All posts by thewizardofwoah

About thewizardofwoah

Amateur writer, snarker of silly things.

Chapter Ninety-Six: Atalanta and Clymene

“Do you like my costume, Mr. Comet?”

Ralph Rivers looked down at Gregory Collins. The boy was dressed in a bright blue wet-suit, decked out in knee and shoulder pads slathered with gravel and glue. He’d also sticky taped flame covered streamers to his shoulders and hair. 

Does he sleep with those on? Must be hell to pull them off…

There was only one possible answer:

The Crimson Comet grinned. “Nice, kid.”

Gregory veritably shook with delight. “Thank you, sir!”

Close-Cut weaved his way through chatting refugees over to Ralph and the boy, drink in hand. “Crimson1, have you talked to Anne Marie at all?”—the villain jabbed a thumb at the pregnant woman refilling her glass at the punch-bowl—“I think she was messing around with Jimmy the Bastard—”

Close-Cut trailed off when he noticed Greg Collins. The child was snickering. 

Ralph put a hand on the boy’s shoulder. “Company, C.C.” 

God, he sounded like Queen Victoria. At least David wasn’t there to make him sound completely ridiculous. 

Wallace was now cooly regarding Gregory Collins’ costume, a finger curled under his chin.

Greg looked up at the man. “Are you a superhero, mister?”

“Halfway.”

That sounded like a “yes” to Gregory. He stuck his chest out, eager for more professional input. “What do you think of my superhero uniform?”

Ralph cast a pleading glance at his boyfriend. 

Come on, Wally, be nice. 

Wallace nodded, as though agreeing with Ralph’s silent request. “It’s a good start”, he said evenly. He snapped his fingers. “What’s your gimmick, though?”

Gregory titled his head. “Gimmick?”

“He’s asking what your power is,” clarified Ralph.

“Oh.” Greg opened his right hand. A red flame sparked over his palm. “I can make more fire, but…” The child glanced around the burnished metal chamber. 

“Yeah,” said Ralph. “Good thought.”

“Solid,” remarked Close-Cut. “Though you’ve got a lot of blue for a fire-fella. Contrasting colours are one thing, but…” 

“Oh!”

A ribbon of water flowed out of the cooler on the table, making folks yelp as it wormed between them to Greg’s other hand. 

“I can do water, too.”

Ralph didn’t know if he was relieved or deeply disappointed David wasn’t there. 

Close-Cut nodded again, much more enthusiastically. “Very solid.”

Gregory grinned. A breeze troubled the hair of everyone in the room. “And air! Rock and dirt, too, but we’re real high up right now.” 

Close-Cut folded his arms, an approving smile playing his lips. “I’ll take your word for it.” He started leading Greg over to the snack table. “Walk with me, talk with me.”

Ralph smiled to himself. Sometimes it was good knowing he was dating a nice bloke.

The Crimson Comet kept on mingling with the prospective new Catalpalans. This batch seemed to be an even split between supers and naturals. Good, Ralph thought. Sometimes he worried about what might happen to the community of the ratio skewed to much either direction. It also worried him that little Gregory was the only kid they’d netted in the last three pick-ups. How many lost children out there couldn’t find their way?

Although, you could make the argument they’d picked up two kids this time:

“It wasn’t a problem when me and James were just a fling, but then this…” Anne-Marie rubbed her baby-bump. “Jimmy had shadow-tentacles. I have no clue how this kid’s going to come out, and he’s been a ghost for months!”

Ralph nodded sympathetically. “James was never the most dependable kinda bloke.” He pointed over at his boyfriend, still intently discussing costume options with Greg. “And that’s coming from his lot.”

Anne let out a laugh. “God. I need to get some taste…”

“Don’t worry, Anne. This kid will be in good company.”

Anne closed her eyes for a second. “That’s the thing, Mr. Comet. I know I’m having this kid in Catalpa. I just don’t know if I’m staying.”

“Everyone’s free to come and go.”

“I might be leaving alone, too.”

“Ah.”

This was tricky. Catalpa had plenty of orphans and abandoned children. It had yet to deal with the issue of… surrenders. 

“Either way,” said the Crimson Comet. “They’ll be taken care of.”

Anne-Marie nodded. “Thank you.”

Ralph felt a tap on his arm. The olive-skinned refugee woman in the hood was at his side. 

“I need to speak to Allison Kinsey,” she said. Ralph thought she sounded a little like Eliza Winter. Maybe a touch more eastern.

“Everyone will get to talk to Allison,” he reassured the woman gently. 

Of course they would. No way they were letting anyone into the city without a chat with their premier mind-reader.

“It’s urgent,” she insisted.

Ralph gave the lady a sideways glance. “What’s the matter?”

The woman’s lip tightened. Her olive skin paled a touch. 

“Come on, no judgement,” said the Crimson Comet. He flashed her the stock “waggish superhero” smile. “Unless you’ve stuck a bomb somewhere, I might judge that a little.”

Judging by the woman’s frown, that wasn’t Ralph’s best move. Still, she stood up on her toes and whispered in his ear:

Ralph Rivers’ eyes widened. “Oh.”

Ralph almost wished it was a bomb.

Recruitment drives were a mixed occasion for Allison. Sure, it meant new songs and new powers, but she also had to talk to a lot of grown-ups. Natural grown-ups, too. And never the ones she was waiting for… 

“The way I see it,” said Jessica Switts. “Your town has a big PR problem.” She remembered she was talking to a little girl. “Oh, sorry, ‘PR’ means—“

“She knows what it means,” said Mistress Quickly on her winged pop-art throne. “She knows everything.” 

“Ah,” said Miss Switts. “My point is, there’s never been as many supers in one place as your town, and nobody knows anything about you. That frightens folk.” She gave an enthusiastic realtor smile. “Me and Ron here can help you with that.” 

The young photographer sitting on the velvet bench beside Miss Switts gave a shaky, bashful smile. A camera rested in his lap like a placid toddler.

Allison—curled up inside her globe chair—squinted at the pair of them. “So, you don’t want to live in Catalpa, you want to write a newspaper story about us?” 

Jessica shot to her feet. “Not just a story,” enthused the reporter. “I’m talking about a whole book.” She looked up towards the ceiling and swept her hands. “A Year in Catalpa, by Jessica Switts.” Switts patted her companion on the shoulder hard enough to make the poor fella cringe. “And Ronald French, of course.” She gave Allison an eager look. “Has a ring to it, right?”

“…Uh huh,” said Maude. “The West Australian put you two up to this?”

Jessica scoffed bitterly. “Hah! If it was up to them, me and Rolf would be covering the Royal Show2 and playground dedications till we were drawing retirement.”

“It was time for a change,” Ron agreed timidly. “And I always liked the old Crimson Comet comics, so…”

Mistress Quickly and Allison exchanged a glance:

They on the up? Maude thought loudly. 

Allison inspected the lights in Ron and Jessica’s heads. They hummed a litany of boredom and simmering professional resentment. 

Yeah, they mean it, Allison thought at Maude. They were getting good at these mental conversations. The guy just wants to take some pictures and the lady really wants to be famous, but they’re not working for Valour or anything. 

Maude looked back at the journalists. “We’ll take it to the council.”

Ron and Jessica both cheered excitedly and embraced. 

Allison was about to call Ralph to bring in the next person, when she noticed a song cleaving from the crowd. 

She knew its tune.

The interview chamber’s door slid open with a proper sci-fi swoosh. The Crimson Comet stood in the doorway with uncomfortable gravity, eyes cast downwards. 

“Ah, Comet, good timing,” said Mistress Quickly. She noticed her head at Ron and Jess. “We were just finishing up with these two.”

Ralph didn’t answer the scientist, instead shuffling his feet against the metal floor. “Allison—“

“Move out of the way, please,” said Allison, voice too steady. 

The Crimson Comet obeyed. 

Drina Kinsey stood in the doorway, hands clasped in front of her dress. “Allison?”

The girl flew out of the globe-chair like a baby bird from a nest, launching herself against her mother’s chest. Mrs Kinsey just barely managed to not be bowled over. 

Allison looked up from her mother’s skirt, leaving tear marks on the fabric. “Y—you came?”

She said it like she wasn’t sure this was really happening.

Drina stared down at her daughters burning eyes. “Allie, what’s happened to you?”

“I—it was…”

Allison gave up on an explanation, burying her face again. 

Ron’s camera flashed a few times. Mistress Quickly slapped it down. 

“What’s the matter with you?”

A young, piping voice spoke, “Allison said you’d turn up!”

Drina looked towards the back of the chamber. There was a little blonde girl in a strange one piece swimsuit who hadn’t been there a second ago. Drina thought she looked like her Allison…

“Hello?” said Drina questioningly. “Who are you.”

“I’m Miri,” the girl answered.

Allison looked back up at her mother, a dizzy smile on her face. “She’s my sister!”

“…Pardon?”


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1. An important step in any superhuman relationship is the establishment of public nicknames.

2. An annual agricultural festival held in Perth.

Chapter Ninety-Five: The Way to Catalpa

In some respects, 1966 was a much better year for the DDHA than 1965: they’d gone nine months without their headquarters blowing up. Someone should have hung up a sign. Someone had hung up in a sign, in fact. Timothy Valour took it down. 

Tim Valour was currently stationed in the former New South Wales Premier’s office in  Parliament House, Sydney. After Kirribilli House had been rendered permanently transparent, Sir Robert Askin had graciously offered Valour and his people exclusive use of the parliamentary districts for the increasingly unforeseeable future.

Of course, the Parliament of New South Wales hadn’t met in person for nearly a year now. No Australian parliament had. From what Valour had heard, governing bodies all across the globe were shying away from gathering in one place these days. Not when Arnold Barnes was out there. The conference call was rapidly becoming the new bedrock of democracy. Perhaps “the office” was on its way out—for the important people, at least.

Timothy Valour had no illusions about his importance.   

The DDHA chief regarded the young man sitting in the chair in front of him sternly. The boy was distressingly normal looking. He was maybe twenty, with what Valour considered long, shaggy hair on a man. His clothes looked like he’d come directly from a construction site. For all Tim knew, he had.

Tim picked up the form his secretary had brought him ahead of the meeting. “You weren’t exactly exacting about your powers, Mr. Ulles.” His eyes flitted down to the paper. “All you wrote is ‘Psychic.’ ”—Valour clicked his tongue—“…‘Maybe.’ Care to elaborate, Tommy?”

Thomas Ulles kneaded at his sweaty singlet. “It’s hard to explain…”

“Is it now?” 

That’s what they all said. Ever since the DDHA and the Australian Defence Force had belatedly started their recruitment drive, Tim’s office had played host to a parade of fraudsters looking for a government paycheck. He’d interviewed every shonky medium and palm-reader on the Eastern seaboard. Being double jointed or a “pretty good” shot with a bow and arrow had nearly eclipsed university and homosexuality as potentual escape routes for draftable males.

Tim didn’t know why they bothered. They’d just be sent to Europe when things finally got hot… 

Tommy gulped. “I’m sorry, Mr. Valour. Never been good at talking about myself…”

Tim sighed. “Let’s start simple. Can you read my mind?”

Tommy shook his head. “No can do, sir.”

Of course he couldn’t, thought Tim. None of the “psychics” he’d interviewed could do anything so simple as read his mind. Too easy to test.

“Let me guess,” he said. “You’re an empath?”

Thomas raised an eyebrow. “Pardon, sir?”

Couldn’t they at least do their research before bothering him? “You can read my emotions? Tell me whether I’m happy or cross, yeah?”

Tim got a lot of would-be empaths. Probably because—as far as Timothy could tell—a half-decent empath was indistinguishable from a regular man who looked at people’s faces when they talk.

However, Tommy shook his head again. “I don’t think so.”

“Then how are you ‘psychic’? Come on, boy.”

Thomas clutched his hands together. “Maybe I’m using the wrong word. It’s something I… do to people.”

Timothy blinked. That was something. Usually the fakers didn’t claim to have an effective ability. “Go on…”

“It’s really hard to explain.”

Timothy leaned back in his high backed chair. “Could you demonstrate?”

Thomas narrowed his eyes. “You mean… on you?”

Tim shrugged. “Long as whatever it doesn’t kill or cripple me.”

“It doesn’t.”

Lyman will be disappointed. “Go ahead then.”

Thomas raised his palms. He frowned. “You sure, man?”

“Just do it, kid.”

Thomas squinted.

A jaunty pop-song blared inside Tim Valour’s head. Not in his thoughts, inside his skull:

Oh yeah, I’ll tell you something, 

I think you’ll understand, 

When I’ll say that something… 

Timothy clapped his hands over his ears. It didn’t do anything to shut out the noise. “What the fuck are you doing to me?”

Thomas threw his hands back at, this time defensively. “I don’t know, man! I just… put songs in people’s heads.”

I want to hold your hand,

I want to hold your hand… 

Tim snarled, “How hard was that to say?”

“I’m sorry, man!”

Oh please, say to me,

You’ll let me be your man… 

“Can you make it stop?”

It’s such a feeling that my love, I can’t hide

I can’t hide, I can’t hide… 

“No…”

“When does it stop on its own?”

“A few hours? Maybe five?”

“Fuck!”

I want to hold your hand,

I want to hold your hand… 

“I’m really sorry, sir—”

“Just go!”

“Am I out?”

“Talk to my secretary and piss off!”

Tommy Ulles scarpered out of the office. Timothy Valour put his head against his desk and breathed rhythmically. Thankfully, after a few repeats, the song subsided to a merely infuriating musical tinnitus.

How does Allison Kinsey stand it?

The desk intercom buzzed. “Mr. Lyman is here, sir.”

Reluctantly, Timothy jabbed the talk button. “Send him in.”

Tim’s head was still resting on the desk when James Lyman slipped praying-mantis like into the office. He’d known the DOPO attaché long enough that he no longer feigned dignity in front of him. 

“Afternoon, Valour.”

Timothy grunted in acknowledgement. 

Lyman sat down in Ulles’ vacated seat. “Rough day?”

Valour looked up miserably at the American. “A tradie stuck a Beatles song in my head.”

Lyman raised a salt and pepper eyebrow. “You mean he hummed it…”

“No,” Tim hissed. “He put the song in my head. By squinting.” He pointed at his temples with a shaky, manic grin. “I can still hear it, James.”

Lyman’s narrow face lit with understanding. “You mean he used a power?”  

Tim scowled. “No, he trepanned me and stuck a record in my head. What do you think?”

James leaned forward urgently. “How did he do it? Did it seem sonic or psychic? Is it just that one song, or the whole Beatles catalog? What about other artists—”

Tim groaned. “For God’s sake, Lyman. My ears are still ringing!” He pointed at the door. “Thumps has the kid’s details. You go chase him up if you’re so intrigued!”

Lyman glared daggers at his Australian colleague. It might’ve frightened softer, more settled men. “You’re telling me you let a potential asset wander out onto the street?”

“We have his phone and address. But I somehow doubt Captain Earworm is going to take down  Moscow.”

“Never write off a sorcerer,” insisted Lyman. “For all you know, that boy is the perfect com-jammer.” The corner of his lip curled. “Besides, not like you Aussies can afford to be picky.”

They really couldn’t. In the nine months since Allison Kinsey and her supervillain army had forced Valour to abandon the asylums, he’d only managed to enlist eleven “occult operatives” for the FWA1. Maybe three of them were what you’d call superhero material. But what did the Yanks expect? Press-ganging was nigh-impossible. Even if more and more supers weren’t hying themselves to Catalpa every month (and even if they weren’t supers) there was nowhere to detain them. You couldn’t even stack stones where the asylums had stood, and the Circle’s End facility was still listed as “missing.” 

“Of course not,” Tim said flatly. “Wouldn’t do for us to miss our quota…”

“Don’t pretend the dominos won’t fall on you, Tim!” snapped Lyman. “The Fulda Gap2 will be bleeding out by Easter. The Soviets have us cornered for conventional forces. They killed the Flying Man. With a nuke3.” He tapped his finger on the desk for emphasis. “The only way we keep Europe is shoring up our occult assets. And all your sorcerers are bottled up at the end of the world, plotting and scheming God knows what.”

Tim smiled sourly. “That reminds me, what’s Penderghast up to?”

Lyman’s lips tightened. “Howard Penderghast is far from our only high grade sorcerous asset. Head office is sending you another magical consultant this month, in fact. Clement Strangefate4. Real up and comer, I’m told.”

“Lovely,” said Valour, wondering if all wizards came from the same, stupid country. “Is that all you’re here to tell me?”

“No.” Lyman closed his eyes and folded his hands. “I’m sure you’re aware Catalpa is planning another mass-abduction in Perth this week.”

“Mass-abduction.” That was the official term for Catalpa’s recruitment drives. Tim supposed it wasn’t inaccurate, though it reminded him of when the Yanks tried calling sauerkraut “liberty cabbage” back in the Great War.

“Yes…” 

“Given you and your department’s involvement in the Catalpa affair, I and our colleagues at ASIO5—”

Tim groaned. “Not another infiltration, Lyman. It never works!”

There’d been numerous attempts to infiltrate or perform reconnaissance on Catalpa—a difficult prospect, given both the difficult terrain, and its inhabitants. Black ops teams attempting to penetrate the settlement on foot had found themselves stranded in the middle of Bunbury or Brunswick. Paratroopers were thrown back into the holds of their planes. Powered spies had been returned with only recollections of strange children’s theatre productions to show.    

James Lyman tensed and splayed his fingers, taking a slow, deep breath. “If you would let me finish, I was going to tell you about the new tack we’re taking.”

Valour folded his arms. “I’m all ears.”

And so, James Lyman explained his latest plan. It didn’t take long.

Tim looked blankly at the American. “You bastard.”

“Hard times call for hard measures. I would argue there’s a touch of kindness in it, even.”

“It still won’t work.”

“The strategy’s been vetted by ten pediatric psychologists and psionic experts. It’s the best we’ve got.”

Timothy Valour turned on the intercom again. “Thumps, get me gin. Fast.”

I want to hold your hand… 

Ralph Rivers adjusted his costume in the mirror. That was one upside to shacking up with a fashion designer: there was always a decent mirror lying around6

Daedalus.” 

The metal pack on Ralph’s back unfolded into the angular, art-deco wings Mistress Quickly had built for him. Red electricity crackled across their surface.

Good, they were on straight. 

Ralph frowned thoughtfully at the superhero in the mirror. More days than not, he still felt odd going out as the Crimson Comet. At first, it’d stirred up memories of the war, but nearly a year of good times in the suit had soothed that. It wasn’t even that he was fifty-fucking-six and dressing like a circus-angel. It was something else.

Ralph Rivers felt… fake. He might be dressed like a superhero, but truthfully, he hadn’t put in any daring-do since the Sydney march. Most of his costumed activities lately consisted of rounding up children for school and breaking up bar fights. Sure, in Catalpa, both of those duties often involved fireballs, but they weren’t adventures. Ralph felt like the imitation Father Christmases who tossed out wax paper lolly-bags from on top of fire-engines.

It was a selfish thought, Ralph knew, wishing for danger. But it wasn’t as though the world beyond Catalpa couldn’t use a man of his vocation… 

Behind Ralph, a circle of paper-partitions dissolved into bright hologramatic debris, revealing Close-Cut decked out in his latest creation:

The old man spread his arms grandly. “What do you think?”

Ralph smirked and regarded his boyfriend in the mirror. He was wearing a chrome three piece suit with subtle rainbow iridescence mixed into the fabric. 

“Honestly, Wally, you look a bit underdressed.”

Wallace frowned, his handlebar moustache contracting like two snakes rearing to strike. “You mean I don’t look gauche.” 

Ralph turned to face Wally. “I’m pretty sure “gauche” is the definition of superhero…” He blinked in thought. “What does gauche mean?”

Close-Cut sighed and reached into a suit jacket, pulling out a dark blue domino mask he applied to his face. “There. ‘Superhero’ enough? Not that I am one.”

Ralph strode over and kissed his boyfriend. “Getting there.”

Wallace smiled, eyes flitting down at Ralph’s Crimson Comet suit. “I don’t know why you won’t let me design you a new suit. That thing’s more ‘out’ than me.” 

Ralph laughed. “Careful there, my sister made me this. You’ve got to at least meet my family before slagging off their work.”

Wallace raised his hands placatingly as Ralph adjusted his lapels. 

“Now now. Don’t get me wrong. I’m sure your sister’s a lovely girl. But most heroes are supposed to move past the homemade pajama suit stage at some point. I’m sure she’d understand.”

“I can’t change the costume,” Ralph growled, before flashing the other man a grin. “More than two colors would make the comics harder to draw.”

“So that’s why I only got to appear in one issue,” Wallace murmured. “I was too much.”

“Yeah,” Ralph agreed. “Two decades of ‘Too much.’” He leaned his shoulder against the wall, casually ignoring the slight flicker as fine filigree wallpaper momentarily gave way to factory brushed polysteel. 

Wallace scowled.

“I do wish you’d stop leaning on things.”

“It’s a house. That’s what it’s for.”

“You make it so obvious we live in a dump.”

“Instead of living in a dump with fake lighting?”

“It’s stylistic!”

“Is it ever not with you?”

Wallace sighed. “I still don’t know why you’re dragging me to this.”

Ralph grinned. “Says the man who made a new suit for it. Think of it as a date!”

“A date to pick up refugees from a park.”

“Hey, King’s Park is nice!” Ralph’s smile grew wistful. “Lawrence used to let me take Fran there, back in the day.”

A quiet fell over the bedroom. Wallace had never met Françoise, but you didn’t date Ralph Rivers for six months without hearing a great deal about her.

Ralph couldn’t let it stand: 

“You know it’s the biggest city park on the planet?”

Close-Cut raised a trimmed eyebrow. “Is it? I’d have figured it was Central Park.”

Ralph shrugged. “Allie told me.”

“You know, that girl could tell us anything she liked, and we’d probably buy it.”

Both men laughed. 

Ralph’s comm-watch beeped. 

“Are you and Mr. Grimsby ready to be picked up, Mr. Rivers?”

“Just a second,” answered Wallace. He picked up a fine blackwood cane topped with a bronze eagle head and stood beside his partner, composing himself. “I hope it starts raining soon so I can switch to the umbrella. Much easier to contrive defensive options.”

“I remember,” said Ralph fondly. “Right, Blancheflor, showtime.”

“Prepare for transport,” warned the distant machine. 

The universe briefly turned inside out. 

Wallace stumbled as the world righted itself. The pair were standing on a raised metal viewing platform forty-nine feet feet in the air. A spiral staircase twisted under it—a wrought steel double helix.

“How does one ‘prepare’ for that sensation, precisely?” Wally asked, fixing his mask. “I never could tell.”

“Shut up, you big wally.”

“Hah.”

“Did you see what I did there?”

“Yes, Ralph. Yes I did.”

“It was a joke.”

“Yes, I know.”

“Because your name is Wally.”

“Yes.”

“Then why didn’t you laugh.”

“I did.”

“You said ‘hah’.”

“Yes.”

“But that’s not laughing.”

“It’s what your pun deserved.”

Mistress Quickly had fenced off the parkland around the DNA tower with force fields earlier that morning. The stubb-nosed pylons currently protected some sixty or so refugees waiting to be picked up. Most of them were pointing and murmuring up at Ralph and Wallace, but whatever they were saying was drowned out by the crowd amassed beyond the fence:

Hang the bombers!

Kick out the kidnappers!

Flying saucers go home!

That last one perplexed Ralph: wasn’t that what they were trying to do?

“This the NDF thing you told me about?” Wallace asked mildly.

Ralph frowned. “Mhmhm.”

It is a sociological inevitability that any and every minority group will inspire at least one hate-group. It had taken longer than most for supers to attract one—whether because of their relative scarcity, or because picking on black or gay folks carried less of a risk of lightning. But Catalpa’s recruitment drives had provided the scared and stupid with regular gatherings of superhumans. Thus, like cancer seeds, cells of the Natural Defense Front7 had metastasized all over the country. The Crimson Comet had rumbled with them at a few pick-ups before Mistress Quickly came up with the pylons. 

Ralph Rivers looked out over the tide of humanity lapping at the fence, the frontmost rows pressed against the glassy force fields like bottom feeders sucking at aquarium walls. One protest sign caught his attention:

Flush out the nest!”  

The Crimson Comet clenched his fist. Sometimes, Ralph wished Maude wasn’t so clever… 

Most of the refugees had their eyes fixed up at Ralph now. About half of them were clearly homeless folk. Catalpa got a lot of those. The bulk of the rest were young people, teens and twenty-somethings. One woman was pregnant: far too pregnant to be seeking out Nurse Pritchard. The most spruced among them was a lady struggling under the weight of a blonde beehive, chatting avidly to a terrified looking woman in a very conspicuous hooded jacket. A young lad at her side was toting a camera case.

Great, reporters

Ralph couldn’t say for certain if any of them were super or not, but he was willing to wager the lone unaccompanied little boy in the homemade superhero costume was, or at least wanted to be. Sometimes it worried him how few children made it to these.

Wallace nudged him in the side. “Ah, Comet.” He gestured down at waiting refugees. “You planning on addressing our future subjects?”

Ralph shook himself. “Right, right. And don’t call them that!”


Ralph pressed a switch on the rim of his com watch and spoke into the grill:

“Testing, testing, one, two, three…”

The Crimson Comet’s magnified voice rang out all across Kings Park, managing to momentarily dim the chants of the NDF.

“Ah, good. Hello everyone, Comet here. Glad you could make it.”

Ralph never enjoyed this part much. Too much public speaking. He was half-hoping he could get Wally to give the speeches.

“We’re a minute off from pick-up, and I want to make one thing clear—this isn’t a one way trip. Everyone in Catalpa is free to leave whenever they wish.”

We’re not a cult, we swear, Ralph imagined himself saying.

“Now, I’m sure a lot of you folks have seen pictures of this in the papers or on the tellie, and yes, it is a bit… dramatic. But I swear on my mother, the tractor beam is completely harmless.”

Most of the refugees didn’t look assured. A couple were even shooting glances at the fence. 

Wally chuckled. “Smooth.”

Ralph covered his com-watch and glowered at his boyfriend. “You know what’s definitely going to put people at ease? Watching a supervillain laugh from a high tower—”

His voice carried more than he’d like. Ralph realized the refugees were still watching him. Some of them were laughing. Somehow, this made him feel better.

He turned back to the people and cleared his throat.

“Brace yourselves, folks.”

A few seconds later, a warbling mechanical groan echoed through the sky.

A red-hulled flying saucer topped with a silvery, geodesic dome and rimmed with navigational lights shimmered into existence over Kings Park. The crowds let out a familiar litany of gasps and screams as the thing crept through the air towards the DNA tower.

Wallace rolled his eyes and wondered; how many of the people on the other side of the fence had come to boo hiss at the freaks, and how many had come to gawk at Mistress Quickly’s new mobile-bunker?

The saucer’s shadow soon fell over the DNA tower. An iris-hatch on the bottom contracted to let a bright, yellow beam of light shine down over the cordon. 

Every blade of grass stood up very straight. 

Ralph spoke into his watch one more time:

“Okay, folks, here’s the fun part.”

Ralph and Wally both found their feet rising from the platform. Soon, the refugees followed, up into the sky. Some thrashed and screamed. The probable-reporter’s equally probable cameraman struggled to keep a hold of his case. The little boy was somersaulting in the air.

One fella looked down at the crowds below, and flipped them the bird.     

Ralph sat reclined in thin air, enjoying the novelty of non self-propelled flight. Wally stood with stately dignity beside him and raised his cane over his head. 

Ralph smirked up at him. 

Wally sighed. “See, this would’ve been fabulous if I’d had my umbrella.”

Everyone soon passed through the saucer’s hatch, entering into a space-age hanger. The floor reformed beneath them, and they were set down softly back on their feet.

They soon noticed the group of women standing behind a row of snack laden fold-out tables in the corner. 

“Tea, anyone?” asked Sarah Allworth. 

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1. Free World Allies, a common term for the United States and its allies during the 1960s.

2. An area of lowland terrain providing an easy route through the German mountain ranges. Gained massive strategic importance when Germany ended up split right along it.

3. In late 1966, the Soviet Union still claimed the Flying Man was destroyed while interfering with a nuclear meltdown, much to the confusion of nuclear engineers the world over.

4. Not his real name. Most wizards, even patriotic ones, tend to avoid giving their true names to the government.

5. Australian Security Intelligence Organisation.

6. The Mirror Mistress would agree, much to Close-Cut’s annoyance.

7. The Natural Defense Front—originally founded “to assert the rights of normal citizens in the face of superhuman belligerence” in March of 1966—would fold in the 1980s after extensive legal battles with a preexisting environmentalist group.

Chapter Ninety-Four: Cloudsong

Allison swayed her hips from side to side in front of the Barnes’ bedroom mirror, admiring Angela’s handiwork: a mottled sundress in pale greens and pinks. 

“Well,” said Mrs Barnes, standing behind the girl with her arms folded. She was wearing the green suit and hat she’d worn for the Catalpa invite. Old church clothes. “What do you think?”

Allison knew Arnold’s mother was trying hard to make the question sound neutral. The woman was very proud of her sewing, and hid it badly.

“It’s nice!” the girl answered earnestly with a twirl. “You didn’t have to make me a new dress, though. My costume’s comfy.”

“Allison, you wear that costume of yours all day, everyday. You could at least let me wash it.”

“Doesn’t need it. It eats sweat and stuff.”

Angela suppressed a shudder. That should’ve been reason enough for her to burn the ghastly thing1. “It’s your special day, you should look special.”

“But I can make my costume look like whatever I want. You could’ve just shown me a picture.”

Mrs Barnes let out a sigh. How to explain this to a child. “Allison… I just wanted to make you something. Something you could use. A birthday present.”

Allison blinked. “Oh, I getcha… so I’m not getting another present?”

A smile like a lightning flash flickered across Angela’s lips. Sometimes, she understood completely why her son liked this girl. 

Angela’s reserve reasserted itself. “Now, let’s get that hair brushed.” She picked up a brush from her chest of drawers and started running it through Allison’s chestnut hair.

The child winced as Mrs Barnes yanked her head to the side. It was clear to Allison the only girl whose hair Angela had brushed in recent decades was the woman herself.

“Do we have to?”

“The whole town’s coming to this party for you. You owe it to them to look your best.”

Allison resigned herself to grumbling. At least ten was apparently the cut-off date for being allowed to wash your hair yourself. Or turn into mist and back in the shower and say you washed it.

Mrs Barnes at least soon settled into a steady groove with the brush, leaving Allison to look in the mirror and think.

I’m surprised you still have a reflection.  

“Allison, it’s not nice to frown on your birthday.”

“Alberto said something lousy.”

“Ah. Well, ignore him. Doesn’t sound like he ever says much worth listening to.”

Angela wished she had better advice for Allison. Or a solution. As it was, she barely comprehended the girl’s condition. The closest comparisons she could think of were what little she’d heard of schizophrenics, which felt insulting, and Legion from the Gospels, which made her feel like a superstitious fool. And Miri seemed like a nice little girl.

Mr. Moretti, on the other hand…  

Allison meanwhile found herself wondering what her party would’ve been like if she’d never left Harvey. They probably would’ve gone to the dam again. Her parents would’ve made her invite Jesse Perks, even though she was a complete cow who deserved to be covered in glue. Her mother might’ve taken her up to Perth to pick out something nice. 

And what about after? Did anything change when you were ten? Allison had a vague idea she’d be expected to dress more like a grownup. Maybe order from the grown-up menu. Probably have to wear bathers more. Stop running through the sprinklers.

She wouldn’t know the other Watercolours. Miri wouldn’t even exist. That stung. 

And why did it have to be a choice? Why weren’t her parents here? They picked people up from Perth every month! She’d even made them do a pick up in Bunbury once, just for them. Bunbury. She’d made it so easy for them to be together.

“Mrs Barnes?”

“Allison?”

“Before we came here, you saw my parents around, right?”

“Yes…” Angela answered warily.

“…Did they miss me?”

Angela didn’t answer for a moment, trying to puzzle out what Allison wanted to hear. Did she want to think her parents were okay? Or did she need to know she was wanted?

Honesty. That was the Christian thing to do.

“Dearly. I don’t know how they got out of bed.”

“Then why aren’t they here?”

Angela was prepared to offer a number of weak excuses for the elder Kinseys. Her father’s job. Their house. What their neighbours or Mr. Kinsey’s family would think. 

Again, the Christian thing.

“I don’t know, Allie. I’m sorry, but I just don’t know.”

It would’ve been easier if Allison had cried. There were rote responses to that, programmed into every mother worth her salt. 

Instead, the little girl only nodded. “Not your fault.”

What could Angela say to that? It wasn’t right that her parents weren’t here, but she didn’t know their hearts. Not really. 

Why are you making me do your job?

To Angela’s quiet relief, her son flung the bedroom door open: 

“David’s here!”

“Well,” said Angela, “can’t keep the other special guest waiting.”

David was waiting outside the Barnes’ house, impatiently tapping his foot on the dusty ground. Hundreds of overlapping conversations underscored by music and clinking glasses were pouring out of an egg-portal behind him.

“Come on, come on!” he whined as the family filed out the door. “The party’s starting!”

Mrs Barnes stopped pushing her husband’s wheelchair and looked around the street. She looked down at her son. “Arnold, I thought you said David was waiting for us,” she said very evenly.

David tilted his head. “I’m right here.” 

Angela made another show of searching for David. “Can you see him anywhere, Fred?”

Fred Barnes gave David a cruel smile. “Fraid not, wife.”

Angela folded her arms and looked right at David. “Strange, his costume is so distinctive.” 

David looked down at his bare body. Allison and Arnold both stifled giggles as he balled his fists and fumed:

Costume on.”

A flash of light dressed David. 

Angela blinked. “Ah, there you are David. Happy birthday.”

“Thank you, Mrs Barnes,” David replied through grit teeth. 

Arnold smiled playfully. “Happy birthday, Dave.”

David’s face brightened. “Hey Arn.” He turned his attention to Allison. “Hey birthday-partner!”

Allison laughed. “Hey David.”

David pecked Allison and Arnold on the cheek in turn. They kissed him back.

Almost too quick to be seen, the water-sprite shot Arnold’s mother a very satisfied smile.  

Angela frowned.   

Well, he is French… 

“Let’s not hold up the party…”

As the guests of honour, David and Allison stepped through the portal first. They came out into the canteen in Freedom Point, done up in theatre curtains and mood lighting like a senior school social. Someone had even hung up a mirror-ball.

A crowd of hundreds swarmed the pair. Dozens of variations on “Happy birthday!” buzzed like a beehive. The children got so many pats on the back, it bordered on a beating. 

Allison hunched her shoulders and smiled bracingly against the onslaught. David meanwhile was waving and blowing kisses:

“Mwha! Mwha! Thank you, I love you all!”

Allison stifled a laugh. Where was this David at Parliament House?

A foghorn blared, parting the crowd like a spear-thrust. Mistress Quickly and her young assistant Doc Danny2 marched up to the pair in matching hot pink lab-blazers. 

Maude Simmons nodded to the kids in turn. “David, Allison.”

Doc Danny nudged her lightly.

“Oh right, happy birthday.”

“Hi Quickly,” said Allison. “Nice party.”

Danny scoffed. “This?” He gestured about at the decorations. “This isn’t the party.”

David tilted his head. “Then where are we?”

Maude enthused, “The vestibule.” She took Allison’s hand and pulled the girl behind her. “Come on, we’ll show you.”

Allison didn’t resist. Mostly she tried to keep from sliding on her heels. She shot a glance back at David, who shrugged and grabbed her hand in turn, forming a chain. They passed a well-stocked snack table, as well one ladden with rainbow and green-blue wrapped presents. Allison and David slowed to admire their haul, only for Maude to insistently yank them past.

The centrepiece of the room was a topaz statue of David, standing triumphantly atop a milky jade crocodile lying on its back. It would’ve been positively Grecian, if it weren’t for the topaz David’s broad, pearly grin.

Allison glanced at her friend. “You do that?”

He grinned proudly. “Yep. Well, Billy helped, but it was my idea.”

At the back of the canteen was a rosette of twelve egg-portals, each floating under rustic wooden signs hanging from lengths of fishing line:

WATERCOLOUR ISLAND

THE SLOPES

FANTASTIC UNIVERSE

Mistress Quickly spread her arms. “Behold, the world’s first intercontinental birthday party3!”

Allison blinked. “Intercontinental?”

Maude pointed at the portal under the “WATERCOLOUR ISLAND” sign. “Take a peek through that one.”

David and Allison poked their heads through the pocket of interpolated space. They found themselves looking out on a familiar stretch of white-sanded beach. Kids splashed and played in sapphire waters. A woman with a mane of purple amethysts carved from bleached concrete was sunning herself on a deckchair. Ralph Rivers waved at the birthday children from the barbecue he was manning. Jungle bordered the edges of their vision.

David grinned at Allison. “It’s our island!”

“Yep,” said Doc Danny, looking very impressed with himself. “We got the cords from Arnold’s magic atlas thing.”

Allison glanced back at Danny. “The ‘cords’?”

Danny folded his arms. “It means ‘coordinates’.”

“I know! It’s just…” She laughed. “The cords…”

“Check out another one,” suggested Maude.

The children took her advice, picking “THE SLOPES”. They stepped out onto white, powdery snow. The ground sloped at their feet. Ant-people skied far below them with varying grace. Snowflakes settled and melted in their hair. 

Thousands of miles away right behind them, Mistress Quickly spoke, “You are currently standing in a suitably anonymous stretch of mountain range in northern Montana. It’s no Aspen, but the tourists haven’t found it yet, so swings and roundabouts…” 

David smiled wryly at Allison. “I guess it’s good Mrs Barnes made you that dress. Otherwise you’d be invisible here…”

Allison grinned toothily. The red glow of her eyes flashed white just long enough for a wave of snow to rise and fall on top of David. 

The girl ran laughing back into the canteen, a volley of snowballs hurtling through the portal after her. One of them struck Doc hard in the face:

Hey!

“Harden up,” said Maude.

Allison caught sight of the portal labelled “FANTASTIC PLANET.” It looked like the night sky had laid an egg.

Why didn’t I look at that one first?

She charged through the portal, only for her feet to meet thin air. Allison tumbled through the black, planets and stars flitting past her.  

She bounced against something unseen and spongy. As she rose, she saw Lily Nichols—wearing a body formed out of silvery gallium—ricochet off a red ringed gas giant.

Happy birthday Allie!” she called as she sailed past Allison.  

Either Lily was very big right now, or that planet was incredibly small. 

Allison’s upwards momentum died. She started plummeting back into infinity. Curious, the girl angled herself towards an orange wormhole. 

It sucked Allison into a twisty, gravity defying fibreglass tunnel, depositing her in the air above the egg portal. 

Allison hurtled spinning back into the canteen, landing on her feet to some small applause.

“Where the heck was that?” Allison asked Maude.

“We fixed the juvenile wing,” answered Doc Danny. “Burned that freaking clown out of the code, first.”

“I’m afraid the other planners nixed any real offworld venues,” said Mistress Quickly. 

A dimly lit portal labelled “GROWN-UPS ONLY” forcefully ejected David. 

“People in there don’t have to wear clothes inside…” he grumbled.

Maude Simmons launched into a speech. “This is just the beginning.” She gestured around at the portals. “Why should a superhuman city’s border be dictated by geography? Like it’s the bloody Dark Ages and ‘mass-transport’ just means a really strong mule! We can make a city that spans continents! Whole worlds—”

“Um, Mistress,” interjected Doc Danny, “they’re gone.”

Maude looked about. Allison and David had in fact departed into the depths of the party. 

“Bloody kids. We’re wasted on them.”

Doc Danny was looking pleadingly up at his mentor.

Mistress Quickly sighed. “Yes, Danny, you can go play.”

Doc whooped and leapt into the beach portal.

David and Allison romped across the entire planet. They ran through fields of yellow wildflowers at the bottom of Australia. They wrestled dolphins. They surfed avalanches and battled through space.    

They were playing off their old beach when the party started going peculiar. David’s grandfather had turned up. Now him and David were riding on the shoulders of an icy giant while dozens of kids tried to fell it4.    

Allison and a few of Catalpa’s other flyers weaved and dived around the ice-giant’s swinging glacial fists. Honestly, apart from the one girl who could make it rain steel droplets, they weren’t accomplishing much, at least not next to the children chipping away at the giant’s feet. 

Allison was trying to melt a tunnel into the giant’s side when she heard a familiar song. Well, it wasn’t so much the song itself that was familiar. It shifted too constantly for that. 

Allison cleaved from the giant and looked in the direction of the inconsistent music. 

Far below, almost around the other side of the island, two children were playing alone in the water. 

Allison focused her more-than-human eyes. One of the children was a faintly blue-skinned boy,  wearing nothing besides a white, wide-brimmed hat rimmed with tiny roses. The other was an Arab girl in a sailor outfit, long white trousers pulled up around her knees. Her hair was striped, blonde and brunette. 

A memory from what Allison thought was long ago stirred in her. Another party being thrown for her. Those children, standing on the other side of the river… 

She swooped down into the sea, splashing down in front of the two children. “Okay, who the heck are you?”

The pair paused in their frolics. The blue boy looked at Allison and said, “…Uh, hi. I’m Sky.”

The girl gave a small wave and smiled. “I’m Eve.”

Their accents were odd. Slightly Australian, but put through some sort of strainer. A bit like David’s, actually. 

Sky pointed a finger at Allie. “You’re Allison Kinsey, aren’t you?”

“Duh! It’s my bloody birthday party!”

Eve’s eyes widened. “Really? How old are you?”

“Ten! What are you doing here?”

Sky sucked his lips. “Um, we just moved here.”

Allison put her hands on her hips. “This is my town. I meet everyone. No you didn’t.” She frowned and leaned forward. “And I saw you two at the Institute. Why are you following me?”

“We’re not!” insisted Sky. “It’s someone else!”

Eve glared at his companion. “Don’t tell her that!” She pulled him around and into a huddle. 

“…Told you she wouldn’t be here.”

“But I can feel her…” 

“Hey, hey, hey!” Allison pried the two apart. “Don’t go whispering when I’m asking you something.”

Red blood showed under Sky’s blue cheeks. He blushed rectangles. 

Allison’s eyebrows knit. “Are you from Enlil?”

“Ah, we gotta go,” said Sky, smiling a bit shakily. 

“Have a good birthday!” said Eve.

“And look out for the witch!” Sky added.

“The witch?”

“Don’t tell her about the witch!”

The two flickered lime green and vanished.

Allison growled and stamped her foot in the ocean. 

There was a splash behind the girl. Allison turned around to find a glowing Louise standing next to a happily shaken looking Billy. The girl was naked, but Billy’s costume had turned into a shockingly old-fashioned, blue and white striped bathing suit. He even had a little boater hat. 

“Happy birthday Allie!” cried Billy.

“Thanks Billy,” said Allison. 

She looked at Louise. The girl was shaking with ecstatic energy. Like standing still was physically painful, but she was too happy to care.

Allison smiled. “Hey Miri.”

“Hey Allie!” With viper quickness, Miri pulled Allison into a bear hug. “Gosh, Louise has a fun body!” She let go of Allison and plunged her fist into the ocean, pulling it out clad in a shiny second skin. “Ice-glove!”

Allison giggled. “Yeah, it’s neat.”

“You felt really cross a sec ago. What’s wrong?”

Allison shook her head. “Weirdos I don’t know were here.”

Billy asked, “Like when David’s granddad brought that fire-girl to play?”

Allison shook her head. “I saw them before. At the Institute.”

“Huh,” said Miri. “They gone now?”

“Yeah,” answered Allison.

Miri kicked the water, making it steam. “I could’ve played with them!”

Allison laughed. People were too good for her sister.

There was a sound like a mountain being cut down. Children cheered around the ice-giant’s carcass.

David exploded out of the water between Miri and Allison, causing both girls to stumble backwards. “Allie! You missed the best part!”

Miri frowned. “I really don’t get why Louise likes you.”

Allison smiled. “She’s not lending you her body again.” 

Eventually, people from the four corners of the party gathered around the birthday cake: a fifteen-foot monster in the shape of Freedom Point. Four hundred odd voices sung “Happy Birthday.” Allison and David cut the cake with sharpened fingers of ice, and extinguished the ten candles with floating water-droplets. 

“I don’t think that’s how you get a birthday wish,” commented Arnold.

Allison shrugged and smiled. “I don’t need em’.” 

That was a lie, of course. Allison had at least two wishes.

After that, it was time to unwrap the presents. There were less than you might’ve thought. It wasn’t as though people tended to come to Catalpa with much. Mostly, David and Allison received trinkets. Handicrafts. Old bank notes. Pretty much every one of David’s presents included shorts or shirts:

“Ha. Ha.”

Fred Barnes got Allison a book on origami: 

“How’d you know I don’t know how to do that?”

Fred smiled crookedly. “Because I’ve seen you doing it, girl.”

Despite some very politely worded discouragement, Ocean himself had brought a present for his grandson: a dead false killer whale. 

He dropped the dead, unmarred dolphin wet and dripping in front of David. 

“Eat this and grow strong, my child.”

David looked at Arnold’s mother. “Can you cut up dolphins, Mrs Barnes?”

Angela hissed through her teeth. “I can try…” 

Mabel gave her gifts last. They were both very flat and square.

Arnold wrinkled his nose. “You said you weren’t getting them anything!”

Mabel poked her tongue at Arnold. “Yeah, because you’d try to say one of them was yours.”

Allison unwrapped hers first. It was a painting of her clad in knightly armour in front of Freedom Point, holding aloft a gleaming sword while a divine spotlight shone down on her.

Allison smiled and nodded appreciatively. “Nice.” 

Now gripped by suspense, David ripped the wrapping of his present, only to blink when he saw what Mabel had painted him. 

David and his mother sported and swam together through a green-blue ocean. Françoise was clearly laughing, holding her son’s ankle as he chased after silver fish. 

Mabel watched David stare at her painting, suddenly wondering if she should’ve waited till they weren’t in front of the entire town. “Ah, sorry if that’s—”

David hugged her. “Thank you.”

“…It was nothing.” 

“It wasn’t.”

Sarah Allworth put a hand on David’s shoulder. “Do you want us to hang it in my house. It’s very nice.”

David nodded. “That’d be nice.” He beckoned over the Ocean Beast. “Hey, Grandpa, come and look at this. It’s Mum!”

The crowd parted hurried as Grandfather Ocean misted through them, rematerializing at his grandson’s side. His dead, grey face lit with wonder at the sight of the painting. He looked at Mabel. “How did you… create my child again?”

Mabel shrugged. “I knew her a long time, sir.”

“…Thank you.”

Mabel didn’t know David’s grandfather knew that phrase.

David gently set the painting on the present table and clapped. “Cake. I want cake now.”

The party soon resumed, albeit with a more languid, cake-battened energy. Lily Nichols offered up her body to Miri, who promptly possessed a bowl of raspberry jelly. It was widely agreed to be a worthy sacrifice. 

Fantastic Space had transitioned to a bouncy, rose-tinted skyscape, which played host to a game of hide and seek. Allison was hiding behind a cumulonimbus cloud when Arnold crept up to Allison in his costume. He was carrying a cardboard box. 

“Hey Allie.”

Allison jerked. “Jeez, Arn, don’t sneak up on people dressed like that. You look like the Grim Reaper.”

Arnold smirked. “Okay, now I’m definitely going to do that.”

Allison pointed at the box. “What’s that?”

“Oh, yeah. So, I did getcha something. I just didn’t want to give it to you in front of everyone.” Arnold offered her the box. “Here.”

Alison took the box and looked inside. It contained two stuffed animals, and she recognized both of them. One of them was a grey rabbit called Mr. Wuzzler, the other a yellow bear called Miss Fluffers. The former had been a literal birthday present, given to her by her father the day she was born. The other was from the New Human Institute’s commonwealth of plush.

Allison found her eyes stinging with tears.

“I know we’re ten now and they’re for little kids, but I thought you’d… yeah.”

Allison looked up at Arnold. “How’d you get them?”

“Blancheflor helped. Miss Fluffers was in a plastic bag in some weird lab thing back at Circle’s End. Not sure what they thought a teddy bear was going to tell them about us…”

“But what about Mr. Wuzzler?”

Arnold stirred the clouds underfoot. “I um… I kinda snuck into your house. Your mum and dad haven’t changed your room at all.”

Allison stared at her friend. “You snuck into my house?”

Arnold threw his hands up. “I didn’t sneak. Blancheflor just teleported me in. I promise they didn’t see me. Your dad was at work at thing, and your mum was asleep—”

Allison shouted, “You saw my mum and didn’t tell me?”

“I didn’t want to spoil the surprise…”

“Who cares about the surprise?”

Billy appeared from around the crowd. “Found you!”

Allison turned on the tiger-boy and screamed, “Buzz-off!, Billy”

Billy jumped backwards and stammered, “I—I—sorry…”

Billy ran off, breaking into tears just on the edge of earshot. 

Arnold scowled. “Now look what you did—”

Allison turned around and took to the air. “Go steal more of my parents’ stuff.”

She flew back out into the canteen and through the ski-portal, up into the frigid grey clouds. 

Allison let the cold winds buffet her across the sky, clutching the box to her chest.

The girl wasn’t sure why she was so angry. It wasn’t like Arnold had been trying to hurt her, or her parents. He hadn’t broken anything. But she kept imagining her mother or father walking into her room, and seeing her oldest toy missing… 

But if they cared so bad about her stuffed rabbit so bad, if they missed Allison so much, then why weren’t they here yet?

Oh, for Christ’s sake, Alberto said from some locked down corner of her mind. You know exactly why.

Alberto screwed her eyes shut, trying to ignore Alberto and her own thoughts. She focused on the cold, and the wind, and—  

There was a note in the air. A note of living music. Not a whole song. It was to a song what a candle flame was to a forest fire. But it came from everywhere, like the background din of the universe. 

Curious, and desperate for distraction, Allison grabbed onto the note—  

For the first time in Allison’s life, she saw the clouds for what they were. A vast, interconnected sphere dancing above the world. She could sense where it opened, where it wept. She could see the intermolecular bonds and ionic forces that made up every drop of water… 

Twin ruby beams erupted from Allison’s eyes, blasting into a bank of clouds and scattering it like feathers. 

Allison forced the note out of her own song, breathing heavily.

The music was gone. The sky was empty. 

So were hands.

Allison looked down. The box and the stuffed toys were falling through the sky.

Allison squeaked and dived, just managing to intercept the teddy-bear and rabbit. She found herself clinging to them for dear life.

Not for the first time that night, Allison was confused. She also knew being stupid.

Arnold was talking to David at the snack table.

“…It was so weird! I know she likes that stupid rabbit. She brought it on sleepovers.”

David shrugged, sucking some lemon cordial through a straw. “Yeah, Allie can be crazy sometimes.”

Arnold narrowed his eyes at his friend. “You actually going to eat that dolphin for your birthday?”

“Yeah. Why wouldn’t I.”

“…Okay.”

Someone hugged him from behind. 

“I’m sorry,” said Allison. “It was a good present.”

“I know,” was all Arnold said.

It was a good birthday.    

Previous Chapter Next Chapter


1. Not that that would’ve worked.

2. It would be some years before Daniel O’Connor shook his original supernym. In later years, he’d sometimes be known as Doctor Dream.

3. Aside from Joseph Allworth’s twenty-first.

4. This game would come to be called “Giants and Jacks.”

A note on the recent hiatus and other developments (1/09/2020)

So, some of you attentive followers might’ve noticed a drought of chapters during the month of August. There’s a few reasons for that. One, I and my editor have both been dealing with some hassles. Two, I’ve been having issues with energy and motivation. Writer’s block stuff. Something that’s helped with that, though, is working on a side-project, namely a probably three part fantasy/horror novella I’m tentatively calling Wise Blood, which will probably be posted to Royal Road or somewhere once we’ve got the next chapter of The Utopians out the door. It’s unrelated to The New Humans but think of it as a fill in arc. A fill in arc released alongside the next regular installment. It makes sense if you don’t think about it.

Thank you for the understanding, I promise to get back on track as soon as possible.

Chapter Ninety-Three: The Mirror People

It was kindness that drove Sandra Pritchard to Catalpa. Her entire working life had been spent tending to the sick and hurting. She was a nurse and a midwife—welcoming and bidding farewell to hundreds of souls. 

Sandra also had a side-business. A charity, really. She never charged more than a token fee. 

Sandra Pritchard helped women who didn’t want to be pregnant. Others might have called it ugly work, but not Sandra. It was medicine, no matter what the nuns and the old men they scrapped before said. Sandra Pritchard saved lives, if only by keeping her instruments clean and sterile. It was more than could be said for other operations.  

She helped mothers and daughters; wives and prostitutes; any woman who didn’t want a baby.

If Sandra were to guess, it was probably one of those women who sent the police to her door.

“I try not to be angry,” she said over late night drinks at Libertalia1. “Don’t always manage it, but I try.”

Sandra had had to leave her flat through the bathroom window, carrying only her purse and the clothes on her back. She imagined she would’ve been on the streets or in lockup before the week was up if she hadn’t remembered what was going down in Elder Park. The supers were whisking away any and all comers to the edge of the world.

And so they had. Good thing, too. Turned out they needed a nurse.

The little boy whimpered as Nurse Sandy slid the needle into his vein. She stroked his brow with her thumb as she depressed the syringe.

“Shhh, there we are. Everything’s fine.”

The boy’s breathing evened out as the sedative spread through him. 

Good. Now Sandy could figure out how to help him. 

The nurse surveyed Freedom Point infirmary. Over a dozen patients lay cradled in beds like open Bakelite clamshells, thousands of tiny tongues2 licking at their skin. As a nurse, Sandra could see the utility. She never had to worry about bedsores. As a human being, though, she never felt completely okay with them. The fact they could close didn’t help.

Dr. Beak glided across the chrome steel floor. He was seven feet tall, his inner mechanisms hidden by a billowing black robe. His face was a birdlike silver plague mask.

“All patients are comfortably numb, ma’am,” the robot said in a broad Southern drawl, his glass eyes flashing with every word.   

It was clear the Flying Man had never intended his mechanical medic for public eyes. 

“Thank you, Doc,” said Nurse Sandy. She lit a cigarette and took a puff, only to feel her skin begin to tingle. “Doc Beak!”

A red glow died in the robot’s eyes. “No lung cancer yet, Nurse. Although I would advise you to take those outside in the interest of patient safety.”

Before Sandy could try vocally programming some bedside manner into the doctor, an egg-portal bloomed in the middle of the infirmary. Her posture straightened reflexively as the Crimson Comet stepped through, Allison Kinsey in tow. 

It was no surprise, really. Portals were more common in her infirmary than almost anywhere else in Catalpa. Even forgetting the mirror-folk, a town full of super-children had its fair share of accidents, and the portals made superb ambulances. Sandra did wish they’d use the corner they’d cleared for them, though.

The Comet nodded at Sandy. “Nurse Pritchard.”

“Comet,” the nurse replied. 

Everyone in Catalpa by then knew the Crimson Comet’s real name, but hardly anyone could bring themselves to call him “Ralph” or “Mr. Rivers” while he was in uniform. It would be like calling the Pope “Paulie.”

Nurse Sandy turned to Allison and affected a smile. “Happy birthday, Allie.”

Allison didn’t answer the woman, instead casting her burning eyes about the ward. Fifteen people, just as Ralph had told her. All asleep. Good. Sometimes Catalpa frightened the mirror-people when they weren’t eased into things. A Romanian super-girl had screamed when she spotted Allison. Poor kid thought she was a vampire. 

Is she wrong? Alberto had jeered inside Allison. 

Every common human colour was represented in this batch. In age they ranged from a fifty year old woman to a sleeping baby. Allison heard the echoes of half a dozen languages in their songs. Five of them were superhuman. Their bright roar nearly drowned out the embryonic melody coming together a few floors up.

Allison shook her head. She had to wait.

She looked up at Ralph. “Where’d these ones come from?”

“Rhonda Leavence3 found them in the women’s changing room at the pool.”

Allison nodded. “That makes sense.”

They always came from mirrors. Clairvoyance once let Allison watch their arrival through a mirrored wardrobe door. Haggard refugees from the border of Looking Glass Land and Narnia. 

The last man had been gently pushed through by a pair of slender hands. Bruised hands.

“Any of them hurt bad?”

The nurse sighed. “Only the usual. Most of them are badly bruised, half of them are malnourished.”

Dr. Beak added, “All patients exhibited signs of persistent stress. The cortisol in their blood would give Dracula a nervous breakdown.”

That wasn’t surprising. When the mirror-people were in a fit state to speak, not one of them reported lives of comfort. They were prisoners; modern slaves; the weak and abused. 

“Two exceptions,” said Sandra. “Not to the stress, so the doctor tells me, but physically speaking, they’re both pristine. A bit too healthy, in fact.” 

“Which ones?” asked Allison.

Nurse Pritchard walked over to the baby bed. He was one of the supers. His song was like if harps worked as looms. “Him, thank God. Except… he’s healthy, but…” Gently, she picked the child up, holding him against her breast. “Look.”

Allison peered at the baby. On the back of his neck, a silver pentagram shone against light olive skin. Its lines were composed of delicate, interwoven script, as though the tattooist had inked the feet of ants. 

Allison’s friend Tom Long still bore the shadow of such a mark.

“The Coven,” Allison said quietly.

“A baby,” said Sandra. She shook her head. “Bunch of animals.”

The Coven were rapidly becoming the most prominent and organized supervillain team in Australian history. The five—or as of late, four—of them ruled organized crime on the west coast, and only the Devil knew how far their reach extended. 

One thing was for sure, they were leaders in the superhuman slave trade. Herbert Lawrence had liberated (well, purchased) Tom from them. A few of the supers who’d fled to Catalpa since its founding had escaped from their hands. Others had been covenantor spies. Not that they’d known that themselves.

“The other one is from the Coven too,” said Dr. Beak. “No surprise. My gene-sifter says she’s the boy’s mother.”

“Mother?”

Allison looked towards the mechanical doctor. He was standing at the bedside of a young woman—not even twenty by the looks of her. She had heavy-lidded eyes and thick, dark honey hair. Her song was a rainstorm of every strain of matter. Clouds weeping tears of glass and gold. 

It was funny. Sometimes, a sound could be so constant in your life for so long, you hardly noticed its return:

“Lana,” said Allison.

That was the name the girl’s parents had given her. Herbert Lawrence had called her Ex-Nihilo.

“You know her?” asked the Comet. “Was she one of Lawrence’s?”

“Yes,” answered Allison. “One of the first after Mels and them.”

“God,” said Ralph. “First Lawrence, then the Coven. Poor thing.”

Allison strode over to her old schoolmate. “I’m gonna check her memory,” she said. “See if she got a good look at who got her out of there.”

“You sure?” asked Nurse Pritchard. “This girl’s clearly… suffered.”

Allison had tried this before with a mirror person. A Vietnamese woman, pulled from a sweep of her village by US forces. She’d come back to herself screaming of men and broken bottles.

“Gotta be done,” said Allison, taking Lana’s hand.

“Does it?” asked Sandra.   

Allison shrugged. “I want to know. Least with Lana I know what to expect.”

Allison closed her eyes. “Mind the shop, Miri.”

Allison’s costume glowed and reformed into a pearlescent one-piece. Miri opened her eyes and grinned around the infirmary.

“Hi everybody!”

The shop bell jingled as Allison stepped out from the glare into the dusty record store. She found Alberto swigging a bottle of red behind the counter. 

When Allison started constructing herself a proper mind-palace, a music store had only seemed fitting. She had pressed her knowledge into books of sheet-music and her memories onto vinyl records in lushly illustrated sleeves. A little girl covered in wheatpaste running shrieking through a school playground. A jumbled pile of fantasy and children’s paperbacks. Allison and David swimming together through an aquamarine sea.  

She had shelves devoted to her parents, her friends; her life before and after starting school; and before and after the freak-finders got her and Arnold. Two shelves were given over to memories of the New Human Institute: ‘Good’ and ‘Bad’. 

To her surprise, the former was more crowded than the latter.   

He grinned woozy acid at the girl. “Allie! Big day today, isn’t it?” The psychic half-danced, half-staggered out onto the shag-carpet. “God, ten years years old, already.” He looked her up and down. “Few more birthdays and you won’t be able to see your feet.”

Allison glowered at her unwanted prisoner. “Shut it, Alberto. I’m busy.”

“Taking a break from pashing4 David and Arn? You know that’s just giving Bertie what he wanted.”

“Who cares? He’s dead. Also, can’t see Arnold and David having babies.”

“Fair point. Do as you feel, love the one you’re with and all that.”

Alberto was being unusually jolly, even for when he gorged himself on the memory of wine. Probably thinking about Maude’s project, Allison decided.

Alberto sucked his lips. “First Tom and Louise, now ol’ Lana. You sure one of your subjects doesn’t have coincidence powers?”

Allison put her hands on her hips. “They’re not my ‘subjects’, Alberto.” 

The esper snorted. “Allie, they made your birthday a national holiday. Only other lady I know who gets that treatment is the Queen.”

“Whatever you say,” said Allison, walking past a rack of records dedicated to girls she didn’t like. “You coming?”

“Sure,” said Alberto. “Been cooped up here for ages.”

The two made their way to a door at the back of the store. It opened out onto a vast crescent of light fixed in a starless void. Its edge was rimmed by hundreds more doors, in all colours and shapes. The one unifying element were the bronze plaques affixed to each. The names of everyone in Catalpa5

Allison and Alberto walked to their left, past the minds of Ralph, Sandra, and Maude Simmons. The Crimson Comet’s door was a rusty ship’s hatch. Nurse Pritchard’s was dark brown wood with frosted glass panels engraved with bluebirds. Mistress Quickly’s door, perhaps unsurprisingly, appeared to be a very oddly shaped plasma-globe. 

They soon reached a new door. It was made of heavy black wood and carved with roses. Lana Firrens’ name was surrounded by a ring of gold circles. 

“You put way too much effort into presentation,” said Alberto. “Who’s it for?”

“Me,” answered Allison. She pulled a skeleton key out of nothing and slipped it into the door’s lock. 

“And what’s the point of that?”

You.”

The door opened. Allison and Alberto stepped into Lana’s mind.

They were standing on the shore of a cavernous underground lake. The black waters swarmed blue and white with glowing plankton. Swimming constellations. 

With no comment or gesture, a wooden rowboat rose from the water. Allison boarded the small vessel, settling in the back seat. 

She called back to Alberto, “You’re rowing.”

The reluctant gondolier muttered foul insults at the girl as he clumsily boarded the boat, taking up an oar and pushing them off onto the tides of memory.

They rowed towards the centre of the lake, where Allison knew instinctively the freshest memories lay. She may not have known the territory of Lana’s mind, but she knew the map.  

There was a hole in the stony sky there, through which poured a glowing cataract. It was Lana’s mind’s eye, the sieve of senses and biases that filtered the outside world for her. Allison’s took the shape of a wireless radio. Alberto was a dumbwaiter in his vast wine-cellar.

The flow was light right now. No surprise: Lana was sleeping. That water was all dreams.

While Alberto played Charon, Allison peered over the side boat, watching the water for memory. 

In many ways, the lake was a more honest space than Allison’s record shop. Memories weren’t LPs that played the same every time you put them on. They were a bin of props people used to try and recreate their lives, with only themselves for reference. Play scripts with fading letters, staged by actors who couldn’t stop ad libbing. 

The records helped Allison keep her memories from drifting, but they didn’t make them any more “honest.” She’d just placed them under glass. But at least she had them. At least she could still hear her mother’s voice.

You’re being dumb, Allison told herself. They’ll come. You’ve made it so easy.  

The star-plankton formed into tables and chairs as tall as trees. 

Baby stuff. 

A star falling from a blue sky, somehow clear as day beneath the black water. 

She’s not gonna be Superman’s big sister, is she? 

A blackened crater smoking in a field of golden grass. Childish hands waving fractal stones that blurred and smeared the world behind them. 

“Lawrence spent a lot of time and money trying to find those space rocks,” commented Alberto. “A miracle-cure for normalcy was always one of his fantasies.” 

“Should’ve asked the Physician,” said Allison, thinking back to his educator-crown and taxidermied goddess. 

The Flying Man’s mother, she remembered. They were both gone now…

“Be glad he didn’t find them,” said Alberto. “Mad git would’ve mixed them into your Weet-Bix.”He stopped rowing. “Fox’s calling card, six o’clock.”

Allison scurried to the bow of the boat. A machine made of shadows towered over them—a hybrid of industrial water-purifier and octopus. 

A safeguard by the Fox: the Coven’s apparent leader. Near as Allison could tell, the man wasn’t exactly a telepath. More a hypnotist. He could instill phobias stronger than life and death, or prime a man to turn homicidal if they heard a certain phrase in a crowded room.

God, that had been a mess.

“I’m guessing you’ll want to take care of that?”

Allison burst into blue and violet flames. A boil of lava bubbled into existence in her right hand. She hurled it like a discus at the shadow-machine. 

The thing went up like dry paper, shrieking and flailing as it burned and crumbled into the water.

“Christ, kid, you could’ve just wished the thing to death,” said Alberto.

Allison ignored him. Sometimes you had to spice things up. 

Out the corner of her eye, she spotted a new image in the water. Lana—as she was out there in real space—lying in what looked like a posh hotel room. 

Allison’s flames went out. “I think I found what we’re looking over for.”

She let herself fall backwards into the lake. 

A moment of bracing cold gave way to a syrupy, narcotic warmth. Allison found herself standing by Lana’s bed. 

They were in a penthouse. The sort of place Allison didn’t think you could physically exist in unless you were wearing a sparkling evening gown. For whatever reason, there was a full length mirror only a few feet in front of the queen-sized bed. 

Lana was breathing slowly on top of the covers, her eyelids fluttering. Clearly drugged.

The ghosts of words brushed Allison. “The baby,” “Mockery,” and “auction.”

Allison shivered, remembering the story Tom once told around the fire back at the Institute. 

Lana groaned as movement drew Allison’s eyes to the mirror. She had no reflection in it, but it would’ve been stranger if she had. But there was a woman, covered head to toe in dark blue fabric, walking towards the bed. 

She was cradling a baby.

Allison found herself holding her breath. This was the clearest look she’d ever got at the Mirror Mistress. Or whatever she was called. 

Lana was whimpering. The light of the room became tinged with fear, but no surprise. 

The Mirror Mistress raised a hand. Black cloth covered everything up to her nose, and the rest of her face was concealed by mirrored-sunglasses. “It’s okay, Ex-Nihilo. I’m getting you out of here.”

Lana’s eyes widened at the sight of her son.  She tried to raise herself, only to fall back against her pillow. 

The Mirror-Mistress rushed to her bedside, right through Allison’s image. Still holding the baby in one arm, she hoisted up Lana with the other.

The young woman tried to speak, but her rescuer shushed her. “Don’t talk. Just walk.”

Allison watched as they made their way slowly over to the mirror, Lana leaning against the Mirror-Mistress. 

The woman was limping. Her fingers were blotched blue like a painter’s. Every step seemed to send a wince shooting up her.

But still, she kept on walking. 

The penthouse refracted, shattering. Allison opened her eyes back in the infirmary just in time to see the sleeves of her costume flowing back over her arms.

“What’d you see?” asked Ralph.

“Definitely a woman,” said Allison. “Some sort of superhero.”

“I thought we already knew that,” commented Dr. Beak.

“Pretty much,” said Allison. “But she knew Lana’s name. Her other name.”

Previous Chapter                                                                                                            Next Chapter


1. Catalpa’s first tavern.

2. The sickbay was one of Dr. John Smith’s contributions to Circle’s End Supermax.

3. A former Melbourne villainess known as “the Canary”, suspected for the murders of seven gangland figures with serrated implements throughout the early 1950s.

4. Australian slang for kissing. Compare “snogging” in the United Kingdom.

5. As well as some residents of nearby Yolngu communities.

Chapter Ninety-Two: Allison Kinsey in the Big Ten

“WORLD WAR THREE?” 

Jan Walters was trying not to look at her mother’s copy of the Sydney Morning Herald. It was her umpteenth thoundsanth reminder that day that something awful was brewing. That week. That month. That whole stinking year. 

“Can you put that down, Mum?” she asked. “I’m trying to watch TV.”

Tess Yullis (née Rivers) looked over her paper at her daughter. Hamlet’s ghostly reflection played across her eyeglasses1. “I wasn’t aware my eyes were so noisy, love.”

“It’s… antisocial.”

Mrs Yullis tutted. “Bradbury was right.”

“Don’t be a snob, Mum! For crying out loud, we’re watching Shakespeare!”

“Don’t you take that tone with me!” snapped Tess, instantly making a child of her daughter again. “What’s going on with you?”

Jan sighed. “It’s nothing. Sorry.”

Nothing thickening into something. Jan was sick of the war, and it hadn’t even started yet. Its battles were waged with heart-stopping headlines and terse newscasts. For now. It took Jan back to the very beginning of her memory. When her father and uncle both went away. When every radio sang of far off horrors.

It could be worse, Jan told herself. At least they didn’t have to worry about nukes. Life could survive this war. It still made Jan angry. It’d only taken twenty-one years for the world to run back towards the brink. Just enough time to rear a new brood of soldiers… 

Thou know’st ’tis common; all that lives must die, Passing through nature to— ”

Hamlet’s voice slurred into static. The blue-white glare of the television flushed with colour. 

Tess lowered her paper and chuckled. “They really ought to start pre-empting this show.”

The image resolved. The Crimson Comet appeared on the screen. And he was crimson. On a black and white TV2.

He was standing on a white-sanded spit of beach in front of a rocky, tree-crowned hill, his metal wings spread out. Moonstone waters bordered him on either side beneath a perfect blue sky.

Jan’s mood brightened instantly. The world might be trapped in history, but at least her uncle could be a hero again. 

The Comet wasn’t alone. To his right was a grey-eyed, witch-shaped woman in a forest green dress-suit and cloche hat.

To his left, a rainbow clad little girl with hot coals for eyes.

“Good lord,” said Mrs Yullis. “It’s like they’re rubbing it in with the colour.”

“Shh.”

Jan had seen it five times before in the past eight months, but it was still a thrill.

The Comet gave the camera an offhand salute. “G’day, Australia. Crimson Comet here. Me and my friends here would like to tell you about Catalpa3.”

The girl waved brightly. “I’m Allison!”

“She’s a cute kid,” commented Jan.

“Didn’t she hold a bunch of people hostage in Melbourne?”

Oh, right, she did do that. Oh well, she could still be cute. Far away from her children.

The woman gave a curt nod. “Angela Barnes.”

The Comet continued, “For a lot of us supers, it’s been a rough few years. I know a lot of us who’ve been hassled within an inch of their lives.”

Allison chimed in, “So me and my friends have set up a place where any super who’s not really horrible can live and have fun!” There was a beat, then the girl blurted, “And their families! Especially their parents!”

She was still smiling, but Jan thought she saw something in her fiery eyes. Something pleading. 

“She’s an orphan,” said Mrs Yullis. “Or might as well be. Ralph said so in a letter.”

Poor thing.

“As Allison was saying,” said Mrs Barnes, “Catalpa is not just open to super-people. We welcome anyone who needs somewhere to go.”

“If that sounds like charity, it’s not,” said Ralph. “We’ve got a lot going on, and every hand is a big help.” He grinned waggishly. “Besides, company’s good for the soul, isn’t it?”

Angela explained, “First week of every month, we collect prospective residents—”

“And visitors!” cried Allison. “We don’t mind those!”

Angela shot Allison a glance. She clammed up. 

“Yes, we do accept visitors, so long as they have basic manners.”

“Now,” said the Comet, “some of you might be saying, ‘A city full of supers? How are you still standing?’ Well, don’t worry:”

The ocean rumbled. A titan of water rose up from the sea behind the hill. It slammed great, translucent fists down onto the rocks, swamping them in white foam.

“We have very good security.”

Angela cleared her throat as if a water god wasn’t towering behind her. “Pick-up dates and locations to follow.”

Allison waved again. “See you soon!”

Mabel Henderson woke when the black of sleep turned red with sunlight. She was in her bedroom. Well, technically it was the Barnes’ guest room, but by now it was hers four nights out of five. It’d been years since she had her own room (that wasn’t a cell on an alien starship). It made her feel like royalty. And she had a bed. One that didn’t hang from the ceiling, just like grown-ups had. It didn’t matter that the walls were sheet-metal torn from prison floors and the ceiling iridescent carnival glass; in fact, that last thing was definitely a plus.

Mrs Barnes’ commanding voice rippled through her curtain door, “Mabel, breakfast!”

“Coming!”

Mabel rushed out into the shanty’s little kitchen and took her usual place at the table. Pork and cinnamon spiced steam shrouded the ceiling. Arnold and Mr. Barnes were already attacking their breakfasts.

“Morning, Mabs!” Arnold answered through a mouthful of pancake and bacon. 

“Don’t talk and chew,” Mrs Barnes snapped as she put Mabel’s plate in front of her.

Arnold swallowed. “Sorry Mum.”

Angela sat down with her own breakfast. “Don’t apologize to me, you were talking to Mabel.”

Arnold nodded and looked at his friend. “Sorry Mabel.”

Mabel nodded gravely. “I forgive you.”

Silence. The children broke into giggles. 

Angela hummed in her throat. 

“Lighten up, Ang,” said Fred. “Don’t want to scare Mabel away, do we?”

Fred liked Mabel. He’d never seen himself with a daughter, but he found it suited him. Or at least, Mabel suited him. 

Plus, sometimes the leg braces she conjured let him play football again. 

Angela liked her a lot, too. Very down to earth. More importantly, she preferred her son playing with her than— 

“You got anything for Dave and Allison’s birthdays?” Arnold asked Mabel.

Mabel shrugged. “Not really?” 

“The party’s tonight!”

“Did you get them something?”

“…No,” admitted Arnold. 

“What do you even get for them? Dolphin food?”

“Another super?” Arnold suggested. 

“A sense of perspective?” Angela muttered.

Arnold grinned. “She has telepathy, Mum.”

“She should use it more, then.”

“She’s very… in herself,” remarked Fred. He shook his head. “God, it’s like when your brothers stopped wanting presents and started asking for money.”

Angela sighed resignedly. “Don’t take His name in vain.” 

Arnold looked back and forth between his parents. “Wait, you can get money for your birthday?”

“Your father said they asked for it, not that they got it,” said Angela. “We sent them to university instead.”

“Didn’t stop them from whining.”

“Can I get money?” 

“Nope” answered Fred.

Come on…”  

“Eye of the needle,” Angela reminded her son, “eye of the needle.”

Mabel laughed. Was this what families looked like? “What would you even do with money? We live in a pirate town!” Mabel prodded her pancakes with her fork. “Uncle Fred, Auntie Angela, how’d you get the honey for these?”

“I fixed Mr. Carlson4’s motorbike,” Fred replied. “Bloody big-brains in the tower couldn’t be bothered with it…”

“Fred!”

“Don’t tell me you haven’t thought it too,” said Fred. “How long did it take them to set up your cold room?” 

“Two days.” 

“Because they wanted sausages. But I want my chair electrified, suddenly I’m on a waiting list!”

“See?” said Mabel. “Favours are where it’s at.”

Fred thumped the table with the hilt of his butter-knife. “You listen to this girl, Arn!”

Mabel beamed

“Smartest thing I ever did was—”

A golden phantom rushed through the east well. Allison Kinsey appeared in her rainbow glory on top of the kitchen table. She was also bouncing.

“It’s my birthday! It’s my birthday—”   

Angela barked, “Allison! Not on the table!”

Allison yelped and jumped to the floor, but not even Mrs Barnes could dispel her excitement. 

She was ten. Ten whole years old. Two digits. After nine false starts, she was finally big

She cast her eyes wildly between Mabel and Arnold. “Come on, come on! Why are you still inside? It’s been my birthday for hours.”

Fred smiled fondly. “Happy birthday, Allie.”

“Thanks Mr. Barnes!” Allison—still hopping—turned to Angela. “Sorry about the table, Mrs Barnes.”

Angela glared at the muddy shoe prints left on her hard won honey oak table. “It’s alright, Allison.”

Forgiveness is Christian, Forgiveness is Christian. 

Allison went back to hounding her friends. “Come on, we still need to get David and Billy!”

“Alright, alright,” said Arnold. “Give me a sec.”

Angela winced as she watched Mabel and Arnold inhale the rest of their breakfast. She half expected one of them to choke. 

Arnold and Mabel set down their cutlery performatively at the same time, intoning together:

“Costume on!”

Fred and Angela both shut their eyes as a white flash replaced the children’s pyjamas with their super-suits. They watched the three run out the front door into the morning heat.

“Last year was not good for that girl,” griped Angela.

“Look at it this way,” said Fred, “At least she was dressed this time.” 

God, Angela worried about that girl.

⬖ 

The Watercolours burst out into Catalpa. The place had grown a lot in the last few months, but it was still hardly the sprawling metropolis Allison liked to paint it as: just a few hundred patchwork buildings radiating out semi-organically from the cross-sectioned ruins of the prison, each flowing into the next like metallic hedgerows. The streetlights were iron trees topped with solar panels, supplementing the ex-prison’s arcane power-source.

The whole town looked strangely autumnal. All reds, yellows and coppers. The Arnhem Land soil they pulled the ore from was shod through with rust. It had taken their resident geniuses a few tries to engineer a refinement process that didn’t require copious amounts of coal to remove the slag. There had been hiccups. So many that, for a time, they’d stuck to tin.

The place still managed to glimmer in the morning sun. And burn careless feet in the afternoon, at least until the shadow of the tower still embedded sideways in the ground like a crashed starship fell over it. They had renamed the thing Freedom Point. It was on the nose, but neither supervillains nor children are subtle.

Allison took off down what passed for the street. Mabel and Arnold struggled to keep up with her enhanced leg muscles. 

“Wait up, Allie!” Arnold shouted, before stopping to pant and clutch at his knees. “Bloody show-off…”

Mabel reached Arnold’s side, jogging in place. 

It was a hot day. For the Yolngu5, Arnhem Land had six seasons6. White folk saw no such nuance. Here, they said, there was only dry and wet. It’d been thundering in Catalpa since September, but it hadn’t felt a drop of rain. Only the weeping humidity flooding the air as the sky held her breath.

Allison loved it. She could taste the electricity on her tongue. It was like the world had its own song. 

People waved and said hello to her as she passed, always using her name. An old baseline man even took his hat off for her.

“Morning, Allison.”

“Happy birthday Allison!”

“See you at your party!”

Strangers knew her birthday. Proper strangers—not just ancient aunts and uncles from the other side of the country. It was still dizzying.

Allison vaulted over a large man carrying a crate of apples right before they would’ve collided, scooping one from the box as she sailed over him. 

“For God’s sake, Allison, watch where you’re going! And consider that your birthday present!”

Allison didn’t even know that bloke’s name. But he knew hers. 

Allison turned her ear to the leviathan of song that was Catalpa, searching for the notes that belonged to William St. George. She leapt and dived dolphin-like through the rough dirt paths that snaked through town. She rode mounts of vapour and blinked from solar-post to solar-post. She ran across the glassy rooftops, crossing the gaps without breaking her stride. Her costume shifted colours with every new power or glowed unrefracted white. 

The symphony of Catalpa—hundreds of players strong—lifted Allison like a swelling sea. She could do anything within it. Become anything. 

She was interrupted mid-thought by a mass of fur slamming into her side.

Allison fell to the dirt. Billy was standing over her, breathing heavily with a panicked smile while his tail gouged the air behind him. 

“Wha—”

Billy took off down the street. “Can’t talk!” he yelled. “Running for my life!”

Twenty kids were running (or flying or teleporting or bouncing) away from a little boy with violet hair. He snarled like a rabid dog and waved his arms over his head as he lunged after them.

Louise Michelson streaked past Allison as she clambered to her feet, yelling with laughter, “Don’t let him get you!” 

A sooty flame flashed in a window. The witch-boy Liam poked his head out and cried, “One touch is all it takes!”

Mabel and Arnold flew over the chaos on a flying carpet. Arnold peered over the edge.

“Has someone got nits7 again?” 

The shunned boy caught sight of the carpet. He hissed, leaping on and grabbing hold of Arnold’s neck.

“Ahhh!”

The boy grinned. “You’re—”

The same grin jumped across to Arnold’s face. “—Me!”

The purple-headed child yelped and bailed off the side of the carpet. 

Mabel rolled her eyes, only for Arnold to grab her hand.

“You’re it!”

The boy shuddered as he got a hold of himself again. Mabel was shaking with giddiness, eyes darting about for a new target.

Below them, Allison looked inside Mabel’s mind. The girl’s thoughts were caged by a Dyson shell of alien lights. 

Oh, Miri-chasee. 

She flew up to the carpet. “Hey Miri.”

Mabel beamed at Allison. She pulled the still hovering girl into a hug. “Happy birthday, sis!” She released her from the hug, stumbling a step backwards as Miri molted off her.

Miri grinned around at her friends. After Mistress Quickly had loudly pointed out to her that she was literally all appearances, she’d started dressing her ghostly corpus. She usually tended towards an iridescent, monochrome one-piece. Or as she called it, “cool kid clothes.”

“Happy Allie’s birthday, guys!”

Mabel rubbed her temples. “We weren’t in the game, Miri.”

Miri frowned, abashed. “I’m sorry. Got excited.”

“S’alright,” Arnold said, lying on his back. “Least you didn’t make me eat anything gross this time.” 

“What’s wrong with peppers?” asked Miri. “They’re tongue-fire!” She turned to her sister. “Oh, Allie! Louise says she’ll let me use her body for a bit at the party!”

Allison still found it surprising other kids were so willing to let Miri borrow their persons when she asked. They’d made what Alberto did to her into a game.

Or maybe it wasn’t so surprising. As if Miri ever wouldn’t give you back to yourself.

Allison gave her a small smile. “Nice of her, but you could always use ours. I won’t mind.”

Miri cocked her head. “But it’s your birthday. What’d be the point if you’re not there?”

Why didn’t Miri mind her situation as much as Allison did? 

She shook her head.

Maude’ll fix us soon.

“Yeah, you’re right. Let’s go find David.”

⬗ 

The crocodile rocketed out of the water, only to be caught mid-air by a new geyser spewing up from the river below, its own home turned against it. The creature thrashed and snapped its long jaws, bellowing and gurgling, all it could do to try and escape the liquid tendrils clasped around its scaly trunk. Nothing in the reptile’s dim web of instinct and memory could account for this bizarre interruption of its slow, quiet wait for prey.  

A naked, nut-brown boy with bright green eyes was standing on a column of water eye-level with the crocodile, jeering and poking his tongue out at it. 

“What’s wrong? Can’t get me?”

The beast whipped its tail and clawed thin air, trying to lunge at the child. Pure instinct, of course. Nothing in its narrow, predatory mind could’ve told it this boy was the cause of its troubles.

David Barthe (sometimes Venter) frowned. He turned around towards the riverbank, paying the crocodile no mind. 

“Sarah!” he cried, enunciating both syllables. “You’re not looking.” 

Sarah Allworth—reclining in her deck chair on the white clay shore—turned the page of her Woman’s Day. Eucalyptus trees cast a web of shadows over her sundress. 

“Sarah!”

Sarah lowered her sunglasses. “Yes, David, that one’s quite big.”

David bowed grandly. “Thank you, thank you, I’m here all week.”

David and the crocodile fell back into the river. The water broiled.

Sarah wasn’t worried. Nothing in the river could be more terrible than that boy. 

It hadn’t taken long for Sarah to formally move to Catalpa. Even though Joe had moved out years ago, the family home felt suddenly empty. She never knew how much the possibility of his presence still filled that house. Lyonesse was even worse. It reminded her how little she’d even known him. So she told Blanceflor to keep the lights on, handed the store to her nephew, and let the super-people build her a house without ghosts. 

Sarah had never thought she would retire overseas, but she was glad it was somewhere warm. She liked to think Joe would admire the move: helping build something new. And it was good to be surrounded by young people. 

The water sprite marched proudly out of the river. The crocodile bobbed to the surface behind him, trapped in a block of ice like a fly in amber.  

Even David.     

“Isn’t that cruel?” Sarah asked cooly. 

David glanced back at his trophy. “…It tried to eat me.”

“Touché.”

“Besides, they make it so the others can’t swim where they want! It’s not fair!”

Well, at least the sentiment’s there. 

David didn’t live with Sarah. He was very insistent about that. He just slept in her spare bedroom when he didn’t feel like napping in the sea. And had dinner with her. And sometimes she read him bedtime stories. Or hugged him when the nightmares came back. 

“I’m surprised you don’t want your own party,” said Sarah. “You’re really fine sharing the spotlight?”

David flopped down onto the dirt, basking in the sun like a seal. “Why wouldn’t I? I love Allie. Birthdays are for humans anyway. Besides, way more people are going to pay attention to me if I’m with Allison.” He smiled brightly. “We make Arn blush. It’s funny.”

Sarah allowed herself a laugh. “Don’t have anything planned for your actual birthday?”

David quirked his shoulders. “Dunno. Go swimming with Grandfather?”

“That sounds nice. I was thinking maybe I could teach you pinochle?” 

“…I could do both.”

“Hi!”

David and Sarah looked up. The rest of the Watercolours were descending through the trees on their flying Bokhara. They landed in front of the pair, Billy scrambling off the carpet and launching himself at David.

“Happy not-birthday, David!”

David hugged the tiger-boy back. “Thanks, mate.”

He let go of Billy and stepped grandly towards Allison. “Bonjour, birthday-pal.”

David kissed Allison’s hand, only for her to bend down and return it on his cheek.

Arnold did, in fact, blush. 

David spun over and kissed him too. “Lighten up, Arn.” 

Mabel laughed and quoted Arnold’s father, “Damn hippies.”

“Careful, David,” said Sarah. “You know how Mrs Barnes feels.”

David groaned. “Mrs Barnes isn’t here.”

“Still.”

Billy caught sight of the frozen crocodile. “Ooh, is that from the ice-age? I heard crocodiles were super old.”

“Nope!” said David. He clapped a hand over his bicep. “It tried messing with me!”

Billy put his hands on his hips and frowned. “You shouldn’t be mean to animals.”

“It’s a crocodile, they’re scary!”

“People think tigers are scary, too.”

David retorted, “A crocodile would totally eat a tiger if they got the chance, bud.” He looked at Allison. “Double-check, I still don’t have to wear pants tonight, do I?”

Mrs Allworth silently rolled her eyes. 

“Only inside,” said Allison. “I had to fight Mrs Barnes pretty hard for that, so consider it your birthday present.”

“You know, David,” said Sarah, “I think you look very smart in your super-suit.”

David smirked. “I know, but some of us don’t need decoration.”


Arnold swished his starry cloak around himself. “I mean, if you’re fine with being plain.”

Miri flowed around David’s body, scowling. “I still want to know why you’re hogging Allie’s birthday.”

“We’re sharing our birthday, Miri,” Allison corrected her sister. “It makes it more fun.”

“You’d think you would get sharing,” added David. 

Miri glanced over at Billy. “Billy, slap him for me.”

Billy promptly obeyed, claws sheathed. 

David staggered backwards. “Really, Billy?”

Billy smiled sideways at Miri, “Sorry David, but you never turn down a lady.”

A note was struck. A 3D, ovoid piece of somewhere else bloomed in the air next to Mrs Allworth’s chair. Climate controlled air played at the corner of Arnold and Billy’s capes.

The Crimson Comet stepped out of the portal, in full-costume.

“Morning, Mr. Rivers,” said Sarah. “What’s the word?”

“I’m here for Allison,” the superhero said solemnly. He looked at the girl. “There’s been another delivery.”

Allison snapped to attention. “How many?”

“About fifteen this time. Mostly women and children. We could use your… insight.”

“You can say telepathy,” said Allison. “It’s not rude.”

“Right,” said Ralph. He jabbed a thumb at the portal, “Shall we take the short way?”

“Do you want us to come?” asked Arnold. “We could help!”

“It’s fine,” said Allison, walking towards the rent in space. “You guys keep playing.”

The portal collapsed behind Ralph and Allison. Miri blinked away. The rest of the children were left with the sound of the river flowing behind them.

David glanced back at the crocodile. “Hey, Billy, you think…”  

Previous Chapter                                                                                                            Next Chapter


1. As portrayed by Laurence Olivier in a British production of the eponymous play, aired in Australia as part of the anthology Wednesday Theatre in September 1966.

2. Colour television would not be introduced to Australia until 1975.

3. Named for the whaling ship used to rescue six Irish Fenian convicts from Fremantle in 1876. Other names considered included “Libertalia,” “New Atlantis,” “Kinseytown,” and “Super-Mega-Ultra-ville.”

4. Formerly the Road King.

5. An aggregation of Aboriginal Australian clans residing in north-eastern Arnhem Land.

6. Gurnmul; Mirdawarr; Dhaarratharramirri; Rarranhdharr; Worlmamirri; and Baarramirri; each covering about two months of the western calendar.

7. Commonwealth for lice.

The Worst Godling

Howard Penderghast’s black Chevrolet Corvette 1 raced across the deep Mediterranean sky. The alien child who called herself Linda flew ahead of the car, laying down an aurorae road in her wake.

Blair squirmed in the passenger seat. Thankfully, Howard had acquired the boy more appropriate travelling clothes when they picked up the car from Penderghast house—if you considered a sky-blue polo-shirt and slightly too-short cotton trousers appropriate.    

“Mr. Penderghast, this shirt itches.”

“Yes,” replied Howard, “you get used to the discomfort.”

Penderghast wondered what time it was in Perth. When this was over, he ought to apologize to Blair’s parents. And possibly ask to adopt him. 

“If Linda can fly all naked, why can’t I wear my pyjamas?” 

Penderghast thought it over for a moment.

“Because I said so.”

That, he had learned from his siblings.

“But why are we taking a car? Linda could fly us both.”

Penderghast thumped the dashboard. “I’ll have you know this is a great machine. You’re lucky to ride in it.”

Mostly Howard wasn’t comfortable with Linda carrying him and his young mutant thousands of miles through the sky (while naked) and flying himself reminded the warlock too much of the dreams. All that aside, he’d been itching to take the Vett out for a spin. He’d gotten his license and enchanted the car only a week before he decided to join the army. A vulgar trick, his father had called it. The kind of burlesque modernity he’d have expected from a gauche hedge-wizard, not the seventh son of a seventh son. 

“Men of our station do not drive, Ward.”

That had cinched the deal for Howard, the same way it had him enlisting. And now he had all the time in the world to drive. Too much time… 

“Mr. Penderghast?”

“Yes, Blair?”

“You’re in the army, right?”

Oh. The boy paid attention. 

“That I am. Major in the US Army.”

It wasn’t quite a lie. More a simplification. Howard had never been formally discharged. He hadn’t resigned, either. He just… never went back.

“In Vi-et-nam?” the boy asked, pronouncing the country’s name with practised care. 

“Yep.”

“Do you know my big brother? Mum and Dad say he’s there too.”

Poor boy, Penderghast thought. Observant, but young enough to not realize how big the world was. Still, he had worked with Australian soldiers in his time.

“What’s his name?”

“Johnny,” the boy answered. “Johnny Wilder, same as me,” he added redundantly. “He’s really tall and has kinda yellowy hair?”

Penderghast gamely searched his memory for such a man. 

Nothing. 

“Don’t think so, son.”

Blair sank slightly in the cream leather passenger seat. “Oh. Thanks anyway.”

Penderghast took his hand off the steering wheel to gruffly pat Blair on the shoulder. “I’m sure he’s fine. You’d have heard if he wasn’t.”

“Yeah.”

Unless your parents don’t know how to tell you yet, Penderghast mused grimly. 

He wondered if Johnny Wilder shared his younger brother’s invisible soul. Would it help him a wick when the Chinese sent their troops into North Vietnam like they were threatening? The Cold Peace was over, and the next war would be hot. Killing the Flying Man didn’t bring back what he’d stolen. How long until the Mediterranean was filled with warships again?

And where were you, Ward? Lying around the house, feeling sorry—  

A few yards in front of the Corvette, Linda stopped mid-air, swinging around and pointing down at the island-strewn sea. 

The girl’s shrill, buzzing voice echoed in Penderghast’s skull:

Here’s good! Going down!

Howard watched as the little girl tucked her knees into her chest and dropped screaming out of the sky, lightning crackling down her slipstream. 

Blair clambered towards the windshield2. “Did she say something? She always forgets my brain can’t hear her!”

Penderghast shifted gears. The Corvette descended in winding loops like the sky was a high mountain road. Howard rolled his window open and looked down. 

Linda was standing on the water. It took Penderghast a moment to notice the shadow of a coral reef under her. He’d thought she was being blasphemous. 

The car “parked” two inches above the water, wavelets flicking foam at its tires. As soon as Howard popped the locks, Blair shoved his door open with all his weight and jumped out of the car with a gleeful splash.

“Glad we’re wearing galoshes now, hmm?” said Penderghast as he got out. Personally, he was just glad he wasn’t wearing his good pants.

Linda was standing at the edge of the reef like a siren’s baby, looking out at the open ocean. 

“This where he lives?” asked Penderghast. 

Howard was surprised. For all his occultic worldliness, the blue-blood in him usually defaulted to imagining gods living in palaces. 

“Nah,” said Linda. “But he’s close.”

Linda shrieked. The water around them vibrated like desert sands in an earthquake. 

Howard and Blair both covered their ears. Penderghast was put in mind of deep-sea beasts being dragged gasping into the air. 

“Hate it when she does that!” Blair shouted, barely audible.

Linda’s mouth snapped shut. 

Penderghast shook his head slowly, not taking his hands from his head. “What was that for—”

Linda dived into the deep waters, her shadow shooting off into the distance.

The water pulsed.

Penderghast looked at Blair. “Do you have any idea what she’s doing?”

“Wait for it,” Blair said knowingly. 

A minute later, Linda burst out of the water, rising into the air with a child-shaped thing flailing and growling in her arms. 

The thing went limp.

Linda giggled. “Gotcha.”

The boy-god Palaemon rolled his black eyes. “Alright, fine.”

The pair alighted back on the reef. The young godling’s naked skin was bluish grey, the bits that weren’t covered by rhime-moss at least. His teeth were predator sharp, his fingers clawed and webbed. 

Penderghast kneeled and turned his head down. 

“Great God Palaemon, it is an honour—”

“Hi Blair.”

“Hi Pal.”

Penderghast looked at the human boy. “You know him, too?”

“Yeah,” said Blair. “He and Lindy found me at the beach once! We rode a dolphin!”

“Porpoise, Blair,” corrected Palaemon. “It was a porpoise.” The godling pointed a claw at Penderghast. “Who’s the dark man?”

Penderghast squinted at Palaemon, years of training abandoning him. “Dark man?”

“He’s a wizard,” said Linda. 

Palaemon grinned crookedly. “Oh, one of them.”   

The two creatures giggled, sharing a private joke Howard would rather not be let in on.

“He wants to ask you about your friend,” said Linda. “What was he called? The one who wears a cape now?”

“Oh, Joe? Um…”

Palaemon shuffled his feet and rubbed his side, clearly uncomfortable.

“Please, oh god,” said Howard, looking down again, “it’s a matter of grave import.”

“Did you bring bikkies, Blair?”

Howard looked back up. “What are ‘bikkies’?”

Blair hopped. “Oh, yeah!” 

The boy scurried over to the car and clambered back in, before reemerging with his half-full packet of Monte-Carlos.

“Catch!”

He threw a biscuit at the other two children. Pal caught it smartly and shoved it less smartly into his mouth.

“Okay, so Joe…”

To Joe Allworth’s most honest estimation.

Nudity was lame.

“I don’t get it.” he grumbled. “Seriously. What’s the draw here?”

“Well of course you don’t get it,” Pal floating on his back in the moonpool. “You’re still wearing pants.”

“It’s chilly!”

“You’re a god!”

“I’m a god who likes pants!”

“You didn’t mind when you were my size.”

“I was five!”

“I don’t know why you didn’t stop there. Being five’s great!”

To Pal’s relief, Joe grinned. He hadn’t been doing that much. The boy flexed his small bicep. “Yeah. I bet it’s got nothing to do with me being able to out-wrestle you!”

“Cannot!”

Joe planted his hands on his hips. “Pal, I could beat you up when you were bigger than me.” 

Pal glared. A globe of saltwater swelled into existence behind Joe and blasted him in the back of the head, knocking him into the moonpool. 

Joe surfaced splashing and laughing, lunging through the water at Pal and dragging him under by the foot. 

It’d been an odd few days for Palaemon. He’d been playing with some human children on a Corsican beach when he found himself being pulled into a desperate, sobbing hug by Joseph. Apparently his father had killed a man:

“They’re all evil! Stupid, evil apes!” The superboy reduced a boulder to dust with a slam of his fist and stamped the sand with enough power to fuse it into cracked, rough glass. “I’m sick of pretending to be human! I’m not like them! I’m glad I’m not like them.” 

He’d looked at Palaemon with pleading, tear-red eyes. “Show me how to be a proper god. Please.” 

Palaemon had been happy to help. He wasn’t completely sure why Joe was so upset: people died. Sometimes other people killed them. He himself had been slain by his own mother; before their transfiguration into godhood. Didn’t see him holding it against her. Anymore3.

But still, Joe shucking off his mortal drag-act had to be a good thing. The fact he came to him for god-advice was even better. Maybe now they could have some proper fun. Maybe now Joe would stop fleeing so fast from boyhood. 

“You’re telling me the Flying Man’s father killed a man?”

“Foster father,” Palaemon clarified. “But yeah, he did. I think the guy was going to blab about Joe being amazing and stuff.” He shrugged. “Seemed like a pretty okay reason to kill someone to me, but Joe was being weird about it.”

Blair raised his hand like he’d been taught in kindergarten. “Um, Mister Penderghast?”

Howard had almost forgotten the boy was still with them. “Yes, Blair?”

“What’s “killing’ mean?”

Oh, God. Howard had forgotten other children didn’t become as acquainted with death as early Penderghasts did. This was really a conversation that should be left to the boy’s parents. Once they knew he wasn’t lying in a ditch somewhere. 

“Well—”

Linda saved the warlock, “It means when you hurt someone so bad they sorta… go to sleep forever. It’s weird.”

Surprisingly succinct explanation, Penderghast thought. Sobrely, he wandered what things that wild girl had seen, out there in the great wide everywhere.

“It’s a mortal thing,” added Pal.

“Oh,” said Blair. “Doesn’t sound nice.”    

“It’s not,” said Linda. “Not with people.”

Linda had killed plenty of things in her short life. Mostly animals. She liked to eat as much as anyone else. Curiosity made her try it on a man once. He’d been trying to kill her at the time, so it seemed fair. She’d been newer then.

She’d never forgotten how his lights had flashed and blurred as they went out.   

Blair wasn’t out of questions. “Why was it bad this guy was gonna tell people the Flying Man was special?” He pointed at Linda. “Lindy’s special! And she’s great.”

To Howard’s surprise, he found himself and Linda sharing a look. Witch and godling. Space-alien and black man. Had to be some kinship there. Power and wealth had insulated the Penderghasts from the consequences of their craft and skin-colour for generations, but wariness was baked into their genes. Even if, until very recently, Howard had let himself believe nobody cared about those things anymore. Nobody important, at least. 

Linda had already learned the wages of difference. The little girl had been run out of towns; had rocks and broken bottles thrown at her; once they’d tried literally burning her at the stake after she’d displayed some of her more interesting physiology too openly. 

None of it had ever hurt her, of course. Nothing could hurt Linda. Sometimes she delighted in their efforts. Played along. Gave them all a good flight. Other times—mostly when she was looking for a place to sleep—she was very glad she had a friend like Blair. 

She got jealous of him sometimes.

Palaemon cleared his throat with a dolphin-like squeak. “We still listening to my story?”

Penderghast nodded. “Please go on.”

“So, Joe didn’t want to be human anymore. Best idea he ever had. Did you know he went to school? Almost every day!”

Linda shuddered. Blair looked between the two children. “I like school.”

“So, the Flying Man tried turning his back on us?” asked Howard. “Tried to leave humanity?”

Didn’t sound like the Flying Man. He was used to the bastard never leaving mankind well enough alone. 

“Yep. One problem, but.”

“What was that?”

“He was just so bad at being a god.”

Palaemon and Joseph were great friends. They were terrible roommates.  

It wasn’t all bad. Joe’s new palace—as Pal insisted on calling it—was much more fun than Poseidon’s. Probably because Joe was cool and not a kelpy-bearded old grump who kept sleazing all over Palaemon’s mother. They spent their days shooting holographic fish and chasing each other up and down anti-gravity waterslides. They clambered over the seats in the movie theatre making gun noises at each other while black and white cowboys battled on the screen. Sometimes they left Lyonesse all together, exploring the sea-floor and wrestling whales. 

Then Joe had to go and spoil it:

The boys were gorging themselves on candy over a Looney Tunes marathon when Joe snuck a glance at his friend. The other godling didn’t notice. 

“Hey, Pal.”

Palaemon didn’t look away from the screen. Bugs had almost fallen into a crocodile pit and was about to back right into the monster4. “Yeah?”

How did he ask this? How many times had anyone asked this? 

“I was wondering. Have you ever considered maybe”—Joe looked away and mumbled—“growing-up-with-me-maybe?

Palaemon slowly turned his head towards Joe. Golden caramel oozed from his mouth like his own ichor. 

What a shame! Such an interesting monster, too.

“What? Why? Being grown-up is crap! You get all uptight and too busy rutting to play!”

“It’s just… it’d be nice having a friend to grow up with is all.”

Palaemon stretched his arm to the height of Joe’s brow. “Ship’s kinda sailed on that, buddy. Why don’t you stop growing up? Don’t tell me you can’t control that.”

“I don’t know. Don’t wanna be short forever.” He shrugged. “And sex sounds interesting. I think.” An idea struck him. “What if I stopped growing just long enough for you to catch up?”

Palaemon shook his head. “Nope. Not growing up.” He grinned. “Never knew you felt this way.”

Joe sighed. “What, lonely?”

Nooo. That you liked me.”

Joe’s eyes went wide. “I do not!”

“You were flirting with me!”

“No I wasn’t!”

“Why not?”

“You’re a boy! You have a penis.” 

“So?” 

“I like girls!”

Only girls?”

“Pretty sure!”

God, Joe could be weird. Sometimes Palaemon wondered if he hit his head when he fell to Earth. Like a prettier Hephaestus. 

“Also, Pal, you’re five. At most.”

“Again, so what?”

Joe grimaced and looked back at the movie screen, just in time for Bugs to wake up in his flooded rabbit-hole.

The boys jarred against each other in more ways. Often Joe didn’t want to play at all. He would feed hours of movie and audio clips into the artificial personalities gestating in Lyonesse’s computer-banks, guiding them towards pleasing caricatures of humanity. He devised complicated and finely detailed economic forecasts for several versions of the next century. He painted endless Canadian landscapes, waterfalls, and giant mechanical monsters.

One project Palaemon found especially baffling were Joseph’s attempts to salvage two wood-hulled ships he’d pulled from the Arctic: the HMS Terror and Erebus.

“I don’t get it,” said Pal. He was laying on the floor of the warehouse, the two rotten boats hanging above him like they were still ploughing the waves. “Why do you need a boat? Two boats! You don’t even need to breathe!” 

Joe was tending to vats of cloned oak and larch, destined to replace the hull and planking of the ships. “It’s not that I need them, I just want to make something.”

“Making things is for mortals,” grumbled Pal. “They don’t last long enough to matter themselves.”

Joe tried very hard to agree with that. It seemed like something a god should think. Instead, he found himself remarking, “Lots of gods make things. Hephestus; Athena; I think Apollo built the walls of Troy back in the day5.”

Palaemon battered his heels against the saw-dust laden floor. “Well, they’re grown-ups. They have a lot of dumb ideas. And if you want to make something, why don’t you make your own stupid ships? They’d be better than these hunks of junk.”

“These ships are important. A long time ago—” Joe caught himself, “…I mean, a long time ago for humans, so a hundred and forty years. These ships were sent from Britain to find a new path through the Arctic.” He looked up sadly at the hulks. “Their people never saw them again.”

“So a bunch of mortals got lost in the snow, big deal.”

Joe made to answer Pal, but instead shook his head. “Don’t worry about it, Pal.”

As Palaemon saw it, Joe wasn’t becoming the god he was meant to be. He was turning into a hermit. Pal couldn’t allow it. What Joe needed was to mingle with his own kind. Or at least the closest thing to his kind in this solar system. 

Palaemon had an idea. 

He waited till Joseph was asleep and stole down to the room he called the Grand Foyer with a honey cake. To Pal’s delight, a faint rainbow hung in the mist the fountain threw up.

Pal held the cake over the basin:

“Oh Iris, high and beautiful lady of the rainbow, messenger of the gods, I, Palaemon, son of Leucothea, the white-goddess, beseech you!”

The fountain mists rose towards the ceiling. The dim, gauzy rainbows became as unreally bright and vivid as neon. They formed into a woman with skin like opals catching sunlight. Her hair was a sunset over the sea. Insectile wings of stained glass grew from her shoulders. It was impossible to tell if she was naked or clothed, and with how she glowed, it hardly mattered.

She cast her iridescent eyes down at Palaemon. “What do you want, Pal?”

Palaemon stood up very straight. “I wish to invite all the gods of our kind and our well-wishers to a party in this stately palace.” He gestured around at the Foyer. “As you can see, it’s very nice. Oh, and make sure to include all the godlings. And the Dōdekátheon. Especially King Athena.”

Iris stared at the young god. Then she laughed. “You’re telling me you want the entire divine race to drop everything for a party. Hosted by you.”

Pal took a deep breath. “Actually, I’m not the host. Joseph Allworth is.” He grinned slyly. “You know, the barbarian that dropped by Olympus a week back? The star-god? Offspring of a mother of Khaos?”

“…That’s something to consider.” Iris composed herself. “I shall bring your petition to King Athena.”

The honeycake flew out of Pal’s hand into Iris’s. She took a bite out of the pastry. “Farewell, Palaemon.”

It took three days for Palaeomon to get word back. Specifically, while him and Joseph were playing with his living chessboard. 

Iris appeared in a burst of light, casting the red and white playing field in pale rainbows. The life-sized pieces pointed and gawked up at the goddess. 

“Ah, hi Iris,” said Joe. “Why are you here?”

“Joseph Allworth, Athena, king of the gods, has accepted your request for her company. She and the rest of the Olympian host will arrive in three weeks.”

Joe’s mouth dropped. “What? I didn’t—”

“Our king trusts that shall give you ample time to prepare.” Iris glanced down at the board. “Oh, my God, is that a chessboard? That’s great.”

The goddess vanished. The pieces gossiped programmatically amongst themselves. Joe glared across the board at Palaemon. 

“What did you do?”

Howard Penderghast had dealt with many gods and divinities in his time. But most of them were grown creatures. Adult personalities. Penderghast knew some lingered in childhood, but he’d always assumed it was mainly an aesthetic choice on their part. Ancient collections of knowledge and wisdom wrapped in childish flesh.

Speaking to Palaemon was rapidly correcting that assumption. The godling rambled down a hundred tangents. Sometimes he abandoned the conversation altogether to argue with Linda over biscuits. He spent ten minutes describing an old Warner Brothers cartoon. 

“So, me and Joe kinda beat each other up for a while, but he got over it and we started planning the party. I said—”

Penderghast raised a hand. “Excuse me, Palaemon. While your story is deeply… interesting, it is very urgent that I find Joseph Allworth soon. Is there anything you know that could lead me to him?”

Palaemon frowned. “…You don’t wanna hear my story, do you?”

Howard shook his head vigorously, “Nothing of the sort, it’s only—”

“I want to hear it,” said Blair from his perch on the Corvette’s hood. “It’s fun!”

“It is… fun,” said Penderghast. “It’s just time. The world itself depends on me finding your friend. Your friend might depend on me finding him!”

Palaemon hopped from foot to foot. “Okay,” he said, “I’ll help you.”

“Thank you, oh God.”

“…If you listen to the end of the story.”

Pennderghast was rapidly becoming a misotheist. 

After Joseph Allworth was done punting Palaemon up and down the Atlantic, he decided a housewarming party wasn’t a bad idea after all. Besides, now he had to finish that cocktail bar he was working on. And the bartender. 

The young star-god pestered the Gatekeeper for recipes from across the civilized galaxy while Pal harvested the sea’s finest meats. Finally, Joseph settled on a name for his lair and the computer that would oversee it:

“So my name is… Blancheflor?” 

“Yep,” said Joe. “He was the king of—”

“I’m aware,” said the caretaker program. “You programmed that explanation into me.”

“Ah, sorry… do you like the name?”

“…Permission not to be forthcoming with it?”

Joe examined one of the black chess pieces he’d repurposed as waitstaff. A hologram of Frank Sinatra stood ready onstage, soundlessly warming up an invisible crowd. He himself was wearing a pearlescent body-glove. It seemed like a tolerable compromise between Canadian sensibility and Cupidean nudity. 

He rubbed his chin fretfully. “Should I have painted them white a bit?”

“Stop being a scaredy-cat,” said Palaemon from on top of one of the tables. “They’re gonna love this place.” He smirked ruefully. “Especially old Poseidon.” 

Joe shot daggers at his friend. “Stop climbing on the tables! You’ll get sea-slime on them!”

The sea windows flashed like God snapping a photo. Thunder as loud as silence echoed through Clark’s. 

Joe yelped. “Crap, they’re here!”

The thunder roared, only to shatter into a hundred chatting voices. The bar was crowded with gods and goddesses, more real and solid than all the steel Joe had wrought to build this place. 

“Yes we are.”

Pallas Athena, king of Mt. Olympus loomed over the boy, dissecting him with eyes nearly the same grey as the handsome laurel coronet resting in her dark hair. She was wearing a gown woven of storm clouds. Joe had no doubt it concealed armour. 

Joe bowed. “King Athena. I’m honoured to have you.”

Athena looked around Clark’s and the sea beyond its glass walls. “I commend your craftsmanship, child.” 

Crimson-robed Hera cleaved from the crowd and bustled over to Joseph, pecking the boy on the forehead and pinching his cheeks.

“It’s so good to see you, Joe.” She glanced around the bar. “And in such a lovely palace. Your people would be proud.”

“Thank you, Queen Hera,” said Joe, suppressing a wince.

“Queen” was something of a courtesy title these days. Hera had divorced Zeus some time6 after the Trojan War. Not coincidentally, this also coincided with the sky-father departing Mt. Olympus for parts unknown, leaving his throne empty for his favourite daughter.

The split had done wonders for Hera’s temperament, but it’d also made her, well, broody.  

Soon the Sinatra hologram was throwing himself into “They Say It’s Wonderful.” The guests spread out through the bar and into the rest of Lyonesse, Blancheflor directing them to points of interest they weren’t likely to break. Apollo barged on stage and somehow pulled Sinatra’s image into a duet:

The thing that’s known as romance is wonderful, wonderful,

In every way, so they say!” 

Heracles slapped Joe on the back. If he were a human child, his lungs would have exploded out of his chest. The burly god bellowed, “I wanted to thank you again for the sewing machine.” He gestured at the lavender chiton he was wearing. “It’s already come in handy.”

“You’re welcome!” Joe chirped, the first genuine grin in days blossoming across his face. The boy thumbed his own shiny party-outfit. “I did this by hand.”

Heracles rumbled with laughter. “That is a feat, my boy. Your parents must be proud as horses.”

Joe shrunk into himself. “My parents haven’t seen it.”

Heracles frowned. “What? You’re telling me you didn’t invite the Allworths?”

“I didn’t,” the boy admitted. “They don’t even know about here.”

“Why ever not?” Heracles laughed. “Oh. I see. This is a treehouse! I had one of those as a boy. Hollowed out of a grandfather oak.”

“No,” Joe muttered. “I mean. Yes, it’s a treehouse. But they’re being… dumb.”

Heracles tutted. It struck Joe as an awfully aunt-like noise coming from him. “Joseph, we all think our parents are fools when we’re young. I did. I imagine all my children thought so, too…”

Joe had forgotten Heracles was a dad. Palaemon was always griping about his sons by Hebe7.

Then he remembered Heracles’ first children. The mortal ones8. The ones he’d murdered.

That wasn’t fair. Heracles hadn’t been in his right mind when he did that. Thanks to the lady who’d just pinched Joe’s cheeks a second ago. 

Joe nodded as Heracles’ wisdom fell on deaf ears. “Um, yeah, I’ll think about it. Try the crab cakes!”

He fled through the crowd. 

Joe bumped into a wall of black fur. He stepped back to find himself before a god with a face like a hard, glum tombstone. His dark cloak was trimmed with frost and dusted with gravedirt. He regarded Joe with eyes of bleached bone. 

Joe bowed hastily. He’d never met the god before, but there no doubt who he was looking at:

“Lord Hades. Honoured to make your acquaintance.”

Joe was surprised to run into the Rich One. They say he rarely left the underworld. Then again, how often was he invited to parties? 

“Thank you, child,” Hades drawled morosely. “It is a fine abode you have built for yourself.” The god raised a finger. “I sense very little of my wealth in its structure.”

Joe gulped, unsure if that was meant to be a good thing or not. “You’re not wrong. I got most of the materials from the asteroid belt.”

He braced himself, but Hades only nodded gravely. “Most considerate. Mortals scour my coffers so rapaciously these days. I can let it pass most of the time, it all comes back to me eventually, but must they scar the Earth as they do it?”

Joe had never considered that Hades might be a greenie of all things. It was a pleasant surprise. He nodded.  “It’s very rude of them.”

“It greatly upsets my wife.”

“Oh, Persephone? Is she here?”

“I wouldn’t know.”

“You wouldn’t?”

“Child, if our marriage rests on one foundation, it’s giving each other space.”

Hades took a moment to search the bar, spotting a woman dressed in spring-flowers chatting with Iris in one of the conversation pits. Persephone caught sight of the Lord of the Dead and gave a small wave. 

A ghost of a smile played across Hades’ bloodless lips, but he made no attempt to approach his wife.

Oh yeah, Joe remembered. You’re only married because you kidnapped her. And tricked her. And that’s why we have winter now. Or was it summer9?

He also remembered that Hades was Persephone’s uncle. 

Hades looked back at Joe. “You know, godling, subterranean decor is a rare talent. Would you consider renovating my own home sometime? You would be handsomely rewarded.”

The underworld. Would Joe’s mother be there? Would it be better or worse if she wasn’t? Christopher Barberi would be.

It occured to Joe that, someday soon, his mortal mother and father would be in this god’s power.

“…I’ll think about it.”

Joe left Hades behind in his search for a conversation he could stand. 

Hades plucked a martini from a passing pawn, stirring it with a black fingernail. “That always means no.”

Ares and Hephaestus were milling about in front of the stage.

“Amazing,” said Hephaestus. “People made of light.” The smith-god sat in an ornate, rocket-powered throne of a wheelchair—twisted, withered legs dwarfed by his pillar-like arms. Shiny, dark gold burns like dragon-scale armoured his bare chest. “Puts my Khryseai 10 into perspective.”

“Bah. At least they have some substance behind them.” Ares had taken to wearing an anchor beard this century. In honour of their host, he was also wearing the kevlar vest Joe had gifted him during his visit to Olympus. “This is just light. Men made of moth-wings would be deadlier.”

Joseph launched himself between the two gods. “You can make light burn things, you know.”

“Can you?” asked Ares.

Hephaestus tilted his chin. “You sure you’re not talking about fire, young man? They’re quite distinct.” 

“Nope! Just light! You have to focus it through a crystal juuuust right11.”

Ares grinned wolfishly. This was the best news he’d gotten since the automatic rifle. “Do you know how to work this magic, Allworth?”

“I do! I used it to build this place!”

“Could you build me some? Preferably hand-held?”

“I guess!”

Joe wasn’t sure he ought to be arming the god of war. The god of bloody war, at that. But at least he wasn’t making his stomach turn right now.

“Or you could come to my workshop and show me how you do it,” suggested Hephaestus. “I imagine my use for it would be much more edifying than my brother’s.”

Ares laughed. “You only turn your nose up at fighting because you’re useless at it, cripple.”

Joe frowned. “Hey, that’s not nice—”

He was cut off by Hephaestus’ own laughter. “You mock me, but you still pay me for my work!”

Oh, teasing. Joe could deal with that.

Ares clapped his hand down on Joseph’s shoulder. “Pure charity, boy, don’t let him tell you otherwise.” He smirked at the other god. “Which is saying a lot given what he got off me.”

“What?” Joe asked. “Money?”

The brothers both laughed. 

“Only my damn wife12!” cried Ares. “Vulcan here blackmailed our mother and father into handing her over to him!”

Joe looked at Hephaestus. “You what?

“Hey, hey! Don’t go twisting the history, brother. You and Aphrodite weren’t even married.”

“She was still promised to me!”

Hephaestus scoffed. “Like that was an inconvenience for you.” The god stage-whispered to Joe. “They were rutting behind my back as before we finished the wedding wine!”

Shockingly, Joe couldn’t blame the pair. 

Hephaestus looked back at his brother. “At least until I caught them in the act! Well, me and Olympus.” He folded his arms. “Got my bride-price back and more.”

“Sure,” said Ares with a grin. “But who gets to lay with Aphrodite, hmm?”

Hephaestus cackled. “Everyone!”   

To Joe’s shock, Ares laughed too. He was talking about his brother forcing his wife to marry him like it was an old prank. How did he not hate him?

Applause broke out as Apollo finished his impromptu set with Sinatra. 

The god of music spread his arms out wide. “Thank you, thank you…” 

He leapt down from the stage, landing on his feet in front of Joe. “Hail to our host.”

Joe looked warily at Apollo. He dressed more modernly than most of his kin. Specifically, he seemed to be ripping off James Dean’s publicity stills, jacket and all.

“Hi, Apollo,” said Joe, a touch tiredly. 

“I love your musical illusions. Is there any chance you could show me how they work?”

“Sure, sure.”

At this rate, Joe might have done well to start charging. 

“He’s already agreed to show me the secret of his sharp-light,” insisted Ares.

“Actually,” said Hephaestus, “he said ‘I guess!’ I feel there’s a distinction.”

“You two are being very mercenary. It’s unflattering,” Apollo said with a grin. “You’re talking about this boy like he’s your bond-slave!” He took Joe’s hand. “Does this look like the skin of a common labourer? Smooth as milk!” 

Joe’s right eye twitched. He withdrew his hand. “I’ve got to go to the bathroom.”

“You do?”

Joe was already weaving through the crowd. “Yep!” he lied.

Apollo watched the boy as he went. “Strange lad,” he commented to his half-brothers. “Not without charm, but strange. Reminds me a little of Nancy’s boy.”


“Yes,” said Ares. “How is Lucius?”

Apollo tilted his head. “…I don’t know. Should check in sometime.” 

“Hey Joe! Come say hi to my friends!”

Joseph turned at the sound of Palaemon’s voice. The boy was standing with three other godlings: two girls, one male.  

Thank God. Other kids. At least they probably wouldn’t try hitting on him. Probably.

Palaemon brought his friends over. Only the most up to the minute mythographies would have mentioned the young deities. Despite what some mortals thought, the gods were not static in their… relations.    

“This is Kauma. She’s the goddess of…” Pal glanced at the little girl with the translucent, Cherenkov blue skin. “What is it again?”

“Atomic power,” explained Kauma. “It’s the energy you get from splitting atoms.13

Pal grinned at Joe. “Whatever those are, right?”

Joe smiled past him at Kauma. “I know what fission is.”

Thank you.

A boy with comic book panels for skin and sunspots for hair shook Joe’s hand. He was older than either Palaemon or Kauma: maybe twelve or so. 

“Paideikon,14” he identified himself. “God of sequential art.”

“Sequential art,” repeated Joe. “That’s comics, right? Superman and The Phantom and all that?”

Paideikon sucked in a breath. “If you must.” 

Joe examined the boy’s skin. Superheroes abounded, but were narrowly outnumbered by a plurality of other genres. Vampires and werewolves, swooning girls and kissing couples, cowboys and UFOS. 

As he watched, a panel of Batman swinging across a yellow sky blurred and swirled, reforming into Frankenstein’s monster with his arms stretched out.

“I’m going through changes,” explained Paideikon.

Finally, there was Stereulaios, goddess of plastic15. Her skin and hair were plastic, too, giving Joe the unfortunate impression of an older, anatomically correct baby doll.

“Say,” said Joe, “have you guys ever tried pizza?”

The godlings slipped out of the party and trooped up to Lyonesse’s main kitchen. There they feasted on a thirty inch pizza with about half of the animal16 and vegetable17 kingdoms on it.

“Your lot ran Italy for ages,” said Joe through a mouthful of melted cheese. “How did you guys never try pizza?”

“Dunno,” said Paideikon. “I’m barely sixty.”

“You know what’s crap?” said Kauma, waving a slice of pizza around. Flecks of cheese sizzled against her glowing chest. “There’s like, three hundred nuclear bombs out there, and they’re hardly being used!” She thumped her fist against the countertop. “I want more boom!”

“Heck yeah,” said Joe. “America’s full of deserts, just use them!” He grinned at the little goddess. “I watched a bomb test once. Gave me a heck of a tan.”

“Sure,” said Pal, “shame about the tan-lines.”

Joe slapped a slice in Palaemon’s face. “Shut up!”

“I don’t just want deserts!” protested Kauma. “I want cities! Forests!”

“…What.”

“It’s no fun if it’s blowing up nothing! Something needs to be on fire.”

“But—but people live in cities! And animals live in forests!”

Kauma shrugged. “They’re gonna die someday. At least nuclear bombs do it fast.”

“Except when they don’t! Except when they make them sick and sick and sicker. Except when they make babies come out wrong!”

“What,” said Paideikon, “like the Hundred-Handers18?”  

“No! Like babies without brains! Or eyes!”

“…So double cyclopes?”

Joe groaned.

“I agree with you,” said Stereulaios. “Blowing up cities sounds horrid.”

Joe nodded desperately at the plastic goddess. “It does, doesn’t it?”

“Well, yeah. All the plastic would be ruined!”

Joe had no answer to that. He hopped off his kitchen stool. “Enjoy your pizza,” he said sourly, storming out of the kitchen. 

“Wait, Joe,” Palaemon called after him. He scrambled off his seat and ran after his friend. “Joe!”

Joe was heading towards the elevator. What good was running from his own party? There was no escaping the awful.

Palaemon caught up to the bigger boy. “Why are you being so weird?”

Joe turned on his heels and glared. “They’re horrible.”

“Who?”

“Your friends! Everyone!”

Pal kneaded his hands. “Big gods can be…”

“Dumb? Evil?”

“Mean. But my friends—”

“Your friends are evil too!” 

“…No they’re not,” Pal said in a very small voice. “They’re my friends.”

“Have fun then!”

When the elevator door opened on Clark’s, Joe flew over the crowd to the bar, much to the delight of the gathered gods and goddesses. 

Joe ignored them.

He alighted on a barstool. “Lemonade, barman. Ice-cold.” 

“You got it, Mr. Allworth,” said the newly constructed Iszac Steel. 

“About the only thing I got…” 

“You seem down for someone who pulled off the party of the divine year19.” 

Joe looked beside him. There was a woman sitting beside him. She was sipping a glass of whiskey in a white feathered gown. Her face gave a very eagleline impression.

“It’s not unusual, I assure you,” she said. She sounded Scottish.

 Joe narrowed his eyes at the woman. “Who says I’m down?”

“The fact you’re trying to pretend lemonade is booze.”

Iszac slid a tall, frosty glass in front of the boy. 

“Here you go, boss.”

Joe looked miserably at the bar-robot. “Thanks.”

“Come on, tell me what’s the matter,” implored the woman. “Bars are for sharing miseries. We hold them under together until they drown.”

“…I don’t think I belong here.”

The woman considered that. “I mean, it’s a bar. You’re what, seven?”

“Ten! And I built it!”

The woman just chuckled. 

“I mean—I don’t belong with you. Your folk, I mean.” Joe squinted at the woman. “You’re a goddess, right?”

“People have been debating that for a long time. So where do you belong?”

Joe laid his head on the counter. “In space, with my family.”

The woman put a hand on the child’s back. It took some effort not to flinch. “Can I ask you something else?”

“What?”

“Who loved you. You don’t strike me as someone who’s never had that in their life.”

“Couple of mortals. In Canada”

“Aye.” The woman finished her drink. “Word of advice, Mr. Allworth. Mortals don’t have the time we do. Be sure you’re done with them before you leave them. For both your sakes”

The woman stood up and smoothed the front of her dress. “Have a good evening, Joseph. It’s time for me to go.”

“Why? Party’s not over yet.”

The woman shrugged. “Eh, not my crowd. Nothing wrong with that.”

A sunbeam sailed out through the sea-window.

Joseph endured the rest of the night. He even enjoyed himself. The gods weren’t all bad people. They weren’t people, for starters. 

And when the very last guest had hitched a lift home on the sunrise, Joseph went home, too.

“And that was it,” said Palaemon. “Joe went home.” He sighed. “Kinda wish he stuck with us—especially after, you know—but he wasn’t going to fit in. Joe is Joe.”

Penderghast nodded. “He sounds… sensitive.”

Palaemon nodded and pointed at the warlock. “Yeah, that’s the word!”

Linda and Blair were still sitting on the Corvette’s hood. The latter noticed Linda’s face was… shiny.

“…Are you crying, Lin—”

Linda shoved her hand over his mouth and sniffed. “Shut up, Blair!”

“Alright now,” said Howard, folding his arms the way he would with one of his nieces and nephews. “That hint?”

“Oh, um, yeah.”

He had told the wizard he had a hint, hadn’t he? 

The godling swallowed. “I know where you can find his mother.” A heartbeat. “Foster-mother.”

Penderghast stared at the child.

“I’m sorry—I just wanted you to listen—”

Howard hoisted Palaemon up into his arms. “You weren’t kidding when you said you had a lead, were you!” he laughed.

“I wasn’t?”

Howard called over to the other children. “Kids, in the car!”

Less than a minute later, the Corvette roared into the sky. Towards Catalpa.

 

Previous Chapter                                                                                                            Next Chapter


1. A 59 to be specific.

2. Like the vast majority of consumer automobiles at the time, Howard Penderghast’s Corvette was not grudgingly fitted with seatbelts until 1968.

3. Three thousand years was a long time.

4. Specifically Gossamer, who first appeared in the 1947 short Hair-Raising Hare before being recycled into Water, Water Every Hare.

5. He did, with the help of Poseidon. Not that these walls helped much when Heracles sacked the city.

6. Due to the Olympians somewhat loose relationship with mortal timekeeping, practical theologians and historians debate the date of the abdication. With some placing it anywhere from the end of the Hellenic Dark Age to as far as the reign of Augustus.

7. Alexiares and Anicetus, twin sons of Heracles after his ascension to godhood with Hebe, his half-sister and goddess of eternal youth, former cupbearer of Zeus. Like Palaemon, the boys have so far declined to grow up.

8. Specifically his children by Megara, who would later be given in marriage to Heracles’ nephew (and former lover) Iolaus. During his mortal life, Heracles had over sixty children with many different women.

9. First the latter, then the former, as the story travelled ever northwards.

10. The Kourai Khryseai, automatons of gold fashioned by Hephaestus in the shape of human women.

11. This was six years before the term “laser” was formally introduced to the public by Gordon Gould in his paper The LASER, Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation. Some super-scientists who had actualized the concept earlier and coined their own nomenclature are still bitter about that.

12. Aphrodite, goddess of love.

13. Born July 16th, 1945 to Ares and Hestia. Perpetual virginity got tiresome after a few eons.

14. A son of Apollo and Thalia, muse of comedy.

15. Daughter of Hephaestus and an obscure Oread.

16. Especially seafood. Palaemon did the grocery run.

17. But no pineapple. Hawaiian pizza wouldn’t be unleashed upon the world until 1963.

18. Often known as the Hecatoncheires, monstrous, gigantic offspring of Gaia and Ouranous with fifty heads and one hundred arms. This is false however. The hundred-handed ones were built, not born, and had no relation, familial or otherwise, to any of the Olympian gods until their alliance with Zeus.

19. Equal to seven human years.

Blair and Linda Meet the New England Warlock

It wasn’t flying that told Howard Penderghast he was dreaming. That was nothing new. It was that he was ten years old again. 

The skin of his childish hands was pale white, and the locks of hair lurking at the edges of his vision were blond—almost silver in the moonlight. That would have struck him as strange, but right then, the details of his waking life were as relevant as the womb.

The night sky was a mirror for the black sea below. The only way you could tell up from down were the stars flashing and glinting like chips of ice set into the boundless dark. He speared into a broken rosary of moon-pearled clouds, exploding out the other side in a burst of laughter.  

This wasn’t the flight he knew. Howard had mastered five different flavours of flight by the age of thirteen. But those were all negotiations with reality. Bargains with the four winds to hold him aloft, complicated refractions of gravity, or tricking the world into thinking wings had sprouted from his shoulders. This was effortless. Innate. Birds laboured harder to stay in the sky. 

This was no spell. He simply went where he wanted. 

The slow night-thoughts of great whales echoed up from the ocean depths. When Howard (was that his name? It didn’t sound right) looked down, he could see the dim neutrino glimmer of the Earth’s core beneath the waves, nearly lost against the glaring concentric glow of the sun.

For the star-god called Joseph Allworth, the old wives’ tale was true: the sun did rest under the Earth at night. 

Wispy memory haunted him. He’d spent days working miracles under the cold, heavy sea; not with sorcery, but with his bare hands. But he was heading home now. 

He’d left in a ugly mood, riding anger that now seemed both alien and foolish. He hoped his mother and father weren’t worrying about him. They shouldn’t. Nothing on this little planet could hurt him.

(A distant, bitter heat). 

The thin, shadowed coast of British Columbia rose over the horizon like a swelling wave, dotted with town-lights like campfires of old. Within a few seconds, he was floating above the fishing town of Neptune’s Chest. 

He could see the Allworth house standing bright and lonely at the ragged edge of town. Good, his parents were still awake. 

As he flew towards the house, Howard felt himself slide out of synch with his dream-self. Dread strangled his veins like vines. 

Not now! Stay away!

The foreign mind layered over Howard’s own paid him no heed. He landed softly on the house’s doorstep, knocking at the door.

No answer. He frowned. Two panicked constellations moving about behind the oak-wood and frosted glass. 

Leave them alone!

Why was he knocking on his own front door? He opened it and stepped inside, heading automatically towards the kitchen— 

“Um, Mom, Dad, I’m home.”

“Joe! Don’t—”     

His parents were in the kitchen, standing over a young man sprawled beneath an old family picture hanging on the wall. His eyes bulged in his skull. His lungs lay still in his chest. 

His father stared at him, tears running down his narrow face. “I—I didn’t mean—he was going to hurt you, son…”

He looked into the old man’s mind. He saw Christopher Barbieri’s face go purple and his eyes lose sight.

Joseph stared. “…He was harmless.”

“Son, I just—”

Joe Allworth turned and ran back towards the door, pushing it down and taking off into the night again.

As he rose into the sky, he heard his father calling:

“Joe! Joe!”  

The boy didn’t look back, didn’t—

The night fled. The sun rushed up from beneath the earth, blooming around him. Burning him. 

He clenched his eyes shut. The light did not dim. He tried to scream, but the world screamed louder. 

The light went out, banished by black fire. 

Howard Penderghast woke with a scream, trembling under his bedsheets with half-remembered pain.

Howard sat up and breathed rhythmically, blinking away the last shreds of sleep until he was sure he was awake. He was in his childhood bedroom at Penderghast House, grudgingly refurbished by his mother in concession to thirty-four birthdays. Morning twilight melted against his window curtains, carving a slice of dusty green carpet out of the gloom. The black fire had not followed him. 

Pendergast swung his legs over the bed. He shuddered when his bare feet touched the carpet. It was like the floor was wrapping fingers around his ankles. 

It would pass. It always did.

He stepped out onto his room’s balcony, hoping the winter wind would carry away the last cobwebs of dream. The small but rambling Penderghast estate was hidden under a shell of snow, glimmering like powdered diamonds in the brightening morning sun. He could already smell wood smoke pouring from the kitchen chimneys. His father would be taking his breakfast now. The Boston Globe would be screaming about rising tensions between the two Berlins, while The International Magi1 would be covering the panicked flight of witch-clans to Meinong’s Jungle2 and the Super-Sargasso Sea3

Howard hadn’t seen snow with his own eyes in two years. South Vietnam didn’t have a true winter season. Australia claimed it did, but what did they know? Now it felt as foreign to him as fields of steel flowers. Even the elms and sycamores he’d climbed as a boy looked wrong—so scattered and barren-branched.         

Maybe it was guilt. The men he’d served with couldn’t run home to their fathers when their consciences tugged at them. 

Howard stood out there for some time, gazing out over the smothered front lawns like a dead marscape. Even without a shirt on, the cold didn’t trouble him. You got used to it when you regularly toured Hell. And he still preferred it to the black fire.

The dreams bred and multiplied with each passing week. Sometimes Howard found himself falling from the stars encased in warm, wet darkness; sometimes he was chasing a young sea-god through the barrels of waves. It was a new experience for the warlock, being pulled helplessly through scenarios. Like most witches, Howard was a lucid dreamer. What was sorcery, but grabbing the reigns of the waking dream?  

They weren’t always terrible. Sometimes they were exultant. He’d swim through the storms of Jupiter or lie with the queen of the stars. But they always ended with the black fire.

A dagger-sharp bittern took off from a tree-branch, sending a snowdrift thumping to the ground and making time start moving again.

Penderghast sighed icily. If he was going to get a good’s night sleep—if anyone was—he had to find the Flying Man.

They’d said he was dead, but Penderghast could work with that.

It had been fully two months since Blair Wilder had first awoken to find that strange girl jumping on his bed. Had anyone asked him, he would have told them she’d been there forever. Such is time for a child. The important part was that she was there. Linda. Just “Linda”. Every night. Only occasionally jumping on his bed.

Blair thought she was rather silly.

“I wanna bikkie.”

“Get down from the roof4 first. You’re getting mud on it.”

The naked girl with the dark sea-anemone hair scowled down at Blair with her jasper eyes, skin softly glowing with uncanny lemon light. 

“No!”

Her voice echoed. 

Blair quirked his shoulders. “Okay. My bikkie, then.”


“You said we were sharing!”

Blair made a show of tearing the packet of Monte Carlos open and stuffing one in his mouth. “I can’t share if you’re on the roof,” he said with his mouth full, crumbs spilling down his pyjama tops.  

Blair had always been mature for his five and a half years of age. Maybe that was the power Linda kept insisting that he had.

“So what is it?” he would ask.

“Laser breath,” she’d reply. Or “Vampire eyes,” or “Magic thumbs.” Or even, in her most honest moments, “I dunno. I just can’t read your mind. It’s weird.”

Most people can’t read my mind,” he would whine. “That’s not special.”

“But I can read everyone’s mind,” she’d insist.

That seemed like a rubbish power to Blair. Might as well not have a brain. 

He gulped down the biscuit. “S’too bad. They’re crunchy.”

Linda stomped her foot against the ceiling, sending a shockwave of spider-cracks through the rough plaster. 

She looked bashfully at the sole of her foot. “Sorry.”

Blair giggled. “Just fix my roof and you can get a bikkie.”

Linda folded her arms and huffed in surrender. Patches of air puckered and oozed like diseased skin. Flickering, ephemeral tendrils tore their way through into reality with a sound like slimy wind. They licked at the cracks in the ceiling, leaving them smooth as they slithered back out of the world. 

“Wow…” Blair intoned like a Gregorian chant. “How do you do that?”

The girl dropped down onto Blair’s bed, landing on her feet and cramming a Monte Carlo into her face. “I eat the cracks,” she answered, spraying her friend with wet biscuit debris. 

Like most answers Linda gave Blair, it didn’t explain much. That was okay. Linda wasn’t for explaining. She was for… something else that Blair couldn’t name. 

They sat there companionably for some time, Linda bouncing lightly on Blair’s mattress while she rambled about the adventures that constituted her day:

“…I’ve almost got enough pillows to finish my fort on that mountain. You know, the really big one silly people keep trying to climb?”

“…And then the shark swallowed me!”

“…The Moon-People were all grumpy!”

  “And then what happened?”

Blair loved Linda’s stories. They made him jealous beyond belief, but it was satisfying sort of jealousy. 

Linda glanced around the boy’s bedroom. She still found it strange having a whole four walls and ceiling for sleeping in. Usually she found a nice patch of tall grass or a nice iceberg when sleep struck her. 

“Let’s go out and play!”

Blair tilted his head. “…But it’s nighttime. I’m supposed to be in bed.”

Linda hummed. A thin tendri-hairl waved thoughtfully between her shoulder-blades. For some reason, Blair was very keen on doing what the big people who’d made him said. It was funny. Annoying, but funny. 

“Well,” she said, “we could go where it isn’t nighttime.”

Blair gave his friend a sideways glance. “…It’s nighttime, Linda. It’s everywhere.”

Linda shook her head. Sometimes she didn’t know what to make of this boy. It was like he’d never even left this hemisphere. “No it’s not! It’s daytime in…” She tried to figure out a place her friend would know. Talking to people without being able to see their thoughts was hard. 

“…Neverland?” Blair supplied.

“No… America!”

Blair tried to comprehend the idea. Did night just… stop somewhere? Was there a place where the sky was half stars and half sunshine? If there was, Linda would probably know it. She’d been everywhere. She’d brought him a diamond the size of a tangerine5 and toys from China6.  She’d even seen the Beatles on tour. Got their photo took with them and everything7

On the other hand, she also didn’t understand why cars existed.

“…Prove it.”

Linda pursed her lips primly, nodding slowly. “Okay,” she said, getting to her feet. She walked extravagantly towards the black open window, stopping at the edge of the bed. “But you have to come with me to know for sure.”

Blair fretted his duvet. If his mum and dad saw he was out of bed, he’d be in biggest trouble. But then, his mother once walked through the lounge room while Linda was watching TV, naked as usual and holding a bowl of biscuits and a bottle of Coke in a tentacle each, and all she’d said was that she hadn’t seen the cat that day. “Noticing” didn’t seem to be a thing that happened around Linda. Plus, Blair won out either way if he went with Linda. If he was right, he knew something Linda didn’t

If he was wrong, he’d get to see something amazing.

The boy scrambled out from under his sheets. “Okay,” he said, standing up as tall as his three and a half feet would allow. “Let’s go.”

Linda turned around with a big grin, revealing her slightly needle-like teeth. Her hands fluttered against each other. “Yay!”

“How are you gonna take me with you? You gonna give me a piggy-back or… wrap me up in your octopus arms?”

Blair wasn’t sure which he’d prefer. Both ideas sounded weird, but both also had an odd appeal… 

“Nah.” Linda extended a clawed hand. “Just hold my hand!”

Blair took it. “What now?”

Linda kept grinning. Something warm and charged flowed from her hand into Blair. 

Then it went up.

The pair floated two inches above Blair’s bed. 

“Ahh!” Blair flexed and thrashed in amazement. He was flying. Like Linda could. 

Her hand tightened around his. “Hold on!”

They shot out of the window up into the sky.

Blair screamed in pure, joyous terror. He didn’t feel the lash of the wind or the gnaw of the cold. He didn’t even realize those were concerns.

Linda spun the pair of them. Her, the stars, and the moon-glinted waves below swirled together around Blair. 

The journey took about an hour, but adrenaline burned it down to a few minutes in Blair’s mind. The black water caught fire like oil as the sun crept up over the horizon. 

“Okay,” Blair shouted, “you were right!”

“Told ya!”

The ocean under them gave way to coastline. They passed over cities and forests, rivers and mountains. 

“So this is America?” Blair asked.

“Yup!”

“I thought it’d… smell different.”

“It doesn’t?”

Blair answered with another question. “Where are we going?”

Linda pointed towards the ground. “My swimming pool!”

A bright aquamarine eye looked up at the children from rich scrubland. A creek trailed from it like the tears of a great, green giant. 

“Pretty,” said Blair.

Linda hugged the boy close. Tendrils burst from her side and wrapped snugly around him. 

“Going down!”

They descended slowly into the eye. It was a flooded cave mouth. Trees clung game to its upper-lip, the creek rushing over the edge to form a fifty foot curtain of white foam. The water was opaline. Coss coated the roof like the entrance to a vibrant, spring underworld.

The children stood at the shore of the pool, a wall of trees and bushes against their back. 

Blair was staring. “It’s beautiful…”

“I know.”

Linda’s lightly tanned skin turned dark and chitinous. Her hair become a writhing nest of thin, boneless fingers, tasting and stroking the air around her head.

Blair smiled. It’d taken days for Linda to look like that in front of him the first time. She said she didn’t want to scare him. 

He still wasn’t.

His friend ran splashing into the water, calling over her shoulder, “You gonna swim, Blair?”

“Heck yeah!”

Blair pulled off his pyjamas. Those were for nighttime.

The pair spent hours swimming8. They took turns playing shark, trying to pull each other under the water. Despite the obvious advantage of tentacles and… everything else, sometimes Linda even let Blair win. They built sandcastles and tried to stay standing under the waterfall. In other words, Linda took a shower, and Blair got knocked on his back. 

He was never going to sleep again. Not if there was stuff like this out there. Not with Linda. 

Eventually, though, he spotted something on the sand. 

“Linda, was that door there when we got there?”

Linda glanced towards the sand. There was a blackwood door with a silver handle and a Celtic Green Man knocker, standing alone. 

“Um, no…”

The door flung open of its own accord. The children glimpsed a brick path trailing into wide, arcadian vistas. A man was walking with brisk stiffness towards them…

Howard Penderghast slipped hastily through the door. He’d almost shut it behind him when a slender, green-gloved arm got between the door and its frame. 

A voice like gold on silver trilled, “Oh, Howard, you must stay longer when you visit…”

Penderghast imitated a flattered chuckle. “Yes, yes, Lady Nettles. Next time, I promise.”

Luckily for the warlock, Lady Nettles withdrew her arm. He slammed the door shut with his back. 

Penderghast let out a sigh. Show him for taking a shortcut through the Land of Youth and Summer. 

Howard hadn’t expected finding the Flying Man would be easy. He’d tried before, when he was still with the army. The bastard circled the globe and criss-crossed continents on a daily basis. He left etheric traces like cobwebs across the planet. 

Oh, so we’re out of the army now. Finally admitting it, eh Ward?

Howard hated it when his inner monologue talked like his father. 

Then he’d tried again, filled with new purpose. 

According to his best scrying crystals, the Flying Man was there in his study. He was also outside on the grounds. And the capital of Brazil. In fact, it appeared the Flying Man was simultaneously occupying every point of space between Earth and the Moon. Whatever that nuke did to the Flying Man, it had spread his essence across the entire planet.

Howard had almost given up when his sister—the wild talent of the family, whatever their parents thought—managed to pin-point a bright point of new energy streaming into the universe, like an astronomer spotting a star hidden behind a supernova.

Like all good little brothers, he was now cribbing her notes.

Penderghast looked out over the water. The naked children wading in it looked back. One of them appeared to be a space monster. 

The warlock sighed. Either that nuke had done a number on Joe Allworth, or Aurelia’s trick hadn’t worked.

Howard cleared his throat. Mustn’t be rude. “Hello, children. Sorry to intrude. I seem to have gotten myself lost.” He eyed the girl with the tendril hair. Had to be something going on there. “My name is Howard Penderghast. Maybe you two could help me find someone?”  

Linda said nothing, the alien cast of her features receding as they usually did around strange humans. She eyed the new man like a hawk. She smelled hocus-pocus on him. The name was familiar, too.

Blair waved broadly. “G’day, mister Pende-gas!”

That accent. “Hello young man.” First things first. “What’s your name?” 

“Blair Wilder,” the boy recited obediently.

“May I ask where you’re from?”

Blair picked at the tangle of names school had imprinted in him. “Perth!” Oh, country. “Australia!” 

Oh, God, they’re spreading. 

Penderghast turned his attention to the girl. By now she had skin and actual hair. Just looking at her made his wisdom teeth ache. “And your name, little miss?”

“Linda.”

“Linda…” 

“Just Linda,” said Blair. He smiled proudly. “She doesn’t need another name.”

Linda’s face hardened defiantly. “Yeah!”

“Perfectly understandable. And where are you from?”

 Linda spread her legs and gestured expansively at her surroundings. “Here.”

“Here?”

The girl grinned. “Aren’t you?”

“…No—I mean, I’m from New England.” There was a thin line between innocence and being a smartass. This girl was clearly far over the border. “Are you saying this grotto is where you live? Because it is very nice.”

“I’m from Earth,” Linda clarified. “Same as everyone.”

“Anywhere on Earth in particular?”

Penderghast thought he saw the girl’s lip wobble slightly. “Just Earth.”

Blair Wilder appeared to notice too. “She spends most nights at my house!” he added.

Linda smiled again. “Yep.

Howard reached into his overcoat. “One moment, please.”

The warlock pulled out a monocle attached to a silver chain. He fitted it over his left eye and screwed his right one9 shut.  

“Are you rich, mister?” asked Blair.

“Yes,” Howard answered flatly, staring at Linda. 

First came “Linda”. He turned the monocle her way, and—  

That was… odd. Not unprecedented, but odd. Not the sort of odd Penderghast had expected. She had so many forms overlapping on herself. The girl. The aura. The mass of cephalic tendrils stretching out beyond the confines of their cave. Clearly an alien. From where, he didn’t know.  

Then there was the fact that her aura seemed to be grinning at him.

Auras couldn’t normally do that.

At least it answered the question of why the stones had led him here. That girl had a fragment or two in common with his quarry. Maybe their species—or pantheons—had diverged a few thousand generations back. At the very least, she might know how to find a distant cousin. 

He turned his attention to the boy.

Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Just a brown haired boy standing in a pool. No thoughts, no feelings, no interaction at all with any other aspect of the cosmos. He might as well have been looking at a colourful vacuum.  

Either this boy was hiding his abilities on an unprecedented scale, or Howard Penderghast had just encountered the only living thing in the universe that didn’t have a soul. 

The warlock waded into the water, approaching Blair cautiously. He lightly prodded the boy in the breast.

“Um, sir. Is something wrong?”

Penderghast felt skin against his finger. 

Probably not an illusion then. 

He glanced over at Linda. “Is there any reason I can’t see your friend here?”

“But I’m right here.”

Linda grinned. “Freaky, isn’t it?”

Penderghast looked down at Blair in awe. A living mind, perfectly camouflaged against the universe like a cosmic chameleon. Howard didn’t know if he wanted to take the boy as an apprentice or make sure he never so much as looked at a grimoire in his life.

“I may need to speak to your parents some time, Mr. Wilder. In the meantime, try and avoid West Africa, Papua New Guinea, and Kansas. They might try making ointments out of you.” 

“…Okay.”

Penderghast shook his head. Occult finds of the decade could wait. 

He walked over to Linda. 

“So, this might sound like a bit of a silly question, but do you know anything about the Flying Man?”

Linda spun on one foot and rocked on her heels. “Um, I know a bunch of flying men.”

Howard nearly rolled his eyes. He wasn’t terribly practised when it came to young children. And most of the practise he had wasn’t with aliens. More like guerilla fighters and superhuman terrorists. “I mean a very particular Flying Man. He wears a white costume, and until a while ago flew all around the world helping people.”

And making a bloody mess out of everything

“Oh!” chirped Linda. “You mean the dying man!”

Penderghast went a little pale. “Dying?”

Why was he surprised? The poor bastard was nuked

Linda rubbed her chin. “Well, he was dying for a while. But then he got stuck. I don’t think all of him can fit in dead. He wants to, tho.”

“Oh.”

Penderghast didn’t know whether he was relieved or horrified. 

An idea made him change his mind very quickly. So far as he could tell, Joe Allworth was essentially splayed all across the earth like a spilled wineskin. 

Penderghast thought about a bathtub with the stopper pulled out. About all the particles of grime and dirt that got pulled down the drain along with the water.

Deep breath. 

“Do you know where the dying man is, Linda?”

Linda shrugged. “Nope. I bet Pal does, tho.” 

“Your ‘pal’?”

Linda giggled. “No. Pal. Pal-ae-mon.”

Like any good witch or student of the classics (and he was both), Howard Penderghast recognized the name.

He grit his teeth. 

God damn it. More kids?

Previous Chapter                                                                                                            Next Chapter


1. A periodical catering to the global magical community, mainly focusing more on culture and the politics of the day than actual sorcery. As well as sometimes regarded as a gossip-rag, many modern magicians have come to view the magazine as unfortunately backwards looking.

2. A densely forested region of the collective unconscious home to objects and concepts that do not or by definition cannot exist in regular reality, such as the married bachelor or the definitive Western Canon.

3. A similar space that serves as the final destination of all lost things. Intersects somewhat with the realm of Hades.

4. He meant ceiling. Please forgive Blair, he was a child.

5. Mutually dubbed “the sparkle rock.”

6. This being before most toys in the western world were made in China.

7. They decided it was safer to do what the tentacled floating naked child said.

8. The Hamilton Pool Dipping Springs would be barred from public access in 1990, when it was realized that a statistically startling number of swimmers had developed superpowers in the decades since 1967.

9. His “lying eye.”

Chapter Ninety-One: The March of the Superheroes

Thousands of superheroes besieged the ABC Studios at Gore Hill. Their costumes weren’t much to write home about—fishnet stockings, baby-blanket capes, and grease paint domino masks abounded. As for superpowers, the only way this league would be diverting the course of mighty rivers was if everyone picked up a shovel and started digging.

That was, in essence, the basic idea. 

The news that Timothy Valour would be bootlicking the Yank witch-hunters1 on the ABC had travelled down the wire like telepathy. After years of dread, climaxed by two terrorist attacks—the first alone having completely decapitated the Australian government—there was no way the Americans could barge in with another draft. Not even a demi-draft. Not when so many of those demis were children.

That last factor had drawn the attention of Save Our Sons2. Australian supers in Vietnam got the Congress for International Cooperation and Disarmament3 and the Draft Resistance Movement involved. Anything about supers got the Friends of Clark Kent4 up and rearing. The need to scream at a broken world drew thousands more. 

It was probably one of the Friends who raised the idea of dressing up like superheroes. They probably would’ve told you it was a gesture of solidarity with superhumanity. An un-ignorable reminder of all the good supers had done for mankind. 

True enough, but it was also fun. Sometimes you needed fun. 

The two transmission towers were lighthouses surrounded by a gaudy human sea. Tides of beer-gutted Supermen. Waves of frizzy-haired, sun spotted Wonder Women with mismatched bracelets. Even some bold knockoff Flying Men5 (and women) in off-white, sweat-darkened lycra. They broke the banks of the carpark and grounds to flood the surrounding suburb. Enterprising children sold lemon cordial from their front lawns. 

And the sea roared:

Superman stay home! Superman stay home!

Children are not nukes!

Draft pints, not supers!

There were signs, too, of course. A vast forest of them. “REMEMBER THE COMET!” “CHILD-SNATCHERS GET THE ROPE!” and “YANKS GO HOME!” were held aloft in a thousand variations. 

One protestor’s sign was very straightforward:

GIVE US BACK OUR SON!

“The Scarlet Hurricane” wore bright red flannel pyjamas with a dark grey apron tied around her neck. Her face was concealed from the forces of evil under a metal cooking pot, with two triangular holes cut out for her eyes.

Her muffled voice yelled, “No Valour! No Val—” She groaned and lowered her sign. “Ah, bugger it.”

Angela Barnes pulled the pot off her head, panting hard. “Lord help me…” 

Her husband took the pot off his wife. Fred Barnes had chosen to come to the protest in his old dress uniform—in the vain hope someone with sway might see it and feel an ounce of shame— with a green domino mask for that Lone Ranger touch. And so hopefully people wouldn’t throw paint on him. “I told ya the helmet was a stupid idea,” he said, shouting to be heard over the chanting crowds.

Angela brushed a sweat-heavy lock of hair from her eyes. “Oh, be quiet, Fred.” Shaking her head, she raised her sign and got back to chanting. 

Mrs Barnes was still shocked Fred of all people suggested this trip. 

“I thought the only communists raised stinks like that,” she’d said with a tired half-smile.

Fred had grunted, “Better a communist than a Nazi.”

Even if Sydney weren’t the wolf’s lair, they needed to get away from Harvey. Away from the furtive gawking of their neighbours. The smug, tittering whispers hidden behind stage-acted sympathy. And the posters. Their son, staring dazed and scared in scratchy monochrome from every wall and noticeboard.  

They could afford the trip, thanks to what Chen Liu had left in their kitchen. Angela knew that boy was a good lad, deep down. Drew and Sophie could mind the shop for them. They had to keep busy somehow, with baby Julia off with friends on some commune, away from the raptor gaze of the freak-finders.

Angela stabbed at the sky with her sign. “No Valour! No Valour!”  

Hours passed like minutes, punctuated by the occasional gulp from a water-bottle and the dimming of the sky. Valour would be in the studio now, prepping for his two-minute hate. His recruitment spiel.

Angela hoped she never saw it.

An electric current threaded through the crowd. In a shout like a whisper, a woman in a yellow oilskin and a painted blue motorbike helmet asked Angela, “They take your kid, too?”

“Yeah.” 

Mrs Barnes didn’t elaborate. Even in this crowd, she didn’t know what would happen if she admitted to being the mother of the boy who blew up the Prime Minister. 

God help her, she was acting like she was ashamed of Arnold…

“…Fuck ‘em all,” was the woman’s only response.

“Damn right.”

The two women screamed their rage, along with hundreds of other mothers, fathers, and everyone else who dared love someone different. They bore each other’s grief like the Argo on their shoulders. 

This is what it must’ve been like at Jericho.

Eventually, a man in a sequined bathrobe and a purple wizard’s hat started handing out rotten eggs and expired fruit. 

Fred Barnes weighed a stinking grapefruit in his hand like it was a grenade. 

The front doors of the studio opened. Timothy Valour was hustled out between two expressionless Nordic giants in midnight suits, examining his shoes with his shoulders hunched in the universal pose of harried public figures scurrying between their dens. 

Produce arced through the air. Most of it splattered against the orange fluro barricades and police sentries that cut a path through the crowd to Valour’s idling helicopter. 

Fred screamed, “You bastard! I’ve killed men like you! Killed them!”

Valour, of course, kept walking.

“So have I,” he muttered.

Fred Barnes didn’t hear him, though. He was too busy wishing he was more like his youngest son.

Soon, the helicopter lifted off the ground, the chopping whir of its propeller blades forming an underbeat to the chanted insults of the crowd. Timothy Valour was gone. But the protest kept going. It would take hours for that kind of energy to disperse.

Angela, just beginning to feel gentle, distant reminders of how long she’d been on her feet, spotted something. 

She grabbed her husband’s shoulder. “Fred, look!”

Angela pointed at a sign a few rows back from them:

HOW MANY DIED AT NORTHAM?

Fred squinted. “You don’t think—”

Angela was already pushing Fred through the crowd. One small grace to being wheelchair-bound at a mass rally was that you could serve as a human snowplow. 

Fred barked, his tree-trunk arms fending the slower moving members of the crowd aside, “Come on people, out of the way! Crippled veteran coming through!”

Someone shouted, “Piss off, baby killer!”

Fred flipped the bird. “Wrong war, sonny!”

In five minutes they reached the sign. It was being waved about by a young, dirty-blond man in a costume a cut above the standards of the rally. Most of the protestors had just splashed some paint on the brightest cast-offs they could find. This boy was decked out in a ruffled peppermint suit, with a powder blue eye-mask and a feathered stockman hat. The lad on his right wasn’t half-bad, either. He wore a black cloak that made Angela break into a sweat just looking at it, his mouth concealed by a kerchief almost the same shade of red as the cowlick that protruded from under his hood. 

The girl next to them, though, she was the real stunner. Her costume was a pink, bedazzled leotard, paired with enormous horn-rimmed glasses. She was hanging off the arm of a crew-cut boy in old work overalls and laughing into his ear. Hopefully about how bloody out of place he looked.   

Angela cleared her throat. “Excuse me.”

The youths paid her no mind.

Fred let out a commanding shout, “My wife wants to speak to you lot!

The four teens (and a few more people besides) swivelled towards the Barnes like startled owls. 

The boy in the stockman said, “Jeez, sorry mate. We didn’t hear ya!”

The costumeless one raised a finger. “Ain’t exactly a graveyard around here.”

Mrs Barnes ignored the lip. “I take it you’re from Northam? Back in WA?”

The boy in the cloak pumped his fists in the air. “Hell yeah!” 

The other teens exchanged puzzled looks.

His arms wilted. “Yeah, we are,” he said in a much smaller voice.

Angela continued. “So you’d have lived near the New Human Institute.”

“‘Lived near it’?” said the one in the hat. “Lady, we’ve been there!”  He actually started wagging his finger at the Barnes. “I’ll tell you what, there’s a lot about that place the papers aren’t talking about—”

“Our son was taken there,” cut in Angela, evenly. 

“…Oh.”

“Maybe we should find somewhere to sit-down,” said the girl in the leotard. 

The Barnes and the Northamites made their way down to the empty lot of dried-out grass and dirt that lay in the studio’s shadow, chosen as a rest spot by the protest. Belinda Waites laid out a beach towel for them to sit on. Face-painted children ran about them while their parents laughed and conversed over cheap sausages in bread. 

Angela tried to ignore them. It had to have been over a year since Arnold had even been in their home. How much longer? 

“Why don’t you have a costume, son?” Fred asked the lad with the crew-cut.

Eddie Taylor shrugged. “Didn’t feel like it.”

Belinda purred into his ear, “You mean you were embarrassed, love.” 

Bazza grinned and shook his hat at Eddie. “You mean he’s a total Scrooge.”

Eddie waved his hands like he was shooing away flies. “Look, I’m here, aren’t I?” He gestured about at the crowd scattered across the grass. “You don’t see these people dressing up like slopers6, do ya?”

Belinda smiled wryly at the Barnes. “As you can see, my fiancé is a man of great sensitivity.”

Angela noticed a ring flashing on the girl’s finger. She tutted. “Oh, honey, you both are far too young for that.”

Fred glanced at his wife. “It worked for us, didn’t it?”

“Just because we bet it all on black and won doesn’t mean we should go telling kids to do it.”

Eddie curled his lip. “Bit late to tell us now.”

“Technically not…” said Belinda. 

“So, what could your son do?” asked Al, trading one awkward subject for another. “We might’ve met him.”

Fred raised an eyebrow. “Most folks would ask his name, first.”

“Not when we’re talking about the Institute,” pointed out Al. 

Fred and Angela looked at each other. A small, tight nod. 

“He… zaps things away,” said Fred. “Teleportation, I think they call it.”

“Our son is Arnold Barnes,” admitted Angela. “They called him Elsewhere.”

A silence smothered under the chatter of thousands. 

Bazza saw the look on the Barnes’ faces. Like they expected to be spat on.

He broke into a broad grin. “Yeah, we know him! Great kid!”

“He helped us run some supervillains out of town,” said Belinda. “He also ran a lot of our dogs to the Moon, but what can you do?”

Fred smiled. “Was in the papers, that.” The smile faltered. “They didn’t mention my boy much…”

“Wonder why?” said Belinda sourly.  

“Listen,” said Fred. “What you’ve read about our Arnold since then… Canberra and Melbourne… you have to understand…”

Bazza raised his hand. “Hey man, we heard what went on at that place. If I could do a smidge of what Arn and his mates can do, I’d probably be chucking some big fits, too.”

“Yeah,” said Belinda. “I once painted my sister’s kitten with nail polish because she wouldn’t lend me her jumper. Wasn’t even my size.”

“How about we tell you how we met your son?” Bazza offered.

The story was edited somewhat. Eddie couldn’t bring himself to explain what Melusine had done to him, or how they’d been made to forget about it for months. The Barnes didn’t need that clogging their thoughts as well. Also, Eddie didn’t need Belinda knowing why they’d gone to the Institute in the first place.

Best not to mention Melusine at all, really.

Fred was laughing by the end. Angela was trying very hard to keep frowning:

“I’m going to give that boy such a belting…”

“Aww, lighten up woman!” said Fred. He shot a glance at the lads. “No harm no foul, right lads?”

“He’s right, Mrs Barnes,” said Eddie. “Should thank Arn, really. I’ll be dining out on this story when I’m a hundred.”

To Eddie’s surprise, he meant it. Funny what time could do memories like that. 

Then they explained their adventure with the Frightful Three. Those brief golden days when the Institute was actually a part of Northam. 

The stories were like water in the desert for the Barnes. Something of their son not filtered through hateful headlines. 

“We decided to head over here after school was done,” explained Al. 

“Well, Bazza decided. Hard,” said Belinda. 

“Everyone was being so bloody phony.” 

Language,” Angela cautioned the boy.

“Well they were! Folks were acting like those kids were devils, when they’d been giving them free ice-creams last Sunday!” Bazza folded his arms. “Total rubbish.”

“Yeah,” said Eddie. “I used to think they were goblins too, but least I’d never talked to them.”

“Thank you for telling us about all this,” said Angela. “And for coming here. For caring.”

“Least we could do,” said Al.

“No, the least you could do would be nothing. And altogether too many folks are fine with doing noth—” 

Thunder cracked the air.

Everyone glanced instinctively up at the sky. It was summer-barren. Perfect blue.

“Huh,” said Al, “someone’s car backfire?”

Another peal, its echo drowned out by younger thunder. Blast after blast ran into each other. A chorus of cannons.

Fred Barnes reached towards his wife, his expression drawn. “Reckon it’s gunfire?”

Angela put a steadying hand on her husband’s shoulder. “No, Fred. Listen.”

She remembered the thunder. Their son’s thunder.        

It drowned in thousands of shouting voices. 

Andrea pointed up at the sky. “Is that a bird?”

“Nope!” said Bazza. “Looks like a plane.”

It was. What looked like a large, brightly painted passenger-jet was circling low above the studio. How’d they missed that?

There was an all-pervading click. Every radio and stray piece of metal and glass started speaking with a rough, masculine voice. 

…Jesus, McNoll, you’re free to go—I’m on? Christ—just send him off somewhere!

Distant thunder, then a forced cough. 

Good folk of Sydney. It’s me, the Crimson Comet. I’m back.

Murmurs crested over the crowd.

“Holy shit,” whispered Fred. 

Bazza slapped his mates on the shoulders excitedly. “My bloody uncle served with him.”

“Not the time for name-dropping, Bazza,” said Belinda, not taking her eyes from the studio up the hill. 

None of them could make out anything different up there. Just the crowds wiggling and undulating as one, like colourful ants. A super-organism. 

Angela pointed. “Look!”

Two creatures rose above the protestors. One was an angel in silhouette. The other, a sliver of sunlight shaped like a child. 

The Comet spoke again:  

You’re all here for your fellow Australians. Your fellow man. And you came in the uniform of my calling. I’m honoured. The people with me are supers. All of them. Tim Valour had them crammed into a pit in the middle of the desert. I’m sure he’d have a dozen and one reasons why: but don’t matter. He threw them in jail for not being like him.  They—we—just want a fair go. To be allowed to be. And we’re going to get it, if it’s the last thing we do. But we don’t want to hurt anyone. We’re not here to hold the country at gunpoint. We need your help. They can’t say no if they know you’re with us. 

What do you say, superheroes? Want to come and pay Tim Valour a visit?

An explosion of cheers. Applause like hungry flame. 

“Well, let’s get going!        

Angela looked at Fred. “He has to be with them. He has to.”

The crowd in front of the studio started to bleed from the carpark, draining and narrowing down the road that made its way down the hill into the streets. 

The Barnes and the Northamites rushed onto the middle of the road, the rest of the grazers on the lot following like a cargo-liner behind a tugboat. 

Eddie picked up the beach towel as they left, shoving it into his fiancé’s arms. “Tie this around my neck.”

Belinda smiled bewilderedly. “What?”

“Come one, you were the one telling me to get into the spirit!”

Belinda let out a sighing laugh. “Alright, you big kid.”

She quickly and deftly affixed the towel around Eddie’s neck. 

“Call me… the Electrician.” 

Belinda pecked him on the cheek. “The conquering hero.”

Marching in front of the protesters were about two hundred men, women, and children in bland coveralls. The girl dressed in the sun flew above. A white-headed snake with scales of every colour

Leading the procession was the Crimson Comet, new, angular wings outspread. Beside him was an old red haired woman in a black summer dress. She was holding the hand of a brown-skinned boy dressed in water. To that child’s left was a girl dressed in a thousand comic panels, and what appeared to be a humanoid tiger dressed like country-club Robin. 

And then there was the boy at the end. The one in the starry black cloak and the feathered eye-mask.

If nothing else (and there was so much more) there was no chance of Fred mistaking those eyes. Storm-grey, like his mother. 

God, he looked so much like Angela.   

“…Son?”

The boy in the cloak came to a stop with the rest of his companions. The people behind them tried not to collide with their backs. 

The tiger-boy tapped the one in the cloak on the shoulder, pointing at the legless man and his wife staring at them. 

“They—those are your parents…”

Arnold swallowed. All his dreams and nightmares at once. 

Why here? How here?        

Two words, lost in the storm of the mob. 

There was a flash. 

Arnold stood there in his shorts and t-shirt. 

Bazza waved. “Hey Arn! Good to see you all!”

Arnold broke into a run, leaping at his father’s chest and clinging to the man like a drowning child pulled from the sea. 

“Dad, Mum… I…”

The boy trembled. 

“Shhh,” his father sighed. “You don’t have to… anything.”

Angela wrapped her arms around her husband and son, leaning down to rest her cheek against Arnold’s head.

He nestled. “I—I did some bad things.”

Memories of Lawrence lying in his own blood. Kissing David, for some reason. 

Angela’s grip tightened. “Not now.”

Never again, she told the world. Not a prayer but a demand. Never again.  

The sound of small feet against the road. A high, hoarse voice:

“Mr. and Mrs Barnes?”

The elder Barnes managed to look up from their son. Allison Kinsey was standing in front of them, her costume perfect, gleaming white, blending almost obscenely with her pale skin. Her eyes were burning red. 

Angela couldn’t even begin to question either of those facts. “It’s good to see you two have stuck together, Allie.”

It wasn’t a lie, but it would’ve been not too long ago. To Angela’s shame, she’d imagined the girl leading her son astray since Exhibition Hall. 

“My parents, are they here too?”

Fred shook his head gently. “Afraid not, girl.”

The Barnes had invited the Kinseys along. To their shameful relief, they’d said no.

“Oh.” 

Angela sighed and straightened herself, opening her arms. “It’s alright, Allie. We’ll look after you.”

Allison looked around herself, as though worried her mother and father might suddenly appear. Then she gave Angela a quick, tight hug. 

The crowd from the lot quickly assimilated into the march, taking their place just behind the liberated prisoners from Circle’s End. A few lingered up front to pet and fawn over Billy, who made no attempt to deflect the adoration. 

Belinda scratched the boy behind the ear. “Good God, kid. Do you wash in fabric softener?”

Billy beamed, tail swishing. “All natural, ma’am!”

Bazza even got to shake the Comet’s hand. 

“Never thought I’d meet ya. They say my uncle served with you back in the war.”

“What’s your name, son?”

“Bazza Finch.”

The Crimson Comet blinked. “Bazza? As in, ‘Bartholomew’ Finch?”

“Yes…”

The Comet’s smile grew a touch warmer. “Well, you’ve grown.”

“What—”

Bazza suddenly recalled faint, impressionist recollections of a massive fella who’d hung around in the summer sometimes. He felt very dense. 

And so they marched on, pouring out from Gore Hill into the rest of Sydney as a polychrome river. Arnold sat in his dad’s lap as his mum pushed the chair. Probably a good decision. His shoes had gone with his costume. Allison took to the sky again, leading the way like a low-flying Star of Bethlehem. 

She looked back over the human train behind her, taking in the vast soundscape of their songs. She’d never seen so many people in one place, so close together. All there for one thing. 

I made this happen. Me. 

She felt like a grain of sand with the gravity of suns. 

As little houses and corner-stores gave way to tower-blocks and shopping centres, the march came up to a police barricade. Two dozen uniformed officers pointing guns at them from behind metal walls and their own police cars. 

The lead officer barked, “Stay back! Not all of you are bulletproof!”

The Crimson Comet stepped forward. Nobody fired. 

“True,” he said. “We’re not all bulletproof. But I am.”

Slowly, like the beginning of rain, the cops dropped their rifles and pistols. 

Ralph smiled crookedly. “Good choice, mates.”

He looked up at Allison. “Clear us a path?”

Allison cracked her knuckles. 

Green lightning lashed down, banishing the cars and barricades with a boom.

The police shouted and scattered, only to be engulfed as the march fell upon them. Costumed protestors jeered and slapped the officers on the back as they passed.   

For Ralph, it was as if the ground was shoving blood and adrenaline up through his feet. 

Christ, what if Jan sees this? What if she doesn’t?         

For the first time since he put on that costume again, Ralph Rivers felt like a superhero. He kept walking, right out of the past.      

Cars stopped moving as the march approached, allowing the people to flow around them like water around rocks in the sea. Motorists smacked their dashboards as though that was where the engine lived. 

They should’ve looked up at the plane still flying above the march. 

David tapped the window of a yellow Holden, getting the attention of a curly-haired girl in the backseat. They shared a smile. 

The door-lock hammered down. 

The children both rolled their eyes, before Sarah Allworth pulled David forward.

“Don’t dawdle.”

To the old lady’s quiet amusement, she saw some folks hopping out of their cars and walking with them.

Do they even know what this is about? Does it matter?

She looked up at the sky. 

You proud, son? Are we doing the right thing?

How could they not be?

The march turned a corner, slowly, by degrees. Allison spotted the Sydney Harbour Bridge, arching over the boats and blue water like an ornate coat-hanger.

She sighed even as she smiled. It would’ve been brilliant if they’d gotten to cross the bridge. A great picture in a history book.

But their target lay on this side of the water.

⬗  

After the attack at Royal Exhibition Hall, the DDHA found itself in need of a new headquarters. Again. 

It’d been slim pickings. Melbourne wasn’t keen to offer them more office-space, and Canberra still bore the faint scent of ash. 

They’d settled on Sydney. It was good enough for everything else. Some bright-spark had even suggested the DDHA take over the Parliament of New South Wales for the duration. Not like anyone was using it. Pretty much every government function since the start of Black Summer had been held over the phone or in discrete hotel conference rooms. 

They’d said no, of course. As far as the state government was concerned, putting the DDHA in another parliament building would be tantamount painting a bullseye on it. 

Then, to Tim’s dull, uncaring surprise, they offered them Kirribilli House7

It made sense. The house was centralized, set up for communication, and it wasn’t as if Menzies and his wife were using it anymore. 

There were other advantages. The view of the harbour was gorgeous. A security nightmare, as had been pointed out to Tim many times, but gorgeous. Anyone with a boat and a decent rifle could shoot you dead in the back-garden. Not that Tim had been overly concerned: he barely found the time to step outside for fag in the fresh air. Besides, water put him on edge lately. Same reason he had avoided the pool. That and memories one winter old…  

Kirribilli House also had creature comforts aplenty, like bedrooms. Went a long way towards making the all-nighters bearable, even if Tim was still sleeping alone. No way he was keeping Val close by. Not after the bombings.

So yes, in terms of digs, Valour’s life had improved considerably. If only the rest of his circumstances had followed that trend. 

This evening—like every evening the last week and a half—he was sitting in the prime minister’s former office, endlessly mulling over the latest clusterfuck with the DOPO attache.  

“I’m telling you Tim, the SLF was a fraud!”

Tim sighed. “What makes you say that?”

James Lyman glared at the DDHA chief. It was pretty much the only way he could look at people. While he had much the same indermininate middle-aged greyness as most military-intelligence men of their rank, he lacked that common stocky solidity. In fact, Tim thought he looked like an angry stick insect with curly hair. 

“Think about it, Tim.” He also had an unfortunate habit of using names in conversation a touch too often. “These names the guards gave us: ‘Garox,’ ‘Hyper-Hippie,’ ‘Evolvulon.’ Have you ever heard of these guys?”

“No,” admitted Tim. “But that doesn’t prove anything. They are more supers alive now than ever. Maybe they’re just… new.” 

Valour winced as Lyman spat a wad of nicotine gum into a handkerchief. Couldn’t he smoke like a normal fella? Or at least let them set up a spitoon. It put Tim uncomfortably in mind of consumptives. 

“Not a single familiar name? Unlikely. Supervillains are loners at heart. They don’t band together unless they’re desperate or very impressed with each other. The idea that a bunch of freshmen villains trusting each other enough to pull a stunt like Circle’s End? Just to rescue a bunch of other villains? Ridiculous.”

“But we do have familiar faces,” countered Tim. “Allison Kinsey and Arnold Barnes.”

Tim wished he hadn’t mentioned the children. They made him feel like a bastard. An incompetent bastard

He added, “Not to mention Mistress Quickly.”

Valour still wondered about that. Had Lawrence’s children already replaced him?

“That’s an oddity too. Quickly is a definite loner. Also hasn’t been active for a year. As for the children… there’s a certain childishness to the idea, isn’t there? The Supervillain Liberation Front, who want everyone in the world to be supervillains, too. What criminals want more competition?”

Tim had to admit, the attache had a point. 

But he didn’t. 

“You know, that Garox said he was an alien. Maybe they all are? Or most of them, anyway. Would explain why we haven’t heard about him, at least.”

Lyman scoffed. “Tim, do you know how unlikely it is that the rest of the Solar System hosts intelligent life?”

“There’s the Gatehouse.”

The attache leaned over the desk. “Yes there is the Gatehouse, Tim. Don’t you think they would have told us if there was an alien king running around?”

“The Gatehouse doesn’t tell us much of anything.” Tim resisted the urge to remind James of their mutual Physicians. “Besides, where does the Crimson Comet fit into this?”

“Simple. He was in on it.” 

Tim clenched his fists behind the desk. He supposed he couldn’t blame Lyman for paranoia. Reaping and sowing it was his job. The man had been with the OSS back in the war. All blowup tanks and forged intel left on dead men in the sea. These days, they said he had dead Viet Cong drained and strung up near encampments like vampire victims8. Brilliant, stupid schemes were what he was wired for.

But he didn’t know Ralph Rivers. Hadn’t had his life saved by him more than he had fingers. 

“The Crimson Comet is solid, Lyman.”

But then, Valour had known Herbert, too.

Lyman shrugged. “We thought Penderghast was solid.” Maybe not solid enough for some of the more… domestic uses for a sorcerer, but solid. “Nobody knows where the hell he’s been. And at the end of the day, Tim, the Crimson Comet is a super.”

That was one thing Valour had to say for the attache. He didn’t call them bloody ‘sorcerers.’

“It’s perfectly plausible he’d side with other supers”

He was right, Tim realized. Why would he expect Ralph to be alright with a boot on his lot’s necks? Why did he still think he was the good guy?

There was a dull, rising roar. 

For some reason, Lyman sniffed. “Is it raining or something?”

Valour’s secretary swung the office door open. She looked breathless:

“Sir, there’s something you should—”

Windchimes. The walls became transparent. Every single one in Kirribilli House. Electrical wires and telephone cables lay suspended in glassy brick and plaster, as if Henry Gray had gone into architecture. 

Everyone in the office looked through the walls at the front courtyard. It was crowded with a mix of people in white coveralls and knocked together pantomime costumes. Knocked together, that was, except the man with the metal wings and the children clustered around them.

Valour of course, recognized them all.

“Shit,” said Lyman, surprisingly evenly. 

Tim staggered and gripped his desk for support as three voices sounded as one in his head:

Timothy Valour. Come out and speak to us. Alone.” 

Before Valour could take a breath, a lone voice spoke. Allison Kinsey’s:

Oh, and Mr. Thumps.

Timothy collected himself. “Right. Had to happen eventually.”

Against Lyman’s advice, Tim and his manservant left the see-through house to face the mob. The sight of him inspired the crowd to launch into another round of “No Valour!

He ignored the jeers and shouts, looking darkly at the Crimson Comet. “Hello Ralph. You could’ve called ahead.”

Ralph made a pained expression. “Jesus, Tim. Secret identity, mate.”

“You know just how many Ralphs I know?” He looked at Allison standing next to the superhero. 

“Who’s in charge in there? Alberto back for another round?”

“Nope,” said Allison. “But he is laughing right now.”

Without any prompting, Mr. Thumps walked over to the little girl. Gently taking her hand, he said, “Miss Kinsey, what I did to you at the Exhibition Hall…” He lowered his mask of a face. It was the closest thing to an expression that came to him. “Please forgive me. I couldn’t—”

Allison shook her head. “It wasn’t your fault, Thumps. Besides, you saved my life.”

“I did?”

“Sorta. Whatever you did, it was just as good.”

Allison watched the lights behind Thumps’ face grow lilac with relief. She wondered if he could tag along when it was all sorted out. 

Valour was eyeing the ex-prisoners warily. The fact many of them were eyeing him back hungrily didn’t reassure him. 

He looked back at Ralph. “You do know half these people are criminals, right?”

Ralph nodded. “What does it matter? It’s illegal for them to walk around in the light right now. I’m a superhero, Tim not a policeman. Me and the law are only on nodding terms.”

Valour pointed a little desperately at Arnold Barnes, still sitting in his father’s lap. “He’s killed a man, you know. And he’s not the only one!”

Arnold went pale. His father wrapped his arms around him.

“We both know what Lawrence did to them, Valour.”

Tim exhaled. What was the point? There were thousands at his gates. Hundreds of them high-supers. They were seconds away from a riot. A superpowered riot. 

He caught sight of the painted plane hovering above Kirribilli House. He recognized it from some briefings. Probably not a good sign either.

This was a surrender.

“What do they want?”

Why was he still talking like Ralph wasn’t one of them?

Ralph jabbed a thumb towards David and Mrs Allworth. “Well, Davey here still wants you to explode. But we talked him out of it.”

Valour caught sight of David glaring at him with his moon-sea eyes. 

Fair cop, I suppose.

The Comet laid a hand on Allison’s shoulder. “Might want to ask this one here. She got the ball rolling.”

“Alright then. What are your demands?”

Allison remembered something from the Bible. Well, something in a film, from the Bible. 

She stepped forward and grinned, spreading her arms. “Let my people go.”

It was nearly impossible for a hush to fall over a crowd of that size and energy, but for Valour, its roar did grow more distant. 

He took a breath. “I see.” 

He turned and started back towards Kirribilli House. He looked over his shoulder. “Well, are you going to come and witness this? Ensure compliance?” 

Ralph and Allison shared a look, but soon followed the DDHA chief.

One advantage to Kirribilli House’s sudden translucency was that at least nobody was surprised when Valour walked in with the Crimson Comet and a very small wanted terrorist. 

Staff members shouted questions. Tim ignored them. 

James Lyman tried to block his path. “Valour! The hell are you doing? We do not negotiate with terrorists!”

“I’m not negotiating, I’m capitulating.”  

There was an odd freedom to it. He had no choice but to do the right thing. No compromises or politicking. If he didn’t free these people, Sydney would probably be on fire by nightfall. 

And nobody remembered the Pharaoh fondly. 

He found his secretary. 

“Marie, I want you to get on the phone, and get the word out. Emergency order: every demi-human asylum and containment facility is to be abandoned, effective immediately.”

“But sir, what about—”

Marie’s eyes darted to the Crimson Comet and the pale girl.

“The inmates are to be left alone. Completely alone.”

“…Okay.”

Allison and Ralph Rivers watched as the young woman made the call; as mechanically as the computers that would one day replace many of her kind.

Marie lay the phone down on its receiver. “It’ll take a couple of hours for everyone to get the message… I think.”

She winced like she expected the Comet to strike her.

Instead, he gave the woman a small salute. “Thank you, ma’am.”

Marie nodded and smiled queasily. 

Valour pulled a dotted map of Australia down from a chalkboard, rolling it up and handing it to Allison. It was half a head taller than her.

“They’re all marked on there.”

Soon Ralph and Allison were out the front doors again, the latter amusing herself by waving the map behind her like a cape.

Valour followed close behind.

“It’s done,” he told the crowd. “Go get your people.”

Arnold was back on his feet and in costume. Work clothes. “Alright people!” he said, voice amplified by a small metallic patch on his throat. “Orderly lines!”

It took him and Allison a little under ten minutes to whisk away all the supers. All that was left were themselves and the Barnes.

“You sure you’re fine with this?” Arnold asked. 

“We trust you, son,” said Angela, laying across her husband with her arms around his neck.

Fred nodded vigorously. “Been wanting to try this for ages!”

Arnold smiled and pointed. “Three… two…”

Angela looked back out at the crowd. “God bless you all.”

One!

Lightning lashed, sending Fred and Angela away. 

Arnold and Allison took each other’s hands. 

“Want to come with us?” Allison asked Mr. Thumps. 

The drone shook his head with slow graveness. “I have to look after Mr. Valour and Val.”

“Okay. Hope you can visit sometime.”

“This isn’t the end, you know,” said Tim. “I’m sorry, but you’re not making peace here. You’re just robbing us.”

“We know,” said Allison. “Still, better than where we were.”

The children turned to face the part-time superheroes of Sydney. They waved with their free hands.

“Bye!”

A lime brightness, and the supers were all gone.

Tim regarded the costumed tide of people lapping at the courtyard.

“Well, what are you still here for?”

Timothy Valour still slept alone that night. But at least he slept easy. His PSA was never reaired. It was made for a different world.

Allison Kinsey stood at the gates of McClare’s Demi-Human Asylum, her people at her back and standing before her, their collective songs colliding together like two stormfronts. 

The asylum inmates were shouting for release. As Allison remembered, most of them were children. The sun had set and taken the last dregs of daylight with it, but she glowed like the daughter of the moon and sun. 

She called behind her, “I’m taking requests for this one.”

“I can turn metal to sugar!”

“I can turn gravity off!”

The man they called Fo-Fum (still walking with a cane and a limp) shouted, “Use my power, kid! You get to be a giant!”

That sounded fun.

Bassoon. 

Allison’s presence expanded beyond the borders of her body. She clenched fists the size of cars. She could see herself standing twenty feet below her.

The metal walls and gates wrenched themselves out of the ground, hurtling far into the night.

The two crowds merged, before falling upon the asylum in a storm of exultant destruction. 

The supers spent hours tearing that place apart. All throughout, Allison wondered what she would call her town9

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1. A term often hurled at the Department of Pyschonautics and Occultism due to their insistence on a purely magical theoretical framework for superpowers. That and some unfortunate early recruitment posters featuring the likeness of Vincent Price.

2. An Australian grassroots movement largely consisting of middle-aged, middle-class women whose sons were old enough to be called up for National Service during the Vietnam War. The group is often seen as representative of a shift in public perception of the war, with opposition no longer limited to the youth and counterculture, but also the “respectable” middle-classes. However, at the time, members of Save Our Sons were often pilloried by the media as hysterical, naive mothers, or “bimbos.”

3. An international pacifist movement heavily involved in the Australian “Vietnam Moratoriums.”

4. A club turned protest group formed by students in Sydney University’s superhuman studies program.

5. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Flying Man’s approval ratings—such as they were—rose considerably after his disappearance.

6. A slur usually referring to people of Vietnamese extraction.

7. The official Sydney residence of the Prime Minister of Australia until early 1966. One might ask why the prime minister needs a residence in Sydney when the national capital is Canberra, but you could also ask why they’re paid more than people who have to work with sewage for a living.

8. Occult consultants had ruled out fielding actual vampires.

9. She settled on Catalpa.