees twisting and stretching like tentacles from the soil…
“Hey Mabes,” said Allison. “Chuck me a colour pencil?”
Allison caught the purple pencil deftly, closing Starry Knight’s file and circling his supernym before putting it to the side. Just then, Drina Kinsey opened the door. She was wearing a Bròn Binn supplied dressing gown, her hair damp from the shower. She clapped her hands. “Right girls, time for bed.”
They both protested:
“Come on,” whined Mabel. “We’re on holiday!”
“No, you’re not,” replied Drina. “We’re on a mission.” She still couldn’t believe she could say that with a straight face.
“I’ve still got files to read!” said Allison. “They’re important!”
“There’ll be time for that in the morning,” insisted Drina. “I know how fast you read.”
The girls relented. Soon, the lights were off, and heads were against pillows.
I’m gonna go exploring. Mind the fort, will ya?
Does this count as my turn? Because sleep is boring.
Allison rolled her eyes in the dark.
I’ll give you two extra days next month if you sleep for me, okay?
With that, Allison stepped out of her body, joining the ranks of Bròn Binn’s ghosts. She drifted out of the guest room through the hallways of the Phare. She passed through janitorial staff, sending shivers up their spine. Given they lived and worked on Bròn Binn, they were used to it. Allison couldn’t help but check in/snoop on her fellow Catalpans. Fred and Arnold were already asleep in their room, the son having had to endure hours of his father’s ranting and raving. None of it had been aimed at Arnold, but Allison knew from experience that it could be hard to remember that. As unattached boys and non-pyjama wearers, Billy and David were rooming together.
“Jack Lyons is the coolest,” Billy enthused.
David had his pillow wrapped around his ears. “You’ve told me,” he muttered.
“You know he’s half-caste? Like you and Tom!”
“Please don’t call us that.”
“You ever read Jack Lyons and the Fairy Mound?”
“I haven’t read any of them.”
“It’s a good one! So, one of Queen Victoria’s goddaughters starts acting strange—ahh!”
David threw his pillow at Billy. Allison giggled.
Ralph Rivers and Wally Grimsby were both reading in bed: the former The Sea Wolf by Jack London, the latter the latest edition of Vogue. Wally’s silk pyjamas were nicer than what most men wore to church. If he and Ralph’s beds had been an inch or two closer, they would’ve looked like an old married couple.
“It’s just not right,” Ralph grumbled, mostly to himself. “Superheroes working for the government.”
“Didn’t you fight in the war?” Wally asked mildly.
“That wasn’t a permanent arrangement! And I was fighting for the free world, not some politicians.” The corner of Ralph’s lip curled. “Well, the free world and Finch.”
Allison was stunned. Ralph had managed to bring up Finch without bawling.
“Point is, superheroes shouldn’t be soldiers, or cops.”
Wally smiled. “Whatever you say, sheriff of Catalpa.”
“Oh, shut up.”
“I have got to take you to the British Museum after this,” insisted Wally. “I bet I could still get us a table at Simpson’s-in-the-Strand—”
“I have been to London before, you know,” cut in Ralph. He smiled. “I think the dockers still tell stories about Fran.”
“We could always find out,” said Wally.
Finch and Fran in one conversation. Allison silently thanked Wally for all his good work and moved on.
She didn’t find Mistress Quickly in her room. Worried she’d been dragged off to some interrogation room or quietly shipped to the Hague, Allison searched all over the Phare until she came to Dr. Death’s room. His black doctor’s jacket and Mistress Quickly’s battle-suit lay together on the floor like mating shadows. Their owners lay in bed together under the covers, sharing a cigarette.
“That was great, Miss Simmons.” Dr. Death glanced at his lover for the night’s abdomen. “You’re sure we’re safe?”
Maude laughed. “Don’t worry, Elderwood. My womb’s sealed tighter than Fort Knox.”
Mistress Quickly grinned wickedly. “I actually work a lot like a queen bee. I store it all up until I need soldiers and workers.”
Dr. Death blinked. “You’re kidding, right?”
Allison’s spectre grimaced. “Ewww!”
Maude winked at her.
She fled through the ceiling as Maude cackled.
Allison found herself in Sir Edward’s study. The walls and bookshelves were lined with memorabilia from a long career in the civil service, the imperial pomp fading with age. Jack Lyons was having a meeting with the old spook.
“…They’re strange, but basically decent, I think. They all seem to follow the word of the Kinsey child, but at least she has a good head on her shoulders. I do wish you’d reconsider waiting to send Mr. Elderwood.”
Sir Edward was standing behind his desk. “I understand your concern for these people, Jack. It’s laudable. But they are still criminals. Their… town is built around stolen property. Property of the Commonwealth, in fact. Dr. Death is an important state asset. If we’d only found him sooner, the King, God rest his soul, might still be with us. If things get hot in Berlin, he’ll be more important than ever.”
Jack Lyons smiled wryly. “I guess we can’t all be replaced.”
Sir Edward’s forever-neutral expression became a true frown. “Please don’t talk about yourself that way, Jack… how are you doing?”
Jack sighed. “Going downhill, I’m afraid. With apologies to Mrs Bithers, food now has little taste.” He forced a smile. “Though that might just be my mother’s son talking.”
“Mrs Bithers retired in 1957, Jack,” said Sir Edward gently. “I believe she passed away a few years ago.”
A moment of silence.
“…When the Catalpans arrived, the music did nothing for me. You know how when you hear music, some tiny part of you tries to follow the tune? I could hear it fine, but it was all just… noise. I’m still functional. But I feel it coming.”
Sir Edward gave a small nod. “Hallucinations?”
“Nothing visual yet,” answered Jack. “Sometimes I hear my Priscilla, but she’s never hostile.”
Allison wondered what was going on. Was Jack Lyons sick? Allison supposed he had every right to be. The bloke was over a hundred. His song didn’t sound like it, though. His song didn’t sound like much of anything at all, unless you were very into espionage and fighting. If she had to guess, she would’ve called Jack Lyons a very out of date fifty, at best.
“That’s good.” Sir Edward’s face softened slightly. “If you like Jack, we could send you home tonight. There’s a boat ready. Your replacement would be ready before the Catalpans wake. I doubt they would tell the difference.”
Do they think we’re blind? Allison asked herself. Or did all Englishmen really look and sound a bit like Lawrence?
Whatever the answer, Jack Lyons shook his head. “No. I’m not ready to drag another man into this. I need to see it through.”
“Very well,” said Sir Edward.
Allison was very confused. She spent an hour searching the Phare for an answer, but all she found were files and papers, which were hard to read when you didn’t have hands. She flew out of the tower house. The lighthouse the Phare took its name from spun a blade of light across the night sky, wiping away stars with its glare. Allison glided over worker cottages and storage sheds, containing everything from confiscated super-weapons to gardening equipment. There was a small cemetery near the island’s northern end. She was about to give up and head back to her body when she spotted a figure in white walking into what looked like a lone, concrete cupboard, barely large enough for a tall man. They closed the door behind them, and did not emerge. Curious, Allison swooped down right through the metal door. Carved stairs led down through a sloping tunnel of rock. Allison caught up to the figure she’d followed, discovering him a man in a white hazmat suit. Soon, the pair came out into a large, limestone cabin, overlit by a ring of flood lights. Scientists and workers in white and grey bustled around consoles and equipment. In the centre was a cube made of metal mesh.
Allison moved towards it, a phantom among dozens of white ghosts. She caught snatches of conversation:
“…Dragon is stable—”
“…Entering active period—”
When Allison drew closer to the cube, she recognized it for what it was: a Faraday cage. A structure designed to block radio waves. The electric field running through it stained the ether. It was not designed to block psychic powers. Allison stepped through the metal. She screamed silently when she saw what was inside. An enormous, wingless mosquito made of blown red glass scuttled about the floor, its legs tinkling musically with every step. It could’ve been bad stop-motion. Its abdomen was swollen with bright yellow light and veiny with wires. Looking into it made Allison forget who she was. She was an old man looking out over a dark sea. She was a girl trying to find a bush big enough to hide behind. She was a little boy, being made fun of for his accent—
Allison tore herself away, shooting out of the cage, up through the cavern, back into the night. Specifically, she emerged into the island’s cemetery. Jack Lyons was standing in front of a grave, arms over his knees. Allison moved towards him and read over his shoulder:
SON OF INDIA AND BRITTANIA BOTH, HERO OF THE EMPIRE
1. A historical pub in Holborn, London, one of the few buildings to survive the Great Fire of London in 1666.↩
2. A British publishing house founded in 1809. After the introduction of compulsory education in 1870, the firm would find great success in educational texts and children’s books, leading to a contract with the British government to produce chapter books based on the “true adventures” of Jack Lyons. After the company’s closure in 1990, later attempts to revive the series would face stiff criticism for the books’ rampant racist, sexist, and generally Victorian attitudes. ↩
3. The name “Oberon” is very commonly ascribed to fairy monarchs. While there are still scholarly holdouts, current consensus is that most of these reports concern different individuals, with Oberon either being a regnal name, or perhaps a title meaning something akin to “tribal chieftain.” ↩
4. He did not. Though he can be slightly excused by Germany not existing at the time. ↩
5. Obviously discounting the ancestors of the many humanish super-civilizations found across the Milky Way. ↩
6. A non-profit British space advocacy organization founded in 1933, one of the earliest of its kind. The fallout of the Astral Victoria disaster would lead to the group disbanding only four years later. ↩
7. Gatehouses: Monitoring stations established by the Throneworld of the Southern Spiral to survey primitive worlds within its sphere of influence. Usually built as space-stations, or very rarely within the atmosphere of their worlds, Earth’s Gatehouse is instead located on its relatively large moon. ↩
8. The British offshoot of the alien being known as the Physician, destroyed in 1966 during the course of Joseph Allworth’s cull. ↩