All posts by thewizardofwoah

About thewizardofwoah

Amateur writer, snarker of silly things.

Chapter Eighty-Two: He Had Wings

In the sleepy non-town of Mogo1 by the Tasman sea, there lived a wingless angel. He was tall and solid as stone, his eyes like chips of coal. Though no longer young by any means, he wasn’t what you would call old, either—yet his hair and beard were white as Jupiter’s. 

“Poor Ralph went white in the war,” the old folks around Mogo said. Mogo had a lot of those. “Horror’s as good as bleach for hair.”

Mogo was perfect for Ralph Rivers. The town had sprung up during the Gold Rush, and hadn’t quite been able to scatter to the wind when the streams and mines dried up. Home to less than four hundred people, the local tavern was friendly, but not too friendly. Folks who passed through on Princes Highway barely noticed the little smudge of town.

Most importantly, there weren’t any super-heads in Mogo. 

And sometimes, when some coded, unspoken signal passed between Ralph and a transient at the pub or the petrol-station… 

It was always quick. Rough. Furtive. Tainted by the dread of betrayal or discovery. Nothing like with Vince or Finch. But he’d learned the hard way it was all men like him could hope for. 

He tried never to look in their wallets. Always that little fear of seeing a wife and kids staring back.

Still, it wasn’t all bad. When he could bear to be around children, he would head up to Sydney and look in on his niece and her kids. Stop off with an old lay of his on the way back. Sometimes his family even visited him back:

“Who’s that, Uncle Ralph?” Ralph’s youngest grand-niece asked, pointing at his refrigerator.  

“Hmm?” Ralph followed Josie’s finger to what she was pointing at: an old black and white photograph from the war.  

Ralph was standing on an airfield (in plainclothes, of course; none of Jan’s kids were old enough for that chat) grinning at the camera besides a fair-haired little girl wrapped in an oversized German army jacket with the sleeves torn off. She didn’t look happy to be so attired. Or attired at all, for that matter. There was a strange shine to her eyes, apparent even in faded monochrome. 

Ralph smiled wistfully. “Oh, that’s Fran. She’s… a friend of mine.”

Josie giggled. “She’s too little to be your friend.” 

“What, we’re not friends?” Ralph asked with a mock-frown.

“No! I mean, yes but—”

Ralph chuckled and raised his hand. “I’m kidding ya, Josie. Fran was… I took care of her until I could find her a proper home.”

“Does she live close? Could we go see her?”

“Nah, she lives in WA now.”

“That’s far away.”

“It is. She has a baby boy of her own now, too.”

Josie’s eyes lit up. “A baby?” Her mother had gotten her a baby doll that Christmas, and she was very intrigued by the whole business. “Have you seen it?”

Ralph smiled at the memory of a bronze skinned toddler pressing his face against the fish-tank glass. “Just the once, a long time ago.” 

God, David had to be what, seven now? Eight? When was Fran’s last letter? 

Ralph had been surprised when he’d first gotten the news. Not so much by Fran having a kid out of wedlock. Even if he could judge anyone else’s romantic choices, he never expected Françoise to lead a conventional life. But with Hugo? He’d sooner have expected Alberto, or Chen. Hell, even Eliza seemed like a more likely prospect. He was glad of it, though. Hugo was the only lad there who wasn’t… prickly.

“So,” said Josie, “Why couldn’t Fran stay at your house?” 

The little girl glanced about the kitchen. “Did the washing machine leak? Ours did. Daddy had to call to tear up the floor, and call a plumber, and…” 

Ralph stood there as his niece rambled, hoping to God she didn’t find the lead again. How the hell did he explain this to a five year old?

Jan rescued him, plucking her daughter up from the kitchen stool. “Time for your nap, love.” 

“But I’m not tired!” Josie whined against her mother’s chest.

“And that’s how I know you need it.”

Jan turned and carried Josie off to the spare bedroom, looking apologetically over her shoulder at Ralph.

Bless Jan. She never judged him. Friends with Finch, even. Still, what decent mother wanted her little girl knowing her uncle was a fag?

Life was quiet in Mogo. An endless stream of garden work and odd jobs around Eurobodalla Shire. He wasn’t short on cash. Hell, he’d bought Jan’s house for her. It was more to keep himself fossilizing alive than for the money.  His occasional employers gawked and joked when they saw him hammer in nails with a closed fist or drive posts into sun-baked soil like it was water, but nothing ever came of it. If anyone talked to the freak-finders about him, they never followed up. Ralph didn’t know if his solitude was born out of goodwill, fear, or genuine obscurity. Either way, Ralph and the rest of the world were content to ignore each other.

It was a whisper of a life. The residue at the bottom of the glass. An early sunset more fit for a man thirty years Ralph’s senior. Most days spent growing steadily more vapid in front of the TV. Most evenings on an empty fishing pier, downing beer after beer as the stars moved around him. But it was bearable. Better than the black days after the war. After Fran left. After Vince. The days of broken razor-blades. 

But one day, far away but everywhere, something happened: 

Ralph slapped a newspaper and a carton of cigarettes on the counter. “The Australian and a carton of Winnie Blues, thanks.”

“Sure thing, Mr. Rivers.”

Ralph’s eyes fell on the paper’s front-page. There were two children, a boy and a girl. They were dancing on a frozen over lake in front of Parliament House. Their eyes were both aglow.

“…What’s this?” Ralph asked quietly. 

Gary the newsagent shrugged. “Some demis put on a show for the Prime Minister. Apparently some bloke has a whole school for them out west.” He grinned at Ralph. “Glad it’s not our coast, right?”

Ralph ignored the unintended slight. He emptied his wallet out on the counter, snatched the newspaper, and ran out the door. “Keep the change!”

“But you gave me a tenner!” Gary waved the Winnie Blues carton. “And what about your fags?”

Ralph’s voice echoed down the street. “Fuck em!” 

Robert Menzies had invited Herbert Lawrence and his students to Canberra. The prime minister invited Fran’s son to Parliament. All of a sudden David occupied Ralph’s every other thought. Was he happy? Did he take after Fran or his father? And who was that girl dancing with him? Did Fran have a daughter? When? Ralph certainly hadn’t been told. Not only that, she looked the same age as David. And she was too white to be Hugo’s.

He cut out the front-picture and pinned to his fridge next to Fran’s photo, proud as horses. He wrote a bittersweet, alternate biography in his head. One where he had gotten to watch David grow up.  

Things were going to change now. They had to. He knew they would, eventually. 

They didn’t. 

Ralph sent more letters to Françoise, congratulating David and his unknown partner. He received no answer. Ralph couldn’t blame Fran. Why should she make time for the old queen who gave her away? 

The stillness soon returned to Ralph’s life. Months flowed like water through his fingers, if a little colder for that brief flush of hope. 

Then Canberra was bombed. Ralph spent days at his kitchen table with the radio on, expecting police or soldiers to kick down his door any second, not sure what he would do if they did.

By the time he ventured outdoors again, the papers were proudly blaring new horrors. Turned out the bombings were the work of a demi-human cult in Western Australia, led by a mad Oxfordian psychatrist obbessed with the obsolescence of human kind and selective breeding.

David. The girl. He’d left Françoise at a human cattle ranch.  

That wasn’t all. The papers said that the brave Australian soldiers were forced to put down some violent cultists.

Ralph wasn’t sure how he knew Françoise was among them. Maybe it was a bitter taste in the water. Maybe he just knew Fran would die before letting anyone or anything harm her son. The black days were back.

Before the week was out, the shattered remains of the world were ground into sand. Two photographs vied for space on the front page of The Australian: a bizarre, tear-shaped spaceship hovering over the city of Melbourne, and a blurry photograph of the five children who’d held the Royal Exhibition Building and the senior staff of the DDHA hostage. Rumour was that the ring-leaders were the very children who’d performed for the deceased prime minister that winter. 

Ralph only had to glance at the paper to know those rumours were true. There was little David, wild hair and luminous eyes, dressed in water. Out of the fish-tank.

That night, Ralph Rivers stood in front of his bedroom mirror, resplendent in his old suit, minus his long destroyed wings. The golden eagle stamped above his brow glinted in the starlight drifting through the window. Ralph didn’t know what he was about to do. Go and stop David and his friends? Help them? Whatever it was, he wasn’t going to stand by and let the world slide deeper into Hell. He was a superhero, goddamnit. He was the antidote to apathy. He should’ve gotten back in the game when they started rounding up kids.

But whenever he tried to step out of the house, he remembered the feeling of arms tearing from  sockets. Of flesh and bone exploding around his fist. The plaintive looks of fear and pain on soldiers’ faces. The images blurred together. He wasn’t brutalizing Germans or Italians, but David, or the girl, or Fran. Their blood sticking between his fingers… 

Curled on his bed, he wept. He was useless. Utterly fucking useless.

When he could weep no more, Ralph rose and peeled off his costume, shoving it roughly under his bed. 

And then, he got on with it.

“Hey Rivers,” Gary called out to Ralph as he passed the newsagent. “You hear? The Flying Man’s dead!”

“Good,” Ralph grunted, carrying a bag of fertilizer on his shoulder.

He was soon walking up the path to his flat through his garden. He saw his white cat creeping skittishly along the fence. 

What’s the matter with Pearl? Ralph wondered to himself. 

He unlocked the front door and stepped inside. 

There were people in his sitting room. Five gaudily dressed children, an old lady, and a younger woman in skinny jeans and a pink blazer over a black undershirt. The last was grinning wickedly at Ralph from his favourite armchair.

“Hey Comet,” said Mistress Quickly. “Nice place you got here.”

Ralph didn’t answer his old enemy. He was too busy looking at the dark-skinned boy leaning against the bookcase. His eyes were like nothing he’d seen since the war. 

“…David?”

⬖ 

“The Crimson Comet? What do we need him for?” Allison asked. “Bloke flies around and punches things. I’ve got the first thing covered, and the rest is pretty… simple.”

Maude extinguished the acetylene torch she was using to solder some circuitry, flipping her mask up and wiping sweat from her brow. “Never underestimate your standard flying strongman, Kinsey. Need to be flown to safety? Want a wall torn down? Need someone to complete a circuit with their bare hands? They’re good for all of the above!” Maude frowned thoughtfully. “Well, unless their secret weakness is electricity. Surprisingly common, that.” She shrugged. “Eh, most of them are heroes, they’d be up for it.”    

After the party had staggered exhausted through the dimensional rift, half the North American Maestros hot on their heels, Mistress Quickly had taken being teleported into Lyonesse’s foyer well. Her only response to the grand surroundings was to mutter, “Well, Joe was holding out on me…”

Maude more or less moved into the wardrobe for a day and a half after that. Well, it was called the wardrobe. It was closer to a small warehouse, containing hundreds of different outfits on motorized racks. Apparently Joseph Allworth felt it vital he had easy access to a clown costume, eighteen zoot suits, and a hooded winter version of his Flying Man outfit. 

“Why do you even need a fancy outfit?” Mrs Allworth asked as Maude tossed a full length Georgian gown into her arms. “I thought you ran around all the time in those overalls.”


“That’s just when I was robbing other dimensions, honey. It’s like working from home in your pyjamas, but with more fresh air and strangers shooting at you.” Maude jabbed her thumb towards Allison trying on some far too big dresses2 over her costume a few yards down the rack. “Plus, I don’t want to look underdressed next to that lot. Not that it’s easy to be underdressed with David around…” 

Sarah chuckled. “Not if I can help it.”

“Doing the Lord’s work there, Mrs Allworth.”

“Why other dimensions?” asked Allison. “Seemed like a lot more work.”

“Bunch of reasons,” replied Maude, holding a red leather motorbike suit in front of her. “One is that nobody cares if you steal the crown jewels and Prince Philip if they never go missing.” She threw away the suit. “There’s also harm minimization. Instead of robbing a lot of people in one reality, you spread them out across multiple universes.”

Sarah hummed dubiously. “Still sounds like common thievery to me.” 

Maude rolled her eyes. “With all due respect, Mrs Allworth, your son was the most painfully principled man I’ve ever met. Even he couldn’t get upset for me for robbing the Thousand Year Reich3 or the Theocracy4.”

 Allison was pulling a sky-blue satin dress over her head. “So, the Maestro world got took over by the super-people?”

“Yep,” said Maude. “Whole place is like someone built a funfair out of freak-finder nightmares. They swooped in when everyone was tuckered out from the war. Theirs lasted two extra years, can ya believe it?”

“Didn’t seem like they were doing a bang-up job of running things,” commented Sarah.

“Yeah,” said Allison, twirling in her dress like she was at the centre of a whirlpool. “We’d do a way better job.”

Sarah and Maude laughed uncomfortably, sharing a look. Neither woman had been brave enough yet to talk to Allison about how casually she’d dispatched Scrapper.

Once she’d settled on an outfit, Mistress Quickly had locked herself in Lyonesse’s machining workshop, ministering over what looked like an unravelled butterfly made of circuits and wires. 

The super-scientist let Allison watch her tinker from the edge of one of the workbenches, legs kicking the air as she took in Maude’s song. It was a strange tune, like a lullaby played on strings of pollen strummed by lightning. It didn’t let Allison do anything new, but it weaved stray thoughts in her head like silk threads. She’d already idly constructed a freeze-ray. Not that Maude had been overly impressed. Everyone had a freeze-ray in them. It was like the ABCs of enhanced science.

“It’s not even his powers we need,” Maude said as she guided a fuse into place with a pair of pliers. “It’s the image. I know half the supervillains in the super-max. If they’ll listen to anyone, they’ll listen to me.”

“Why’s that?” Allison hoped to God they hadn’t recruited a paper-tiger.

Maude smirked. “Kid, you’re looking at a three time winner of the Crime Olympics, and Villainy in Review’s5 Mad Scientist of the year for 1958.”

“…There’s a Crime Olympics?” 

“Well, a bunch of us get drunk and see who can steal the most shit in a week. But I still won.” Maude turned around and wagged her pliers at Allison. “Trust me, I’m at the head of that herd of cats.”

Allison was beginning to suspect Mistress Quickly didn’t often have a reason to explain herself. “So you’re like the boss of the baddies… so we need a superhero to… help us?”

Maude gritted her teeth. “You’re not listening, Allie. I can wrangle the villains, but—”

“Oh, you mean we need the Comet to get the superheroes on our side.”

Maude inhaled deeply. “Yes and no. You’re right that it won’t hurt, but getting the heroes to team up with us outlaws isn’t as big an ask as you might think. We’re practically the same species. Besides, we’re already breaking them out of a desert hell-prison. Right now, the only difference between a supervillain and a superhero in Oz is attitude, far as the law is concerned. It’s the regular folks at the super-max I’m thinking about.”

Allison cocked her head. “…You think the Crimson Comet will help with the guards?”   

Mistress Quickly threw her arms up. “No! I mean, yes! Quite possibly! But I mean the civilian prisoners.”

“But they’re not regular folks!” Allison retorted, a whine creeping into her voice. “They’re supers.”

Maude looked at the little girl for a moment, before smiling and shaking her head with a light laugh. “Oh, Allison. You and me? David? Even Mabel and Arnold, a bit? We might be different from the common man, but most supers? You’d hardly be able to tell the difference when they aren’t flying or throwing fireballs.”

Allison folded her arms. “I don’t believe you. Humans are boring. Even the nice ones.”

“You don’t have to believe me. But you have to understand, Allison, most of the people in that prison are scared out of their wits. Probably half-convinced themselves they deserve to be there. Their first instinct isn’t going to be to stand and fight. It’s gonna be to run and hide, or maybe curl up in a ball.” Maude stood very straight. “Nothing like a right proper superhero to get folks all revved and ready.” She turned back to her project, plucking away at it like a surgeon. “Besides, there’s our image to think about. You want people to think your little super-town is legitimate, right?”

“I don’t care what the humans think.”

“You should. Ralph Rivers might be the difference between all Australia thinking you’re the world’s biggest villain team waiting to strike, and just another friendly country town.”

Allison huffed. “Okay, okay. I’ll talk to the others about it. Billy and Mabel will be thrilled, I bet. Think he’ll even go with us?”

Maude grinned. “Of course he will. Altruism is like marching powder for superheroes.”

“What do you mean ‘no’?” Maude shouted, thrusting the large white box she was holding out between her and Ralph Rivers and shaking it. “I spent all week making this!”

“I don’t care!” cried Ralph. “You’re talking nonsense! Busting open the—what even is the super-max?” 

Allison shook her head in mute disgust from the big couch. “You don’t know? It’s where our people are being locked up!”

“To be fair,” Arnold muttered out the corner of his mouth, “that’s meant to be a secret.” 

Allison stuck her hand over her friend’s mouth, still scowling at Rivers. “Don’t you want to help your own kind?”

A sad, bitter sputter of laughter. “Girlie, we’re people with superpowers, not the Twelve Tribes of Israel!”

“We could be, if you helped us.”

Sarah Allworth cleared her throat from the kitchen doorway, a cup of tea in hand. “I know what Miss Quickly and the children are proposing is… audacious. But their hearts are in the right place, and I’m sure you’d be a great help.”

“I’m retired!” Ralph pointed an accusing finger at Mistress Quickly. “Who even are you?”

Maude exploded with indignation. “I was your last case!”

So?” Ralph swung around to look at the four weirdly dressed children, all wearing looks of badly blended surprise and disappointment. “You shouldn’t be here.” Whoever out there was working up superhero costumes for kids ought to be shot, Ralph reckoned. Like dressing up preschoolers in fucking camo. “If someone looked through the window and called the freak-finders—”

“I’d feed them to a dinosaur,” Mabel finished for him.

Ralph raised a finger, made to speak, then sighed and shook his head. “You’re all goddamn mad, you know that?”

Ralph’s eyes fell on David again. In the flesh, after all these years… 

Rivers pushed the other invaders and their lunatic sales-pitch out his thoughts. Whatever they were selling didn’t matter, not with David standing right there. He bent down and put his hands around the boy’s shoulders. “David, I never thought—your mother, is she…” 

He didn’t dare finish.

Contempt poured from David’s eyes. His grandfather’s eyes. This man was touching him like he was Grandfather. Like he knew him at all. “Dead,” he said. “My mum’s dead.”

A new blister of despair burst inside Ralph. He’d known for weeks, but to hear it from her son’s mouth…  He ran a hand along David’s cheek. “David, what happened to your eyes.”

David slapped Ralph’s hand away. “I stopped being weak.” 

Ralph squeezed back tears. “You’ve met your grandfather, haven’t you?”

David answered with a cold silence that broke River’s heart. He looked away from the boy, glancing at Allison and her burning red eyes. “You’re not his sister, are you?”

“From a different mother.”

For a horrible moment, Ralph wondered if she meant that figuratively or literally. He felt a hand on his back. The old woman was looking sympathetically down at him. 

“I’m sorry,” said Sarah. “I know what it’s like to lose a child.”

No. She didn’t understand. He didn’t deserve—  

“Yeah,” said Mistress Quickly. “Allie, I think it’s time for the contingency plan.”

“Wait,” said Sarah, “when did we discuss—”

Ralph Rivers shuddered and jerked like someone had poured pure pins and needles down his back. A curious expression overtook his face. He patted his hands up and down his body and grimaced. 

“Please stop making me be grown-ups,” Miri said with Ralph’s lightly smoke-scratched voice, “or boys.”                 

“Just temporary,” Allison assured her sister. 

“Better be.” 

“What in God’s name have you done to the poor man?” demanded Sarah.

“Allie stuck one of the people in her head inside Mr. Rivers,” Mabel explained. “I’m just glad she picked the nice one.”

“Happened in reverse a little while ago,” added Arnold. “Tell us if you ever hear Allie talking all Italian or if she starts smoking.”

Every day, Sarah regretted not taking Joe’s potion less and less.

The front door opened. A white cat bobbed through the air, twisting and yowling all the while. Billy became visible. “Can we keep her? Please, please, please! Someone’s got to feed her!”

“Team pet. Sure, why not,” said Maude.

Everyone looked to Sarah for a final verdict. She glanced wearily at Ralph Rivers experimentally flexing his pecs. 

She sighed. “Let’s just get going.”

Mistress Quickly stuck a hand in her left blazer pocket. “Liquid comfort.”

Blue light flared from the pocket, and she pulled out a long, brown square bottle. She undid the lid and handed it to Miri. “Drink this till you feel sleepy.”

Miri obeyed, only to recoil when the liquid within crossed her lips. “What even is this stuff?”

“Rum. It helps grownups sleep.”

Everyone got into a circle and started linking hands. Mistress Quickly watched Ralph Rivers suck down her booze like a baby with a very unpleasant bottle.

Man, he is going to be pissed when he wakes up.  


1. Not to be confused with the nearby creek, the historical Aboriginal tracker, or the planet.

2. The Flying Man was surprisingly convincing in drag.

3. An unnaturally prolonged German Empire, created by soothsayers in an attempt to avert the horrors of World War 2.

4. A version of Earth still dominated by the Roman Empire, ruled by Jesus of Nazareth after he got down from the cross and used it to clobber Emperor Tiberius to death.

5. An irregularly published piece of samizdat popular with supervillains, canny heroes and wannabes alike.

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Chapter Eighty-One: Mistress Quickly and the Maestros of Evil!

Mistress Quickly flitted like a shadow against the night sky, riding a whirring silver fan over dark pine and moon-pearled crags of rock. The shattered debris of the moon stretched out above her.

Maude still wasn’t sure why the Maestros of Evil1 had blown up the Moon. Compensating for the loss of proper tides alone ate up over half the planet’s GDP. Gatehouse hadn’t stopped Hitler or the Black Death, why should they have thought some uppity supervillains would’ve warranted their attention? They’d never had the chance to learn from that mistake.

Arrogance, pure paranoia and arrogance it was. But that was alright. That was what made the Maestro Alternative so great to begin with: everything worth stealing here belonged to a dickhead. 

Mistress Quickly veered sharply around a bone-white precipice, sending rocks and pebbles tumbling down the cliff face in her wake. She slowed her approach as Mt. Rushmore came into view in the distance. 

Not Mt. Rushmore, she reminded herself. Not even the Six Grandfathers or Cougar Mountain. Here it was Mt. Victory. The Maestros’ victory. 

Just like the one at home, four stoney faces were carved into the mountain flank, lights under their chins like children telling each other ghost-stories. Maude didn’t know whether they’d ever been the four presidents she knew, but it didn’t matter now. Now they were the founding members of the Maestros of Evil. Perpetually helmeted Red Knight2; the long-missing, sorcerous Night-Hag3; skeletal, bearded Scripture4; and on the far left, compound-eyed, insectile King Juhidrix5

Maude tapped a button on the rim of her flight-goggles. Her vision zoomed in on a shaft of light shining in the narrow valley behind King Juhidrix’s head. Two fascistically jumpsuited young men were toting guns either side of twenty-foot tall glass doors cut into the rock. Above the doors was a bronze skull struck through with swords and daggers like spokes in a wheel, because subtlety was for people who didn’t blow up the fucking moon. Beneath that were copperplate letters reading “MAESTRO MUSEUM.” No other qualifiers, lest they spoil the alliteration. 

Mistress Quickly passed over Juhidrix’s antennae and clicked her heels. Her glider came to a dead stop in the air. The magnetic light that lit its underside went dark as it folded into the soles of Maude’s boots. The super-scientist plummeted straight down, cold air rushing over her sleek black battle-suit and mask. 

She landed on her feet with strange silence in front of the guardsmen. An impact like that should’ve shattered all the bones in Maude’s legs. Instead, she felt her boots warm up and vibrate, the potential energy travelling up through her suit and pooling in the palms of her gloves.

Maude could hear the guardsmen raising their guns, barking out demands in their shaky, barely post-adolescent voices.

“Identify yourself, subject!”

Mistress Quickly looked up at the two men, her goggles glowing bright red like owl eyes at night. Her modulated voice rasped, “Do I look like a ‘subject’?”

Maude clapped. A wall of air hammered forward through the guardsmen, throwing them through the reinforced glass doors like they were paper-screens.

A claxon started blaring. Heavy steel security doors slid down in place of the ruined glass. 

Maude stood up and dusted off her hands. So far so good. She turned to face the back of Juhidrix’s stony head and switched her goggles to see-through mode. Far below, a dozen bobbing lights were starting up the eight hundred feet worth of granite stairs that wound up the mountain to the museum. She zoomed in. More guards, all armed. To be expected, really.

Mistress Quickly strode to the staircase landing at the mouth of the canyon and opened one of the hyperspace pouches on her belt. 

Blitzkrieg.”

Something the size and shape of an orange flew up into Maude’s magnetized palm. She pulled out a metal sphere with a black band around its middle, twisting round the top half thrice and blithely tossing it down the staircase. 

Now to deal with the doors. 

Maude strolled back to the entrance, not missing a beat as a distant explosion and even more distant screaming echoed up the mountain. She rapped the metal plate of the security doors with her knuckles. Solid stuff. Drilling or cutting through it would take time she probably didn’t have. 

Actually, there was an idea. 

She reached back into the pouch she’d procured the bomb out of, muttering, “Tempus,” under her breath. She closed her fingers around a spray-can with a blue hourglass stenciled on it. Maude gave it a good shake and sprayed. 

The metal reddened like ripening apples the instant the droplets settled, only to turn brown and dissolve just as quickly. Who knew time itself could be vapourized and stored? Mistress Quickly, that’s who.

Just as Maude expected, the guardsmen already had their guns up and ready when she stepped through the hole.

“Fire!”

A flurry of bullets hit Maude dead-centre. Or more accurately, they hit a few thousand Maudes in a few thousand practically identical timelines. 

None of them felt a thing. 

Maude chuckled, before lunging forward and snatching the gun from the guard on the right, smashing it into his comrade’s helmet visor in a mess of blood and black glass. She spun around, firing two quick rounds into the other guard’s knees. 

The guard screamed like a dying cockatoo as his legs collapsed under him. Maude stalked over to his side, broken glass crunching like dead leaves beneath her boots. She knocked off the guard’s helmet with a sharp kick. 

“Alright, buster, tell me—”

The guard—the boy, really—sobbed. “Please don’t kill us!”

Maude’s nose wrinkled behind her mask. God, the Maestros recruited them young, didn’t they? This one still had pimples! Poor bastard probably signed up to escape some state-sized ghetto. 

Maude sighed. “I’m not gonna kill ya, kid.”

“Is George okay?” 

Maude glanced over at the other felled guard. He was out cold, but breathing steadily. A grocery list of vital statistics was scrolling next to him in the HUD of Maude’s goggles.

…97% percent chance of recovery.  

“He’ll be fine.”

Not-George let out a relieved, brittle breath. “Good.”

Maude sat down beside the young man. “How’s this sound, kid? You tell me which pocket you keep your keys, I staunch your bleeding and give you some night-night juice. I’m sure you and George will get Purple Hearts for your trouble. Or is it a Purple Skull here?”

Not-George didn’t even try to make sense of the madwoman’s rambling, only closing his eyes and nodding shakily. Less than two minutes later, Maude left the boy to enjoy his freshly bandaged knees and the top shelf painkillers she’d shoved into his neck.

In Maude’s world, budget issues had left the Hall of Records behind Lincoln’s head nothing more than a hallway to nowhere in an oddly rectangular cave. Here, though, the Maestros had taken the project to a twisted conclusion: cavernous eighty by one hundred feet marble chamber, full of bronze and glass cabinets housing the grisly trophies of the Maestros of Evil. A monument to their conquest of Earth—and a tourist-trap for their more privileged slaves. The sort of folk who could stand a boot on their neck as long as they got to be on top of someone.  

Mistress Quickly stood in the middle of the hall, scanning the exhibits with her goggles. Aside from the flash-mummified superheroes, the ragged capes fluttering in the fan-driven air of their cabinets, and the ubiquitous skewered skull that dominated the floorplan, the hall didn’t differ greatly from any other museum Maude had visited. There was even a little donation box in the east corner:

All donations go towards stabilization of the lunar debris field

“Idiots.”

Another important similarity the Mt. Victory Maestro Museum had to other such institutions was that everything in it was basically glorified garbage. If it weren’t, Maude might’ve actually had to break a sweat getting in there.  

Pendragon’s sword? Useless. Pendragon’s power came from Pendragon, not the overpriced, roughly sword-shaped hunk of metal he lugged around. Thunderbolt’s cape? Even if Maude went in for sentimental value, this one was fake. The real thing was languishing in Archangel’s6 private collection over in Manhattan. The constitution? Please.

Nobody stuck useful things in a museum. However, as anyone who’s ever been to a garage sale might tell you, it was terribly easy to mistake treasure for trash.

Maude’s eyes lit up when she saw the cabinet at the end of the hall. It was a surprisingly spartan little display. A phial of dark red blood held between two gold tapers, set against starscapes painted onto the cabinet walls.

Maude’s HUD locked onto the phial: 

Throneworld platelets detected. Probable source: Imperial White. High probability of cell viability. 

The mad scientist trilled in delight and ran to the cabinet like a schoolgirl. She eagerly read the display plaque:

This blood was shed by the wicked Child-Princess Tilaearys during the ‘Throneworld’ attack on Earth after the Maestros’ successful destruction of their lunar spying facility in 1954. 

There were a lot of reasons Maude was robbing the Maestro Alternative. One was that at the moment, home was somehow even more weird and paranoid. Another was the complete lack of guilt. But most importantly, the Empress of the Southern Spiral had never bled on Maude’s Earth. 

Mistress Quickly unlocked the case with Not-George’s key, gingerly placing the phial into a hyperspace pouch. 

Fools. The Maestros could’ve bred an army of high supers if they knew what prize they had. Maude wasn’t even sure what she would do with the blood yet, but there was no way she’d just stick it in a fucking museum—  

That was when Mistress Quickly heard the sound every super-thief dreaded: a slow clap.

She turned around. “Shouldn’t you be in Montana, Archangel?”

Three men were standing in a row at the head of the hall. Maude only recognized the one in the middle—a chiseled blonde with slicked back hair in a vault of heaven body-glove and a thick white cape. Archangel, the king of America.

“Those terrorists and their bleeding heart rogue supers are just one of many problems I need to manage, Mistress Quickly. It’d be greatly appreciated if you stopped adding to my burdens.”

Maude smiled. “Look, if you wanted to keep that starship wreckage7, you shouldn’t have put in  bloody Fort Knox. Like painting a bullseye on it!”

Archangel sighed. “I don’t expect you would understand the good we could’ve done with that technology, Quickly.”

Maude laughed. “Good? Archangel, mate, your friends paint skulls all over anything.”

Archangel folded his arms. “You can’t judge based on appearances.” 

“You blew up the moon!”

Archangel waved a hand. “I will admit, the early days could be… excessive, but I like to think I’ve molded the Maestros into a positive force for order.”

“And, humble public servant you are, all you asked in return was a Black Sea mansion and a different girl for every day of the week.”

Archangel’s divine face twisted in rage. “You don’t know what I’ve given up…”

Oh no, time for the tortured heel speech. This could take a while. Maude tried to turn Archangel out, focusing on exit strategies. 

“…When Thunderbolt looked me in the eye and told me we were losing, what was I supposed to do?”

No fire escapes. Maude wasn’t surprised. Evil rarely obeyed health and safety codes.

“I saw Washington turn to jelly…”

Was he still going?

“The perfect is the enemy of the good, Mistress Quickly! I swore that day—”  

One of Archangel’s companions—a trenchcoat clad, green-haired Japanese man who seemed bred for 1990s sci-fi covers—blessedly interrupted his spiel. “Stealing Princess Tilly’s blood are we?” He smirked,  “Don’t tell me you’re secret girlfriends or something.” 

Best not let them know the blood was useful. “I did it for the challenge.”

The great thing about wearing a mask was that you could grimace without giving the game away. Maude hated “gentleman thieves.” Who the hell thought not needing to steal made it more noble? 

Archangel raised an eyebrow. “You robbed a lightly guarded tourist display in a sparsely populated territory. For the challenge.” 

Archangel looked to the super on his right, an elderly man in what looked like a purple bathrobe. His head was pitted crystalline growths, as though his brain were one big gem that didn’t quite fit inside his skull. 

“What’s she really doing, Sanguine?”

Maude swore under her breath when she saw Sanguine put his fingers to his temples in the multiversal psychic gesture. The crystals on his head flashed red. 

“She’s taking the blood back to her home reality to reverse engineer Tilaearys’ powers.”

“She’s from another dimension?” Archangel lips hardened into a frown. “And why aren’t we reverse engineering her fucking powers?”

Sanguine threw his hands up between him and Archangel. “Hey, pal, wasn’t my call!”

“Yeah, I’m going,” said Maude.

An absolute bear of man in a stained leather apron materialized in her path. He towered over Maude by nearly two heads, and his thickly bearded face was purple with fury. “What the fuck have you done now, moron?” 

Maude jerked backwards. “Dad?”

“Forgotten who I am, retard?” her father jeered right in her face. “Not surprised. Wish I could forget I was your dad, too. Christ, your mother should’ve drowned you with the kittens!”

Maude stood there, frozen to the spot. She could see spittle droplets on her goggles.

…Which weren’t registering any vitals. 

Maude grabbed her hand-cannon off her belt and spun a wheel on its hilt, literally firing from the hip. 

A dart struck Sanguine square in the chest. The psychic looked down at the projectile. “Well, shit…”

He teetered forward and fell hard on his face. Maude’s father faded back into memory. 

Mistress Quickly flicked the gun’s ammo-wheel again and aimed at Archangel and the green-haired Maestro. “Your psychic should’ve looked harder. I haven’t been afraid of that arsehole in years.”

Archangel looked down disdainfully at Sanguine before turning to his remaining comrade. “Scrapper, you’re up.”

Scrapper shucked off his trenchcoat and cracked his knuckles with a metallic pop. “My pleasure, captain.” He screamed like a broken microphone as curved chrome tubes erupted from his calves, tearing through his trouser legs in a spurt of blood and black oil. He grinned hungrily at Maude, revealing a set of black iron teeth

 

Scrapper rocketed at Maude like a demented figure-skater, the protusions in his legs belching jets of flame.  

Maude dove to the right, letting Scrapper sail past her while she rolled over and fired a few high-impact rounds into his back. 

Scrapper’s jets extinguished, the Maestro sliding to a stop. He inhaled sharply, pulling the bullets inside of him with a grinding slurp. He turned to face Maude. “Thanks,” he said, his voice hissing and distorting. “Haven’t had depleted uranium in ages!”

Bullets erupted from the super’s fingertips, his arms juddering backwards from the recoil. They hit Maude like a cloud of wasps, every bullet stinging just a little more than the last as her suit struggled to spread the impact out across the timelines. 

Sound and fury!”

The hall went white. Thunder boomed in the Maestros’ ears. Both men tried to simultaneously cover their ears and shield their eyes, coughing

The light faded. Mistress Quickly was gone. 

“Where’d the bitch go?” Scrapper asked. “She teleport or something?”

“No,” Archangel growled, his watering eyes darting around the hall. “If she could just leave, she would have already.” 

Camouflaged against a wall, Maude swore inwardly. Why had she skimped on a teleportation unit?

Archangel stepped over George and Not-George into the hole Maude had made in the security door, putting his hands on either edge of it. 

What Mistress Quickly wouldn’t have given for a giant fucking sheep right then. 

“Unless she can tunnel through rock, this is Quickly’s only exit. Smoke her out.”

Scrapper bent backwards, a mass bulging under his tight black shirt. With a sound like a fork in a blender, a cannon barrel erupted from his chest. 

The supervillain strained like he was giving birth. A cannonball flew out of him, colliding with the Pendragon display in an explosion of broken glass and plastic shards. He turned in place and fired again. And again. Maude had to slide to the left as one hurtled right where her head had been. The hall shook. Marble dust rained down from the roof.

Archangel caught a cannonball heading for the entrance. “For Christ’s sake, man, you’ll cause a cave in!”

“We’re invulnerable, who cares?”

Archangel gestured with the lead ball at the still-unconscious Sanguine. “He’s not.”

Maude suppressed a groan. She was going to be here all night. And her invisibility-web was only good for five minutes.

Scrapper glared at Archangel. “Look, if I’m doing such a crap job, why don’t you get off your spandexed ass and help?”

Smoke from the ruins of the Thunderbolt display drifted up to the ceiling, bringing the fire-sprinklers to chittering life. Water droplets rained down on the hall, creating riverlets of rubble and dust, as well as revealing what looked like a startled woman made of glass…  

Scrapper grinned. “Or you can trust my methods.”

Scrapper roared, plumes of smoke flowing from his nostrils. Tumorous metal growths bloomed from his cheeks, and his hair was forced out of his scalp by metal wires. His eyes exploded as glowing orange headlights bulged in his skull, while his torso was torn in half by a rolling and shifting mess of guns. Hydraulic arms ending in pincers, claws and scroops forced their way out of his back, all snapping at Mistress Quickly. 

Scrapper’s voice rumbled like an industrial furnace. “It feels so good to be naked.”

Maude became visible and clicked her heels, rising into the air on her glider as a breeze of bullets blew under her, swerving and weaving as it followed her upwards. A thick metal cable shot out of Scrapper’s maw, writhing through the air and trying to grab at Maude’s legs. 

Okay, Maude thought as she circuited the hall ahead of the metal worm like a mechanical hare. He likes metal. So no bullets. Or axes, or knives, or hammers. What else is there?  

Rubber?

Mistress Quickly opened a hyperspace pouch. “Bounce.” 

A red rubber ball flew into Maude’s hand. She threw the ball hard. It struck the corner of a still intact glass case, splitting into two identical red balls as it richotched. Both balls split again when they hit a tapestry of the Maestros crossing the Hudson and an old Red Knight suit. Those balls split on impact in turn. Soon the whole museum looked like the inside of a cooking packet of popcorn, new balls popping into existence every second.

Scrapper grinned smugly with what was left of his face as the rubber balls bounced harmlessly off him and Archangel. He even retracted his tongue.

“You shot me, and you think these will take me down?”

“Not exactly,” replied Maude. 

The cloud of balls rapidly became a rising flood as they pooled on the floor. Soon they were up to Scrapper’s ball-joint knees.

“Wait, what—”

His words were lost as the super was buried alive in the rubber balls. The rubber wave crest fell towards the entrance. Archangel reflexively took flight to avoid the surging mass. Maude swooped under him and grabbed the guards by the scruff of their necks, dragging them out of the museum behind her.

Mistress Quickly just managed to get clear into the night air when the balls spewed out of the hole behind her.  

She hastily propped the pair semi-upright against the back of King Juhidrix’s head, patting them both on the chest. 

“Good luck, fellas,” she told the two, before riding up and away from Mt. Victory. 

She’d only gotten five hundred meters away from the carved faces when she heard the boom. Maude looked behind her. Archangel was flying right at her with his arms at his side, screaming his rage into the night. Scrapper wasn’t far behind, now a tangled bush of machinery propelled through the air by enormous jet-turbines. 

Aww, crap

Maude swung around on her glider and aimed her gun at the incoming supers. She was trying to decide between a hurricane or a sonic blast when a wave of water T-boned Archangel mid-air.

“The hell?” Scrapper shrieked, so distracted he blew right past Maude.

Maude looked up. 

There was a little boy dressed in what looked like a dancer’s leotard made of a summer seascape. He was riding atop a bridge of water through the air, like a carpet winding and unwinding across the sky. 

He wasn’t alone. Flying under her own power beside him was a girl who looked like carved moonrock wrapped in an elaborate tye-dyed costume. And above them was a green, yellow and red Chinese dragon, upon which rode yet three more colourfully dressed children, and an old woman with a hand clamped tight over her akubra hat. 

And was one of them a cat?  

The old woman called down, “Excuse me… Miss? Are you named Mistress Quickly by any chance?”

“Recently, yes,” answered Maude, her voice slightly amplified. “You folks on my side?”

“Think so,” said the girl closest to the dragon’s head, wearing something that looked like a comic book collection had been skinned alive to make it. 

Maude rose till she was level with the dragon. She asked the old lady, “Have the Free Staters started fielding ten year olds8?”

Sarah shook her head. “We aren’t locals. We’re… from the same place as you.”

“And how did you get here? Ain’t exactly a bus running to the Maestro Alternative.”

“Fire-portal-thing in your plane,” said Allison.

Maude blinked behind her goggles at the flying girl. “You found my mobile-bunker?”

“It’s an airplane,” said Allison.

How?” 

“I believe my son was tracking you. Sorry.”

“Wait… what’s your name?”

“Sarah Allworth.”

No. You’re the Flying Man’s mum?”

“Joe told you about me?”

“Only nice things,” Maude assured Sarah. “How is the uptight bastard?”

“My son is dead.”

“Oh.” 

Everyone hovered for a moment, silent as the stars above. 

“I’m sorry to hear,” said Maude. “Confused, but sorry. He was a good man.” She looked back at Allison. “You’re not his daughter, are you?”

Allison bit her lip. She really didn’t want to laugh right now in front of Mrs Allworth. “Nope, I can just fly.”

“And your eyes glow.”

Allison shrugged. “That too.”

“So, why’d you come looking for me?” asked Maude.

Allison cleared her throat and said, “We need you to help us free all the supers in Australia.”

“That’s… a big ask.”

Allison took a deep breath, ready to launch into the Pitch again, when a flying explosion of shrapnel smashed into her side, sending her back towards Mt. Victory.

Arnold screamed. “Allie!”

Scrapper slammed Allison into a dark alcove in the mountain, pinning her against the shadowed rock. 

A pale, mottled face rose from within the metal mess to leer at the little girl. “That didn’t kill you? Surprising! Means I get to have fun.” 

Allison felt the Earth call up to her through the mountain. Heat flowed into her through her back. She burst into red and purple flames. “Big mistake.”

Far off, Maude and the Watercolours heard a harsh, metallic scream. The mountain bled a thin stream of white-hot metal between the Red Knight and Night-Hag’s faces. 

“I think your friend’s fine,” Maude told Arnold. “I’m—”

A very wet Archangel grabbed Maude by the neck and swung her around to face him. “You bitch. I was going to recruit you! Let you help us fix the moon. And then you go and kill two of my men!”

Maude wheezed, “Technically it was just the one…”

Archangel’s sneered and raised his fist—  

There was a green flash and a blast of thunder. Archangel was gone.

Maude breathed a little raggedly as she massaged her windpipe, before turning back at the dragon. The boy in the starry black cloak waved at her.

“As I was saying, I’m impressed.”

Allison flew back into their midst, dripping wet with molten slag. “Hey guys.”

There was a rumble. The mountain shook.

Mabel asked, “Hey, Arnold, where did you put the flying guy?” 

“In the mountain—”

Archangel burst out of Night-Hag’s forehead like an inverted Athena. “Bastards!

Billy waited until Archangel was only a metre or two away, before leaning forwards and roaring with all his might. The force of it pushed clouds towards the horizon, and caught Archangel directly in the face.

It was the first time in years that someone had made the lord of America bleed. He struck the mountain a second time, and this time, did not return. The entire mountain face crumbled and collapsed like a waterfall of rock. 

Billy beamed around at his friends. They applauded. 

“Okay,” said Maude. “You know what? Let’s hear your proposal.” 


1. As with many similarly named groups, the “Of Evil” part was a nickname the Maestros earned rather than one they had to force.

2. A millionaire (billionaires not having been invented then) weapons manufacturer unexpectedly plunged into an active war-zone. Unfortunately for the world, he liked what he saw.

3. Elsa Lieroinen quickly became bored of the Maestros.

4. A former Primitive Baptist preacher with a unique interpretation of the two-seed doctrine and a literal tongue of flame.

5. In truth, “King” was a more than fanciful translation of Juhidrix’s actual role in his home society: a drone. Hailing from a eusocial species, Juhidrix fled his (fatal) wedding night to try and build what could only be described as a patriarchal bee-hive on Earth using pheromone drugged humans.

6. Highest profile superhero convert to the Maestros during the Fall, current High Lord of the former United States.

7. The Montana Object: a wrecked alien vessel that crash landed into the Big Horn Mountains in 1942. Its only apparent occupant—a titanic aquatic creature—was evidently burnt to death during reentry, although researchers have noted what seem to be laser burns along its hull…

8. As a general rule, no. However, the resistance fighters of the American northwest and beyond were often assisted by the Golden Boy, a costumed super-child rumoured to be the son of Aurora, commonly considered the last of the superheroes.

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Chapter Eighty: The Adventures of Saint Josephine

The Watercolours didn’t know what they were expecting when David and Allison had shouted them awake and dragged them down to the foyer. Not this:

“So…” said Mabel, looking at Allison from the staircase like she had chicken-pox, “you want us to make our own super-country?” 

Allison shrugged, floating half-reclined above the fountain. “Okay, maybe ‘country’ is a bit big. But a city? A town?” She rolled her tongue, “A village, maybe?”

Arnold said, “A… whatever just for supers?”

Allison looked down at her friend. Images of his mum and dad were burnt into the front of his mind. “Yeah,” she said, “and people we like.”

The clouds of futures between Allison and her parents thinned. She smiled inside. 

“Give me a break,” Alberto hissed in her ear. “That’s just statistical noise. Might as well flip a coin and expect—”

There was a sound like a hand being clapped over Aberto’s mouth.

“Don’t be mean,” said Miri.   

“So where would we put this country?” asked Billy, kneading his tail. Where did new countries even come from? Did they grow like plants?

Perched atop the fountain’s water-spout, David said, “Well, we could always—”

Allison cut him off, “We’re not gonna put it under the sea, David.”

“But me and Granddad could make an air bubble—”

Mabel recited, “And then you get bored, or fall asleep, or someone hits you on the head with a hammer.”

“Who the heck’s gonna do that?”

Mabel examined her fingernails. “Oh, I don’t know…” 

“We can figure that out later,” said Allison. “There’s loads of space just in Australia. Most of the country’s just desert nobody uses1…”   

“Oh, brilliant,” said David, folding his arms. “You punch me in the nuts and I get to go live in a desert, hurray.”

Allison mussed his hair with her foot. “Don’t moan, David. I’m sure you could make it way less dry.”

“And who’s gonna run the place?” asked Mabel. “Are we gonna be a parliament?”

Allison scoffed. “Boring! Leave it to the grown-ups.”

“As long as we get statues,” insisted David. “Bronze at least. And they better not put a toga or something on mine. Oh, and a stage!”

“A stage?” asked Arnold. “You think the Beatles are going to come perform?”

“No, for us!” said David. “We haven’t done a play since The Tempest!”

Mabel beamed. She thought David had forgotten. “And it’ll have arena seating!”

“Yeah! No, wait, it’ll be an arena!” 

Mabel looked up at Allison. “Yeah, I’m in.”

“Sure, me too,” said Arnold. 

Billy put his hands on his hips and power-stanced, declaring, “Growltiger is also in!” in his best young stentorian soprano. 

David tilted his head. “Growltiger?” 

Billy shrugged. “Hey, Lawrence gave it, I’ll do what I want with it.”

“Children,” said the caretaker as firmly as his speakers would allow. “This is a foolhardy and most likely doomed endeavour.”

“Who asked you?” said Allison. 

“If sensible people waited to be asked, the human race would’ve died out before you mastered fire.”

Arnold smirked. “I’m pretty sure fire was some caveman kids messing around, mate.” He looked up at Allison. “So, how do we do this? We’re not gonna just find a patch of dirt and stick a flag in it, are we? Don’t even have a flag yet.”

“I could make the flag!” chirped Billy. 

“Excuse me?” interrupted Mabel. “Who’s the artist here?” 

“You both can!” said Allison. “Still, I got this covered: we’re gonna need people for this country, right? At least enough that nobody will want to mess with us or take it away.”

The other children nodded.  

“So we’ll do a prison break!”

“I get ya,” said Arnold. “We’ll bust open Roberts or somewhere?”

“Nope.”

“…Then where will we get the supers?” asked David.

Allison took a deep breath. Even she knew this would be a bit of a sell. “Circle’s End Supermax.”

Everyone went quiet for a moment.

“Circle’s End what?” said Mabel.

Allison descended down to the floor. “Remember when the Physician said Circle’s End has labs and stuff now?”

“Yeah?”

“Well, that’s not all. I was looking through the Flying Man’s files”—it still didn’t feel right calling him Joe—“and it turns out they’ve put a big jail there. For all the supers they couldn’t just lock up in the asylums. Some supervillains, a few old superheroes,; anyone who didn’t play nice with the freak-finders. Probably where me and Arnold would’ve ended up if Laurie hadn’t gotten us when he did. We’re gonna bust them all out, and they’re gonna help us scare the freak-finders into leaving us alone.”

“…Supervillains?” asked Billy after a few seconds. “You mean baddies.”

“They’re not all supervillains,” said Allison.

“But how many of them are?” asked Arnold.

“Thirty-six,” the caretaker answered. “Over a third of the inmates.” 

Allison scowled up at the ceiling. She really needed to find where that thing kept its brain…

“Yeah,” said Mabel, “I think I’m starting to agree with the computer voice thing.”

“Glad to hear,” said the caretaker. 

“Seriously, Allie,” said Arnold. “Why not one of the asylums?”

Allison sighed. “Because the asylums are for people who don’t fight back, or are weak enough for the humans to keep them locked there even if they did.”

“They kept us in them,” countered Arnold.

“Well, I mean—gaah! Look, I can see the future.”

Alberto corrected her. “Futures, love, you can see the futures.”   

Allison shouted, “Shut up, Alberto!”

She quickly noticed everyone was staring at her.

Allison waved her hand. “He’s just being a pest, it’s fine. What I’m saying is, the best chance we have is teaming up with the scariest supers we can find. Otherwise pretty much everyone gets arrested and we hide here and watch Doctor Who till we’re twenty-one.” 

“I don’t know why you’re all being such sooks,” said David, punching his open palm. “We can take ‘em.”

“Circle’s End is miles and miles from the sea, David,” said Mabel, voice hard.

“…Oh.”

The caretaker cleared his non-existent throat, “I hate to rain even harder on this parade, but Circle’s End is no ordinary prison.”

A holographic blueprint of what looked like a tent-peg crossed with a cross-section of an anthill materialized over David. The boy swatted at the projection, scattering it momentarily like bright grains of sand. 

“Stop that! As I was saying, Circle’s End Supermax stretches far underground, and is equipped to house over two hundred and fifty top-shelf supers like yourselves.”

“Thank you, sir!” Billy said.

“Just speaking honestly, Mr. St. George. And while I hate to be morbid: the prison has plenty of cells free.”

“So it’s underground,” said Allison. “So was Veltha most of the time.” She flexed her knuckles. “Still managed to beat her up a bunch.”

“That’s not all, Miss Kinsey. The prison was constructed by our friend the Physician, with the help of a bevy of quisling super-scientists2. It has a full complement of what Miss Winter called ‘Quiet Rooms’, various high-powered pacification measures, extra-normal perimeter defenses, and a platoon of combat-grade Physician drones.”

“Like Mr. Thumps?” asked David.

“Somewhat,” said the caretaker, “although your typical Physician drone wouldn’t rip a person in half and spit into their alimentary canal as a first resort. The poor devils are less grown as they are stitched together out of concealed weaponry and chemical rage.”

“Still think I could take them.”

Allison was rubbing her chin. She’d never admit it, but the caretaker had a point. “Okay,” she said, “maybe we could use some backup.” She pointed up at the ceiling. “The Flying Man has files on loads of super-people, right?”

“Correct.”

“Big-brains who are good at knocking over buildings and stuff?”

“Yes.”

“Okay, give us a name.”

“No.” 

“Come on!”

No. Sir wouldn’t stand for me letting you children throw yourselves into the fray like this—”

“My son is gone, Blancheflor,” said Sarah Allworth from the top of the staircase. She looked like she was dressed to travel, in khaki shorts and a leather vest. “And God love him, he helped create the world these kids are stuck in. The least we can do is help them make a new one.”

Allison snickered. “Blancheflor?”

“Joe went through a bit of a King Arthur phase when he was a boy.”

Blancheflor said, “Ma’am, I can’t—”

“Listen here, Blanchey,” said Sarah, wagging her finger. “Joseph was your boss, right?”

“…Yes?”

“Well I’m your boss’s mom. I outrank him. Joe left this place to me, so I order you to give these kids a lead.”  Sarah folded her arms. “Besides, wherever they go, I’m coming with them.”

What?” David cried. “But you’re human! And old—” 

Allison raised her fist at David. He shut up.

Blancheflor sighed. “…Understood, ma’am. Working.” 

A second later, Circle’s End Supermax was replaced by the scowling full colour image of a young, dark-haired woman in oil-stained, olive green overalls. She seemed to be aiming a ray-gun of some type at the camera, one eye screwed shut with her lip set in a thin line.

“Maude Simmons, also known (most recently) as Mistress Quickly3, a still extant ‘mad-scientist’ from your own country’s east coast.”

“I know her!” said David. “She was in one of Mummy’s books!4” He tilted his head. “Why her?”

“Because she may be the smartest person on the planet,” replied Blancheflor.

“Figures she’s a girl,” Mabel whispered to Allison, making both children giggle. They almost missed what Blancheflor said next:

“I should know, she helped sir confiscate the world’s nuclear weapons.”

It didn’t take too long for Sarah and the Watercolours to get going. They would have left even sooner if the former hadn’t insisted on packing

“Sandwiches?”

Mabel lifted the lid of the cooler-box and peered inside. “Check.”

“Water-bottles?”

“Check.”

“Did you look properly, dear?”

“Yes!”

Sarah looked at Mabel over her spectacles. “Really?”

“…Fine.” Mabel shoved her face inside the cooler. “Check.”

“Thank you, Mabel. Sunscreen?”

Yes, we have sunscreen.”

“Good.” Sarah looked over to David standing in the fountain. “Get dressed, David.”

David glared at the old woman. “No.”

“You are not going anywhere without clothes on, young man.”

David’s eyes narrowed. “It’s worked for me so far!”

Sarah’s eyes flickered upwards. “Blanchey, sweetheart, please flush all the ice-cream into the ocean at the count of ten.”

“Certainly ma’am. Ten…”

“You wouldn’t…” said David.

“Nine…”

Sarah just stood there, smiling calmly.

“Eight…”

David also stood his ground.

“Seven…”

“For crying out loud!” shouted Allison. “Just do what she says!”

“Six…”

“I’m not gonna let her boss me around!”

“Five…”

Billy shouted, “If you lose us the autumn ice-cream David, I’ll… I’ll…” He breathed heavily. “…I’ll eat you!”

“Four…”

“Fine, fine! Costume on!” 

David’s watery second skin appeared around him in a flash. 

“Three…”

“Cancel that order, Blanchey,” said Sarah.

“Will do, ma’am,” said the caretaker, sounding not a little bemused.

“Wow,” Miri said. “She has power over the Mean One.”

“David’s not ‘the mean one’,” muttered Allison.

“Sure looks like it.”

Mrs Allworth walked over and patted David on the shoulder. “That’s a lovely costume, David. Could use some shoes, though.”

Never.”

Sarah smiled kindly. “We’ll see. Ah, there’s Arnold now with my hat!”

Arnold trudged out of the foyer’s western elevator, shamefully carrying an akubra with wine corks dangling from the rim on top of his atlas. “Here you go, Mrs Allworth.”

Sarah took the hat from the boy. “Thank you, Arnold. No trouble?”

“The wardrobe made fun of me!”

“Oh, don’t mind him. Memorized those coordinates Blanchey gave you?”

“Yep.”

Sarah clapped. “Then let’s get a move on!” 

Sarah and the Watercolours joined hands in a circle, Billy and David carrying the cooler between them like a necklace clasp.

“Alright,” said Sarah, “on the count of three. Three—”

Arnold and Allison grinned. Green electricity shot through the circle and the group vanished.  Thunder echoed through the empty foyer for a moment, before silence reigned.

“Why did she have to tell them my name?” the caretaker groused to himself.

That very instant, thousands of miles away, Sarah and the Watercolours appeared on a broad, rust-coloured flood-plain. A tired, summer-thinned river cut and forked through the landscape, trailing off towards banks of still green trees in the far distance. 

Sarah startled, letting go of Billy and Mabel’s hands and stumbling backwards a few steps. “Never going to get used to that,” she muttered to herself, before glaring at a laughing Arnold and Allison. “I hope you two don’t think that was clever.”

Sarah quickly regained her bearings. It was beautiful countryside, wherever they were. And so warm. They’d gone from the brief, sea-filtered sunlight of a winter noon to a protracted summer twilight. A wall of gold on the horizon faded into copper above her head, fading into grey and black steel in the distance. 

Sarah wondered if this is what it had been like for her son. Going from day to night in a moment, flying through seasons like time and distance were one and the same. “Where are we exactly?” she asked aloud.

Arnold was thumbing through his atlas. “We’re in the Northern Territory. The Top-End, they call it.”

She and Jonah should have let Joe take them travelling more, Sarah mused, before closing her eyes for a moment and taking a deep breath. Couldn’t get bogged down in mourning. The kids needed her. Maybe a lot more kids than she knew. She raised her arm, speaking into what looked like a wristwatch with a speaker-grill for a face. “Connection working, Blanchey?”

Blancheflor’s voice buzzed tinnily from the watch, “Loud and clear, ma’am.” 

“Good. How far are we from this Mistress Quickly’s hideout?”

“3.5 kilometres west of your present location.”

God, a talking watch. Sarah felt like Jane Bond.  

“I can see it!” cried Allison, looking out towards the setting sun with a hand shading her eyes. She wasn’t sure why Żywie thought she needed telescopic vision, but Allison wasn’t complaining. She could just make out the silhouette of—

“A plane?” Allison said. She looked back at Sarah and her communicator. “Does Mistress Quickly have a plane?”

“Yes,” replied Blancheflor. “A Boeing 727. She stole it back in ‘64 and kitted it out for a lair. Luckily, sir slipped a tracking device onto it.”

“And he just let a supervillain fly around for years?” asked Arnold.

A burst of static like a shrug. “He felt he owed her for the Cuban Crisis.”

“Right, let’s get going,” said Sarah, setting off towards the dark shape on the horizon.

A thought occurred to Allison. She looked a few minutes into Sarah’s future. She saw the old woman only a few yards from the plane. It seemed its shape was about the limit of what Mistress Quickly had preserved of the airliner. Its paint-job had been replaced by red and black flames, and its engines were slender, fountain-pen shaped things more at home on a UFO than an earthly airplane. 

Its wings were also covered in guns, one of which swiveled around to blast Sarah square in the chest with a burst of electricity.  

Allison blinked away the vision and jumped in front of Sarah. “Wait! There’s traps!”

Sarah stopped in her tracks, feeling rather silly. “Should have figured.” She didn’t bother asking how Allison knew that. She looked around at the children. “Anyone have any ideas?”

“I do,” said Allison, smiling. “Sit down and eat our sandwiches.”

Sarah raised an eyebrow. “Bit early for lunch,” she said, before looking up at the dimming sky. “Or dinner.”

“Trust me.” Allison turned around to face the images of Alberto and Miri, slouching and bouncing on her heels respectively. “You two, go check out the plane. There has to be a button or something to turn off the guns.”

Sarah watched Allison order about the air in front of her, slowly sidling up to Mabel and whispering, “Who is she talking to?”

“Allie has people living in her head. Long story.”

“Good God.”

Miri nodded at her sister. “Sure thing!” she said even as she ran off towards the plane.

Alberto kept swaying on his feet languidly in front of Allison for a bit. The girl shot daggers at him. “Don’t be mean to her.”

Alberto sighed and turned on his heels. “Fine.”

Despite Miri’s lead, Alberto’s shade soon caught up with her, mostly because the girl kept stopping to examine every interesting weed or unusual patch of dirt:

“Lookit, Alberto! That flower’s yellow!”

“How come that lizard gets to have a blue tongue? It’s not fair!”

Alberto ignored the girl in favour of the memory of his whiskey flask, swigging from it greedily. He’d never really liked whiskey, but it was hard enough to get him buzzed in portable quantities.

Why was he doing what he was told? Because he had nothing better to do? Probably, but why was Allison loosening his leash?

Alberto glanced over at Miri. The kid was lying on her belly, watching some termites crawl through the dirt. 

Oh, that was why: corroboration. 

As they neared the plane, Alberto noticed Miri was circling him like a buzzard. “What are you looking at, kid?”

“Why are you wearing clothes?”

“…What?”

“You don’t have a body, why do you have clothes?”

“Why do you have a face? It’s called self-image. Also, fucking dignity.”

Miri giggled. “You’re funny when you curse.” She blinked and looked up at Alberto with wide eyes. “Why is cursing funny?”

Alberto smiled to himself. “Because curse words are magic, spread it around.”

When they reached the plane, Miri kicked off into the air and passed through its hull. 

She’s good at ignoring gravity, Alberto thought as he followed the girl. Took me ages to stop paying attention to it. Must be the flier in her. Maybe she never got a chance to get used to being heavy. 

Alberto wasn’t surprised to find the plane’s passenger seats had all been ripped out. The cabin was where a laboratory met a bachelorette pad. Chemistry kits, microscopes and centrifuges shared bench space with empty wine bottles, stale laundry and old records. Most of the windows had been covered by band posters. This was the woman who’d helped end the Cold War?

There were more exotic things, too. A cabinet where an egg hatched into a chick over and over. A rack of guns as colourful and diverse as butterflies under glass, and at the very back of the cabin, a metal plinth with what looked like a giant blue match flame burning above it.

The cockpit was about what you’d expect, bar maybe the bobblehead of the Crimson Comet on the dashboard. Much to Alberto’s delight, Mistress Quickly had preserved the upper-deck’s lounge bar. He gazed longingly at a row of spirit bottles. Maybe he could convince Allison to become an alcoholic. 

Cries of annoyance from the main cabin echoed up through the aether. Alberto sighed and descended down through the floor to find Miri standing with her fists clenched.

“How do we find the right button? This place is…” Miri tried to find the words. “…Full of stuff!”

Alberto patted her shoulder. “Simple, kid. We go backwards.”

Alberto pulled the ghostly child back with him into the past, minute by minute, hour by hour. 

A young lady in dirty overalls jumped backwards out of the flame at the end of the plane, gun in hand before tapping away at some buttons on the wall next to it. 

Alberto grinned. “Oh my God, Allie’s going to love this.”

Miri’s eyes were wobbling. “That poor lady got burned up.”

Alberto was beginning to think he might like this kid.

They watched Mistress Quickly potter around the plane for a bit. She deposited her guns and gear back on their rack, regurgitated a few glasses of wine, flicked backwards through some magazines, and, finally, opened a hatch in the ceiling and plucked away at some buttons inside. The plane’s door swung open, a metal ramp extending down to the ground outside. Mistress Quickly exited the plane back first, carrying an empty six-pack in one hand and a fishing rod slung over her shoulder.

“There we go,” said Alberto. 

A few minutes later, Sarah Allworth appeared in a green flash in the plane cabin. A little girl’s voice spoke in her head.

A bit to your left, no, your other left.

Sarah found the hatch. It was full of buttons labeled with masking tape and permanent marker. Two in particular were “SECURITY” and “DOOR”

Too easy.

Soon the Watercolours were gathered around the metal flame.

“So what is it?” asked Arnold. 

Allison was crouched in front of the flame’s plinth, resting her hand on it and reaching into its past.

Oh.

She turned and looked up at her friends. “It’s a portal.”

“I could’ve guessed that,” said Alberto.

“To another universe.”

“…Maybe not that.” 


1. Something nobody told the Australian First Nations.

2. Supers with primarily or purely intellectual gifts have often fallen into unique niches during periods of superhuman discrimination. The invisible nature of their talents makes them both nigh-undetectable to laymen, nourishment for paranoiacs, and too useful to dispose of.

3. Ms. Simmons was one of the few supervillains in her time to forego the notoriety of using the same name for much of her career, instead going through some fifteen identities through the length of the 20th century.

4. Heroes of the Outback, an attempted survey of Australia’s superheroes interrupted by the author joining their ranks while researching the book.

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Chapter Seventy-Nine: Just Us

Lyonesse had a surprising number of swimming pools for an undersea hideout. Arnold and Allison’s favourite was definitely the zero-g one1

Allison plunged through a bubble of water like a javelin, shattering it into a thousand tiny jewels that refracted the blue and green lights shining from the walls off each other like a wild neon spider-web. She twirled in the air, her wet hair whipping around her like Medusa’s coils. The girl’s eyes glowed green, and the stray droplets settled on her skin like chameleon scales.

Allison reclined backwards in the air, hands folded behind her head. “How the heck did David turn this down again?”

“Dunno,” said Arnold, still focused on the miniature storm he was swirling around him, his lightning flashing about the chamber while his thunder vibrated through the water. “Guess for him, this is pretty much what water is always like.”

“Maybe,” said Allison. David had spent most of the day playing with Billy and Mabel in the paint room. Allison suspected he was trying to reverse engineer whatever drew Miri to Billy. Besides the fur.

Allison suddenly heard Miri’s voice in her ear. “Look out, Allie!”

A solid wave of water slammed up into Allison’s back. Water immediately forced its way into her nose. She sputtered and tumbled in the air, Arnold laughing underneath her. 

Allison twisted around and glared down at her friend, before promptly teleporting him close enough to tickle his ribs.

Giggling wildly, Arnold managed to kick Allison away. “Okay, okay, I surrender.” He flicked some tears off of his cheeks. Stretching, he wondered, “When do you think the Flying Man’s gonna get here? It’s been like, a week.”

And a good week it had been. The only time the Watercolours had left Lyonesse (to much tutting from the caretaker) was a candy-raid at a random Woolies back in Australia. They’d watched more movies than had been made in their homeland in the last decade, and they’d become the first earthly children to ever enjoy video games2. David and Allison had chased whales, and somehow, the Flying Man had either invented or acquired ice-cream that tasted like spring and summer. 

“No idea,” replied Allison. “He must be really busy.”

What would happen when the Flying Man came home? Would he send them all away? Allison guessed David could go live with his grandfather, but what about the rest of them? Arnold had his mum and dad, but where would Mabel live? And Billy’s parents were more likely to grow fur themselves before they took their son back. Allison had checked. 

And Allison… Allison had one coin toss out of ten. 

Of course, maybe the Flying Man would take them all in. Let them be his wards, like Batman and Robin. They could stay at Lyonesse forever.

It sounded like a dream, but Allison couldn’t quite imagine it. For some reason, she kept thinking about Lily Nichols. 

A musical tone like a very relaxed claxon rang through the antigravity room. The caretaker’s voice repeated, “Visitor in the foyer. Visitor in the foyer…”

Arnold and Allison shared a look. Allison shrugged. 

The Watercolours all reached the grand foyer about the same time. True to their name, Mabel, Billy and David were all covered in half-dried paint. 

Instead of the Flying Man, there was a plump old lady in a dark-brown coat with matchstick red hair standing in front of the foyer fountain. She was glaring up at the ceiling through thick crescent-moon glasses. 

“…Now you tell Joe right now this trick has gone on long enough!”

Watching from behind Allison, Miri asked, “Why is that lady all wrinkly?”

“I’m sorry ma’am,” said the caretaker, “this is no trick.”

“Who are you, lady?” asked Arnold. 

The woman blanched at the sight of the children. “Who am I?” she said, frowning. “Who are you?” She squinted at Allison and David, before pointing at them and asking the caretaker, “Why does my son have a bunch of naked children in his home?” Out the corner of her eye, she spotted Billy’s tail swishing behind him. “And why is that one a cat?”

Billy grinned proudly and rocked on his heels. “Luck!”

The woman’s mouth moved like she was about to inquire further, but instead she shook her head and turned her ire back up towards the caretaker. “I swear to Christ, all this nonsense about a nuclear explosion…”

David looked at Mabel. “I didn’t know we still had those?”

“I’m afraid the news you’ve heard is anything but nonsense, Mrs Allworth.” A sigh filled the room. “There’s something you need to see:”

The lights dimmed. A hologram of the Flying Man appeared above the fountain, just like when the children had arrived at Lyonesse. Except then it started talking:

The young man smiled bashfully. “I honestly don’t think you’re ever going to see this, Mom. I hope you don’t. But what I’m doing is going to make a lot of people try very hard to kill me, so better safe than sorry.” The Flying Man took a deep breath. “If you’re watching this, then the life-monitor woven into my suit has gone dark. And given that it’s right next to my skin, that  means I’m probably dead.”

Mrs Allworth blinked. Something cold and dark passed over her features. A wave that had been waiting to break over her for years.

Arnold grabbed at Allison’s arm. “The Flying Man, dead? How?”

Allison had no answer. She just stared up at the ghostly hologram.

The Flying Man continued. “Unless I somehow managed to land myself a kid, Mom, Lyonesse is at your disposal.” He grinned rakishly. “And if I did, then Granny’s in charge till they learn some sense.” His smile softened. “I just want you to know, it was worth it. If I only ever saved one idiot, it was worth it. I don’t know what happens to my kind when we die. It’s not something we make a habit of. But I hope I wind up somewhere close to Dad.” 

Mrs Allworth knew she was talking to a recording, but that didn’t stop her from saying, “But Joe—”

Joe pointed upwards. “Aside from… well, everything else, your bequest is up in the garden.” The corner of his lip quirked. “One of Dad’s begonias. First thing I ever got growing up there. Also a vial. Mostly it’s just some bio-restoratives I whipped up for you. I’m pretty sure what those will do. Also my tears. Those I’m less sure about. Whatever you choose to do with any of this, I know you’ll do great. I love you Mom.”

The lights brightened. Joseph Allworth vanished.     

“Seven days ago, a nuclear detonation was detected in western Russia. At the same time, sir’s suit ceased transmitting his vitals. Sir has not been seen since, nor has he attempted to contact either us here at Lyonesse or the Physician’s starship. I’m sorry.” 

Sarah Allworth did not weep. She did however fall to her knees.  “Oh Joe…”

She sounded resigned. Like she had seen this day coming since she’d become a mother. 

Allison stared at the space the Flying Man’s image had occupied.

They’d done it. The humans could kill the Flying Man. Now, they could kill all of them. 

Conversation between the Watercolours and Sarah Allworth was sparse. She’d ignored most of their questions, merely confirming curtly that yes, she was the Flying Man’s mother. More or less. The old woman had headed directly to the uppermost part of Lyonesse: the garden. A green park beneath a diamond ceiling bathed in dappled sea-light. Pebbled pathways all led to a metal-wrought table at the centre of the garden.  On it was a pink begonia in a brick pot, with a filigreed glass vial of something bright and golden leaning against it.

Mrs Allworth picked up the pot-plant and held it up to her face, breathing in deep. Then she lowered the flower and picked up the golden vial. It was warm to the touch.

“The heck is that stuff?” David asked, watching with the others from a healthy distance. “Doesn’t feel like there’s much water in it.”

“I don’t know,” said Allison, head tilted. “But it has a song…”

Sarah set down the vial. “You’re welcome to stay, kids,” she said without looking at the children. 

The Watercolours emitted awkward murmurs of half-hearted appreciation, their illusion of invisibility broken. Aside from Billy. He was actually invisible.  

For the rest of the day, the children conducted themselves towards Mrs Allworth like she was a great elephant: they kept a slightly awed distance from her. It was strange, being in the presence of a human grown up that didn’t want to kill, lock them up or worse.

Sarah confused Allison. Her song was full of janky, shaky notes of despair, but the woman herself seemed perfectly calm. Mostly, she wandered Lyonesse like it were a high-end art gallery, occasionally asking the caretaker for updates on schemes and endeavours her foster-son had going on. 

“…But you’re saying the charity will keep going?”

“…Well, if I knew he was making that sort of painting…”

“…He always did like snakes…”

For the first time in many weeks, most of the Watercolours went to bed at a decent hour. Playing felt strange with Mrs Allworth around. Like running around in a nunnery. 

Allison woke in the middle of the night. 

Miri was scowling at the foot of the bed. “I was enjoying that dream! It had rainbow-pigeons!”

“Those were lorikeets, Miri,” Allison muttered groggily, rubbing her eyes. Despite Lyonesse practically being the standard against which “room temperature” was measured, her mouth was parched. Probaby overheating from sleeping next to Billy, at Miri’s insistence. “I’m getting a glass of water,” she said, gingerly lifting Billy’s clawed hand off her. “Then maybe we’ll get back to your rainbow-pigeons.” 

Allison trod through Lyonesse’s darkened hallways, half her body bathed in the light of the moon-sodden sea shining through the glass wall. The kitchen’s bronze door slid open—  

“Good to see you dressed, kid.”

Mrs Allworth was sitting at the long oak table in a dressing gown, nursing a hot mug of coffee while gazing melancholically at her son’s potted begonia. 

Allison gulped. “Yeah. Pyjamas are nice… having trouble sleeping?”  

“Yes. The coffee’s a kind of surrender.” 

Allison held a glass under the sink tap. 

“Would you like ice-water, mademoiselle?”

“Yes thanks,” said Allison. Who gives their tap a brain?

The girl drank the water gratefully. “Coffee tastes like ash.”

“Yes. But it keeps dreams away.”

“…I’m sorry about your son, Mrs Allworth.”

Sarah sipped her coffee. “It was my idea.”

“What was?”

“The Flying Man. I told him to do it. The costume, the White House—I got him started.”

“Really? I thought he just read too many Superman comics.” Allison’s shoulders went stiff as she remembered they were talking about a dead man. 

“Joe never touched a Superman comic. Always said they were stupid! That superheroes were all stupid3.” Sarah let out a laugh like cracking ice. “I think he was embarrassed. Damn cartoons read like his memoirs. Not that Joe would ever admit it…”

“So you made him get rid of all the nuclear bombs?” Allison tried to imagine the Flying Man being bossed around by his mother.

Sarah sighed. “Oh, I don’t think he would’ve let us nuke ourselves. He liked the world too much. He just… he said he wanted to do it quietly. Let the reds and the Yanks think it was a miracle.” She slammed her coffee down. “But I said that wouldn’t work! That everyone would just blame everyone else if they didn’t have someone to blame! So I made him an overgrown Halloween costume, complete with a great big diamond target, right on his chest!” Sarah’s speech slurred slightly. Allison suspected there was more than coffee in her mug. “And now they’ve gone and murdered my boy! For not letting them blow up their own children!”

“You don’t know that,” said Allison, not believing her own words. “Maybe it was an accident…”

At least an accident wasn’t malicious. At least then they couldn’t do it on purpose.

“Bullshit!” Sarah snapped. “You couldn’t kill my son by accident. I bet the Russians put more thought into murdering Joseph than feeding their people in the last fifty years! And that’s just if they were working alone!” She pulled the gold vial out from her gown pocket. “Do you know what this is, girl?”

Allison mutely shook her head. 

“Neither do I,” said Sarah. “But I can make a pretty good guess what it will do. It will turn me into a superwoman. Probably give me a whole new lease on life, too. I could continue my son’s work.”

Allison’s eyes widened. “Why haven’t you taken it already? Powers are great!”  She hovered a few inches off the floor in demonstration. 

Sarah’s face cracked like glass. “Because I’m scared, for Christ’s sake! Do you know what being super got my son? A lifetime of loneliness! Of being the odd one out everywhere he went! Of being murdered for trying to help folks. And now I’m too much of a coward to even pick up the torch I gave him! It’s Allison, right?”

“Yes?”

“Here’s my advice Allison. Stay here. Hide. Because us? Human beings? We’re too scared and stupid to ever let you be free. And if we can’t chain you, we’ll kill you. That’s the only talent we have in the end…”

Sarah slumped her head against the tabletop. “My boys are gone…”

Her shoulders twitched. It took Allison a moment to realize the old woman was weeping softly. Shamefully, she left without a word.

Allison couldn’t go back to bed. She didn’t think she could sit still long enough to watch a movie, and smothering her discomfort with sweets meant going back to the kitchen, so she headed to the arcade. 

To Allison’s surprise, someone had beaten her to it. David was playing the holographic shoot em’ up game, ducking and rolling from one side of the screen to the other as he blasted the fish into pixels.

“Hey Davie.” 

David spun around and fired the toy gun at Allison, a green light briefly flashing over her chest. “Got ya!”

Allison smiled weakly. “Yeah, you did.”

David raised an eyebrow. Since when did Allison concede like that?  “…What’s wrong?”

Allison exhaled. “I talked to Mrs Allworth a bit ago. She was sad. But weird sad.”

David shrugged. “Well, yeah. I mean. Her son just died.”

“I know, but…” She shook her head. “You had to be there.”

David glanced sidelong at her. “Why do you care?”

Allison frowned. “Why shouldn’t I?”

“Cuz she’s boring.” David said. “She’s just some random human who was around the Flying Man a bunch.”

“She was his mum!”

“Nope,” he replied. “He had a mum. We saw her. She was a magical space lady in a spaceship. That’s just some woman who made him breakfast a couple times.”

Allison’s nose wrinkled. “What did Mrs Allworth do to ya?”

David groaned. “Nothing! She just doesn’t matter!”

Allison tried to figure out when David had gotten so mean. Crap, was that when he started being fun?

Very quietly she said, “I think Alberto was right.”

“I was?” asked a very taken aback Alberto, roused to the surface. “About what?”

“He took over your body and tried kidnapping you into outer space,” said David flatly.

Allison rolled her eyes. “Not about that. I mean, taking the fight to the DDHA. Taking them down.”

“Why?” asked David. “Sounds like a lot of work.”

Allison was surprised by the question. Wasn’t it obvious? “Because they’re hunting us, David.” 

“Yeah, but they’re not gonna get us down here.” He grinned like an angler-fish. “And if they do…” David spread his arms over his head. The sea rumbled. “…We have fun. We’re free, Allie. We don’t have to worry about Laurie, or the freak-finders, or even the Flying Man.”

How was he not getting this? “We’re fine, but they’re still going after people like us.”

“So what? They can take care of themselves.” 

Alberto’s phantom was circling the water-sprite, nodding approvingly. He looked back over at Allison. “I never thought I’d say this, Allie, but I think I’m with Mealy. Should’ve broken his brain ages back…”

“Besides,” said David. “I’m not a super. None of my business.”

Allison folded her arms. “Oh, okay,” she said sourly. “You’re not a super. You’re just a water-god that can make tidal waves.”

David beamed and nodded, deaf to the sarcasm. “Exactly! That’s what Granddad told me. People like Arnold and Billy, they’re more like people who do extra-things.” He shrugged. “I’m the extra things without the people part.” 

Allison scowled. “So, we don’t matter? Us extra-people.”

David cocked his head. “Of course you do. You’re my friends! And you’re almost a god, too.”

Allison stamped her foot. “Don’t you care? For crying out loud, David, they killed your mum!”

David glared at her. “Yeah, they did. And they paid for it. None of the rest of it’s got anything to do with me.” He huffed and turned back to the fish game, ready for another round. “Not like you’d get it anyways. Your parents aren’t even special.”

Allison slapped David in the face. Hard. 

The boy stumbled backward, but recovered quickly, rubbing his cheek. “Jeez, Allie,” he said. 

Allison was standing very still, the breath caught in her chest. 

“What’s gotten—”

Allison kneed David right in the groin. He doubled over in pain, tears squeezing out of his eyes.

Alberto winced. “Low move, Allie. Even I never—”

David screamed and charged at Allison, barreling head first into her chest. They slammed into a glass porthole, both exploding in a splash of water and soaked PJs. They reformed on the other side of the glass in a plume of bubbles.   

Allison kicked off against David’s chest, only for chains of ice to wrap around her wrists and start tugging at her arms hard enough to risk pulling them out of their sockets. Her rage became pure heat, melting her manacles and boiling the water around her4

Alberto floated above them, silhouetted against the rippling moon. “Fight! Fight!”

Allison sent David spinning through the projection in a stream of superheated bubbles, ejecting him twenty feet into the night air. He hit the water hard, the sea freezing under his back into a solid plinth. 

David scrambled to his feet, growling like an animal.

His grandfather rose behind the ice-platform. “Would you like help, child?”

“No!” David snarled. “I can handle—”

The ocean erupted under his feet, sending him flying as a titanic red sea-serpent straight from the Carta Marina reared its head towards the stars and roared.

Sitting atop its brow, Allison glared down at David, shouting, “Why are you being such a git.”

Much to his grandfather’s pride, David screamed and shot out his arms.

Promptly, the ocean parted out from under Allison’s serpent. The beast shrieked as it plummeted down onto the wet jagged, rocks below. Allison followed for a moment and a half, before remembering herself and sloughing off gravity.

Walls of water surrounded her on all sides, reaching down several miles to the exposed sea-floor. Allison spotted the tiny figure of David standing on the impossible crater. Even from that distance, he looked smug.

Allison’s eyes glowed bright. “You coulda killed me!” 

The walls of water thrummed with the voice of a thousand boys. “You can fly, Allie.

Allison lunged up through the air making a beeline for David. The tunnel’s watery walls strained and broke, collapsing inwards like falling skyscrapers. 

Water hit Allison from all sides. She was thrown head over hills, up and down instantly becoming singular and meaningless.

When the bubbles cleared from Allison’s vision, David was floating in the water in front of her, arms folded with a thin grin on his face. 

“And that’s me pulling my punches.”

Allison was shaking with rage. Why couldn’t David be like he used to be. No, that was horrible. Why couldn’t he be… just better?

And why did she have to pick a fight with him under the sea? Stupid, stupid—  

The other Watercolours’ songs tickled Allison’s ears. If she let go of David’s whale-flute tune, she’d drown. 

But if she could just grab another, even by the edge of its notes… 

Glass harmonica and electric guitar. 

Allison grinned vampirically. She thrust her hands out, sending out two smooth bubbles of mercury between her and David. 

“Wait,” said David. “Since when—”

Allison’s eyes flashed milky white. Currents of water were shoved through the mercury, streaming out the other side viscous and sticky. The momentum spewed the stuff all over David, gluing his legs together and his arms to his sides. 

He gawked between his bindings and Allison. “The hell—”

A pillar of ice shot up from the dark depths, forcing both children back up to the surface.

David writhed and thrashed like an impatient caterpillar, only for Allison to jump knee-first on his chest, knocking both the air and the water out of him.

She slapped the boy in the face again. “Say mercy!”

“But how did you—”

Allison twisted his ear. “Mercy!”

“Owe, owe, owe, okay, mercy!”

Allison nodded in acknowledgement, before straightening herself and falling sideways onto the ice.

Both children panted heavily on the ice, their breath almost harmonizing with the churn of the ocean. David just lay there, letting Allison’s water-glue dissolve around him.

“Wouldn’t it be nice?” said Allison. “You know, going back to how it was?”

“Like what was?” 

“At the Institute.”

David grimaced. “No way!”

Allison grabbed his hand. “I mean after we showed Laurie who was in charge. It was fun, wasn’t it? Everyone being together.”

“It was,” David admitted. “But… Mummy was there, too.”

“Mine wasn’t,” Allison pointed out. “And she was special to me. Nobody else got their mum.”

“But the humans still ruined it.”

David felt Allison’s hand tighten around his. “There’s hundreds of supers just in Australia. If we were all together”—she smiled in the dark—“the humans couldn’t touch us.” 

Allison stood up, white skin stark in the moonlight, her eyes like dragonfire. “I think you’re right, David. We’re the next best thing to gods.” She looked down at her friend. “And since when do gods hide?”  

David sat upright. “Okay, ” he said, “I’m in.”

Sarah Allworth sat alone in her son’s study, essaying his invisible empire. The office didn’t have much in the way of papers or files. Instead, Joseph had chosen to store information in glass crystals inside a nebula skin desk, displayed on a screen set into it. If Joe were still with her, Sarah would’ve asked him why he hadn’t installed one of these in the shop.

“Next page.”

The screen flickered. Sarah’s eyes raced over yet graphs and lines of text, before the old woman leaned back in the white egg-chair and sighed wearily. 

Sarah had always known Joe kept busy. He made the papers everyday. But he’d never let on the true extent of it. Shell companies and byzantine investments. Contacts and informants all across the world, from ministers to bums to family services workers. He could have single handedly fueled the John Birch Society for a hundred years.

And the alter-egos! Sarah used to worry the Flying Man would swallow her son utterly, as it had in the end. But her son had lived under so many names. James Garret, New York PI. Fred Bradley, a scientist at the University of Chicago. Issac Grey, a rail-riding drifter. Tom the Tomcat, a children’s performer in Quebec. No wonder he only slept two hours a day.

Sarah rubbed her face, groaning under her breath. There was no way she could maintain this. Not even a fraction of a percent of it. Her son was gone, and so much of the good he did would wither on the fine. It was like his death was being prolonged by months and years.

Perhaps… 

Sarah glanced at the glowing vial next to the desk-screen. Then she looked up at the ceiling.

Most of Lyonesse gloried in its oceanic surroundings, but Joe’s study was an exception. Its ceiling was a perfect, real-time recreation of the North Atlantic sky. Black storm clouds drifted over stars, so thick the Moon was barely a haze behind them. 

Did Joe like looking up and being reminded of where he came from, Sarah wondered.Of where he really belonged. 

She tapped her fingers against the vial. She wasn’t worried about breaking it. Knowing her boy, it was probably really made of steel that just looked like glass, or something equally miraculous.

She got up and walked over to the centre of the room, laying her eyes on the oil-painting that took up much of the study’s left wall. Joe had painted it when he was seventeen, thereabouts. It depicted the family’s kitchen back in Neptune’s Chest. Sarah, Jonah, and Joseph were sitting down to dinner, happily greeting a tall, regal women in a glimmering white shift dress. Her eyes were royal purple.

Joe’s real mother, Sarah had never needed to be told. She’d always wished she could’ve spoken to the poor woman, if she even could be called a woman. Maybe she could have told Sarah what Joe needed. As if she were even capable of acting on any of her answers.  

Sarah Allworth, inadequate stepmother of God’s own son. She and a certain other Joseph could’ve formed a club. 

Sarah raised the vial up to her eye-level. Was this why Joe had given it to her? So she could measure up to his true mother? 

I should drink it now, Sarah told herself. I could help so many people, like Joe did. Maybe even understand him

But she wouldn’t die in her bed, either. That’s what they didn’t tell you about immortality. People who didn’t die didn’t get to “pass away.” Her son hadn’t. Even if she could make peace with that, did she really want to spend centuries mourning. To be a living memorial to her own son? Would Joe have wanted that for her?

Sarah looked past the vial, back at the painting. Every detail of her and Jonah had been rendered perfectly. Lovingly.

“Whatever you choose to do with any of this, I know you’ll do great.”  

“Does this stuff have a shelf-life?” Sarah asked aloud.

“The bio-restoratives have a half-life of about six hundred years, ma’am,” answered the caretaker. “As for sir’s tears, it is no exaggeration to say they will be glowing long after the stars have dimmed.”

Sarah placed the vial back on the desk. “I want this put into storage,” she said. “For when it’s really needed.”

“Certainly, ma’am.”

Sarah Allworth would fail. But she would try. And that was better than nothing. It was everything.


1. Though one could argue if the term “swimming pool” applies when pooling cannot occur.

2. Mostly sourced from Throneworld via the Gatehouse.

3. Joe’s autograph collection was his closest kept secret.

4. Water being much thicker than air, this worked.

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Chapter Seventy-Eight: There Will Be No Darkness

Trapped under the Flying Man’s recorded gaze in his weird undersea palace, Arnold couldn’t help but remember Hansel and Gretel. 

Bloody rip-off, he thought. Didn’t even get any candy… 

The hologram blinked off. “I think that’s enough intimidation,” said the caretaker’s voice. “Now, if you children could stand still for a moment…” 

Arnold blinked. “Wait, what—”

A wall of blue light appeared in front of the Watercolours. The children had just barely enough time to panic, before it quickly washed over them and disappeared. 

The children all slumped against the velvet-carpeted steps, breathing very hard. Arnold was surprised they hadn’t been disintegrated and scattered to the sea. 

“Hmm,” the caretaker hummed to himself.

Still hyperventilating, Mabel wondered, did the Flying Man program his computers to ‘umm’ and ‘ahh’? Or would they all do that if they could talk?

“I estimate an 89% probability that you five are survivors from the New Human Institute. Could you confirm this?”

Arnold muttered out the corner of his mouth, “Don’t tell it any—”

“Yes!” said Billy, eyes wide. “How did you know?

Arnold ran his hands down his face. “We’re going to die…”

The caretaker explained, “I surmised based on news reports in my archives, your age and the incongruous nature of your arrival, as well as the testimony of Miss Eliza Winter.”’

“Wait,” said Mabel, “Ży—‘Miss Eliza’ was here?”

“I’m afraid Lyonesse hasn’t had the pleasure, but sir has spoken with her quite extensively.” The caretaker’s tone developed a sombre note. “We’re all very sorry to hear how this Institute business turned out.”

Mabel looked down at the stairs. Żywie knew the Flying Man. But he was a superhero, and she was… evil? Was that what her teacher was now? Surely nobody who’d done what she had could be a good person anymore. But then why did she wish she was here? Maybe she could explain. Or hug her.

“Sir has actually been looking for you for some time now.”

“We know,” said Allison sourly. “He rammed the spaceship we were on.”

“And I’m sure if sir was here, he would apologize. He was… emotional at the time. As of late he’s been keeping his distance due to your proximity to the Ocean Beast.” The caretaker’s voice became the sonic answer to a wagging finger. “I hope you children are aware how dangerous—”

“He’s my grandfather,” David groused. 

“Oh my.” Deep within its logic-crystals, the caretaker made a note to keep an eye on the elemental spawn. Several far off security doors preemptively slammed shut.

“So why’s the Flying Man looking for us?” asked Arnold warily. 

The caretaker seemed taken aback by the question. “You’re children, and no one’s looking after you. What more reason does he need?”

David puffed out his chest. “We don’t need ‘looking after’ Mister Just-a-voice.”

Didn’t they? Mabel asked herself.

“Regardless, I have taken the liberty of upgrading your status from ‘intruders’ to ‘guests.’ You now have free use of our facilities.” Quickly, he added, “Within limits, of course.”

Arnold looked to Allison. “You can see the future, right? Is the Flying Man gonna grind our bones to make his bread or something?”

Allison screwed her eyes shut. Her head twitched like her temples were under assault by mosquitos. One golden day, Arnold was going to tell her how funny she looked doing that.

“It’s kinda hard to tell,” said Allison. “The Flying Man’s so bright. It’s like trying to look behind the sun.” She shrugged. “It’s not like the future stops anytime soon, but. And he did help me with Alberto…”

Arnold raised an eyebrow. “He did?” 

“I think so. It’s kinda… fuzzy.”

What the hell, Arnold thought.

“Ah, heck it,” David muttered. “Grandad’s here. I wanna explore!

The caretaker helpfully provided directions to various points of interest within Lyonesse, all of which fell on deaf ears as the children rushed down staircases and crowded into elevators, only Billy even so much as bothering to thank him.

Arnold almost fell to his knees when they stumbled across a bedroom: a lush, shag-carpeted suite with a king-size waterbed.

“It’s so beautiful…” The boy belly flopped onto the bed, surrendering to it like nirvana. “It’s like sleeping on a jelly-mold!” Arnold looked up towards the ceiling. “Does this place have a bath? Or a shower?”

“Yes,” the caretaker answered curtly. “Most of you could use a clean.”

As it turned out, “a clean” meant a dip in the moon pool at the bottom of Lyonesse. The children floated above a silver submarine resting on a transparent steel1 floor.

David was unleashing his watery vengeance on Billy when the glob hit him in the back of the head, his neck momentarily jerking forward at the force of the impact, his hair spoofing out weirdly to either side as the goop pushed it outwards.

David turned around. Arnold was holding a bottle of vanilla and rose damask bath gel to his chest. 

For a moment, no one moved.

David grinned. Arnold, quite wisely, began to run. Somewhat less wisely, he also began to laugh.

Once everyone was sufficiently bathed, the Watercolours found the Flying Man’s arcade. Apparently the amusements of the mid 20th century weren’t enough for him. The pinball machine used miniature suns with black holes. There was a twelve foot square glass cabinet where you could grow your own ecosystem. 

Arnold aimed a light-gun at one of the fish in the full-wall aquarium, one eye closed. The towel tied around his waist made him feel like a samurai or some old Greek warrior. Who’d somehow found a laser gun. Whatever. He squeezed the trigger.

The fish exploded into bright, holographic confetti.

Arnold grinned. Why did the Flying Man even bother going out?

Halfway around the world and over a thousand feet above sea-level, Joseph Allworth descended upon Saiko Lake on the northern flank of Mount Fuji. The touch of his boots sent delicate ripples through the snowy mountain’s reflection in the water. 

Joe made his way towards the shore, walking on the water like it was solid as slate. He passed a blue metal dinghy carrying two local fishermen, their lines sunk sullenly down into the deep. The pair caught sight of the superman as he passed, alarm flowing from them as fog on the winter air:

Ittai nani!”   

Joe forced a smile and waved back at the men. “Ohayou, fellas!”

As the Flying Man passed out of human earshot, one of the men in the boat turned to his companion. “What’s that in his hand?”

Joe paused for a moment when he reached dry land. Part of him wanted to stay and talk to the fishermen. Maybe even throw on some civilian duds and go full tourist for the day. Instead, he looked at the forest ahead, sighed, and kept walking. He had a meeting to keep. 

He let the dark, quiet world of the trees swallow him. The locals called the forest Aokigahara—the Sea of Trees. A forest born from a volcano’s fury. The ground underfoot was cold, hard lava, riddled through by hemlock and cypress roots that snaked through the blanket of moss which nourished their vine-draped trees instead of soil. The terrain swelled and dipped like frozen waves. The porous rock ate Joseph’s footsteps, leaving only silent progress.

Joe couldn’t resist. He dropped the metal orb he was holding and clapped. The sound soaked into the magma like rain into earth.

Joe picked up the sphere again and reminded himself to remember this place the next time he needed quiet.

The Flying Man stopped when he came across the corpse. It was a boy, twenty years old at the most, hanging from a tree-branch by a length of rubber cord. The poor lad’s unseeing eyes bulged fishlike from his red, swollen face. His cheeks were streaked with frozen tears and mucus. 

The sight didn’t come as a shock to Joe. Even if he hadn’t seen his share of human death, Aokigahara had become a hotspot for suicides in recent years2. Morbid as it was, it was why Joe had come here in the first place. Or at least, why what he was looking for had. 

Joe sniffed. The poor lad smelled fresh. A halo of flies gathered around the dead boy’s head, orbiting him like a choir of angels around God’s throne, only deathly silent. Surprisingly active for such a cold winter’s day,

Joe wondered what drove him to it. Grades? Girls? A random misfiring of hormones and neurotransmitters? A shame, regardless. He almost considered checking the boy for ID, but that seemed more disrespectful than letting him be. Joe felt a rush of guilt at the thought. Disrespectful? He needed the boy to be desecrated. He sat down, adjusted his relationship to the waveform of the light around him, and waited.

The halo became a cloud, almost obscuring the corpse from view. The boy’s skin blew away like dust, revealing red sinew and muscle. Chunks of his flesh tore free and were carried off into the trees.   

Joe focused his gaze on the flies. They looked a lot like flies… at a distance. Up close, however, the resemblance dissolved. Instead of compound eyes, the creatures sported bundles of sensory tentacles. They possessed no legs of any kind, while their wings were like strips of human skin stretched on a rack. 

They said Aokigahara was haunted by the ghosts of elders left to die on Mount Fuji. Joe couldn’t say whether that was true or not, but he knew for certain they weren’t the only monsters in the forest. 

Joe followed the swarm of fattened flies through the trees, still the next best thing to invisible. 

They came to a wound in the dead magma, streaming down a set of rotting wooden steps. At their summit lay a discarded lab coat and pair of too thick eyeglasses.  

The Flying Man gave up on walking, pursuing the flies like a ghost. 

The hole funneled into a cold, dark cavern, crowded with translucent pillars of ice like a maw of jagged diamond teeth. Joe half expected to spot Lucifer chewing on Judas, Brutus and Cassius.   

Instead, he found an enormous beak set in a mass of white, sunless flesh, greedily inhaling the carrion-flies.

Joseph Allworth let himself be seen, clearing his throat. “Time was people used caves like these to refrigerate silkworm cocoons. Is that where you got the idea?”

For half a second, he thought the mass wasn’t going to respond. Then it belched.

“Fuck off.”

“No.”

“Why not?” the thing growled. “The Physician’s dead. You killed it. The thing that murdered your mother is dead and broken and I wasn’t even around when it killed her. You have no right to kill me.”

“You’re eating people.”

“The old ghost3 does far more to them. Bother her. Besides, would you rather I ate the living?”

“I doubt you would pass up the opportunity. You’ve never shown much regard for other living things to begin with. Your ship alone can testify to that.”

“Fair. A thing that could be called me did that. And you killed me for it. Call it a lesson learned. I just want to survive my creator’s folly, star-god.”

Joe nodded. “That’s only fair. And so you will.”

“…You’re sparing me?” 

“Yes. With restrictions. You’ll be held in my custody until I’m sure you’ve been rehabilitated.”

“But why?”

Joe shrugged. “Because you’re a person, and you deserve a chance to better yourself. Even if you don’t, your knowledge could still help fix the harm you’ve caused. Maybe even leave this world in better shape than you found it. My mother notwithstanding.”

The ice reverberated with low, sad laughter. “Make this world better? I could’ve made this world beautiful.”

Joe actually chuckled. “They do say beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but I also think the beholden deserve a voice in the matter.”

He extended the hand so recently held behind his back, the small incendiary device held between his fingers.

“Burning or suffocation. Your choice.”

The thing flinched. 

“I thought you said you’d spare me.”

“I already have. A sliver of you, encased in diamond in the lowest part of my home. More than one, actually. Always good to have redundancy.”

“… What if I could give you a reason?”

Joe cocked his head. “A reason?”

The creature gurgled slow and quiet.

“My greater self had contingencies for this. Plans and backdoor solutions to get out of exactly this kind of situation. He never shared them with the offshoots. We weren’t important. He’s a more dangerous prisoner than I am.”

“He also knows more.”

“…He’s also the one who put the pipes through your mother’s skin. I can assure you. He’s far less willing to admit that he was wrong.”

Joe sighed. “I wish I could take you up on that, Dr. Nurarihyon. But that would be selfish.” 

“For heaven’s sake! A decade and a half older than me and you’re still an arrogant child. This wasn’t even my fault! I wasn’t born! And when I was, all I ever did was what my creator forced me to do! How is he the one who gets to live while I’m consigned to the flame?”

“Do you really want to spend God knows how long stuck in a box in my basement?”

“You murdered my afterlife, star god. I’d rather purgatory than the void.”

Joe had no answer. What he was doing was cruel. 

He clicked the trigger on the bomb. It beeped rapidly. 

“Rainbringer keep you flowing, Doctor.”

The creature spat a neurotoxin laced barb from its beak, right at Joseph’s eye. It plinked harmlessly off his cornea.

“You’re a bastard, star-god.”

“Right now, sure.”

“…Suffocation.”

Joe pressed the bomb’s kill-switch and crushed it like a beer can. “If you insist…”

Joe ripped the Physician’s flesh from the cavern wall. It shrieked and lashed its rubbery, barbed limbs against the Flying Man like a child being dragged to its bed. 

They burst through the layer of magma and the trees above into the open air. Within a second they were thousands of feet above Mount Fuji. The air grew thinner and thinner as the ground retreated below. The horizon curved, and blue sky gave way to the starry void. 

The Physician was still thrashing futility in Joe’s grip, now with the added desperation of asphyxiation and pressure sickness. He guessed he couldn’t blame the poor devil. 

Goodbye. 

The Flying Man threw Nurarihyon over his shoulder, hard enough he tore free from Earth’s gravity well. The thing hurled away from Joe and the planet, sailing off into space until he was less visible than the stars behind it. 

Joe started descending down into the thermosphere. 

Still would’ve picked burning over that

He stopped dead still. Swinging around, he fired off a blast of laser vision into the distance. Half a thousand miles away, something flared for a moment, before going dark again.

Yeah, it was dirty. But Joe wasn’t going to risk a Physician offshoot landing on some unsuspecting world in a million years. He’d never hear the end of it.

It had been a busy few weeks for Joe. He’d flushed out most of the Physician’s major aspects, and they hadn’t always made it easy for him. Dr. Johannes had been on a Pan Am flight. It’d been tricky, but Joe had managed to catch the other passengers when he tore the roof off. He just wished the British creature hadn’t been briefing the prime minister when his turn came. So many anonymous gift-baskets. Most of the surviving offshoots the Physician’s ship had on record were attached to quieter superhuman programs: cast offs in more fallow nations like North Korea and South Africa. Those were double-edged swords: less meat for the grinder, but even less oversight than their big brothers and sisters.

Joe shook his head. The star-god expected to still be stumbling on the Physician’s debris for centuries to come, but he couldn’t bring himself to try and drag another monster into the light today. He had rounds to do.

The Flying Man flung the doors of his senses open. Far below, tectonic plates groaned and shifted. Dawn chased night across the horizon. Waves crashed against coastlines, eroding and reshaping continents grain by grain. Time bred within gravity. 

Eliza Winter’s Institute children had left their island hideaway on a sailing ship. Charming, but he hoped for everyone’s sake they didn’t go full pirate. 

As always, there was the chorus of beating hearts, three and a half billion strong and growing louder in Joe’s ears by the second. Among them was Sarah Allworth, testily explaining proper change to the new girl at the family store. It made Joe smile. 

Not much else of what he heard did. Millions of voices crying for help. A few were calling for him specifically.

…Fire’s out of control!

…I’ll never do it again, I swear—

Wait, what are you—

Metal tearing through flesh. Poison in the rivers and soil. A hundred thousand plots and schemes behind closed doors.

Joe couldn’t fix it all. He’d tried. All he could do was figure out where he would do the most good… 

A panicked male voice. Russian:

…Cooling rods are failing! Meltdown in—”

Joe snapped to attention immediately. He triangulated the voice. It was coming from about sixty miles southwest of Moscow. A naukograd4 called Obninsk. Joe had visited the township once. It had the first grid connected nuclear power plant on Earth…

Joe dived towards the Earth, down into that human sea. In three seconds he broke the sound barrier four times. All the while, Joe calculated potential energy output, wind direction, Eurasian population distribution, and a hundred other factors. A lot of effort, just to remind himself what a nuclear meltdown meant.

The ocean below changed to sand. Mountains reached up towards Joe, only to fall and blanket the earth in forest. Then the forests stretched upwards again, transforming into steel, concrete and glass. Their colours blurred into a kaleidoscope, racing underneath Joe until he came to a stop above a very young city. 

Sirens and calm, toneless calls to evacuate blared louder than thunder over the streets of Obninsk, but they couldn’t drown out the screaming and shouting. The streets were full of townsfolk rushing out their homes like ants from a flooded nest. The roads were choked with cars, buses and military vehicles. Soldiers and police tried vainly to keep order, even as they tried to wrangle their own fear.

A few people, unfortunately, had also seen who was floating in the sky above them.

Even as that new fear spread through the crowds, Joe descended into the middle of a roundabout, in the shadow of a large, brutalist apartment building. People shouted questions and accusations. A few soldiers pointed their guns at Joe.

The Flying Man raised his hands reassuringly, saying in Russian, “Please, don’t panic, I’m not—”

One of the soldiers panicked. 

Joe caught the bullet in front of his face, holding it between two fingers and frowning. 

The young Red Army soldier stiffened. His trigger finger suddenly felt very sweaty.

“…As I was saying, I’m here to—”

Something struck Joe in the back of the head with the momentum of a barreling freight truck. It didn’t hurt exactly, but it did send him flying half a mile.

Joe landed on the outskirts of Obninsk, slamming an inch deep into the concrete. He rolled over. There was a blonde, high-cheeked woman in a red and black leather airman’s suit standing above him, proud and harsh as a Soviet realist painting. Her chest bore a golden hammer and sickle. Her eyes were hidden behind thick mirrored goggles, but her disdain was clear. 

“…Hello ma’am,” Joe said, squinting up at the woman. “I don’t believe I’m familiar.”

The woman slammed her foot down on Joe’s chest. He didn’t pretend it hurt.

The woman spat, “I’m the Revolutionary Vanguard, and you are an enemy of the USSR.”

“…That’s really your name?”

The woman’s face fell.

“What’s wrong with it?”

Anna Oblov was an ideal communist. She’d grown up as hardy as the wheat and potatoes grown by her farming, a Young Pioneer from her ninth birthday. Old stories of Night Witches and Lady Death5 drove her to a Red Army training school. She’d done well. Better than any man in her class. Her trainers called her a true new Soviet woman. No praise could’ve touched her more.

Apparently they meant it, too, because somehow her name found its way to OKB-62.

She had sat in front of the commissar’s desk, feeling much younger than her twenty-two years.

“You-you want to make me into a neylundi?” she asked. “You can do that?”

The grey-haired political officer flashed her a condescending smile. “That’s a rather reactionary term, cadet.”

Anna snapped her hands protectively over her army tunic. “Apologies, sir.”

“It can be forgiven. But yes, our bureau has access to certain transformative techniques. And we believe you’re the perfect candidate for human enhancement.” The commissar looked at Anna over his spectacles. “There is a dragon breathing down our country’s neck, Cadet Oblov. What would you give to slay it?”

Anything. Even if it meant having to meet Dr. Sofia Ivanova.

The woman slipped her metal-spider helmet over Anna’s brow. The cadet thought her long, orange painted fingernails seemed a touch bourgeoise, but then nothing about that serpentine old woman seemed quite right. If she even was old. Anna couldn’t decide. She seemed more fairy-tale than scientist.

“We ready to go, cadet?”

Oblov was strapped to an upright metal rack like a technological crucifix. She wasn’t entirely sure how her being “ready” came into it. 

“Yes,” she said through gritted teeth. 

“Right,” said the doctor. “Let’s begin.”

Ivanova made a sound like a kitten suffocating inside a snake. The lights on the crown lit up—  

Anna Oblov blinked. She blinked again. Nothing had happened. Nothing had changed.

Wait, there was something. Some specks floating in front of her eyes. 

It took Anna a few minutes to realize they were just dust motes. They didn’t normally stay still that long. It would take her even longer to realize that those minutes were actually a single second.

She was fast. Impossibly, frighteningly fast. And now, she was standing before the dragon himself.

The Flying Man was climbing to his feet and dusting himself off. “I mean, I like ‘Vanguard’ a lot, but the ‘revolutionary’ is a bit clunky…”

What the hell was he doing? What was she doing?

(Revolutionary) Vanguard clicked her teeth and stepped forward, into the quiet. 

The sound of the nuclear siren became a low rumble, like water in her ears. The Flying Man froze in place. 

Anna planted her feet in a boxing stance, and punched savagely at the blond superman’s chiseled face. He didn’t even have time to grimace. 

She struck again. And again. She kicked him in the chest and groin, stabbing at his eyes and— 

All of a sudden, the Flying Man started moving again, gently but firmly pushing Anna away.

Words that weren’t her own echoed through Anna’s skull. They were English, but somehow she understood them:

Christ, girl, you’re fast! Look, I’m here to help— please stop clawing at my eyes.  

Anna’s eyes widened. She screwed them shut, pushing herself deeper into the quiet. The Flying Man slowed to a stop again.

She took a deep breath. Dr. Ivanova told her the Flying Man was fast. He had to be, to pull the stunts he did. But she’d never even suggested he could catch up to her.

Time for plan B…

Joseph Allworth was shaking his head. This was a trap, clearly. Wasn’t the first time a country had gotten ideas and faked a crisis for him. First time they’d fielded an actual super against him, though, and a strong one at that. At least there probably wasn’t a real meltdown, not that Joe had never gotten into trouble by overestimating Soviet callousness. Still—  

A red flash circuited the Flying Man, leaving a ring of anti-tank launchers surrounding him on all sides.

Joe sighed. “That won’t—”

Something metal was shoved between Joe’s lips. A grenade. It had no pin.

All the rocket launchers let loose right as the grenade bloomed into an explosion in Joe’s mouth. They all hit their target. 

A few dozen meters away, behind some bushes, Vanguard felt the the explosions and the rush of air above her head.

Thirty two missiles. A decent explosion right under his brainpan. That had to do some damage…

Anna Oblov peered out from her hiding spot, or vantage point as she preferred to think of it.

For fuck’s sake…

The Flying Man stood unharmed in the smoking hole the rockets and grenade had dug, spitting out chunks of metal like spinach. He caught sight of his opponent, shaking his head. “That tasted awful.”

Anna gritted her teeth and shot forward back into the quiet. Joe felt a tug on his raised collar. The word became a blur of colour, and he was plunged into gloom. He seemed to be in a bank-vault or the like. He thought he heard something tick—  

Joe’s world became fire, before a hundred tons of concrete fell on his head. 

Pinned in the dark between a hunk of masonry the the thick vault door, Joe rolled his eyes. Maybe he should just check out of this fight and go sock a wife-beater or something. Maybe finally go confront those kids. Still, he ought to at least check on that reactor…

Above ground, the Revolutionary Vanguard was talking into a walkie talkie at the sinkhole of rubble that had been the town bank. “No sign of movement—”

The centre of the debris pile exploded into the air. The Flying Man landed a few feet beside Anna Oblov. He shot her a glare. “Leave me alone.

Joe set off towards the Obninsk Nuclear Power Plant, walking at a brisk pace. 

At this point, Anna Oblov was getting annoyed. She had been at this now for what felt like days. Just lugging all the explosives out here had been a chore. Every failure took what, in her eyes, seemed like hours upon hours to set up. She sighed, set her face in a determined grimace, and shook her head. Then she stepped up her speed again, and went to get the steel wire.

In the next second, Joseph found his wrists and ankles anchored to the bases of every building this side of town. 

He tried to take a step. The cables creaked. But they held. 

He gave the girl a surprised look.

It was almost cute watching her excitement that it worked. 

Then he melted through the cables with a few sharp glances.

Her face fell.

He gave her an apologetic smile. “Don’t worry, miss. I won’t be here long.”

Joe kept moving towards the power station, walking amongst the evacuating civilians and personale. Some brave fools tried to rush him, but Joe brushed them aside like clouds. Occasionally he heard what sounded like sped-up cursing, or felt a diamond blade flit across his throat. At one point he was splashed with kerosene and set alight like a wicker-man. That felt a bit petty, to be honest.

Joe had to give it to Vanguard, she was persistent. He hoped she got to do some actual good in her time. 

He finally reached the nuclear plant: a long, but surprisingly squat building lined with smokestacks. 

Joe squinted at the edifice. Layers peeled away in his sight, like he was looking inside an open dollhouse. 

Just as he suspected. Systems were all perfectly normal. He even saw technicians taking nervous cigarette breaks like actors between scenes. 

Then he spotted the void. It was underneath the building. A black spot he could not see, about twenty feet across. 

Joe blinked. There was almost nothing he couldn’t see through, including lead, despite some deliberately nurtured rumours to the contrary. Whoever put that… absence there knew their stuff. But it was also so obvious—  

Joe ran through his list of surviving Physicians. Ice-water ran down his back.

He attuned himself to the surrounding air-pressure, waited for the right moment, and thrust his arm out.

Vanguard slammed into his hand. He wrapped his fingers around her neck. 

“This is a trap.”

Vanguard thrashed, waiting for Joe’s grip to shift at all. It didn’t. “Figured that out already?”

“A trap for both of us.” He gestured with his free hand at the town around them. “And any poor bastard within a mile of us.”

Vanguard looked up at the Flying Man. For the first time, he looked afraid. “What?”

Joe looked down pleadingly at the superwoman. “Help me evacuate the town. For the love of God, please.” 

She shook her head. “You idiot, there’s no meltdown—”

“You’re right. It’s worse.” He bit his lip. “If you help me empty this town, I’ll surrender to the Red Army. My hand to God. We might only have seconds.”

He let her go. 

Please.”

The Flying Man sped off. Vanguard followed. Within a moment they were running side by side, perfectly matched. A nanosecond later, the Flying Man fell behind, moving like the air had turned to honey. 

For the first half-second, she did what she was able to on her own, going from building to building, room to room, and carrying people to the safety of a hill just outside of town. Not the men and women yet. Children first. Always children first.

The Flying man had slowed further now. Frozen, mid-step, even moving as fast as he could go. For a moment, she wondered if she needed to make this deal. Then, the ground split. 

It was slow, at first, a few small fissures the width of a hair, radiating outwards from the power plant. 

Anna doubled down her speed.

Building to your left, little girl on the roof.

She didn’t bother questioning how the man had known that. Nor how he’d communicated it to her. She just went and saved the girl.

It took days. Weeks. Months.

Anna didn’t tire. She couldn’t tire. Every single one of these people was an ally. A friend. A comrade.

The cracks grew wider; the outer edge of the blast-wave streaking out from the building at a snail’s pace. The people in the reactor were lost. There was no saving them.

For his part, the Flying Man kept working too, ferrying as many people as he could even as the shockwave crept closer and closer to him.

There was a second sun now, burning in the earth where the power-plant used to be. Joe felt its heat on his back. There was no time left. He had to go. 

He was about to take off when he heard a boy, crying underneath a car. 

Still enough time. 

He glided across the road, feet not touching the ground. He picked up the old Soviet clunker and threw it behind him. The blast devoured it like it was nothing. The child beneath huddled with his hands on his head, frozen in a moment.

It was enough. The whole universe could fit inside a moment, after all. 

Joe picked the child up and wrapped him in his cape. He focused. Light from all over his body pooled around the bundle of fabric.

It’s alright. It was enough. 

The nuclear blast swallowed Joe. He screamed, but his voice was lost in the roar. He burned. He tried shutting his eyes, but there could be no darkness.

The voice in Anna’s head went black.

More than fifty miles away, Dr. Sofia Ivanova sat in forgotten in the corner of a dark, smokey command bunker, surrounded by scared, chattering beasts, spewing their noises onto the electromagnetic spectrum. Useful animals, for once.

A wave of relief, even triumph broke out amongst the men huddled around the consoles. Someone took off their thick earphones and microphone and sighed.

“It’s over,” he said. “The monsters are dead.”

The operation chief felt like he was shedding a second skin of stone. Years of cowering, of being stifled and chastised like goddamn schoolboys, were finally over.

He felt sorry for the girl they sent. She sounded like a good kid. But anyone who could give the Flying Man trouble might as well be him. The USSR wouldn’t settle for a homegrown god ruling over them. He would make sure her statue was built somewhere you could see the sun.

The pudgy general moved over to Sofia Ivanova. “You’ve done it, Sofia. You’ve saved the fucking world.”

Dr. Ivanova looked up at him with her fixed smile. “Says you.”

Her face began to bubble. Her skin burst, white, frothing pus pouring from the wounds. Ivanova’s whole body shook, her bones seeming to dissolve inside her, she slumped to the ground, spreading out across the floor like a puddle. People were screaming, but she didn’t care. 

Some of her other selves might have called her cowardly. Some would even now be hunkering down and germinating. Building themselves back up. But what was the point? This planet was barren soil and a slow death. None of them would ever be what they once were. 

She was done. But at least the star-god was, too.

Silently, she prayed to the Rainbringer.

It had taken Anna what felt like days to find him. Not because he was particularly hidden, or because she didn’t know where to look. It was just the light. Everything in the crater glowed like the earth’s heart. Even moving around here required running laps with every metre just to carry some cool air with her. She felt like she would’ve gone up in flames if she left the quiet.

She found him half buried in ash and slag. His skin was gone; his surface split and broken like wood that had burned to charcoal All that was left were raw burns and scabs. Blood was pouring from his mouth with every breath. There was a diamond shaped shadow across his chest.

All that was left were his moss-green eyes. Somehow, he was still breathing. He turned his head towards Vanguard. 

You made it out…  

There was a child in his arms. A boy bathed in gold. 

Anna Oblov made an effort not to cry.

Then, she heard that voice inside her head.

Take him. 

Anna knelt and pulled the frozen child gently into her arms. She heard a tearing noise as the Flying Man pulled himself free of the ground, leaving a layer of fused skin and flesh behind him in the dirt. He made a low whimpering sound in what was left of his throat. Their eyes met.

She could kill him. Right now.

“… Get out of here,” she muttered. “Before they find you.” Painful realisation struck her. “Before they find us.”

Joseph Allworth nodded. He staggered into the sky, veering off towards the Atlantic as he blindly accelerated forward. The fire was over, but everything burned like it was still there.

He soon left Russia behind, the ocean crawling invitingly below him. 

Part of him wanted to fall. Down into the cool. But he had to get to the ship. Or to Lyonesse— 

No. Sarah. He needed to see his mother. Before… before whatever happened next.

Gravity snatched at Joe’s heels. He couldn’t keep out of its grip. The Flying Man fell into the black sea.  


1. It took Joe Allworth five months to find a composite alloy that would allow light to pass through it.

2. The uptick in suicides at Aokigahara are generally attributed to the influence of Japanese author Seichō Matsumoto’s 1961 novel Nami no Tō (Tower of Waves).

3. Rumors of an incredibly powerful ghost ruling over the spirits of Aokigahara remain unverified to this day.

4. A Russian term roughly translating to “science city” referring to centres of high tech research and manufacturing in the Soviet Union.

5. The nickname of the Russian WW2 sniper Lyudmila Pavlichenko, who notched three hundred and nine confirmed kills during her career.

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Chapter Seventy-Seven: The God Beneath the Sea

Beneath the slowly setting sun Arnold Barnes was putting the finishing touches on his sandcastle when Mabel asked, “If David and Allison don’t come back, what should we do?”

Arnold didn’t look up from his southern turret. “They’re coming back.”

Mabel kept scratching away at her life sketch. “I know. Still, worth thinking about. Can’t exactly do the teleport trick without Allie. And pretty sure we’re not as good at fishing as David.”

Arnold hummed. “True. I guess I could zap chunks of the sea over here and see what turned up… Not sure what we’d do for water, though…” 

Billy stretched in front of Mabel. Without his clothes, he looked as if a children’s illustrator had forgotten when to stop drawing. “I can make saltwater okay to drink!” he insisted. “Can make us food, too—”

“We’re not eating your food sludge,” said Mabel. 

The tiger-boy whined, “But it’s sugary!”   

No.” Mabel glanced at her scrapbook resting beside her. “I guess if we didn’t want to be the Swiss Family Watercolours forever, I could make a boat…”

 A black treasure galleon with a golden water-kelpie for a figurehead appeared just off the island’s shore.      

Mabel grinned. “Or a spaceship…”

The sailing ship vanished, replaced by a classical, red and blue flying saucer1, its rim ringed with hemispherical divots. 

“Nice,” said Arnold. He shifted to look at Mabel and Billy. “Do you think we could manage?” Guiltily, he clarified, “Without David and Allie I mean.”

“Honestly,” said Mabel, “I’m not sure how they would manage.”

The gentle churn of the waves was broken by excited splashing. David was running out of the sea, his grandfather looking on fondly as always. The little boy was wearing a sodden beret.

“Hey guys!” he trilled. He pointed to his beret. “I went to France! Same part mum’s mum was from!” He giggled. “Those kids were so confused…”

Mabel waved. “Hey Dave,” she said, adding, “You know, Allie at least left a note.”

David looked around the beach. “Oh, is Allie gone?”

“Yeah,” said Arnold. “Note said she went flying with ‘Miri’.” 

Billy was looking up at the clouds. “I bet she’s already conquered America or something.”

“That’d be cool,” said Arnold. “We’d own Disneyland.”

“Ooh!” David turned towards his grandfather. “Sometime we’re going to Disneyland!”

“I don’t know what that is,” said Grandfather Ocean. He pointed a pale finger at the UFO still hovering above his domain. “Is that the work of you, larger girl?” he asked Mabel.

“Yes,” Mabel answered warily. 

The Ocean looked at his grandson. “You should keep an eye on this one, too, in case you can add her blood to ours.” 

David rolled his eyes. “Are you going to say that about every girl I know?” 

“Only the exceptional,” said the Ocean. “You keep good company, my child.”

Mabel grit her teeth, hiding her face behind her sketchbook. She didn’t know why Allison liked David’s monster-granddad so much. Aside from him being evil, half the time he sounded like a weird, aquatic Lawrence.

Also, looking at a dead guy’s junk was gross.

Something small and white streaked down through the sky like an early falling star, landing somewhere on the other side of the island. Mabel could have sworn she heard it giggling.

“I think Allie’s back,” said Arnold.

The Watercolours circuited the island until they found Allison. The girl was… licking a tree.  

“Um, Allie?” asked Arnold.

“That tree must taste really good,” said Billy. 

Allison straightened and ran up to her friends, grinning maniacally. “Hi guys!” Her gaze jumped wildly between all the other Watercolours, as though she were only seeing them for the first time.

Mabel squinted at her friend. There was something… askew with Allison. Usually, she carried herself with the confidence of a young tigress. Or a kitten about to pounce at a mirror. Right now she looked like she was about to vibrate herself to death with excitement. Her grin was off too. Allison always smiled like she was surveying a kingdom laid out for the taking. Now she just looked like she’d spent all her pocket money on Windshear’s smuggled soda. 

“Allison,” said Mabel slowly, lest she set her off, “did you… take something while you were away?”

“Allison” blinked, before comprehension dawned on her. “Oh, I’m not Allison.” She shot her arms out to either side of herself. “I’m Miri!”

David tilted his head. “…Wait, you’re that clone-girl Allie ate?” 

“Yep,” chirped Miri. “It’s alright, I was gonna be dead anyway.” 

Arnold regarded her suspiciously. “Is this another Alberto thing? Because we just did that.”

“She gave me permission!” insisted Miri. She glanced at the empty space to her left. “Tell ‘em Allie!”

The air did not speak.

Miri frowned and shook her arm. “C’mon, tell them!” 

A moment of plaintive staring, and the girl closed her eyes. 

Allison opened her eyes and sighed, her whole posture wilting.  “It’s okay, guys,” Allison said wearily. “I’m just… having a break. Please be nice to Miri, she’s cool.”

Miri shook herself like a wet dog. “See? I’m like her…” Miri 

Arnold raised an eyebrow, his arms folded. “You could’ve just been pretending to be Allison.”

Billy shoved the other boy playfully but firmly. “Aww, don’t be like that, Arn.” He stepped next to Miri and pulled her into a side-hug. “Pleased to meetcha, Miri!” 

Miri nuzzled Billy so hard the pair toppled over in the sand. Miri kept on cuddling. “Oh, my God.” Miri wondered if she had one of those. She wasn’t even entirely sure what a “God” was2. It didn’t matter. She had more important quandaries to consider: 

“How are you so cuddly?”

Billy purred. He might’ve been self-conscious about that not too long ago. He wiggled proudly. “Natural talent!.”

Billy’s tail swished against Miri’s leg, making her giggle. “You have a tail!” she declared. “Why don’t other people have tails? They’re so much fun!”

Billy grinned around at his friends. “I think I like her.”

The next fortnight on No-Name-Island passed relatively quietly. Miri manned the fort of her and Allison’s body for more than three days straight.  

Much to David’s consternation, most of that was spent with Billy: 

“Wanna come swimming, Miri?” he asked one afternoon. “There’s a dolphin pod hanging out a couple miles out!” He pointed eagerly out to sea. “We can wrestle them!”

“Maybe later,” Miri answered, not looking at the sea-sprite. She was sitting in the sand, braiding the fur on Billy’s back into tribal tattoos. “I’m doing an art!”

Billy flinched slightly as Miri’s fingers slipped. “Yeah!” he said, grinning and baring his fangs. “I’m gonna be a warrior!”

“Oh, okay,” said David. “Later then.” He turned around and started walking into the ocean, muttering, “Unless you’re too busy kissing and junk.” He kicked a rock into the water on his way past.

“I don’t get it!” David said later, pacing on top of the water in front of his grandfather. “I’m cool right? And dolphins are cool!” 

“You are a beautiful, boundless creature, my child,” Grandfather Ocean assured him. “And dolphins are amenable lovers whose flesh made your mother grow strong and tall.”

“Yeah!” said David. “Who wouldn’t want to pet one? Dumb people, that’s who.” He sat down on the glassy surface of the sea, hand cupped under his chin. “It’s all because Billy’s floofy…”

“You could have fur,” said the Ocean. 

David squinted at his grandfather. “I could?”

“Your body is a seeming. It is whatever you think you are. You could have the snowy pelt of a seal-cub, or the slippery skin of a dolphin.”

David rubbed his chin. “Hmm…” He took a deep breath, clenched his fists, and screwed his eyes shut in concentration. After a minute or so of this, he opened his eyes again and looked down at himself, finding only the usual brown, naked human skin. 

“Stupid—” David startled when he caught sight of his shoulder. It was plated in moss. 

“It’s so unfair!” he whined later walking next to Arnold along the beach. 

“What’s unfair?” Arnold asked, only half-listening as he flapped his cloak in the breeze. 

“It’s like I’ve been replaced!”

Arnold stared incredulously at David, before breaking down in bent over laughter.

“What?” said David. “What’s so funny?”

Arnold looked back up at his friend, mouth open like he was going to explain, only for laughter to overcome him again.

“Seriously!”

Arnold managed to stand up straight up again and wipe his eyes. He strolled ahead of David. “You’re lucky you’re pretty, Dave.”   

Eventually, David figured out what he had to do. Miri thought Billy was cool. Bah! He’d show her cool…

Billy and Miri were sitting on a rocky outcrop arting and crafting when the moaning whale song washed over them.

The minke whale rose from the water, its head and jaw armoured in gleaming white and purple seashells. David rode atop her like Hannibal on his elephant. Like his mount, his body was decorated with shells, while a coral crown rested in his dark locks. 

“Woah,” said Billy, setting down his homemade cup of homemade glue. Thankfully Miri had stopped trying to taste it. “It’s a whale-knight…” 

“Hey guys,” David called. He thumped the whale lightly. She hardly noticed. “Like my new pet?”

The whale let out a rumble deep in its belly.

“It’s neat!” said Miri. She held out Billy’s latest latest creation: a clam with googly eyes and red paint streaked across its lower rim.  “We’ve been doing stuff too! Look! Billy made it look like a face!”

David looked at Miri’s face. He didn’t know Allison’s features were capable of such unalloyed wonder. 

“Billy, do the thing!”

Billy took the clam and flapped its jaws. “Hello, I’m Mr. Scallops!”

Miri squealed and clapped her hands. Her eyes were sparkling, even through the red glare.

David’s eye twitched.

Really? he thought.

“Yeah,” he said. “Cool.”

Sullenly, the boy and his whale sank back below the waves.

Thankfully for David, Miri eventually took the backseat again. 

Mabel was crouched in the sea, futilely trying to wash the sand out of her hair without replacing it with salt.

“Hey Mabs!”

Mabel stood and looked behind her. Her friend with the bloodless skin and the glowing red eyes was standing on the shore. But which one? No costume, but that wasn’t really a clue either way. She didn’t particularly look like she wanted to hug or stick anything in her mouth, and she was standing very straight, like she was issuing the entire world a challenge. In general, she seemed to lack the constant, unabashed state of “yay” in which Miri existed.

“Hey… Allison?”

The girls strolled into the surf next to her friend. “Yeah, I’m back. How’s stuff?”

“Okay,” answered Mabel. “I finally figured out how to draw Billy’s face properly. You’d think kids would be easier when you are one.” She made a show of checking her surroundings before whispering, “I’m gonna try animating it later and make it sneak up on him.”

Allison grinned.“Only if I’m there when you do it. And I have a camera on me.”

“Heh, deal. You were gone a while, Allie.”

Allison quirked her shoulders. “Hey, Miri barely got to be alive before we merged.” Mostly in their sleep, Allison and Miri had agreed that “merged” was the least gross way of putting it. “Why shouldn’t she get to be in charge for a while?”

“True. Still, three days. Long time. You could’ve… taken shifts?”

Allison took a deep breath. “I needed a break.”

“…From being you?”

Allison stiffened for a second, before forcing a smile and splashing Mabel. “Shut up!”

It sounded like Allison meant that more than she realized. Mabel decided not to press things. Allison hadn’t, after all. 

“…And if I have to I eat fish one more night!”

“Maybe if you’d try it raw for once…”

“I’d bloody throw my guts up!”

The girls turned to find David and Arnold stalking along the beach, clearly arguing, with Billy trailing trepidatiously behind them. 

Mabel called over to the boys, “What are you on about?”

Arnold stopped and turned on his heels towards the girls. “I’m sick of sleeping in the sand all the time! I want a real bed!” He grimaced at his own grime and sand encrusted body. “And a shower.” 

David scoffed. “We’re on a beach. Just go for a swim.”

Arnold got right up in the other boy’s face, hissing, “Do you know what sunburn on your butt is like, David?”

“I—”

Do you?” Arnold shot a look at Allison. “And how are you not a lobster by now? You’ve got paper for skin!”

“Do you see paper getting sunburn3? Stop being a wimp, Arn.”

“…I think I’m with Arnold,” said Mabel.

Allison looked at her. “Why?”

Mabel shuffled her feet in the water. “Look, we’re not like you and David. Running around naked and playing with gods or whatever all day is fun, it really is… for a while. But I miss shampoo. And food that isn’t fish.”

“You should try seaweed!” insisted David. “Or dugong!”

“No,” said Mabel firmly.”

“Yeah,” said Billy. “We’ve done it your way for a while. I’ve really liked it, but it should probably be Mabel and Arnold’s turn now.”

“Billy’s right,” said Miri, suddenly standing on the water between Allison and Mabel. “I’ve never been in a house! They sound neat! Like if someone made an island, but inside.”

“Okay,” Allison said flatly. “We just need to find a hotel that’ll let five outlaw kids with no parents or money stay as long as we want without calling the freak-finders.” 

“Can’t be that hard,” said Arnold. “We have your Alberto powers.”

“Seems chancey,” said Billy. “Also, maybe evil?”

David folded his arms and pouted. “I don’t wanna go somewhere I have to wear clothes all day. Or be far away from the sea.”

Arnold shoved him. David shoved back.

There was a gurgling sound behind Mabel and Allison. Grandfather Ocean rose and formed from the water. “My child, if you wish to indulge the animals, I know of a place that might silence their complaints.”

“What place?” asked David. 

“A great cave of air and metal, built by a rascal god some time ago. In my honour, I assume. An estate, I think men would call it, or a manor. It is… acceptable for creatures that breathe, and full of what you would call wonders. It’s been empty for a while now.”

“Alright,” said Billy, grinning and nodding his head, “that, I want to see.”

“It does sound fun,” Allison admitted. 

Arnold only had one question:

“Is there a TV4?”

Rather than risk Arnold dropping them deep beneath the ocean, the children ventured across David’s ancestor on a sailing ship conjured by Mabel’s powers. She and Allison took shifts maintaining it while they and their friends ran around playing pirate amongst thinly-defined, phantasmic sailors. They followed in the wake of an unnaturally long-lived rogue wave, upon whose crest David and grandfather rode. 

After nearly a week, the wave crashed back into the ocean. Once David stopped laughing and hugging his grandfather he broke down into sea fog and reformed on the prowl of the WS5

“We’re here!” he crowed.

The Watercolours gathered portside, looking down at the choppy plane of slate-grey water. Winter ruled this part of the world. The sky above was lined with heavy gray clouds. Thunder rumbled somewhere below the horizon.

Mabel rubbed her shoulders. Even with her costume, the air carried a bite. She would be glad to be somewhere warm again. “Okay,” she looked at David, “how do we get down to this sea-castle or whatever?”

David smiled indulgently and rubbed his knuckles against his chest. “Don’t worry, I’ve got it covered.”

He gazed down at the sea, his eyes aglow. A small, circular patch of water froze over. Its edges curved upwards, rising into the air until the glassy ice met and closed, except for a porthole in the very top, large enough for a child or two to slip through.

David turned to Allison at the end of the line. “Allie—” 

His body became a splash on the deck. His voice rose from the ice-bubble:

“Mind helping our friends into the bathysphere?”

Once Allison had lowered the last Watercolour down into the globe, it sealed shut. Everyone was wearing their costumes, apart from David. Arnold wanted to ask how his skin wasn’t sticking to the ice.

“Try not to breathe too much,” the water-sprite said.

“I wasn’t until you said that,” grumbled Arnold.

Mabel’s ship dissolved back into dreams. The bubble plunged below the waves. David’s grandfather swam in front of them, towards a light in the far gloom. The light became a rosebulb of blue and green diamond cradled in gold filigree, glowing in the storm-darkened sea like the fallen moon. Or maybe a dandelion, swaying in the current on a stalk that trailed down into the murk. It appeared to be the size of a school bus.

“Wow,” said Billy, his face as close to the ice as possible without having to leave a chunk of his fur behind.  

He didn’t know it, but Miri was on her knees right next to him, her imaginary face pressed right against the window. She grinned back at her sister. “Pretty!”  

“Is pretty woah,” Allison said, as though finely crafted jewels of metal and diamond were something she found all the time in the middle of the oceans. “Looks a bit small for us, though.”

They drew closer. The rosebulb grew to the size of a house. Then a manor. Then a large shopping mall.

“Holy shit,” said Mabel. “Who the hell built this place?”

“Dunno,” said David. “Granddad just says it was a god.” He shrugged. “I don’t think he’s very good at telling them apart.”

“Get in as close as possible,” Arnold told him. “I really don’t want to mess this up.”

David obeyed, bringing the icey submarine so near it was almost touching the rosebud. To Arnold’s quiet but obvious relief, its diamond walls were largely transparent. 

“There!” he said, pointing at a place close to the bottom of the structure. “Pretty sure there’s a staircase through there! Everyone huddle up!”

The children all laid their hands on Arnold. The globe flashed green and crumbled away.

The Watercolours materialized in a heap on the staircase. Mabel got to her feet first. “Nice, Arn,” she said. “We’re not drowning!”

She looked around. They were in what looked like the grand foyer of a Gilded Age ocean-liner. But where those ships did their best to make their passengers feel as though they were on dry land, this space seemed to glory in the marine. The carpets and walls were all aquatic greens and blues, the latter dotted with bronze and chrome barnacles. Before the staircase was a fountain that looked like nothing more than a hole into the ocean. There were murals of sea creatures and gods everywhere. The entire front wall was a window out into the sea.   

“I think we need to thank your grandpa,” said Arnold.

A calm, even voice filled the entire room. In a perfectly calculated English accent it said: “It is my unfortunate duty to inform you children that you are trespassing.”

The children all startled and scrambled to their feet. Arnold lit up with lightning. A laser-pistol appeared in Mabel’s hand. A globe of mercury materialized in front of Billy’s chest. 

Allison resisted the impulse to burn. This place was too nice to scorch if it could be avoided. “And who might you be?” she asked cooly. “You that god that built this place?”

“No,” said the voice. “I am the caretaker intelligence of the residential section of the Lyonesse complex. I mind the shop while sir is away.”

“And who is ‘sir’?” asked Arnold, still glowing bright, eyes peeled for attack robots or whatever this place was going to throw at them.

“Oh, this is unexpected. On the off chance that any intruder did not already know whose home this is, sir authorized me to display this image for intimidation purposes. Please enjoy.”

A perfect holographic image appeared above the fountain. 

All the colour rushed from Mabel’s cheeks. “Fuck.”

Arnold glared at David. “Your granddad’s an idiot.”

Gently, the Flying Man smiled down at the children.   


1. Its shape of course was utterly impractical for an interstellar vessel. It was, however, currently in vogue with the galactic community.

2. What scraps of spiritual education Miri received during her incubation period concerned the pantheistic faith of the Physician’s own shallow coastal clan.

3. As Eliza Winter would have explained, it was less that Allison Kinsey skin was low in pigment as all of it was white.

4. Grandfather Ocean in turn had a question of his own: “What’s a ‘TV’?”

5. “Watercolours Ship”

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Chapter Seventy-Six: Red Glare

PRSD1 specialist Paul Mars stood before a wave of journalists and gawkers, trying to keep it from breaking over the blue and white police tape stretched out in front of the Russo Family Ice-Cream Bar. It shouldn’t have been difficult. The boy was built like a more modest Rhodes Colossus. But his father always told him never to lean on folks with his size, and all those eyes pitted against him felt like whirring death-rays.  

“Please folks,” he begged in his soft Californian drawl, “the police need space to do their job.”

A fish-faced man with a non-existent chin jostled his way to the head of the throng and shouted, “What are all you yanks even doing here? Is this an invasion? Think we can’t see to our own matters?” 

Mars couldn’t tell if the question was accusatory or not. The Australian twang was the linguistic answer to the man sitting in the back of the bar with the perpetual grin. Or did they call them “pubs” down here? “Sir, Delta Squad is just here to lend a hand. We’re all rooting for Australia.” 

Currents of laughter ran through the crowd. It didn’t sound like they were laughing with Paul.

He’d done it again, hadn’t he? At least they weren’t talking about “rubbers” again.  

A young journalist in a creased sand-coloured suit threatened his notepad with a No.2 pencil. “Excuse me, Mr. Mars—yes, Miles Parker, The West Australian—can you confirm or deny that the perpetrator of this latest attack is in fact the ringleader of the Royal Exhibition Hall gang?”

Paul briefly wondered when the commentariat was going to come up with a catchier name for those kids2, before stuttering, “Well, that’s what Mr. Russo—and the police, of course—are telling us, but none of us in the squad were here when it happened, unfortunately.”

“And do you think there’s any proof to the rumours that these demi-children have a backer of some kind?” 

Like he’d always been taught, Paul Mars answered frankly and honestly:

“I have no idea. Sorry.” 

Paul Mars was instantly assaulted by a barrage of questions and baffled abuse. He barely managed to resist covering his ears.

“How the hell can you not know? You’re a bloody super!”

“But I’m not—”  

“Useless cunts!”

Paul’s face went red. 

A burnt, shiny scalped old man in an off-white singlet walked right up to the American. “It’s fuckin’ disgraceful, freaks like you acting like you’re on our side! You monsters got us into this mess in the first place!” He started prodding Mars in the chest. “My niece was in Boans when your kind tore a man apart! What do you have to say to that?”

Paul begged like a child in a schoolyard, “Please stop that, sir.”

The man grinned sourly, clearly lusting after a public martyrdom. People were cheering him on like he was David standing in Goliath’s shadow. “Oh, the big demi wants me to stop touching him. Make me.

To his eternal shame, Paul briefly considered giving the old coot what he wanted.

A hydrogen bomb of a voice boomed over the commotion. “Will you all just can it?

Paul’s superior officer was striding through and above the crowd, his legs stretched fifteen feet below him like clown stilts. “Come on, out of the way!” he shouted as civilians scrambled to obey. 

Soon enough, Corporal Jinks was by Paul’s side. His legs shortened until he was a head shorter than the specialist—albeit still about three inches wider. More than anything, the corporal resembled a grey brick with eyes. He glared at the old man through sunglasses dark as space. “Why are you giving my boy Mars here a bad time, sir?” He pronounced the last word like it was the vilest slur in a drill-sergeant’s arsenal.  

The old man folded his arms and tilted his nose up, apparently unintimidated by the living wall that was Corporal Jinks. “What you people do is ungodly.”

Corporal Jinks rolled his eyes. He bet this idiot hadn’t been to any kind of church in a hundred Easters.  

Jinks’ neck stretched and reared upwards like a boa constrictor. He looked down at the old man. “What’s your name, sir?”

“…Mr. Wilks.”

“Little logic puzzle, Mr. Wilks.” He lay a hand on Wilks’ shoulder. It snaked across the man’s back and wrapped tight around his chest. 

Mr. Wilks squeaked. The crowd held its breath.

Jinks continued. “If God doesn’t like this, but I can still do it, who’s tougher?”       

Mr. Wilks squeaked. 

“Come on, tell me!”

The man let out a yelp. “You! You are!”

Jinks released Mr. Wilks. “Exactly right!” His cheeks bulged, forming into a kind of organic megaphone. “Now, disperse!”

The civilians scattered to the winds. 

Paul sighed. He thought back to what Corporal Jinks told the squad on the plane to Australia:

“Remember boys, we’re here to win hearts and minds… and hopefully see a kangaroo.”

Jinks slapped Mars on the back. “Come on, boy, let’s see what your pals are up to.” He spotted Mr. Wilks trying to shuffle off down the street. “Hey, Wilks!” he shouted.

Wilks startled before slowly turning around to face the Americans. “…Yes?”

“You got a light?” asked Jinks with a massive grin. 

Wilks nodded shakily as he pulled a pack of Redheads matches, only for Corporal Jinks to grab it off him from thirty paces. 

Jinks’ arm snapped back to his side like a tape-measure. “Thanks, buddy!”

Mr. Wilks took off running as soon as he thought Jinks wasn’t watching.

“Sir, was that completely”—Paul searched for the least insubordinate way of putting it—“…nice?”

Corporal Jinks lit a cigar with one of his confiscated matches. “Paul, that man was spoiling for a rumble, so I gave him an entrée.” Smoke plumed from his nostrils. “Turned out he wasn’t hungry. Conflict resolution, eh?” He tapped at his temples. “Conflict resolution, boy. That’s just using your noggin.”

“If you say so, sir.”

Paul Mars had never planned to go into the military. He always expected to end up running the family farm until he died, or became one with the landscape itself. Paul’s sisters always joked about him becoming a superhero, but he could never see it. That required hurting people. As far as Mars was concerned, the best use of his power was keeping bottles of pop cool. 

Then Vietnam happened. Then Paul’s number came up.

Paul Mars didn’t want to go to war. He looked sideways at anyone who did. But they told him at school and church and half a dozen other places that it was his duty. 

Besides, better him than someone else.   

He’d finally gotten up the nerve to talk about his unique talent at his draft board physical. “Excuse me, doctor,” he said as the aging military doctor rested his stethoscope on his bare back, “there’s something I need to come clean about.”

“What is it, son?” Dr. Chavez asked, bracing himself in case the young man shat himself or tried hitting on him.

Paul Mars took a deep breath. His shadow tore free from his frame, rising into the air like acrid black smoke. All the light in the little wood panelled office rushed into the cloud like dust falling into a black hole, leaving the room dark as midnight. The room became deathly cold.

Dr. Chavez tried to shout, “Jesus Christ!” but no sound escaped his mouth. It was like the words froze to death in the air. 

Paul Mars’ shadow dissolved, releasing its stolen heat and energy. The sudden excitement of the atmosphere sent a few bottles and cups of stationary clattering to the floor.

“Sorry, doctor,” Paul said sheepishly, before asking, “am I disqualified?”

Dr. Chavez rubbed at his glasses. A thin layer of frost had spread across the lenses. “…Not exactly, kid.”

And with that, the Department of Psychonautics and Occultism took Mars under their wing. They told the lad he was a sorcerer. That had confused Paul. He always thought you had to read a lot of dusty books or have a chat with the Devil to be a sorcerer. The Mars family meanwhile were committed Presybtarians, and Paul’s familiarity with old tomes was limited to his great-great grandfather’s Poor Richard’s Almanack. But as one of Paul’s future teammates had explained, “sorcerer” was just the government’s new word for powered people who were clearly not bright enough to be wizards. 

Comments like that aside, life in the PRSD was pretty alright. Corporal Jinks was… him, but he could be nice, in a scary sort of way. The other specialists weren’t all bad either. Sofía Verres swore far too much for a lady, but Paul tried not to judge. She’d led a hard life. As for Kerry Napes… well, Kerry Napes was… him. 

Jinks and Mars passed Mr. Russo, still giving his account to the police constable:

“…She walked in bloody naked, too!3” The ice-cream man leaned forward and whispered, “It’s the fucking hippies. All those drugs they take are mutating their bloody kids!4

“God,” said the corporal, “can you imagine having that kind of power as a little kid? It’d fucking warp ya.”

“Uh, I can, sir,” replied Mars. “I was born with powers. Miss Verres too, I think.”

“Oh.” Jinks was quiet for a moment. “Good thing you boys turned out okay, then.”

Mars knew Corporal Jinks had come into his powers later than most. All the other sorcerers Paul knew had their powers at least since childhood, but Jinks was at least forty, and he’d only had powers for three years, tops. The rumour back at Lawton was that he’d jumped on a grenade in ‘Nam and ballooned like a sail in a headwind. 

It was strange, Paul thought, having a commanding officer greener than him.

They found Specialist Verres chatting up a storm with a little girl across the street. The kid was wearing sunglasses even darker than Jinks’, and kept tapping at the pavers with a white cane. She was also dressed in too-big red and yellow pinstriped trousers, topped with a pink and green blouse. She looked like if circus clowns could reproduce.   

 “So you were a supervillain?” 

Regretfully, Verres found herself frowning. A hawkishly featured Latina woman, something about how her lips were set made slight irritation look like genuine anger. 

At least she’s blind, Verres thought, before feeling a prick of guilt at the idea.  

“Not really,” said Verres. “I mean, I didn’t have a super-name or a costume or anything. Didn’t even know where you got one of those.” That’s what they don’t tell you about embarking on a life of crime: even that demanded capital. “I just turned car-windows into sand and scooped out whatever I found.”

 “So, you were a crook… then you joined the army?”

Verres smiled resignedly. “It was either that or jail.”

The girl nodded solemnly. “I know the feeling.”  

Before Verres could ask how that could possibly be true, her corporal called out, “Not sharing state secrets are we, Verres?”

Verres gave Jinks a rather sloppy salute. “No, sir, just talking to,” she looked down at the blind girl. “What was your name again?” 

The girl grinned like she was stifling a giggle. “Miri- Uh, Miranda. My friends call me Miri.” 

Paul Mars stepped forward and shook the little girl’s hand. “Pleased to meet you, Miri. Paul Mars.”

Miri-Miranda shook back hard. “Right back at ya. You part of this squad thing?”

Paul glanced down at his bright, starred-and-spangled PRSD uniform. “…Yes?”

Apparently Miri-Miranda caught the dubious note in Paul’s voice. She pointed to her sunglasses. “Blind.”

Verres could see the auburn-haired sorcerer’s heart breaking. God, she loved that stupid soft-face of his. 

“I’m sorry,” 

Miri-Miranda shrugged. “The cancer was a while ago, I’m used to it.”

The beginning of tears swelled in Paul’s eyes. Verres meanwhile wondered what kind of parents the girl’s were. The way they dressed her alone should’ve warranted jail-time. And she was so pale. Was this the first time they’d let her outside or something?

Corporal Jinks put a hand on the girl’s shoulder. “Well, you’re handling it like a trooper, Miss Miranda. And don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”

Miri-Miranda saluted. “Yes, sir!”

Paul watched as his corporal’s face broke out in smile lines. He wondered if the old soldier had children of his own… 

“Can I ask you a question?” asked Miri-Miranda.

“Sure thing kiddo,” said Jinks.

The girl pointed to a spot about three feet to the left of the last member of Squad Delta. “Why’s that guy not wearing a shirt?”

Corporal Jinks and the others followed Miri-Miranda’s finger to Kerry Napes. The blond nineteen year old was clumsily trying to hit on a clearly uncomfortable woman about ten years his senior. While he wore the same patriotically coloured trousers as his teammates, his chest was bare, apart from a web of tattoos resembling a circuit-diagram. 

Corporal Jinks grimaced, trying not to think too hard about the answer to that. “…Military secret, kid. Wait, how’d you know he didn’t have a shirt?”

Before Miri-Miranda could answer, one of the baseline soldiers attached to the squad ran up to the corporal and whispered into his ear. 

Jinks’ expression flattened. “Thank you, private,” he said through gritted teeth, “dismissed.” 

The soldier left, looking very relieved. 

Jinks beamed at Miri-Miranda. “Sorry about this, little miss, I just need to talk to my boys for a second.” 

“S’alright.”

“Good.” 

Corporal Jinks took the two specialists aside, hopefully out of earshot of any easily panicked civilians. “It’s the DDHA, they need us for a capture.” He made a sound halfway between a grunt and a sigh. “The kid’s resisting.”

“A kid, sir?” asked Paul mournfully.

Her burning eyes hidden behind dark glass and the reflective glare of the sun, Miri watched the squad cooly. 

There was something Corporal Jinks found perverse about riding a troop-carrier through a living, breathing city. Instead of gunfire, or thick tires climbing over rock and undergrowth, the APC was bombarded battered by car-horns and the pattering of millions of feet against the sidewalk. Civilians going about their lives. It felt like a threat. Not against the Corporal’s body or life, but his basic decency. A weapon of war in a school district. 

“You said this was gonna stop.”

Paul Mars didn’t sound like a soldier. He sounded like a boy. He was a boy. If Jinks had been a proper hardass, he would’ve made the walls of the truck rattle cussing Mars out. Instead, he just sighed. “The Aussies say they’re ‘transitioning’.”

Flecks of glass danced along Specialist Verres’ gloved fingers, reflecting what little light they could catch in the gloom of the tarpaulin. “What he means is everyone’s too pissed off and scared to switch gears, and even if they weren’t, they wouldn’t know what to do instead.” She asked Paul, “You ever run for your life, Mars?”

Paul nodded. “Once. Bull got loose.”

Verres rolled her eyes. “Of course it did. So, did you stop running the second you were safe?”

“…No?”

“That’s what this is. Running because your blood’s still up and you’re too fucking terrified for anything else.” Verres sat back and folded her arms, her glass shards tucking themselves in behind her ears. “It’s just the regulars here are the ones doing the chasing.”

There was a thump against the ceiling. 

“Is it hailing or something?”

Paul wrapped his arms around his stomach. Australia was confusing.

Kerry Napes was vibrating with excitement. “At last, some action!”

“…Our last capture was four days ago,” said Verres.

“Too long! This is what I’m made for!5 This land is my Eden! Little rogue sorcerers around every corner, just for us!” Napes grinned like a gassy newborn. “Definitely beats opening another fucking mall…”

Corporal Jinks shook his head silently. Overall, he considered himself lucky in terms of company. Paul Mars was, frankly, a pussy, but sometimes he reckoned he could use more of those. Jinks tended to throw the boy at the cameras whenever his arm needed to seem kind. Verres was a crook, but she was also one of the best arguments for women in the armed forces. She had a good head for reading the public mood, too. He’d even seen a scrap of decency hiding under her skin from time to time.

Kerry Napes, though, was just a dickhead. Jinks had decided early on that the man was never to be allowed near the cameras. Just on the off-chance popped a boner while thinking something vile. Or even just started swearing in the vicinity of the sound gear. Or worst of all, tried demonstrating his powers.

Napes’ skin pulsed like there were giant pill bugs crawling underneath. He smirked. “Please tell me we’re nearly there, my friends are hungry.” 

“Never do that again till I’m in my ground,” Verres snapped. 

Napes threw his hands up. “Well they are!”

There had to have been a mix-up, thought Jinks. Somewhere in the depths of Vietnam, some clean-cut kid was blasting Charlie with good vibes6… 

The truck came to a stop. The noises outside had become more alarming.

“Look alive, boys,” ordered Jinks.

Squad Delta spilled out of the troop-carrier. They were somewhere in the City of Sterling, close enough to the beach that the air was faintly spiced with sea-salt. Policemen and ADF soldiers were shouting at people gawking from their windows and front lawns. Others were pointing their guns and screaming at a bulge in the middle of the road, scurrying about like a puppy trapped under a carpet.

“So,” said Verres, “do we actually know what this kid can do?” 

“Nope!” said Jinks bitterly. “Freakin’ DDHA.”

Napes punched his palm. “The Spartans’ enemies didn’t hand them neat little reports! Why should ours?”

“Shut up, university boy,” Verres snapped.

The squad found a bureaucratically coloured man lurking on the outskirts of the fracas, frantically flicking through a ringbinder labelled DDHA Field Protocols7.

Jinks tapped him on the shoulder. The man jerked and swung around. “Oh! Y-you must be Corporal Jinks?”

“Yes,” grunted the soldier. “And you are?”

“DDHA Agent Frecks, at your service sir.” 

Verres looked Frecks up and down. He looked like if James Bond had been shut inside a running washing machine. Couldn’t they have at least sprung for a black suit?

“What’s the situation?” asked Jinks.

Frecks cleared his throat. “Well, me and my partner Benson had pacified the target’s parents, with the help of the soldiers of course—”

Verres cut in, “You pointed guns at them, didn’t you?”

“And made them tea!” protested Frecks. “We’re not monsters!”

There was a second of silence before Frecks cleared his throat again. “Anyway, the girl was cooperating—basically—so we tried to go easy on her. Even let her take a teddy-bear.”

“Go on…”

“We were walking out onto the street when she dropped the thing, so we let her pick it up—” Frecks bit his lip. 

“For Christ’s sake, man, spit it out!” barked Jinks. 

“Well, the moment she touched the ground, her body sort of melted into it and—”…” Flecks pointed at the living mass of tarmac currently tripping up Perth’s finest. “—That.”

Corporal Jinks hummed and rubbed his chin. He really wanted to avoid shooting a kid. Especially one who could absorb bullets. What to do, what to do…

“Poor thing,” said Paul Mars. “Must be scared to death.”

Jinks clicked his fingers, before pointing sharply at Agent Flecks. “Get all your police and troops out of here!”

Flecks sputtered. “But sir—”

“Form a cordon. Keep the news crews out of the danger zone.They’re not worth anything here anyway.”

“Brilliant idea, sir!” cried Napes. “More for us.”

Jinks turned on his heel, and backhanded the man in the jaw. Kerry swore. Jinks ignored him. “Hide him or something, Verres. The last thing we need is Napes trying to eat a ten year old.”

Over the course of the next twenty minutes, soldiers and police officers climbed into their cars and trucks and retreated out of sight. Eventually—besides the soldiers enjoying a deeply awkward afternoon tea with Mr. and Mrs Nichols—all that were left were Flecks, Benson, and the PRSD. 

Paul Mars approached the roiling mass in the road—alone and slowly. He had his hands raised. He’d have waved a white flag if he had one. “Hey, Lily, isn’t it?”

The distorted lump of road melted and reformed. It became the shape of a girl, with crushed glass for eyes. Or the upper half of one, anyway. Her waist tapered off into the asphalt. A mermaid of the suburbs city. She didn’t answer.

“Can’t talk like that?” asked Paul.

The girl nodded warily. 

Paul bent till he was level with the child. He tried to remember conversations with his little sisters, and shook his head, before simply planting his rear on the asphalt, and crossing his legs. He gave the girl a smile. “Look, I know this is scary. It was scary for me and my friends, too when it happened to us. But I promise, we just want you to be safe. We’re not going to take you anywhere nasty.”

The girl tilted her head.

“He’s full of shit.” 

Everyone looked up. There was a little girl dressed in rainbows floating above the scene. Her eyes burned bright red, and her skin was white ash. 

“…Miranda?” said Paul eventually.

“Shit,” said Verres flatly.

Allison Kinsey ignored him. “I’ve been to the place they’ll take you. I think you should beat them up.”

Lily Nichols’ avatar looked noncommittally from Allison to Paul. It was strange. As the girl’s body moved, the upper half of it seemed to become less and less a part of the asphalt. Her torso was glass now, clear as the surface of a pool, but distorted under the surface by what for all the world looked like the glowing core of a lava lamp, shifting around inside her frame like a blob of liquid light. She thought about the words for a second, then, frowned, and shook her head.

“Thank you, Lily.” Paul gave her another smile, which she didn’t quite return.             

 Allison cracked her knuckles. “S’okay,” she said brightly. “I can get you started.” 

The next thing Paul knew, Allison was slamming into his chest with the force of a small car, sending his body sprawling end over end across the road. 

Mars came to a stop when his body struck the Nichols’ station wagon. He let out a pained groan, then looked up at Allison, now standing between him and Lily. 

“Miri…” His vision swam as he tried to push himself upright, only to slump on his shoulders against a car tyre.. “…That’s not nice.”  

Allison saw a golden opportunity. “The name’s Symphony,” she said, “and trying to arrest little girls isn’t nice either.”

It had sounded better in her head. She was keeping the name, though. Whatever the quality of Allison’s comeback, Lily still clapped. It sounded like a minor earthquake. Paul sighed. He’d thought he was winning the girl over.

“Right,” said Verres, watching the scene with the others from between a pair of houses across the street. “Time to raise some insurance premiums…”

Verres cracked her neck around on her shoulders, and pushed. There was a pulse. Every window, every tv screen, every piece of glassware in the street exploded into thousands upon thousands of jagged, angular shards. The shards flew and swirled towards Lily and the newly dubbed Symphony, joined by dust and dirt pulled up from the lawns and sidewalks. The cloud blew around the girls like sharpened rose-petals, orbiting the rainbow child and the glass girl like the rings of Saturn, catching and distributing the light they each exuded. 

Lily made distressed grinding noises, her face scrunching up with fear. Allison stood her ground. The Americans were bluffing. Their brains were telling her that as loudly as they could. This was just playtime back at the Institute. It wasn’t even sharper. Britomart hadn’t pulled her punches. 

She reached for Lily’s mind. 

Don’t panic. They’re not half the supers we are. Wait, idea!

Allison grabbed hold of Specialist Verres’ song. It was like organ music powered by burning petrol. At the same time, she ignited, burning as hot as she could. Then, she let out a pulse. The glass all around them glowed like the embers of a fire as it melted. Verres flinched. Then Allison brought all of it into one; a single, metre wide ball of molten glass and heat, burning like the core of the world. She held the whole of it over Lily’s head… 

“Do your thing!” Allison cried.

Lily reached for the sphere.  

For a moment, her road-formed avatar was simply still; an asphalt statue bereft of life. Then reality caught up to it, and it crumbled into tar and rock. As for Lily, her essence fled into the sphere, the glowing core at the centre of her crystalline form flowing into the mass of molten glass.There was a chime; like the sound of a spoon against a drinking glass, but amplified to the level of a church bell. The sphere bulged and flowed; first the tips of fingers, then a momentary glimpse of a girl’s face among the light. For a few seconds, everyone present simply stared.

When the reformation was done, Lily Nichols stood at least three metres tall, Steam playing around her molten form in a loose cloud of shimmers and distorted air. The effect was only slightly spoiled when Lily giggled, her voice now clearer than the finest record.

“Aw, jeez, this is so much better than being a wall!”

“Yeah!” Allison shouted. “How do you like us now? Flying girl and melty giant!”

“Shit!” hissed Verres. “The glass isn’t listening to me! I can’t get it back!” 

Jinks said, “You never told me you could heat it up like that!”

“I can’t! It was all the kid!” she swore. “And now it’s so hot I can’t get it off of her!”

Kerry Napes giggled. “Three powers! We’ve hit the jackpot! Let me at her, boss, for the love of God!”

Jinks just barely resisted the urge to slap the specialist. Again.

Allison was addressing her new friend. “So, want to play King Kong in the city for a bit?”

Before Lily had the time to shake her head, the temperature plummeted. All sound died. A dark, private dusk fell over the girls. 

Lily’s glass giant went from glowing ruby to clouded diamond. For the first time in months, Allison shivered. She tried to heat up the air, but it was like throwing water off a cliff. All the energy she put out was drawn away like breath into the wind.

She glanced over at Paul Mars. He was sitting up now. His shadow was missing. The specialist was shouting, but the sound was snatched away before it got to Allison’s ears. She growled silently, before stalking over and lifting the man by his throat. Her feet left the ground. 

“Stop spoiling it!”

A shearing snap, then a cloud of powdered glass hit the girl in the eyes. 

“Ow!”

Allison let go of Mars, only for something thick, warm, and sweaty to snap shut around her body. Eyes watering, she looked down to see the corporal standing below her. Both his arms were stretched, his hands bloated. One was setting Paul back on his feet. The other was clasped tight around Allison.

“Thanks, sir,” said Paul as he dusted himself off.

“Don’t mention it.” He looked up at his squirming, thrashing captive. “And that’ll be enough of that, ‘Symphony’.”

Allison tried desperately to wiggle free of Jinks’ swollen hand. She scratched and clawed at the inside of his palm, but it was like trying to gore cookie dough.

“Stop being mean!”

Jinks glanced over at the sound of Lily’s voice, just in time to see her cross the distance between them in a flying leap. The ground shook.

Her shadow fell rapidly over the two men.

“Shit!” shouted Jinks, shoving Mars to the side and raising one rapidly swelling arm to defend himself. But Lily was larger and heavier than she or the corporal realized. She slammed into the corporal like a titan’s fist, and Jinks was sent flying into the bricks of the house Verres sheltered behind, his form hitting the wall with a wet splat.

The arm holding Allison spasmed and thudded limply to the ground, freeing her; the length of it still connected to the smear that remained of the corporal like a string of stretched spaghetti. She floated in the air and humphed.

“Serves him right.” 

Paul and Verres both looked on in horror. 

“Jinks!”  

Lily put her hands against her mouth in horror, a stream of mumbled half-apologies flowing desperately from her lips. The apologies abruptly stopped when the corporal’s remains muttered something little girls really aren’t supposed to hear.

The human splat croaked, “Okay, Napes, your turn… just don’t kill them, alright?”

Kerry Napes jumped out from the shrubbery he’d been hiding behind. “At last!” He grinned up at Allison. “Hey kid, lonely?”

Paul and Verres both braced themselves.

Kerry’s eyes rolled backwards in his head, and then exploded, releasing a swarm of something between shrimp and wasps. The tattoos on his chest leaked gouts of blood, before cracking open to release his transformed organs. Toothed intestines spilled onto the road like wyrms from a dragon’s womb. Napes’s heart wiggled out after them on its arteries, ventricles hardening and curling like the horns of a rhino beetle. His lungs were grinning goblins, accompanied by scuttling creatures with hides of muscle and torn skin. Soon all that was left of the specialist were a few strips of epidermis and his brain, armoured by the remnants of his skull. Even that sprouted legs and scuttled away into the bushes.

The menagerie charged at the girls.

Allison shuddered. “Ewww!” She looked over at Lily. “You wanna go get your parents or whatever while I take care of those?”

The glass-giant gave a thumbs up. 

Allison landed amongst the monsters. She looked around and grinned, picturing about half of Eliza Winter’s biofeedback signals. These things looked dangerous; knowledge taken from first Zywie, then, more pertinently, the Physician highlighting sets of barbed, neurotoxin laced stingers hidden amongst the swarm. She clotted her blood, and set her skin aflame.  “Bring it on.”

Time slowed, or at least Allison’s perception of it. The thing that had been Kerry Napes’ heart shot a jet of blood at the girl. To her it was like watching an icicle form in mid-air. Effortlessly, she snatched up the pancreas lunging for her leg and shoved it between herself and the stream.

The creature screamed as the acid struck it. Kerry Napes’ song exploded with notes of pain. One of the disadvantages of literally throwing yourself at your enemies, Allison supposed. 

She threw the melting organ aside. A couple of miscellaneous messes of bone and muscle were trying to to flank her. High on adrenaline, she leapt to the side, grabbing the heart. She dug her nails into the thing. It shrieked, spraying its deadly blood all over a cluster of vermiform veins and serpentine bowels. When it was spent, she threw it down and kicked it like a football into what she swore had once been Napes’ fibula.  The eye-swarm was descending now like angry rain. 

Allison pulsed, white hot. The creatures burst into flame, consumed in less than a second. She felt good.

On the other side of the street, Corporal Jinks and specialist Verres watched on, unsure whether to be horrified or impressed. As a solution, Napes’ power was almost always worse than the problem.

Lily crashed shoulder-first into her living room, catching sight of her parents cowering by the sofa. The soldiers guarding them screamed pointless, indiscernible things up at Lily, but Grandad’s old armchair toppled both of them like bowling pins.

Mr. and Mrs Nichols looked up at their daughter with something akin to awe. 

“Lily?” her mother asked.      

The giant picked them both up gently. Effortlessly. Like kittens. Both her parents were too stunned to make a noise.   

What Lily didn’t notice was Paul Mars’ shadow floating behind her. Allison did, though, watching the family reunion as she crushed some of Napes’ remaining body parts between her hands.

Verres screamed, trying to tackle Allison with desperate, purely human strength. Almost idly, the girl noted the electricity sparking across her shoulders from Verres’ stun-stick. Allison thrust her hands out and launched the woman over her head, letting her own momentum do most of the work. 

All her attention was focused on the living shadow. It reminded her of a mosquito that’d drunk its fill. It was vast and globular now, and something like thunder and lightning roiled deep within it.

All that energy, she thought. Why isn’t he blasting her?

She found Paul Mars crouching behind a picket fence. He was breathing deeply and rapidly, like he was trying to psyche himself up for something.

Oh yeah, she remembered, he’s a wimp

An idea struck Allison.

Colonel Jinks shot upwards on his legs, before retracting them back into himself and flattening around Allison like a net, rapidly contracting..

The girl let herself burn for just a second. The sudden burst of hot air blew the colonel up like a hot air balloon, sending him at first into the air, then, as his body vented the air, just badly off course.  

“Hey, Miri.”

“Yeah?” said the ghost-child, hopping around her host. 

“You know how I went inside that Thumps guy and made him shoot me?”

“Yes?”

“Mind doing that with Paul over there?”

“…You want me to shoot you?”

Allison groaned. “No, I mean—just get inside him, will ya?”

Miri regarded the specialist, still trying to convince himself to try and blast away Lily’s glass body. He was so big. And boy.

Fine,” she huffed.  

The spectre took off running towards Mars. She collided with him and— 

Miri gasped with Paul’s lungs. It was even worse than she’d expected. She had way more arms and legs than she knew what to do with, everything was sweaty, and she felt like someone had stapled a lump of raw chicken between her legs. Miri was suddenly very grateful the Physician had made her female.

She shook Paul Mars’ head, trying to focus. What do I do now?

Send his shadow-thing over to the other Americans!

“Okay,” Miri said aloud. Gosh, his voice was deep

The void of darkness flitted over to where Jinks and Verres were trying to find their second wind. It hovered above them, threatening to rain its stolen energy down on their heads.

“The hell are you doing, Mars?” Jinks shouted. “Don’t tell me you’ve gone turncoat!”

Miri waved at them. 

“Paul Mars is under new management,” called Allison. “We’re gonna keep him if you don’t go away.

Verres looked questioningly at her superior officer. “Jinks?”

Kerry Napes brain scuttled frantically out from its hiding place, ramming the corporal’s ankles until Jinks picked it up. Despite himself, he started stroking the misbegotten thing like a frightened puppy. 

He looked plaintively at Allison. “Just… don’t hurt Paul. Please.”

Allison smiled slyly. “Wouldn’t dream of it.”

Paul started walking towards his comrades. A few feet away, his shadow shrunk and reattached itself to its owner. The specialist stumbled forward like he’d been shoved.

“What happened?”

Verres grabbed her comrade’s hand and started pulling him roughly towards the AMV. “We’re going,” she said.

A little woozily, Mars said, “But the mission—”

“Tactical retreat, Paul,” said Jinks firmly, still carrying Napes’ brain. It was going to take ages for him to grow back, but better that than dead. Hell. This might even keep him out of trouble for a while. The corporal called over his shoulder. “Miss Whatever-Your-Name-Is, I don’t approve of what your country does to children like you, but you are an absolute brat.”

Allison didn’t answer the man. Instead, she turned and walked towards Lily Nichols, still holding her parents in her palms. 

“I like your power,” she said.

Something like a ghost emerged from the giant’s chest. It landed in front of Allison and solidified into a naked, red haired girl about her age. “Thanks,” she said. “Yours is pretty good too.” She tilted her head. “Flying, lava…?”

“Lotta things,” said Allison, trying not to brag for once. “How long you been a super?”

“Since forever.”

Allison grabbed her hand and high-fived her. “Same!” She  pointed at Lily’s parents. “Those yours?” she asked.

“Yep!” answered Lily, pulling on the same clothes that she had been wearing when DDHA had tried to take her. “You two okay?” she called up to them.

Mr. Nichols made a small, vaguely affirmative squeaking noise. Mrs Nichols nodded slowly. 

Allison smiled bemusedly. Parents. Somewhat involuntarily, her thoughts turned to her own. It had to have been a year—  

She glimpsed the edge of her parents’ future. 

No, she thought. They’d take me back… 

In seven out of ten realities, they wouldn’t.

Somewhere far away, Lily was saying, “Gosh, I’ve never been that… is the word naughty? Feels too… little.” She giggled. “Well, whatever it was, it was fun.”

Allison marched over to her and grabbed the other girl’s hand. “Come with me,” she said, her voice low.


Lily smiled confusedly. “What?”

“I have friends. We’re all supers.” Allison tried to smile. It had too much teeth and didn’t reach her eyes. “It’ll be fun.”

Lily opened her mouth like she was about to speak, closed it again, and then tilted her head up towards her parents. “What about Mum and Dad?”

Allison sucked in a breath. “They’re not like us. Their world is too small for us. They’ll try to stuff you into it… or kick you out..”

“Um, honey,” Mrs Nichols said. “What are you girls talking about down there?”

Lily didn’t answer her mother. “Look,” she said to Allison, “you’re fun, and it’s great you saved me from those idiots. But I’m not gonna leave my parents behind. They’re my parents..” She laughed. “That’d be nuts.”  

Allison’s eyes were watering. She wished it was some of Verres’ dust. 

Briefly, Allison considered making Lily come with her. It wouldn’t hurt her. It’d feel just like if she decided herself…

Alberto was standing behind Lily now, raising a glass of wine in a toast with a small smile. 

No

Okay, scratch the brainwashing. She could show Lily the future. Futures, she should say. All the things they could do together. She looked up at the the elder Nichols. 

All the ways they would fail her.

She could, couldn’t she? It wouldn’t be making her do anything. Just presenting her with the options…

No. It still wouldn’t be fair. 

Alberto shrugged, drained his glass, and vanished.

Allison let go of Lily’s hand. “Kay,” she said. “I get ya. Still, friends?”

Lily’s smile became sure again. “Yeah, definitely.”

Mr. Nichols said, “Maybe we should head off, Lily? I think I can hear more police sirens…”

“Yeah,” replied Lily. “Good idea.”

Allison skimmed the storm of futures. “Head north,” she said, “into the hills. Easier to hide up there.” She nodded at the still glass giant, the joints of its limbs slowly starting to crack as gravity caught up to them. “I’d take that thing with ya. Nobody’s gonna wanna mess with that thing.”

“Thanks, said Lily. She took a deep breath and stepped in front of her giant. “See ya around, Symphony.”  She wafted out of her clothes into the golem. Her parents gave weak, but somewhat cheerful waves.

Allison stayed on the ground until the Nichols turned the corner out of sight. Then she burst into the air, climbing into the sky. 

Why did she feel so yuck? She’d done a good deed! And for once it was actually fun. It wasn’t as though she’d found out anything she hadn’t already guessed.

Anxiety and rage thrashed inside Allison like some of Kerry Napes’ organs. She wished she could escape her body—  

Wait.

Allison stopped in mid-air above the Swan River. “Miri,” she said. “Do you want a turn being in charge?”

Before Miri could answer, she was.

The young creature hovered in the sky for a moment. She waved her hand in front of her face and rubbed her fingers through her hair.

Miri took a deep breath. “Costume off.”

She took off over the sea, laughing wildly.   

  


1. Paranormal Response Squad Delta, one of over fifty superhuman task-forces assembled by the Department of Psychonautics and Occultism in the wake of the Flying Man’s appearance on the world stage. Originally stationed in Lawton, Oklahoma, Squad Delta was transferred to Irwin Barracks in the Perth suburb of Karrakatta after the December Bombings of 1965.

2. Unfortunately it would be “The Brat Pack.”

3. Noted posthuman psychologist Bartholemew Finch would later publish a study on variable nudity taboos in superhuman children. As he later mused, it wasn’t the easiest fodder for dinner conversation.

4. In fairness to Mr. Russo, at that point in the 1960s, the American psychonautics division was still very much attempting to create superpowered humans via narcotics.

5. Specifically, it was what his father paid Dr. Johannes ten thousand dollars and signed a liability waiver for.

6. Corporal James Hagan was rotated into the medical corps when his healing abilities were fully demonstrated. He thus managed to avoid the front lines for the majority of the Vietnam war.

7. Or “the Malleus” as a few of the more literate (and self-conscious) DDHA personal had taken to calling it.

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Chapter Seventy-Five: Allie and Miri

Allison’s dreams were wonderful. She swam through oceans that spilled into space. Nebulas shattered into schools of fish and spiral galaxies became sparkling sea-jellies, their arms fraying into thousands upon thousands of fine tentacles. 

“Allie…” 

She was leviathan, trailing stars and their insignificant, rocky satellites in her wake…

“Wake up, Allie!”

Allison woke with a start. The sky shone nearly white above her, freshly pulled from the forge of days. The waves hissed like quenched coals, and the island’s birds were screaming at each other. Allison wondered why birds always got so loud in the morning. Were they sharing their dreams? She probably knew the answer, but she couldn’t be bothered to try remembering it. 

Mabel was still asleep beside her. Her costume made her look like she had fallen overboard and washed ashore from the world’s most garish business cruise. Allison hadn’t bothered summoning her suit. She reckoned it would just be giving the sand something to rub against.  

David appeared to be missing. That might’ve worried Allison more, if there wasn’t a strange girl floating above her.

No. Not strange. Also not really there.

Allison rubbed her eyes. “Miri?”

Miri grinned and alighted excitedly in front of the other child. Her feet left no mark on the sand. “Morning, Allie!” 

Allison stared at the phantom-girl, before jumping to her feet and hugging her. To her surprise, she felt warm skin against hers, stitched together from every hug she could remember. She must’ve looked incredibly silly, but Allison couldn’t care less right then. 

“I’m sorry!”

Miri laughed. “What for?”

“I… it doesn’t matter.” Allison stepped back and examined Miri. Her visage wasn’t quite what she’d been in her life. Less painfully thin, for starters. The Nordic cast of her features had been softened by some baby-fat. Allison couldn’t quite remember if Miri’s eyes had been blue or green, but now they were definitely hazel. Like her own, Allison realized, before they’d turned red and glowing.

That wasn’t where the resemblance ended, though. Both girls now had the same button bose and rounded chin. They could’ve been sisters, but they maintained some differences. Miri’s hair was still yellow-blond, and unlike her host, her skin was about as brown as you would expect on a child who’d spent a great deal of time naked outdoors in the summer. Allison had no idea how a girl who grew up in a jar before moving into her head could be more tanned than her. She wasn’t sure whether this bothered her or not. Still, there were more pressing questions: 

“What’s it like in there?” Allison asked, quickly adding, “In me I mean.” She gave a small shudder. “Alberto said it was dark inside me.”

Miri sucked in her lower lip, trying to think of the right way to describe her new existence. “When you ate me—”

Allison shuddered once more. 

Miri tilted her head. “Did I say the wrong thing? That’s what you call it.”

Allison closed her eyes and let out a deep breath. “I know. I just don’t like thinking about it.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be.”

“Okay.” Miri returned to her story. “I woke up someplace dark. So dark I couldn’t even see myself.”

Allison kicked the sand, angry at… someone. Probably herself. “So Alberto wasn’t lying…”

“Oh, you mean the man in your head?” asked Miri. “He’s weird. I like him.”

Allison looked fretfully at her. The things she saw Alberto do to David rose to her memory. She wondered if the esper himself was dredging them up. “He wasn’t mean to you, was he?  

“Nah,” said Miri, before grinning and spreading her arms out like she was presenting the beach to Allison. “He taught me how to go outside your body! Everything on this island’s so pretty! I saw a turtle!”

Allison raised an eyebrow. It was hard to picture Alberto teaching anyone anything, besides the true awfulness of the world or Australian wine vintages. “What was he like?”

“Sad,” replied Miri. She glanced towards some corner of the sky. “Kind of lonely. Also, what does ‘fuck off’ mean?”   

“…I’ll tell you later.”

“Kay! So, when he stopped talking to me, I was alone again. But then I started wanting to know stuff, and the dark started telling me! Sounded kinda like you, now that I think about it.”

“Huh, weird,” muttered Allison. “What did you ask it?”

“Buncha things! What the sun looks like, how to make sad people feel better, how people happen when Dr. Smith doesn’t grow you up.” Miri stepped forward to examine Allison. “Did you really start out so tiny?”

Allison giggled. “That’s what people tell me. I don’t remember.”

“I also figured out how to use your eyes and nose and skin and everything!” Miri continued. “So I could see and stuff, instead of being in the dark all the time! It’s kinda weird, having someone else do all the moving for you, but that’s okay.” 

Allison thought it sounded like a nightmare. Moving through the world without a choice. “You—you don’t mind that?”

“Why would I?” asked Miri. “Everything feels so good. The sun, the wind, swimming, the other kids’ skin on ours…” She hugged herself, smiling dreamily. “We should do that kissing thing again, it’s fun. What about Arnold?”

“Not right now,” said Allison, a little red. “He’s asleep—hey, did you see where David went while you were exploring?”

“I saw him walking into the ocean,” said Miri. “I think he’s with his grandpop.”

That was what Allison called her grandfather. She hadn’t thought about the man in months. The reminder didn’t sting as she thought it should. She quickly inspected the storm of futures. All the brightest, most probable futures had David returning before sunset. The main variable appeared to be what hat he would be wearing. It was reassuring.

“There is one thing I don’t get,” said Miri. She regarded Allison disbelievingly. “Why haven’t you flied yet?”

Allison blinked. “I’ve flown.” She snorted. “There was this bit with David’s granddad—”

“I know,” cut in in Miri. “I mean really flying! In the sky! It’s buzzing in your bones. Can’t you feel it?”

It was, Allison realized. Now that she thought about it, gravity felt like a heavy blanket in summer.

Miri smiled. “Let’s go, right now.”

Allison nodded without hesitation. “Yes! Just let me do one thing first.”

She bent down and pulled Mabel’s sketchbook from her arms, along with a pencil from her drawing set. Ripping out a page, Allison scribbled, “Gone flying, back soon.”

Considering it, she added:

“Love, Allie and Miri.”

“Time for me to show you something,” Miri giggled.

Allison slipped the note into Mabel’s suit-jacket and turned back to Miri. Counterintuitively, she dug her feet into the sand. She gave a determined, giddy grin “Let’s do this.”

Allison shot into the sky like a gull rising from the ocean. Miri flowed up after her, her visage melting into a misty second skin around her corporal sister. Faster and faster they rose, the island becoming a mote in the iris of the sea. The air dessicated and chilled around them. Tiny, cloudy jewels formed on their shared skin. Gravity snatched their heels, trying to drag the girls down into its prison. They paid it no mind.

Allison laughed. She soared against the curve of the horizon, savouring the feeling of her atoms all moving in the same direction. She could feel something inside her, burning and spinning. 

Miri, she realized. Miri was laughing too. 

The girls angled downwards, diving through the layers of sky to where the shearwaters and long-beaked frigatebirds fought over fish.

“I feel kinda sorry for those things,” Miri whispered in Allison’s ear. “All that flapping looks a lot harder than what we’re doing.”

“Yeah,” answered Allison, half whispering like she couldn’t commit to saying or just thinking the response. 

“Super-pretty, though.”

“Yep,” said Allison. The little girl grinned toothily. “Want to get a closer look?”

A second later. Allison plunged screaming and flailing into the birds’ midst, puncturing the motley flock like a very aggressive balloon. She tumbled head-over-heels amongst the squawking, fleeing birds, laughing with her entire body. The world spinning around her should have made Allison dizzy, but apparently Miri had toughened her inner-ear, too1. That wasn’t the only change Allison noticed in her sensory landscape. She could feel the prick of clouds swapping charge against her skin. Currents of air and magnetism moving about the Earth like streaks of neon paint across the sky. In the back of her head, Allison knew she could find her way back to the island with her eyes closed, as though the Physician had lodged a perfect compass in her gray matter… 

“Thank you,” Allison said aloud.

“No problem,” said Miri.

For a while, Allison flew just a few feet above mirror-smooth stretches of ocean, pulling faces with her reflection zooming below. 

“Stop flying,” Miri said.

“What?”

“Just do it!” 

Allison let the force inside her go out, but her momentum stayed. For the briefest moment, she soared, the last remnants of her upward momentum keeping her in the air.

“Okay,” she asked. “What now?”

Miri started giggling.

Allison realized what was happening just half a second too late to stop it. She plunged into the water with an aborted shriek, the dynamic nature of her entry causing lasting trauma to a nearby basking shark, and came to a stop. She shot her new friend a glare to melt through steel, and  kicked her away upwards. 

“You tricked me!” Allison cried when she surfaced, locks of wet hair plastered over her eyes. 

“No I didn’t!” Miri retorted, floating in the water in front of her, a wide grin plastered to her face. “I told you to do it and you did it! Because swimming is fun!”

“True,” Allison grumbled. She rose above the waves. “Do you know how fast we can go?”

“Not really.”

“Let’s find out.”

Allison took off again, rapidly building speed and altitude as she followed one of the magnetic currents. Sun-tipped wavelets blurred into roads of light stretched out beneath her. 

There was a quiet pop somewhere far behind Allison. She must’ve cracked the sound barrier. 

She sped up.

The air should’ve been a wall of glass at those speeds. It wasn’t. Allison’s skin should’ve been shearing off her muscles. It didn’t. Her flesh was diamond, adamantine; and the force of the world against it only made her stronger.

Within a few minutes, the girls ran out of sea. They were hovering above a hive of spiralling hot drafts and electromagnetic gibberish. A city. It took Allison a moment to spot the familiar buildings. To recognize the river that girded it. 

They were in Perth. Or above it, at least.

Allison wasn’t sure what to think. It wasn’t quite home, but it was closer than she’d been in what felt like most of her life. If that dairy-town Allison Kinsey was born in was still home.

Quickly, though, one question dominated the child’s thoughts:

“Miri,” she asked. “The Physician didn’t tell you about ice-cream, did he?”

Vince Russo was what some called a simple shopkeeper. As was often the case, this actually meant he possessed many finely-honed skills that all flowed in one direction. For him, that direction was ice-cream. He was one of the world’s hidden artists.

He’d run the Russo Family Ice Cream Bar ever since his father had retired to the Gold Coast fifteen years earlier, and he liked to think he’d gotten good at it. He’d perfectly divorced cold from ice, and brokered peace between his ingredients and empty air. Under Vince’s watch, the creamery had even managed to spurn the scourge of soft-serve without losing foot traffic, and his products brought simple joy to the face of any child lucky enough to sample them2.

Unfortunately this skill and success brought Allison Kinsey down on his head.

Vince looked up from his copy of The Australian at the jangle of the door-chime and the sudden murmuring of his patrons. There was a naked, ice-pale little girl standing imperiously in the entrance. 

Mr. Russo scowled. Some beach-brat wandered up from Mullaloo while her dozy parents turned into lobsters, no doubt. 

“God’s wounds, girl, where’s your…”—Vince trailed off when he noticed the child’s burning orange eyes—“…Shame.”

Allison looked down at herself. “Oh, right.” She made a pose. “SHAZAM!”

In a flash, Allison was draped in rainbows. 

Beside her, Miri’s visage was also now dressed. She plucked at the jerkin. “Clothes are weird.”

Allison snorted. “David’s gonna love you.”

Behind the counter, Mr. Russo was going pale. This girl was a demi. A demi who was talking to thin air. She must be—  

Oh, God. Did she have an invisible friend? Which was worse? A pair of demis, or a single crazy one?

Allison started striding towards Vince. One of the customers—a beady-eyed man in a yellow bowler—stepped from the queue, grabbed the girl by the shoulder and swung her around. 

“Look kid, your kind ain’t wel—”

Allison reached up, grabbed her assailant’s hand and squeezed.

There was a crunch, and the man ran screaming from the shop.

Allison frowned after him. “Rude.” She started back towards Mr. Russo. The poor ice-cream man stood rooted to the ground, even as the girl burst into flames—her every step cracking and melting the red and white floor-tiles. People were shouting now, backed into the corners of their booths or (more smartly) trying to climb over the dividers towards the door. A few brave idiots tried advancing on Allison again, but quickly retreated when they felt their skin start to crisp. 

She stopped something approaching a safe distance from the counter and grinned. Her teeth glowed like blown coals. The flames only made her skin seem more bloodless. A burning ghost. 

“Give me one of everything.” Allison spread her arms out. A ball of lava bubbled in each of her hands. “Or I melt all your ice-cream.” 

“…Alright.”

“With a flake, please.”

Over the next ten minutes, Vince Russo dutifully laid out bowls of every product he had. Coke-spiders, gelato, real banana ice-cream, fake banana ice-cream, even the rum & raisin. All while wishing he could shave a word or too off “ice-cream bar.”

Allison devoured it greedily. To call Miri’s reaction to the ice cream mixed would have been charitable. Allison found it nearly annoying, truth be told. Vanilla only got a little enthusiasm. Allison supposed that was fair. Mint chocolate chip was rightfully underwhelming. But then they hit strawberry.

“A shrug?” Allison asked. “Really? A shrug? This is the best ice cream in the world!”

“Huh?” Miri asked, perplexed. “How can it be? That green and brown one was nicer.”

“You’re weird.” Allison scowled. “Whatever, just. I dunno. Choose the next one.” She glanced at Vince. “Where’s the flake, Vince?”

Vince Russo, who, to his horror, had never actually told the girl his name, pointed to the end of the counter, where the flake indeed lay just beyond the melting range of Allison’s magma spheres.

“Good,” she tented her fingers. “You have done well. You will be my first disciple.”

“I’ll what?”

“What’s fudge ice-cream taste like?” Miri asked before Allison had a chance to explain. She was pointing to one of the bowls, the mix within dotted with large chunks of hazel brown.

“Oh!” Allison snapped back to her. “Right! You need to try the fudge.”

Their tasting didn’t proceed too far beyond that, largely due to a demand on Miri’s part that they simply leave with the rest of Vince’s supply of fudge3.

Soon, the pair were lying on a nearby rooftop in sugary rapture next to a drum of half melted ice-cream, licking fudge off their mutual fingers while police sirens wailed below. Allison’s face was mottled with pale, sticky stains every colour of the rainbow, like she was trying to accessorise with her costume. 

“So good,” said Miri dreamily. “Isn’t this stuff supposed to be bad for us?”

“Bad for humans,” clarified Allison. “See how rubbish they are? Can’t even enjoy ice-cream without getting all fat or their pancreas going bleh.” She wiggled happily. “Laurie was wrong about everything, but it’s so much better being us.”

“Yeah,” said Miri, “looks like it.” She pointed idly at the stained newspaper they had been using as an ineffective napkin. “What’s that say?” 

“Who cares?”

“I wanna see!”

Allison sighed. For all her extra-human competence, she had no more interest in current affairs than any other child. Maybe less. Still, this was Miri’s day. She picked up The Australian and smoothed it out in front of her. The front page was dominated by a photo of four people—three men and one woman—saluting tall and proud against two Australian and American flags fluttering side by side. The picture was black and white, but Allison had no doubt their striped uniforms were red, white, and blue. The headline read:

REINFORCEMENTS FROM THE USA!

That got Allison’s attention. 

Miri asked, “What’s a ‘USA’?” 

“The place where everything important happens,” Allison quoted Arnold as she ran her eyes over the article proper:

In light of the recent spate of demi-human terrorist attacks, most recently the assault on the DDHA’s provisional headquarters in Melbourne…

…A walking corpse later reportedly attempting to gain entry to an exclusive restaurant… 

That made Allison giggle. She hoped that whatever Penderghast shoved into Laurie’s body left bits of him all over the Hoddle Grid. 

…The United States Department of Psychonautics and Occultism has, to use their own words, ‘extended a hand of help to their cousins across the sea,’ during our national hardship…

…Ten such paranormal strike forces have been stationed in population centres across the country, in order to both reinforce DDHA agents in the field and trial run American ‘occult management’ strategies in an Australian context. A spokesperson for the department has expressed ‘full confidence’ in the experiment, and goes on to state that the DDHA hopes and expects to roll out the first Australian squads by June, 1966.

Allison broke out in laughter. Miri gave her a curious look. “Is that funny?”

“Totally,” said Allison, clutching her stomach, “the Yanks are trying to sic army man superheroes on us! And then they’re gonna ask us pretty please if we’ll work for them!” She shook her head. “This we gotta see.”

She skimmed the article again:

As one of the cities directly affected by the December bombings, Perth was near the top of the list to pay host to some of our Americans guests… 

Allison put down her ears and took in the sirens for a second. She made up her mind to stick close to Vince’s ice-cream shop. The decision rippled through the future’s reflection in the dark lake of time.

Allison moved to get a better view of the action below. She lay down on her stomach, chin resting on the edge edge of the roof. Far up the street, a police officer was radioing someone.

…This was going to be fun.


1. An enhanced sense of balance and orientation is one of the common fringe benefits of flight that often goes unmentioned by its practitioners, and one often forgotten by cybernetic super-projects.

2. These talents would prove to be of surprising military use as the super population increased.

3. Vince Russo used the ten thousand pounds that he received for information on the whereabouts of Australia’s most wanted gang of supers to rebuild and refurbish his ice cream shop. It was from his recounting of events that Allison Kinsey received her first villain monicker: ‘The anti-child’. Also, his store no longer sells fudge.

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Chapter Seventy-Four: Of His Bones Are Coral Made

A creature older than gods regarded the Watercolours without care. In that moment, Allison knew he could kill each and every one of them, without the barest trace of hesitation or regret.

“…Are these yours?” asked the Ocean, its voice all roaring waves and tide pools.

“Yup!” David crowed. “That’s Allie, and Arn, and Billy, and—oh! Mabel! Show him what you can do!”

Mabel did not obey. She’d rather not risk the sea-zombie thinking she was starting a fight.

David’s grandfather looked upon them all again, and this time, allowed them a smile.

“So many pets.”

David smiled and rolled his eyes. “Friends, Papa. They’re my friends.”

 “They’re small, souled animals.”

David wriggled out of his grandfather’s arms and thumped him playfully in his midsection. The Ocean feigned a gasp.

“And we’re both big puddles.”

Billy remembered his manners. “Costume off!” His suit vanished and he started wading into the water, past his friends desperate attempts to pull him back, until he was standing right in front of Grandfather Ocean. He offered his hand. “Pleased to meet you, sir! I’m William. People call me Billy.”

The Ocean looked down blankly at the sticky, furry boy with the swaying tail currently sticking out his hand at him. He seemed to want something from him.

“Go on,” said David gently. “Shake his hand.”

Grandfather Ocean nodded. “If that is what you want, child.”

A tendril of water rose in front of Billy, slapping his arm hard enough to knock him backwards off his feet.

“Good try,” David said.

Billy looked up at the Ocean, shook himself instinctively, and grinned. “You’re funny!”

“Am I?” the Ocean asked. It turned to David. “Am I funny, child?”

“I think so!” chirped the water-sprite. “I haven’t really known you long.”

David suddenly seemed to shake slightly. He threw his arms around his grandfather again. “I love you, Papa,” he murmured. “I really love you.”

Slowly, the other children joined David and Billy in the water. At the very least, they needed to wash the ship’s blood off their bodies. It was starting to itch.

The Ocean genuinely appeared to startle when Allison formed from the water next to his human husk.

“Hello!” the pale little girl said, smiling smugly. 

Ocean examined her curiously. She could do what his spawn could do. Her skin was as white as his. Had he mated with her mother? 

No. She didn’t feel like his flesh. And there was something else inside her, too. A fire. 

“What are you?” he asked. “One of the little goddesses of my element? Or of the volcanos that burn beneath me?”

“Nope!” said Allison, tracing a circle around herself in the sea-sand with her toe. “I can just have whatever powers I want. I’m borrowing your grandson’s right now!” She smiled at him. “Your song’s like this one big voice made of whales ramming into each other. It’s great!”

The girl levitated twelve feet out of the water, before looping through the air and landing on Ocean’s shoulders. “Also, I can fly!”

The Ocean looked up at the girl batting her heels against his chest. This creature had no fear. “Are you human?”

Allison wrinkled her nose. “No! I’m a super! I even got my insides changed so they were better! I’m gonna live forever! Who’d want to be human?”

The Ocean felt something deeply foreign to him. It took him a moment to comprehend it. The best he could decipher it, he mildly wanted this not-quite human to not die. Somehow, despite lacking a drop of his blood, she amused him without drowning or exploding. 

He called over to his grandson, body-surfing with the male children and the second female. “Child” he said, “be careful with this one. If it caught you by surprise, it could harm you.”

Allison frowned.

“Why do you think that?” asked David.

“…I don’t know. She makes me wish to see her life continue. I suspect sorcery. I keep imagining what your spawn would look like with her blood. You might want to try convincing her to mate someday.”

David went pale with embarrassment. “Papa!”

Allison though was grinning. Somehow the idea didn’t seem so gross when an old man wasn’t setting a date. 

David laughed. “Yeah, it’d be pretty wild.”

Ocean looked vaguely hopeful. “… Is it possible?”

Noticing Allison’s smile, David giggled, his eyes drifting across to Arnold.

“Fifty-fifty.”

Arnold pretended not to notice. His cheeks were scarlet. Then his face became very hard. There was a spark of green, and David found himself floating less than a foot from the other boy. Arnold grabbed David by the head and kissed him hard on the lips. He had expected David to flinch, or at least to be surprised. David just grinned.

Arnold scowled.

“… I’m claiming this beach,” he said.

“What?” David asked, still grinning.

“This beach,” Arnold repeated. “It’s mine. I am now the beach-master.”

David wasn’t sure why, but those words lit a fire in his gut.

“No you’re not,” he said, his tone dangerous. “I am.”

Arnold grinned slyly.

“Prove it.”

The proceeding game of chase lasted over an hour. 

High in orbit, the Flying Man finished towing the Physician’s ship into her makeshift service dock1. Glancing down at the Earth below, he spotted the rogue children frolicking in the water. He was just about to head down and apologize for his outburst, when he noticed the Ocean-Beast amongst them. 

…Maybe later.

The sky was a pale, glowing blue when David awoke the next morning. He’d fallen asleep between Mabel and Allison the night before, and both girls were still napping beside him. The boy considered waking them up, but decided to let them be. They’d be up in their own time. He pecked the pair on the cheeks, got up, and stretched. He was smiling, for no real reason. That still surprised him sometimes. 

The remnants of a fire smouldered a few yards off. They hadn’t really needed it, but Allison had wanted to show off for his granddad. She had also wanted to cook last night’s fish before they ate it. 

Humans, he thought to himself. So fussy.   

It occurred to David that it had been Lawrence who had taught him to think of humans as something outside himself. That might have given the child pause, except he was also pretty sure Lawrence hadn’t imagined him turning out like this, either. 

David looked to where Arnold and Billy had curled up for the night. They were both asleep, too.

A breeze flowed through the warm air, rubbed cool against the sea. 

David sighed happily. Might as well go for a swim.

He walked into the water, not stopping as it rose above his head. Soon enough he was treading water. David knew he didn’t have to swim. The water would move for him. But his body still made the movements instinctively. It made him feel the way he imagined breathing deep did for regular kids. Maybe that was the part of him that was still a little human. 

It didn’t matter, really. What mattered was conquering the weight against his limbs. Every undulation he made was like a victory.

He swam deeper, until the sea-floor was far below him. There was a coral reef stretched out under David. It was funny, seeing it after the Physician’s true form. Like watching the parody first. The water-sprite swooped down into the colourful field of polyps and anemones. Long, brown eels with faces like grinning Komodo dragons slipped out of rocky crevices. Spindly-legged crabs with battle-scarred shells scuttled across the sand like underwater pedestrians. 

David pitied them. Who wanted to walk in the sea? 

A cloud of tiny, purple and blue fish swam in front of the boy’s face. 

Cool, David thought to himself. Then he lunged forward, managing to grab one of the fish in his mouth and crunch it between his teeth. He floated on his back for a moment, cheerfully munching on his morning snack.

The water beneath David suddenly shot upwards, sending him careening into the air. 

“Whooo!”

A pair of hands caught David under his arms just as he legs slipped back into the water. His grandfather smiled at him with green, rotten teeth. 

“Good morning, child. Did you sleep well?”

“Yeah. Can we go down now?”

“Of course.”

Ocean and his grandson dipped beneath the water. The pair drifted together in the deep blue. Bits of plankton and other oceanic debris hung in broken shafts of sunlight like pollen in the air. 

“Why didn’t you sleep in the water, child?” 

David was unsurprised to find his grandfather could still talk to him underwater. It would have been more surprising if he couldn’t.

“Allie and Mabel are comfy.” Guilessly, the boy asked, “So, I was wondering, why do you look look all dead?”

If Grandfather Ocean was offended by the question, it didn’t show. “Because I wish to. It keeps humans from trying to worship or talk at me.”

David spun around in place, feeling the bubbles whip around his hair and ears. “Humans can be fun. Look at Allie! She’s really fun! Even you think so!”

“She is… not unpleasant.”

“You like Allie, you like Allie,” singsonged David. He was cut off when a thick layer of ice flash-froze around his body.

“Your Allie is barely human,” Ocean said cooly. “Please don’t speak ill of her.”

David slipped out of the ice like a molting sea snake. “Okay,” he said, gesturing down at his healthy brown skin, “why don’t I look more like you?”

“You look like your mother and father, like all children. Unlike most, however, you look like that because it is what feels right. If you felt differently, you would look differently.”

David considered this. “…Yeah,” he said eventually. “I like looking like my mum and dad.”

A stray current pushed David towards his grandfather, who embraced him tight. 

David looked up at his granddad’s face. He looked confused

“You make me feel strange,” the Ocean said.

“Strange how?”

“Looking at you makes me happy. But it hurts, too.”

“Why?”

Ocean ran his fingers through David’s hair. “I don’t know. I have a child again. But you make me think about your mother. Why do I still want her when I have you?”

David snuggled against the Ocean-Beast. “It’s okay,” he said, “I miss her, too.”

Ocean’s grandson was a mystery to him. Even with the cloying patina of humanity washed off him, the boy kept doing things he couldn’t understand. Why should him being in pain as well make him feel any better? His daughter never would have tried anything so foolish with him. 

But then why was it working?

“Child,” he said, “there’s something I want to show you.”

The one thing you could say for Dr. Corrick’s day was that he’d pulled his fly up before the washroom sinks exploded behind him.

A chunk of porcelain struck the doctor in the head, knocking him to the rapidly flooding floor. 

“That was amazing!” David shouted when he reformed out of the rising pool of water, enthusiastically miming their passage through the pipes to his grandfather. “We were all whoosh and zoom!”

Ocean chuckled. The simplest things gave his spawn such joy. Everything felt new with him. 

David glanced down at the man floating at their feet, staining the water with his blood. Specifically, at his white coat and stethoscope. “This is a hospital, right?”

“Yes, child.”

“Hmm…”

To the credit of the girl manning the hospital snack bar didn’t scream when the walking bog-corpse and the little brown boy wearing the too-big doctor’s coat came around the corner, a crest of water following behind them. Instead, she froze. Much more sensible.

The dead man and the child came to a stop in front of the counter. “My child desires sweets. You will give him some.”

“…Alright.”

David followed his grandfather down the hospital halls, sucking on a strawberry Chupa Chup2. The fire-alarm was blaring, which amused him slightly. Shame they didn’t turn on the fire-sprinklers, not that he and his granddad were wanting for water. 

He felt a troupe of men running towards them, all holding big heavy somethings judging by the way they had their arms stretched and their fingers curled. Guns, probably.

David turned to ice. “Let me handle them, pretty-please?”

“If that is what you wish.”

A mixed platoon of Australian and American soldiers charged into sight. Shouting, they took aim at the Ocean and his spawn and fired.

The bullets passed harmlessly through the water-gods’ icey forms. Dozens of jagged ice shards erupted out of their watery trail, spearing the soldiers through their arms, shoulders and legs. 

David strolled past the groaning, screaming troops. “Consider yourselves lucky,” he said as he reverted back to flesh. He looked down at Dr. Corrick’s now bullet shredded coat and frowned. He threw the ruined garment and stethoscope over a weeping soldier. 

“Stupid bullets.”

Eventually, the pair came to the door of a private room. 

“You gonna tell me what we’re here for?” asked David.

“Yes, child.”

Grandfather Ocean flattened the door with a wave. There was a nurse cringing beside the hospital bed.   

“Get out if you want to live,” said Ocean.

The nurse nodded frantically as she scurried past the pair.

There was a man in the bed. His eyes were deeply sunken, while his fingers and lips were mottled deep purple. He appeared to be crying, but his eyes produced no actual tears. He barely seemed to notice his visitors.

“Who the hell is that?” asked David. The man felt… dryer than he thought people could be. His mouth was parched. There was hardly  any spittle on his breath.

“This,” said Ocean, “is the man who killed your mother.”

David stared at the man. His muscles tensed. He never imagined he’d meet his mother’s murderer. He’d imagined him as some behemoth of a man with stubble like hooked spurs and gunmetal muscles. Instead, he was faced with a twenty-one year old boy, lying in front of him in obvious agony. 

He found that didn’t change a thing. 

David looked up at his grandfather. “Did you do this to him?”

“Yes. He harmed my daughter. He will never drink a drop of water again.” He pointed at an IV trailing from the soldier’s arm. “I am letting him absorb enough through that false vein that he will continue to live for some time to come. So that he may feel the thirst.”

“Makes sense,” said David. “How long do you think he’ll last?”

“Weeks at least. Maybe months.”

Something about that didn’t sit right with the boy. He looked at his grandfather. “Could I…”

“Do whatever you wish, child.”

David took a deep breath and clambered onto the soldier’s bed. The man let out a choked grunt as the boy put his knees on his chest.

David’s bright, sea-fog eyes bored into Private Wilkins. “You killed my mummy,” he hissed. “I don’t care if you were ordered to, you still did it. And this is going to hurt.”

Private Wilkins’ eyes widened. He rapsed, trying to speak. “I—”

The soldier’s eyes exploded in his skull. He screamed, only for his tongue to burst like a rotten piece of fruit. Wilkins thrashed as his veins pulsed and strained against his sallow skin. Tight geysers of blood spewed from his wrists against David’s body.

The boy was tearing up now. He bent forwards and whispered into Wilkins’ ear, “I hate you, I hate you, I hate you!”

Soon enough, the soldier stopped writhing. His blood-drowned lungs stopped rising and falling in his chest. David, red and sticky now, climbed off the bed. He wasn’t sure how he felt. He thought he felt better at least, but he wished his granddad hadn’t done this. Then he could’ve killed the bastard without it being mercy.

Why hadn’t he just let the guy lay there and suffer for as long as possible? It was stupid. Maybe it was the part of him that was still human.

No. That didn’t make any sense. Humans did nasty, rotten things to each other all the time, for way worse reasons. Maybe it was the part of him that was still like his father.

Ocean opened his arms for his grandson. David stepped readily into the hug. 

“Do you feel better?” the Ocean asked.

“Yes,” David answered stiffly.

“Are you okay?”

“No.”

“…I feel like I have upset you somehow.”

“You have.”

“Tell me how to fix this. Now.” 

Deep beneath a green, moonlit sea on the other side of the world, David and his grandfather watched humpback whales crash back down into their world, their flanks silvered by thousands of bubbles. 

It was everything David had ever wanted. Almost.

Grandfather Ocean was holding him. “I still miss your mother. Will that ever stop?”

“No,” answered David. Whalesong echoed through the water. “But that’s okay, I think.”      


1. An orbital workstation he had initially built to harvest mineral rich asteroids pulled from the Kuiper Belt when he was first working on his childhood clubhouse.

2. A brand of lollipop established in 1958, which would later go on to adopt a logo designed by surrealist artist Salvidore Dali.

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Chapter Seventy-Three: The Man From Earth

Released from quarantine, a worm of light swimming through the wall lead Allison down the hallway. She’d considered ignoring it, but what else was she going to do?

The worm led Allison to a stretch of wall where mosaic tile gave way to thick, rough tree bark: an elevator bank. It split open with a loud crack, closing behind the girl again as soon as she stepped into the glass carriage. 

The elevator started moving without any input from Allison. She guessed that should’ve felt sinister; but sinister was the basenote of the Physician’s world. It was quite literally a part of her song now.

The ride gave Allison a few minutes to think. How long would it take for Miri to start talking again? Would she still be okay living inside her head? And what about Alberto? What if he picked on her?

The elevator arrived at the ship’s media room: a spotted green cavern lined with hundreds of smooth screens like dragon’s scales, all lit up by the same old Warner Brothers cartoon. Allison’s friends were sprawled on the sea-sponge couches, all in their super-suits apart from David. It was like the Junior Justice League had recruited Mowgli. 

The Physician was standing to the left of the largest central screen. “Ah, Allie, Miri, glad you two could join us.”

The screens all went white, saving Elmer Fudd from kissing Bugs Bunny in drag. 

The other Watercolours groaned. 

“So much for movie day,” muttered David, arms folded petulantly. 

Mabel looked at Allison. “Miri?”

Allison sighed. “It’s a long story.”

“Yes, we can discuss Allison eating one of my drones later,” said the Physician. “Now, if you girls could sit down, we can get to business.”

Allison settled hesitantly on one of the couches between David and Billy. Both boys were looking at her like she was covered in polka-dots. 

“So, what do you think is more important than cartoons?” 

“I’m glad you asked, Arnold. Two weeks ago, you teleported the Flying Man forty-six light-years to this world.”

The planet Enlil flashed across the screens, its great inland sea staring out at the children from within the world’s shining rings. 

Arnold puffed up a little at that. “Impressive, right?”

“I suppose so,” said the Physician. Tonelessly, he said, “Play Supernova broadcast #12245 with Commonwealth English translation, timestamp ten minutes and fifty seconds.” Waving his hand, he added, “And fix the mouth movements while you’re at it, ship. I don’t want it looking like a Japanese monster movie.”

The screens shifted to what looked like an English garden-park, domed with glass beneath a sky dominated by the remnants of an exploded sun. A bald, olive-skinned woman sat in a molded tree trunk next to a floating gemstone enclosing a bubbling nucleus the size of her head. Her dress was vaguely Minoan—bare, painted breasts and a scarlet skirt that went all the way down to her ankles. She wore the plastic smile endemic to TV hosts the galaxy over: 

“…Cross-species fertility services will be fully covered by the Imperial Health Trust this coming Thronal year.”  

“Where’s the lady’s shirt?” asked Billy.

The Physician gave a wet, bemused blink. “Oh, William, don’t assume the entire galaxy shares your hangups.”

The crystal started to flash, emitting a deep, buzzing voice that said, “I’d like to see them try and whip up a kid for some folks we know, Glim.” 

“Wait,” said David, “that’s a person? I thought it was like, a space microphone or something.”

“It’s a heggorot,” said Allison. It was good to have something to think about besides what she’d done to Miri. “It’s like a liquid brain in a diamond that flies around using electromagnetism1.” 

“And he’s, what, the co-host?” asked Mabel.

“She,” corrected the Physician. “But yes. Ussi and Glim have been on Supernova forever. Nice seeing a celebrity couple go the distance.”

Allison tilted her head. “They’re… together?”

“Sure are. I managed to catch the wedding back in 1960. It was beautiful.”

The children exchanged a medley of glances and shrugs. Space was weird.

Glim was laughing off some of her wife’s banter. “…Well I for one think little webbed fingers are the tops. Now, let’s check in with”—a slight pause for emphasis—“The Man from Earth!”

Uproarious applause broke out, soundtracked by jaunty music seemingly played by an orchestra of drunken crickets. The camera panned over throngs of ecstatic audience members—many only recognizable as people rather than masonry or decorative pot-plants because they were cheering and shouting—separated from Ussi and Glim by a deep running stream2

Allison briefly wondered what was so interesting about a guy from Earth. Then it occurred to her that Earth was probably a weird, alien planet to these people. Then she felt even dumber. 

“Are they talking about—”

Done basking in her audience’s excitement, Glim gently appealed for calm3. “Alright, alright, settled down dears, I know we’re excited.” She looked over at Ussi. “So, what’s our dashing nomad been up to lately?

The camera switched to a shot of an asteroid the size and almost the shape of Texas heading towards a yellow-green planet. Ussi’s voice buzzed over the footage:

“Since his sudden arrival and trouncing of the Giggaro mind-control cartel on Enlil4, this dashing superbeing has cut a trail of heroism across the southern spiral, all while claiming to hail from the far-flung, savage world of Earth—still maintained as an anthropological preserve due to its probable status as the homeworld of the human species.”

A cutback to Glim smirking. “Embarrassing, I know.”

A rumbling chuckle from the audience.

Arnold frowned. “Savage?”

“Your people still run everything on dead plants spiced with dinosaur and die before you’re a hundred,” pointed out the Physician. “They’re just calling it like they see it.”

The scene changed again to show the Flying Man standing in the middle of a city of skyscraper-tall cacti, playfully letting what looked like overgrown, metal-plated spiders crawl up and down his body.

“He saved the living cities of Ukkes from extinction.”

The edges of the screens blurred and melded together until the whole front wall was dominated by one image: an angry, red gash in space itself, bleeding bright, baleful blood into the starry vacuum. It looked large enough to swallow the world and not even notice.

“And when the Man from Earth came across the Rift of Caxxus, whose influence has cut off multiple star-systems for centuries…”

The camera zoomed in towards the upper limits of the tear. The Flying Man—miniscule against the roiling red mass of the rift—was wrapping his fingers around the ragged, black border of real space, like a child trying to grab a rainbow. Except, somehow, he found purchase. 

The Flying Man flew downwards The textured, undamaged darkness stretched after him, washing over the red like a tidal wave. Watching him made Allison twitch. She could fly too now. She could feel it in her bones. And she was stuck here watching the news. 

“…He closed it.”

Back to the asteroid. It was getting painfully close to the planet.

“And just yesterday, when this rogue planetoid was bearing down on Bahora Colony…”

The asteroid exploded like it had been punched by God. 

“…There he was again. And then he carved the fragments into adventure playgrounds!”

The audience was going wild again. Even Billy was clapping from the couch. Glim was laughing that perfectly manufactured laugh that newscasters reserve for human interest stories.

“Good job, Man from Earth. Reports are he’s heading towards the Throneworld itself. We’d love it if he dropped into the studio some time. Up next, are space habitats more expensive than planetbound living? Our next guest might—”

“That’s enough of that,” said the Physician, pausing the video. He turned back to the children. “Any questions?”

“Yeah,” said Mabel. “What was the point of that?

“The point,” the Physician said patiently, “is that there is a rogue godling out there, and he’s slowly but surely heading back to Earth.”   

“Uh,” said Allison. “Didn’t that news lady say he was heading for Throneworld? That’s kind of the opposite direct—”

“He’ll be back someday,” the Physician insisted. “He’s put too much effort into this ghastly little planet. What we have here is a unique opportunity to prepare ourselves for his return. Normally, I’d have to keep my movements at least nominally hidden. But now that the Earth’s most conscientious watchdog is off away, we can finally hit up a few supply depots. I’ve designed a rather neat little device that should be enough to turn him inside ou—”

“Why would we be helping you?” Mabel asked.
“… What?”

“The news aliens said he’s been really nice. And you’re talking about turning him inside out. Why?”

The Physician considered this for a moment.

“So, the Flying Man and me have… let’s say history. History that might make him a little hesitant to work with me. Or let me live.”

Allison sighed and slumped in her seat. “Oh God, of course you do. Is that lady in the corpse-room his mum or something?”

The Physician stood stock still for half a minute, grinning like he wanted to pawn off his teeth. 

Allison squinted at his mind. “Oh, for crying out loud. I knew you were evil, but that’s just… dumb!”

Billy stared aghast at the Physician. “You killed the Flying Man’s mummy?”

“To be fair,” said the Physician, “I didn’t know she was pregnant. She was more… space at the time.”

Arnold folded his arms. “This is starting to sound like a whole lotta not our problem.”

“But he thinks you’re my allies!” protested the Physician. “You were the one who banished him!” He looked at Allison. “I gave you the ability to fly!”

“I bet so I could fight the Flying Man for you,” retorted the girl.

“Well obviously! Your point?”

“We can just leave,” said David. “If Arn can send the Flying Man all the way to wherever, outer space, he can take us there too.”

“He could still find you! And next time you won’t have the benefit of surprise!”

“Doesn’t sound like we’re the ones he’s after.”

“Look,” said the Physician, “I understand you might be hesitant to get involved. But even if the Flying Man turns around now, at the rate he’s been jumping systems, we have a month before he gets back to the Sol system. So if you could just hear me out for a bit.”

The screens shifted to elaborate diagrams of sharp looking gadgets and mechanisms. One of John Smith’s fingers elongated to become a pointer stick. “So for this operation, we’ll need something in the neighbourhood of ten thousand scallops—”

The lights went out.

The walls, screens and couches instantly lit up with a dull abyssal glow. The ship floor shook violently, as if it would give at any moment, half the children left bobbing in the air, torn between natural momentum and the shipboard antigravity. 

Then, the shockwave hit.

Allison felt her right eardrum pop like a balloon. The world rang like she was trapped inside a bell. She watched as her friends were slammed against the ceiling, walls, and floor. She herself collided with a screen, a shredding pain ripping across her trunk as her shoulder snapped out of its socket. It hit David the hardest, though, a curved bulkhead ramming into the nape of his neck. The others flailed and spun. David simply hung there; limp, like a doll.

That was the first half second. 

Allison screamed. She thought she did, at least. She still couldn’t hear. She dug into the extra strength Zywie’s power had willed into her limbs, and kicked off from the control panel like a bullet. David first. 

She struck the boy in mid-air, her dislocated shoulder ringing at the impact, and latched on with her good hand. She scanned the room. 

Mabel in a corner, scrabbling frantically at her costume for something to help her move. Arnold at the opposite end of the room, a surprising lack of panic on his face. She followed his gaze- Ah. Billy. The boy was flailing, stuck in mid-air just as David had been— 

A neon green burst. Billy was clutched in Arnold’s arms. The sparking boy caught Allison’s eyes, nodded, and took aim for Mabel next. 

Where was the Physician? 

She glanced across to where he’d been when whatever this was had begun. She saw a large, squat object, something between an octopus and a four foot long potato, a dozen suckered tendrils rooting it to wall nearby.

God, he was weird.

Her arm ached. She shut off her pain receptors. Her ears were ringing. She shut those off, too. The ringing grew louder. This confused her.

There was a disgruntled growl inside her mind.

It’s not your ears, girl, Alberto snapped. It’s the ship. She’s in pain. Ignore her. Get to the others if you must, but move!

Allison shook herself out of it just in time to watch Arnold scoop Mabel up alongside himself and Billy, the girl calling forth a great, fuzz covered gorilla to shield them with its girth. Billy was crying. Allison pushed the tableau from her mind, and slapped David in the face. 

The boy didn’t move. His song was fading; becoming discordant. There was something red leaking from his ears.

“No,” she said, unable to hear herself. “Don’t you dare.” She slapped him again. “Wake up. Wake up right now!”

Oh, for shit’s sake! shouted Alberto’s voice inside her skull. That’s not how you do it!

Allison felt something moving inside her, beyond her will. Then, Alberto’s voice spoke again inside her head.

Mealy, it said, its tone hard. 

David whimpered.

I’m going to hurt you again, you little shit. Alberto commanded. Heal yourself. Now.

With a pathetic mewl, whatever was left of the boy nodded. For a moment, his half-closed eyes glowed a blue that Allison hadn’t seen in weeks. David’s form shifted into ice and back again. For a single moment, he looked merely frightened; that cobalt blue still lingering in his eyes. Then, in a snap, the green returned. He was alert.

“That was weird,” he said to deaf ears.

Consider that my rent, Alberto spat in Allison’s mind. You better survive this, Allie. I don’t want to die again because of you.

Allison wasn’t listening. She was too busy hugging her friend. Then she shook herself, healed her arm, and turned her ears back on.

“—The hell is going on?” Arnold shouted, still holding onto Mabel and Billy. “Did we hit a plane or something?”

The Physician’s new form grew a cherubic, china-blue eyed face, like a baby’s death mask. It gurgled in an all too adult sounding voice, “Not a chance. Something was aiming for us.”

Suddenly, all the screens came back to life. In Asteria’s chamber, the Flying Man stood, gazing down into his mother’s sarcophagus, shaking. The Flying Man laid a hand on the glass. 

The Physician was sprouting new eyes by the second, gazing at every screen he could. Why is he on the screens?

Then he realized. The ship wanted him to see this. She was rubbing his death in his face.

A scream roared through the ship. A burning note of sorrow and hatred. The chamber vibrated. The screens burst like pricked blisters, soaking the children and the Physician with thick, orange sludge. The ship’s blood. 

Another, more distant boom. The sound of bulkheads shattering. 

The Physician whipped through the air towards Arnold, enveloping him and his friends like an evil baby blanket. A toothy, tubular mouth slid from his side, worming its way up to the boy’s ear.

“Send me to another planet!” he hissed. “Enlil, Triam, dusty bloody Throneworld, I don’t care! Just take me away from here!”

For a brief second, Arnold was terrified. He tried to remember one of the far off worlds he’d read off in Father Christmas’ atlas. 

Then he remembered what happened to the last bloke who tried using him as their delivery boy.

The Physician’s world was bright, green light.

He found himself floating in the familiar salty broth of his greater self’s pool. The warm water almost put him at ease.

Then he saw him. His greatest hope and worst fear. His great, sacred nightmare. 

The Flying Man was tearing at John Smith’s everything. Rending and burning at the last of his true, higher being. Flesh and precious knowledge was being crushed into clouds of blood in his savage hands.

John Smith shuddered with despair. He could barely keep his cells coherent. He’d lost much since fleeing his world. Centuries worth of memories and experience. Even his greater self was a shadow of what he’d been before crashing down to Earth. But now, he was truly dead. John Smith just hadn’t caught up to the rest of him yet.

The Flying Man looked up at the creature floating above him. He kicked upwards, becoming level with John Smith.

A voice like dancing knives invaded the Physician. All these years, I thought you’d had the decency to die.

What was left of the Physician curled in on itself. Mercy. Please. You’ve taken everything I was. I’m less than a ghost now.

Not enough. 

The Flying Man closed his eyes. When he opened them again, they shone with the light of an older heaven. It washed over the Physician, till there was nothing left.

Joe Allworth breathed heavily as the water around him stopped boiling. He was taking in great lungfuls of the stuff, but that didn’t matter right now. 

After all these years, the thing was dead. It was not often Joe could say he felt exhausted, or even describe the sensation, but now he could.

As the red crept back from the borders of his vision, the star-god heard a voice inside him:

Thank you.

It was an ancient voice. A voice that could’ve drowned out a thousand human minds. But now it was barely a whisper, burdened with centuries of suffering and pain. It was growing less steady even as Joe tried to listen.

I don’t think I’ll last much longer. Afraid you did a number on me. But at least he’s dead. Do rescue the others, though.

An image flashed into Joe’s mind. A little girl with a fish tail, lying bleeding and whimpering beside a cracked pool. One of her fins severed. Dozens of stolid, confused boy-men. Slaves. 

Joe looked down at his hands. 

Oh, God.

This ship was alive. Not just alive, but a person. A person he’d torn apart. The alien had other captives. Ones even more vulnerable than Miss Winter’s poor children. 

He looked up and around him. I’m sorry! For Christ’s sake, I’m sorry!

On a small, green island in the middle of the Indian Ocean, five (and a half) children appeared on the beach, holding each other tight. They fell apart onto the white shore, breathing heavily, grains of sand clinging to the orange slime that stained their bodies.

Mabel heaved. “Oh, God, that was… not fun.” She looked over at Arnold. “Where are we?”

The teleporter groaned and stretched out, before opening his atlas and weakly flicking through it. “Ah, somewhere called…” He squinted. “Guy who wrote it says it doesn’t have a name.”

“You mean Santa,” said Mabel. “Santa says it doesn’t have a name.”

“Don’t remind me.”

Allison was back on her feet, dusting herself off. “Everyone make it alright?”

“I think so,” said Billy, trying to resist licking his arm silly. “…Is the Flying Man around?”

Allison craned her right ear. “No, I think we lost him. For now.”

She caught sight of David. He was staring out at the sea in front of them. His mouth was moving, but he wasn’t saying anything. 

Allison realized. The ocean. David had never even been to the beach. “David,” she said, “are you alright?”

A loud, hysterical laugh erupted from David. He pointed wildly at the white-caped waves beating gently at the shore. “They’re like sheep! Water-sheep!” With that, he ran headlong into the water and started splashing about like a madman.

Arnold walked up besides Allison. “God,” he said, grinning. “He’s like a puppy.”

“It’s salty!” David yelled, his voice full of surprise and glee. “That’s so hecking weird!”

Behind David, the water rose into a pillar over six foot tall. It bulged and started forming into the rough shape of a man.

Arnold raised an eyebrow. “What’s he up to?”

The water became flesh. Pale flesh with black choked veins. A corpse with eyes like sea-fog. The thing threw its arms around David, lifting him kicking out of the water. The boy screamed.

Arnold’s body became bright and phosphorescent. Allison’s eyes burned red with magma. 

“Let go of him!”

But David wasn’t scared. He was laughing, nuzzling his cheek against the corpse’s chest.

The dead man spoke. “Finally, I have you.”

David beamed out at his friends. “Guys! Guys! Look! It’s my grandpa!”


1. This electromagnetic propulsion makes heggorots somewhat unique in that they exist within different ranges of elevation across a planet’s surface, depending on ore concentrations. They also have a tendency to sleepwalk towards magnetic north.

2. A level 4 security moat filled with ballistic leeches, installed fifty years prior when the audience subjected a particularly charismatic host to sparagmos.

3. Assisted by subtle infrasound implants in her throat.

4. A feat that took him four hours of sustained effort.

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