All posts by thewizardofwoah

About thewizardofwoah

Amateur writer, snarker of silly things.

Chapter Seventy-Five: Allie and Miri

Allison’s dreams were wonderful. She swam through oceans that spilled into space. Nebulas shattered into schools of fish and spiral galaxies became sparkling sea-jellies, their arms fraying into thousands upon thousands of fine tentacles. 

“Allie…” 

She was leviathan, trailing stars and their insignificant, rocky satellites in her wake…

“Wake up, Allie!”

Allison woke with a start. The sky shone nearly white above her, freshly pulled from the forge of days. The waves hissed like quenched coals, and the island’s birds were screaming at each other. Allison wondered why birds always got so loud in the morning. Were they sharing their dreams? She probably knew the answer, but she couldn’t be bothered to try remembering it. 

Mabel was still asleep beside her. Her costume made her look like she had fallen overboard and washed ashore from the world’s most garish business cruise. Allison hadn’t bothered summoning her suit. She reckoned it would just be giving the sand something to rub against.  

David appeared to be missing. That might’ve worried Allison more, if there wasn’t a strange girl floating above her.

No. Not strange. Also not really there.

Allison rubbed her eyes. “Miri?”

Miri grinned and alighted excitedly in front of the other child. Her feet left no mark on the sand. “Morning, Allie!” 

Allison stared at the phantom-girl, before jumping to her feet and hugging her. To her surprise, she felt warm skin against hers, stitched together from every hug she could remember. She must’ve looked incredibly silly, but Allison couldn’t care less right then. 

“I’m sorry!”

Miri laughed. “What for?”

“I… it doesn’t matter.” Allison stepped back and examined Miri. Her visage wasn’t quite what she’d been in her life. Less painfully thin, for starters. The Nordic cast of her features had been softened by some baby-fat. Allison couldn’t quite remember if Miri’s eyes had been blue or green, but now they were definitely hazel. Like her own, Allison realized, before they’d turned red and glowing.

That wasn’t where the resemblance ended, though. Both girls now had the same button bose and rounded chin. They could’ve been sisters, but they maintained some differences. Miri’s hair was still yellow-blond, and unlike her host, her skin was about as brown as you would expect on a child who’d spent a great deal of time naked outdoors in the summer. Allison had no idea how a girl who grew up in a jar before moving into her head could be more tanned than her. She wasn’t sure whether this bothered her or not. Still, there were more pressing questions: 

“What’s it like in there?” Allison asked, quickly adding, “In me I mean.” She gave a small shudder. “Alberto said it was dark inside me.”

Miri sucked in her lower lip, trying to think of the right way to describe her new existence. “When you ate me—”

Allison shuddered once more. 

Miri tilted her head. “Did I say the wrong thing? That’s what you call it.”

Allison closed her eyes and let out a deep breath. “I know. I just don’t like thinking about it.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be.”

“Okay.” Miri returned to her story. “I woke up someplace dark. So dark I couldn’t even see myself.”

Allison kicked the sand, angry at… someone. Probably herself. “So Alberto wasn’t lying…”

“Oh, you mean the man in your head?” asked Miri. “He’s weird. I like him.”

Allison looked fretfully at her. The things she saw Alberto do to David rose to her memory. She wondered if the esper himself was dredging them up. “He wasn’t mean to you, was he?  

“Nah,” said Miri, before grinning and spreading her arms out like she was presenting the beach to Allison. “He taught me how to go outside your body! Everything on this island’s so pretty! I saw a turtle!”

Allison raised an eyebrow. It was hard to picture Alberto teaching anyone anything, besides the true awfulness of the world or Australian wine vintages. “What was he like?”

“Sad,” replied Miri. She glanced towards some corner of the sky. “Kind of lonely. Also, what does ‘fuck off’ mean?”   

“…I’ll tell you later.”

“Kay! So, when he stopped talking to me, I was alone again. But then I started wanting to know stuff, and the dark started telling me! Sounded kinda like you, now that I think about it.”

“Huh, weird,” muttered Allison. “What did you ask it?”

“Buncha things! What the sun looks like, how to make sad people feel better, how people happen when Dr. Smith doesn’t grow you up.” Miri stepped forward to examine Allison. “Did you really start out so tiny?”

Allison giggled. “That’s what people tell me. I don’t remember.”

“I also figured out how to use your eyes and nose and skin and everything!” Miri continued. “So I could see and stuff, instead of being in the dark all the time! It’s kinda weird, having someone else do all the moving for you, but that’s okay.” 

Allison thought it sounded like a nightmare. Moving through the world without a choice. “You—you don’t mind that?”

“Why would I?” asked Miri. “Everything feels so good. The sun, the wind, swimming, the other kids’ skin on ours…” She hugged herself, smiling dreamily. “We should do that kissing thing again, it’s fun. What about Arnold?”

“Not right now,” said Allison, a little red. “He’s asleep—hey, did you see where David went while you were exploring?”

“I saw him walking into the ocean,” said Miri. “I think he’s with his grandpop.”

That was what Allison called her grandfather. She hadn’t thought about the man in months. The reminder didn’t sting as she thought it should. She quickly inspected the storm of futures. All the brightest, most probable futures had David returning before sunset. The main variable appeared to be what hat he would be wearing. It was reassuring.

“There is one thing I don’t get,” said Miri. She regarded Allison disbelievingly. “Why haven’t you flied yet?”

Allison blinked. “I’ve flown.” She snorted. “There was this bit with David’s granddad—”

“I know,” cut in in Miri. “I mean really flying! In the sky! It’s buzzing in your bones. Can’t you feel it?”

It was, Allison realized. Now that she thought about it, gravity felt like a heavy blanket in summer.

Miri smiled. “Let’s go, right now.”

Allison nodded without hesitation. “Yes! Just let me do one thing first.”

She bent down and pulled Mabel’s sketchbook from her arms, along with a pencil from her drawing set. Ripping out a page, Allison scribbled, “Gone flying, back soon.”

Considering it, she added:

“Love, Allie and Miri.”

“Time for me to show you something,” Miri giggled.

Allison slipped the note into Mabel’s suit-jacket and turned back to Miri. Counterintuitively, she dug her feet into the sand. She gave a determined, giddy grin “Let’s do this.”

Allison shot into the sky like a gull rising from the ocean. Miri flowed up after her, her visage melting into a misty second skin around her corporal sister. Faster and faster they rose, the island becoming a mote in the iris of the sea. The air dessicated and chilled around them. Tiny, cloudy jewels formed on their shared skin. Gravity snatched their heels, trying to drag the girls down into its prison. They paid it no mind.

Allison laughed. She soared against the curve of the horizon, savouring the feeling of her atoms all moving in the same direction. She could feel something inside her, burning and spinning. 

Miri, she realized. Miri was laughing too. 

The girls angled downwards, diving through the layers of sky to where the shearwaters and long-beaked frigatebirds fought over fish.

“I feel kinda sorry for those things,” Miri whispered in Allison’s ear. “All that flapping looks a lot harder than what we’re doing.”

“Yeah,” answered Allison, half whispering like she couldn’t commit to saying or just thinking the response. 

“Super-pretty, though.”

“Yep,” said Allison. The little girl grinned toothily. “Want to get a closer look?”

A second later. Allison plunged screaming and flailing into the birds’ midst, puncturing the motley flock like a very aggressive balloon. She tumbled head-over-heels amongst the squawking, fleeing birds, laughing with her entire body. The world spinning around her should have made Allison dizzy, but apparently Miri had toughened her inner-ear, too1. That wasn’t the only change Allison noticed in her sensory landscape. She could feel the prick of clouds swapping charge against her skin. Currents of air and magnetism moving about the Earth like streaks of neon paint across the sky. In the back of her head, Allison knew she could find her way back to the island with her eyes closed, as though the Physician had lodged a perfect compass in her gray matter… 

“Thank you,” Allison said aloud.

“No problem,” said Miri.

For a while, Allison flew just a few feet above mirror-smooth stretches of ocean, pulling faces with her reflection zooming below. 

“Stop flying,” Miri said.

“What?”

“Just do it!” 

Allison let the force inside her go out, but her momentum stayed. For the briefest moment, she soared, the last remnants of her upward momentum keeping her in the air.

“Okay,” she asked. “What now?”

Miri started giggling.

Allison realized what was happening just half a second too late to stop it. She plunged into the water with an aborted shriek, the dynamic nature of her entry causing lasting trauma to a nearby basking shark, and came to a stop. She shot her new friend a glare to melt through steel, and  kicked her away upwards. 

“You tricked me!” Allison cried when she surfaced, locks of wet hair plastered over her eyes. 

“No I didn’t!” Miri retorted, floating in the water in front of her, a wide grin plastered to her face. “I told you to do it and you did it! Because swimming is fun!”

“True,” Allison grumbled. She rose above the waves. “Do you know how fast we can go?”

“Not really.”

“Let’s find out.”

Allison took off again, rapidly building speed and altitude as she followed one of the magnetic currents. Sun-tipped wavelets blurred into roads of light stretched out beneath her. 

There was a quiet pop somewhere far behind Allison. She must’ve cracked the sound barrier. 

She sped up.

The air should’ve been a wall of glass at those speeds. It wasn’t. Allison’s skin should’ve been shearing off her muscles. It didn’t. Her flesh was diamond, adamantine; and the force of the world against it only made her stronger.

Within a few minutes, the girls ran out of sea. They were hovering above a hive of spiralling hot drafts and electromagnetic gibberish. A city. It took Allison a moment to spot the familiar buildings. To recognize the river that girded it. 

They were in Perth. Or above it, at least.

Allison wasn’t sure what to think. It wasn’t quite home, but it was closer than she’d been in what felt like most of her life. If that dairy-town Allison Kinsey was born in was still home.

Quickly, though, one question dominated the child’s thoughts:

“Miri,” she asked. “The Physician didn’t tell you about ice-cream, did he?”

Vince Russo was what some called a simple shopkeeper. As was often the case, this actually meant he possessed many finely-honed skills that all flowed in one direction. For him, that direction was ice-cream. He was one of the world’s hidden artists.

He’d run the Russo Family Ice Cream Bar ever since his father had retired to the Gold Coast fifteen years earlier, and he liked to think he’d gotten good at it. He’d perfectly divorced cold from ice, and brokered peace between his ingredients and empty air. Under Vince’s watch, the creamery had even managed to spurn the scourge of soft-serve without losing foot traffic, and his products brought simple joy to the face of any child lucky enough to sample them2.

Unfortunately this skill and success brought Allison Kinsey down on his head.

Vince looked up from his copy of The Australian at the jangle of the door-chime and the sudden murmuring of his patrons. There was a naked, ice-pale little girl standing imperiously in the entrance. 

Mr. Russo scowled. Some beach-brat wandered up from Mullaloo while her dozy parents turned into lobsters, no doubt. 

“God’s wounds, girl, where’s your…”—Vince trailed off when he noticed the child’s burning orange eyes—“…Shame.”

Allison looked down at herself. “Oh, right.” She made a pose. “SHAZAM!”

In a flash, Allison was draped in rainbows. 

Beside her, Miri’s visage was also now dressed. She plucked at the jerkin. “Clothes are weird.”

Allison snorted. “David’s gonna love you.”

Behind the counter, Mr. Russo was going pale. This girl was a demi. A demi who was talking to thin air. She must be—  

Oh, God. Did she have an invisible friend? Which was worse? A pair of demis, or a single crazy one?

Allison started striding towards Vince. One of the customers—a beady-eyed man in a yellow bowler—stepped from the queue, grabbed the girl by the shoulder and swung her around. 

“Look kid, your kind ain’t wel—”

Allison reached up, grabbed her assailant’s hand and squeezed.

There was a crunch, and the man ran screaming from the shop.

Allison frowned after him. “Rude.” She started back towards Mr. Russo. The poor ice-cream man stood rooted to the ground, even as the girl burst into flames—her every step cracking and melting the red and white floor-tiles. People were shouting now, backed into the corners of their booths or (more smartly) trying to climb over the dividers towards the door. A few brave idiots tried advancing on Allison again, but quickly retreated when they felt their skin start to crisp. 

She stopped something approaching a safe distance from the counter and grinned. Her teeth glowed like blown coals. The flames only made her skin seem more bloodless. A burning ghost. 

“Give me one of everything.” Allison spread her arms out. A ball of lava bubbled in each of her hands. “Or I melt all your ice-cream.” 

“…Alright.”

“With a flake, please.”

Over the next ten minutes, Vince Russo dutifully laid out bowls of every product he had. Coke-spiders, gelato, real banana ice-cream, fake banana ice-cream, even the rum & raisin. All while wishing he could shave a word or too off “ice-cream bar.”

Allison devoured it greedily. To call Miri’s reaction to the ice cream mixed would have been charitable. Allison found it nearly annoying, truth be told. Vanilla only got a little enthusiasm. Allison supposed that was fair. Mint chocolate chip was rightfully underwhelming. But then they hit strawberry.

“A shrug?” Allison asked. “Really? A shrug? This is the best ice cream in the world!”

“Huh?” Miri asked, perplexed. “How can it be? That green and brown one was nicer.”

“You’re weird.” Allison scowled. “Whatever, just. I dunno. Choose the next one.” She glanced at Vince. “Where’s the flake, Vince?”

Vince Russo, who, to his horror, had never actually told the girl his name, pointed to the end of the counter, where the flake indeed lay just beyond the melting range of Allison’s magma spheres.

“Good,” she tented her fingers. “You have done well. You will be my first disciple.”

“I’ll what?”

“What’s fudge ice-cream taste like?” Miri asked before Allison had a chance to explain. She was pointing to one of the bowls, the mix within dotted with large chunks of hazel brown.

“Oh!” Allison snapped back to her. “Right! You need to try the fudge.”

Their tasting didn’t proceed too far beyond that, largely due to a demand on Miri’s part that they simply leave with the rest of Vince’s supply of fudge3.

Soon, the pair were lying on a nearby rooftop in sugary rapture next to a drum of half melted ice-cream, licking fudge off their mutual fingers while police sirens wailed below. Allison’s face was mottled with pale, sticky stains every colour of the rainbow, like she was trying to accessorise with her costume. 

“So good,” said Miri dreamily. “Isn’t this stuff supposed to be bad for us?”

“Bad for humans,” clarified Allison. “See how rubbish they are? Can’t even enjoy ice-cream without getting all fat or their pancreas going bleh.” She wiggled happily. “Laurie was wrong about everything, but it’s so much better being us.”

“Yeah,” said Miri, “looks like it.” She pointed idly at the stained newspaper they had been using as an ineffective napkin. “What’s that say?” 

“Who cares?”

“I wanna see!”

Allison sighed. For all her extra-human competence, she had no more interest in current affairs than any other child. Maybe less. Still, this was Miri’s day. She picked up The Australian and smoothed it out in front of her. The front page was dominated by a photo of four people—three men and one woman—saluting tall and proud against two Australian and American flags fluttering side by side. The picture was black and white, but Allison had no doubt their striped uniforms were red, white, and blue. The headline read:

REINFORCEMENTS FROM THE USA!

 

That got Allison’s attention. 

Miri asked, “What’s a ‘USA’?” 

“The place where everything important happens,” Allison quoted Arnold as she ran her eyes over the article proper:

In light of the recent spate of demi-human terrorist attacks, most recently the assault on the DDHA’s provisional headquarters in Melbourne…

…A walking corpse later reportedly attempting to gain entry to an exclusive restaurant… 

That made Allison giggle. She hoped that whatever Penderghast shoved into Laurie’s body left bits of him all over the Hoddle Grid. 

…The United States Department of Psychonautics and Occultism has, to use their own words, ‘extended a hand of help to their cousins across the sea,’ during our national hardship…

…Ten such paranormal strike forces have been stationed in population centres across the country, in order to both reinforce DDHA agents in the field and trial run American ‘occult management’ strategies in an Australian context. A spokesperson for the department has expressed ‘full confidence’ in the experiment, and goes on to state that the DDHA hopes and expects to roll out the first Australian squads by June, 1966.

Allison broke out in laughter. Miri gave her a curious look. “Is that funny?”

“Totally,” said Allison, clutching her stomach, “the Yanks are trying to sic army man superheroes on us! And then they’re gonna ask us pretty please if we’ll work for them!” She shook her head. “This we gotta see.”

She skimmed the article again:

As one of the cities directly affected by the December bombings, Perth was near the top of the list to pay host to some of our Americans guests… 

Allison put down her ears and took in the sirens for a second. She made up her mind to stick close to Vince’s ice-cream shop. The decision rippled through the future’s reflection in the dark lake of time.

Allison moved to get a better view of the action below. She lay down on her stomach, chin resting on the edge edge of the roof. Far up the street, a police officer was radioing someone.

…This was going to be fun.


1. An enhanced sense of balance and orientation is one of the common fringe benefits of flight that often goes unmentioned by its practitioners, and one often forgotten by cybernetic super-projects.

2. These talents would prove to be of surprising military use as the super population increased.

3. Vince Russo used the ten thousand pounds that he received for information on the whereabouts of Australia’s most wanted gang of supers to rebuild and refurbish his ice cream shop. It was from his recounting of events that Allison Kinsey received her first villain monicker: ‘The anti-child’. Also, his store no longer sells fudge.

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Chapter Seventy-Four: Of His Bones Are Coral Made

A creature older than gods regarded the Watercolours without care. In that moment, Allison knew he could kill each and every one of them, without the barest trace of hesitation or regret.

“…Are these yours?” asked the Ocean, its voice all roaring waves and tide pools.

“Yup!” David crowed. “That’s Allie, and Arn, and Billy, and—oh! Mabel! Show him what you can do!”

Mabel did not obey. She’d rather not risk the sea-zombie thinking she was starting a fight.

David’s grandfather looked upon them all again, and this time, allowed them a smile.

“So many pets.”

David smiled and rolled his eyes. “Friends, Papa. They’re my friends.”

 “They’re small, souled animals.”

David wriggled out of his grandfather’s arms and thumped him playfully in his midsection. The Ocean feigned a gasp.

“And we’re both big puddles.”

Billy remembered his manners. “Costume off!” His suit vanished and he started wading into the water, past his friends desperate attempts to pull him back, until he was standing right in front of Grandfather Ocean. He offered his hand. “Pleased to meet you, sir! I’m William. People call me Billy.”

The Ocean looked down blankly at the sticky, furry boy with the swaying tail currently sticking out his hand at him. He seemed to want something from him.

“Go on,” said David gently. “Shake his hand.”

Grandfather Ocean nodded. “If that is what you want, child.”

A tendril of water rose in front of Billy, slapping his arm hard enough to knock him backwards off his feet.

“Good try,” David said.

Billy looked up at the Ocean, shook himself instinctively, and grinned. “You’re funny!”

“Am I?” the Ocean asked. It turned to David. “Am I funny, child?”

“I think so!” chirped the water-sprite. “I haven’t really known you long.”

David suddenly seemed to shake slightly. He threw his arms around his grandfather again. “I love you, Papa,” he murmured. “I really love you.”

Slowly, the other children joined David and Billy in the water. At the very least, they needed to wash the ship’s blood off their bodies. It was starting to itch.

The Ocean genuinely appeared to startle when Allison formed from the water next to his human husk.

“Hello!” the pale little girl said, smiling smugly. 

Ocean examined her curiously. She could do what his spawn could do. Her skin was as white as his. Had he mated with her mother? 

No. She didn’t feel like his flesh. And there was something else inside her, too. A fire. 

“What are you?” he asked. “One of the little goddesses of my element? Or of the volcanos that burn beneath me?”

“Nope!” said Allison, tracing a circle around herself in the sea-sand with her toe. “I can just have whatever powers I want. I’m borrowing your grandson’s right now!” She smiled at him. “Your song’s like this one big voice made of whales ramming into each other. It’s great!”

The girl levitated twelve feet out of the water, before looping through the air and landing on Ocean’s shoulders. “Also, I can fly!”

The Ocean looked up at the girl batting her heels against his chest. This creature had no fear. “Are you human?”

Allison wrinkled her nose. “No! I’m a super! I even got my insides changed so they were better! I’m gonna live forever! Who’d want to be human?”

The Ocean felt something deeply foreign to him. It took him a moment to comprehend it. The best he could decipher it, he mildly wanted this not-quite human to not die. Somehow, despite lacking a drop of his blood, she amused him without drowning or exploding. 

He called over to his grandson, body-surfing with the male children and the second female. “Child” he said, “be careful with this one. If it caught you by surprise, it could harm you.”

Allison frowned.

“Why do you think that?” asked David.

“…I don’t know. She makes me wish to see her life continue. I suspect sorcery. I keep imagining what your spawn would look like with her blood. You might want to try convincing her to mate someday.”

David went pale with embarrassment. “Papa!”

Allison though was grinning. Somehow the idea didn’t seem so gross when an old man wasn’t setting a date. 

David laughed. “Yeah, it’d be pretty wild.”

Ocean looked vaguely hopeful. “… Is it possible?”

Noticing Allison’s smile, David giggled, his eyes drifting across to Arnold.

“Fifty-fifty.”

Arnold pretended not to notice. His cheeks were scarlet. Then his face became very hard. There was a spark of green, and David found himself floating less than a foot from the other boy. Arnold grabbed David by the head and kissed him hard on the lips. He had expected David to flinch, or at least to be surprised. David just grinned.

Arnold scowled.

“… I’m claiming this beach,” he said.

“What?” David asked, still grinning.

“This beach,” Arnold repeated. “It’s mine. I am now the beach-master.”

David wasn’t sure why, but those words lit a fire in his gut.

“No you’re not,” he said, his tone dangerous. “I am.”

Arnold grinned slyly.

“Prove it.”

The proceeding game of chase lasted over an hour. 

High in orbit, the Flying Man finished towing the Physician’s ship into her makeshift service dock1. Glancing down at the Earth below, he spotted the rogue children frolicking in the water. He was just about to head down and apologize for his outburst, when he noticed the Ocean-Beast amongst them. 

…Maybe later.

The sky was a pale, glowing blue when David awoke the next morning. He’d fallen asleep between Mabel and Allison the night before, and both girls were still napping beside him. The boy considered waking them up, but decided to let them be. They’d be up in their own time. He pecked the pair on the cheeks, got up, and stretched. He was smiling, for no real reason. That still surprised him sometimes. 

The remnants of a fire smouldered a few yards off. They hadn’t really needed it, but Allison had wanted to show off for his granddad. She had also wanted to cook last night’s fish before they ate it. 

Humans, he thought to himself. So fussy.   

It occurred to David that it had been Lawrence who had taught him to think of humans as something outside himself. That might have given the child pause, except he was also pretty sure Lawrence hadn’t imagined him turning out like this, either. 

David looked to where Arnold and Billy had curled up for the night. They were both asleep, too.

A breeze flowed through the warm air, rubbed cool against the sea. 

David sighed happily. Might as well go for a swim.

He walked into the water, not stopping as it rose above his head. Soon enough he was treading water. David knew he didn’t have to swim. The water would move for him. But his body still made the movements instinctively. It made him feel the way he imagined breathing deep did for regular kids. Maybe that was the part of him that was still a little human. 

It didn’t matter, really. What mattered was conquering the weight against his limbs. Every undulation he made was like a victory.

He swam deeper, until the sea-floor was far below him. There was a coral reef stretched out under David. It was funny, seeing it after the Physician’s true form. Like watching the parody first. The water-sprite swooped down into the colourful field of polyps and anemones. Long, brown eels with faces like grinning Komodo dragons slipped out of rocky crevices. Spindly-legged crabs with battle-scarred shells scuttled across the sand like underwater pedestrians. 

David pitied them. Who wanted to walk in the sea? 

A cloud of tiny, purple and blue fish swam in front of the boy’s face. 

Cool, David thought to himself. Then he lunged forward, managing to grab one of the fish in his mouth and crunch it between his teeth. He floated on his back for a moment, cheerfully munching on his morning snack.

The water beneath David suddenly shot upwards, sending him careening into the air. 

“Whooo!”

A pair of hands caught David under his arms just as he legs slipped back into the water. His grandfather smiled at him with green, rotten teeth. 

“Good morning, child. Did you sleep well?”

“Yeah. Can we go down now?”

“Of course.”

Ocean and his grandson dipped beneath the water. The pair drifted together in the deep blue. Bits of plankton and other oceanic debris hung in broken shafts of sunlight like pollen in the air. 

“Why didn’t you sleep in the water, child?” 

David was unsurprised to find his grandfather could still talk to him underwater. It would have been more surprising if he couldn’t.

“Allie and Mabel are comfy.” Guilessly, the boy asked, “So, I was wondering, why do you look look all dead?”

If Grandfather Ocean was offended by the question, it didn’t show. “Because I wish to. It keeps humans from trying to worship or talk at me.”

David spun around in place, feeling the bubbles whip around his hair and ears. “Humans can be fun. Look at Allie! She’s really fun! Even you think so!”

“She is… not unpleasant.”

“You like Allie, you like Allie,” singsonged David. He was cut off when a thick layer of ice flash-froze around his body.

“Your Allie is barely human,” Ocean said cooly. “Please don’t speak ill of her.”

David slipped out of the ice like a molting sea snake. “Okay,” he said, gesturing down at his healthy brown skin, “why don’t I look more like you?”

“You look like your mother and father, like all children. Unlike most, however, you look like that because it is what feels right. If you felt differently, you would look differently.”

David considered this. “…Yeah,” he said eventually. “I like looking like my mum and dad.”

A stray current pushed David towards his grandfather, who embraced him tight. 

David looked up at his granddad’s face. He looked confused

“You make me feel strange,” the Ocean said.

“Strange how?”

“Looking at you makes me happy. But it hurts, too.”

“Why?”

Ocean ran his fingers through David’s hair. “I don’t know. I have a child again. But you make me think about your mother. Why do I still want her when I have you?”

David snuggled against the Ocean-Beast. “It’s okay,” he said, “I miss her, too.”

Ocean’s grandson was a mystery to him. Even with the cloying patina of humanity washed off him, the boy kept doing things he couldn’t understand. Why should him being in pain as well make him feel any better? His daughter never would have tried anything so foolish with him. 

But then why was it working?

“Child,” he said, “there’s something I want to show you.”

The one thing you could say for Dr. Corrick’s day was that he’d pulled his fly up before the washroom sinks exploded behind him.

A chunk of porcelain struck the doctor in the head, knocking him to the rapidly flooding floor. 

“That was amazing!” David shouted when he reformed out of the rising pool of water, enthusiastically miming their passage through the pipes to his grandfather. “We were all whoosh and zoom!”

Ocean chuckled. The simplest things gave his spawn such joy. Everything felt new with him. 

David glanced down at the man floating at their feet, staining the water with his blood. Specifically, at his white coat and stethoscope. “This is a hospital, right?”

“Yes, child.”

“Hmm…”

To the credit of the girl manning the hospital snack bar didn’t scream when the walking bog-corpse and the little brown boy wearing the too-big doctor’s coat came around the corner, a crest of water following behind them. Instead, she froze. Much more sensible.

The dead man and the child came to a stop in front of the counter. “My child desires sweets. You will give him some.”

“…Alright.”

David followed his grandfather down the hospital halls, sucking on a strawberry Chupa Chup2. The fire-alarm was blaring, which amused him slightly. Shame they didn’t turn on the fire-sprinklers, not that he and his granddad were wanting for water. 

He felt a troupe of men running towards them, all holding big heavy somethings judging by the way they had their arms stretched and their fingers curled. Guns, probably.

David turned to ice. “Let me handle them, pretty-please?”

“If that is what you wish.”

A mixed platoon of Australian and American soldiers charged into sight. Shouting, they took aim at the Ocean and his spawn and fired.

The bullets passed harmlessly through the water-gods’ icey forms. Dozens of jagged ice shards erupted out of their watery trail, spearing the soldiers through their arms, shoulders and legs. 

David strolled past the groaning, screaming troops. “Consider yourselves lucky,” he said as he reverted back to flesh. He looked down at Dr. Corrick’s now bullet shredded coat and frowned. He threw the ruined garment and stethoscope over a weeping soldier. 

“Stupid bullets.”

Eventually, the pair came to the door of a private room. 

“You gonna tell me what we’re here for?” asked David.

“Yes, child.”

Grandfather Ocean flattened the door with a wave. There was a nurse cringing beside the hospital bed.   

“Get out if you want to live,” said Ocean.

The nurse nodded frantically as she scurried past the pair.

There was a man in the bed. His eyes were deeply sunken, while his fingers and lips were mottled deep purple. He appeared to be crying, but his eyes produced no actual tears. He barely seemed to notice his visitors.

“Who the hell is that?” asked David. The man felt… dryer than he thought people could be. His mouth was parched. There was hardly  any spittle on his breath.

“This,” said Ocean, “is the man who killed your mother.”

David stared at the man. His muscles tensed. He never imagined he’d meet his mother’s murderer. He’d imagined him as some behemoth of a man with stubble like hooked spurs and gunmetal muscles. Instead, he was faced with a twenty-one year old boy, lying in front of him in obvious agony. 

He found that didn’t change a thing. 

David looked up at his grandfather. “Did you do this to him?”

“Yes. He harmed my daughter. He will never drink a drop of water again.” He pointed at an IV trailing from the soldier’s arm. “I am letting him absorb enough through that false vein that he will continue to live for some time to come. So that he may feel the thirst.”

“Makes sense,” said David. “How long do you think he’ll last?”

“Weeks at least. Maybe months.”

Something about that didn’t sit right with the boy. He looked at his grandfather. “Could I…”

“Do whatever you wish, child.”

David took a deep breath and clambered onto the soldier’s bed. The man let out a choked grunt as the boy put his knees on his chest.

David’s bright, sea-fog eyes bored into Private Wilkins. “You killed my mummy,” he hissed. “I don’t care if you were ordered to, you still did it. And this is going to hurt.”

Private Wilkins’ eyes widened. He rapsed, trying to speak. “I—”

The soldier’s eyes exploded in his skull. He screamed, only for his tongue to burst like a rotten piece of fruit. Wilkins thrashed as his veins pulsed and strained against his sallow skin. Tight geysers of blood spewed from his wrists against David’s body.

The boy was tearing up now. He bent forwards and whispered into Wilkins’ ear, “I hate you, I hate you, I hate you!”

Soon enough, the soldier stopped writhing. His blood-drowned lungs stopped rising and falling in his chest. David, red and sticky now, climbed off the bed. He wasn’t sure how he felt. He thought he felt better at least, but he wished his granddad hadn’t done this. Then he could’ve killed the bastard without it being mercy.

Why hadn’t he just let the guy lay there and suffer for as long as possible? It was stupid. Maybe it was the part of him that was still human.

No. That didn’t make any sense. Humans did nasty, rotten things to each other all the time, for way worse reasons. Maybe it was the part of him that was still like his father.

Ocean opened his arms for his grandson. David stepped readily into the hug. 

“Do you feel better?” the Ocean asked.

“Yes,” David answered stiffly.

“Are you okay?”

“No.”

“…I feel like I have upset you somehow.”

“You have.”

“Tell me how to fix this. Now.” 

Deep beneath a green, moonlit sea on the other side of the world, David and his grandfather watched humpback whales crash back down into their world, their flanks silvered by thousands of bubbles. 

It was everything David had ever wanted. Almost.

Grandfather Ocean was holding him. “I still miss your mother. Will that ever stop?”

“No,” answered David. Whalesong echoed through the water. “But that’s okay, I think.”      


1. An orbital workstation he had initially built to harvest mineral rich asteroids pulled from the Kuiper Belt when he was first working on his childhood clubhouse.

2. A brand of lollipop established in 1958, which would later go on to adopt a logo designed by surrealist artist Salvidore Dali.

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Chapter Seventy-Three: The Man From Earth

Released from quarantine, a worm of light swimming through the wall lead Allison down the hallway. She’d considered ignoring it, but what else was she going to do?

The worm led Allison to a stretch of wall where mosaic tile gave way to thick, rough tree bark: an elevator bank. It split open with a loud crack, closing behind the girl again as soon as she stepped into the glass carriage. 

The elevator started moving without any input from Allison. She guessed that should’ve felt sinister; but sinister was the basenote of the Physician’s world. It was quite literally a part of her song now.

The ride gave Allison a few minutes to think. How long would it take for Miri to start talking again? Would she still be okay living inside her head? And what about Alberto? What if he picked on her?

The elevator arrived at the ship’s media room: a spotted green cavern lined with hundreds of smooth screens like dragon’s scales, all lit up by the same old Warner Brothers cartoon. Allison’s friends were sprawled on the sea-sponge couches, all in their super-suits apart from David. It was like the Junior Justice League had recruited Mowgli. 

The Physician was standing to the left of the largest central screen. “Ah, Allie, Miri, glad you two could join us.”

The screens all went white, saving Elmer Fudd from kissing Bugs Bunny in drag. 

The other Watercolours groaned. 

“So much for movie day,” muttered David, arms folded petulantly. 

Mabel looked at Allison. “Miri?”

Allison sighed. “It’s a long story.”

“Yes, we can discuss Allison eating one of my drones later,” said the Physician. “Now, if you girls could sit down, we can get to business.”

Allison settled hesitantly on one of the couches between David and Billy. Both boys were looking at her like she was covered in polka-dots. 

“So, what do you think is more important than cartoons?” 

“I’m glad you asked, Arnold. Two weeks ago, you teleported the Flying Man forty-six light-years to this world.”

The planet Enlil flashed across the screens, its great inland sea staring out at the children from within the world’s shining rings. 

Arnold puffed up a little at that. “Impressive, right?”

“I suppose so,” said the Physician. Tonelessly, he said, “Play Supernova broadcast #12245 with Commonwealth English translation, timestamp ten minutes and fifty seconds.” Waving his hand, he added, “And fix the mouth movements while you’re at it, ship. I don’t want it looking like a Japanese monster movie.”

The screens shifted to what looked like an English garden-park, domed with glass beneath a sky dominated by the remnants of an exploded sun. A bald, olive-skinned woman sat in a molded tree trunk next to a floating gemstone enclosing a bubbling nucleus the size of her head. Her dress was vaguely Minoan—bare, painted breasts and a scarlet skirt that went all the way down to her ankles. She wore the plastic smile endemic to TV hosts the galaxy over: 

“…Cross-species fertility services will be fully covered by the Imperial Health Trust this coming Thronal year.”  

“Where’s the lady’s shirt?” asked Billy.

The Physician gave a wet, bemused blink. “Oh, William, don’t assume the entire galaxy shares your hangups.”

The crystal started to flash, emitting a deep, buzzing voice that said, “I’d like to see them try and whip up a kid for some folks we know, Glim.” 

“Wait,” said David, “that’s a person? I thought it was like, a space microphone or something.”

“It’s a heggorot,” said Allison. It was good to have something to think about besides what she’d done to Miri. “It’s like a liquid brain in a diamond that flies around using electromagnetism1.” 

“And he’s, what, the co-host?” asked Mabel.

“She,” corrected the Physician. “But yes. Ussi and Glim have been on Supernova forever. Nice seeing a celebrity couple go the distance.”

Allison tilted her head. “They’re… together?”

“Sure are. I managed to catch the wedding back in 1960. It was beautiful.”

The children exchanged a medley of glances and shrugs. Space was weird.

Glim was laughing off some of her wife’s banter. “…Well I for one think little webbed fingers are the tops. Now, let’s check in with”—a slight pause for emphasis—“The Man from Earth!”

Uproarious applause broke out, soundtracked by jaunty music seemingly played by an orchestra of drunken crickets. The camera panned over throngs of ecstatic audience members—many only recognizable as people rather than masonry or decorative pot-plants because they were cheering and shouting—separated from Ussi and Glim by a deep running stream2

Allison briefly wondered what was so interesting about a guy from Earth. Then it occurred to her that Earth was probably a weird, alien planet to these people. Then she felt even dumber. 

“Are they talking about—”

Done basking in her audience’s excitement, Glim gently appealed for calm3. “Alright, alright, settled down dears, I know we’re excited.” She looked over at Ussi. “So, what’s our dashing nomad been up to lately?

The camera switched to a shot of an asteroid the size and almost the shape of Texas heading towards a yellow-green planet. Ussi’s voice buzzed over the footage:

“Since his sudden arrival and trouncing of the Giggaro mind-control cartel on Enlil4, this dashing superbeing has cut a trail of heroism across the southern spiral, all while claiming to hail from the far-flung, savage world of Earth—still maintained as an anthropological preserve due to its probable status as the homeworld of the human species.”

A cutback to Glim smirking. “Embarrassing, I know.”

A rumbling chuckle from the audience.

Arnold frowned. “Savage?”

“Your people still run everything on dead plants spiced with dinosaur and die before you’re a hundred,” pointed out the Physician. “They’re just calling it like they see it.”

The scene changed again to show the Flying Man standing in the middle of a city of skyscraper-tall cacti, playfully letting what looked like overgrown, metal-plated spiders crawl up and down his body.

“He saved the living cities of Ukkes from extinction.”

The edges of the screens blurred and melded together until the whole front wall was dominated by one image: an angry, red gash in space itself, bleeding bright, baleful blood into the starry vacuum. It looked large enough to swallow the world and not even notice.

“And when the Man from Earth came across the Rift of Caxxus, whose influence has cut off multiple star-systems for centuries…”

The camera zoomed in towards the upper limits of the tear. The Flying Man—miniscule against the roiling red mass of the rift—was wrapping his fingers around the ragged, black border of real space, like a child trying to grab a rainbow. Except, somehow, he found purchase. 

The Flying Man flew downwards The textured, undamaged darkness stretched after him, washing over the red like a tidal wave. Watching him made Allison twitch. She could fly too now. She could feel it in her bones. And she was stuck here watching the news. 

“…He closed it.”

Back to the asteroid. It was getting painfully close to the planet.

“And just yesterday, when this rogue planetoid was bearing down on Bahora Colony…”

The asteroid exploded like it had been punched by God. 

“…There he was again. And then he carved the fragments into adventure playgrounds!”

The audience was going wild again. Even Billy was clapping from the couch. Glim was laughing that perfectly manufactured laugh that newscasters reserve for human interest stories.

“Good job, Man from Earth. Reports are he’s heading towards the Throneworld itself. We’d love it if he dropped into the studio some time. Up next, are space habitats more expensive than planetbound living? Our next guest might—”

“That’s enough of that,” said the Physician, pausing the video. He turned back to the children. “Any questions?”

“Yeah,” said Mabel. “What was the point of that?

“The point,” the Physician said patiently, “is that there is a rogue godling out there, and he’s slowly but surely heading back to Earth.”   

“Uh,” said Allison. “Didn’t that news lady say he was heading for Throneworld? That’s kind of the opposite direct—”

“He’ll be back someday,” the Physician insisted. “He’s put too much effort into this ghastly little planet. What we have here is a unique opportunity to prepare ourselves for his return. Normally, I’d have to keep my movements at least nominally hidden. But now that the Earth’s most conscientious watchdog is off away, we can finally hit up a few supply depots. I’ve designed a rather neat little device that should be enough to turn him inside ou—”

“Why would we be helping you?” Mabel asked.
“… What?”

“The news aliens said he’s been really nice. And you’re talking about turning him inside out. Why?”

The Physician considered this for a moment.

“So, the Flying Man and me have… let’s say history. History that might make him a little hesitant to work with me. Or let me live.”

Allison sighed and slumped in her seat. “Oh God, of course you do. Is that lady in the corpse-room his mum or something?”

The Physician stood stock still for half a minute, grinning like he wanted to pawn off his teeth. 

Allison squinted at his mind. “Oh, for crying out loud. I knew you were evil, but that’s just… dumb!”

Billy stared aghast at the Physician. “You killed the Flying Man’s mummy?”

“To be fair,” said the Physician, “I didn’t know she was pregnant. She was more… space at the time.”

Arnold folded his arms. “This is starting to sound like a whole lotta not our problem.”

“But he thinks you’re my allies!” protested the Physician. “You were the one who banished him!” He looked at Allison. “I gave you the ability to fly!”

“I bet so I could fight the Flying Man for you,” retorted the girl.

“Well obviously! Your point?”

“We can just leave,” said David. “If Arn can send the Flying Man all the way to wherever, outer space, he can take us there too.”

“He could still find you! And next time you won’t have the benefit of surprise!”

“Doesn’t sound like we’re the ones he’s after.”

“Look,” said the Physician, “I understand you might be hesitant to get involved. But even if the Flying Man turns around now, at the rate he’s been jumping systems, we have a month before he gets back to the Sol system. So if you could just hear me out for a bit.”

The screens shifted to elaborate diagrams of sharp looking gadgets and mechanisms. One of John Smith’s fingers elongated to become a pointer stick. “So for this operation, we’ll need something in the neighbourhood of ten thousand scallops—”

The lights went out.

The walls, screens and couches instantly lit up with a dull abyssal glow. The ship floor shook violently, as if it would give at any moment, half the children left bobbing in the air, torn between natural momentum and the shipboard antigravity. 

Then, the shockwave hit.

Allison felt her right eardrum pop like a balloon. The world rang like she was trapped inside a bell. She watched as her friends were slammed against the ceiling, walls, and floor. She herself collided with a screen, a shredding pain ripping across her trunk as her shoulder snapped out of its socket. It hit David the hardest, though, a curved bulkhead ramming into the nape of his neck. The others flailed and spun. David simply hung there; limp, like a doll.

That was the first half second. 

Allison screamed. She thought she did, at least. She still couldn’t hear. She dug into the extra strength Zywie’s power had willed into her limbs, and kicked off from the control panel like a bullet. David first. 

She struck the boy in mid-air, her dislocated shoulder ringing at the impact, and latched on with her good hand. She scanned the room. 

Mabel in a corner, scrabbling frantically at her costume for something to help her move. Arnold at the opposite end of the room, a surprising lack of panic on his face. She followed his gaze- Ah. Billy. The boy was flailing, stuck in mid-air just as David had been— 

A neon green burst. Billy was clutched in Arnold’s arms. The sparking boy caught Allison’s eyes, nodded, and took aim for Mabel next. 

Where was the Physician? 

She glanced across to where he’d been when whatever this was had begun. She saw a large, squat object, something between an octopus and a four foot long potato, a dozen suckered tendrils rooting it to wall nearby.

God, he was weird.

Her arm ached. She shut off her pain receptors. Her ears were ringing. She shut those off, too. The ringing grew louder. This confused her.

There was a disgruntled growl inside her mind.

It’s not your ears, girl, Alberto snapped. It’s the ship. She’s in pain. Ignore her. Get to the others if you must, but move!

Allison shook herself out of it just in time to watch Arnold scoop Mabel up alongside himself and Billy, the girl calling forth a great, fuzz covered gorilla to shield them with its girth. Billy was crying. Allison pushed the tableau from her mind, and slapped David in the face. 

The boy didn’t move. His song was fading; becoming discordant. There was something red leaking from his ears.

“No,” she said, unable to hear herself. “Don’t you dare.” She slapped him again. “Wake up. Wake up right now!”

Oh, for shit’s sake! shouted Alberto’s voice inside her skull. That’s not how you do it!

Allison felt something moving inside her, beyond her will. Then, Alberto’s voice spoke again inside her head.

Mealy, it said, its tone hard. 

David whimpered.

I’m going to hurt you again, you little shit. Alberto commanded. Heal yourself. Now.

With a pathetic mewl, whatever was left of the boy nodded. For a moment, his half-closed eyes glowed a blue that Allison hadn’t seen in weeks. David’s form shifted into ice and back again. For a single moment, he looked merely frightened; that cobalt blue still lingering in his eyes. Then, in a snap, the green returned. He was alert.

“That was weird,” he said to deaf ears.

Consider that my rent, Alberto spat in Allison’s mind. You better survive this, Allie. I don’t want to die again because of you.

Allison wasn’t listening. She was too busy hugging her friend. Then she shook herself, healed her arm, and turned her ears back on.

“—The hell is going on?” Arnold shouted, still holding onto Mabel and Billy. “Did we hit a plane or something?”

The Physician’s new form grew a cherubic, china-blue eyed face, like a baby’s death mask. It gurgled in an all too adult sounding voice, “Not a chance. Something was aiming for us.”

Suddenly, all the screens came back to life. In Asteria’s chamber, the Flying Man stood, gazing down into his mother’s sarcophagus, shaking. The Flying Man laid a hand on the glass. 

The Physician was sprouting new eyes by the second, gazing at every screen he could. Why is he on the screens?

Then he realized. The ship wanted him to see this. She was rubbing his death in his face.

A scream roared through the ship. A burning note of sorrow and hatred. The chamber vibrated. The screens burst like pricked blisters, soaking the children and the Physician with thick, orange sludge. The ship’s blood. 

Another, more distant boom. The sound of bulkheads shattering. 

The Physician whipped through the air towards Arnold, enveloping him and his friends like an evil baby blanket. A toothy, tubular mouth slid from his side, worming its way up to the boy’s ear.

“Send me to another planet!” he hissed. “Enlil, Triam, dusty bloody Throneworld, I don’t care! Just take me away from here!”

For a brief second, Arnold was terrified. He tried to remember one of the far off worlds he’d read off in Father Christmas’ atlas. 

Then he remembered what happened to the last bloke who tried using him as their delivery boy.

The Physician’s world was bright, green light.

He found himself floating in the familiar salty broth of his greater self’s pool. The warm water almost put him at ease.

Then he saw him. His greatest hope and worst fear. His great, sacred nightmare. 

The Flying Man was tearing at John Smith’s everything. Rending and burning at the last of his true, higher being. Flesh and precious knowledge was being crushed into clouds of blood in his savage hands.

John Smith shuddered with despair. He could barely keep his cells coherent. He’d lost much since fleeing his world. Centuries worth of memories and experience. Even his greater self was a shadow of what he’d been before crashing down to Earth. But now, he was truly dead. John Smith just hadn’t caught up to the rest of him yet.

The Flying Man looked up at the creature floating above him. He kicked upwards, becoming level with John Smith.

A voice like dancing knives invaded the Physician. All these years, I thought you’d had the decency to die.

What was left of the Physician curled in on itself. Mercy. Please. You’ve taken everything I was. I’m less than a ghost now.

Not enough. 

The Flying Man closed his eyes. When he opened them again, they shone with the light of an older heaven. It washed over the Physician, till there was nothing left.

Joe Allworth breathed heavily as the water around him stopped boiling. He was taking in great lungfuls of the stuff, but that didn’t matter right now. 

After all these years, the thing was dead. It was not often Joe could say he felt exhausted, or even describe the sensation, but now he could.

As the red crept back from the borders of his vision, the star-god heard a voice inside him:

Thank you.

It was an ancient voice. A voice that could’ve drowned out a thousand human minds. But now it was barely a whisper, burdened with centuries of suffering and pain. It was growing less steady even as Joe tried to listen.

I don’t think I’ll last much longer. Afraid you did a number on me. But at least he’s dead. Do rescue the others, though.

An image flashed into Joe’s mind. A little girl with a fish tail, lying bleeding and whimpering beside a cracked pool. One of her fins severed. Dozens of stolid, confused boy-men. Slaves. 

Joe looked down at his hands. 

Oh, God.

This ship was alive. Not just alive, but a person. A person he’d torn apart. The alien had other captives. Ones even more vulnerable than Miss Winter’s poor children. 

He looked up and around him. I’m sorry! For Christ’s sake, I’m sorry!

On a small, green island in the middle of the Indian Ocean, five (and a half) children appeared on the beach, holding each other tight. They fell apart onto the white shore, breathing heavily, grains of sand clinging to the orange slime that stained their bodies.

Mabel heaved. “Oh, God, that was… not fun.” She looked over at Arnold. “Where are we?”

The teleporter groaned and stretched out, before opening his atlas and weakly flicking through it. “Ah, somewhere called…” He squinted. “Guy who wrote it says it doesn’t have a name.”

“You mean Santa,” said Mabel. “Santa says it doesn’t have a name.”

“Don’t remind me.”

Allison was back on her feet, dusting herself off. “Everyone make it alright?”

“I think so,” said Billy, trying to resist licking his arm silly. “…Is the Flying Man around?”

Allison craned her right ear. “No, I think we lost him. For now.”

She caught sight of David. He was staring out at the sea in front of them. His mouth was moving, but he wasn’t saying anything. 

Allison realized. The ocean. David had never even been to the beach. “David,” she said, “are you alright?”

A loud, hysterical laugh erupted from David. He pointed wildly at the white-caped waves beating gently at the shore. “They’re like sheep! Water-sheep!” With that, he ran headlong into the water and started splashing about like a madman.

Arnold walked up besides Allison. “God,” he said, grinning. “He’s like a puppy.”

“It’s salty!” David yelled, his voice full of surprise and glee. “That’s so hecking weird!”

Behind David, the water rose into a pillar over six foot tall. It bulged and started forming into the rough shape of a man.

Arnold raised an eyebrow. “What’s he up to?”

The water became flesh. Pale flesh with black choked veins. A corpse with eyes like sea-fog. The thing threw its arms around David, lifting him kicking out of the water. The boy screamed.

Arnold’s body became bright and phosphorescent. Allison’s eyes burned red with magma. 

“Let go of him!”

But David wasn’t scared. He was laughing, nuzzling his cheek against the corpse’s chest.

The dead man spoke. “Finally, I have you.”

David beamed out at his friends. “Guys! Guys! Look! It’s my grandpa!”


1. This electromagnetic propulsion makes heggorots somewhat unique in that they exist within different ranges of elevation across a planet’s surface, depending on ore concentrations. They also have a tendency to sleepwalk towards magnetic north.

2. A level 4 security moat filled with ballistic leeches, installed fifty years prior when the audience subjected a particularly charismatic host to sparagmos.

3. Assisted by subtle infrasound implants in her throat.

4. A feat that took him four hours of sustained effort.

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Chapter Seventy-Two: You and Us

One evening in the port-city of Waemerrot on the eastern shore of the navel-sea of Gyth, Farren Nicre was wrapping up her set at Club Sheev. Hardly anyone was listening.

On the worlds humans call home, music is nigh universal. From the wealthy automators in the Triam ore foundries, to the travelling fisher-folk of Flev, song is something grasped by all. 

Among those, however, the singers of Enlil were the most unique. For when the most miraculous of them sang, they didn’t even open their mouths. Their songs were composed out of pure emotion—the very essences of love, joy and despair—completely bypassing the clumsy, muddying medium of sound.    

Farren Nicre was not one of those singers. She performed with her physical voice, not even augmenting it with psionics. Sometimes, she told people it was artistic integrity, but she knew her powers were modest at best. She couldn’t even chat with people without at least touching them.

It was a low form of music, singing—at least to rarified Enlilian tastes—more suited to offworlders or mind-blind peasants than anyone with real talent. But there were always dingy little venues that couldn’t afford proper singers, and Farren’s voice was her one marketable skill, such as it was.     

She belted out old standards of war and heartbreak, dating all the way back to Waemerrot’s surrender to Throneworld1. Her luminous, skin-tight mood-suit shifted with every new note or change of pitch, along with the subtle movements of her body as she swayed on stage. Crystal stalactites snatched up her cast-off light and shattered it into rainbows over the barren dance-floor. 

Sometimes Farren wondered if the outfit got her more gigs than her voice. Not that anyone seemed to be ogling her tonight. They were all too busy drinking, or talking, or looking at their assorted communication trinkets. 

God2, she could’ve used some ogling that night. Anything better than indifference

A sudden thundercrack drowned Farren out in the middle of a high-note. It and the green flash that filled the club sent the singer flailing backwards.

Something caught her fall. When the light faded, Farren found herself being held in a dip by a blond, radiantly handsome man in a white body-suit and cape. 

Some of the club-goers fled the room screaming, no doubt fearing another insurgent attack. Others had cameras and other devices aimed at the stage, curious. A few were wondering if the newcomer was part of the show. Some of the more psychically sensitive patrons were rolling on the floor, trying to shield their senses from the living explosion going off in front of them.

Farren put her hand on the man’s arm. She could feel power even through his sleeve. It was like caressing a friendly flame. “Thanks,” she said, using the man’s bicep to hoist herself upright.

Who was this man? He was dressed like an Imperial White3, but there were less than ten of those on Enlil. And none of them would be caught dead in a club like Sheev.  

The man smiled a crooked grin. “My pleasure,” he said in perfect Quatlac. He looked her up and down. He appeared to like what he found. “Love the suit, by the way” he remarked.

Bright red hexagons flushed on Farren’s cheeks. “This old thing? I—” She frowned. “Wait, can you tell me why you crashed my set? Throneworlders too good to pay the cover?”

The man’s expression darkened slightly. “Not an Imperial, miss, just careless.” He raised a finger to the air before rubbing it against his thumb. “Enlil,” he said, apparently to himself. He whistled. “That kid packed a punch.” He turned to the crowd. “Excuse me,” he said, beaming brightly. “Can anyone tell me which way to Earth?”

Allison awoke in darkness. She feared for a moment Alberto had shut her away again, but she quickly realized this dark was merely the absence of light. It still made her chest tighten. At least she was lying on something comfortable. Whatever it was felt dense but soft, and molded lovingly to Allison’s body. It was evidently porous to air, too, because something like a soft breeze was brushing against her back.

A familiar whine in her ears told Allison she was back on the Physician’s ship. She could just make out the distant echoes of her friends’ songs, which was an instant relief for the little girl. 

They’d made it. And she was alive. That was an unexpected bonus. 

There was another song playing much closer to her; and an odd one at that. Nails against slate raised to the realm of actual instruments, accompanied by the melodic breathing of volcanic vents. If Allison had been born a decade or two later, she might have compared it to industrial music—if the industry in question was logging diamond trees. She was surprised how appealing it sounded. 

Allison took the song into herself, only to cringe as a wave of dysphoria shook her. Her flesh was so clumsy. Stolid and still like stagnant, silty water. Her body was an ill-fitting glove, deaf to even the most basic—  

She let go of the song almost as soon as she latched onto it, breathing heavily. “Is someone there?” she called shakily into the dark. 

She could feel the gloom begin to thicken around her when a familiar, strangely accented voice wafted over her:

“Oh, Allison, you’re awake!”

The shadows dissolved into light. Allison was in in a tiled dome about five metres across, its ceiling ablaze with undulating mosaics of opal and sunstone that seemed to sway like rise and swell like sunlit waves. It reminded Allison of the inside of a mosque, even though she had never stepped foot in one.

The girl shrieked the second her eyes left the ceiling, jumping to her feet and scrambling to the far end of the dome. 

It turned out Allison was naked. That wouldn’t have been much of an issue, if the patch of floor she was lying on didn’t resemble the underside of a giant starfish. Hundreds of tiny, translucent tendrils waved blindly in the air like a worshipful colony of maggots.

Allison shuddered. They’d been licking her. “Ew, ew, ewwww…” 

The tesserae at the other end of the dome parted to form an opening in the wall. Dr. Smith stepped through, grinning as per usual. “How are we doing here?”

“What the hell is that!” Allison shouted, pointing at her “bed.”

“Hmm? Oh, that’s a recovery cradle. You’ve been recuperating on it for the last three days.”

“Why does it have tongues?”   

“Lots of reasons. They prevent bedsores and infection; keep you fed and hydrated; dispose of your waste products…”

Ewwwww…”

Smile unmoving, the Physician asked, “Would you rather I left you to die of thirst in your own filth?”

Allison’s breathing slowed. “I guess not… still gross, though.”

“Better than one of your mattresses,” Dr. Smith retorted. “Nothing but a collection of hair and dead skin-cells…”

Allison looked down at her body. “Where’s my costume?”

“One of my surviving selves stripped you to remove those bullets.”

“Bullets?” she asked. Then, the memory came back to her. “Oh.”

Right. She’d shot herself. Or made Thumps do it for her. Poor Thumps. She started examining herself, trying to find a mark.

“If you’re looking for scars, you’re not going to find any,” said the Physician. “Your body is a work of art, Allie. I barely had to do anything.”

“So we got away?”

“Yep. We all made it. Well, apart from me. I was left in Melbourne.”

Smith didn’t sound like he was joking any more than usual. “…Sorry?” said Allison, raising an eyebrow. “How’d you get back on the ship?”

“I didn’t. My better half just made another John Smith.” He gestured down at himself. “I think I’m rather an improvement.”

Allison’s main takeaway from that was that his skin had an even more plastic-like sheen than usual. “What happened to the old you?”

“How should I know? I’m not psychic. I suppose Valour has him in a glass cage somewhere by now. You humans are awfully fond of your panopticons. Probably either gone into torpor or suicided by now, assuming Tim hasn’t had him executed, of course.” The Physician released a burst of canned laughter. “That man can be just as dramatic as old Laurie when he wants to be.”

Oh, right, Allison thought. Lawrence is dead. 

Good.

“You don’t seem very upset by that.”

“Why would I be?” said the Physician. “It’s somewhere between losing a fingernail and losing a tooth. It was a bit embarrassing when I tried showing your cohorts Asteria again, and I’ll forever mourn my memories of the DDHA Christmas party, but life goes on.”

“Where’s the ship now?”

The Physician let out a low click from deep within himself. The dome’s walls and floor blurred and evaporated. Allison and the alien stood suspended high above vast pale oceans streaked by currents and riptides of cloud. The girl could just make out a broad shank of coastline gilding the horizon.

“About two hundred miles above the Atlantic ocean.” The Physician waved his long, limber hand. “I admit I overreacted a little to the Flying Man showing up, but the view was nice.” 

Allison was silent for a moment. She tried to comprehend being so far from everything she knew. It made her feel like a giant and a speck of dust all at once.

“Hey, Allie, say ‘costume on’ for me.”

“Costume on,” Allison repeated reflexively, not looking away from the Earth.

She startled as her super-suit appeared around her in a burst of light. “How’d that happen?”

“I’ve been tinkering with your costume a little. Now it lives in hyperspace when you’re not using it,” the Physician said proudly. “You can thank me later4.”
“Thanks!”

“I said later!”

“Costume off!” 

The suit vanished.

“Costume on!”

It returned. 

Allison giggled. “Costume on! Costume off! Costume on…”

The rapid flashes lit the Earth below like gamma-ray bursts. After half a minute of gleeful translocation, the Physician cut in with, “So, about Alberto…”

Allison went quiet mid trigger-phrase. “…Yeah?”

The dome’s walls returned.

“Why didn’t you tell me, Allie?” the Physician asked with something approaching concern in his voice. It sounded like wind over mossy rocks. “Telling your host you’re carrying a possessor-entity in your head is basic psychic-hygiene.” 

“I didn’t know he could possess me!” protested Allison. Her head drooped forward. “…And I thought I’d get in trouble.”

“I’ve been there.”

“You have?”

“Of course. Back in the Royal Exhibition Hall, for starters.” 

Despite herself, Allison smiled. Then she realized something. “Your song isn’t ugly anymore.”

“Happy to hear that,” said the Physician. “I think Alberto put your power through some brute-force acclimatization. You probably know everything I do now.” He turned and started walking towards the wall he’d entered through. “Should keep you occupied during your seclusion.” 

“Wait, my what?”

The Physician stopped and twisted his head around, the rest of his body following a second later. “Allison, did you really think I’d let you wander around my home the second you woke up? After what you did to me?”

“But I didn’t do that stuff! It was Alberto!”

“Yes, but Alberto was wearing you at the time. And you’re are fully capable of doing it again.”

“How long are you going to keep me here?”

“Until I’m sure you’re you.”

“How do I do that?”

“No clue.”

Allison’s mind conjured images of a colourfully dressed old lady lying dead in the dome. She ran over to the Physician, not even trying to jump over the tendril garden, and grabbed him by the wrist. “You can’t lock me in here…”

Allison trailed off as she rubbed her fingers against Dr. Smith. It felt like it was covered in—

“Clingwrap is a marvelous invention,” said the Physician. “It’ll be a shame when your kind figures out it causes cancer.”

Allison let go of him and scowled. Her eyes flashed. “I’m not gonna let you lock me up.”

“You have all Alberto’s powers, Allie. Tell me, what will happen to you if you try burning me here?”

Allison wished Dr. Smith hadn’t asked her to do that. It made her feel like a wimp for doing it. She closed her eyes.

In nine out of ten of the futures where she burned John Smith, he stood there and burned. The dome also became smooth and black. Quiet. In nine out of ten of those futures, the dome also filled with something bad for human lungs. The few futures where neither of those things happened involved rogue asteroids and space-shark5 attacks.  

Allison sighed. “Can you at least give me a real bed?”

⬖  

To the Physician’s credit, he did. He even euthanized it first.

Allison’s time in the dome was like a five-star remaster of her days in McClare. The room provided any kind of food she could name, so naturally she spent the first afternoon curled up with stomach cramps from too much cotton-candy. She wasn’t sure whether or not she was glad the floor ate her vomit.

The dome’s other main saving grace was that its ceiling could serve as a television. Allison hadn’t realized how much she missed TV during her months at the Institute. She would lie on her bed for hours, watching slightly stretched visions of William Hartnell and his friends fight very curved Daleks above her head like postmodern constellations6

  The Physician also allowed Allison visitors—two at a time, lest she subvert her friends’ minds and lead the Watercolours in a coup against him. Again. 

One thing Allison, Billy, and David discovered was that the dome could produce shower-heads on demand. And thus—with David keeping the water from being absorbed into the all-devouring floor—a dream was realized: actually flooding a shower. 

“Water off!” Allie ordered once it was up their shoulders.     

Billy floated on his back, kicking languidly while shooting water out of his mouth. “I tried this back at my house.” He smiled smugly at David. “Got it up to my tail. Without water-magic.”

David splashed Billy, laughing. “Screw you!”

“I got it up to my neck,”  Allison said casually. “Used a cork gun. My folks had to tear up the carpet in front of the bathroom.”

It was hard for the boys to be impressed by that. Allison set the bar pretty high for herself.

“I don’t know why you wear clothes all the time,” David told Billy. “You have fur. Awesome fur!”

The tiger-boy flicked his fingers in the water. “Fur doesn’t have pockets,” He grinned. “Or a cape.”

On the subject of clothes, Arnold and Mabel had news. Namely, new suits, grown from a scrap of David’s own.

The pair posed proudly in front of Allison. The main body of Arnold’s suit resembled a black dance leotard, covered in stars nestled between forks of lightning. He also had a cloak and hood, similarly speckled with stars. As tradition dictated, the space around his eyes and the bridge of his nose was concealed by a strip of dark, feathered fabric. His chest bore a silver flame, divided by yet another jagged lightning bolt. 

Mabel’s costume was simpler, but also much more busy: a three piece suit composed of comic panels and photographs. The inside of her jacket appeared to be lined with pages, like she was a bipedal book herself.

“So,” said Mabel, full of self-assurance, “whose costume is better?”

“They’re not costumes,” said Arnold. “They’re super-suits.”

“Whatever,” said Mabel. “Either way, I look fabulous.”

“Hmm.” Allison squinted and rubbed her chin. “…I’m gonna go with Mabel’s. It’s so… pretty.”

“Yes!”

Arnold rolled his eyes. “Figures you girls would stick together.” He lit up, the lightning across his frame glowing bright against the dark fabric. “You can’t tell me this isn’t awesome!”

Allison folded her arms. “Our mutual girliness has nothing to do with my decision. Mabel has way more colours than you.”

“It’s useful, too!” exclaimed Mabel, gesturing down at herself. “I’m covered in pictures! It’s like I’m wearing a buncha ammo-belts!” She conjured a pair of ray-guns and spun them in her hands. “This girl don’t need to lug around her books anymore…”

“Yeah, yeah, I get it,” said Arnold, sitting down next to Allison on her bed. He pulled his hood back. “…Allie, can I ask you something?”

“Sure. About what?” asked Allison. 

“About what happened at Exhibition Hall.”

“Oh. Sure, I guess?”

Arnold took a deep breath. “Did Alberto kill Lawrence, or did I do it?”

Allison considered lying. If Alberto had made her make Arnold kill Lawrence, then it was nobody’s fault but the esper’s. Arnold’s conscience would be clear.

No. Lawrence had tried juggling secrets, and look where it got him.

“It was you,” Allison said, her voice small. “Sorry.”

Arnold exhaled and rubbed his hair. “…Is it bad that I don’t feel bad?”

“Eh,” said Mabel as she sat down next to her friends. “Laurie was pretty horrible. Plus, I don’t think he really wanted to be alive anymore.”

“…Great,” said Arnold, “now I feel stupid. I did him a favour.”    

Mabel patted him on the back. “Welcome to the Murderer’s Club. Least you did yours on purpose…”

“That anything like Legacy7?” asked Arnold. “What’re the perks?”

“You get a club jacket.” Mabel said. “Made of skin.”

“Don’t know,” said Allison. “Maybe knowing you can do it if you need to?”


“Just realized,” said Arnold, “Billy and David are the only ones now who haven’t killed someone.”

Mabel giggled. “God, what would make Billy kill someone?”

“Insulting the honour of the Famous Five?” suggested Allison.

The children laughed. 

“Allie,” Arnold said, “I’m sorry about that thing in the pool. I know it was really Alberto’s fault, but, I mean, someone should say sorry for it, right?”

Allison shrugged. “You’ve seen me without my clothes on a lot. Also…” She pecked Arnold on the mouth. “Just in case you’re still all confused about the girl-boy thing.”

Arnold put a finger to his lips. “Woah…”

Mabel huffed. “Is everyone going to kiss you, Arnold?” She pulled him around and planted one herself. “There,” she said. “Now all you need is Billy.”

“Eww,” said Arnold, smiling. “He’s like, a million years littlier than us8!”  

Allison’s friends kept her sane. Maybe too sane. She didn’t hear a peep from Alberto for days. On the one hand, Allison had had enough of Alberto to last both of their lifetimes. On the other hand, how was she supposed to get the Physician to trust her if Alberto hadn’t even tried anything?

Unfortunately, the Physician had his own solution.

Allison jerked awake to the Physician’s voice blaring through the dome. 

“Good news, Allie! I know how we can nip this Alberto problem in the bud!”

Allison clapped her hands over ears. “Too loud!”

“Sorry,” the Physician’s disembodied voice said, a touch less booming. “Got a bit excited there.”

Allison rubbed the sleep from eyes, while her super-suit stopped pretending to be a set of pyjamas. “I don’t think Alberto’s a problem anymore. I haven’t even heard him since I woke up in this stupid dome.”

“Allie, you’re not insulting me when you say things like that, you’re insulting the ship. And she has enough to deal with.”

“Like you?” Allison asked acidly.

“Precisely.”

Allison didn’t know why she bothered. “I still don’t think Alberto’s gonna try anything.”

“He’s just sulking,” the Physician replied. “Trust me, Allie, I’ve known that boy a lot longer than you have. Someone will mention their daughter or something and he’ll come roaring back.”

Blearily, Allison asked, “So what’s your idea?”

“She will be along shortly.”

The wall of the dome opened. A girl about Allison’s age stepped through. She was willowy, even more so than Allison herself. Her lack of clothing gave her a deeply unwelcome view of the girl’s ribs. She had a thin mop of straw-coloured hair plastered to her scalp by the thin layer of slime that coated her body. Her eyes were painfully blue, and she had the same polish scent as the Physician’s clonal nursery. Her expression seemed somehow both blank and slightly startled.

“Good morning, Allison.”

Allison blinked. The girl was clearly a superhuman. Her song was surprisingly deep and steady. Like a cello. But much of it had the same unnatural orderliness as the Physician’s drones. 

“Who the heck are you?”

The Physician answered for the girl. “This is Drone #1248.”

The girl added, “I’m here to be consumed by you.”

There was no fear in her voice. Not even hesitation. Just plain, bare fact.

Allison shook her head. “What are you talking about?”

“Look, Allie,” said the Physician. “The way I see it, you’re not expunging Alberto from yourself any time soon. What you need is an ally. Someone to mind the shop while you’re astral projecting or the like. A real, imaginary friend.”

Allison stared at the girl. “You want me to eat you?”

The girl nodded. “That is how my creator explained it to me, yes.”

“But you’re a kid!”

“More of an infant, really,” said the Physician. “I only hatched her ten hours ago. I figured a newborn drone your sex and state of physical maturation would make for more seamless integration.” There was something like a smile in the alien’s voice. “You can grow up together…”

“I won’t do it!” insisted Allison. “It’s horrible!”

“You sure, Allie?” The Physician addressed the tank-bred girl. “Show her.”

The girl nodded, before rising into the air.

Allison looked at the girl, floating in front of her. She’d always looked down on flight… out loud. Now, a new, yet familiar hunger stirred inside her…

She shook herself. “I won’t eat her! It’s wrong.”

“I’m disappointed with you, Allison,” the Physician said. “Here I thought we might have something in common. But no, you had to go and rub your smug, uni-minded blinders in my face. She can fly, Allison. You could fly. You don’t know how long it took me to get a drone that just plain flew, instead of riding a cloud or turning into a swarm of bugs or something like that.” A low gurgling sound filled the dome. “I guess the poor thing has to die then.”

Allison’s eyes burned. “I won’t let you hurt her!” 

A burbly, watery laugh. “It won’t be me who kills her.” 

“Creator says my liver is failing,” said the girl. She frowned slightly. “It does kind of hurt inside…”

Allison looked into the girl’s mind—that thin, but steadily weaving web of self. She was telling the truth. Allison could feel the pain gnawing at her.

She could think of a dozen ways to save the girl… if she had Żywie’s song.

“See?” said the Physician. “It’s win-win! You get a partner and the ability to fly, she gets to continue existing in an immortal body, and I get to study the effects of your assimilation power on a human brain! I’ll leave you girls to get to know each other.”   

There was a clicking noise like an intercom shutting off, but Allison highly doubted the Physician wasn’t watching them like a hawk. She sighed and patted her bed.

Evidently, whatever education the Physician imprinted on the young drone was enough to tell her what the gesture meant She lay down next to the girl. 

Allison looked into the future. If she didn’t assimilate the drone, she would die. Then the Physician would make another. And another. She watched him injecting them one after the next with different drugs. First liver failure, then pancreatic cancer, then strokes. It made her sick.

“Do you want to keep being alive?” Allison asked. 

“I think so,” the girl answered. “I like the feeling of the air on my skin and floor under my feet. It’d be nice to keep feeling things like that.”

God, thought Allison. That’s all she’s got?   

“Even if you have to live inside me?”

“Why not? It’s what I was made for.”

“Do you want a name? A real one, I mean. ‘Drone #1248’ takes way too long to say.”

“Do I need a name?”

“It’d be good if you had one.”

“Then okay.”

Allison thought about it. “Well, if you’re gonna be a part of me, maybe Miri? It’s sort of a name I used to have.”

“Sure,” said the newly named Miri. “Sounds nice.”

What other names has she heard?

Allison squirmed. “I’m not gonna keep you all cooped up in my head. We can work out a time-table or something.”

For the first time, Miri smiled. “Thank you.”

They watched movies for a while. About half the Disney canon, in fact9. Miri was transfixed. At one point, Allison made the dome play some Beatles songs and tried dancing with the drone. They got their feet tangled a bit. 

Eventually, though, Miri said, “Allison, my tummy’s hurting more. I think it’s time for us to merge.”

Allison nodded solemnly. “Alright.” 

They laid back down on the bed. Allison grabbed Miri’s hand. 

She reached for the other child’s song and sunk her power in it. She wrenched it towards her being. Allison felt the the girl spasming beside her. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see blood hemorrhaging from every hole in her face.

Allison sucked in a long, shuddering breath. Memories flooded her mind. Perfect weightlessness. Fluid carrying her onto a soft, sandy floor. First steps. 

The universe. Everything. Flinching away from it. Weightlessness again. 

Allison floated off the bed. It was done. Below her the floor began to swallow her bed, along with Miri’s body. Allison supposed she would be waking up within her soon enough.

“You were hiding, weren’t you?” Allison said aloud. “Waiting for the Physician to let me out.”

“Got me there,” said Alberto, standing below Allison. He lit an imaginary cigarette. “God, it’s getting crowded in here.”

Allison rolled in the air to look down at the esper’s ghost. “Alberto, why do you want to be alive?”

“What kind of question is that?” he spat. “I just want to take care of my kid.”

“Eliza’s doing that.”

Alberto growled. “Eliza—”

“Do you really think Eliza would hurt Ophelia?”

“She hurt Adam.”

“Because Lawrence made her do it. And he’s dead.”

“…True.”

“And do you think you could really do a better job?”

Alberto didn’t answer, instead protesting, “Why shouldn’t I get to be alive?”

“But nobody liked you. Not even you liked you.”

“What chance did I have? Lawrence was basically my dad. And he hated me. For years.”

“…You still wanted him to love you again,” Allison realized. “That’s why you helped him all those years.”

Alberto made to speak, but stopped. He looked down at his feet. His image began to fade from Allison’s vision. “Christ…”

Allison alighted to the patch of floor where her bed had been. Where Miri had been. 

The wall opened. The Physician was satisfied.

DOPO chief Wilson Brenneck frowned through the one-way window at the comatose esper lying in the hospital bed. Alberto Moretti’s body was riddled with tubes and wires, all trying to keep his body alive past the death of his mind.

It hadn’t been a good week for Brenneck. The Australians had managed to get attacked again. Colonel Penderghast hadn’t reported for duty in over a week. People all around the world were panicking about alien invasion like it was 1938 again10. 1966 was beginning to look like a worse year for US security than 1962.

Brenneck sighed and turned to his science advisor. “Is there any chance of recovery?”

Dr. Johannes shook his head. “Slim to nil, sir. It’s like an egg-beater was jammed into the poor boy’s brain.”

“Great,” the chief said, lighting a cigar. “My warlock’s missing, and our big coup from the Aussies is a dud.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t say that.”

“You said his brain was wrecked.”

Much to Wilson’s displeasure, Dr. Johannes grinned. “His gonads still work, don’t they?11” 


1. A hundred and ninety-one years prior. Officially, the annexation of Enlil by the Southern Spiral Empire was triggered by many of her nations’ tendency to exile criminals and mutants to less developed worlds. Unofficially, it was out of a desire to incorporate the planet’s more talented telepaths into the Empire’s intelligence services.

2. Specifically Teres Va, the matriarch of the Waemerrot pantheon, who they say first taught Enlilians the speech of the gods.

3. For a detailed exploration of the Throneworld caste system, we recommend Andros Kaorvian’s monograph The Other Side of the Rainbow, available in print, digital, and neural-pollen formats across the civilized galaxy.

4. What Dr. Smith didn’t mention was that he’d poached the research of the Japanese super-scientist Doctor Toshiro Kaminari, who went on to create the inaugural Sentai team in 1975.

5. A semi-corporeal astramorph known to prey on starships in the form of metal eating, soul devouring relativistic swarms. The only known predator of young star-gods.

6. In other words, Allison managed to invent binge-watching nearly fifty years early, but we won’t hold that against her.

7. An Australian organization founded by servicemen in 1923 to care for the dependants of deceased military personnel.

8. Eight months.

9. An easier task in the 1960s.

10. When a drunken Gatekeeper descended upon the Earth for New Year’s Eve.

11. Project MKUltra: A mid-20th century CIA program studying mind control. Originally focused around psychoactive drugs such as LSD, the program was dying down in the mid-60s only to receive a shot in the arm in the form of Alberto Moretti’s brain dead body—specifically, his sperm. The revived MKUltra would go on to produce hundreds of esper agents (“Langley babies”) impacting the human race for much of its continued existence.

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Chapter Seventy-One: The Third Man

“She’s ready to see you now.”

Alberto Moretti stubbed out his cigarette against the hallway wall, before following Eliza into the Institute’s spare bedroom. Or as it served tonight, the delivery suite. 

Fran was opening the bedroom to let the smell of blood and mucus escape, while Hugo ministered to Sadie’s last round of visitors: the ones lucky enough to see the main event to its conclusion. Judging by how palid they were, it had been quite an education for the children.

“I am really, really glad I’m not a girl,” said Haunt. Phantasmagoria had been sick, Brit was staring at the wall, and Mealy was just shaking in the corner.

“You’re telling me.”

Sadie was lying in the bed, face still red with exhaustion and beaded with sweat like acne. A bundle of blankets the size of a loaf of bread squirmed in her arms. Lawrence was standing beside them, looking down at both children with a mask of pure pride.  

“Ah, should I approach?” Alberto asked. Even with his safeguards, he’d been wary of getting too close to Stratogale ever since they’d… done their duty. 

Sadie flopped her head against her pillow. With her eyes closed, she said, “Sure. Why not?”

Lawrence lifted the newborn from her mother’s arms, presenting the child to her father. “You’ve produced a healthy young new human daughter, Tiresias. I hope you’re proud.”

Alberto took the baby from the old man, not answering. He looked down into her mud brown eyes, and he could swear she met his gaze. She already had a thin mop of sticky black hair. The esper could feel her breathe against him. 

Sometimes, glimpses of strangers came unbidden to Alberto’s future-sight. A middle-aged, snow-haired woman sitting by a hot-dog stand, casting dark, weary eyes over ominously watermarked documents. A nineteen year old strawberry blonde girl hanging up laundry in a trailer-park. A tan-suited man with artfully grey temples and false smile-lines sitting behind what Alberto could swear was the Resolute desk. Flying children, dancing over the sea. Alberto could never figure  out what any of these people had to do with him.

The baby gurgled, lifting out of her father’s hands. Alberto grasped her reflexively. 

Well, that at least made more sense. He found himself smiling at the girl. 

“Hey, kid.”

The baby slipped her hands out of her swaddling and smacked them together.

The thin ice of reality cracked, plunging the whole room into the roiling undersea of possibility. Reality and hallucination swapped places. For the first time in decades, the world made clear, wonderful sense to Alberto.

Wait, no, that didn’t—  

The world was awful again. Everyone who wasn’t already in bed was groaning on the floor, all except for Eliza, who had already ran to the window. “I think the baby’s… escaped.”

That broke right through the dizziness. Alberto stared at the empty blankets lying over his chest, before jolting upright and shoving Eliza out the way. A small, dark shape bobbed over the night grass.

A new, bracing horror gripped Alberto. “Grab a net!” he shouted. “Grab a fucking net!”

Three years later and minus about two feet, Alberto stood impassively while David Venter Barthe screamed in Allison Kinsey’s face, eyes bright white. 

“I knew it!” he shouted. “All the bossing, and not letting me explode Valour, and the clothes in the pool!”

“Oh, God,” said Arnold. The boy gagged. Alberto could see black spots of renewed self-doubt swirling in his head. “I swam with you…” He couldn’t finish the sentence. “You made her do that!”

“Wait,” said Billy, completely confused, “you’re really Alberto?”

Alberto sighed. “Yes, Billy,” he said, voice reverting to a hoarse, high-pitched version of his usual Italian lilt. “I’m Alberto.” 

“…Then where’s Allie?”

“She’s still here,” Alberto explained. “It’s like we’re… roommates.” 

Mabel glared at him. “I bet she isn’t happy about you walking around telling everyone you’re her.”

Penderghast grunted, struggling against unseen chains. “Kids… I can help her! I’ve seen—”

Alberto grabbed the warlock’s hand and squeezed. “I think we’ve heard enough from you.”

Sleep pulled hard at Penderghast. “I can—I…”

The American sorcerer fell face-forward onto the floor with a hard thud. 

Alberto winced. “Oof. Hope he didn’t knock any teeth out.”    

Mabel shook her head. “You’re wearing our friend!”

That was about when Alberto gave up on remaining calm.

“She fucking ate me!” he shouted back at her. “Sucked my soul right out of me! And like it or not, kids, I’m still your best chance for getting out of this alive.” He gestured around at the ruined hall and smiled. “I’ve gotten us this far, haven’t I?”

William St. George looked around at the scars and burns on the walls; at the sleeping wizard who’d tried to help them; at the frightened, scattered hostages; at the strange, smirking man who’d slipped under their friend’s skin. The one who’d brought them here. Made them do all these things.  

Slowly, he said, “…I don’t think I like you.”      

Alberto smile dipped slightly. “You wouldn’t be the first, mate. At least you waited till you had a reason.”

David turned to mist and reformed as ice in front of Alberto, before grabbing his throat and lifting the imposter an inch off the ground. 

David’s glass harp voice rang, “Give us back Allie. Now.” 

Alberto glared at the boy right in his face. “How?” he asked. “Fucking how, kid? How am I supposed to get myself out of her?”

David, hesitated a moment, then set Alberto down and jabbed a finger at Penderghast.

“He said he could get you out.”

“And he didn’t say anything about giving me a body, did he?” Alberto snapped, eyes flashing red as he melted his way free of David’s grip. “So fuck you. I’m staying until I find a way to un-murder myself. Call me an asshole for that. I don’t care. Your little girlfriend’s the one who killed me.”

The puddles that had been David’s hand formed into sharp blades of ice, flitting up to Allison’s throat. “Well, I like Allie better.”

Alberto grinned. “Fair enough.”

The shark-bear crept up behind Billy and wrapped its arms hard around the tiger-boy. Billy shrieked.

“Mabel!” David yelled. “What are you doing?”

“I don’t know!” the girl protested. “I’m just… doing it!”

Arnold found himself pointing toward Mabel, his body sparking with power. “…Mabel, I’m thinking about Jupiter!”

“Lay a finger on me, they all die,” Alberto told David. He smiled again, picturing a blue triangle. The psychic snatched one of the floating ice-knives.  “Not that you’d be hurting me anyway.” He drove the blade hard into Allison’s other hand, not even taking her eyes off of David as bright red blood oozed around its tip. “This isn’t my body.”

David growled as he reverted to flesh, his entire body shaking with pent up, helpless rage. He felt like his eyes were blue again, that he was standing there and letting Lawrence flog him. 

“Good,” said Alberto, absently staunching the bleeding in his hand with a few biofeedback commands. He started walking away from David and the paralyzed Watercolours. “I trust I can leave you in charge of the others?” he said, twigging the water-sprite’s ear as he passed.

“Screw you, Bertie,” David spat. “I wish Allie had just killed you.”

“Join the club,” Alberto said as he ambled up the hall. “I was going to make it so bloody nice for you kids. I was going to fly in Billy’s nanny, have Fiji declared the national posthuman homeland.” He sighed and shook Allison’s head. “But then you told Penderghast to go fuck himself. So much for charity.”

John Smith staggered up to the esper, legs still mangled from Penderghast hurling him. A thin patch of skin had grown over the mouth Alberto had forced him to grow on his forehead. “So, Allie assimilated you,” he said, all smiles. “I wish one of you had told me, Alberto. We could’ve had such fun exploring that.”

“John.”

“Yes, Alberto?”

“Death has better bedside manners than you.”

“Granted. Nevertheless—”  

The Physician found himself collapsing into a perfect sphere. Alberto gave the ball of flesh and lab-coat a sharp kick before moving on.

He found Timothy Valour sitting in front of the wrecked entrance, perhaps hoping one of the Melbourne PD would try firing into the hall. He looked almost meditative.

“I heard you and the kids,” he said quietly as Alberto approached. “I should’ve guessed it was you, Moretti. You always were a parasite.”

Alberto sat down in front of his former boss, legs crossed. It almost put Tim in mind of the little girl whose body he stole. “From where I’m sitting, Tim, Allison Kinsey is a goddamn vampire.” He examined the back of the girl’s hands. “Has the complexion for it, now that I think about it.” Alberto looked back at Valour. “Honestly, I’m a little relieved it’s all out in the open now. It was doing my head in trying to think of why Allie would give you my real demands.” 

Tim tilted his head back, letting out a long, sad breath. “And what would those be, Alberto?”

Hard and cold, the psychic said, “Eliza Winter. Where have you stashed her?” 

Timothy’s quiet despair curdled into confusion. “What do you want with Eliza?”

Alberto put Allison’s hand under her chin. “Well, aside from the fact she’s a priggish, moralizing, judgy old Nazi, she stole my fucking daughter.” The girl’s eyes flared. “I want her back!”

Valour was silent for a moment, staring at Alberto. The idea that the esper could feel attachment to anyone he didn’t want to screw had never occurred to him. “…You do?”

Alberto shot to his feet, glaring down at the DDHA chief. “Why shouldn’t I? Ophelia’s mine! She’s the only family I have who didn’t trade me for a year’s pay and a fucking medal! What other bloke has to explain why they love their daughter?”

Valour wondered darkly whether Alberto thought Sadie Jones had a claim on the child. “Alberto, in all the time I’ve known you—the time we worked together—you never mentioned Ophelia once.” 

“Of course I didn’t. You tend to murder the shit I care about. I wasn’t about to give you leverage.” 

“What would you do with the girl?”

“Eat her. Or be her dad. I’ll leave it to you to guess which one’s more likely.”

“You’re eight years old.”

“Here’s the great thing about childhood, Tim: it tends to resolve itself.”

Valour kept protesting, “For Christ sake, Alberto, listen to yourself! Even if you pull this off, you’ll be feared for the rest of your life! Hated. More than the bloody Flying Man!” He waved his arms around the hall. “At least he doesn’t pull shit like this!”

“Oh no,” Alberto said flatly.

“What way is that for a little girl to grow up?”

“Won’t be an issue,” Alberto retorted. He looked up at the ceiling, like he was trying to stare through the wood and plaster at the sky beyond it. “Not where we’re going.” 

“There’s nowhere you can run away from this!”

“Enlil I think will be far enough.”

“…Where?”

“Other planet,” Alberto replied casually. “My folks came from there, way back when.” He pointed at the Physician-ball rolling wildly across the floor. “Me and Ophelia will be heading there in Johnny boy’s ship.”

The ball quivered and shook. Its fabric wrapping tore with a loud rip as a waving stem of flesh unfurled from it. A blossom of fleshy petals opened at the top, revealing a pistil of china blue eyes around a sharp beak. 

The flower buzzed like a swarm of wasps. “You absolute idiot.” 

The Watercolours all stared at up at the Physician-flower in surprise. They’d never heard the alien be so direct in its insults.  

“Problem, Doctor?” Alberto asked cooly.

“Do you know how far Enlil is?”

“Yes, actually. Fifty light-years, give or take?1

“The ship’s uptick-drive packed it when she crashed onto this rock! She’s lucky to hit nine tenths the speed of light!”

“…That doesn’t sound very slow,” said Arnold, trying to distract himself from the pain in his arm. It was getting sore pointing at Mabel.

The Physician’s improvised face twisted around to look at the children. “It’ll take over fifty years!” The flower spun back to Alberto. “That body you’ve hijacked might still be young when you make planetfall, but your spawn will be menopausal before she feels dirt beneath her feet again.”

Alberto wagged a finger. “You’re forgetting time dilation, Dr. Smith. Those fifty years will pass like one for me and Ophelia.”

He was right, of course. Dusty2 Allison, the Physician thought bitterly. 

“You can’t take Allie to space for fifty years!” shouted Arnold. “She’ll…” He tried to figure out where to even start with that. It was like trying to cup a planet in his hands. “…She’ll miss us!”

“It’s alright, Arn,” said Alberto. “You kids can come with. I’ll be needing some servants on Enlil.” He looked at David. “Except you. You’re weird and I’m tired of looking at your todger all the time.”

David sputtered with more wracking anger. “Piss off!”

“That’s the plan, Davie.”

“Why do you even want to go to Enlil?” asked Mabel, eyes still fixed on Arnold’s glowing finger. “You’ve never even seen the stupid planet.”

“Everyone and their dog’s psychic there.” Alberto tapped Allison’s temple. “Maybe they can get me out of here.” The girl’s shoulders slumped slightly. “And maybe me and Ophelia won’t be such bloody freaks there.”

The Physician let out an honest, drowned engine cackle. “Alberto, your daughter can punch through steel. Even without her, yours is a line of berserk mutants. Trust me, boy, the great and the good of Enlil don’t forgive weakness, but they don’t brook strength, either.”

“Then I’ll be a king.”

“They managed to see your progenitor off, Alberto. And that was over two centuries ago. Us aliens don’t just stand around for hundreds of years, you know.”

Alberto ignored the creature, turning back to Tim. “Just tell me where Eliza is.”

Having decided that the psychic was clearly mad, Valour asked, “What will you do with her when you’ve got Ophelia?”

Alberto leaned forward, till he was looking Tim right in the eye. “I’m going to tie her down, and make her grow me a body. A grown, male body; with all the little extras Allie copied off her.”

David scoffed. “Or Auntie will just knock you out soon as she touches you.”

“Not unless she wants some of those throwaway babies dashed against the wall,” Alberto said over his shoulder.

David didn’t have a retort for that strategy.

“…And then what?” asked Valour.

“Then I burn the witch.” Alberto folded Allison’s arms. “Now, Tim, I’m gonna let you choose to tell me where the bitch is. Don’t want you pulling the mind control excuse at the pearly gates.”

In some ways, Timothy Valour mused, Alberto was more of a child than the one whose life he had stolen. “Until I refuse, I suppose?”

Alberto flashed a cold, pale smile. “No, Tim. If you refuse, my great big spaceship blasts Marvelous Melbourne into atoms. Two million lives, Tim, all on your conscience.”

Almost imperceptibly, Valour’s eyes widened. There was a chance—or maybe just the shadow of one. If he was wrong, he might be dooming all of Melbourne, but even if he went along with the esper’s game, Tim wouldn’t put it past Alberto to fire a few pot-shots at Australia on his way past the Moon. 

He’d played against worse odds.

“…You’re bluffing.”

Alberto’s smile wobbled. “I’m what?”

It was Timothy’s turn to smile. “Alberto, you’re not a supervillain. You’re too piss-weak for that. I’ve met people who’d blow up the world just because they can. You on the other hand are probably the most powerful esper on Earth, and you spent the last twenty years getting drunk on a farm. You’re not evil because you’re cruel; you’re evil because you’re too lazy to be nice.” He gestured emphatically at Arnold. “You got a little kid to do your killing for you, for Christ’s sake!” 

The boy kept his silence, but the old soldier got back to his feet. “You’re not going to nuke Melbourne, Alberto. You’re going to use your weird mind powers like you always do, get your kid unless you decide that’s too much work, and probably turn back halfway to Enlil because you can’t be fucked to learn the language3.” Valour dared to poke the esper in the chest. “Even in that body.”

Allison’s nostrils flared. “Is that what you think, eh?” Alberto closed his eyes. “We’ll just see about that.”

He followed a tether of thought and coercion five hundred feet above downtown Melbourne, up to where the enormous, ancient mass that was the Physician festered like a tumour in the heart of his great ship. Through his thrall, Alberto gave the vessel two simple orders.

Move.

He opened his eyes, staring defiantly at Timothy Valour.

Be seen.

The city started screaming immediately. Hundreds of thousands of voices crying up at the sky like pagans of old. The hall thrummed with a sound like a sea-quake, growing stronger by the second. 

Alberto raised a finger above Allison’s head. “And here, she, comes…”

The hall’s dome and vaulted ceiling was torn away like an old bandage, clouds of wood, glass, and metal snatched up into a twisting tornado of red light. The scarlet-storm dissipated in an instant, sending rubble flying across the horizon. 

Tim winced. There was no way that wasn’t landing on someone.

The Physician’s ship hovered above Royal Exhibition Hall, plain as day. Free from its mountain cradle, the starliner resembled a stone water droplet. There are few constants throughout the universe, but a tear is the same everywhere. 

“Still think I’m bluffing?” Alberto asked, voice almost lost among the renewed screams of the hostages and the sound of settling wreckage. 

But amongst the pandemonium, David was bent laughing.

“So—” David sucked in a breath. Laughter was one of the few things he needed air for. “So stupid.”  

Oh, jeez, Billy fretted, still in the shark-bear’s clutches. David’s cracked

Alberto noticed the water-sprite’s mirth. “The hell are you laughing about, sea-goblin?”

David jeered, “Remember why you cloaked the ship, Bertie? In case he noticed…”    

It was impossible for Allison’s face to get any paler than it already was, but Alberto made a good go of it. He swung around to Valour. 

“You bastard.”

Timothy Valour cleared his throat, before saying at the top of his breath. “Flying Man! I know we’ve had our differences, but I really recommend you get your arse down here!”

David laughed again, crowing, “Flying Man!”

Mabel and Arnold shared a glance, before joining. Billy followed suit, too. For just a moment, glee edged out fear in the children’s voices, like they were playing a game. 

Soon the human hostages were shouting for the Flying Man as well. Even Lawrence’s geist-ridden corpse was yelling, if only for the feel of air through the old man’s vocal cords. 

The Physician was flailing like a wounded hydra. “Stop it, you stupid apes!” he screamed, voice wavering and distorting. “You don’t know what you’re calling down!”

Howard Penderghast stirred on the floor with a groan. “What’s going on…”  

David of all people helped the warlock up. “Look, Pender-whatever, if you want to get out of this okay, start calling the Flying Man!”

Penderghast blinked down at his recent nemesis, still a little dazed from Alberto’s whammy and the battle prior.

What the hell.

He banged his staff against the hardwood floor. “Strange visitor! I demand your presence here!”

“Is that a spell?” asked Mabel.

“Nope. Just force of habit.”

Panicking, Alberto tried to peer into the future—just a few minutes past ‘now.’

It was like throwing open the doors of a darkroom. One by one, all the psychic’s futures were blotted out by white, blinding light. All he could mate out was a vast, terrible shadow, like a whale swimming through the sun. 

Fuck!

Alberto commanded the ship to cloak again. It vanished like a memory, but he knew it was too late. All over Melbourne, people would be running to their phones. Hungry reporters had their cameras trained on the ship the moment it appeared. Cries of alarm, both of sound and of thought, would radiate through the atmosphere. Nobody could ignore this…

Over mountain, over sea, over city…

The song exploded in Alberto’s mind like a supernova. It had the force of suns. It was the sand upon which broke the waves of time. It was the secret order chaos danced to.   

The psychic fell to his stolen knees. Everywhere he looked glowed with layered lattices of terrible, powerful knowledge. He was at the centre of a storm that could think

The Flying Man descended softly into the hall through the void where the dome had been, deep purple cape falling around his white-clad shoulders as his boots touched the ground. As he did, the Physician let out a shrill shriek and curled back into a ball.

The blond superhuman surveyed the devastation and frightened humans with faint disappointment. He looked over to the head of the hall. “Twice in one month, Mr. Valour? Don’t you think that might be telling you something?”

“Probably,” sighed the DDHA chief.

Pulled in by a strange paradox of awe and fear, people slowly started approaching the Flying Man.

“I never thought…”

“He’s real!”

“What did you think he was? A hologram?”

“…Yes?”

The Watercolours crept in between the grown ups. 

“Do you think he’s going to do anything to us?” Arnold whispered to Mabel. 

“I don’t know.”

The Flying Man spotted the little girl. There seemed to be recognition in his moss-green eyes. “I remember you,” he said with some amusement. He tapped the side of his nose. “Cheeky thing.”

Mabel froze, remembering that dying summer day in the barn. “We’re dead.”

David didn’t seem overly perturbed. “I can take him.”

Penderghast shoved his way to the front of the crowd. “Flying Man!” he said.

The Flying Man sighed. “I should’ve picked a name before I started this.”

Penderghast pointed his staff over at Allison’s body curled up in front of Valour, eyes screwed shut. “The children behind this attack were manipulated by a psionic parasite. Can you help her?”

The Flying Man gave a small nod. “I’ll try.”

The superman moved in a blur across the hall to the little girl. He looked down at her sadly. “Oh, you poor things.”

Alberto opened Allison’s eyes. It was like being trapped at the core of a galaxy. He only had one chance to salvage this. 

Valour noticed the movement. “Look out!”

Alberto screeched, leaping up and wrapping Allison’s hands around the Flying Man’s neck. He sunk his power into him and—

Oh, God. He was tiny. Insignificant. A match flame floating in a roiling sea. 

Alberto gasped and stared, shaking, up into the Flying Man’s eyes. “The hell are you?”

“It’ll be alright, Allison.”

A child sat alone in a dark cavern. Was it a cavern? She wasn’t sure. Sometimes she felt rough stone beneath her, sometimes smooth concrete. It was claustrophobically small, but no matter how long and how far she wandered, she couldn’t find the walls.

Right then, though, she was just trying to remember who she was. 

“I’m a girl, right?” She looked down at herself. She looked like a girl, but sometimes she remembered being a boy. Sometimes she remembered her parents speaking Italian, but the next time she thought of them again, all she could recall was English and snatches of Hungarian. She couldn’t even decide if she was an only child or not.

How did she get here? She remembered dancing in snow, and fighting pirates, and swimming with a boy she liked (or were there two of them?) but none of them fit together…

She started to hear music—distant, but closing in fast from the direction the girl couldn’t name.

A door opened in the empty space in front of her. A man with a head full of curly straw hair leaned out. He smiled down at her. “This way, Allison.”

The girl blinked at the interloper. “…This way there?”

The man frowned. “Hmm, might have to be a bit rough here. Sorry.”

He grabbed the girl by the arm and yanked her through the door—  

Allison Kinsey staggered forward. Where was she? There were people shouting and broken bits of wall everywhere, and—wait—why was she giving some bloke in a Flying Man costume a hug?

No, she realized, it was the Flying Man. There was no mistaking him, standing there spewing light and music like the Lord of Song himself. 

“What the—”

She watched her body detach from the Flying Man’s neck and fall to the floor. Much to Allison’s confusion, she could see her own thoughts shining behind her face. But there was a foreign constellation clinging tight to her mind like some parasitic starfish.

Allison scowled. “Alberto!”

The git had stolen her body, led her friends on a weird quest to try and run away to outer-space. And he had gotten to swim with a mermaid instead of her. 

The esper didn’t seem to notice his prey’s astral self, instead glaring up at the Flying Man. “Still here, arsehole.”

Is that what my voice sounds like? Allison asked herself. It’s like I’ve got asthma. 

“This isn’t your body,” he said. “You’re stealing a child’s life, Mr. Moretti.”

“She did it first!”

“I know,” he said, “but I can’t let you keep her.”

A green bolt struck the Flying Man in the back. He vanished.

Alberto grinned woozily. “Shows you.”

“For fuck’s sake!” yelled Valour.

Arnold’s arm snapped back to his side. “He made me do it!”

Penderghast shouted at the boy, “Where did you send him?”

Arnold dropped to the ground and wrapped his arms around his knees. “…Far away.”

“Good riddance,” said Alberto. He grabbed Valour. “Good news, Tim. You were right!”

“Eliza’s in the Northern Territory,” blurted Timothy. “Arnhem Land. Near a little mining township called Nhulunbuy.” His words got cut off with a gasp.

“Thank you,” said Alberto. “I’ll tell Eliza you sent me.” He looked towards the Watercolours. “Come on guys, it’s time we headed off.”

Allison had to act fast. The Flying Man may not have given her her body back all the way, but he’d loosened Alberto’s grip. She needed to shake him off somehow. She flitted across to her friends.  

“Come on, Davie!” she shouted in David’s ear. “Make all the blood in my brain rush to my feet for a second!”

The only response she got from the water-sprite was a small twitch of his eye. Even if David could really hear her, Allison knew he’d never hurt her. It was sweet. Also deeply annoying.

She had to try someone else.

Billy had returned to hugging Mr. Thumps’ side.  

“Scream, Billy!” Allison begged. “I just need you to knock him down…”

Billy just kept clinging to Valour’s servant. It was a dumb idea, Allison knew, for all the same reasons as David, even before factoring in mind-control.

She was about to try her luck with Penderghast when she noticed the slightest bulge in Mr. Thumps’ suit-jacket. 

Allison doubted the Physician would grow anything with a goiter. She focused on the drone’s meticulously ordered thoughts.

Oh.   

He had a gun. All this time, Thumps had been armed. Why hadn’t he used the gun? 

Two reasons sprung to the drone’s mind. The first was that it’d be useless against five angry super-children. The second reason was simple: Mr. Thumps would never shoot a child. 

Allison shot a glance back at her body, currently being used to say something petty and mean to Timothy Valour. 

She could take it, couldn’t she? 

Allison looked back at Thumps’ blank, carved features. She remembered the penguins.

“Sorry, Thumps.”

She stepped towards the drone. 

“And another thing,” said Alberto, “Just because you didn’t go to boarding school doesn’t make you—”

Alberto gasped as the first bullet slammed into Allison’s side. He barely managed to stay standing, almost falling onto Timothy Valour. He put a hand to the wound, feeling the warm blood trickling from under Allison’s ribs. 

“Good God…” whispered Tim.

Trembling, Alberto turned to find Mr. Thumps shaking on his feet, pointing a smoking pistol at him.

Billy backed away from the drone, weeping hysterically. “You shot Allie!”

“It—it’s not his fault.”

Thumps fired again, hitting Alberto right in the centre of mass. Pain exploded across his chest. He fell backwards. Back into the dark.

 Allison let out a sharp breath. Her super-suit glowed as it reformed into its rainbow pattern.

She was herself again. She also had two bullets in her. She tried to latch onto David’s song, or deaden the pain, but everything was so slippery… 

The Watercolours ran to her side, David dropping to his knees and squeezing her arm. “Allie!” 

Allison managed a weak smile. “Hey, David. I’m back.” She felt her bleeding slow. That was nice of David. 

She was dimly aware of someone weeping. She realized it was Thumps.

Billy was rubbing his cheek against her head and mewling. Arnold’s skin burned with his lightning. He was staring fire at Mr. Thumps. “You bas—”

Allison grabbed her friend’s hand. “Don’t,” she groaned. “I shot me.” 

Mabel was shouting at the gawking hostages. “Someone call an ambulance!”

Allison giggled. It was like nails in her lungs. “I don’t think—I don’t think they…”

The thought escaped Allison. Penderghast was looming over her now. 

“It’s going to be alright, kid,” the warlock said, his voice tight. He pointed his staff at Allison’s chest. “Oh, Loco4, first Houngan—”

“Just leave us alone.”

The ship reappeared above the Exhibition Building. It turned on its side and opened its great eye, raining down red light upon the Watercolours.

The children found themselves rising into the air. They all held tight to Allison.

“Allie?” David said, with more fear in his voice than Allison knew he was still capable of.

“It’s okay,” she said. Sleep tugged at Allison. She wasn’t sure if she ought to stay awake or not, but she couldn’t bring herself to care. She closed her eyes. “It’s gonna be okay.”          


1. Approximately forty-six light-years, in fact. Enlil orbits the yellow dwarf star 47 Ursae Majoris, later dubbed Chalawan (named for a crocodile from Thai mythology) by the International Astronomical Union in 2016. Several Enlian names for the star would be added to the registry after formal first-contact with the planet.

2. A mild squishy oath roughly equivalent to “bloody” in Commonwealth English.

3. A valid point, but on Enlil, mutism is often regarded as a mark of good breeding.

4. Loa patron of healers and plants, considered to be the archetypical Vodou priest.

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Chapter Seventy: The Rumble at Royal Exhibition Building

Howard Penderghast strode confidently towards the centre of the hall, his conjured butterflies dying and melting into raindrops all around him. Instead of his iconic colonel’s uniform and green beret, he was dressed in white slacks and a tan cotton jacket over a cream polo-shirt, topped by a rather touristy akubra hat, complete with dangling corks in front of his face. Besides his staff, the only things that distinguished the warlock from any other foreign sightseer were the pouches on his belt and the patches sewn onto his left sleeve. Military insignia? Mystic symbols? Nobody in the hall could tell.

“Took your sweet time,” Valour muttered loudly. 

“You’re lucky I’m still in the country, Tim,” retorted Penderghast. “Be glad the State Library here has a decent occult collection.”

Alberto couldn’t read the man. Where Valour shrouded his mind beneath a black cloud of horrors, and Eliza’s just plain wasn’t there, Penderghast’s surface thoughts were jumbled nonsense. A slideshow of shit about rodeo-clown jousting tournaments and republican anthills. And just like with the Singular Elsa, Allison’s power could find no note of sorcery in the warlock’s song. 

Alberto wanted him gone.

“You can stop right there!” he said as Penderghast drew within twenty yards of the Watercolours and their hostages. “Or else someone is getting a face full of molten rock. Might not even be you.” 

Penderghast obeyed. “Fair enough.”

“What’s he doing here?” Mabel whispered to Arnold. “Isn’t he supposed to be in Viet—”

Arnold’s arm jerked forward, along with a stream of lightning. It hit Penderghast square in the chest, but the man refused to vanish, merely flickering for a moment as he sighed and shook his head.

“…Shit,” Arnold said aloud.

The warlock tapped at the patch closest to his shoulder-blade. “Broken-arrow, son,” he said in his patrician drawl. “My sister whipped it up to stop bullets, but I wagered it wouldn’t mesh well with teleportation. Interrupted journeys, hmm?” 

Lawrence was right, Alberto thought to himself. Magic is bullshit.

Penderghast allowed himself half a chuckle. “She’ll be very chuffed, I’m sure. Now that we know I’m not going anywhere, can we please have a civil conversation?”

“Depends,” said Alberto, regarding the empty door-frames behind the wizard warily. “Are the coppers about to come storming in behind you?”

The corner of Penderghast’s lip curled into a frown. “I’m surprised they followed me this far.” 

“Shame,” said David coolly, arms folded. “Woulda been fun.”

Penderghast waved his hand behind his back, uttering some heavy Slavic syllables. Thick metal doors seemingly made entirely of locks sprung up in the ice’s place. 

“There,” he said. “Gesture of faith. Now, would you please stop trying to fight me? I’m on your side, hard as that might be to believe.”

“Yeah, right,” said Alberto. “Did they say that in Salem, too?”

Penderghast gave a small, satisfied smile. “I wouldn’t know. When your land actually is a demon haunted heath, no one wants it very much.” His expression became sober again as he shot Valour a contemptuous look. “Still, I want to resolve this peacefully.” 

Timothy downed the dregs of his last glass of gin. “So did I, Howie, so did I.”

“Basic hostage negotiation, Tim,” said Howard. “Get the children out first.” He gestured towards the Watercolours. “Far as I’m concerned, that means all of you.”

“‘Get the children out’?” shouted one of the hostages. “They’re the ones holding us fuckin’ hostage!”

“Sir, I understand the stress you’re all under, but they’re nine.”

“They’re bloody demi terrorists—”

A glob of water hit the man in the face, freezing solid over his mouth.

Penderghast looked at David. “That was excessive, young man.”

The boy just shrugged. 

Nobody had to tell him who did that, Alberto realized. He’s done his research.

“So tell me,” said Penderghast. “Why all this?” He glanced briefly at the body on the floor, but let it lie for for the time being. “You can’t think people will be on your side.” 

“People can be very amenable when they’re scared shitless of you,” replied Alberto.

Mabel grabbed Arnold’s hand. “You don’t know what they did to us.”

Arnold didn’t say anything. His face was charnel-white.

“I don’t, do I?” Penderghast spotted Karl Jessop, still watching everything through his camera like some postmodern cyclops. The warlock pointed his staff at the recording device. “Then, let there be light.

A ripple passed through the hall like air through water. When the sorcerous wave washed over Jessop’s camera, brightly lit white smoke poured from its lense.

“Oi!” exclaimed the cameraman, sounding more miffed than surprised. “This better not gum up the works…”

The smoke formed into a nimbus above the heads of the Watercolours and the hostages. A monochrome image appeared on its underbelly. Then another, then more and more on top of each other until they achieved the illusion of motion. There was sound, too, slightly tinny and out of synch, but perfectly audible.

A couple minutes of Karl checking his equipment, soundtracked by murmuring hostages and Allison’s arch, mocking instructions. Then Tim Valour walked into frame, and repeated his disgrace. 

His post confession self fixed his eyes down towards the floor. He at least had enough composure left not to cover his ears.

Some of the hostages tried to yell over the playback, to deny their boss’s confession or offer an excuse. 

The man himself snapped, “Will all of you shut up?”

For Penderghast’s part, he just watched. The only hint of emotion the children got off him was when his grip tightened around his staff. 

Valour gave way to the Physician, stumbling through his confession like someone was jabbing him with a stick. 

Midway through John Smith’s parade of metamorphoses, Alberto took on Arnold’s song and zapped the camera away. The smokey screen dissipated instantly.

“I think you get the picture,” Alberto said.

“My bloody camera!” shouted Karl, groping at the empty air. “Rozza’s going to have my nuts on a platter for losin’ it!”

“…Who would let people call them—” Penderghast shook his head, before procuring a small red marble from one of the pouches on his belt. “Timothy Valour,” the warlock intoned imperiously, “is what you spoke in that recording your honest truth?”

“It is,” Tim answered quietly. 

The marble turned white in Penderghast’s hand.

“You can’t possibly believe that!” cried one of the hostages, a younger woman with nails that could pluck an eye out from the other end of the hall. “He confessed at”—she searched for the term—“power-point!”

The colonel held up the marble. “The eye of Aletheia1 begs to differ, ma’am.”

Disbelieving groans spread through the hostages. Howard ignored them. “Would one of you children be kind enough to show me the Smith creature?”

David dragged the Physician before the warlock—in ice-form, lest the alien try something clever with the glass he was stuffed with.

 John Smith grinned vacantly at Penderghast, gears turning behind his plastic smile. Unlike some dead Oxfordians he could name, the Physician wasn’t fool enough to doubt the truth of magic. It existed on every planet with even the faintest glimmer of sophonce. He was no expert—superpowers had always been his wheelhouse—but he did know how much magic loved technicalities. If this petty wizard wasn’t very precise with his questioning…

“Have you, your compatriots, or any possible and/or impossible permutation or combination of those two concepts been conspiring against Australia or the United States?”

“…No.”

It was worth a try…

The eye remained blood red.

…No it wasn’t. 

“Thank you, David,” said Penderghast. 

The warlock made a fig sign, like he wanted to convince the Physician he had the alien’s nose. Dr. Smith went flying backwards, landing with a skid at the far end of the hall2.

“…That was unnecessary.”

“You’ve given me a lot to think about, children,” said Penderghast. “It seems there’s something rotten in both our Denmarks.”

David didn’t like the way the American talked. It reminded him of Lawrence. All the clever little allusions and the condescending politeness. The way grownups talked when they had a cane behind their back. 

“Glad to see you’re not a complete drone,” remarked Alberto. He looked over his shoulder at Mr. Thumps, still hugging a quietly weeping Billy. “No offense, Thumps.”

“None taken, Miss Kinsey.”  

“There’s a difference between patriotism and blind obedience. I’d like to think one precludes the other, in fact.” Penderghast sighed. “I’m sorry, but I have to ask,” he pointed at the corpse on the floor, “who did this?”

Arnold bit his lip. None of the other Watercolours answered. The hostages clamoured to do it for them, but Penderghast silenced them with a slam of his staff.

“I’m asking the children,” the wizard said, his soft voice as final and authoritative as any spell. 

David’s fists were shaking at his side. Why did grownups always play this game? Making them fess up like they didn’t already know?

And if they did tell, what would happen to Arnold?

“…Why do you need to know that?” asked Mabel.

“So that I can see that the most appropriate action is taken.” 

“Piss off!”

Everyone stared at David.

Penderghast raised an eyebrow. “Pardon, young man?”

God. It was like Laurie came back American. They’d been free of the last one all of twelve seconds. “‘Appropriate action’ my arse! You just want someone in chains!” David looked around at his friends. “America got bombed, too. I bet Merlin over there’s angry he didn’t get to drag-” 

“David.” The warlock held up the eye of Aletheia. “I don’t and I’m not, son. I just want to help you.” 

The stone turned white. 

David wasn’t moved. “Like that thing isn’t rigged!” he shouted. 

“David,” Arnold said timidly, “you don’t have to—”

“Yes I do! They’re not splitting us up again!”

“…I understand your concerns,” Penderghast’s face hardened. “But please don’t make me do this forcefully.” He began to twist and contort his fingers like he was building a cat’s cradle. “Non in Tartareo latitantem poscimus antro, adsuetamque dia tenebris, modo luce fugata descendentem animam. Primo pallentis hiatu haeret adhuc Orci.3

All warmth in the hall fled, replaced by the scent of charcoal dust and pomegranates.

David scowled. “What are you up to?”

The only answers David got were screams: Herbert Lawrence was getting to his feet.

Billy peeked out from Mr. Thumps’ suit-jacket. For just a moment, he could hope again. He’s not dead! Nobody has to get in trouble now!

But the old man’s gait was all wrong. He staggered towards Penderghast in lurching stumbles, like he had a fishing hook lodged in his chest and the warlock was pulling him in. The back of his head was a mess of bone and blood. Blood David couldn’t feel moving. Lawrence was still dead, just walking. 

Lawrence stopped in front of Penderghast. His eyes were still closed, but his mouth twisted into a strained mockery of a smile. In a rasping, faltering sing-song, he said, “Thank you, sorcerer. I had forgotten the gentle touch of the living sun, even across a frame as worn and broken as this.”

“Spirit,” Penderghast said sharply, “whose body is this?”

He already knew the answer, but there was a protocol to talking with geists. Howard suspected it would be far less irksome than summoning Herbert himself, anyway. 

The corpse hissed, “Herbert Lawrence.”

That done, Penderghast asked, “And who sent his soul down to your master’s kingdom?”

Lawrence’s body pointed right at Arnold. “Him. The spirit-touched boy. He’s the killer.”

Arnold squeezed Mabel’s hand tight. David screamed.

The water-sprite became fluid. His water spheres plunged down from the ceiling and slammed into him, the boy’s shape lost as it bulged and reformed into a hulking, amorphous giant. David’s new form froze solid as he charged at the warlock, utterly silent but for the thunder of his footsteps. 

As the hostages shouted and fled for cover all around him, Alberto pinched the bridge of his nose and shook his head. “For shit’s sake, David. We were this fucking close.”

Penderghast didn’t miss a beat, quickly tracing the shape of a man in front of him with his staff. Translucent, boxy gold armour formed around his body, just in time for the ice-giant to swat Lawrence’s corpse aside and ram right into him. 

Penderghast peeled his face from the ice’s surface, pinned there by David’s momentum. 

“For God’s sake, boy!” he shouted. “You’re not helping your case here!”

David didn’t answer. Not surprising, really. He didn’t have a mouth.

Have to get the hostages—  

The pair crashed through the front of the hall, the wall exploding into a cloud of dust and masonry. David’s titan tripped over Penderghast’s indestructible doors, sending the wizard hurling onto the lawn as its feet snapped off. 

Howard landed on the grass with a thud, his air-armour shattering around him. The ice-giant was sitting atop the doors, clumsily reattaching its own feet like pieces of a doll, when a barrage of bullets started chipping away at its mass. A childish voice of singing crystal snickered.

“Don’t shoot, you fools!” Penderghast screamed at the cops girting the building. “You can’t hurt ice!” 

David paused in reassembling himself. Why was he bothering with feet? On the spur of the moment, he reshaped one of his broken feet.

Time to stop thinking like a human.

The policemen had around half a second to turn and run before a thirty foot javelin of solid ice pierced through the side of one of their cars. Penderghast looked at the boy. His torso was floating in mid air, his arms and lower body splitting into chunks and fragments that orbited his form like miniature comets. He already had the other foot raised, shaping it into a sword. 

“Damn it, kid,” Penderghast groaned, as he pulled a dagger from his belt. “Fencing isn’t my forte.” 

What? David thought. He thinks that’s gonna stop me? 

He sent the sword hurtling at Penderghast. The warlock swept his own blade (sharpened on the wings of dragonflies) through the air and sliced a tear in the space in front of him. The ice-sword sailed through it, into the velvet canvas of the space outside space.

David’s soul groaned. 

Bloody cheater! 

He noticed the Exhibition Building’s fountain4: three disks supported on the backs of four concrete merpeople, upon which danced the traditional nude allegorical children, while their peers played at the edge of the water below5
.

Inwardly, David grinned. 

The fountain’s streams redirected, lashing like anemone tendrils at Penderghast, their tips freezing solid and sharpening moments before they would have struck his skin, if the warlock weren’t so effectively dodging them.  

Penderghast leapt backwards as one of the watery tentacles stabbed down into the grass where his right shoulder had been. The boy was fighting smarter by the second. He had to end this quick. 

Narrowly avoiding a skewer through the leg, Penderghast pointed his staff at the fountain: 

O artes, a lapidea vincula vos vindico!6

The sculpted boys sprang to life, leaping off their plinths as the merpeople suddenly strained and shook from their burden. They ran out onto the grass, giggling as they jumped between Penderghast and David’s icy whips, which shattered against their concrete bodies. 

Penderghast used the respite to shout out another spell. Mourning cloak wings sprouted from his back as he took to the air.

David wanted those dancing boys smashed. It was like Penderghast was using his own image against him. A geyser burst from under the fountain, shattering and sending it high into the air. The cops all scattered, looking for cover before the chunks came back to Earth. 

The column of water bent in the air, lunging towards the airborne warlock, but Penderghast kept swooping and diving out of its path. He was pulling handfuls of white powder out of his belt, throwing it in clouds behind his back. Instead of dispersing, the grains formed into white doves and flew off in seemingly random directions, slowly eroding with every beat of their wings till they were reduced to nothing.

The hell is he doing? David asked himself. 

Penderghast hovered above what remained of David’s ice-titan, arms outstretched:

Yemọja! Our Lady of Navigators! Womb from which all seas, springs, and rivers spill!7

David’s ice fell to the ground, inert. The wyrm he’d made of the fountain’s pipes collapsed into a wave on top of the cop cars. 

I beg you, bind your son! Remind him of his flesh!

The titan’s body melted rapidly, revealing David curled within like a thawing Neanderthal boy.

He felt so weak. Like he couldn’t lift so much as a drop of water. But there was a peace to it. Like his mother was stroking him after a bad dream. He closed his eyes…

Above the child, Penderghast’s eye twitched. This boy was a god, whatever Herbert Lawrence had thought. The warlock didn’t know how long he could hold him like this. 

Something long and sharp whizzed a hair’s breadth past his ear.

“The hell—”

Mabel Henderson stood frowning in front of the Royal Exhibition Building, her manerfish toting an empty harpoon gun beside her, backed up by the shark-bear and the chainsaw-panda. 

They weren’t alone either. A crowd of cracked, peeling gods and goddesses lined the stairs behind them. The frescos from inside the hall. 

“Leave my friend alone.”

“I’m sorry,” Penderghast told the girl, his eyes still on David, “but I can’t let this continue.”

Mabel nodded, before turning to her army of summons. “Get him.”

The gods charged. The sylphs of the seasons shot up at Penderghast, scarring the ground below with bands of fire, ice, and blossoming flowers. Dark-robed Winter flew ahead of her sisters, running her pale fingers across Penderghast’s wings as she passed. They instantly froze solid, sending Howard plummeting. 

The warlock clapped his hand over one of the patches on his sleeve: the alchemical symbol for earth and air as one. The air below Penderghast became thick as syrup, slowing his fall. He managed to land on his feet, but only had a second to get back his bearings before some giant in a white robe  swung a great oak club at him. 

“Damn it, missed!” shouted the god as he violently parted the air where Penderghast’s head had been. 

Poor Hercules, Howard mused as he strafed around the hero. Bastards didn’t even give him the lion-pelt

None of the Institute files had mentioned the girl—clearly one of Lawrence’s under-the-table acquisitions— but it didn’t take a genius to figure out what her power was. 

There was only one logical course of action. Penderghast ran towards the torn open Exhibition Hall. He reached into one of his belt-bouches and threw a handful of gunpowder over his shoulder:

“Maitre Carrefour, conceal me!8

The black powder billowed into a thick cloud of darkness. Gods shouted in anger and confusion as Penderghast ran unseen through their number. 

He was almost inside when a blinding light burned away the magical shadows. Penderghast squinted up towards the sky. The sylph of morning shone above, her veil glowing a radiant-sky blue. 

 Leopard-skin clad Mars pointed his sword at the wizard. “After him!”

Penderghast ran through the ruins of the hall, weaving around panicked hostages as he headed towards the patch of light beneath the dome. Arnold Barnes struck him uselessly with his lightning, more out of reflex than anything else.  

As soon as he was in range, Penderghast pointed his staff at the pendentives and lunettes, tracing a fiery glyph in the air. One by one, the frescos burst into flames, their bright colours darkening and burning away. Howard could hear screams from behind him.

Something cold and sharp jabbed the back of the warlock’s neck.

“Turn around, mortal.”

Penderghast obeyed, finding a tall, red-robed woman in a crested helmet holding him at sword-point.

“It’s good to see you, your highness.”

Howard knew immediately that it wasn’t the real Athena, or Minerva, whatever name this rendition went by. For one thing, her skin was too pale. For another, King Athena wouldn’t have bothered with the warning. 

Before he could think of anything else, he felt a small hand tap his. 

Penderghast’s staff slipped from his hand.

Allison Kinsey stepped out from behind him. “It’s okay guys,” she called behind her. “He’s safe now.”

Mabel and Arnold approached cautiously like mice in the presence of a dying cat. David Venter formed out of mist, shaking slightly. Billy had managed to tear himself away from Mr. Thumps.

The little girl with the burning eyes smiled wickedly. “Looks like we’ve got ourselves a pet wizard.” 

Penderghast couldn’t bring himself to utter a spell, or even move. He couldn’t even struggle. Nothing in Allison’s file had mentioned anything about that. 

Then he remembered what Baron La Croix had told him at the Institute, considered the strange little girl’s bearing and speech…

Howard Penderghast was a witch by blood and by training. That didn’t protect his mind completely, but it did let him shout, “Alberto Moretti!

Allison Kinsey flinched.

“…What?” asked Mabel. 

Howard tried to point, but his arm was pinned to his side. But for now at least, he could still talk. “Your friend is possessed!”

The Watercolours all looked at Allison.

“…Tell me you’re not buying this,” she said indignantly.

“You know,” remarked David. “You have been acting kinda… weird lately. Really weird.”

“You called Lawrence ‘Dad’,” said Arnold. “Seemed a bit… yeah.”

Alberto sighed. He really thought he could’ve kept it up longer than this. “In my defence… she started it.”


1. A Greek goddess or spirit of truthfulness and sincerity. In truth, the eye belonged to a much older goddess, and it wasn’t even an eye. “Ovary” would be more accurate, if still largely a comforting lie.

2. For various thaumaturgical reasons, magicians are generally excluded from the search for the hypothetical general telekinetic.

3. Roughly translated: “I ask not for one already hiding in the depths of Hell, long banished to the darkness of death, but one just now escaped to life, still lingering at the ghastly gate of Orcus.”

4. Known as the The Hochgurtel fountain.

5. While the rumours regarding direct Olympian inspirations have never been confirmed regarding the Exhibition Hall’s interior frescos, it is known that the godling Palaemon posed for the sculptor Josef Hochgurtel. Specifically, he became the basis for the little boy at the base being spat at by a turtle.

6. “Oh art, I free you from your cage of stone!”

7. A major water goddess of the Yoruba people, often syncretised with the Black Madonna by the African diaspora. Aside from water, Yemọja also presides over domains pertaining to women, including parenting and child safety.

8. Kalfu, or Carrefour, is a loa of the crossroads, ruling over sorcery and the night. Some have accused him of being a demon, but he denies this most strenuously.

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Chapter Sixty-Nine: A Red Halo

The Physician’s people1 had long reached post-scarcity2 and perfected genetic engineering back when human beings were just figuring out that the little stones in fruit could turn into new plants. His culture had abolished hierarchy and fixed identity. Death and birth were as everyday life events for him as brushing your teeth. 

Naturally, this made Timothy Valour’s petty realpolitik a tedious listen:

“Yada yada yada national security…

“Yada yada yada you owe Australia that much…”

At least Herbert had the decency to blow that ghastly modernist lump the DDHA occupied back in Canberra, the Physician tried comforting himself. As far as he was concerned, Walter Burley Griffin designed buildings exactly like he did rubbish incinerators. Sure, the Royal Exhibition Building3 was a bit of a dump these days—more suited to high school matriculation exams and weekly dances than the business of government—but at least it’d been built before human architects swore off aesthetics. The Physician dreaded the day when humankind tried building spaceships.        

“Yada yada yada—Dr. Smith, are you even listening?”

The Physician had been sitting stock still and grinning in his chair for the entire meeting. It made Valour feel like he was practising with a mannequin.

“Oh, I’m listening,” Dr. Smith lied, not bothering to move his lips. “So, about those bodies, I was thinking—”

Tim sighed, resting his elbows on his desk and running his hands over his face. “Smith, please tell me Chaoskampf4 is nearly ready.”

The Physician’s fingers writhed along the edge of the desk. “Still after that? I thought you were moving over to the DOPO model. Training up super-squads and all that.”

Timothy straightened himself and swallowed. “Yes. That’s the plan. Sadly, there haven’t been many applicants yet.”

“I suppose it’s hard to lure in flies with honey when you’ve spent the last three years leaving out poison. That and you killed half of the good ones last week.”

Valour inhaled. He’d learned it was best to ignore many of the things John Smith said. “That being said, if and when we get super-corps up and running, we still feel it prudent to have a… deterrent.”

Dr. Smith seemed amused by that. “Ah, I see. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?”

Sometimes it bothered Timothy that the Physician knew more Latin than him. Reluctantly, he called over to Mister Thumps standing in the corner. “Translation, Thumps?”

The hulking manservant drawled, “Literally translated, ‘Who guards the guards themselves?’ but commonly rendered in English as ‘Who watches the watchmen?’ ”

Dr. Smith’s head swiveled around to regard his creation. “Good lad, Thumps,” he said, before spinning his head back to face Valour. “Told you he was worth the money.”

Tim sighed. “Dr. Smith, please, what’s the status of Chaoskampf?”

The Physician wobbled in his chair. “Very promising, Valour, very promising.” 

Chaoskampf was proving to be a most edifying project for him. The first honest challenge he’d faced since the 50s, aside from the obvious, eternal exception. It did ask for the expenditure of some very unique resources on his part, and if it turned out half as well as he hoped, it would certainly disrupt the balance between the nations of man. That was alright, though. Didn’t want the game to get stale.

Besides, he was sick of Ivanova rubbing her science cities in his face.

“Finally got the brain-machine interface working smoothly. Not a small feat, given that I’m working with dead—”

Valour threw his hand up. “I don’t need the details, Smith.”

“I do at least need to tell you that the final product will be much better if I have access to the NHI cadavers.”

Timothy lay his hands on his legs, silent for a spell. “…They’re children, John.”

The Physician kept smiling. “Yes, Tim, they are children. Children whose brains I will dissect and make think again with electricity. Children whose bones I will carve into marvelous weapons to protect you from scary economic systems. Children who you had shot.” The doctor let out a peal of staccato, many-voiced laughter. Timothy didn’t even think it meant mirth anymore.  

“Maybe I’ll even spin their flesh into new children to guard your house at night. Domestication is one of your people’s great strengths, Valour. You take predators and make them hunt your food for you. Lawrence almost figured it out—you’ll have to as well, Timothy. Unless you want your grandchildren to grow up in those kennels instead. Only one species gets to be free.”

Talking to the Physician always made Timothy Valour feel small. Provincial, and stupid, and so very grubby. Like he was selling his soul—maybe everyone’s souls—for table-scraps. 

Sometimes, he wondered if Earth was the only place fit for an aberration like John Smith. Other times, he feared Earth was the only place where men like him pretended to care about people. Over and over, John Smith and so many others asked him to make someone’s life worse, and every time, he said yes.

Maybe this time—      

Tim found himself saying, “…I could say no. I could bury those kids. I could send you away and never do business with you again.” 

“You could,” conceded the Physician. His grin fissured his cheeks. “…But then I’d take my work to someone else.”

“…The bodies will be ready for you by the end of the day.”

“I’m happy to hear it.”

In his corner, Mister Thumps shook his head. Nobody noticed.

The shell between his duty and his heart back in place, Valour said, “I meant to tell you, earlier Penderghast reported—”

The roar of a thousand exploding windows thundered across the face of the Exhibition Building. 

Wartime instincts and engineered reflexes sent Valour and Thumps ducking for cover a split second before the office window shattered. When the rattle of broken glass subsided, Timothy peered out the teal carpet and his own bracing arms. The whole room rang with a sound like screaming wine-glasses. “Fuck!”  

He cautiously got to his feet. Thumps appeared unharmed, dusting off his suit. The Physician though was riddled with shards of glass, dozens of wounds seeping dark green blood5. A jagged blade had impaled him square in the face. He was still grinning.

Timothy shouted, “Jesus Christ, John!” 

“Oh, it’s fine.” The Physician absorbed the glass missiles with a grinding slurp. “You can always find a use for silica.”  He looked around at the spray of glass. “Is it New Year’s already? I love fireworks, Valour, but a little warning would be appreciated.”

Valour shook his head in bewilderment. “No it’s not—we’re under attack you fool!” The DDHA chief swung around and stuck his head out the empty window frame over Carlton Gardens, just in time to spot a procession of children and monsters marching in through the blasted off front doors. A man trailed behind them, carrying something dark and bulky over his shoulder. A gun-case? A grenade launcher? And what was that hanging off him? Explosives? The armed guards that had been stationed at the entrance were pinned beneath mounds of ice or crystal.

Realization burst inside Valour like blisters of acid. “Oh, God,” he half-whispered. “I think they’re from the Institute.”

With a crunch of glass underfoot, Dr. Smith joined Timothy at the window, still beaming. “Maybe they’re here to apply for your super-squad!”

For five minutes, nobody in the office spoke. What was there to say? All their contingency plans for an invasion were written for the Canberra building. The only sounds were muffled shouting from neighbouring offices and the nearing sirens of emergency vehicles. The Physician sat back down in his chair and silently grinned like a dolphin. Mr. Thumps efficiently checked Tim over for injuries. Unfortunately, he found none.

Eventually, Valour resumed his place behind his desk. He had no doubt they would come for him, and in the face of an angry god, dignity was the only power mortals could hope for. 

In the space between breaths, there was a knock. 

“Come in,” said Valour.

The office-door opened, and in stepped a woman from the future. She wore a red, ludicrously skin-tight spacesuit with a fishbowl helmet. Her whole body had an odd, painted sheen. 

She also had a gun.

“Mr. Valour,” she said in a vaguely American accent, “You’re wanted in the main hall.”

She sounded vaguely regretful. Timothy could relate. 

“Very well.”

The spacewoman herded Valour, Thumps, and Dr. Smith through the halls and stairways of the western annex at gunpoint. The Physician cracked and crunched with every step, chatting all the while. 

“You’re one of Mabel Henderson’s projections, aren’t you.”

“Yes,” the spacewoman admitted.

“Mabel who?” asked Valour.

“You don’t know all of Herbert’s students, Timothy?” The Physician waged a long, bony finger at Tim. “For shame.” His head revolved to face the lady astronaut, making her—and Valour—flinch. “I’ve always wanted to ask, are you pure fabrication, or does little Mabel use pictorial references to access the multiverse?”

“How the hell should I know?”

“If you were killed on this plane, dear, do you think you’d return to life where you came from? Or would Mabel be summoning a new version of you from then on?”

“I swear to God, I’ll shoot.”

“Go ahead. It won’t stick.”

Alberto stood in the sunshine raining in through the Royal Exhibition Building’s Italianate dome, admiring the decorative pendentives and lunettes. Minerva, king of the gods presided over the arts of war in her chariot, while Juno reclined next to a lion, improbably representing peace. Hercules, Venus, Mercury and Mars soared in little slivers of sky. Local legend had it that the Olympians themselves descended from Heaven to pose for the artists. Alberto didn’t know if there was any truth to that, but he was glad he’d picked a pretty place for a siege.

A few clusters of unlucky civil servants cowered under the sylphs of night, spring, and winter, guarded by a spear-toting penguin riding a shark-bear, flanked by growling pandas with chainsaws for legs and a fish-man in an oilskin menacingly waving a harpoon, which Mabel unfortunately called a manerfish. 

Billy was picking over the hardwood floor, spreading his mirror-mist over chunks of broken door and masonry reducing it to water for David, who’d earlier been kind enough to replace the flesh and blood of the people hit by the shrapnel. 

The tiger-boy glanced sympathetically at one of the pockets of hostages. “Sorry about this,” he said with all the sincerity in the world. “I promise we’ll let you go when we’re done. It’s for a good cause!”

“Billy,” Alberto groaned, “Don’t be nice to the hostages.”

“But we—”

A man with a face like a coal-scuttle shouted, “You fucking freaks are gonna get it! Should’ve gassed the lot of you…”

One of the smarter hostages clapped her hands over the man’s mouth.

Alberto tilted his chin towards the east mezzanine, where Arnold and Mabel stood guard. “Arnold,” he said cooly, “send that idiot directly to Jupiter.”

The boy lit up with absinthe sparks, pointing down towards the tussling hostages. “My pleasure.”

One of the people smothering the upstart cried, “Wait, please—”

A bolt of lightning lanced down at the two. They vanished, only to instantly reappear in a heap in the centre of the hall, screaming frantically before realizing they hadn’t been deposited in the clouds of a gas-giant.

The children laughed, all except Billy, who settled for quietly shaking his head and tutting.

Alberto walked up to the teleported hostages. “Sorry about that,” he said to the one on top. “Crossfire, you know. You can go back to the huddle now.”

The woman scarpered off, leaving the man with the Neanderthal brow staring wide eyed up at Alberto.

“Next time,” he hissed, “Jupiter.” 

The man nodded frantically and ran back to the others.

Alberto looked around the hall at the rest of the hostages. “That goes for the rest of you, too.” 

That bit of intimidation theatre done, Alberto took on David’s song and misted over towards its source at the head of the hall.

“Doors sealed?” Alberto asked as he resolidified. It was surprisingly refreshing, like a full-organ sluice. 

Two globes of water thrice the size of David orbited the boy like planets blown from glass. Toolbox and ammo belt all in one. He ran a hand over the thick walls of ice he’d replaced the front doors with and rubbed his fingers approvingly. “Nobody’s getting in unless I say.”

Satisfied, Alberto went to check in on the honorary sixth Watercolour: Carl Jessop, the cameraman they’d borrowed from the Melbourne ABC6.  

“We good here?”

The ginger cameraman gave Alberto a thumbs up, coupled with a vacant smile.The double-reel camera resting on his shoulder and the mess of wires, cables, and sound equipment hanging off him made the boy look like a cut-rate cyborg. “Ready to roll, little miss.”

Alberto nodded slowly, lest Karl think his head was about to fall off. “Good work, Karl,” he told him gently.

 The whammy Alberto put on Karl wasn’t the psychic’s best work. Poor bastard probably thought he was covering a flower show. Still, Alberto couldn’t feel too sorry for him. Today would probably make Karl’s career. 

Assuming he survived.

“They’re here,” called Mabel.

The Watercolours all assembled as the spacewoman marched her captives into the hall. Mr. Thumps was stoic as ever, the Physician was grinning what passed for his heart out, and Timothy Valour appeared completely resigned. 

Fucking predictable, Alberto thought to himself. Wrap yourself in duty tight enough, you never have to bother with anything so messy as fear in your whole life.

“It’s gonna be alright!” one of the hostages yelled with desperate jubilation. “Valour will sort these—”   

Alberto shot the worker a look.

“…kids… out!”

“Not today, son,” Valour said quietly. “Not the way you want, at least.”

Mr. Thumps caught sight of David and Allison and bowed to each child in turn. “Hello, Miss Kinsey. Hello, Maelstrom.”

“Hi, Mr. Thumps. It’s David now.”

“My apologies.”

“S’alright,” David replied softly. It felt weird, talking to someone both younger and taller than him. “Not your fault you didn’t know.”   

The Physician was looking around at Mabel’s creations. The shark-bear growled at him. The Physician waved back. “Oh, these are charming,” he said, glancing at Mabel up on the mezzanine. “Did you make these? If so, I’d love to collaborate sometime.” 

“Thanks,” Mabel said, forgetting the situation for a moment. “I’m trying to use my own stuff more.”  Quickly she added, “No offense, captain.”

The spacewoman didn’t look at her summoner. “Can I go now?”

Mabel looked taken aback. “…Okay.”

The astronaut disappeared without a whisper.  

Alberto wished away his sunglasses, revealing Allison’s magma eyes. “Hi Tim.”

Valour sighed. “I know you won’t believe me, Allison, but I’m glad you’re alive.”

David’s eyes flashed a green-tinted white. Valour bent and wretched as bile forced its way up his throat like an angry snake. 

Alberto grasped the water-sprite’s hand. “We need him, David.”

David’s eyes returned to their resting green. Valour fell gasping to his knees. 

“I know,” said David. “Just reminding the git what happens if that changes.”

Mr. Thumps helped Tim to his feet. “He is trying, David.”

Valour stared at his manservant. This had to be the first thing he’d ever heard Thumps say that wasn’t about his job. Even the Physician looked perplexed, assuming that’s what it meant when his eyes migrated to the side of his head like a flatfish, shifting across the surface of his skull until they were staring at his creation. 

David looked flatly at the drone. “Thumps, most people don’t have to try not to shoot kids. Or my Mummy.”

“I didn’t want—” Valour trailed off. What was the point? Arguing with his daughters had never got him anywhere when they were this age. And they hadn’t been right. “I suppose you kids have demands.”

“Damn right we do,” Alberto said. He pointed towards Karl and his camera. “First, you’re gonna tell the nice cameraman all about what you do here at the DDHA.”

This for broadcast or blackmail? Either way, these kids were clever. Maybe Lawrence was onto something.

Valour stepped in front of the camera. The boy the children had drafted to man it looked over the viewfinder at him, wearing a broad, slightly drunk grin. “Smile for the camera, Mr. Jenkins!”

Timothy Valour did not. Instead, he looked towards the other hostages—still gazing at him with woefully misplaced hope—and breathed deep. Time to dispel all illusions.

“I thought it would be easy, fixing all this. I thought I could shut down the asylums, convince the supers to come back into the fold, after what we did to them. To make us stronger. I thought the DDHA was a creature of pure, dumb panic. I still don’t think I was wrong about that. But people like me—men of action, I suppose—we think we can push past all the fuss and red-tape by ignoring the world and using ‘common-sense’.” Valour scoffed. “No such thing. I thought I was stronger than a country’s fear. I wasn’t. I drowned in it, same as everyone else.”

“Get on with it,” said David. “You’re starting to sound like Lawrence.”

Valour glared right at the camera. Time to be the monster. “As chief of the DDHA, I made many legally, ethically, and morally dubious deals with an extraterrestrial creature calling himself John Smith.”

The DDHA employees lucky enough to have never met the Physician gasped.

“He provided the frankly torturous super-restraints used in several DDHA facilities, often on children. Dr. Smith also provided the government with what I believe are artificial men. Drones grown to serve. Slaves, in other words.” He gestured half-heartedly towards Mr. Thumps. 

“In exchange for these and other pieces of technology, I personally allowed Dr. Smith custody of many DDHA inmates for the purpose of human experimentation.” He inhaled. “I don’t know the full extent of what these experiments entailed. I tried to avoid finding out. I know enough however, to say that Dr. Smith is a blight upon this earth. A blight I helped to cultivate.”

The Physician muttered to Thumps, “I think Valour’s got it confused about who was doing the cultivating here…”

“You’re not done yet,” said Arnold.

“No, I’m not. For years, I allowed the psychiatrist Herbert Lawrence to run a private care-home for superhuman children. Part of me hoped he could offer us something better than the asylums. Something more humane. Another part knew we’d save money by letting him take on some of our less containable inmates. Under my watch, Herbert Lawrence bred those children like cattle. Raped them. When I was told, I could have had him arrested on the day. I wanted to. I wanted to kill him, even. But I didn’t. I let him fester and plot. He orchestrated the terror attacks in Canberra. I ordered a raid on his school. This raid resulted in the death of good soldiers, children, and the loss of two superhuman assets.”

Don’t have to tell me, thought Alberto.

“You also killed Francoise Barthe,” Alberto cut in, his voice acid. “You ordered your men to shoot her. In the head. While she slept.”

Behind him, David’s fists were clenched, his knuckles white.

“I did.” Valour looked down at the floor. “Less than half an hour before this recording, myself and Dr. Smith were in my office, negotiating the exchange of those children’s corpses in exchange for biological weapons. For something to kill more children.”

Some of the hostages were weeping. Others were shouting questions or swearing at Valour, or declaring it all lies. Some, Alberto noted, were silent. A few quietly thinking it justified. Alberto almost laughed. Some Nazis never died. He supposed it must be a thrill for such mediocrities, finding out they were cogs in a decent atrocity.  

Timothy had ran out of words. He’d confessed everything—probably enough to bar him from ever stepping foot outside of some dank cave, but he didn’t feel any worse for it. Despair was so clean.

“I think that about covers it,” said Alberto. He took Valour’s hand, pulling him backwards. “Now be a good boy and stand quietly in the corner.”

“You’re letting me live?” Valour asked, sounding completely disinterested in the answer. 

“Of course. Nobody would believe any of this mad shit if we didn’t. Hell, half the hostages think you made it up.”

Alberto approached the Physician next, running a small finger along his jaundiced hand. “Your turn, Smith.”

The Physician smiled his plastic smile down at Allison, no doubt about to say something deeply condescending, when he found himself lurching towards the camera. He couldn’t stop himself His head twisted around to stare at the little girl.

Alberto grinned and nodded at the alien.

The girl’s powers had expanded, Dr. Smith realized. He was completely under Allison’s control. For the first time in his long earthly sojourn, the Physician was at the mercy of a human being.

Suddenly, he knew exactly how Captain George Pollard felt7.

The Physician came to a stop before the camera, spotting his reflection in the lens. An earth-person would’ve said he looked like he was trying to sell something. The Physician, however, knew that he looked bloody terrified. 

His whole body rattled like he was a wind-up toy set on a bumpy surface. If that bothered Karl Jessop, he didn’t let it show.

“You’re live, buddy!”

“I’ve been playing you all,” the Physician blurted. “Me, myself and I have been supplying information and assistance to every nation of men worth mentioning. It’s a game I play, setting you against each other. Like Risk.” 

The Physician clapped his hands over his mouth. The skin on his forehead bulged and tore, revealing another mouth:

“I’m also not very good at this!” it said in a wheezing falsetto, inspiring giggles from the Watercolours. “I barely qualified for the Physician’s Guild! The only reason I’ve gotten so far with people is because of how easy it is for humans to get powers!”

John Smith’s form began buckling and changing, his features shifting to those of Dr. Johannes, complete with fungi moustache. “This is what I look like when I’m working for the Americans.” Then he grew a grey beehive, while bloodied bone forced its way out of his head in a parody of eyeglasses. His nails grew long and orange. “And this is what I look like in Russia—”

Valour stalked towards the Physician. “You fucking traitor!” He punched the alien in the side of the head, only to shout when his knuckles came away bloody. 

The Physician regarded the DDHA chief cooly, shards of glass poking out the side of his head. “Told you you can always find a use for silica. Traitor to what? Did you ever honestly consider me Australian? And at least I gave your backwater something.” 

Their two prize bucks busy locking antlers, Allison approached one of the hostage-patches, asking casually, “Anyone have a pen and paper?” 

Nobody answered. Even the ones with pens visibly sticking out of shirt pockets.

“Pencil’s fine too, I’m not fussy.”

Still no answer. 

Fucking hostages, I swear.

Alberto huffed and put Allison’s hands on her hips. “Look, the sooner I get something to write on, the sooner you can all go home.”

“…I have a pad and a good ball-point,” offered a reedy voiced old man. “It’s red, though.”

“Doesn’t matter.” Alberto stretched out Allison’s hand. “Come on, hand it over.” 

Trembling, the elderly clerk rose from the floor and pulled out his pad and pen, treading through the seated crowd to pass it to the little girl with the red-eyes. 

“Thanks,” Alberto said as he started scratching at the paper. A thought occurred to him:

“Hey, lady who tried to get the moron to stop talking, come on up! Don’t worry, I won’t bite.”

The hostage in question—a plump, dyed redhead with a carnation pinned to her breast—crept cautiously from where she was cowering like a spooked rabbit. “Y—yes?”

Alberto finished his missive with a very sharp full-stop. “Look, I’m sorry about the crossfire thing earlier. I really didn’t want to punish you for stopping someone being stupid. That’s the opposite of how civilization’s supposed to work. Tell ya what. For being helpful, you and Methuselah get to go home early.”

“…Thank you,” said the old man, trying not to look at any of the other hostages. Some of them were already glaring. 

Alberto shoved the paper into the woman’s hands. “All you have to do in exchange is deliver some of our demands here to the coppers outside.” He looked up towards the mezzanine. “Arnold there will teleport you a ways off so they don’t go nuts and fill you with lead. My advice is to put your hands on your heads before we send you, so no one gets too jumpy. Understand?”

The hostages nodded vigorously.

Smiling, Alberto said, “And if you don’t give them our demands, you get to drink drain-cleaner. Trust me, you will. But only if you don’t deliver, got it?”

Much more nodding. 

“Blast ‘em, Arn.”

The pair whipped up in a quick green storm.

“… What’d you ask for?” Mabel asked from the mezzanine.

“Just some small stuff,” he replied. “Refreshments. A book or two, and Herbert Lawrence.”

“Think they’ll bring him?” asked David.

In his head, Alberto watched the storm of futures move in one direction. “Bet my life.”

Allison’s life, at least. 

It took a couple of hours for the Watercolours’ guest to arrive. After much begging, Billy was allowed to try and raise the hostages’ morale. He chose charades.

The tiger-boy hopped on one foot, holding his arm in front of him like he was a crane8.

“A flamingo?” suggested one hostage. People had gotten more into the spirit of things after the snacks arrived. And after David offered the winner their freedom. 

“Getting closer,” Billy answered charitably. At least the discourse had moved towards animals since they’d started. People had been pointedly avoiding the subject in the presence of the chainsaw panda. 

“A land-sea-serpent,” the maner-fish gurgled. 

“…You mean a snake?” asked Arnold.

“No, boy. Land-sea-serpents swim through the rock and soil, pulling unwary truck-captains down into the depths of the mantle.”

Arnold shot Mabel an amused smile. The girl returned it, shrugging. 

“A crane! One of those long-neck dinosaurs!”

“I don’t know why you won’t let me play,” the Physician said sullenly from his corner. “My people perfected charades.”

“Hush you,” said Alberto. “It doesn’t work when you actually turn into the thing.” 

“A frilled-neck lizard!” 

“A chicken,” said Thumps.

“It’s a bloody elephant!” Tim Valour yelled. The Watercolours had been nice enough to provide the war hero gin for the duration. 

“You got it!” said Billy.

“Yeah,” said David, “but you we’re not letting go.”

Valour fell onto his back. “Why was he hopping?”

David could feel three men walking close together towards the front entrance. The one in the middle was much bulkier than the other two.

“He’s here.”

David marched purposefully to the front entrance. The ice in the centremost doorway melted and evaporated, revealing Herbert Lawrence standing on the stairs like a penitent. Two policemen were backing away towards the bank of police cars behind Exhibition Fountain. 

The old man was dressed in a striped prison uniform, and his beard had been shaved. Raspberry bruises circled his eyes. 

“Maelstrom…”

David didn’t bother correcting Lawrence. His name would mean nothing from his mouth. “Get inside.”

David pulled Lawrence into the Exhibition Building as the steam reformed into ice behind him. 

Lawrence tried to embrace the boy. “I thought you’d—”

David pushed him away, his body suddenly ice. His voice echoed cold and verrillon, “You don’t get to hug me, Laurie. You don’t get to talk to me. I’m done with you.” He pointed at his friends. “But they’re not.”

David led Lawrence roughly under the dome and threw him in front of the other Watercolours. “Do what you like with him.”

“Please do,” said the Physician. “Show me for buying free-range…”

Alberto had his hands on Allison’s hips, sneering at the sight of his old teacher. “God, I see why you never shaved, Laurie. Your chin is really weak.”

Lawrence gave Allison a weak shadow of his infuriatingly paternal smiles. “Ah, but I’m not the only one who’s gone through a change, am I?” He regarded David and Allison’s costumes with woozy bemusement. “Interesting plumage. And your eyes, Myriad…” He glanced to his sides. “There isn’t some new posthuman you’re copying, is there?”

Alberto struck Lawrence across the face with as much of Allison’s strength as he dared. “Now why would I tell you that?” 

“You tricked me,” shouted Arnold, his cheeks flushed. “You made me bomb all those people!” 

Lawrence seemed welcome. “Elsewhere, my boy, you couldn’t have known. I kept you innocent.”

“Laurie,” said Alberto, “never talk about keeping kids innocent.”

David raised an eyebrow at that. That sounded a lot more like something a grownup would say.

“I didn’t see you declaring yourself the bomber,” said Valour sourly. 

“I did what I had to do for my children,” said Lawrence. 

Mabel’s eyes narrowed on him. “Like what you did for Adam?”

“Wait,” said Valour. “Who’s Adam?”

“Boy Laurie poached,” answered the Physician. “Had him euthanized. Bloody nuisance, too. He was promised to me alive.”        

Valour stared at Lawrence. “Jesus Christ.”

“Adam was a threat to the new human race, Timothy. Men like you would’ve used him to snuff them all out,”  Lawrence said. He looked up at Allison. “I loved Adam. I still do, same as all of you.”

“For God’s sake!” shouted Alberto. “Stop the bollocks, Lawrence! You don’t love us! You can’t love anything outside your own head!”

“If I must be your Cronus, children, so be it. The future is not for me. It’s not for any of us.” Lawrence sighed. “I hoped I could ease the transition for your kind. Show mankind how to pass on with dignity. But maybe this revolution is necessary for you. Like blood pumping through a butterfly’s wings when they tear—”

Alberto shook his head. Dear God, he still didn’t get it. The old bastard had replaced his soul with speeches. “It’s not a revolution!” screamed Alberto. “We’re not doing this for your fucking future. We’re just angry! You fucked up our lives! Over and over!” He violently shook Lawrence’s shoulders. “Christ’s sake, Laurie.” His voice cracked. “Can’t you just say ‘I was a shit dad, I’m sorry’? Is it that bloody hard?”

A look of realization struck Lawrence. He tried to stand up, to strike Allison.

He couldn’t. Just like that awful chat in his office…

He smiled and leaned forward, whispering into Allison’s ear. “It’s good to see you again, son. Tell me, Tiresias, do the other children know who wears their friend’s face?”

Alberto shoved Lawrence back, forcing silence upon him.

The fucker needed to die. That Alberto was certain of. 

Maybe he could break his neck? Or burn him? He tried to imagine himself actually killing Lawrence, but the image didn’t come. Why not? He hated him. It should’ve been easy…

Alberto decided he was being greedy. He walked over to David and took his hand, pointing at Lawrence. “Kill him,” Alberto half-begged. “Get rid of him.”

Lawrence closed his eyes and sighed. Billy was staring open jawed at Allison.  

 “Come on, Dave, he’s no good for anyone. Nobody’s had to deal with his bull more than you…”

David looked Allison right in her eyes for a moment, seeming to consider something. “…Pass,” he said eventually. “Me being like this is already killing him. Won’t judge if any of you want to.”

Alberto growled in his throat, before looking at Billy, grinning just a bit too hard. “What about you, Growly?” he asked. “You could turn him into a statue of himself! Laurie’s always wanted to be one of those anyway.”

Billy just shook his head, eyes screwed shut. “Stop it, Allie. Please.”

“Well that was a sucker’s bet,” Alberto said to himself. 

He thought about just making Billy doing it, but that felt wrong. He was better than Lawrence. He could at least offer them this choice.

“I could do it,” The Physician offered cheerfully. “I could use some replacement biomass.”

“Or me,” said Valor, glaring at Lawrence with pure loathing in his eyes. “Trust me, kids, you’d be glad I did it later.”

“Shut up!” Alberto spat at them. He wasn’t giving either of them the satisfaction. 

Alberto moved onto Arnold. The boy caught Allison’s gaze, and raised his arm, lightning already crackling at his fingers.

Alberto nodded. 

Well done, little fag. You’re my new favorite. 

Arnold glared at Lawrence, fingers flaring. He didn’t fire.

“He made you a killer, Arn,” said Alberto. “He used you to kill hundreds of men, women, and children!” The psychic slammed Allison’s fist into Arnold’s shoulder. “Remember what he was going to do to your family? Just because they wanted to send you letters!”

Arnold’s whole body crackled. He clenched his fist. Unclenched it.

Then he imagined how his mother would react. Would she cry? She never cried.

Arnold dropped his arm. The lightning went out. 

Alberto scowled at him. “Weak.”

He walked up to Mabel. “We’re just wombs with legs to him—”

There was a crack of thunder above everyone’s heads. 

The old man let out a high, short-lived scream as he plummeted from the dome. He hit the floor with a hard thud. Dark blood pooled beneath his head like a red halo.  

Herbert Lawrence, would-be architect of the superhuman soul, was dead.

Nobody spoke. The only sound beyond the echo of police sirens was Arnold breathing hard and sharp, his whole body heaving. 

Alberto knelt before Lawrence’s body and closed his old teacher’s eyes. “At least someone fucking finished this…”

Billy started hyperventilating. Then he started screaming. The walls shook. Dust and plaster rained like snow. The windows in the dome popped and shattered. Cracks opened in the frescoes and stenciling. 

Arnold seemed to break out of a trance that had nothing to do with Alberto Moretti. He looked quickly between his victim and the weeping Billy. 

“Billy… I’m sorry.”

Billy started trying to run, to get away from that thing that had been a person a second ago, but he collided with Mr. Thumps. He instinctively hugged the drone, mewling quietly for his nanny, or Mary Gillespie, or anyone who could make this better.

“It will be alright,” Thumps said in his deep, soft voice. “Nobody’s going to hurt you.”

He was embracing the tiger-boy, but he was looking right at Arnold. 

The teleporter felt something with thin legs land on his arm. He looked down to find a butterfly, dark wings edged in yellow with bright blue spots9

 Whispers and shouts broke out amongst the hostages. Arnold and the other children turned to see a many-splendored cloud of butterflies where the ice-doors had been. At ease in that cloud stood a dark skinned man holding a long staff. 

“Good evening children,” Howard Penderghast said. “I think we need to have a talk.” 


1. The squishies, as they came to call themselves in English.

2. At least, compared to Earth.

3. Built in 1880 for the Melbourne International Exhibition, the Royal Exhibition Hall also hosted the opening of the first Australian Parliament after Federation 1901. However, the building would fall into disrepair in the first half of the 20th century, narrowly avoiding demolition in 1948. By the end of 1965, the Melbourne City Council was somewhat relieved to be able to offer the space to the DDHA.

4. Literally “struggle against chaos” in German, referring to folkloric narratives centred around deities or culture heroes battling and slaying “chaos beasts”, commonly dragons or serpents. Examples include St. George and the dragon, or the battle between Horus and Set.

5. Not all of God’s children have hemoglobin.

6. Australian Broadcasting Company, not to be confused with the American commercial network of nearly the same name.

7. The captain of the whaleship Essex, which was attacked and sunk by a sperm whale in 1820, providing the inspiration for Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick thirty years later.

8. He wasn’t a crane. Mabel had already guessed that.

9. Nymphalis antiopa, known as the Camberwell beauty in the UK, or more pertinently, the mourning cloak in North America.

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Chapter Sixty-Eight: The Metropolitans

A green flash deposited Alberto and the Watercolours in a dingy alley, all holding hands in a chain. That was one advantage of telepathy: everyone was on the same page regarding their destination. The scent of salt, soy, and fat mingled with stale urine and dry-cleaning chemicals, swirling together into an awful, bracing stew. 

Mabel yelped. She’d materialized right next to a gutted sturgeon. Her eyes shot daggers at Arnold and Allison. “Really, guys? You couldn’t find us a better landing spot than fish-alley?”

David shrugged. “What’s wrong with fish?”

Alberto didn’t hear any of that. He was too busy peering out from the alley, watching the residents of Chinatown stream past them unawares. He looked down at his feathered super-suit. It occurred to him that maybe him and David should’ve found some street-clothes for this excursion. 

Although, the Santa-clothes were meant to be psychic… 

Alberto concentrated on the suit, trying to layer shorts and a blouse over his mental image of the suit. It began to glow, quickly reshaping into a perfectly ordinary pairing of blue pants and an orange top, along with very dark sunglasses for Allison’s freak-eyes.

“Look, David, new trick! I really suggest you try it too.”

David huffed. “Fine.” He screwed his eyes shut in concentration. His watery second-skin became sand-coloured bather trunks and a green t-shirt with a blue-haired mermaid on the front.

Alberto raised Allison’s eyebrow for her. “She needs a bra, Dave.”

A pair of clamshells appeared over the mermaid’s bosom. David muttered, “First clothes, now clothes with clothes…”

Next Alberto called over to Billy, who’d dumped himself in a sad heap against a dumpster. “Billy, go invisible before anyone sees you! But keep a hand on Mabel. Last thing we need is to lose ya in the crowd.”  

David wasn’t sure he liked how bossy Allison was being today. Who cared if someone saw Billy? They could take anyone who tried to mess with him.

Billy nodded, but instead of disappearing, he looked up at Allison. The fur around his eyes was still damp with tears. Even with mind-control at his disposal, it’d taken Alberto ages to calm the tiger-boy down enough to even explain the plan.  

“Allie… is this right? I thought superheroes only went after baddies. Isn’t being nasty to the government more… the other kind of super-people?”    

“Just because they’re government doesn’t mean they’re aren’t baddies,” said Arnold. “Heck, my dad always said it was part of the job description.”

“The Nazis were a government, too,” added Mabel, “and the Crimson Comet killed loads of them.”

Billy sniffed and nodded again. “Okay.” He shook his head, steeling himself and repeating more firmly, “Okay.” 

Billy vanished. Mabel felt a furry hand taking hers.

Their oddities hidden, the children emerged from the alley into Chinatown. English, Mandarin, Cantonese and their pidgin descendants blended in the air beneath paper lanterns. The Watercolours walked past brick storefronts and restaurants, their windows filled with bilingual hànzì advertisements, terracotta lions and laughing gold Hotei statues beneath. A set of four electric lanterns hung from each curling lamppost like bundles of grapes. Coiling dragons clung to every second piece of signage. The street was filled with the descendants of hopeful gold-prospectors and railway workers. Australians going about their lives, but doomed to forever be considered foreign even to folks whose roots barely stretched back to World War Two. 

Alberto could feel Billy’s awe in the back of his head. He couldn’t help but smile. 

“Ch—AU grew up here,” he said idly. “Before Laurie, I mean. Can’t imagine their hometown hero’s done them any good.”

Alberto remembered Chinatown well. Lawrence had brought the whole gaggle down to visit Chen’s folks right after the war, back when the old man could still suffer the involvement of human family.

God, that hadn’t lasted long, had it?

David sidled up to Allison and whispered in her ear, “Hey, Allie.”

“Something the matter?”

David squinted up at the mid-afternoon sky. “Maybe? You said you parked the ship over the city.” 

“I did.”

“Then where is it?”

Alberto rolled his eyes. “I cloaked it, obviously. Big flippin’ spaceship floating over Melbourne? The Flying Man would come running.” He quirked a shoulder. “Honestly, there’s like a one in four chance he’ll show up when we start the party anyway.”

“…Just one in four?” 

“I guess the Flying Man isn’t too worried about the gits who shoot up little kids.”

High above, a pigeon slammed into empty air, flattening out against nothing and falling to the earth. 

“…Hope nobody’s going on a helicopter tour today.”

They passed beneath the decorative hip-and-gable arch at the corner of Russel and Little Bourke, and the crowds rapidly became much more caucasian. Christmas and Boxing Day had only just passed, but that didn’t slow the city’s pulse. Hundreds of men trod the streets in near-identical suits and hats, their individuality funnelled almost entirely into the colour of their ties. The women at least got their pick of dress-patterns.  

What did liven up the fashion-scene were the scattered pedestrians wearing red, finned helmets like head-mounted cadillacs: men, women, even babies in strollers. The sight baffled the children, but not nearly as much as the fact that nobody but them were giving the helmets a second glance.

“The hell are those?” asked Mabel, arm stretched behind as she held Billy’s unseen hand. 

“Minerva-3000 mental privacy harnesses,” Alberto answered. “Came out a few months back. They’re supposed to protect you from esper powers.”

David tilted his head. “Huh. Do they work?”

“I got that from reading their minds: you tell me.”     

Melbourne’s thought-scape was interesting, in an itchy, cortisone soaked sort of way. The Canberra bombing still cast their ashen light over everything, but it had been over a week. People had lives to attend to. Money and school-runs still needed to be made, meals prepared; even holidays celebrated, lest their children realize the world was falling apart. It reminded Alberto of Milan back in ‘44. A whole city—maybe a whole country—pantomiming normalcy in the face of an invasion they just knew in their guts was coming. Every passing scrap of mundane bullshit was cross-faded with lurid, martyrdom-hungry fantasies of big-brained supermen goose-stepping down the streets, whips in hand.  

Alberto grinned. He was happy to oblige. 

The children were cutting through another alley when Arnold saw something that stopped him dead. Amidst a bark-skin of fliers for local clubs and bands, along with thinly-veiled offers for female company, there was a wanted poster. 

A monochrome and vacant-eyed Arnold Barnes stared out at himself, his hair freshly shorn, weakly clutching a placard with his name, vital statistics, and DDHA serial number to his chest. The boy could barely remember taking the mugshot. Must’ve been before the sedatives wore off.

INFORMATION WANTED ON DEMI-HUMAN FUGITIVE ARNOLD BARNES; WARNING, EXTREMELY DANGEROUS, DO NOT APPROACH IF SIGHTED

Arnold backed away from the poster against the alley wall like he was in danger of falling into it. He remembered what he’d said his first day at the Institute:

“What can I say? I’m a dangerous man.”

“Um, guys!”

The others (including, presumably, Billy) gathered around their friend.

“What’s wrong, Arn?” Mabel asked, before catching sight of the wanted poster. “Oh.”

“Huh,” said David. “Guess the Physician wasn’t lying.” He looked at Arnold with some admiration. “Kinda badass.”  

“It’s not badass!” Arnold wailed. Panicked tears were beading under his eyes. “Why do I have a wanted poster?”

“Because you exploded Canberra, Arn,” said Alberto.

“That was Lawrence!” Arnold slid down the wall till he was sitting, wrapping his arms around his legs. “He tricked me…”

The psychic tapped his foot impatiently. “And who knows that besides us and Lawrence? Besides, pretty sure you’re still an accomplice.”

Arnold made a wounded groaning noise. Billy briefly flickered back into sight next the boy, ready to apply his living plush powers, but Alberto raised a finger.

“Invisible, Billy.”

“But I—”

Invisible.”  

Billy vanished again, though Arnold’s shirt ruffled and creased like the air itself was giving him a hug. 

“I shouldn’t be down here,” he murmured. “Someone will recognize me.”

“Because there are so few white boys with black hair in Melbourne. I mean, not as many with legs that skinny…”

David frowned. “Don’t be mean, Allie.” 

Oh, so murder’s okay, but not jokes about Arnold’s chicken legs?

“Whatever. And so what if someone spots ya?” Alberto pointed at the poster. “Says right there: ‘Do not approach’.” 

Alberto’s joke didn’t do much to cheer Arnold up. All he said was, “God, Mum’s going to see me on the news…”

Alberto saw how much effort it took Arnold to not to call her “Mummy.” The entire bloody country was gunning for the kid, and he was more scared of Angela Barnes.

Figures.

“He kind of has a point,” said Mabel, rubbing her foot into the grimy alleyway asphalt. “People are really, really going to hate us after this.”

Alberto took a breath. “Like they don’t hate us now. Come on.” He started walking again. The others followed, all but David curling suddenly sore fingers into fists.

Alberto knew he wasn’t being particularly persuasive. But he didn’t have to be: the Watercolours would fight for him whether they really wanted to or not. Well, aside from possibly David, and he seemed pretty into the plan so far.

Still, the esper couldn’t help but think the kids would fight harder if they had true, honest rage on their side, enough to evaporate fear and the childish beginnings of morality.

What could he use to angry up their blood? A newspaper letters section? A G-Men comic? Asking random passersby for their opinion on demis till David made them explode? Alberto scoured the storm of futures and the star-cluster of human minds he was wading through for options. 

 Oh. Oh, that was good.

He looked over Allison’s shoulder at his compatriots. “Hey, you guys mind taking a detour?”

Shortly after the Canberra bombings and the beginning of the New Human Crisis, many observers wondered (loudly, nigh-hysterically) if the National Museum of Melbourne1 would close their popular demi-human exhibit at McCoy Hall. The museum’s response—its representatives subtly but unmistakably puffing out their chests—was that they would not be cowed by a few mutant radicals. That the recent demi-human attacks only strengthened their mandate to educate the people of Melbourne about these strange, wondersome aberrations. 

In hindsight, they probably should’ve brought back the dinosaur skeletons and stuffed lions.

Even so late in the afternoon, so soon after the holidays, McCoy Hall was packed. Tourists, eager super-chasers, parents looking to cheaply entertain their bored children.

And today, five and-a-half genuine demi-humans. 

The museum floor was littered with dioramas of infamous Australian supervillains. Mistress Quickly2 aiming her duster-gun at passing museum-goers. Pemulwuy standing impossibly tall atop Uluru with moulded light-up flames3 sprouting from his hands, for that double-dose of colonial smugness and extinction anxiety. Ned Kelly in his armour4.  

And of course, sitting on a desert rock, counting gold bars lying in piles at his feet, clad in glammy, shiny plastic armour: AU. 

Alberto gripped the velvet rope around his old friend’s display tight, his thin, pale arms shaking with barely restrained anger.

Hope you’re happy, Chen, he thought. Bloody well ruined everything.

Or maybe that had been the Flying Man, standing in minature before JFK in an exquisitely detailed scale model of the White House that late October morning in 1962, pinned under the storm-grey gaze of a giant boy.

Before he did something rash (and incendiary) to the AU diorama, Alberto tore himself away and walked over to Arnold.

He looked down at the little Flying Man model. “Do you think it’s fun, being him?” Alberto asked.

“Don’t know,” answered Arnold, not looking up from the display. “Seems to spend all his time cleaning up after the naturals.”

“Yeah, but I bet he does that for kicks. Just to show he can.”

“Why not us, though?” Arnold spoke slowly and quietly. “Why doesn’t he help us?”

Alberto decided to play devil’s advocate. “He did come to the Institute.”

Arnold scuffed. “Yeah, after the soldiers shot everyone.” He squirmed like he wanted to punch something—anything—with his whole body. “It’s his fault, you know? The only reason the freak-finders go after us is because they can’t get him.” He looked down darkly again at the miniatures on the fake fabric grass. “I thought they were meant to be grownups.”

Alberto tried to keep his face smooth and sombre. He patted Arnold on the shoulder. “Don’t worry Arn,” he reassured the boy. “They’re getting what’s coming to them.”

Check one. 

Alberto moved to find the others in the crowd. 

“I wish I had superpowers,” said a boy with a cotton-candy encrusted mouth gawking at a statue of Hel in her custom-designed Hugo Boss SS uniform5, with shockingly more generous cleavage than her flesh and blood model had boasted. He looked up at the blonde woman standing next to him.  “What about you, ma?”

The woman answered quickly, “No. I don’t think you do either, Angus. They’re an awful burden.”

Bloody liar, Alberto thought as he passed.

Aside from the supervillains, the exhibit also boasted many purely informational displays. On a raised dais were two stalks topped by two plastic human brains. Unless you were a neurologist or an x-ray machine, the only apparent difference between the specimens was that the one on the right was tinted green for whatever reason. The demi-human brain. As the informational plaque explained, the prevailing scientific consensus regarding the violent tendencies of many demi-humans—obviously demonstrated by the hero/villain paradigme—was that the part of their brains responsible for regulating their deviant abilities took up neural real-estate that in normal humans was dedicated to empathy and impulse control. 

Out of nowhere, the human brain tipped to the floor. 

Alberto skipped a ways. Check two.

He was disappointed to find Mabel staring at a model of Circle’s End in the corner of the hall. The recreation of the little mining township was restrained, only suggesting mass-death. It was also making sickly green guilt burn in Mabel’s skull. Alberto didn’t need that. 

He took the little girl’s hand and turned her around to face the swarming crowd.

“It’s funny,” he said. “They’re so happy not to be us. But they’re also really, really jealous. There but for the grace of the Man but-why-couldn’t-he-have-picked-me, you know what I mean?”

Mabel let out a small laugh. Allison was showing off her big-people words a lot lately, but she couldn’t say she wasn’t right. “Yeah,” she said. “It’s pathetic.” She laughed again. “Wish Automata was here,” she said with a sad fondness. “Imagine if she used her power on all the mannequins…” 

“You’re gonna outdo her later,” Alberto assured her. He glanced around the hall. “Know where David is?”

David was the important one here, really. Even if he hadn’t been a powerhouse, if the other children wavered, Alberto could pull them back into line. Not him. 

“Ooh!” exclaimed Mabel. She started pulling Alberto through the throng. “Wait till you see what they’ve got on the other side!”

The Parliament House display had been included in the exhibition for reasons of balance. To show what good and beauty demi-humans could do for society, so long as they were properly regulated. A plasticine boy and girl, pretending that glass was ice and fibreglass was wood, frozen still in the middle of their dance, watched approvingly by two old plasticine men. 

It was more perfect than Alberto could’ve hoped for. David was glaring poison at the poor, ill-proportioned recreation of his old, blue-eyed self. The version Lawrence wanted. It was so inaccurate, nobody noticed the original boy standing right in front of it. The models of Robert Menzies and Herbert meanwhile were exacting. Loving.  

When they were close enough behind him for the boy to hear them over the humans, Alberto said, “Funny, isn’t it? They care more about two old men in suits than the people making miracles.” 

“I hate it,” said Mabel. “They keep trying to make us into things. ” 

“Yeah,” Alberto agreed. “Monsters or pets.”

David turned and looked at his friends with his grandfather’s eyes. “We’re gonna get a new display,” he said firmly. “I want to be a monster now.”


1. This being before the paradoxically named museum moved in the 1990s to Carlton Gardens from the city-block it shared with the State Library on La Trobe, Swanston, Little Lonsdale and Russell Streets.

2. Real name Maude Simmons, usually known as such due to her hesitance to commit to a super-nym.

3. His actual powers were earth related.

4. There is still no historical evidence that Ned Kelly was in fact a superhuman.

5. Nazi super-soldier with uncertain powers, generally believed to be either sonic in nature or mediated by sound. Her bottle-blond status was a state-secret. Killed in action during the fall of Berlin by the Crimson Comet. Ralph Rivers did not receive a display at the McHoy Hall exhibition, or even a mention on the plaques for Hel and her comrade Baldr, the man who couldn’t die (until he did).

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Chapter Sixty-Seven: The Ship Moves

David Venter-Barthe stood at the shore of the saltwater lake, its waves gently licking at his heels. A dark stone ceiling stretched high above him, almost hidden from sight by a dark forest of heavy clouds.The stinking hot air wept with humidity.

David was in Heaven. A normal child would’ve passed out from the heat ten minutes ago, if they could even breathe the sodden air. But David was no such thing. And neither was Allison Kinsey.

David turned to look at the pale little girl, standing behind him like a ghost on the pink sands that rimmed the outer edge of the chamber. He grinned at her, saying, “The Physician’s bedroom sure is big,” before looking back out over the water, curiosity replacing humour in his smile. “Does he really live under there?”

“He has to,” replied Allison. “Years and years back the Physician’s lot hit a wall trying to make themselves smarter. They’d already gotten their brains to work as good and fast as they were ever going to—hell, they’d turned their whole bodies into brains. Only way they were gonna get smarter after that was if they got bigger.” She gestured at the lake. “And there’s loads of space underwater…”

“What about Dr. Smith? The Commodore and all them? The little Physicians?” David giggled at his choice of words. Sounded like a toyline.

“They’re just pieces of him. They crawl out of the water to experience the world for him. Then when they’re done, he eats them back up.”

David frowned. “And they’re okay with that?”

Allison shrugged. “Why would they have a problem with being whole again?”

David looked around the chamber. “Wait, if this is the Physician—the real one—shouldn’t there be… I don’t know, guns or something?” He stretched his imagination. “Water-dragons?”

Allison started wading into the water. “This ship’s his slave, David. If you had a slave, would you keep a gun next your bed?” She stopped, turning back to her friend with a smile. “Besides, the Physician is a water-dragon. Wanna come mess with him?”

David nodded vigorously. Allison had been weird all day. More talkative, but removed somehow. Constantly pursuing things David couldn’t name. Like she and the rest of them were walking through worlds that only barely met at the edges.

Still, he couldn’t say she wasn’t being fun.        

The two children ran into the lake, the water rising around them with every step, till they were hanging beautifully weightless between planes of mud and the dim light of the surface.

David breathed in the water greedily. How had he lived so long without salt on his tongue?

He hadn’t, really.

Allison took the lead, kicking forward towards a phosphorescent glow in the distance, where David could feel massive amounts of water trapped and woven into organic patterns. They flew over carpets of kelp.  Shaggy, but oddly fish-like insects and water-snakes armoured in bone-plate with mouths full of rusticles swam with them through the dark. David wondered if they were the Physician’s lunch.

Mud, sand, and seaweed gave way to banks of coral. Spindly, branching trees of staghorn. Tall, rainbow sea-pens like peacock tails and bushes of pulsing blue globules. Red and yellow gorgonians swaying with the current like giant, moth-eaten hand fans.

And eyes. Thousands of unblinking, china-blue eyes, all staring up at the young interlopers.

A thought rang out through the water:

Cover me.

Before David could think a response, Allison swooped down towards the reef, running her hands over its coral. 

…Okay

Before David could wonder why Allie was fondling a coral reef, a deep, resounding groan echoed through the lake. The whole cavern shook.

An enormous ball of pallid flesh tore its way out of the lakebed, rising on a hairy umbilicus to loom over the children, shucking off sand to reveal a gaping maw ringed by orange tentacles. 

Allison didn’t even look up at the thing. 

Can you take care of that?

David’s face screwed with determination, and he shot up at the monster… right into its mouth. 

The water-sprite burst from the other side of the creature with a gout of green blood pluming like acrid smoke in the water: a bullet made of ice. 

Sometimes, David had learned, it felt good to be him. 

Mabel Henderson was torn. On the one hand, she physically needed to sketch Commodore Spoketooth’s mermaid. On the other, that would require not swimming with the actual-for-real mermaid. 

So, the young artist settled for occasionally excusing herself from the splash fight to swim over to her sketchbook lying open at the edge of the pool. 

She was detailing the mermaid’s fluke when a fat splat of water hit the drawing.

Mabel scowled, even as the paper drank the water like it’d never been there. She turned and glared at her friends. “You guys! I’m trying to draw here!”

Arnold was floating at the centre of a vortex, churned and stirred by shards of lightning from his body. “Don’t moan!” he retorted, voice cracking and rumbling with thunder. “Who the hell draws in a pool?”

Mabel rolled her eyes. “It’s called drawing from life, Arnold.” 

The Commodore shouted from his deckchair, having been pulled out of A House of Pomegranates1. “Play nice, ya scallywags.” 

The mermaid glanced worriedly between the two children, before looking pleadingly at Billy floating beside her. She’d lapsed back into silence when Mabel laughed at her accent.

Billy reached over and squeezed the mermaid’s hand. It was kind of neat meeting another kid with claws. “It’s okay,” he said. “Friends argue like that all the time. Took some getting used to for me, too.”

The mermaid nodded warily, but was quickly distracted by the texture of Billy’s sodden fur, rubbing his arm with undisguised fascination.

It was funny, Billy thought. The mermaid thought he was weird—who didn’t?—but she thought Arnold was, too. A furry boy was no stranger than a naked one.

“Hey,” he asked, “do you have a name?”

The mermaid bit her lip.

Before she had a chance to answer, David and Allie strolled back into the pool-chamber, still as dripping wet as when they’d left. Allison was striding with a confidence that looked frankly comical without clothes, whereas David was clearly trying to smother giggles. 

The mermaid waved at the pair, crying, “Avast, mateys!” It didn’t feel exactly right for a style of speech so similar to Spoketooth’s to come out of someone so small, but it hardly registered in this place.

Allison mimed tipping her hat at the others in the pool. “Hi, guys.” She turned and gave the Commodore a cat-like smile. “Ahoy, Spoketooth.” 

The Physician waved his hook in salute. “Mighty fine to see ya two again. Where did ya minnows swim to?”

David rocked back and forth on his heels. “Oh, nowhere.”

“We were just visiting you,” Allison added.

Spoketooth flashed the signature, lip-tearing Physician grin. “Oh, which one? Johannes? Nurarihyon-san?2”  

A deep bass note resounded through the ship. A cracking rumbling noise broke through the hull: the sound of long-sleeping stone being roused. 

“We weren’t talking about your scrapings,” retorted Allison, grinning herself. “We meant you. All of you.”

For a second, the children all felt something like a light hand pressing down on them. The water in the pool vibrated and sloshed about, before settling again. The Commodore actually stumbled, slapping his remaining hand over his pirate-hat to keep it in place. 

“The hell was that?” Arnold asked loudly.

“I could ask the same question, lad!” Spoketooth shouted, staring at Allison and David. His grin had collapsed into a basset-hound frown.

“That would be the inertial dampening kicking in,” Allison answered. “You need it if you want to get from Antarctica to Melbourne at a decent clip.” She was still smiling at Commodore Spoketooth. “I think we’ll be plotting the ship’s course for the time being, Commodore.”

The Commodore quickly considered his options. Clearly, John Smith’s little wastrels had somehow subverted the navigation and propulsion systems. Such a feat required no less than the subversion of himself. His parent, birthplace, and afterlife all in one. That should’ve been the Physician’s biggest problem—it wasn’t.

Had this girl even cloaked the ship? Was he coming for them?

“Well,” said Allison, “got anything to say to that?”

The Commodore let out a dry, rattling howl, designed to scare off predators from the other side of the galaxy, and raised his hook to strike. It stopped pretending to be ratty old plastic, reforging into a barbed spear dripping with neurotoxin. 

The alien tried slashing at Allison, but the little girl burst into flames. The physician’s makeshift stinger still hit her, in a sense. It just melted in the heat. Then, a blast of magma shot from her chest, embracing Spoketooth.

The Physician shrieked as his flesh burned and melted, nearly harmonizing with the shouts of shock and terror from the children in the pool. His body writhed and twisted, mutating and spagettifying in every direction as it tried to flee from the fire consuming it. 

The children’s screams outlasted Spoketooth, who eventually fell sideways into the pool, extinguishing with a hiss as the water around it bubbled and steamed.

Allison and David were both laughing.

The mermaid keened and wailed, diving back down into the depths. Mabel yelled, “The fuck, Allie?”

Billy screamed through tears, “You killed him!”    

David looked confusedly at his friends, before blinking from sudden comprehension. He threw his hands up reassuringly. “It’s alright, guys,” he explained. “That wasn’t all of him. We can make another Spoketooth later.”

Alberto Moretti let the fire in him die. It felt good, finally having a power that could break things. Bradbury was right. It was, in fact, a pleasure to burn.

“Why—” Arnold stammered. “Why’d you do that?”

Alberto stepped to where he’d left Allison’s super-suit, slipping it on. Conveniently, the lava stunt had dried him off. “Because he was just going to tell us what to do.”

To Arnold’s horror, this sounded perfectly normal from his friend.

“Get dressed, everyone,” Alberto ordered, his will thrumming along the strings that connected him to the Watercolours. “Mabel, grab your scrapbook. Might as well take your atlas too, Arnold.”

“Wh—where are we going?”

“Melbourne. We’re going to give Tim Valour what’s coming to him.”


1. A 1891 collection of short stories by Oscar Wilde, including stories such as “The Star-Prince” and “The Fisherman and his Soul.”

2. Dr. Nurarihyon, an instantiation of the Physician stationed in Japan, named for his physical resemblance to the large-headed yōkai of Japanese folklore. Went for that angle after he realized his particular brand of transforming hero wasn’t going to market well.

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Chapter Sixty-Six: Of Bottled Boys and Mermaids

The fish-fin door swept open, revealing the latest stop on the Watercolours’ self-guided tour:

Billy went, “Woah…”

“Neat,” said David. 

Mabel’s nose wrinkled. “Gross, you mean.”

The water-sprite shrugged. “Why not both?”

Alberto simply wondered if he’d hit the jackpot. 

The room wasn’t large in terms of absolute floor space, maybe about fifteen metres end to end, but it was tall; almost arena-like in its dimensions. Similar in its architecture, too. The walls subtly beveled inwards, lined with odd ridges of purposeless shape and form. The furniture, on the other hand, put one in mind of a cluttered boutique shop. They stretched out from the middle in rings, tight enough alongside one another to leave too small of a gap for even Billy to slide through, but for a wider indentation every two or three metres.

They were pods. Wide glass cylinders as baroque as the rest of the Physician’s equipment, capped at both ends with what looked like hand-molded bone-china, the glass inlaid with a brassy metal filigree that shifted as the eye moved across it. David could feel all sorts of fluids flowing beneath the floor. They made the whole place smell faintly of trophy rooms and shoe polish.

What lay inside the pods were children. Dozens of athletic, milky skinned boys of about eleven or twelve floated curled in a viscous, yellow fluid as if trapped in lava-lamps. Their faces were caught between baby-fat and sharp, Nordic definition, and with their eyes closed, the only thing that distinguished them from each other was the colour of their hair, in which were tangled coronets not unlike the one Arkwright had worn during his transformation. The term “educator crowns” popped into Alberto’s head.

Billy had his eyes averted, uncertain whether he should look upon the bottled youths’ nakedness. Arnold was also avoiding looking at the tubes. His face was very red.

Little checca, Alberto thought to himself.

“Are these…” Billy struggled to find a plausible explanation. “…Baths?”

“Don’t think so,”  Alberto said with a studious frown, rubbing Allison’s chin while squinting at the tubes. “I think these are wombs.”

“Ewww,” said Arnold.

David was getting a closer look at one of the test-tube kids: a blond. His eyes widened. “Holy heck,” he said, forcing Alberto to stifle a cackle. “This one looks like he could be Mr. Thumps’ son.”

“More like little brother,” Alberto said archly, “and they all look like that.”

“The Physician can make people,” Mabel said, sighing. “Can anyone else remember when we woulda been surprised by that? At all?”

“Not really,” answered David. Glancing upwards, he noticed holes in the ceiling, each corresponding with one of the pods below. “Wonder what those are for.”

Much to David’s surprise, he actually got an answer:

Alberto pointed at the metal floor. “See the swirls? Like in the Wizard of Oz?”

Indeed, the floor was inlaid with ribbons of what passed for carnelian, turquoise, and yellow fire-opal. They winded through the tubes and converged on a circle of rainbow hematite in the centre of the nursery. Alberto stepped into the circle and spun on his heels. 

There was a solid clicking sound. The whole room began to slowly but unmistakably spin.

No, not the room; just the floor and ceiling. As they spun, the pods rose up from the floor, riding on cushions of shimmering air up through the apertures in the ceiling.

“The room’s like a merry-go-round,” explained Alberto, pointing out the grooves in the walls being eaten by the floor. “Or the plunger in a syringe. The pods use antigravity stuff to stay out of the way.”

New pods emerged from the holes left by the last set. There was another click, and the room stopped spinning. 

“The floor delivers nutrients and stuff to the pods.” Alberto stepped out of the circle and gave a snide grin. “You guys ever notice the Physician’s lot build everything like they can’t pick between an adventure playground and a modern art gallery?”

The children were too busy examining the new pods to appreciate Alberto’s wit. The occupants were more mature than than their predecessors—about sixteen or seventeen. The only other difference was that their filigree was closer to gold than brass.

Alberto huffed a little. He wasn’t sure why being ignored by a bunch of little kids bugged him, but it did. “These guys are all getting sold to gangsters and politicos like Valour. A few of them are going to Vietnam.” He shrugged. “Not sure why they still draft real people, but whatever.”

Arnold looked back at Allison. “How do you know all that?”

“Those metal lines on the tanks? That’s what the Physician uses for writing.” Alberto made a show of checking Allison’s fingernails. “I can read it now.”

Arnold whistled. Alberto stood back on the rainbow circle and spun again. 

The next layer of pods all contained full-grown Misters. The layer after that held full-term fetuses.

Babies!” Billy cried in delight. None of the other children seemed to share his reaction.

Then there were toddlers, and preteens, more adolescents, and finally another batch of grown men, this time vaguely East Asian.

“Huh. The North Koreans are buying these ones1.

The cycle of childhood repeated over and over as the Watercolours descended through the clonal-nursery. Brass became gold as boys became men before they ever opened their eyes. Even unborn, the drones all had songs, composed and shaped by their educator-crowns. Some were being sleep-trained up into bodyguards, assassins, or just all-purpose muscle. Others, though, were for the Physician’s own use: operating his equipment or helping maintain his reluctant spaceship.

Alberto paid those drones’ songs special attention. 

“Wonder how long it takes the Physician to make a grown-up,” David mused. 

“About three months,” answered Alberto. 

“I think it’s sad,” said Billy, watching another young drone pass up through the ceiling.

“Why’s that?” asked Mabel.

“They never get to be kids.”

David nodded in agreement. Alberto, though—staring down the barrel of a second, female puberty—couldn’t bring himself to weep much for the drones. 

“At least they don’t have to go to school,” pointed out Arnold. “Or get bossed around for years by people like Laurie…”

Mabel looked flatly at her friend. “They’re slaves, Arn.”

“But being a kid slave would be way worse.”

“Point.”

Alberto was only half-listening to the conversation. He was busy imagining himself (or herself, sadly) in one of those pods, hopefully doped to the gills, being rushed to adulthood; hair sprouting, hips flaring, breasts rising like dough—  

Alberto felt Allison shake in her cage. He wondered how much of that was the prospect of being changed in of itself, and how much was the general horror of womanhood Lawrence’s stirpiculture was so good at engendering in his female students.

Would such a growth spurt even help matters2? Even if Alberto could find a shortcut back to maturity, it would be as a woman. Even now, in Allison’s still mostly boyish frame, he felt horribly incomplete. Would he still like girls, or would Allison’s biology override his own tastes? Maybe he could force Eliza—  

Alberto banished the thought from his mind. There was no way he was going to throw himself on that witch’s mercy.

The Misters gave way to more varied broods. Werewolf cubs grew up into hulking beasts, lizard hatchlings became ghastly serpent-men, and surprisingly, geodes became crystal golems. 

Shockingly, there were even some girls. 

“Why doesn’t the Physician make more of us?” Mabel griped to Allison.

They left behind the little girls as they dipped down into adolescence. Alberto grimaced at the script on the teenagers’ tanks. “Be glad he doesn’t.”

At least they were spayed.

No more pods replaced the last batch of females. The ports in the ceiling closed, and the carousel ceased revolving.

“This the bottom floor?” asked David, 

The grooves in the walls swirled into whirlpools and coalesced into five dark tunnels.

“Looks like it,” said Alberto. He found himself hopping from foot to foot. He’d never done that in his own body. “I think this is the floor where the Physician keeps all his special projects.”

“Think” his rump. Alberto knew the ship’s layout like the back of his old hand. There were songs wafting from all the tunnels: mostly animal, but a few were broadly human.

More importantly, one of them was a Physician. 

Alberto ran into one of the tunnels, calling over his shoulder, “Going exploring. Meet back here?”

Mabel started down another, Billy bolting ahead of her with his cape fluttering behind him. “Sure,” she answered. “Tell me if you find something worth drawing.”

Alberto heard David and Arnold’s footsteps behind him. He didn’t mind. Might be good to have backup. 

The tunnel reminded all three of them of the Nocturnal House at Perth Zoo: a dark, winding hallway with peculiar habitats cut into the walls, partitioned by what Alberto guessed were either transparent forcefields, or panes of glass. One played art-studio for crystal-spiders weaving red hot webs of molten steel. An aquarium brimmed with cuttlefish whose skin flashed mute, colourized reruns of I Love Lucy3.

“The hell are those for?” Arnold asked.

“Construction and communications?” Alberto shrugged. “Honestly, I’m not sure the Physician needs a reason to do anything.”

There was a herpetarium filled with softly glowing orange lantern-turtles, the very sight of which made David pout.

“What’s got you?” Alberto asked. He hated that he had to do that with David now. “I thought they’d be your style.”

“They are,” David grunted. He kicked at nothing. “The aquarium thing’s too small for me to swim in.”

Cells carpeted with snoring human faces. Arboretums of trees that bloomed with half-ripe bluebirds4. Some of sort of squid-like biological manipulation tool inexplicably labeled “Dandelion.” A great, four-winged roc5, fashioned from leather and polished bronze, spread its art-deco wings atop a plucking post of petrified coral. Its song was borderline sapient.

Alberto paid these wonders and horrors little mind, focusing only on the Physician’s song.

The tunnel forked, leading off towards an Olympic swimming pool set beneath an artificial, azure sky. A Physician was lounging in a deckchair, reading a dog-eared copy of Undine6.

David stared at the pool, practically salivating over it. He sniffed.

Salt water

David’s suit melted off him. He ran towards the pool and dive bombed, laughing all the while.

The Physician rose from his chair. This one wore a red long coat and a Monmouth cap. One of his eyes was covered by a cheap, plastic eyepatch, and his right-hand had been replaced by a similarly cheap and nasty plastic hook. It even had a tell tale seam running along its length. His leg tapered off into a thick tree branch, complete with leaves.  “Aha, me hearties! I take it you’re the scalawags the good Doctor Smith is giving passage?”

Arnold giggled and shook his head. “This is a joke, right?” He looked around the chamber. “The Physician’s got cameras set up, doesn’t he?”

Alberto ignored the boy. He was finding the Physician’s song far less upsetting than he had been, even at this close range. It would be a while before he’d try dancing to it, but he could manage to rattle off its virtues at a trendy coffee bar. More encouragingly, it was having a feedback effect with his telepathy, making the alien’s lights become more distinct and legible.

“Let me guess,” he said, “Doctor…”

The new Physician waved his hook. “Ahh, none of that. I’m Commodore Spoketooth!” 

“And where do you work, Cornwall?” Alberto asked, a little too proud of himself for the joke.

Arnold added, “And why are you all pirate?”

Commodore Spoketooth chuckled nautically. “Nay, lass, I usually plow international waters.” He looked at Arnold. “As for your question, lad: why shouldn’t I?”

It was the first time anyone had directly called Alberto a girl. It stung

The surface of the pool bubbled and frothed. David’s head emerged from the water, and he wasn’t alone. A girl surfaced beside him, raven-black hair clinging to her face. She had darker skin than David, and vaguely Polynesian features. Her eyes though were large and black, with no visible pupils. A manic grin revealed some very sharp teeth.

David sputtered with excitement. “I—she…” He turned to his companion and exclaimed, “Show them!”

The girl dived back under the water. A red-scaled fluke surfaced like a sea-serpent, waving at Arnold and Allison.

David shouted, “Mermaid!” and dived back under.

Alberto and Arnold both blinked at the pool. 

“Ah, what was that?” asked Arnold.

Commodore Spoketooth put his hands on his hips proudly. Alberto had to admit this Physician had a better than usual grasp of human body-language. Anything for a gimmick, he guessed.

“That’s me mermaid.”

Alberto glanced sideways at the pirate-doctor. “Your mermaid.”

“Yes.”

“Where did you get her?”

“I made her.”

Arnold asked, “Why?”

“Do I need a reason?”

“Told ya,” Alberto whispered to Arnold. 

“You land-lubbers came up with such a pretty yarn, I did ya the courtesy of making it real!”

Alberto’s curiosity was rusty, but it was piqued. “Can she breathe underwater?”

“Would be a lousy mermaid if she couldn’t.”

“I thought there wasn’t enough oxygen in water for mammals?” Sometimes, Alberto was finding, it felt good to be smart.

“Aye, lass. But I figured out these special blood-cells made out of diamonds for her7. They carry more than two hundred times the oxygen your landlubber blood.” Spoketooth smirked, revealing alternating silver and gold teeth. “Makes gills perfectly feasible for her.”

“Why is she a kid?” asked Arnold. “You can make grownups.”

Spoketooth laid his hook on the boy’s shoulder, making him flinch. “Aye, I did cook the little fry past the really fiddly years. But, sometimes, laddie, I just like to watch you children grow…”

Mercifully, David surfaced again. “Why are you guys standing around? There’s a mermaid!” 

There was no way in hell Allison Kinsey could resist going swimming with a mermaid, Alberto realized. Oh well. He walked over to the pool’s edge and started lowering himself in—

David frowned. “What are you doing?”

“…I’m gonna swim with you and the mermaid.”

David looked bemused. “In clothes?”

Oh. God. Alberto wondered how believable Allison growing a sense of modesty in two days would be.

Not bloody likely, he thought.

“Um,” he said, before remembering Spoketooth, who’d wandered back to his chair. “I didn’t want to weird out the Commodore.” 

The pirate looked back up from his book. “Shiver me timbers, lass! You think I care about what you scurvy dogs look like under your kit?”

“See?” said David. “Do you really want to deal with drag?”

Alberto really, really wished the little shit had picked a different phrasing.

“Don’t tell Allie to get naked if she doesn’t want to.”

Alberto turned to look at Arnold. The boy was nearly as red as the mermaid’s scales. Discomfort radiated from him like a physical force. But there was also a sense of guilty anticipation. 

Hmm, Alberto thought to himself. So Arnold has some red blood in him, too. It almost seemed stranger to the psychic than the boy being a plain old fag. Say what you want about Ralph Rivers, at least he picked a team and backed it all the way.

Still, Arnold’s mortification couldn’t help but amuse Alberto. On the other hand, being lusted over by a nine year old didn’t exactly thrill him. Whatever. For now, he would avert suspicion however he must. 

There was a green flash, and Allison’s super-suit fell on top of Arnold’s head. He sputtered and yelled as he threw the costume off, blanching as he got a look at Allison.  The boy’s mindscape shifted. An odd swelling of pride, tinged with a relieved kind of hope as a tingling warmth spread all throughout his body. 

“Huh,” Arnold said, more to himself than to Allison. “You’re just as cute as David is.”

Inside her skull, Allison Kinsey turned red as a balloon. Under Alberto Moretti, however, she also giggled.

“Perv,” Alberto said with a wink. He turned back to the pool. “Come on, you’ll miss out.”

Alberto dived. The young mermaid greeted him with an enthusiastic wave. A lime flash flowed over the water, and Arnold plunged flailing into their midst

Alberto was almost proud of the little queer.

The children frolicked with the mermaid for hours. Like everything else on the Physician’s ship, her pool was incredibly over-designed. Its bottom and walls were shrouded by beautiful, false holograms of vibrant coral reefs and tractless blue wastes in every direction. Whenever they threatened to scrape the habitat’s limits, they stretched away from their hands or feet (or fins) like a 3D treadmill.

Alberto kept up well enough with David and the mermaid, Allison’s eyes glowing almost purple with the combined glow of her and the water-sprite’s powers. Stolen grace and aquatic mastery  was definitely a step up from desperately dog-paddling behind Fran back in the river. 

He spun in the water, before curling into a ball and letting the world tumble around him. An unexpected glee buoyed him. It was embarrassing, but he couldn’t help himself. The cool, flowing weightlessness yielded gloriously to the strength in his new limbs as he kicked through the water. Swimming, after all, is the cousin of flight.

Maybe being a kid again wasn’t so bad. The main downside of childhood, Alberto reasoned, was that most kids were stupid. He wasn’t. Most kids were weak. He wasn’t.

Webbed hands wrapped Alberto’s chest. He twisted around to find the mermaid hugging him, nuzzling his neck.

All in all, her mind wasn’t terribly different from a human girl’s. Her lights were dominated by dull, beige brown, alternating with angry pulses of strong, bright pinks and greens, painfully fluorescent like neon-highlighters. Poor thing was stir-crazy, and quite desperately lonely. 

Alberto wasn’t surprised. Poor, dumb thing was bred for the open ocean, from a species of tribes, and the Physician stuck her alone in a glorified fish-tank. 

He found himself sinking into the hug. Even her scales against Allison’s legs didn’t bother—  

Wait, Allison liked mermaids, didn’t she? Enough to spend a week painting them on the side of a barn. Was this feeling his, or hers? Were he and Allison… synthesizing?

Would that be so awful?       

A green bolt vanished the mermaid. A second later, she plunged shrieking back down through the water amongst a plume of tiny bubbles. 

Alberto kicked his way back to the surface to find Arnold trying to keep afloat as he laughed himself silly.

David and the mermaid surfaced, sharing a look of mutual annoyance. Then David grinned and took his new friend by the hand. A wave swelled beneath them, sweeping up the pair and washing them over Arnold. When it subsided, Arnold was squirming and kicking in the two’s arms as they cackled and pushed him underwater.

Between dunks, Arnold shouted, “I need to breathe you guys!” 

In the innocent cruelty of both gods and children, both David and the mermaid ignored him. 

Arnold’s skin lit bright green. His tormentors were suddenly ten feet in front of him.

Their victim grinned wickedly. He crackled. 

A large pond’s worth of water showered down over David and the mermaid’s heads, hard enough to force them under. David and the mermaid resurfaced swearing and spitting at Arnold.

“Come on,” said Alberto, floating nearby on his back. “You kinda earned that.”

Something seemed to occur to the mermaid. She ducked under and started poking at David’s legs.

David tried to resist giggling as he grinned smugly. “Wondering how I keep up with ya with the legs? My granddad’s kinda—aah!”

The mermaid poked him somewhere tender.

Spoketooth chuckled, watching the children like an indulgent grandfather. “You must forgive her, lad. She’s never seen a landlubber-shaped boy before…”

David glared at the Physician. “She should be free.”

The mermaid surfaced again, only to blink when she saw how hard David’s expression had gotten.

Fuck, Alberto thought. He’s giving a shit. Why’s he still doing that?

The Commodore stood up. “What’s that, lad?”

David pulled the mermaid in close. “She shouldn’t be cooped up here. She belongs in the sea.”

The mermaid suddenly clung tight to David, looking at her creator with something between fear and hope.

“She’s never been outside that pool. She’d be dead inside a week.”

David waved his arms around the cavern. “You could build her a sea-palace if you wanted!”

“I could,” conceded Spoketooth. “But why should I? I made the lass, she’s my project.”

A sudden current swept the mermaid away. Like Glaucus or Poseidon (or his grandfather), David rose on a Grecian column of water, looming over Spoketooth. His eyes burned sea-form white. “I could make you.”

The Physician showed no hint of fear. “If you’re planning on sending me down to Davy Jones’ locker, lad, you should know my kind breathe water.”

“You’re also made of water.”

Arnold surreptitiously swam over to Allison. “Allie,” he whispered, “should David be doing this? I mean, I don’t want Mer-y stuck down here forever, but we kinda live here now…”

Alberto got an idea. “Let me handle it.”

The psychic climbed out of the pool and walked over to Spoketooth. He took his remaining hand and looked up at the pirate with his best impression of a guileless little girl. “Mr. Spoketooth,” he said, “I know it’s hard giving away something you love.” Bit of a strong word, but Alberto doubted the Commodore cared enough to object. “But this could be a real opportunity for you!”

Spoketooth’s eyepatch twitched. “What are you saying, lass?”

“Did you like making your mermaid?”

“I did. Best project I’d had in years.”

“Well, I think you’re right. She wouldn’t last a day alone in the sea… so why not make more of her?”

“…Go on.”

“You could make like, a whole class of mer-kids! Build them a nice village in the Bahamas or somewhere, stick some cameras about and watch them as much as you like! They’ll fight and grow up and—” Alberto looked at the mermaid, watching him and Spoketooth warily. “Can she have babies?” 

“Aye, I didn’t want to half-arse it.”

“Then you’ll never run out of merpeople to watch!”

Alberto squeezed the alien’s hand.

“…Sounds like a plan!” 

The psychic let go of Spoketooth, trying to dampen the grin forcing its way onto Allison’s lips. 

David beamed down at the mermaid. “We’re going to make you some friends!”

The mermaid trilled with delight. “Ye be a good soul, matey!”

“…Huh,” said David.

Alberto closed his hand. He knew how the Physician’s mind worked. He knew how the ship worked. “Hey, Arnold, you mind keeping the little mermaid there company for a bit. I want to show David something.”

Arnold wasn’t sure why he couldn’t come and look at whatever, but he couldn’t really complain about hanging out with a literal mermaid. “Sure.”

David’s column of water stretched into a bridge for him. He caught up to Allison as she walked, still dripping, back into the dark hallway.

“Where are we going?” he asked.

Alberto answered, “We’re going to see the Physician. The real one.”    


1. For reasons of racial sensitivity, we will not be showing you the Physician’s Asian instantiation.

2. In fact, it is very difficult to accelerate an organism’s growth except from scratch. More than one of the Physician’s drones were stranded in childhood due to interruptions in the process. What became of them does not bear thinking about.

3. Still in syndication in 1965, with the notable exception of “Lucy and Superman.”

4. The Physician was always interested in alternatives to his growth chambers.

5. A gigantic bird of prey in Middle-Eastern folklore, somewhat similar to a phoenix.

6. A well loved German fairy-tale written in 1811 by fantasist Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué.

7. Later human researchers would refer to this kind of nanotechnology as “respirocytes.”

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