All posts by thewizardofwoah

About thewizardofwoah

Amateur writer, snarker of silly things.

Chapter Eighty-Nine: The Harrowing

Mistress Quickly landed in soft darkness:

A slide? Who built this place? A kid?

The shadows shifted with a whir. The chute retracting, Maude guessed. The furry mass clinging to her tightened its grip.

Maude gave it a pat. “Good boy.”

Sterile white-blue light bloomed under her. She was lying on a raised mattress in the middle of a small dome made of tightly wound cogs and gears. Maude had expected that. 

What she hadn’t expected was for the entire cell floor to be a TV screen. Warden McNoll was sitting behind a black desk in front of a grey brick wall, staring up at the ceiling like Big Brother’s confused cousin. 

That’s considerate, thought Maude. Letting the inmates walk all over your face.

Warden McNoll’s upper lip bulged as he licked his teeth, clearly trying to remember his line.  After a second, he blurted, “You have been sentenced to this facility for crimes against the Commonwealth of Australia.”

“Technically,” Mistress Quickly said aloud, “I wasn’t sentenced at all. Haven’t even had a trial yet…”

Well, there were all the absentee ones. Maybe righteous indignation wasn’t her calling.

“This modular holding environment—”

“This cell, you mean.”

Why was she talking to a recording?

“…Will be your home until you have been deemed fit to reenter decent, human society, or a way is found for you to serve said society.”

“No points for guessing which comes first…” 

“As a low-powered, low-risk inmate—”

“Piss off!”

“…You are entitled by law to one hour of supervised, outdoor exercise each week. This is currently being appealed.”

Offense subsided, Maude wondered if they stitched different bits of video together, or if McNoll had to record a message for every little variation.

McNoll kept reciting, “You will receive three meals a day, as is also mandated by Australian law.” His right eye twitched. “Paid for by us, the taxpayer, because you f—”

The video skipped. Now McNoll was holding his hands together in front of him. “To continue, your prison issued furniture also functions as a toilet…”

Definitely the latter.    

The warden droned on about meal times for a while, before the floor turned dark again and the cell was filled with warm, even light. Mistress Quickly was alone, more or less.

Maude got up from the bed and ran her hand over the walls. Normally, spider threads of inspiration would be binding stray information and spontaneous insights into plans as solid as a finished product. Her fingers would twitch, hungry for materials to work into miracles. With this collar clinging to her throat, though, all Maude could’ve told you about this cell was that it looked like a bird’s nest made out of a clock, the floor talked, and it wasn’t at all dark despite a dearth of light fixtures. For her, it was like looking at a man’s face and not being able to tell if he had a nose.

So this is what being normal is like. Don’t like it. 

Could be worse, Maude told herself. Despite far too long spent staring at pictures of her brain and batteries of tests besides, Maude couldn’t shake the fear that suppressing her powers would render her… as she’d been. Before she became Mistress Quickly1

Unless it had. Looking around this cell was hardly any different from struggling through Dick and Jane readers at fourteen, trying to make sense of symbols and scratchings everyone else her age had found so self-explanatory. Maude had gone from “slow” to “impossible.” What did she know about normal

To her shame, Maude rushed over to an alcove in the wall housing a dozen, probably heavily vetted volumes. She blindly snatched up a copy of Of Mice and Men and flicked through it:

She could still read. Good.

Maude sighed in relief, slid down the wall, and waited. This whole plan was scraping her nerves like a violin bow. So much of it—so much of her future—now rested on the actions of others. Why had she agreed to it? Loyalty to her people? She was barely on the same continent as most supers, and patriotism was never Maude’s strongest instinct. Concern for the inmates? Maude was no altruist. Besides, the place was full of superheroes. Villains, too; but for all the drinks Mistress Quickly had shared with folks like Jimmy the Bastard or Close Fit2, supervillainy was no fraternity. 

It was the booty, Maude told herself. So much technology, some of it literally out of this world… but then, Maude had access to the multiverse. If she tried hard enough, she could’ve found a timeline where this facility had already been abandoned. 

Maude found herself remembering the Cuban Crisis. She’d just finished packing her bags for the Miracle Constellation3 when she’d heard the tapping at the window. At thirty-five thousand feet.

She agreed to help that curly haired bastard before he even offered her anything. God, she was a sucker sometimes. Maybe she hadn’t changed… 

After somewhere between forty-five minutes and forty-five years, Billy appeared in his super-suit on the bed, Mistress Quicky’s battle-suit tied around his waist. He was looking at a watch with a cat-shaped face. “It’s time, Miss Quickly!”

Maude shot up. “Oh, thank you more than Christ.” She held out her hands. “Toss me the suit.”

She slipped the costume on and pulled the mask down over her face. She nearly started as the communicator built into the neck snapped to life. Then, her own voice started talking through it.

“Now, Maude,” said the recording, its voice loud, slow, and forcibly cheerful. “I know you might be frightened, but I need you to do exactly what I say, alright? There’s people who need your help out there. Now, put your hand into the belt-pocket with the apple sticker on it and say ‘ballistic spray.’ That’s ‘bah-lis-tick spray.’ It’ll give you a little spray-can, like bug repellent. Spray it on the kitten-boy—”

She muted the recording. 

“You’re a bitch, Maude,” she told herself flatly. 

“Kitten boy?”

“You know it’s apt, kid.” 

Maude retrieved the “bah-lis-tick spray” and advanced towards Billy. “Alright, costume off for a second, got to bulletproof you.”

Billy crossed his arms. “Do you have to?”

For that, he caught a glob of ballistic foam in the face.

Maude shook the can. “Billy, you’re a living stuffed animal. They’d burn me at the stake if I let you get shot. Now stop whinging. Everyone should be busy gawking at the SLF, but I give us three minutes before someone glances at our camera. Now, one of us is spraying you, and I know which one we’d both rather that be.”

Billy sighed and took the spray. “Costume off.”

Soon he was covered in a layer of thick grey foam like he’d just gotten out of a concrete bubble bath. “My fur’s all sticky! And it makes my costume squelch!”

“Tough.” Maude stuck her hand into another pouch. “Gyges.” 

A ring jumped into her hand. She slipped it onto Billy’s clawed finger. The air around him shone and glinted.

“What’s this?”

“I used to get really cross at people for calling it a forcefield ring, because it’s not technically forcefields, but I can’t remember how it’s not right now, so fuck it, it’s a forcefield ring.”

Come to think of it, how did she fit all that into a ring?

Then why do I need the spray? And don’t swear!”

“Redundancy!” Maude looked around the cell, asking herself, “How do we get out of here? Vapourized time? Forcefield pliers?”

Billy cleared his throat. “Can I try?”

Maude hummed consideringly. “You aren’t going to try roaring in here, are you?”

“No…”

“Go ahead.”

Billy raised his arms over his head. Silvery mist flowed up from his palms, spreading over the dome walls down to the floor. The mist swelled.

Billy smiled to himself.

The dome collapsed into confetti over their heads, letting in blaring klaxons like the world’s worst party-horns. 

Breakout from Juvenile Rehabilitation Area… Breakout from Juvenile Rehabilitation Area.

Billy clapped his hands over his ears. Mistress Quickly’s HUD highlighted six guards rushing around where the cell had been, word balloons helpfully pointing out their guns. They were shouting dimly beneath the roar of the alarm, taking aim.

Maude hugged Billy to her side. “Hold tight!” 

She clicked her heels. The battle-suit’s glider fanned beneath the pair’s feet.

Maude and Billy shot up above a storming of bullets, speeding over row upon row of clockwork domes towards the exit. Guards shouted and fired wildly up at the pair.

A bullet winged Billy in the shoulder. His ring-aura wobbed like a second skin of jelly. As did the ballistic foam.

“Feels funny…”

Better than what I usually hear when someone gets shot. Maude glanced up at the cell-block’s ceiling. “24” was written across the steel in white block letters. Good. Now they had some idea of where they were. 

Maude shoved her hand into a weapons-pouch. 

Mirth.”

Five small metal orbs flitted into the supervillain’s hands. She looked down at Billy, still clinging to her thigh. “I suggest you hold your breath, kid.”

Maude tossed the orbs over her shoulder. They struck the floor below and bounced, before exploding into plumes of thick, pink smoke, rapidly spreading across the cell bay and swallowing the guards.

Wild, pained laughter broke out below the glider. A few aimless gouts of gunfire erupted from the smoke like fleeing fireflies. 

Well, at least the guards are having a good time, Maude thought as they zoomed out of the block.   

They soon reached a bank of four brightly coloured elevators: red, blue, green and yellow. 

Maude groaned. She felt like she was trapped on a game show. Fucking too-clever designers. She tried to remember the code. Red for surface-access and administration, blue for holding areas… 

A ghostly little girl poked her head through the yellow doors and looked around, catching sight of Mistress Quickly and Billy. She beamed. “Hi Billy!”

Billy waved. “Hey Miri!”

“I’m guessing Allison and Arnold got out alright?” asked Maude. 

“Yep! Made some friends, too! One’s pink, another’s the same colour as the Meanie, sounds meaner, but is actually nice, and there’s one girl called—”

Maude snapped her fingers. “Focus, girl.”

“Oh, yeah, we got out. Allie broke the sky!”

Maude tried to keep her eyes from rolling. “And have you found engineering?”

“The power room? Yep! Just a sec.”

Miri disappeared back into the elevator. The doors opened, revealing Miri floating beside a badly shaved young man in white scrubs vacantly prodding at the “door open” button.   

Maude and Billy filed inside the elevator. The former prodded the man in the shoulder. His only response was a slight gurgle in his throat.

“Did you drug him?”

“What’s a drug?” asked Miri. “Allie just tapped him and now he does what she wants.”

“Why didn’t you go inside him?” asked Billy.

Miri frowned. “Boy.”

Maude reminded herself to never let Allison touch her.

It turned out Mistress Quickly had no more fondness for long elevator rides than the Crimson Comet. Especially not with an imaginary girl and a zombie. She glanced at Miri’s illusionary body. Her midsection trailed off into mist like Casper the Friendly Ghost’s little sister. A concession to modesty? Pure aesthetic?

“You know,” said Maude. “I don’t dabble in biology too much, but I could probably work you up a decent body, especially with the blood I picked up in Maestro-land. Not sure how I’d move you into it right now, but it’d be a start.”

Miri was quiet for some time.

Billy nodded eagerly. “We could play more! And hug!”

Miri bit her lip. “Wouldn’t it be lonely?”

Billy tilted his head. “But you’d still have us.”

Miri looked at Maude. “…Would I be able to fly?”

Maude shrugged.

“Probably. The Grand Duchess of the House of Pancakes or whatever could fly through space, but I’m not smart enough to know what I could knock together for you right now.”

The elevator doors opened before Miri could respond. 

Maude had half-expected the reactor room to be bathed in shadow and mood lighting. That was silly. People had to work here. So no, the chamber was flooded with pragmatic, ugly fluorescent light. Not that the rest of the design was as sensible to Maude’s eyes. The roof was held up by angled pillars. Control consoles were arranged in a magician’s circle around a concave pit—all straight lines and edges, beveling down into the floor like a crater carved with a slide rule. Water cascaded down the steps into a bright blue pool at the bottom.

Technicians in white scrubs wandered around dazed like badly directed film extras. Mixed among them were over a dozen much more alert looking children.

Allison looked up from where she was crouched at the bottom of the pit. “Hey, you made it!”

An aboriginal boy smiled crookedly at one of the zombified technicians. “Looks like I owe you a fiver.”

The techie groaned.

“Forget it? Sure!” Tom waved up at Billy. “Good to see ya, Bill!”

Billy blinked. “Tom?”

Brit was sitting on top of one of the consoles, swinging her legs. “I’m here too, by the way.”

Billy only had one response to this news. “Yay!”

A little girl ran up to Maude. She was light blond, and surprisingly muscular looking for a child Allison’s age. She put Maude in mind of a more sturdy Miri.

The girl was hopping in front of her like a puppy begging for treats. “Are you really Mistress Quickly?”

“…Should I answer that?”

The girl trilled with excitement, apparently taking that for a yes. “I’m Thunder-Tiger! Huge fan of your work! My mum and dad are in the scene too, ever heard of them?”

“And they are?”

“Armagetcha and Miss-Demeanor!”

Maude decided to be kind. “Oh yeah, them. Real up and comers, them.”

Thunder-Tiger hugged herself and spun in place, grinning.

Second-generation supervillain. Tragic. Maude reminded herself never to have kids.

She looked at the water-pit, listened to the soft roar of the water. She had no idea what it did . This could not be tolerated. 

Maude spotted Arnold milling about one of the consoles and pointed at her collar. “Oi, teleporter! Get this thing off me!”

A spark. Air on her neck. Maude looked down into the pool again. 

It screamed. 

Maude laughed and broke out in a run towards the edge of the pit. She jumped, clicking her heels and riding her glider down to Allison at the central pool. “Budge over and let me look!”

Mistress Quickly got on her knees and pushed the little girl aside, peering down into the too-blue water. There was a mass the size of a fat ten year old floating in the centre. Delicate feathers of stained glass as fine as silk radiated from a central jewel, caressing the water with long, gentle strokes. 

It put Maude in mind of a drowning chandelier. 

Allison was lying sideways beside the scientist, trying not to let her offense show. “I think it’s alien. You ever heard of Dr. Smith?”

“I’d put money on it,” said Maude. She spread her arms. “Do you think a real person would build a reactor room like this?”

“…Didn’t you once kill a man with bouncy balls?”

“Shut up.” 

Maude said, “Argus,” and suddenly she could see Allison Kinsey’s deeply strange insides. 

Maude looked up and around the reactor room, sliding-scale sonar peeling away the walls. Tubes ran out from under the glass feather-star, feeding the fluid it soaked in up into the complex before returning it via the cascade.

Maude whistled. “Wow, the whole place is a giant watermill.” She pointed down at the feather-star. “That thing draws energy from the space between spaces, dumps it into the juice it’s swimming in, which is then piped to every cell, lightbulb and coffee maker in this place. Hope you haven’t stuck your finger in there, stuff would probably burn a hole in your stomach.”

Allison frowned. “What do I look like? A baby?”

Yes.”

Allison sighed. “Can you work with it?

“Oh, yeah. Shouldn’t take—”

Mistress Quickly spotted movement in the elevator shafts. “Allison, we’re about to have company.”         

Allison nodded and rose out of the pit. “Look alive people, baddies coming!”

The three access elevators disgorged twenty armed men out into the reactor room. 

Face red, neck-veins bulging like ropes beneath his skin, the squad leader screamed, “Hit the deck—”  

A bright white filament snatched the gun out of his hands, waving it over his head like a bully with a stolen toy.

“The hell—”

A pink streak raced and weaved through the guards, stripping all of them of their firearms. 

The blur came to a stop a few feet before the men, revealing Andrea clutching a bundle of automatic rifles, a few of the guns spilling from her arms and clattering on the floor.

“Looking for these?”

It was terribly unfair. Taking a human’s tools was like pulling a wolf’s teeth. What else did they have?

The guards broke out in a chorus of swearing and shouting, charging towards the girl. 

“You asked for it..”

Andrea’s eyes glowed bright red, along with those of the hissing snakes growing from her scalp. 

The front most men froze mid-run, toppling forwards when the guards behind them smacked into their backs.

Andrea screwed her eyes shut and proceeded to grow twenty five feet in size. She raised her right foot over the half-paralyzed pile of men. “Say mercy!”

Many out of synch cries of “Mercy!”

Tom golf-clapped. “Nice one, Ann.”

“I try,” said Ann. 

Tom called over to Arn, jabbing his thumb at the human pile. “Get these fools out of here.”

Arnold wondered why Tom thought he could give him orders all of a sudden. Probably because he was Tom Long, he decided. 

Languidly, the boy zapped away the guards. 

“I meant to ask,” said Allison, rolling gently in the air, “where’ve you been sending the guards?”

Arnold shrugged. “Some place I saw in my atlas. ‘Phaeacia’ it’s called. It said they liked guests.4” 

Mistress Quickly hadn’t even stopped working during the attempted incursion. From dozens of parts pulled from her belt, she had erected a metal cage like a spider lurking over the reactor pool, ready to devour whatever swum beneath its web. 

Allison floated back down to Mistress Quickly, loudly asking, “How are we going, Maude?”

Thunder-Tiger blinked. “Maude?”

Maude hissed, “Not when I’m in the suit, girl.” She cleared her throat. “Nearly done.” She shouted. “Hey Billy, ask Blanchey if we’re still connected to his quantum computers! Otherwise this thing is just the world’s most efficient paper shredder! And everything else shredder!”

Billy gulped and spoke into his watch. “You ready, Mr. Blancheflor?”

“Mistress Quickly’s set up and my processors are well on speaking terms, Master St. George.”

Billy gave the thumbs up.

Maude nodded, pleased. “Alright, all we—”

Klaxons. Again. But a new message:

This facility will self-destruct in ten minutes. All remaining personnel must make an orderly exit… 

There was a second of stunned silence. Then the children started screaming.

Arnold paced in a tight, frantic circle. “Crap, crap crap…”

“My mum and dad are in here!” cried Thunder-Tiger. “And—and—me!”

Tom took a lot of very short breaths. “Okay, everyone huddle up, Arnold can…” 

Allison wondered what everyone was panicking about. Then she remembered she hadn’t gotten around to telling anyone this was a possibility. Precognition could trip you up like that.

Electric guitar.                

“Everyone shut up!” Allison yelled with a touch of Billy’s power. “I’ll handle it!”

Xylophone. 

Allison turned transparent and floated through the ceiling like a ghost finding her way home. Up and up. She passed through a cell containing a white-haired old man, startled from his copy of Brave New World5 by the sight of her. Water tanks and layers of rock. Then a panicking cook up in the guard canteen, much to their mutual horror.  

Finally, Allison found herself in the pastel nightmare of the warden’s office.

A bullet whizzed through her wireframe body. 

Warden McNoll was standing behind his desk, a smoking Colt.45 shaking in his hands. He looked like his bones were turning to rubber. 

“Stay back!” he cried, voice warbling. “I warn ya!”

Allison returned to flesh and smiled. “You’re about to blow me up, who cares?”

The girl started walking towards the Warden.

He fired his gun again. He might as well not have bothered. Allison saw it coming before he even pulled the trigger. She dodged to the right.  

McNoll fired again. Allison dodged again, laughing. 

Frances screamed as Allison closed in. The girl grabbed his arm and grinned.

“It wouldn’t have worked anyway.”

Allison wrenched the gun down to her forehead. McNoll’s trigger finger jerked involuntarily. 

There was a bang like a whip being cracked. The warden yelped in horror. 

The bullet fell at Allison’s feet, hot and pristine. A patch of her skin the size of a penny glowed with Brit’s own light.

“See?”

Frances McNoll dropped his gun. Without thinking, he sat down in his chair and pressed a few buttons, with more certainty than he’d ever mustered before. 

He leaned towards his microphone. “Command code #23432. Cancel the self-destruct.”

There was a second of hanging quiet.

Self-destruct cancelled. 

In the back of her head, Allison felt hundreds of sighs of relief like a cool breeze. 

“You know you didn’t want to die, don’t you?” asked Allison.

“It’s what I was supposed to do…” 

“Sounds dumb.”

“What are you going to do to me?” asked McNoll. 

Allison hopped from foot to foot. “Nothing that bad. We haven’t even killed any of your guys.”

“…Can I ask you something, girl?”

“Why not?”

“What’s it like?”

“What’s what like?”

“That power. Having it inside you.”

Allison considered the question. “Pretty good, if I’m being honest.”

Somewhere, Alberto smiled.

Allison put her fingers to her temple. Okay Maude, take us away.

Many floors below, Maude gripped the handle of her trigger device. She’d kept working all through the droning automated countdown, even with muscles as stiff as concrete.

The metal spider released a bundle of metallic tubes into the reactor fluid, drawing the blue liquid up into itself. 

Beneath her mask, Maude smiled. She still wasn’t sure why she’d signed up for this. But she knew one reason she’d seen it through. These fuckers thought they could build a prison to hold Mistress Quickly. So Mistress Quickly would take their prison.

She pushed the button. 

And they were gone. 

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1. Technically before she became “Professor Wit.”

2. Wallace Grimsby, a brilliant fashion-designer turned mad scientist, specializing in the production of bespoke super-suits and high-tech armour. Originally hailing from London, Grimsby fled to Australia after drunkenly attempting to assault long time professional rival Norman Hartnell.

3. A sequence of realities linked by an outbreak of strange superhuman transformations in a long terraformed solar system.

4. A month or so after the assault of Circle’s End Supermax, a large, thought-driven galley sailed into Port Jackson Bay, Sydney, delivering those guards that hadn’t married into the local aristocracy of Phaeacia.

5. Technically a deeply strange, clumsily edited double edition of Brave New World and Adolus Huxley’s spiritual follow-up Island.

Chapter Eighty-Eight: The Garden of Earthly Delights

Before Allison could say anything more to her fellow juvenile delinquents, the rent opened in the air again, ejecting a whooping Arnold onto the spongy grass.

He scrambled to his feet, knees and shoulders bouncing with excitement. “Let’s do that again—” He blinked at the sight of the children behind Allison, rubbing his eyes and looking again. “Haunt? Brit?”

Tom and Louise both frowned. 

“Ah, sorry. Force of habit.”

A ten year old girl with pink skin and quietly hissing snakes for hair asked, “You know these two?”

“Yeah,” said Louise. “They’re from the Institute.”

Allison ran over and tried her best to hug both Tom and Louise. “We thought you were dead!”

Tom stiffened, then relaxed slightly, patting the girl half-heartedly on the back. “We were kinda wondering about you, too.”

Louise asked, “What about the rest of you guys? Mabel? Billy?” Louise’s voice rose in pitch a touch. “David?”

“Yeah,” said Arnold. “We got out.” 

“But I heard you all die!” insisted Allison. “Your songs went away.”

Tom sighed. “Sit down, everyone, this is going to take some explaining…”

Tom and Louise told the story of the raid like a joke they’d been forced to repeat once or twice too many at a party. The soldiers; the fire-fight; Linus and his father…

“…It was like we were taking a bath in the sun,” said Tom, “Then Apollo or whoever he was said he was taking us to where we needed to be…” He grunted. “Then me and Louise got dumped right in the bloody lobby here.” Tom cast his eyes up at the painted ceiling. “This is why nobody worships you gits anymore.”

Many floors above, heat lightning crackled across the wide desert sky. Not even a whisper reached the children.

Tom smiled bitterly. “One advantage of being underground I guess. You can cuss out the ultra-white-people much as you like.”

“I know it sounds wild,” said Louise, “but Linus was telling the truth.”

Arnold shrugged. “I can buy it. We met David’s granddad.”

“Really?” asked Louise. “What’s he like?”

“Evil. But kinda fun sometimes?” Arnold jabbed his thumb at Allison. “He liked Allie a lot.”

Everyone looked at the girl. Allison was clawing at the trampoline grass. 

“Ah, you alright Allie?” asked Tom.

It was odd. For nearly two months, Allison had known in her gut that all the other Institute kids were dead. But she was wrong. Some of them were still alive. More could still be out there. She should’ve been relieved. 

But some of them weren’t out there. Allison knew how they died now. Their songs lost forever all over again.

“Nope,” she answered. “But I will be soon. When we get out of here.”

The other inmates laughed derisively. 

“Yeah, sure,” said a pasty skinned teenage girl with long dark hair. “I bet you’ll be gone before the Chester Fingers speech.” 

Arnold lip curled. “Chester Fingers?”

A twangy “boing” taken directly from a cartoon sound effects library echoed through the sky, growing louder and closer with every repetition.

Arnold and Allison looked up. Nobody else did. A figure was bouncing between the sheep-fleece clouds like a demented transitional Superman. 

Allison frowned. “The heck—”

It leapt down onto the grass in front of the kids. It was a fat party-clown in a half polka-dotted mustard shift and a blue top-hat. His eyes were glassy, manic saucers, and his big red nose bore an unfortunate resemblance to a tumour.

“Hi kids!” it screeched in a far too jaunty, generically American voice. “I’m Chester Fingers!”

Allison felt a whimper in the back of her head, barely noticeable, along with a voice sourly spitting “pagliaccio.” Was that what Miri and Alberto sounded like without telepathy? “Chester Fingers,” she said flatly. “Really?”

“That’s right, [NAME TO BE INPUT], Chester Fingers!” The clown pulled out a handkerchief and violently blew his nose, spewing streams of multicoloured ribbon from his nostrils. Then he stood perfectly still, as though holding for laughs.

Chester Fingers received none. It didn’t seem to bother him.

Fingers capered between Allison and Arnold, somesalting and bouncing. “I’m here to get you settled into the Garden, where you’ll get to play with tons of new friends while all the clever scientists work day and night to make you all normal little girls and boys!”

Allison glared fire at the clown. “Normal?”

Tom rolled his eyes. “Piss off, Fingers.”

Chester Fingers turned to the older boy and wagged a finger at him. “Now, now, Mr. Long. You already have [234] attitude demerits. You don’t want to miss Movie Night again, don’t you?”

Tom scoffed. “You project the bloody films on the clouds! You can see it for miles! Fake miles, but still!”

“That sounds kinda cool…” murmured Arnold.

“You’d think so,” whispered Louise. “But it’s always some weird kiddie crap where the mouths don’t match the voices and all the boys sound like old ladies. Tom reckons they get them from Mexico1. Tough on the neck, too.”

Chester Fingers threw his arms up, Apollo butterflies and emerald swallowtails escaping from his baggy sleeves only to dissolve mid-air. “Well, let’s get started on the ground tour!”

Allison and Arnold’s surroundings blurred. The ground was sliding like a treadmill beneath their feet, speeding them far away (or so it seemed) from the other inmates. Allison—biological treasure that she was—managed to keep her balance, but Arnold fell backwards on his rump.

They found themselves in front of a cluster of rabbit holes dug into a small hillside. Unfortunately, Chester Fingers had joined them:

“This is where the handy dandy Rabbit Reserve Corps delivers you kids three square meals a day and fresh clothes!”

A yellow-white rabbit lopped out of one of the “warrens” with a large brown package tied around its back.

Arnold grinned. “Bunnies!” 

He saw how Allison was looking at him and quickly cleared his throat. “I mean, probably fake bunnies, right?”

Chester Fingers added something like wryness to his grin. “Who’s to say what’s real, [NAME TO BE INPUT]?”

The clown winked with an audible twinkle.

The ground shifted again. Now they were in a forest clearing, where a giant, matronly dressed goose sat on a tree stump surrounded by child-sized blow up mattresses, mumbling her way through a particularly tame version of “Hansel and Gretel” from a storybook the size of a coffee table.

“And this is Mother Goose, who is always here to tell approved bedtime stories!”

“I wonder if she does Famous Five,” remarked Arnold. 

He almost startled when Chester Fingers responded, “Lucky for you, Mother Goose has indeed memorized the complete works of Enid Blyton!”

“Figures,” said Allison.

“We can never tell Billy about this.”

Again, they were carried away, this time to a shocking boring concrete toilet block in the middle of a suspiciously manicured green field.

“And these are the restrooms! Remember kids, just because we’re in the great outdoors doesn’t mean we’re animals!”

“They shoulda put a bit more imagination into this part,” said Arnold.

“Do you really want an imaginative toilet?” retorted Allison.

“Maybe not.”

There was one last stop on Chester Fingers’ tour: a pond about the size of an olympic swimming pool, filled with a bright yellow water.

“Welcome to Lemonade Lake!” cheered the clown. “Where you kids can swim and wash up to your hearts’ content! Just remember, maintain a distance of one metre from other swimmers, and no mixing boys and girls. Don’t want to catch cooties, do we?”

Chester Fingers’ head shook like a bobble-head, his pupils bouncing off and around the edges of his eyes.

Allison grimaced. “Eww! Why’d they have to make it yellow?”

“Doesn’t even look like lemonade,” said Arnold. He toed the water. “It’s not even fizzy!”

“I think they’re using it the American way. It’s what they call lemon cordial there.”

“Weird.”

Tour concluded, the floor returned Chester and the children back to where they started.

“Just so you know,” said Tom, “By now Lemonade Lake is almost exactly what it looks like.”

Chester Fingers still had speech left in him. “We at the Garden all know how scary it can be adjusting to our new home, so I hope you all are very nice to [NAME TO BE INPUT] and [NAME TO BE INPUT]. But remember, if you ever need another buddy, just call on ol’ Chester Fingers.”

Chester Fingers’… fingers detached from his hands, swimming through the air like pale, bony sea-snakes, lunging at the children and tickling them under their chins and ribs, their master giggling all the while. 

Screaming broke out among the children. Arnold flailed like he was in the middle of a swarm of bees. Tom swatted at the fingers with a scowl like Hades. Louise was curled up on the grass with her hands over her head. Allison meanwhile just shut off the nerves in her skin and stood there with her eyes screwed shut.

“Eww, ewww, eww…”

Thankfully, the tickle-fest quickly concluded with Chester summoning back his fingers. The clown threw his top-hat into the air and jumped inside, tugging the rim into the hole after him. “See you at dinner, kids!”

Everyone breathed a sigh of relief.

“So yeah,” said Tom, “that Dante bloke was a bloody winger.”

After that introductions were made. The Medusa girl was called Andrea, and could paralyze people with sustained eye-contact. And move at tremendous speeds. And shrink and grow in size.

“Wow, that’s”—Allison tried to think of a word the other kids might know—“eclectic.”     

“Yeah, she’s a real Billy,” said Tom, master of context-clues.

“Was that the kid who dropped dead?” asked Annie.

No,” Tom said firmly. “The one who looks like a tiger.”

“Oh, the one you never shut up about, got it.”

Arnold grinned

“Look, there isn’t much to talk about in here.”

“Sure. Softie.”

Tom didn’t dignify his old schoolmate with a response.

Then there was Liam, a slightly goatish boy with stubby horns growing from his forehead:

“So you’re a wizard?” asked Allison. “Like Penderghast?”

Liam shrugged. “I guess. Kinda self-taught. I think Mum’s a witch, but she’s real into God now. Still, I found an old book in the drywall. Probably that ‘evil’ Mum kept screaming about when she tried burning the house down.” He shook his head sady. “Freak-finders took it off me. But I still remember a lot” He started fretting his hands and speaking very slowly. “Or—I remember remembering, before the collar.” Liam tugged at it. “But how is knowing something a power? God, magic’s confusing.”

“I hear ya.”

Brent had skin like diamond and the strength to match. Paula could shoot garrote wire made of light from her fingers. One girl would only answer to the name “Thunder-Tiger2” and claimed to be the scion of two South Australian supervillains locked up a few floors down. 

All in all, a good bunch, Allison decided, though it occurred to her that she had no way of knowing if these kids were being honest. Still, they had to be in here for a reason.

“So what’s your plan, Allie?” asked Louise.

“You don’t really think they’re getting us out of here, do ya?” asked Andrea, hair hissing and snapping at the air around her head. 

“I don’t know,” said Louise. “Allison’s pretty smart. Or her power is, anyway.”

Thanks,” said Allison. 

“Doesn’t matter how smart they are,” said Liam. “Doc Danny built the stupid place, and he’s been in here long as anyone.”

“Look,” said Allison, “me and Arn—wait, who’s in here?”  

“Doc Danny,” said Tom. “Mad-scientist kid. ‘Bout you and Arn’s age. He built ‘the Garden’ for the freak-finders before they threw him in.” 

“Served him right,” added Angela.

Tom looked a touch queasy at that.

“Huh,” said Allison. “Like Daedalus.”

Arnold looked at her. “Who—oh, forget it…” 

He remembered, but decided not to mention it. Sometimes Allie needed her moments.

“Take us to him,” said Allison.

The inmates exchanged looks. 

“That might be tough,” said Andrea. “He’s hiding.”

Neither Arnold nor Allison needed to be told why.

“Can’t be that hard,” said Louise. “There’s only one place to hide here.”

Everyone trapsed to the toilet block. Allison kept her enhanced eyes trained on the horizon. She could make out the miniscule points of light that made up the “sky” like Ben-Day dots in a cheap comic, and even the seams behind them where two walls met. The illusion of distance.

Allison could feel the ground flowing subtly under her feet, too—not nearly so jarringly as during the tour, but enough they were essentially walking in place. Motion without progress. Instead, Lemonade Lake and Mother Goose’s hollow drifted past them like lily pads in a stream.   

“What have you guys been up to since… you know, the thing?” asked Louise.

“Um…” Arnold wasn’t sure where to start. 

Allison decided to start with the worst. “I ate Alberto.”

Louise stared at the other girl. “What?” 

“I mean, I kinda… sucked his soul into my brain. So now I have his power. And everything else.”

“Then we went to live with the Physician on his spaceship,” added Arnold. “He had a mermaid!”

“Jesus,” said Tom. 

“It was kinda alright until he made me eat another kid so I could fly.” Quickly, Allison added, “It’s okay, but. We’re friends now!”

Tom was beginning to wonder if he and Louise were better off in the Garden.

“And then the Flying Man killed him to death,” said Arnold. 

Tom nodded thoughtfully. “Guess that figures..”

“And now we live in his house.”

Louise asked, “You live with the Flying Man?” She glanced reflexively at the simulated sky. “Is he helping you?”

“Not really,” explained Arnold. “Just his mum. The Flying Man’s dead.”

Louise wasn’t sure what she ought to ask next. “…Does she have powers too?”

Arnold shook his head. “Not really. Just sorta old.”

“Crap.”

“…I killed Lawrence.”

Louise went silent. Horror warred with a sick smile creeping towards her lips. She wasn’t sure she should be shocked at Arnold’s admission: she’d killed too, now.

“Aww, mate,” said Tom. “Sorry you had to… that.”

“I know.”

A second’s quiet, then Arnold shrugged. 

“He was an arse though, right?”

“Totally.”

It went on like that until they reached the toilets. Or the toilets reached them.

Tom stood at the head of the crowd, cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted. “Oi! Danny Doc! Come on, we know you’re in there. Get on out here!”

A small whimper echoed out from the concrete block. 

Tom sighed and slumped his shoulders. “Look. I’m not gonna beat you up.”

“Again,” muttered Louise. 

 “Not proud of it,” Tom shot over his shoulder, before turning back to the block and yelling, “These new kids want to speak to ya!”

An angry but shaky little voice, “Oh, all the new kids want to speak to me!”

“Really speak to ya! They wanna ask you about this place!”

“I’ve told you, there is no ‘secret passage’! I didn’t build the place with my hands!”

“That’s it, I’m going in there,” said Allison. She stalked towards the entrance to the boy’s toilets.

A kid darted out of the other doorway, taking off into the distance.

Allison frowned. He’d been hiding in the girl’s. The creep

“Get back here—”

Allison shot past Tom after Doc Danny, pursuing him across the sponge carpet of the Garden. Symbols flashed in her mind’s eye, increasing the flow of adrenaline and blood to her legs, boosting her breathing and quieting protesting muscles. 

…Yet she couldn’t close the distance. How was this twerp—  

Oh, yeah, treadmill. 

Allison bent her knees and leapt as hard as she could, sailing a full ten feet into the air.  

The treadmill grass crossed the distance better than Allison ever could, pulling Doc Danny in underneath her. She landed on him with a thud, the ground flexing beneath them. 

Allison flipped the boy under her on his back, finding a mousy haired boy with thick clouds of freckles. He had a fading black eye and a missing tooth. Allison doubted it was a baby one.  

“I’m sorry!” he wailed. “I couldn’t say no! I don’t have powers like you—” 

Allison put a finger to Doc’s mouth. “Just tell me: what happens in here when they put the prison in lockdown.”

Doc blinked. Something like hope was born inside him. Or maybe just confusion. He tried to remember the protocols he’d written (dictated) when he was seven. “…Chester Fingers calls us all for a surprise movie. Supposed to distract us.”

Allison got off him. “Thank you.”

Come on, Comet, get a move on.

The other inmates gathered around the two.

“…Is he done explaining already?” asked Louise. “Seems pretty quick.”

Allison managed a smile. “He’s told me what I need to know.”

The cartoonishly springy sound sounded again over the Garden. Chester Fingers jumped down into their midst. 

“Oh lucky us, kids! It’s time for a surprise viewing of Tom Thumb and—

Allison nodded at Arnold. “Now!”

The pair struck the most dramatic poses they could:

“Costume on!”

A white flash.

The inmates oohed and awed at the sight of Arnold and Allison suddenly in their costumes. Allison though, shuddered. 

Their collars were gone. 

The music swamped Allison like a flood pouring into a canyon. So many songs. Orchestras of songbirds singing in strange, rarified atmospheres. Wind howling over mountains of delicate crystal. Drums like the breath of volcanoes…

An increasingly familiar voice chirped in Allison’s ear, “Yay, you can hear me again!”

Hi, Miri. 

“Oh, thank fuck. It was like being shoved in a footlocker.”

…Hi Alberto.

Allison grabbed onto as many songs as she could at once. It was hard, carrying them all on her soul—like trying to keep her toes curled around tightrope in zero gravity—but it felt so good.

The colours of her costume ran together until they were pure, gleaming white; except for the faint, flowing rainbows of the Muse’s star on her chest.

“Wow,” said Tom. “You look neat.”

Louise looked at her friend, surprised. 

“Well, she does.”

Allison looked down benignly at Doc Danny. She extended a hand for him. “You did good, Doc.”

Doc took the offered hand cautiously and pulled himself to his feet. “What happens now?”

Allison tapped a finger to his collar. “Let me get that for you—”

A green spark, and the collar vanished. Doc gasped with relief.

“I’m smart again!”

“Yep”

Allison tapped his neck again. The boy’s eyelids fluttered shut as sleep took him. He dissolved into green light with a thunderclap before he could hit the ground.

A murmur of confusion snaked through the inmates.

“You didn’t send him to the sun or something?” asked Tom. 

“He was fragile,” answered Allison. “I sent him somewhere safe.3

Chester Fingers spoke up. “I see you two have misplaced your safety bands. Allow me to give you a big hug while we wait for replacements.”

Chester Fingers’ arms shot out, extending like pythons and coiling around Arnold and Allison, and constricting tightly around their chests. Arnold lit up with lightning, but the arm around him only fuzzed like a bad TV signal. The other children shouted and pulled at the clown’s sleeve, trying to free the boy in the cloak.

Chester Fingers beamed. “Does someone want a tickle fight?”

Again, his fingers flew from his hand, swooping at the children like greedy magpies. 

“Everyone get back!”

The inmates obeyed, though mostly in a blind attempt to flee the fingers.

Allison burst into red and purple flames, becoming a white-hot coal at the centre of a hearth. Chester Fingers shimmered as the air broiled, the disruption melting him into a mess of light and force fields4

Allison and Arnold both fell to the ground, breathing heavily.

“Okay,” said Allison. “Now—”

The grass slid fast beneath every child, rapidly carrying them away from each other. 

Allison wished she hadn’t evacuated the Doc so fast.

Arnold lay on his back as the landmarks of the Garden swirled around him. He saw the toilets sailing off in the distance like a lifeboat current in a riptide.

The floor’s like a sliding puzzle.

He pointed at the toilet block. Lightning whipped from his fingers:

A mound of concrete and water exploded from under the middle of the Garden. The grass came to a screeching, grinding halt.

The children groaned and rubbed various sore spots as they collected themselves in the corners of the Garden they’d stopped in.

Arnold looked around. “Allie?”

Out of the corner of his eye, Arnold saw his friend fly at the sky: a white star in broad daylight.

Allison quickly reached the border of the false sky, clawing at it with fingers dressed in diamond skin. Thin fissures of white light spread through the blue, like cracks in a window about to shatter. 

The sky vanished, revealing grey concrete riddled with lights like hundreds of spider-eyes. The “grass” was now dull and grey, like a cross between lunar wastes and kitchen sponges. A slide spiraled down from the middle of the ceiling. The whole Garden it turned out was about the size and shape of a high school auditorium. 

Most importantly, there was a large, vaulted door set into the east wall, which Allison was presently smugly alighting in front of.

Arnold and the inmates ran to meet her, the former darting amongst them and teleporting away their collars all the while.

“You guys have a choice,” Allison said when all were gathered. “You can help me and Arnold mess with the people who locked you up, or we’ll send you to the same place we put Doc. No shame.”

The inmates exchanged looks. 

Tom’s eyes flashed white. It was good to be able to see through little things like two foot reinforced doors again. For the first time in months, he turned wireframe, almost casually strolling through Allison and the door.

There were very muffled shouts. A few seconds later, the door turned transparent and promptly fell through the floor.

Tom was standing in a sterile white lobby. A few guards and orderlies were sunk down to their waists in the smooth, polished floors, swearing and struggling.

“Well,” said Tom. “You guys coming?”   

Previous Chapter                                                                                                           Next Chapter

  


1. In the case of Tom Thumb and Little Red Riding Hood and Santa Claus, he’d be right.

2. Similar to many other children of supervillains, Thunder-Tiger was her only legal name.

3. Specifically, the cabin of Mistress Quickly’s mobile bunker.

4. The administration considered having the Physician produce a warden, but aside from the upkeep costing more, it also occurred to them a physical drone could be ganged up on.

Chapter Eighty-Seven: The Supervillain Liberation Front

The Great Sandy Desert was slowly but steadily reclaiming Circle’s End. Its main street was clogged by sharp-toothed spinifex—nests for painted finches with bellies like the starry sky and tails like wicks of flame. Flying foxes roosted in burnt out miners’ cottages, out of reach of the feral cats prowling for hopping mice over charred and broken floors. 

The only part of Circle’s End that had escaped this transformation was Mabel Henderson. Until today. 

The most childish part of Mabel had feared finding her father or neighbours still lying in her hometown. But that was silly. It’d been three years. The bodies had been cleared away long ago. In some ways that was worse. Mabel couldn’t stop picturing her dad’s brain being dissected in some cold morgue. The freak-finders might as well have rounded up the ghosts and locked them up too.

Sarah Allworth put a hand on the little girl’s shoulder. “It wasn’t your fault, honey.”

Mabel didn’t look up at the old woman. “So you know about me and here? Who told you? David, I bet.”

“Allison.”

“I don’t remember saying she could tell you.”

David was jumping between spinifex bushes. “I think she wanted her to know in case you started… crying.”

Mabel frowned. “Why would I start crying?” she asked, hands on her hips.

David shrugged. “It’s just… this was your home. And you… there’s a lot of bad here, isn’t there?”

“Yeah. That’s why I didn’t tell.”

“I don’t think Allison meant any harm,” said Sarah. “She just wanted me to understand.”

“Maybe.”

Mabel couldn’t get too mad at Allison. She was trying, in her own weird Allie way. It was more than she could say for some people, lately. 

“I mean, you’re tough. I know you’re not gonna start crying, but it has to be better having people who know why this place is kinda spooky for you, right?”

“It’s not spooky!”

“Yes it is!” insisted David, stamping a foot in the dirt. “Your daddy died here! Lots of people did! Then they built a great big jail next to it for people like you! And I saw some big bats asleep in a house!”

“What do you care?” Mabel asked sourly. “We’re just… what does your granddad call us? ‘Souled animals’?”

David tilted his head. “Why wouldn’t I care? You’re my friend! You’re my first friend.”

Mabel pouted and turned her back to the boy. “Haven’t been treating me like it. These days you only play with Arnold and Allison! And that’s only because Allie’s weird like you and Arn’s’s pretty!”

“You’ve been getting all lovey dovey with Arnold too!”  

“You’ve been hogging him!”

“…Not my fault he thinks I’m prettier than you.”

“You take that back!”

“Oh, for crying out loud!” cried Mrs Allworth. “We’re here for a prison break! Can you stop mooning over Arnold for five minutes?”

The children both looked at Sarah. 

“…Most grown ups are weirder when David says Arnold’s pretty,” remarked Mabel.

Sarah scoffed. “My son was from outer-space and shot lasers from his eyes. What I would’ve given for queer some days.”

David looked back at Mabel, before stepping over and giving his friend a stiff hug. 

“I think being all… Grandfather isn’t working anymore.”

Mabel hugged him back. “Coulda told you that ages ago.”

David sniffed.

“Doesn’t mean I want to be Mealy again, though…”

“You weren’t Mealy for ages back at school. You were fine. Didn’t play with me nearly enough, but fine.”

“I don’t know how to go back there.”

“Me neither.”

“…You’re still mad at me, aren’t you?”

“Yep.”

“I still love you and junk, Mabel.” 

“Love ya too. Still mad. Not as much now, but still.”

“Okay.”

Sarah looked on with approval, deciding not to spoil the moment with commentary. 

Her radio-watch buzzed. Sarah raised her wrist. “That you, Ralph?”

A few miles away, crammed in a bathroom stall with his shoulders squished between the walls, the Crimson Comet hissed down his own communicator. “Who else would it be?”

“Blancheflor, for one.”

Ralph pretended to wait for the bloke in the next stall to flush before answering. 

“Are Maude and the kids in?”

“Yep! Threw them to the lions myself! Can we get a move on?”

Sarah frowned. “What’s eating you, Mr. Rivers?”

“Besides the prison break masterminded by the thief and the nine year old I just watched get collared like dogs? Maybe it’s the fact I’m stuck playing nice with concentration camp guards. It’s like giving a press conference to the SS!”

“I see. Hang tight, Ralph. It’s all part of the plan” 

The connection clicked off. Ralph sighed. The guards would probably send a search party if he didn’t get back to jackboot zoo.

Mrs Allworth turned back to the children. “It’s time, Mabel.”

Mabel nodded. “Okay.”

“Find somewhere shady to sit,” ordered Sarah. “I don’t trust sunscreen.”

She also didn’t trust the camera-jammer Mistress Quickly had given them. Or the gun. 

Mabe quickly pointed to an adolescent desert walnut growing next to the general store. 

“It was a sapling when I left…” 

Mabel sat down cross legged in the dusky green shadows of the walnut’s canopy and laid her sketchbook open in her lap. Mrs Allworth and David settled either side of her.

“We’re both here if you need anything, child” said Sarah. “And keep taking sips from your water-bottle. Dehydration can sneak up on ya.” 

“I know,” said Mabel.

She took a deep breath, turning her gaze down at her drawings. The skeins of pressure that always curled around Mabel’s veins flowed from her fingertips into the paper.

Not too far away, a glowing, statuesque woman with colourfully streaked white hair appeared on the desert sands. She wore a catsuit like a rainbow being eaten by a black hole. 

Polychroma, Mabel called her. She’d gotten in the super way when a comet smashed into her daddy’s paint-factory. Mabel had discovered her drawings were more keen to step into reality when they had a name and story waiting for them, even just half a paragraph scribbled in the bottom corner of the page.

Next came Sam Stretch in his bubblegum pink body-glove. He got caught in a radioactive taffy-puller. Then the WAR Correspondent, the rogue photojournalist with the plutonium powered camera, cursed never to take another picture without blowing his subject to smithereens. 

“Or he could buy a new camera,” pointed out David.

Mabel elbowed him in the ribs. “Thin ice, buster.”

Evolvulon, the man from the year 1000,000,000 with a telekinetic brain shaped like a planet. Mabel didn’t know if Lawrence would have laughed or winced at that, and she didn’t care. The Thing from Venus, a living puddle of liquid lead. For nostalgia’s (and her ray-gun’s) sake, the lady astronaut Mabel had finally decided was called Captain Williams. 

Soon the desert was crowded with over fifty colourful characters. Titans and monsters. The Supervillain Liberation Front. Mabel was drained. She had enough power left in her for one more animation. Nothing fancy. No flying, or energy blasts, or quantum warping—whatever that meant. Maybe super-strength. Or a big, booming voice.

Mabel knew she had enough characters for the plan. Might’ve been smart to keep something in reserve. 

She sighed and turned a page.

“Ooh,” said Sarah, “I like that one.”

Mabel gave her a small smile. “Thanks.”

One more figure appeared facing the Supervillain Liberation Front. He was broader than he was tall, covered in heavy armour the colour of the evening sky, with what resembled a tuning fork topped with a bubbling sunspot jutting out of his forehead. He wielded a heavy pick-axe, its blade forged from cyan light like an aurora caught in clear winter ice. A gemstone beard grew from his stoney chin, and his cheeks were riddled with craters and striations. 

Or smallpox scars.

If you asked the creature his name, he would have told you his name was Garox, King of Saturn: soon-to-be ruler of Earth. Mabel would’ve told you the same thing. But she was thinking of someone else when she was drawing him. Mabel hadn’t dared give Garox that man’s name, but she couldn’t put him out of her thoughts. The gits had turned their home into a prison. They’d defiled her dad’s grave, such as it was. How could she not let him have a go at them?

In a rough, cigarette scarred voice, louder than thunder but softer than the washing tides, the alien king that had once been Drew Anderson boomed, “Time to get to work, lads. Everyone’s waiting on us.”

Mabel leaned back against the gnarled bark and smiled sadly.

Go get em’, Dad.  

The Crimson Comet leaned against the kitchen bench in the Supermax break-room, sipping a mug of very bad coffee. 

It was amazing. A secret, state of the art facility—where even the bloody staff kitchen looked like an unused Forbidden Planet set—and they still wouldn’t spring for a bean that didn’t taste like a bushfire. 

Eleven guards were clustered around the superhero, watching him with giddy expectation like he was about to start vomiting sweets or break into song and dance. 

They were about a third right: it did make Ralph want to be sick. 

“Can you show us how you make your wings come out again, Mr. Comet?”

A sigh threatened to break Ralph’s false smile. He forced it down. “Sure thing!” Ralph cleared his throat. “Daedalus.”

The silvery metal mound on the Crimson’s Comet’s back unfolded into his new wing harness. An anticipatory crackle of electricity rippled across the metal

Ralph was told that was a clever reference. He wouldn’t know.

The guards whooped and applauded. Ralph felt like he was doing primary school assemblies again. If he had hated children. 

Icarus.”

The wings retracted into the backpack again. That allusion Ralph got. Mad scientists and their whimsy.

“So,” asked a young man with a schoolyard bully cast to his features, “how did you get into your business?”

Ralph gulped down the latest mouthful of liquid ash. “I got a costume and started beating up robbers till I started running into supervillains.” 

“Oh,” said another guard. “I heard a burglar broke into your mansion, shot your ma, and then your dad sewed wings onto your back so you could fight crime.”

Ralph had to force his laugh not to sound derisive. Was that what those comics were pushing? He didn’t know what was more outlandish. The stuff about his wings, the idea his father knew how to sew, or him growing up in a mansion. “Maybe he did!”

A guard with a ginger cowlick protruding from under his helmet raised an eyebrow. “Wings made of solid metal?”

Ralph grinned hollowly and threw his arms up. “Why not?”

“Wings that changed shape…”

Ralph finally allowed himself to frown. “Look, boys, I’m not here to share my secret identity, you feel me?”

The murmured grunts of acknowledgment and poorly masked disappointment blended seamlessly into the office muzak. 

Ralph started calculating how much more coffee he needed to drink to justify another bathroom break, but the guards refused to let the conversation die:

“Who knew Mistress Quickly had such a figure,” exclaimed one of them. “You’d think she’d be all pasty and flabby from working in a lab all day.”

Oh, God. “Guy talk.” Straight guy talk. They had invented gay bars so he could avoid this shit.

The overgrown school tough waggled his eyebrows at Ralph. “You gonna tell us how you got her out of—” 

Gross straight guy talk. 

I’m in Hell. Mistress Quickly killed me, and this is my Hell. 

Before the Crimson Comet could either try to fake piggishness or launch into an appropriately moralistic lecture, a siren blared through the staff-room.

Red alert, red alert. All hands stand ready for potential incursion by enemy demi-humans. 

The automated warning was interrupted by the shaky voice of Warden McNoll. 

“Ah, could the Crimson Comet report to my office? Please?”

Oh, thank fuck. 

Ralph practically tipped over the table in his haste to obey, but he couldn’t resist firing just one jab over his shoulder as he went: “Are you boys really that desperate?”

Frances McNoll was pacing back and forth in front of his space-age desk, plowing a trench in the thick shag carpet.

The Crimson Comet flung open his office door:

“What’s going on, warden? Bloody siren just about popped my eardrums!”

McNoll let out a high-pitched yelp of surprise. The last thing he needed right now was people who dressed like that bursting in on him.

“I—they…” He pointed resignedly at his desk. “Just look at the screen.”

Ralph rushed behind the work station. He whistled at the sight of the inbuilt television monitor. “Wow, colour! Wish I had one of these for the old Fortress of Solitude…”

“Focus, man, focus!”

Ralph made a show of blinking in shock. 

The monitor was tuned to a camera facing out over the raw desert plains between the Supermax complex and the Circle’s End ruins, where a crowd of loudly costumed figures had gathered in a loose rabble. Some of them were only recognizable as people because they happened to be screaming and shouting, albeit mutely  Many were waving bizarre weapons: startlingly streamlined ray-guns, laser-swords, or in one case, an oversized camera with a glowing green rod jutting out of it1. The whole scene was like a Georges Méliès film from a world where colour had come before talkies. 

The Crimson Comet tutted gravely. “Just as I feared—”

By a stroke of kismet, Mrs Allworth chose that moment to switch on one of the gadgets Mistress Quickly left her:

The sirens died, replaced by a gravelly voice heavy with menacing bass notes:

Circle’s End Supermax, your ears are privileged to hear the voice of Garox: Emperor of Saturn and its associated moons, and acting leader of the Supervillain Liberation Front!

If Frances McNoll weren’t completely filled with terror right then, he might have been surprised such a voice belonged to royalty. It sounded more like colleagues he’d known whose life choices could be boiled down to “tradie,” “prison-guard,” or “prison-guarded.” A small part of him dimly recalled hearing that Saturn didn’t have a solid surface, but that was drowned out by the rest of him screaming.  

Ralph, conversely, had to suppress a smile.  

Garox continued, “Listen here, Circle’s End. You are harbouring one of our enemies, the blasted Crimson Comet! He has delivered three of our greatest allies into your filthy human hands: Mistress Quickly, Elsewhere, and the mighty Symphony, sum and total of us all! You have but one hour to hand over them, along with the rest of your inmates!

Frances shook his head. “He can’t be serious…”

“Dead serious, I’m afraid,” said the Crimson Comet. “I barely escaped the SLF with my life.”

A new voice replaced Garox, this one high and wheedling:

I am Evolvulon: man from the year One Billion AD.

“The year One Billion?”

“I think he’s rounding up,” commented Ralph. 

The history crystals of my time reveal that all attempts at resisting the SLF are doomed to failure. We will succeed in transitioning the Earth into a supervillainy based economy. That is all.”

Ralph had wondered during the planning sessions if Evolvulon was over-egging things a bit, but given how McNoll was clutching the sides of his head and cursing at the carpet…

“Shitting fucking Hell!” The warden glared up at the Crimson Comet. “What does ‘supervillainy based economy’ even mean?” 

The Comet shrugged. “I didn’t stick around for a lecture. I think it means everyone gets powers and a costume. Oh, and instead of jobs, people do heists.” The superhero smiled and twirled a finger next to his head. “Wacko, right?”

Mcnoll growled, “You brought them here.”

Ralph’s expression snapped back to solemn. “I’m sorry, Warden. I was sure I’d lost them around Kalgoorlie.” He let out a theatrical sigh. “It’s my fault.”

Frances moaned. “What am I going to do?”

“Well, you could do as they say?”

Worth a shot.

McNoll sputtered. “Are you mad? I can’t hand over a hundred and ten demis to other demis! Valour would shit down my throat!”

Ralph believed him. “Of course not, I was joking.”

“Clearly!” The warden’s knees nearly gave out beneath him. “We’re all gonna die, we’re all gonna die…”

Ralph sighed again, this time genuinely. He walked over to the warden and gently took the man by the shoulders. “Calm down, mate. We can get through this.”

Frances looked up at the superhero. The beginnings of tears were beading in the corner of his eyes. In a very small voice, he asked, “We can?”

Ralph nodded. “You just have to trust me. I have a plan.”

Those words were like pure light to Frances McNoll. Big decisions were the one aspect of authority he could do without. The warden of Circle’s End Supermax was a creature of routine and protocol; carrying out orders from higher ups so distant, they might as well have been God Himself. 

One aspect Frances was very into, though, was deferring responsibility. 

  Within twenty minutes, the Crimson Comet was standing on the access road in front of the prison, preparing to address over two hundred and fifty guards and soldiers. Not a bad turnout. Allison no doubt would’ve liked even more of them out here, but every bit helped.  

For every two true humans, there was one hulking Physician drone, their faces concealed behind armoured black gas-masks. Ralph wondered if they even had faces under there2. He could make out their muscles twitching with anticipation under their Kevlar sleeves. If what Blanchefor had told Ralph about them was true, this was probably like standing at the gates of Paradise for them.

Ralph cleared his throat. “I know you all must be frightened—”

Hundreds of shouted protests. Vain fools. But not strictly speaking incorrect

“…Or not. The enemies we go to fight are fierce! Inhuman! But we are men. Today we fight not only for our lives, but for the future of our country! Perhaps the future of the bloody human race! And are we going to let a bunch of freaks trample on us?

A “No!” like the roaring sea. 

One near the front though raised his hand like a boy in a classroom. “But the future man said he knew we’d lose…”

Ralph glared at the guard. This was no time for  short-term memory.

“Well, of course he’d tell you that, wouldn’t he? Use your head!”

The dissenting guard’s neighbours all started booing and shoving the poor bastard. 

Ralph raised a hand, barking. “Enough of that! We have a job to do! Follow me!”

Ralph turned and launched himself out onto the desert, scorching the road and fusing the sands below him into glass.

Behind him, a siren blared the windowed rim of the prison building closed shut like a frightened clam. Lockdown. Just as McNoll eagerly promised the Comet. Just as Allison had hoped. 

Ralph came to a sharp stop with the help of his new wings. Had to give the men time to catch up. He wished he had a cigarette. 

The Supervillain Liberation Front were still milling about when the Crimson Comet and his conquering army fell upon them. 

Garox roared, “Attack!”

 In seconds, the desert plains burned with combat. A squad of men tried to flank the WAR Correspondent, only to get blown back with the force of a focused hurricane as he manically snapped picture after picture. The villain giggled shrilly. “I’m shoo-in for the Pugilitser with these snaps!” 

Ralph rolled his eyes. He wondered whether he ought to compliment or chastise Mabel for that one later. 

 Bullets bounced off Sam Stretch’s elongated form like raindrops on a trampoline, until a couple of drones managed to grab him by the arms, savagely pulling until the rubber-man tore in half, splattering the surrounding guards with blood like corn syrup.

Most of the guards caught in the splash-zone squirmed and groaned in disgust. A few of the less battle-high ones even screamed. The drones roared in pure, ecstatic triumph.  

Evolvulon was standing serenely in the middle of the fray, fired bullets orbiting him while half a dozen guards thrashed and shouted ten feet above his head. A drone was struggling to escape the heavy liquid grasp of the Thing from Venus.

If any of the guards or dones were in any state to objectively examine their situation, they might have noticed that they’d failed to sustain any casualties. The SLF seemed content to just knock about the forces of the Supermax, even as their own numbers were slowly, painfully whittled down. One side was playing Cowboys and Indians, the other Vietnam. 

Ralph was “dodging” poorly-aimed energy bolts from a lady astronaut’s laser-gun when he found himself being pulled around by his shoulders.

He found himself facing a blue-armoured brick wall of a man with a face made of rock and almost purple eyes. Garox, if Ralph recalled right.

Ralph Rivers grabbed Garox’s hands and pushed him back. Garox resisted, the force of their grappling sending shockwaves through the sand surrounding them. 

The guards were cheering. The “villains” were jeering and snarling like the caricatures they were.

The fictional tyrant shouted, “You’ll pay for this, Crimson Comet!”

Garox winked. Ralph winked back.

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1. Mabel thought of it as plutonium, not that plutonium ever glows green in such a manner.

2. They did. The Physician deemed jaws to be a useful weapon in a pinch.

Chapter Eighty-Six: Purgatorium

Warden Frances McNoll was painfully out of place in his office. He was a stolidly middle-aged civil servant whose slightly oversized midsection could’ve terminated at the waist in a complaints desk. Yet here he was parked behind what resembled a starship’s command console, bejeweled with gently flashing switches and buttons. It’d taken McNoll the better part of a month to figure them all out, with the manual. 

The whole room was the nightmare brainchild of mod mad-science and baroque alien design. The walls were a mess of clashing pastels, holding up a mirrored ceiling reflecting down the pink shag carpet like a hairy sunset sky.  

The decor didn’t bother the warden. He was its boss, goddamnit! 

Circle’s End Supermax was a crime. A place where people were left to be forgotten or rendered down into second hand miracles, where even a life sentence was too finite. A place where the only crimes that mattered were accidents of birth and chance.

A better man would have balked at being asked to run such a place. A worse man could have nurtured it into an empire. Frances McNoll, though, was content with being called “sir.”

The DDHA and Australian prison service could’ve done much worse than put Frances McNoll in charge of the Circle’s End Supermax. He wasn’t a sadist by any standard. But fifteen years at Fremantle Gaol had thoroughly calloused McNoll’s social conscience. He didn’t question that men and women he knew as heroes, and children not ten years old were left to rot in his prison. He was courteous and obliging when Dr. John Smith and his disciples came looking for test subjects.

That was only the bare minimum for the job, though. What made Frances McNoll a perfect fit was his utterly unambitious power lust. It was the same clammy thrill he got being picked for milk monitor1 in primary school. It was what inspired awed jealousy in him watching the prefects march through the halls in grammar school. The simple, pure power to say, “No. Do this.” And wielding that power at the behest of absent authority meant he didn’t even have to think of what to say. 

Not that Frances would ever have put it in those words. Far as he was consciously concerned, the chief benefits of his position were the paycheck and the excuse to not live with his family. He did hope he could retire directly after it, though—Frances wasn’t sure how you put running a secret prison on your resume.   

The television screen built into McNoll’s desk cycled through different camera-views while he sipped his coffee and thumbed through a copy of Women’s Day2. Soft desert plains glowing red like the sea at dusk behind a force-field reinforced fence. Burned out hovels in the Circle’s End Quarantine Zone, empty for the moment of hazard suited scientists waving geiger counters like dowsing rods. The Level 7 holding cells: ten spheres of silver cogs sunk halfway into the floor—each containing a trapped super like a carton of eggs.

The uncertain voice crackled from the speaker on McNoll’s desk. “Uh, sir, there’s a superhero parked at the fence.”

Huh. Frances wasn’t expecting Valour till Thursday. “Buzz him—” His eyes bugged. “What?”

“I mean, fella’s all dressed up in a shiny red costume, so I’d put money on it. He just rolled up in this panel-van—oh, he’s opening the boot. He’s pulling out… some kids? And a naked lady? And they’re all tied up—” A pause. “Are we sure he’s a superhero?”

Mcnoll’s coffee sloshed out of his mug as he slammed it down on his desk. “God’s alive, Menches! Which camera?”

“F-6 should give you the best view.”

His television screen switched to a shot of the prisoners’ gate. The Crimson Comet of all bloody people was waving at the camera from behind the force-field. Except his wings were wrong. They weren’t feathered, but sharp and angular, like an art-deco angel. A little boy and girl were squirming, trussed up like hogs beside his feet. He had his hand clamped hard on the shoulder of an angry woman standing next to him in her underwear, hands bound at her waist. The superhero had placed a placard in front of him:

CAUGHT ALLISON KINSEY, ARNOLD BARNES, AND MISTRESS QUICKLY—LET’S TALK.          

A broad, if confused grin spread across Frances McNoll’s face. He had a feeling a lot more people would be calling him ‘sir’ soon.

“Buzz him in.”

Ralph Rivers was swimming in his costume. He didn’t feel the heat as keenly as some men, but this was the Great Sandy Desert, and the Crimson Comet wore all leather. He bet he squelched when he moved. The weight of his new wings was strange. Too light. Maude said these things could deflect bullets, but he felt like he was wearing foam. 

He was ashamed of his discomfort. It had to be nothing next to what Maude and the kids were in for. 

“You sure about this?” he asked Maude.

Mistress Quickly made a good show of struggling against Ralph’s grip, grunting, “I’m standing in my knickers in the middle of a scorching desert in front of a prison stuffed full of drooly blokes—some of whom have records as long as my arm and superpowers—hundreds of miles from civilization. What makes you think I haven’t thought long and hard about this?” She glared down at Allison. “At least you picked the gay guy for this.”

Ralph looked down at Allison wriggling on the access road. “Remind me why Miss Simmons has to be naked?”

Allison sat up as best she could and shouted. “Everyone knows Mistress Quickly is just an inventor, you big meanie!”

Ralph nodded. “I guess that makes sense.” He turned his head back to Maude, but seemed to look past her. “Stay close.”

Maude felt a brush against her hand. It was reassuring. 

Arnold strained against his bindings, trying to scratch the itch on his neck against the asphalt. “You sure they’re gonna come out and get us, Allie?”

“Yep,” replied Allison. “Only thing I am sure of.”

The next few minutes worth of futures were very consistent. But then the clouds of probability gave way to barren blue sky. 

It was… creepy. Expected, planned for, but creepy. Funny how quickly you could grow accustomed to precognition.

Allison tried to put the rapidly approaching void out of her mind, instead focusing on the overwhelming abundance of music. Since the Institute, she’d had to content herself with the familiar rhythms of her friends. They were powerful. Comfortable. Reliable. But it was lean

Here, song rose from the desert sands like shimmering heat. A buried orchestra of power over a hundred strong. Allison’s kind, trapped beneath the earth. 

There would be silence soon. But not for long.

“Oh, great,” said Maude. “That’s real comforting.”

“Shush up,” said Ralph. “They’re coming.”

A beige uniformed man with a ruddy freckled face was trying to march confidently up to the prisoner’s gate, flanked on both sides by oversized, rifle-toting guards clad head to toe in black. The man in the middle appeared to be struggling to keep apace.  

The guards’ outfits made Ralph wince. He was better dressed for the desert.  

The three reached the gate. 

“Well I’ll be,” said the man in the least painful looking uniform. “The Crimson Comet. Warden Frances McNoll. I’d shake your hand but…” He gestured at the force-field enclosed gate between them.  

Ralph smiled. “Understood, sir. Have some prisoners for ya.” 

Allison writhed on the ground. “You’ll all die! You’ll get the gas!”

Arnold joined in, “Eat your life! Eat skulls!”

For her part, Maude just stood there scowling darkly at McNoll. 

“Is that the Mistress Quickly?” asked McNoll. “Does she always… underdress?”

Ralph forced a laugh and slapped Maude heartily on the back. It felt like smacking tensed steel.  “Well I couldn’t let her keep her utility belt on, could I?”

“Could’ve let me keep my overalls…” 

Ralph said, “Should have thought about that before trying to bring back the Black Death, young lady3.”

God, he felt like a bastard. 

Mcnoll blinked. “The Black Death?”

“Yeah!” Allison cried. “Quickly was brewing it so it’d wipe out all you stupid humans!”

“I told you it was a dumb plan!” Arnold shouted. “We shoulda killed them with our bare hands.”

The warden swallowed. “I think we owe you a debt, Mr. Comet.”

“Think nothing of it,” said Ralph. “I just want them secured before they get up to any more shenanigans.” 

Mcnoll nodded. “We’re on the same page then.”

The warden punched in some numbers on a keypad by the gate. The force-field vanished as the grill of the gate retracted like vines growing backwards. 

The guards stepped forward. They were both nearly a head taller than Ralph, and neither had uttered so much as a word until now:

“We shall restrain the children’s powers.”

The guard’s accent was unplaceable, but there was a tension to it that reminded Allison of her parents when they’d discovered what she’d done to the shower.

She looked into the pair’s minds. The lights of their thoughts were as ordered as she remembered Mr. Thumps’ being, but wobbling with rage like stars being pulled at by gas giants. Blazing fires of anger under cold lakes of sedatives and Pavlovian conditioning. 

Miserable gits. Probably doing them a favour… 

The guards each removed a metal strip from their belts, both adorned with a jewel filled with glowing blue fluid. They bent down and snapped them around Arnold and Allison’s necks almost in unison. 

The collars tightened like second skin. Allison gasped. 

The music fled. The air became thin and empty. The entire world had become the Quiet Room. 

Allison clenched her fists.

Don’t freak out, don’t freak out…   

The guards proceded to hoist the children into their arms like new fathers picking a baby for the first time. 

Arnold screwed his eyes shut. It felt like his mother was carrying him to bed. But wrong

“Would it be possible for me to escort the prisoners to processing?” asked the Crimson Comet. “I worked hard to catch them. Peace of mind, you know.”

“Of course,” replied McNoll. “The men will all be clamouring for a look at you.”

The guards led the way through the gate with Maude squished between them, the Comet and McNoll following a few steps behind. They were bordered on either side by long force-field walls. Guard posts loomed over them every yard or so, manned by snipers. Allison couldn’t guess if they were human or Physician-made. As far as she could tell, they could’ve been store mannequins. 

Ralph was looking ahead at the prison’s main building. It was an odd looking building—like a grounded flying saucer with a rim of glass windows. Well, Blancheflor had said an alien designed it. He also said the holding cells were all underground. A flower with deep, poisonous roots.      

 “Comet, I’m sorry to ask, but how’d you know where to find us? We aren’t exactly in the yellow-pages.” 

“The freak-finders have me on call.” He tapped the side of his nose. “Need to know, of course.”

McNoll nodded warily. It made sense, he supposed. He’d checked the Comet’s file before he’d even stepped outside. The man was sanctioned, but the file didn’t say for what. Still, it was all very irregular. Frances didn’t like irregular. Irregular meant his bosses asking questions. His bosses asking questions meant a reminder that McNoll had bosses. That there were more rungs on the ladder, and people at the top waiting for him to slip.

Still, if he didn’t let the Crimson Comet in, his men would sulk at him for months. And he was giving him the three most wanted supervillains in the country. Tim Valour would worship him as a fucking god.  

Doors of reinforced glass slid open with a hiss. A desert breeze shriveled and died in crisp climate-controlled air. Mercifully human guards immediately fell upon the drones, removing the children from their arms and cutting the ropes around their wrists and ankles. They didn’t replace the bindings with handcuffs, much to Arnold’s surprise. Not Allison’s, however. They were just kids now. 

She let the walking corpses prod and poke at her. One of the men hissed in her ear, “My sister was at Royal Exhibition Hall, you little shit.”

“Was she the fat lady or the one with the wispy little beard?”

The guard slapped Allison across the face. She barely flinched. Everything felt numb right now.

Ralph frowned, resisting the urge to bolt forward and clobber the man. He did allow himself to remark, “A bit excessive.”

McNoll shrugged. “Girl’s a terrorist, Comet. Besides, not like she’s a real kid.”

The Crimson Comet raised an eyebrow. “Why’s that?”

“The stuff these kids can do, kind of disqualifies…” The warden remembered who he was talking to. “I mean—it has to vary, don’t it? For every few weirdos like her and Miss October over there, at least we get one of them that turns out proper like you.”

“Thanks.”

Allison was pushed into a small, lilac-lit room. One of the walls was dominated by a one-way window. Allison felt like she was back at McClare. Or not. At least McClare had music. At least this place probably didn’t have any pianos.

A neutral, female voice filled the room. “Please step into the circle.”

There was indeed a dark purple circle in the middle of the floor. 

Curiosity pricked at Allison. “What happens if I don’t?”

“The floor will be electrified.”

Well, they were better at this than McClare. Allison trudged into the circle.

“Scanning. Please stand still.”

A wall of purple light appeared to Allison’s left, closing in on her.

The girl rolled her eyes as it washed over her. She needed to introduce this computer to Blanchey. Maybe the purple and the blue was a boy-girl thing. 

“Scan complete. Inmate is clean of unwanted technology. Biology shows signs of physical enhancement, adjusting containment parameters.”

A panel in the ceiling slid open, dropping a set of folded, child-sized white coveralls in front of Allison’s feet. 

“Please dress in the garment provided.”

Allison frowned at the mirror. “Doesn’t look easy to go to the bathroom in.”

“Floor will be electrified in sixty seconds.”

“Okay, okay, I’m doing it.”

She quickly stripped off and slipped into the jumpsuit. 

“What now?”

“You will be deposited in the Juvenile Rehabilitation Area.”

“What—”

The circle gave way like a trapdoor beneath Allison’s feet. She screamed as she dropped into a dark tube.

The tube quickly curved beneath her. She was sliding. It was a slide, bending and turning as she built up speen.

Even through the fog of her sudden deafness, Allison had to grin. “Wheeee!”   

She turned a corner and found herself hurtling towards a light. Allison braced herself.

She shot out of the transport slide (the DDHA’s one positive contribution to mankind), landing with a thud in something thick and spongy. 

Allison recovered fast, rolling over and getting back to her feet. She was standing on what felt and looked and felt like a field of grass made out of trampoline, surrounded by boundless hills and skies. But there was a hole in the world just in front of her, a dark mole in the skin of the world. The slide exit, she realized.

She stepped forward to examine it, only for the hole to close, leaving only thin air.

“Huh.”

Allison looked around. The sky was shoddy. She swore she could see paint streaks. The clouds were cartoonishly fluffy and regular, like they’d been sourced from her old bedroom wallpaper. There was a forest in the difference, but the trees were all too-triangular illustrated pine. 

Fake. The whole place was fake.

She felt a sudden urge to set it all on fire.

“Hey, new meat.”

Allison turned around to find a small crowd of children regarding her with wary fascination, all in coveralls like her own. 

At the head of the crowd was an elfin looking girl with dark blue hair, next to a brown skinned older boy with a look of disdainful confusion.

“Tom? Louise?”

“Jeez, Allie, they got you too?” Tom Long squinted. “And what the hell happened to your eyes?”

Small worlds. 

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1. A staff member or student trusted to make sure school children drank their state mandated milk.

2. As in all government buildings, it was seemingly the only magazine on site.

3. Technically speaking, the bubonic plague had yet to be wiped out in 1965.

Chapter Eighty-Five: The Comet’s Wake

Iszac Steel was wiping down the counter of Clark’s when the menagerie of liquor bottles behind him started shaking and rattling. The mechanical barman swivelled on his base, alarmed. 

“Blanchey, my man, why didn’t you tell me we were due for a sea-quake?”

“My apologies Mr. Steel, but I detect no unusual seismic activity.”

“Then what’s—”

The bottles began exploding, one after another, glass shrapnel raining almost musically against Iszac’s metal body. Their contents swirled together above Steel’s head, flowing like a river down to the floor and forming into the shape of a child in front of the bar. Currents of blue, green and amber liquid flushed warm brown as it transfigured into flesh and blood. 

“Stupid Allie, tricking me…” 

Iszac Steel let out a burst of loud, staticky swearing. “For crying out loud, kid, some of that stuff was a thousand years old!”

“Not my fault you didn’t have a fountain or something in your stupid bar!” David shot back. “Besides, if it was so good, why did nobody drink it in a thousand years?”

A quick program query confirmed for Iszac that Mr. Allworth did indeed consider corporal punishment of children injurous to humans. 

Okay, but— 

It also turned out that Mr. Allworth didn’t discriminate between human children and the offspring of elemental chaos gods. 

Inwardly cursing Asimov and all his works, Iszac Steel settled for telling David, “You know kid, one of these days you’re going to tick off someone who can put you in your place.”

 “I doubt it,” David said over his shoulder as he stormed out of the cocktail bar. Momentarily curious, he licked at the liquor coating the back of his hand. His face screwed up in disgust.

Bleh. It tasted like too-ripe bananas, times a million. How did Alberto stomach this stuff? 

David stifled a yawn as he stalked through the halls of Lyonesse, leaving boozy footsteps behind him. He was bone-tired. It was so unfair. He’d only slept three days ago. He was a god. Why should gods need to nap?

He didn’t want to sleep. He didn’t want to dream. 

Another yawn. 

Stupid person-body… 

He could do this, David told himself. He wasn’t afraid of anything anymore.  

Instead of setting up in one of Lyonesse’s many artfully and not-so-artfully decored bedrooms, David had taken to sleeping—trying to sleep—in the moonpool in the submarine bay. Mattresses (and hammocks) were for humans. Air was for humans. He didn’t need it.

Today, he found someone sitting on top of the submarine. 

“Hello David,” said Ralph. He averted his eyes slightly from the boy’s nudity. “Mind putting your costume on, mate?”

David glared at him from the edge of the moonpool. “Yes.” 

What Ralph wouldn’t have given for a dead Nazi’s jacket. He sniffed and frowned. “Why the heck do you smell like booze?”

David sat down and dipped his legs in the water. “None of your business.” 

The water around the submarine boiled and surged. If that scared Ralph at all, it didn’t show. He gave David a melancholy smile. “Your mother used to do this when I tried giving her a bath. Not sure why a mermaid would be so against that.”

David fumed. He wasn’t sure why that made him so angry. Nothing wrong with mermaids. Except when he said it. “Mummy was not a mermaid.” 

Ralph ignored the rudeness of the boy’s tone and instead forced a chuckle.

“Hah. She’d have disagreed with you, once upon a time. Told me that was what she was every time I asked.”

“You wouldn’t have understood if she told you the truth. None of your lot do.”

 Ralph shrugged.

“Try me.”

“We aren’t people,” said David. “We’re water.”

Ralph raised an eyebrow. Gently, he asked, “Could you tell me how water is different from people?”

David scowled, but didn’t respond right away. The boy had shadows under his eyes.

“Water’s bigger,” he said eventually. “Purer. Less… muddy.”

“Muddy?” 

David nodded.

“Normal people do bad stuff just cuz someone tells them to. Normal people don’t know what’s important. Water’s… bigger,” he repeated.

Ralph had to make an effort not to just yell at the kid, yell about how wrong he was.

“I’ve seen your grandfather do some pretty awful things, you know. Ripped people apart in front of me. You telling me that’s pure?”

David shrugged.

“Sure. He’s bigger. Why should he care about you?”

Ralph chuckled.

“Because your mother cried the first time she ever ate a sausage roll.” He smiled at that, the memory making his heart a little lighter, even decades later. “Sat there on a sofa just babbling about how anything could taste so good. Water didn’t figure out sausage rolls, David. Neither did gods. That was people. That’s why you care.”

David snorted angrily.

“Whatever. Some guy out there was cool enough to make sausage rolls. So what? Does he want a cookie? He was probably just as messed up as the rest of you.”

Ralph pondered that for a moment.

“How about Arnold?”

David looked over at him.

“What?”

“Arnold.” Ralph repeated. He held out a hand a few feet above the ground. “Thin kid? About this tall? Likes to teleport stuff?”

“What about him?”

Ralph shrugged.

“Is he a fuck-up too?”

David hesitated.

“…No.”

Ralph let that hang there for a minute or two, then asked:

“Is he a person?”

“No—” came the angry reply, aborted halfway through. “—I mean. Sure, he’s a person. But he’s better!

“Better because he has powers?”

“No!” David snapped. “He’s better cuz he’s not an arse!”

Ralph sighed. That was a relief. At least the kid wasn’t completely racist. Just… biased. Ralph supposed that was understandable. He hadn’t exactly had the best of role-models back at the institute.

Ralph let the silence stretch for a bit, then he sniffed.

“Lawrence was an arse,” he murmured, shooting a sideways glance at David. The boy was glowering at the floor, not responding. Ralph nodded. “Yeah. Right old cunt, that one.”

Again, David didn’t disagree.

“… Then why’d you leave my mummy with him?”

Ralph shrugged.

“Because he wasn’t as obvious about it when I met him. Hell. He was a goddamn war hero. Some madman of an Oxford lad, wandering across Europe, rescuing supers from the concentration camps.” He shook his head. “If you’d heard that Eliza girl talking about him, you’d have thought the man was Christ himself, come to give the world a talk on human ethics.”

Ralph’s expression hardened.

“All that breeding bullshit happened later.”

David nodded, but still didn’t look at him.

“You never checked on her?”

Ralph sighed. “When your mother was twelve, Herbert caught her with a girl from town. Kissing, I mean.”

“So?”

Ralph was surprised. Then he almost laughed. The old bastard had tried so hard to keep the world from queering his stud, he’d never even warned David against it. An own goal if Ralph had ever heard one. “Look, a lot of people…” Ralph decided to narrow it down. “Lawrence didn’t like Fran being with girls because that couldn’t give her a kid.”

“What does that have to do with you?”

Ralph took a deep breath. “I like men, David.”

“So?”

Ralph frowned.

“So, Lawrence thought I was passing that stuff on to your mother. He didn’t want her learning from a fag.”

“So…Just men?”

Why was Ralph not surprised? He smiled sadly. “Yeah. Call me picky.”

“Why?”

Ralph had no answer for that beyond a bemused shrug.

“I don’t know. Maybe God’s hands slipped when he was making me.”

“Didn’t slip with Arnold,” David pointed out. “He’s extra cool for thinking I’m cute.”

Ralph just sat there for a moment. There was something uniquely odd about so brazen of a statement.

“…You like being the centre of attention, huh.”

“Why wouldn’t I?” asked David. He actually smiled. “I’m great.”

Ralph rubbed the bridge of his nose. 

“The point is that Lawrence didn’t like it. The old wanker told me to leave and said if I didn’t let him raise the girl his way, she wouldn’t have a place there.” He shrugged. “So I left. I thought he was the better father for her, and I was wrong.”

David sat there, mulling the words over.

So that was it. That was the choice that made him. That left him to Lawrence. 

That left him to Alberto.

When he spoke again, his voice was quiet.

“I haven’t slept in three days,” he muttered. “Every time I try, I get these…” He shook his head. “I dunno. These flashes. I think when Alberto was alive, he was sorta holding stuff back inside my brain. Stopping me remembering.” He shrugged. “But now, he’s stuck in Allie, and he can’t make me push it back anymore.”

He looked the Crimson Comet in the eyes, then raised a hand.

“Wanna see how bad you messed up?”

It took a few moments for the water to pool, forming into a mound, then a tower, then a human, then a boy.

It was another David, sculpted from the water; a pair of knitting needles clenched in trembling fists.

Ralph looked at the copy, then back at David, nonplussed.

David looked back, cold.

“This is what he did to me.”

Ralph turned his gaze back to the copy, just in time to watch it slam the needles through its eyes.

“You made the wrong choice,” David said. “It’s your fault.”

Ralph nearly retched. He turned back to the boy and leapt through the air, landing beside David and trying to pull him into a hug.

David flinched away from him. “Nuh uh!” 

“I want to help you, David!”

Ralph shouldn’t have shouted; he knew that. But he was only human.

David just glared at him. “You messed everything up enough already.”

He turned and started running out of the sub-bay. 

Ralph reached out. “David, wait! I’m sorry!”

David didn’t look back. Tears were stinging his eyes. Water wasn’t meant to betray him this way.

It wasn’t fair. Grandfather was supposed to have washed this ache off of him. The tide was meant to carry away the past.

It was being a person, David told himself. He only hurt because he was inside his father’s flesh. The boy evaporated. The vapour of his being wafted up through the tiny apertures between Lyonesse’s decks. 

No. He was still hurting

He drifted into the art-studio, carpeted with regenerating newspaper siphoned from other realities. He sensed Allison, Arnold, Billy’s shapes. Thank God. David needed a hug. He needed to play

Arnold looked over at the other children from where he was sketching. Sketching, not drawing. With a lead pencil, because he was doing serious art1. He frowned. “Can you two stop torturing the cat?”

Arnold’s friends were sitting across from each other, Ralph’s cat trapped between them. The middle-aged companion of a confirmed bachelor, Pearl wasn’t prepared for sustained contact with young children. Like her captors, the poor cat was mottled with bright acrylic paint stains. 

The cat mewled pathetically and made a break for it, but Billy pulled her twisting and clawing into his chest.

“We’re not torturing her,” said Billy, nuzzling his fur against the angry cat’s. “We’re playing.”

Before Arnold could respond or intercede on Pearl’s behalf, David coalesced in front of him. The water-sprite yanked him sharply to his feet and kissed him on the lips. 

After a second, Arnold pulled away, blinking at David. “Uh, hi Dave.” He wiped his mouth. “You feeling alright?”

David was grinning far too toothily in Arnold’s face, the corner of his lip twitching. The shadows under his eyes were pitch black. “Course I am! I’m the ocean! I can crush submarines with my brain! Wanna kiss again?”

Arnold patted his friend on the shoulder. “Maybe later, bud.”

“Why would you want to break submarines? They’re neat!”

David rolled his eyes at the girl. “Yeah, Miri, sure they are.”

“I’m not Miri. It’s Allie.”

David stared at her. Allie was playing with Billy? He stood there stunned. Then he shook his head. Nuh uh. Allie was his. His forced smile returned. “Nice one, Miri. You’re getting better.”

Allison looked at him flatly. “It’s Allie, David.”

“…That’s not fair,” he said quietly. “You’re supposed to be my friend, Allie.”

Allison scowled. Arnold frowned. Billy, though, just looked confused.

“Can’t she play with both of us?” he asked.

“Shut up.”

Billy got to his feet and spread his arms. “You need a hug?”

David misted forward and shoved Billy hard in the chest, knocking the younger boy back to the floor. “I don’t need a hug from a wimp!”

Billy stammered. “Wh—what did I do?”

David glared around at the other children. “Why do you like him so much? He’s lame!”     

Arnold broke the silence first: “I mean, so were you, when you were cool.”

David squinted at him. “What?”

Arnold shrugged. 

“Old David was kinda boring and sad sometimes, but he also, you know, cared about other people? And wasn’t a prick? Billy’s kinda like how old David was.”

David looked down at Billy. The other boy was sniffling now, tears running through his fur, but his eyes were hard.  

“You beat up Talos after he broke my tail. You were so cool back then.” 

For a moment, David almost felt ashamed. 

Then Billy continued. “I want that David back…”

David screamed and savagely kicked Billy in the side. 

Billy gasped and curled into a ball.

“Why does everyone want me to be like him again! Mealy was a coward!”

Allison tackled David to the floor and started punching him in the face. “I told you to stop being a dick!”

Beneath her sister’s skin, Miri cringed. The mean boy needed to be opposed, but punching was icky. The way skin and bone flexed and tore under their blows….  

An instinct long since silenced inside Allison echoed through Miri: get a grown-up.

She fled Allison’s body, diving through Lyonesse.

A few decks below, Ralph Rivers was stalking down the hall, muttering to himself. “Where the fuck did that boy go? Oh, David…”

He startled when Miri appeared in front of him.

“Mr. Ralph, Mr. Ralph! You gotta come help! The mean boy’s beating up Billy!”

“…You’re the girl from my dream!”

Miri cocked her head, before looking down at herself and smiling. “You can see me! Neat!” Her grin vanished as she remembered her mission. “Follow me!”

By the time Miri led Ralph up to the art studio—bemoaning his restrictive tangibility all the while—Allison and David were tussling like wildcats. Pearl was curled up shaking in a corner. Blood had joined the paint on the newspaper. 

“Jesus Christ!”

Ralph ran over and pried David off Allison as delicately as he could. It was like handling angry tissue-paper. 

“For God’s sake, David, stop it!”

David misted out Ralph’s arms, reforming behind Billy and twisting his right ear.

Billy screamed. Then he growled.

Billy became a blur of orange, scratching David across the face, his claws leaving livid, bleeding streaks across his face.

Billy clapped his hands over his mouth in horror. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry!”

David clenched his fists. “You’re gonna—”

The boy exploded in a green flash. 

“That’s enough of that,” said Arnold, borrowing the phrase, along with a hefty dose of stern authority, from his mother.   

“…Where’d you send him?” Ralph asked.

Arnold shrugged.

“Some place in the Gobi Desert.”

Ralph’s face went pale. “The Gobi Desert? Jesus, boy. He’ll fry!”

Allison sat up. “I doubt it. He’s made of water.”

“I figure he’d get back fine,” Arnold said. “But getting around the world should take long enough to make him cool off.”

Billy was crying softly. “I cut him…”

“He gave you a black eye, mate,” Arnold replied. “Fair’s fair.”

“A black eye isn’t as bad as making him bleed.”

“He had it coming,” said Allison.

“Yeah!” cried Miri, hovering above the scene like a pouting guardian angel.

“I don’t want to be hurty!” moaned Billy.

“It’s not your fault.” Allison said.

“What the fuck is wrong with you kids?” shouted Ralph. “Who made you lot like this?”

Billy flinched, making it almost halfway through an automatic child-apology before Arnold held up an arm.

“At least we’re still trying…” Arnold muttered under his breath. 

“Trying to do what?” asked Ralph. “Kick the shit out of each other?”  

“Trying to fight,” said Allison.

“Trying to help,” said Arnold.

Ralph scoffed. “With your barmy little prison break plan? That’s how you think you’re going to help?” 

Had Arnold been raised by a different woman, he would have sworn.

“Well, what’s the better choice, huh, genius?” he shouted. “Let a whole bunch of people rot in jail just cuz people hate them? Just sit around waiting to die like some old wanker?”

“Not all of us have the luck of being big famous superheroes,” added Allison. 

“For God’s sake!” roared Ralph. “Why does it always have to be me? Why do I have to save us all over, and over, and fucking over!”

Fuck it, no more kid gloves.

“You kids ever heard of a place called Auschwitz?”

“What’s Auswhwitz?” asked Billy. 

“Bad Nazi World War Two place,” explained Allison. Then, she turned to Ralph. “Careful what you say next. I’ve been a prisoner… And a test subject.”

Ralph let out a bitter, mirthless laugh. “You don’t know the half of it, girl. These weren’t prisons. They destroyed people there. Like rats. I saw folks whose bones were just about jutting through their skin. I saw graves flooded with women and children. Piles of ashes that used to be people.”  

Billy whimpered. Allison scoffed right back.

“Yeah, sure. You saw. Poor Ralph saw the bad stuff. But it didn’t happen to you, princess.”

The vein on Ralph’s neck pulsed. His voice shook. “Don’t you dare, you little shit. My goddamn boyfriend burned to death in my arms. His skin stuck to my suit. Nothing in your tiny nothing of a life gives you the right to talk down to me.” He grit his teeth. “The soldiers who were with me were kind. It even killed a few of the prisoners. They tried giving them food they couldn’t even stomach anymore. But they did try.” He took a deep breath. “Except the men with the pink triangles. Nobody was kind to them. They let the Jews go. They let the Gypsies and the Witnesses and the Polacks go. But not the faggots. Not the men like me and Finch! They threw them back in prison to rot!” His voice cracked. “They saw what hate does, right in front of them, and they didn’t learn a fucking thing.”

“… And where was the Crimson Comet?” asked Arnold.

“What?”

“Where were you.”

“I was right there!”

“Then why weren’t you helping them?” asked Arnold. “Not like you weren’t strong enough.”

“…I couldn’t. I mean, I needed to—if they’d known I was…” Ralph trailed off. He had no answer.

“And why can’t you help us now?” asked Allison. 

“Why do the people who spit on me keep asking me to kill for them? I’m not built for it.”

“I like boys too, you know,” Arnold answered. It was the first time he’d ever said that out loud. “I think you’re just a coward. Who said anything about killing?”

Ralph stood there for a while. Only Billy’s quiet sobs and Miri’s attempts to comfort him broke the silence.

Without a word, Ralph turned and left the children alone.

Ralph avoided the Watercolours for the next two days. David hadn’t returned yet, but nobody except Sarah seemed concerned:

“How are you kids not worried?” Sarah asked at the kitchen table, worriedly cutting at a lamb roast with a carving knife. 

Arnold was pushing around a baked potato with his fork. “Eh, his granddad hasn’t tried to kill me yet. He’s fine.”

What?

Ralph spent most of his time in the Sunken Sub, Lyonesse’s designated dive-bar. It was much cozier than Clark’s. Drebbel—a kettle-black potbelly stove of a bartender—was a far quieter creature than Iszac Steel, which suited Ralph just fine. The riveted steel walls and dim yellow lights reminded him of the bowels of ships that had carried him to Europe not so long ago. 

Most importantly, there were no windows. The sea couldn’t find him there.

Gentle, sad guitar plucks over violin strings sang from out of the jukebox: 

Play the guitar; play it again, my Johnny…

A lit cigarette tucked behind his ear, Ralph Rivers lined up a shot at the pool-table. 

He wasn’t there. He was back in Sydney, in an underground pub off some forgotten alley with walls like mossy cave-rock. The sort of joint that catered to what tactful, heartless psychiatrists called “sex variants.”

Ralph wasn’t alone, either. There was a man standing beside him, watching him squint at the billiard balls with playful contempt. If he weren’t standing next to the Crimson Comet himself, most might have called him tall. Well muscled, but so subtly you’d never suspect he was strong. 

“Just give up, Rivers. Bloody felt ripper, you are.”

Him and Finch rarely used first names. Even when they were alone. Even when they were in bed. Furtive habits die hard. And acting so familiar with each other might’ve meant admitting to themselves that it was love. 

I was always a fool for my Johnny,

For the one they call Johnny Guitar…

Both Ralph Rivers raised their cue, sliding it back past his shoulder. The one back in Sydney said, “Shut the fuck up, Finch.”

Finch—Bart bent down beside Ralph and whispered in his ear: “Make me.

What if you go, what if you stay, I love you…

Ralph had already left the table before the billiard balls stopped dancing to that old, familiar chaos. Pointless. Pool was no fun alone. He sat down at one of the barstools. “Pint of Tooheys Old please, Drebbel.”

“Coming up, Rivers,” rumbled Drebbel. “Just give the molecule-still a bit to synthesize it.”

“Thanks. Tell it to make up the next one while I’m drinking, would you?”

God, Ralph hated this place. But it didn’t matter. He wasn’t there.

What if you’re cruel, you can be kind I know.

Long ago, right at that very moment, Ralph was clutching his glass hard enough that white spider-web cracks were shooting through it. “What do you mean you’re going?”

Finch—Bart—locked eyes with Rivers. God they were blue. In Ralph’s memory, they almost blurred with Fran’s. “I mean I’m going to Europe. My number came up. That’s that.”

Ralph mutely shook his head. “You’re a cartoonist, Finch! Not a soldier.”

Finch looked taken aback. “You think just because bullets don’t bounce off me I can’t handle myself?”

Yes! Nobody can ‘handle themselves’ when they’re being shot! For God’s sake, Finch!” Ralph pointed at the grimy bar entrance. “I have to keep one eye on the door in case the cops come charging in, for having a drink together, and you want to go and shoot folks for ‘em?”

“It’s not for them, Ralph,” Bart said evenly. “People at the paper have been hearing stories. The Germans are rounding up queers in camps, Ralph. Jews, too. Whole towns worth of people.” He took a sip of his beer. “If I have to fight, at least it’s for something like that.”

The two men sat in silence together. 

“…I’m coming with you,” Ralph said finally. “You’re not going over there alone.”

Finch looked at his lover, before letting out a confused, sputtering laugh. “You? You’re a superhero! You don’t see superheroes in war-zones!” 

“The yanks have Miss Victory.”

“Alright, yeah, but you’re… you’re you.”

“So what?” asked Ralph. “If the Nazis are as bad as you say, it sounds like they could use a good Crimson Comet thumping!”

“…Who says we’ll be together? They could send you to the Pacific and me to Europe.”

“No,” Ralph said firmly. “You’re with me. I’ll make it a condition.”

Finch smiled wryly. “Won’t that give the game away, Mr. Rivers?”

“I’ll just tell them you’re my wing technician or something.” Ralph flexed one of his great biceps. “Trust me, the recruiters won’t be asking too many questions.”

Bart kissed Ralph, long and deep. “God, you’re arrogant.”

“I’ve earned it.”

There was never a man like my Johnny,

Like the one they call Johnny Guitar,

Play it again,

Johnny Guitar.”

Tears fell into Ralph’s beer, spreading out as dark gold ripples. 

He wasn’t there. He wasn’t here.

Fuck it, Ralph decided. 

He rose from his stool. “Forget the second round, Drebbel.”

“Turning in for the night?” 

“Not quite,” said Ralph. “Just need to beat the shit out of something.”

One part of Lyonesse Ralph Rivers did like was its gym. It had weight machines that could simulate Juptier’s gravitational pull times five. Dumbbells made of white dwarf star metal. An aqua-therapy pool that gave way to an underwater rabbit warren of dark tunnels2. So much for having to pull an old camper van full of rocks to get his workout.

Ralph heard the commotion before he saw it. A kid was shouting. Well, screaming, really. He could hear thumps, like a punching bag being hit wildly.    

Ralph sighed. This was sure to be productive. 

The screams increased in pitch, becoming ragged, like a creature in pain.

Ralph remembered the state David was in when Arnold sent him away. He remembered his mother and grandfather.  

Oh shit. Billy!

Ralph took off in the direction of the screams, now subsiding into sobs.

Billy wasn’t there. It was just David, curled up crying under a swaying punching bag.

“Stupid Arnold. Stupid granddad…”

Ralph approached the boy cautiously, like he was a feral cat. “…David?”

David looked up at Ralph with angry, tired eyes. “It was supposed to stop hurting. Grandfather promised!” David curled back in on himself, body shuddering with sobs. 

Ralph awkwardly patted him in the shoulder. “It’ll be alright.”

“No it won’t!” David dug his nails into his skin. “Nobody likes me! I don’t like me! Nothing works!” He let out a long wail. “I want my mummy!” 

Ralph picked David up. The boy didn’t resist. “I know.”

Ralph wasn’t equipped for this. At least this time, he wouldn’t be handing the kid over to a monster. 

Five minutes later, Ralph was knocking on Sarah Allworth’s bedroom door. 

Mrs Allworth answered in her nightgown, squinting without her owlish spectacles. She caught sight of David, still shaking. “Ah.”

“He’s missing his mother,” said Ralph. “There’s… a whole lot, really.”

Sarah nodded. “Right. Give him here then.”

Mrs Allworth had missed out on many common experiences bringing up Joe. He’d never scraped his knee, or broke his leg. He’d never gotten beaten up on the playground or come down with a bad fever. 

He had, however, pined for his mother, so many times. 

Sarah wrapped a blanket around David’s shoulders. “You want me to make you some hot cocoa?”

David nodded mutely.

“Okay, let’s go to the kitchen.”

Ralph watched Sarah lead David down the hall.

Useless. So goddamn useless.

Maude Simmons was sat at the bar of Clark’s, tapping her pencil on the rim of the beer glass which sat atop her latest, soon to be discarded plan.

“That’s not gonna work,” she muttered to herself. “Mars is shit this time of year anyway.”

She heard someone sit down on the stool next to her. Ralph.

The old superhero had his costume on, bar the mask. And the wings, of course. 

“Good to see you again, boss!” enthused Iszac. “Thirsty?”

Ralph raised his fingers. “Vodka sunrise, Steel. Long as it’s Russian vodka.” 

“You got it.”

Ralph looked at Mistress Quickly, a small smile playing his lips. “A commissar made a convert out of me back in the war.”

“Clearly,” said Quickly, not looking up from her work.

“I remember you now.”

“Took you long enough.”

“You were the one who wanted to turn all the silver into… teeth, wasn’t it?”

“Calcium.”

Ralph actually chuckled. “But why?”  

Maude’s upper lip creased in thought. “Don’t remember, honestly. Was nearly twenty years ago, now. Probably something to do with Marx. I’d just learned to read back then, and I was really into Marx.”

“Just learned to read?” repeated Ralph questioningly. “But you had to be fifteen, at least.”

Maude waved it off. “It’s a long, sad story. Sure you’ve already got plenty of those.” She looked Ralph’s suit up and down. “I take it you’re going to help, then?”

“You don’t sound too surprised.”

Maude shrugged. “Allison put money on it.”

“Sounds like her dad.”

“…I’ll explain everything wrong with that later. Still, good on you. Means I didn’t waste my time making you that new stabilizer harness.”

“…You mean my wings? Thanks a bunch.”

Iszac set down a glass of yellow liquid tapering down to deep red at the bottom in front of Ralph. The super took a long, thoughtful sip. 

“I don’t think I can kill again.”

“Even if it was them or one of the kids?” asked Maude. Fast, she added, “Sorry, just seems like something I ought to know.”

Ralph exhaled. “It’s not a moral thing, Quickly. I just… can’t.”

Mistress Quickly stuck her hand in one of her blazer pockets. “Booty 1-4.”

A classical ray-gun flew into her hand.

Ralph frowned. “Betsy? You went through my things?”

“I’m a super-thief. ‘Course I did.” She twirled the stun-ray. “I can recharge the batteries for you. Mazur was always… baroque, his stuff’s always interesting to work with.”

Ralph nodded. “That’d… you don’t know how much of a lifesaver that is.” He leaned over to examine Maude’s notes. “You got a plan, yet?”

Maude rubbed her face. “Not yet. So many variables. Be easy just to tear the roof off or vanish the walls, but there’s some real psychos in there I’d rather not deal with, you feel me? Honestly, I probably would rather get rid of the guards…” 

She trailed off.

“Say,” she said to Iszac. “Do you know how Mrs Allworth got here?”

Previous Chapter                                                                                                           Next Chapter


1. Doodles of potential new chest insignias. Jagged edges dripping flaming blood were a common motif.

2. Also containing a small art gallery and a bedroom for Palaemon.

 

Chapter Eighty-Four: Prisoner of the Sea

Ralph Rivers stood sobbing in the ruined hotel lobby, ankle-deep in the pulped and shredded remains of dozens of human beings. The good, bad, and the in-between all ran together. 

Commissar Fyodor was patting the superhero on the shoulder with a trembling hand. “I understand, friend. There is no shame in tears…”

Ralph cast his red streaming eyes down at the newly-named Fran. She was looking up at him with complete befuddlement. How could any child be so calm in the midst of this carnage? How could she happily wear blood like it was water or mud? How could she kill so easily—so inventively—like she was just playing with a garden-hose?

Rivers felt a stab of guilt. Why did he want a child to be unhappy? Why did he want anyone to feel like he did?

He spied something out the corner of his eye: a little blonde girl as naked as Fran, but clean, and with surprisingly mundane hazel eyes. In fact, she was standing on top of the gore, frowning down at it like it was raw sewage. Or blood, for that matter.

“Eww, eww, ewwwwww!” She shot upwards, clinging to the comparatively clean ceiling and pointing down at Fran. “Make her put them back together!”

“…Hello,” Ralph said cautiously. He wrapped an arm around Fran, who didn’t seem to notice the new girl at all. “You this one’s sister?”

The child tilted her head at Ralph. “…No? My sister’s Allie!” She blinked when she examined the other girl more closely. “Is that David’s mummy? No wonder he’s so mean.”

Ralph shook his head slowly. “She’s six. And David? I don’t—”

The Crimson Comet suddenly remembered. This wasn’t now. This was a long time ago. 

He remembered what happened to Fran. 

Ralph hugged the memory of her tight. “Oh, Fran. I’m so sorry…”

Miri screwed her eyes shut, pushing away all the… bad she was seeing.

“Okay. Waking up time now.”

Ralph Rivers awoke with a gasp. The ghost of a headache buzzed behind his eyes. He reflexively threw the lavender bed sheets covering him to the side. 

He was still in his trousers and singlet, much to his relief. All he was missing was his boots. Ralph didn’t know what would be worse: being undressed by an old woman, a trumped up supervillain, or a gaggle of schoolkids. 

Definitely the last one.

Still a superhero to his bones, Ralph took stock fast.

He was in a decent sized bedroom. The decor was, simply put, funky. The walls were patterned with splotches of pink, yellow and blue watercolours. Illumination was provided by white lava-lamp ceiling. Multicoloured globs of wax1 the size of bean bags bobbed in the paraffin above the glass, strangely casting no shadows below them. There were two opaque glass doors, one in the wall to his left, the other in front of the bed. 

The whole place looked like the lair of a shifty hippie on Dragnet, or so Ralph would have thought if colour television had reached Australia yet. His bed was even curvy. It definitely looked like a cell a bunch of little kids would design2

 Ralph smacked his lips. Rum. That explained the headache. Very old-fashioned sort of knock-out drug. Also explained the pressure in his bladder

Rivers swung around and got out of bed, finding his boots waiting for him on the floor. 

Considerate. Too considerate.

After thoroughly checking the boots for scorpions, mousetraps, or strange, toe-based mind control devices, Ralph slipped them on and opened the side door, fingers-crossed. 

“Oh thank Christ,” Ralph muttered under his breath. He desperately needed to get rid of that rum.

A thought briefly paralyzed him in front of the toilet bowl. What if this was some scheme to steal his cells and make a bio-android of him, like Dr. Sin and his Blue Asteroid? 

Ralph sighed and unzipped his fly. If they wanted his DNA, they probably got it already. Besides, there was a thin line between “career superhero” and “paranoid schizophrenia.3

Biological needs sorted, Ralph checked the thing on the dresser, picking it up and letting it unfurl in front of him.

It was his costume. Not only that, it was pristine. Ralph had always tried to keep the Crimson Comet suit in good knick—for appearances if nothing else—but he was no seamstress, and his sainted sister only had so much time on her hands. He couldn’t exactly take it to the local tailor.    All the burns, bullet holes, and patch-jobs were gone. The red leather was brighter and more flexible than it’d been in nearly two decades.

Ralph was a touch offended. It was like his history had been wiped away. Was this even the original suit?

Ralph considered putting it on. If this… facility or whatever it was anywhere near a city or town, it’d be wise to protect his identity. If not, well, it’d definitely get him in the fighting spirit… 

For a moment, Ralph felt the tack of blood beneath his fingers. 

He dropped the costume, kicking it away.

Stupid idea, Ralph told himself. The thing could be bugged for all he knew; or even poisoned, like the shirt that did in old Al4

A hoarse but girlish voice invaded his thoughts:

Aww, come on, don’t be a sook. 

The main door exploded as Ralph Rivers burst through it into the adjoining hallway, specks of glass raining down into rich purple carpet like grains of sand.

Ralph took off in a dead run. They were in his damn head— 

A soft English voice blanketed the hall. “Sir! Do control yourself! The master of this house worked very hard on that door! Also, please consider that we are under the ocean—”

Fuck! More of them! Under the sea? The submarine pirates again? They never had digs this fancy… 

Ralph turned left at a fork in the corridor, running on blind instinct. 

You’re going the wrong way! 

That only made Ralph more confident in his choice. He sped past dozens of copper-plaqued  doors, picking up speed like a freight train. 

A new, Italianate voice muttered in Rivers’ ear:

Jesus, Ralph, I never took you for a pussy. 

“Shut up!” Ralph spat at the unseen stranger.

He turned a corner to find a monster bearing down on him: a broad, kettle-black robot with baleful red eyes and waving pincer arms, with a body like a giant megalodon tooth pointed right at Ralph. 

It boomed, “DO NOT IMPEDE MY TASK.”

“Sorry mate!” Ralph transformed into a beam of red light and cannonballed right through the mechanical beast, steel-plate and nuts and bolts washing over his face like gritty ice-water. 

The poor cleaning-robot never knew what hit it.  

Ralph slid to a stop by an elevator, assuming it wasn’t a teleportation cubicle or something stupid like that5. Good. Assuming he was really underwater, anything that got him closer to the surface was sorely needed. 

After ten gut-churning seconds waiting for the doors to open, Ralph stepped inside and punched the top-most button. 

Ralph clenched his teeth and fidgeted his feet as he felt the elevator rise. Elevator rides were the Crimson Comet’s kryptonite. Claustrophobic little coffins delivering him into fresh new hells, assuming Dr. Sin or Jimmy the Bastard6 didn’t cut the cable. 

The elevator stopped midway up the constellation of backlit buttons. The doors opened with a chime. 

Ralph’s face went white. The Crimson Comet was standing in front of him, young and clean-shaven, a full set of golden metal wings sprouting from his back. His skin had a rotoscoped sheen to it. 

The comic-book man grinned, revealing two solid rows of white where his teeth should have been. “Stick your foot in the door for me, mate?” he asked in Ralph’s own voice.

“Nope!” Ralph punched blindly at the buttons. The doors slid shut in front of the walking flashback. 

After only a few more floors, the elevator came to a stop again. 

Ralph got into a boxing stance. What now?

The doors opened to reveal one of the children who’d broken into Ralph’s house: the boy with the starry black cloak. 

Ralph scowled at the lad. “What do kids think you’re doing? What if I’d broken through the roof? We’d have all drowned!”

The boy snickered. “You’d have drowned.”

Ralph growled and grabbed the boy’s arm. “You kidnapped me!”

The boy raised a finger. It sparked green. “Yeah, we’re not doing this.”

“Wait, what—”

Everything went green. When the light faded, Ralph found himself in what looked like a swank cocktail bar, the kind that occupied the top floors of expensive hotels. Only instead of a city-view, the curved window wall looked out onto a deep blue sea. Rich, sultry jazz singing over minor-key twelve bar blues filled the air:

If you had prepared twenty years ago,

You wouldn’t be a-wanderin’ now from door to door,

Why don’t you do right, like some other men do…

Ralph looked towards the source of the music. A lady was performing on a thrust stage to a garden of empty tables. A woman made of bright blue light.

Get out of here and get me some money, too…

“What the hell…” Ralph said aloud.

He caught sight of the clamshell footlights rimming the stage. Projectors. She was a hologram.

Ralph scratched the back of his neck in puzzlement. Seemed like a lot of effort to go to for a record player. 

“Can I get ya a drink, buddy?”

Ralph swung around to face the bar. There was a bartender behind the counter, or an approximation of one. It was clearly a machine. Unlike the one he’d totalled just minutes earlier, this one was roughly human shaped. Its bean-can torso was painted like a white button-down shirt. Its head was a big silver bullet decorated with a riveted metal moustache and a cyclopic red eye like a bicycle reflector.   

Ralph approached the bar cautiously. “Depends,” he said. “What are you?”

“Iszac Steel,” the robot replied in an artfully crackly baritone, his eye flashing with every word. Or was it an upside down mouth? “Bartender and receptacle of all sorrows. So, would you like a drink?”

Ralph decided to go along with the contraption. Maybe he would stay talkative. “Got any beer?”

“A hundred brews from fifty-two star-systems7,” Iszac answered proudly. 

“…Anything from Earth, thanks.”

A pint-glass popped out of the countertop like a conjuring trick. Iszac pulled a beer-tap out from under the bar and filled it with amber liquid. An excellent pour, Ralph had to admit. Not too much head, but not nothing, either. He still didn’t drink.

“Where am I?”

“You’re in Clark’s! Finest drinking establishment on all of Lyonesse. Not like that dive the Sunken Sub down on level 32.”

“So this place is run by a guy called Clark?”

“Nope.”

“Then who is Clark?”

“… You know, I never asked.8

“Then who does run this place?”

“Joe Allworth.”

“And who’s that?”

“He’s the one who built me.”

Ralph growled in the back of his throat. Fucking robots. 

“I’ll tell you what, I’m glad you’re here,” said Iszac. “Bar hasn’t been this crowded since Mr. Allworth threw that party with all them gods and goddesses9.”

“But I’m the only one here.”

Someone cleared their throat. Loudly. 

“Not quite, boss.” 

Iszac pointed to a white-leather conversation pit in a far corner of the bar, near the wall-window. Mistress Quickly, the old woman, and the red-eyed little girl were all sitting around a table, watching Ralph intently. 

“He’s still in plainclothes,” said Mistress Quickly. “Looks like you owe me five dollars, Allie. And that’s American dollars, girl.”

Allison grumbled at the injustice of it all. Mrs Allworth tutted to herself.

Ralph took a deep draft of his surprisingly good beer and stormed towards his captors, splashes of booze spilling on the smooth black floor. “You do know I’m a goddamn superhero, right? Don’t think I don’t still have mates in the police!”

“Sure,” said Mistress Quickly. “I’m sure the New South Wales police have some scuba gear they’re itching to break out.”

“Too deep for scuba,” said Allison, sipping lemonade from a curly straw. “They’d need to use submarines.” 

“Stop being horrid,” Sarah snapped at the girls. She turned diplomatically to Ralph. “I am sorry about this… can I call you Mr. Rivers?”

Ralph sat down hard on the couch, facing Allison and Mrs Allworth. “Why not?” He looked pointedly at Allison. “Not like I have any other name these days.”

“I wanted to be there to explain things,” said Sarah, “but you woke up early.”

“It’s Miri’s fault,” Allison grouched, arms folded. “She wussed out.” She turned her head slightly and wrinkled her nose, whining at the air in front of her, “You did!” The girl’s eyelids fluttered like she’d taken a breeze to the face. Allison sighed and reached a hand out towards nothing. “Come, on, don’t cry…”

Ralph watched with a mix of horror and irritated pity. He glared at Mistress Quickly. “You seriously want this girl to storm a maximum security prison?”

“It was her idea, actually.” 

“Good God!”

“It’s not what it looks like,” cut in Sarah.  “Allison has a… unique relationship with her sister.” Her mouth twitched as she tried to think of a gentle explanation.

“Lady, I’m a superhero, I’m sure I’ve heard weirder.” 

“They share a body.”

Ralph thought about it for a moment, tallying. “…No, still not the strangest thing I’ve seen.”

“You haven’t met the Italian one yet,” countered Mistress Quickly.

“Stop talking about me like I’m not here!” Allison cried, her red eyes darting angrily between the two women, only to lock onto Ralph like she’d forgotten he was there. She tried to compose herself as much like a grown up as possible, folding her arms over her legs and closing her eyes before evenly intoning, “…We really, really need your help.” 

Ralph was reminded of the mimic games Fran played when she was small. Those faltering, half-unconscious attempts to become something she didn’t understand.  Why were these women humouring her?

Softly, Ralph said, “I’m sorry girl, but your plan…” He slapped his knees. “Like I said back home, I’m retired.”

And also, you’ll get us all killed, he didn’t say.

Allison’s eyes hardened. “Fran would’ve helped us.”

Allison almost flinched when she saw the vein on Ralph’s neck pulse. The lights behind his eyes were all white. 

“Maybe she would,” Ralph said in the same cold, brittle tone Allison’s father used when she drew all over his paperwork, “but she’s dead. And being the sort who would have helped you is probably what got her killed.” He looked at Mrs Allworth. “You should be ashamed of yourself, ma’am.” Ralph jabbed his thumb at Mistress Quickly. “Nothing her lot does suprises me—” 

“And yet I’m the one who didn’t pack it in my forties.”

“—But you’re old enough to be this one’s grandmother! How could you go along with this… this nuttery!”        

“Afraid I’m just a mother, Mr. Rivers.”

Ralph scoffed and leaned back against the couch. “I’d hate to see how those kids turned out if this is what you let them get away with.”

“My son is dead,” Sarah said, steadily, but with a clear lump in her throat. “He died saving thousands of people, Mr. Rivers, including his murderers. I’ll say this once, don’t insult him.

It sounded more like a threat than a plea. Ralph’s shoulders slackened. He didn’t meet Mrs Allworth’s eyes. “Sorry, ma’am. I didn’t think—”

“Clearly not.”

Ralph looked around Clark’s. He connected the scope of what the old lady said, and what the newsagent had said before he’d been snatched. “Is your son…”

“He’s exactly who you think he is.”

Ralph tried to imagine this utterly ordinary looking woman bringing up the Flying Man. He’d always imagined him as some more proactive cousin of Fran’s father. Not a creature with a past.

He took a deep breath and looked back at Allison. “I still can’t help you this way. I can’t be responsible for what might happen. I’m sorry.”

“Fine,” said Allison. “We’ll start looking for someone else after we drop you off next week.”

“That might be best—next week?”

Sarah, nearly as confused as Ralph, looked at Allison. “Next week?”  

“Next week,” repeated Mistress Quickly. “We’re not running a taxi service around here.”

“But Arnold can—”

Allison raised a finger at Mrs Allworth. The sheer gall of the act managed to silence the woman for the moment.   

“You kidnapped me!” shouted Ralph. “I have commitments.”

“I’ve read your mind,” said Allison, “you don’t. It’ll be a month before anyone in Mogo notices you’re gone. Trust me, I checked.”

Ralph’s eyes narrowed. “You’re Alberto’s daughter, aren’t you?”

Allison smiled wryly “Yep.”

Alberto sputtered and raged in the back of Allison’s head. Sometimes having roommates was fun.

“Your dad’s a dickhead.”

Allison didn’t disagree.

Ralph was going to ask the girl if Eliza was her mother or if Lawrence roped some other poor bitch into his scheme when he remembered his predicament. “I have a cat! Who’s going to feed Pearl?”

Allison put her fingers to her temples. 

A green flash deposited a deeply confused white cat beside Ralph. Chirruping, she climbed onto his familiar lap. Much comfier than the boy’s had been.

Allison called out to Iszac, “Could we get some milk for Pearl here?” 

“Sure thing, little miss.”

Allison looked back at Ralph. “Happy now?” 

“You kidnapped me! I don’t need an excuse to—”

Something like slowed birdsong echoed through Clark’s. There was a blue whale just outside the window. 

Without a word, Ralph Rivers climbed out of the conversation pit. 

“Come on, man,” complained Iszack. “Don’t scuff the leather!”

Ralph ignored the robot, stepping close enough to the glass that he felt as if he could reach right into the ocean.

The whale bellowed again. Ralph could see a child perched on its head like an oxpecker on a great elephant. His eyes shone milky white in the night-sea gloom. 

“So,” said Mistress Quickly, “okay with waiting a week?”

“Sure,” Ralph said autonomically. “Could use a holiday anyway.”

“A holiday from what?” Mistress Quickly muttered under her breath. “Your couch?”

Ralph put his hand on the glass. He had to speak to the boy. Properly. At least once. He owed it to Françoise.

He pulled back his hand. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to get another drink.”

Sarah Allworth sighed and shook her head as she watched the superhero head back to the bar. “That’s a nasty trick you two pulled.”

“I once ransomed the New Year,” said Quickly.  “This doesn’t really rate.”

“Besides,” said Allison. “He wants to talk to David. It wouldn’t have worked otherwise.”

Previous Chapter                                                                                                           Next Chapter


1. Not exactly, but close enough.

2. Or a twenty year old man.

3. Also, urine is sterile.

4. Short for Alcides, more widely known by the latinization of his later nomen, Hercules. Ralph Rivers had met the god on a few adventures against the Nazis during his time in Greece.

5. Joe Allworth had not yet managed to source those.

6. Newspapers and other facets of polite society referred to James Ulles as “the Fiend,” but everyone in the business knew what he was really called.

7. Some of them were even drinkable by humans.

8. Science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke. 1917-2008.

9. Artemis drank all the Lemon Lime and Bitters.

Chapter Eighty-Three: The Übermensch Hunt

The blond boy hanging from the lampost couldn’t have been more than eleven or twelve. Someone had taken the time to tear the diamond swastika from his jacket sleeve. Grey dust and specks of rubble powdered his shoulders as though he’d come in from the snow. Flies rested over his unseeing, glassy eyes like coins for Charon. 

The Crimson Comet could hear the creak of the cord as the child swayed in the weak winter wind, even with the rumble of mortar and gunfire in his ears. His fist tightened. “Why?

The two black-coated German officers behind the hero stumbled over each other’s words in their attempts to explain themselves to the Soviet army men and the rifles brandished in their faces. A gaggle of Hitler Youth were watching, stiff with terror, by a nearby wall of sandbags, guarded by a pair of scowling soldiers.

Ralph’s commanding officer, one Commissar Fyodor, raised his hand, silencing the officers. He turned to the Comet. “They say the boy was a deserter from another unit.”

Ralph didn’t take his eyes off the child. “A what?”

Fyodor scowled back at the officers. One was trying to look stoic, the other was begging with his eyes. 

“They mean they found him hiding in the alley with some bullets in his pockets.”

“Bring ‘em here.” 

Fyodor cocked his head towards Ralph, spurring his comrades to frog-march the Nazis before the superhero. 

A globule of spit hit the Comet on the cheek as he turned to face the officers. One of them was cringing with his hands clutched protectively over his head, but the other was standing damnably tall, screaming and cursing at Rivers in German. 

Ralph pressed the pair of them against the wall. A hand to each of their windpipes. The fearful one cried as he died. The other simply fought. It didn’t help.

The children screamed and wept, only kept from rushing forward by the soldiers forming into a wall of menace and gunmetal in front of them. 

Fyodor stood beside the Comet, and looked up at the dead boy. Behind his little round glasses his eyes were sympathetic yet weary. “I could have had the men do that, you know.”

“Wouldn’t ask anyone to do something I wouldn’t do myself.” 

Fyodor smiled joylessly. “Trust me, Comet, killing Nazis is no burden for us.”

“Besides, you would’ve used bullets.” Ralph kicked one of the dead Nazis in the chest. “Why should they get better than the kid?”

“Fair.”

Ralph looked back up at the hanged child. “Have your men take whatever they can use, and tell the kids to wait here with their hands up for someone to surrender to. Reckon it’s their best chance at not getting shot before this is over.” He stepped over to the base of the lampost. “I’m going to get the boy down.”

“We don’t have time—”

Ralph bent the lamppost about the middle, as easy as folding a coat-hanger. He lowered it until the boy’s shoes were almost touching the ground. “Well, help me out then.”

Fyodor sighed as he removed his combat knife from its sheath. “Damn you, Comet.”

Once he was cut down, Ralph laid the boy down in the doorway of a relatively intact haberdashery, draping one of the Nazi’s jackets over his face. He didn’t want to leave the child out in the open, the ruins of his home looming all around him like the graves of giants. 

“All right,” Ralph said as he turned away from the boy, “let’s move.”

The Race to Berlin was over. The Nazi war-machine was running on fumes and spite, but the Western Allies had little interest in throwing more men at a city that would soon fall into Soviet orbit. That wasn’t to say the western powers hadn’t contributed to the final push—the USAAF1 and RAF’s Mosquitos2 had softened up Berlin with over a month of raids and bombings. The city had been hollowed out before the ants could even reach it.

That wasn’t all. Whether so America and her allies could say they had boots on the ground, or just to keep an eye on the Soviets, Eisenhower had sent the bulk of SHAEF’s3 “meta-corps4” ahead to help storm the city. Not that it made a difference. The Nazi’s people and industry were exhausted, and they could no longer pillage enough from “the Greater Reich” to keep going. Nothing short of a miracle could save Hitler now.

Unfortunately for the führer, the Crimson Comet was here to kill his miracle-workers. 

The Crimson Comet gave the Youth members one last look as they left them behind. A few of the younger ones were kneeling on the road by the dead Nazis, weeping. 

Those two were probably their den-leaders, Ralph realized. The bastards had dragged those poor lads into war like they were men, and they were still crying for them.

…Had they helped string up the boy? 

Ralph shoved the idea down as deep as he could. He couldn’t let his rage anywhere near children. How long had it been, since he hadn’t been angry? 

Rivers, Fyodor, and his men marched through the broken streets. Ralph saw snatches of civilians peering from the windows of bomb-scarred homes and buildings like frightened ghosts. Every city-smell was tainted by the stink of gunpowder and concrete dust. Smoke and ash rose to mingle with the clouds above. Ralph had seen many cities so reduced since he’d shipped out. The war in Europe was like two waves of death colliding by the shore. 

Until Auschwitz and Bitburg, Ralph had wondered if it was worth it. He still wasn’t sure.

They passed the skeleton of a townhouse almost completely buried in a mound of rubble. An arm jutted out from the foot of the hill like some morbid flower. A gold watch glinted against the grey-dusted flesh.

Fyodor pulled the watch off and slipped it onto his own arm, revealing alternating bands of silver and gold beneath his olive drab sleeve. 

“I thought looting was punished by death,” Ralph remarked coolly. 

The commissar shrugged. “The dead have no use for jewelry. I do.”

“For a political officer, you’re not a very good communist.”

“I’m not getting lectured on socialism by an American, friend.”

“I’ve told you, I’m Australian.”

“Same difference.”

Honestly, Ralph couldn’t judge Fyodor too harshly. The man did have his principles. Just the day before, Ralph had watched him shoot one of his own men in the back for trying to “loot” a Berlin woman. 

Ralph shook his head. Why couldn’t anyone be decent? 

The platoon trudged on. At one point, they hunkered down in a deserted hotel lobby so Fyodor could make a call on his bulky field-telephone. 

The commissar spat some irritated Russian down the line before slamming it back into its cradle.

 The Comet asked, “What’s the latest on Hel and Baldr?”

Hel and Baldr (the man who couldn’t die5) were the exemplar Nazi super-soldiers. Conveniently for Goebells and his propagandists, they were the only ones to make it to 1945. Baldr—Hans Sommer to his mother6—was the golden boy, not only because of his archetypically Aryan good looks. Reputable sources even outside the Reich proved he’d served in the Great War, but he didn’t look a day over twenty-one. Given the man had survived gas-attacks, headshots, and being bathed in napalm, it wasn’t difficult to believe. 

Hel, on the other hand, was the wildcard. Nobody could agree on what her powers were. All anyone really knew for sure was that she could send a man’s head flying with the back of her hand7, but  some people reckoned she had healing powers on top of that. Confirmed German casualties had been spotted again on the frontlines mere days after she passed through. Others claimed mind-control: Allied soldiers had been spotted fighting alongside her to their deaths. 

“It’s bizarre,” said the commissar. “Reports say they’re killing indiscriminately.”

“…Wouldn’t it be stranger if they weren’t?”

“I don’t just mean our boys, Comet. They’re killing Germans, too. Soldiers, civilians, doesn’t matter!” 

“Really? For the love of God, why?” 

Christ, had the Nazis finally stopped discriminating? Did all those people have bullets in their pockets, too?

Fyodor shook his head. “I don’t know!” Noticing the questioning looks from his soldiers, Fyodor  loudly repeated his explanation in Russian. The men all shouted back.

“Your boys have any ideas?” asked Ralph.

Fyodor frowned, “Best they’ve got is… how you say it? Ah, ‘paranoia,’ but something—” 

A scream shattered the air in the lobby. It was loud enough to make ears bleed, but the noise itself was poisonous. It was grief and hate, entwined with rage and every other foul thing in the world. It was what pain sounded like. 

The sound forced Ralph to his knees. He clamped his tight over his ears, but it did nothing to muffle the shriek. It wasn’t only noise. It was images, too. His first kiss calling him a faggot in front of his friends. His father changing the locks on the front door. 

Most vivid of all was Finch, dead and burnt. Oh God, Finch. He could smell the roasted flesh of his lover. 

Ralph wanted his eardrums to burst. He wanted to die. 

The sound of gunfire pulled Ralph out of his pain. One of the soldiers was lying on the floor, blood seeping from a new hole in his head, sidearm in hand.   

“Oh, shit.” 

The scream continued, more shots accompanying it. One soldier was pulling out his knife, raising it to his throat. 

“No!” 

Ralph lunged for the poor man, but it was too late. The soldier cut a red line across his neck, gushing blood down the front of his shirt. 

“Christ!” 

Ralph turned to Fyodor. The commissar was leaning against the reception desk, knuckles white. His right hand was drifting towards his pistol-holster. 

“Not you, too!”

Ralph exploded forwards, stumbling to a stop a few feet to Fyodor’s left. He whipped the gun out of the officer’s hand and crushed it like a beer-can. 

Before Fyodor could do anything else, Ralph threw his arms tight around him. “Don’t you dare!” 

The scream faded. The horror subsided. Fyodor shook in Ralph’s eyes, murmuring softly to himself in Russian before taking a deep breath.

“…I think you can let go of me, Comet.”

Ralph let go of the commissar. Fyodor looked around the lobby. All but one of his men were dead, and the survivor was curled up on the floor moaning.

“Those poor men…”

“You two are strong,” a feminine, teutonic voice drawled behind the pair. “But I don’t need you to volunteer for my army.”

Ralph and Fyodor swung around to find a crowd amassed at the hotel entrance. It appeared to be a mix of civilians and soldiers—German and Soviet. At the head of it were a man and a woman dressed in black leather SS coats8.  The man was six-foot five, sculpted blond-and-blue-eyed perfection. The woman was only a foot shorter, and her blonde mane gave way to darkening roots. Hel and Baldr. Baldr looked like a child at the gate of a carnival, while Hel regarded the Russian and the superhero imperiously. 

“Just so you know,” said Ralph, “me and the commissar are with the Allies. You’re not. We heard you two were getting fuzzy about which side you’re on.”

Hel chucked and smiled coldly. “Trust me, Herr Comet, Baldr and I know exactly what side we’re on.”

Baldr folded his arms, unconsciously spreading his legs ever so slightly. “We’ve been doing some recruiting.”

“Bull,” said Ralph. “You can’t even feed your real army!”

Hel’s lip curled in a smirk. “When you join my army, Comet, you don’t need food. Or rest.” She looked back at the crowd with some disdain. “Or doubt.” 

“Look at the rest of them,” Fyodor hissed out the corner of his mouth. “They’re all… broken.”

Ralph’s eyes scanned over the crowd. Everyone behind the two super-soldiers looked bloodless, with blank, unfocused eyes. Many were grievously injured. Bullet wounds, deep bruises, and even missing limbs abounded. One man was missing half his head, resembling a living, gory Picasso painting. They were deathly silent, too. Ralph couldn’t even hear them breathe.  

“Good God,” said Ralph. He glared at Hel. “You’ve turned your own people into vampires!9

Hel wagged her finger at the Comet. “No, no, no, Comet. My soldiers are no parasites.” She spread her arms out for emphasis. “They are the peak of selflessness! Serving their race even in death!” Hel allowed her arms to drop back to her sides, affecting a poor imitation of an easy smile. “And if those of lesser blood can pitch in, who am I to deny them the chance?”

Ralph and Fyodor both turned at the sound of whimpering and boots scraping against the damask linoleum behind them.   

Fyodor’s surviving soldier was scrambling away from his dead comrades, who were all climbing back to their feet, guns in hand. The corpse closest to the survivor aimed his rifle at him. 

The commissar tried to run towards his man, shouting, “Yahontov!”

A gunshot. Yahontov fell backwards dead, a rose of blood blooming on his chest.

Then, he got up.

Fyodor stopped in his tracks, his shoulders slacking. He turned to glare at Hel. “Suka! Gnúsnyj vedma10!”

Baldr cracked his black-gloved knuckles. “Don’t worry. You’ll be joining the rest of your Slavic dogs soon enough.”

Fyodor’s troops and the armed corpses flanking Baldr and Hel all took aim. 

“Fuck!”

Ralph pulled the commissar into his chest, swinging around to try and shield Fyodor from the bullets striking him like hailstones. 

Ralph could feel Fyodor swearing against his pecs. They were being fired on from both sides; a stray round could strike the commissar any second.      

Rivers looked past the undead Soviet firing squad. There were two banks of elevators at the back of the lobby. One of them was open. 

The air around the Crimson blurred and glowed. “Brace yourself, mate.”

A muffled, “Wait, what—”

Ralph became a streak of red light, blasting between two of Fyodor’s ex-men. 

With all the discomfort of a hard-braking car or a man cutting off a piss halfway through, the Crimson Comet stopped dead just before he hit the sea-scape hanging up on the back wall of the alcove. 

Ralph felt Fyodor’s fingers dig into his ribs. 

Zhizn’ ebet meya1…”

He was still alive. Good. 

Ralph threw the commissar into the open elevator, hopefully not hard enough to break anything. Before Fyodor could pull himself together, Ralph pulled the gilt doors shut with his bare hands, a new storm of bullets spraying against him all the while. 

Ralph felt sorry for Fyodor. Being tucked away like a puppy in a cage couldn’t be good for his pride. But this was no moment for mere men… 

A fist slammed into Ralph’s temples, sending him hurtling sideways into the painting at the back. Reports of Hel’s strength had not been exaggerated. 

“Look at you,” said Hel as the Crimson Comet slid down the wall, ruined painting draped over his shoulders like a cape of canvas, “nurse-maiding these untermensch!” The living dead amassed behind the superwoman, numbly moaning “Heil Hitler” with rotting vocal-cords. “But soon you’ll serve a worthier cause.”

Baldr forced his way through the throng of dead, rushing over to Ralph and kicking him savagely in the chest and groin. Ralph barely felt a thing. 

“Can’t wait to see the look on the swine’s face. The Crimson Comet: soldier of the Reich!”

Ralph found himself laughing. This joke of a super was trying to hurt him with what might as well have been human blows. Idiot was a puppy nipping at the heels of a Great Dane. He wondered why Hel kept him around. Was this the team-up equivalent of a pity-fuck?

Baldr noticed the hero’s amusement. He scowled. “What’s so funny?”

The Crimson Comet shot to his feet and grabbed Baldr by his thick blond hair. He grinned evilly right in his wide-eyed face. “Man who can’t die, eh?

“I—”

Ralph wrenched Baldr’s head from his shoulders, pulling a length of bloody spine with it. The Nazi’s body reached up and tried to snatch its head back, but the Comet punched it in the mid-section, sending it backwards into the crowd of corpses.

Baldr’s head silently mouthed at Ralph, robbed of lungs with which to speak. The Comet smirked and threw the head into the army of the dead. If he was lucky, the poor fucks would eat it12.  

Before Ralph could bask in the satisfaction, he was hit head on by another of Hel’s screams. 

Ralph stumbled backwards a few steps, back to the day Dr. Mazur’s stun-ray finally ran out of juice. The day he had to start killing. 

The horror subsided. Hel was bent over, out of breath. 

Ralph straightened himself and spat in her face. “You think you’re the first person to make me want to die, Nazi?”

Hel mutely touched the spittle on her forehead like she’d suddenly grown a horn.

Then she roared.

The dead surged forward into the alcove like a flood through a drinking straw. Soldiers, bakers, bankers, housewives and schoolchildren all pulled at Ralph—maenads trying to tear apart an adamantine man. 

Ralph looked down at one of the corpses pawing at him. The hanged boy. He’d cut the poor child down just so he could be made a puppet. 

Hel struck Ralph in the face. Unlike his decapitated ally, she could punch worth a damn. A blood vessel burst in Ralph’s eye. She hit him again. He felt the cartilage in his nose crack and break. He tasted salt and iron. 

Hel clutched the sides of Ralph’s head. “I will make you peel back your face, scum! You’ll be a horror!”

Ralph smiled. “Sure, honey.”

The Crimson Comet glowed and burst forward like his namesake, barreling over Hel and smashing through body after body like they were walking water-balloons. 

He emerged out the other side back onto the street, covered head-to-toe in cold, rotten blood and torn strips of clothing. As Ralph wiped the blood from his face, a shouting Hel leapt onto his back, sending them both falling onto the road. 

Ralph managed to get on top of the woman, wrapping his hands around her wind-pipe. “What’s the fucking point of winning if you’re all fucking corpses?”

Hel arched her back and bit the Comet on the pectoral, hard enough to draw blood. As the superhero grimaced in pain, she used the opening to knee him in the chest, shoving him off her. “If one German man and one German woman live to see our victory, it shall be worth it!”

Ralph fell into a sitting position. “From what I’ve heard about Baldr’s family, I believe ya!”

Hel screeched and lunged forward, scratching long red gashes across the Comet’s face. 

Baldr’s headless body stumbled out of the hotel. Something was bulging under his shirt… 

The Nazi’s chest exploded, a small red shape tumbling to the ground in a gush of gore. The mass unfolded into a naked little girl, completely slick with blood. She beamed toothily at the Crimson Comet.   

Ralph!”  

Hel frowned in deep shock and confusion. “Was zur hölle13?”     

Ralph was gaping. The girl again. He’d seen her on and off ever since France. His strange little fan. “You…” 

The bloody girl started trotting down towards the two supers, Baldr’s split open body staggering around blindly behind her.

“No!” shouted Ralph. “Stay away!”

Hel screamed at the child with all her hellish might.

It washed over the little water-nymph like a chill-breeze. Stinging images of the man who tried touching her months ago returned to her mind’s eye, but she pushed them away with ease. Hel’s scream was meant for humans. 

Hel seized Ralph by the hair.

“What is she!?”

He gave her a grim laugh.

“If you’re looking for the ubermensch, love, she’s right there.”

The girl kept walking.

Hel stared on in horror. Does she not have a soul? she asked herself, not knowing how right she was. She grabbed the Crimson Comet by the neck. “Don’t come any closer… I’ll break his neck!”

“Don’t listen to her!” cried Ralph. “Just run!”

The girl pouted. The lady with the funny hair kept trying to hurt her pet. It was fun to watch at first, but now it was getting boring.

An idea was born within her. She grinned. Father would be so impressed. 

Behind the child, dozens of human forms popped

A wave of blood rushed towards the hotel doors, rearing upwards and spewing out into the street like a great scarlet serpent. It loomed above Hel and the Comet, casting a red shadow. 

“Fuck—”

The blood poured down on the two in a torrent. Ralph was ejected from it within a second. Not Hel.

The Crimson Comet sat there for a couple of minutes, watching the child impassively regard the nightmare she had wrought. Once or twice Hel’s arm or head forced its way out of the blood-tower, only to be pulled back in near-instantly. Each time she did so, it had a little less of its skin. 

Eventually, the blood collapsed, spilling across the road like raspberry syrup. Hel lay in the middle of the enormous puddle, dead.  

     Ralph Rivers staggered up to the little girl, putting his hands gently on her shoulders. “I told you to stop following me! There’s things—a child shouldn’t…” He gave up trying to chastise the girl and hugged her. 

The child nuzzled her head against the Comet’s stomach. “Ralph…”

In the pitch-black of the elevator, a crack of light cut through the middle of the darkness. A second later, the doors were shoved open. 

Commissar Fyodor looked up at the Crimson Comet. He appeared to be drenched in blood. Double-crimson… 

“Good God,” he said, “what happened to you?” 

A little girl stepped out from behind the Comet. She too was covered in blood. And nothing else. 

“And who the hell is she?” 

Ralph helped Fyodor to his feet. “This is…” She looked down at the girl, who smiled up at him. If she had a name, she’d never told Ralph. 

“Fran,” the hero said on a whim. “Françoise.” Well, they had met in France. He grinned. Might as well have some fun. After all that blood… “Françoise Barthe. She… dealt with Hel. And Baldr. I think.”

“Fran” tilted her head in confusion. 

The commissar looked down at her with some interest. “Well,” he said, “she’s red.” He smiled. “That, I like.”

Ralph laughed till he cried. Then he kept on crying.


1. United States Army Air Forces.

2. The de Havilland Mosquito, a British twin-engine combat aircraft introduced during the Second World War.

3. Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force, the headquarters of future US president General Dwight Eisenhower, supreme commander of the Allied forces in Western Europe during the latter half of World War 2.

4. A nickname for the superhuman agents employed by the Allies during WW2, referring to both the superheroes (along with the odd well-compensated supervillain) who volunteered their services, as well as superhuman members of the regular armed forces and intelligence services.

5. Until he did.

6. In order to cover for some potentially murky ancestry, official sources claimed Sommer was the son of his mother and maternal uncle, not so subtly implying the concentration of Aryan blood was responsible for his apparent immunity to death. A baffling decision to most eyes, but not an unprecedented one by the Nazi regime, as Field Marshal Erhard Milch could attest.

7. Enhanced strength and durability is disproportionately represented among superhumans. Some researchers attribute this to survivorship bias, due to the often extreme circumstances that accompany superhuman transformations.

8. In comparison to Allied superhumans, the Axis super-soldiers weren’t overly fond of colourful, personalized costumes. Some cultural theorists have speculated this is due to an inherent incompatibility between the individualism of superhero personas and the conformity demanded and celebrated by fascist regimes.

9. In the 1960s, Soviet-influenced or simply paranoid presses would frequently accuse the United States of having sourced its necromancy program from studies of the Nazi program, or even having “papercliped” Hel to the United States in secret. This is simply not true: America’s necromancers were all homegrown.

10. Roughly, “Bitch! Vile witch!”

11. “Life is fucking me.”

12. Fortunately for the International Court, he was not.

13. “What the Hell?”

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Chapter Eighty-Two: He Had Wings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No! I mean, yes but—”

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

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

“Nah, she lives in WA now.”

“That’s far away.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And that’s how I know you need it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sure thing, Mr. Rivers.”

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

“…What’s this?” Ralph asked quietly. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They didn’t. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then, he got on with it.

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

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

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

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

He unlocked the front door and stepped inside. 

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

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

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

“…David?”

⬖ 

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“…There’s a Crime Olympics?” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t care what the humans think.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We could be, if you helped us.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He didn’t dare finish.

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

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

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

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

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

“From a different mother.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Just temporary,” Allison assured her sister. 

“Better be.” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She sighed. “Let’s just get going.”

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

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

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

“Rum. It helps grownups sleep.”

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

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


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

2. The Flying Man was surprisingly convincing in drag.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Identify yourself, subject!”

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

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

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

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

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

Blitzkrieg.”

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

Now to deal with the doors. 

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

Actually, there was an idea. 

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

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

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

“Fire!”

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

None of them felt a thing. 

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

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

“Alright, buster, tell me—”

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

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

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

“Is George okay?” 

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

…97% percent chance of recovery.  

“He’ll be fine.”

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

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

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

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

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

All donations go towards stabilization of the lunar debris field

“Idiots.”

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

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

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

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

Maude’s HUD locked onto the phial: 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You blew up the moon!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I saw Washington turn to jelly…”

Was he still going?

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s she really doing, Sanguine?”

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, I’m going,” said Maude.

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

Maude jerked backwards. “Dad?”

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

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

…Which weren’t registering any vitals. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Sound and fury!”

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

The light faded. Mistress Quickly was gone. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We’re invulnerable, who cares?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rubber?

Mistress Quickly opened a hyperspace pouch. “Bounce.” 

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

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

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

“Not exactly,” replied Maude. 

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

“Wait, what—”

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

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

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

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

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

Aww, crap

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

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

Maude looked up. 

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

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

And was one of them a cat?  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s an airplane,” said Allison.

How?” 

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

“Wait… what’s your name?”

“Sarah Allworth.”

No. You’re the Flying Man’s mum?”

“Joe told you about me?”

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

“My son is dead.”

“Oh.” 

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

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

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

“And your eyes glow.”

Allison shrugged. “That too.”

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

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

“That’s… a big ask.”

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

Arnold screamed. “Allie!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Archangel’s sneered and raised his fist—  

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

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

“As I was saying, I’m impressed.”

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

There was a rumble. The mountain shook.

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

“In the mountain—”

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

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

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

Billy beamed around at his friends. They applauded. 

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


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

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

3. Elsa Lieroinen quickly became bored of the Maestros.

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

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

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

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

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

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Chapter Eighty: The Adventures of Saint Josephine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Don’t be mean,” said Miri.   

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

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

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

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

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

“Who the heck’s gonna do that?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah! No, wait, it’ll be an arena!” 

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

“Sure, me too,” said Arnold. 

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

David tilted his head. “Growltiger?” 

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

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

“Who asked you?” said Allison. 

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

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

“I could make the flag!” chirped Billy. 

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

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

The other children nodded.  

“So we’ll do a prison break!”

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

“Nope.”

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

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

Everyone went quiet for a moment.

“Circle’s End what?” said Mabel.

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

“Yeah?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Glad to hear,” said the caretaker. 

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

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

“They kept us in them,” countered Arnold.

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

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

Allison shouted, “Shut up, Alberto!”

She quickly noticed everyone was staring at her.

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

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

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

“…Oh.”

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

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

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

“Thank you, sir!” Billy said.

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

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

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

“Like Mr. Thumps?” asked David.

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

“Still think I could take them.”

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

“Correct.”

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

“Yes.”

“Okay, give us a name.”

“No.” 

“Come on!”

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

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

Allison snickered. “Blancheflor?”

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

Blancheflor said, “Ma’am, I can’t—”

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

“…Yes?”

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

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

Allison raised her fist at David. He shut up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sandwiches?”

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

“Water-bottles?”

“Check.”

“Did you look properly, dear?”

“Yes!”

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

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

“Thank you, Mabel. Sunscreen?”

Yes, we have sunscreen.”

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

David glared at the old woman. “No.”

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

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

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

“Certainly ma’am. Ten…”

“You wouldn’t…” said David.

“Nine…”

Sarah just stood there, smiling calmly.

“Eight…”

David also stood his ground.

“Seven…”

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

“Six…”

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

“Five…”

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

“Four…”

“Fine, fine! Costume on!” 

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

“Three…”

“Cancel that order, Blanchey,” said Sarah.

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

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

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

“Sure looks like it.”

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

Never.”

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

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

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

“The wardrobe made fun of me!”

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

“Yep.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“3.5 kilometres west of your present location.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Good God.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, that was why: corroboration. 

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

“Why are you wearing clothes?”

“…What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alberto was beginning to think he might like this kid.

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

“There we go,” said Alberto. 

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

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

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

Too easy.

Soon the Watercolours were gathered around the metal flame.

“So what is it?” asked Arnold. 

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

Oh.

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

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

“To another universe.”

“…Maybe not that.” 


1. Something nobody told the Australian First Nations.

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

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

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

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