All posts by thewizardofwoah

About thewizardofwoah

Amateur writer, snarker of silly things.

Chapter Ninety-Three: The Mirror People

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Comet nodded at Sandy. “Nurse Pritchard.”

“Comet,” the nurse replied. 

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

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

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

Is she wrong? Alberto had jeered inside Allison. 

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

Allison shook her head. She had to wait.

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

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

Allison nodded. “That makes sense.”

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

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

“Any of them hurt bad?”

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

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

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

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

“Which ones?” asked Allison.

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

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

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

“The Coven,” Allison said quietly.

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

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

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

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

“Mother?”

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

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

“Lana,” said Allison.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Does it?” asked Sandra.   

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

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

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

“Hi everybody!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And what’s the point of that?”

You.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Baby stuff. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God, that had been a mess.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She let herself fall backwards into the lake. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

She was cradling a baby.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But still, she kept on walking. 

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

“What’d you see?” asked Ralph.

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

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

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

Previous Chapter                                                                                                            Next Chapter


1. Catalpa’s first tavern.

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

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

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

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

Chapter Ninety-Two: Allison Kinsey in the Big Ten

“WORLD WAR THREE?” 

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

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

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

“It’s… antisocial.”

Mrs Yullis tutted. “Bradbury was right.”

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

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

Jan sighed. “It’s nothing. Sorry.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Shh.”

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

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

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

“She’s a cute kid,” commented Jan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Poor thing.

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

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

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

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

Angela shot Allison a glance. She clammed up. 

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

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

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

“We have very good security.”

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

Allison waved again. “See you soon!”

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

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

“Coming!”

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

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

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

Arnold swallowed. “Sorry Mum.”

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

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

Mabel nodded gravely. “I forgive you.”

Silence. The children broke into giggles. 

Angela hummed in her throat. 

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

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

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

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

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

Mabel shrugged. “Not really?” 

“The party’s tonight!”

“Did you get them something?”

“…No,” admitted Arnold. 

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

“Another super?” Arnold suggested. 

“A sense of perspective?” Angela muttered.

Arnold grinned. “She has telepathy, Mum.”

“She should use it more, then.”

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

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

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

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

“Didn’t stop them from whining.”

“Can I get money?” 

“Nope” answered Fred.

Come on…”  

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

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

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

“Fred!”

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

“Two days.” 

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

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

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

Mabel beamed

“Smartest thing I ever did was—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fred smiled fondly. “Happy birthday, Allie.”

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

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

Forgiveness is Christian, Forgiveness is Christian. 

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

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

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

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

“Costume on!”

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

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

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

God, Angela worried about that girl.

⬖ 

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

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

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

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

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

Mabel reached Arnold’s side, jogging in place. 

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

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

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

“Morning, Allison.”

“Happy birthday Allison!”

“See you at your party!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Wha—”

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

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

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

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

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

“Has someone got nits7 again?” 

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

“Ahhh!”

The boy grinned. “You’re—”

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

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

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

“You’re it!”

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

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

Oh, Miri-chasee. 

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

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

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

“Happy Allie’s birthday, guys!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She shook her head.

Maude’ll fix us soon.

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

⬗ 

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

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

“What’s wrong? Can’t get me?”

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

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

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

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

“Sarah!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Even David.     

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

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

“Touché.”

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

Well, at least the sentiment’s there. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

“…I could do both.”

“Hi!”

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

“Happy not-birthday, David!”

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

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

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

Arnold did, in fact, blush. 

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

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

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

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

“Still.”

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

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

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

“It’s a crocodile, they’re scary!”

“People think tigers are scary, too.”

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

Mrs Allworth silently rolled her eyes. 

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Billy promptly obeyed, claws sheathed. 

David staggered backwards. “Really, Billy?”

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

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

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

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

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

Allison snapped to attention. “How many?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Previous Chapter                                                                                                            Next Chapter


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

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

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

4. Formerly the Road King.

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

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

7. Commonwealth for lice.

The Worst Godling

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

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

“Mr. Penderghast, this shirt itches.”

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

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

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

Penderghast thought it over for a moment.

“Because I said so.”

That, he had learned from his siblings.

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

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

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

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

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

“Mr. Penderghast?”

“Yes, Blair?”

“You’re in the army, right?”

Oh. The boy paid attention. 

“That I am. Major in the US Army.”

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

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

“Yep.”

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

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

“What’s his name?”

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

Penderghast gamely searched his memory for such a man. 

Nothing. 

“Don’t think so, son.”

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

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

“Yeah.”

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s good! Going down!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“This where he lives?” asked Penderghast. 

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

“Nah,” said Linda. “But he’s close.”

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

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

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

Linda’s mouth snapped shut. 

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

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

The water pulsed.

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

“Wait for it,” Blair said knowingly. 

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

The thing went limp.

Linda giggled. “Gotcha.”

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

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

Penderghast kneeled and turned his head down. 

“Great God Palaemon, it is an honour—”

“Hi Blair.”

“Hi Pal.”

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

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

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

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

“He’s a wizard,” said Linda. 

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

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

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

“Oh, Joe? Um…”

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

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

“Did you bring bikkies, Blair?”

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

Blair hopped. “Oh, yeah!” 

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

“Catch!”

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

“Okay, so Joe…”

To Joe Allworth’s most honest estimation.

Nudity was lame.

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

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

“It’s chilly!”

“You’re a god!”

“I’m a god who likes pants!”

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

“I was five!”

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

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

“Cannot!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s “killing’ mean?”

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

“Well—”

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

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

“It’s a mortal thing,” added Pal.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She got jealous of him sometimes.

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

Penderghast nodded. “Please go on.”

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

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

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

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

“Yep. One problem, but.”

“What was that?”

“He was just so bad at being a god.”

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

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

Then Joe had to go and spoil it:

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

“Hey, Pal.”

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

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

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

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

What a shame! Such an interesting monster, too.

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

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

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

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

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

Joe sighed. “What, lonely?”

Nooo. That you liked me.”

Joe’s eyes went wide. “I do not!”

“You were flirting with me!”

“No I wasn’t!”

“Why not?”

“You’re a boy! You have a penis.” 

“So?” 

“I like girls!”

Only girls?”

“Pretty sure!”

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

“Also, Pal, you’re five. At most.”

“Again, so what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Palaemon had an idea. 

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

Pal held the cake over the basin:

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

The fountain mists rose towards the ceiling. The dim, gauzy rainbows became as unreally bright and vivid as neon. They formed into a woman with skin like opals catching sunlight. Her hair was a sunset over the sea. Insectile wings of stained glass grew from her shoulders. It was impossible to tell if she was naked or clothed, and with how she glowed, it hardly mattered.

She cast her iridescent eyes down at Palaemon. “What do you want, Pal?”

Palaemon stood up very straight. “I wish to invite all the gods of our kind and our well-wishers to a party in this stately palace.” He gestured around at the Foyer. “As you can see, it’s very nice. Oh, and make sure to include all the godlings. And the Dōdekátheon. Especially King Athena.”

Iris stared at the young god. Then she laughed. “You’re telling me you want the entire divine race to drop everything for a party. Hosted by you.”

Pal took a deep breath. “Actually, I’m not the host. Joseph Allworth is.” He grinned slyly. “You know, the barbarian that dropped by Olympus a week back? The star-god? Offspring of a mother of Khaos?”

“…That’s something to consider.” Iris composed herself. “I shall bring your petition to King Athena.”

The honeycake flew out of Pal’s hand into Iris’s. She took a bite out of the pastry. “Farewell, Palaemon.”

It took three days for Palaeomon to get word back. Specifically, while him and Joseph were playing with his living chessboard. 

Iris appeared in a burst of light, casting the red and white playing field in pale rainbows. The life-sized pieces pointed and gawked up at the goddess. 

“Ah, hi Iris,” said Joe. “Why are you here?”

“Joseph Allworth, Athena, king of the gods, has accepted your request for her company. She and the rest of the Olympian host will arrive in three weeks.”

Joe’s mouth dropped. “What? I didn’t—”

“Our king trusts that shall give you ample time to prepare.” Iris glanced down at the board. “Oh, my God, is that a chessboard? That’s great.”

The goddess vanished. The pieces gossiped programmatically amongst themselves. Joe glared across the board at Palaemon. 

“What did you do?”

Howard Penderghast had dealt with many gods and divinities in his time. But most of them were grown creatures. Adult personalities. Penderghast knew some lingered in childhood, but he’d always assumed it was mainly an aesthetic choice on their part. Ancient collections of knowledge and wisdom wrapped in childish flesh.

Speaking to Palaemon was rapidly correcting that assumption. The godling rambled down a hundred tangents. Sometimes he abandoned the conversation altogether to argue with Linda over biscuits. He spent ten minutes describing an old Warner Brothers cartoon. 

“So, me and Joe kinda beat each other up for a while, but he got over it and we started planning the party. I said—”

Penderghast raised a hand. “Excuse me, Palaemon. While your story is deeply… interesting, it is very urgent that I find Joseph Allworth soon. Is there anything you know that could lead me to him?”

Palaemon frowned. “…You don’t wanna hear my story, do you?”

Howard shook his head vigorously, “Nothing of the sort, it’s only—”

“I want to hear it,” said Blair from his perch on the Corvette’s hood. “It’s fun!”

“It is… fun,” said Penderghast. “It’s just time. The world itself depends on me finding your friend. Your friend might depend on me finding him!”

Palaemon hopped from foot to foot. “Okay,” he said, “I’ll help you.”

“Thank you, oh God.”

“…If you listen to the end of the story.”

Pennderghast was rapidly becoming a misotheist. 

After Joseph Allworth was done punting Palaemon up and down the Atlantic, he decided a housewarming party wasn’t a bad idea after all. Besides, now he had to finish that cocktail bar he was working on. And the bartender. 

The young star-god pestered the Gatekeeper for recipes from across the civilized galaxy while Pal harvested the sea’s finest meats. Finally, Joseph settled on a name for his lair and the computer that would oversee it:

“So my name is… Blancheflor?” 

“Yep,” said Joe. “He was the king of—”

“I’m aware,” said the caretaker program. “You programmed that explanation into me.”

“Ah, sorry… do you like the name?”

“…Permission not to be forthcoming with it?”

Joe examined one of the black chess pieces he’d repurposed as waitstaff. A hologram of Frank Sinatra stood ready onstage, soundlessly warming up an invisible crowd. He himself was wearing a pearlescent body-glove. It seemed like a tolerable compromise between Canadian sensibility and Cupidean nudity. 

He rubbed his chin fretfully. “Should I have painted them white a bit?”

“Stop being a scaredy-cat,” said Palaemon from on top of one of the tables. “They’re gonna love this place.” He smirked ruefully. “Especially old Poseidon.” 

Joe shot daggers at his friend. “Stop climbing on the tables! You’ll get sea-slime on them!”

The sea windows flashed like God snapping a photo. Thunder as loud as silence echoed through Clark’s. 

Joe yelped. “Crap, they’re here!”

The thunder roared, only to shatter into a hundred chatting voices. The bar was crowded with gods and goddesses, more real and solid than all the steel Joe had wrought to build this place. 

“Yes we are.”

Pallas Athena, king of Mt. Olympus loomed over the boy, dissecting him with eyes nearly the same grey as the handsome laurel coronet resting in her dark hair. She was wearing a gown woven of storm clouds. Joe had no doubt it concealed armour. 

Joe bowed. “King Athena. I’m honoured to have you.”

Athena looked around Clark’s and the sea beyond its glass walls. “I commend your craftsmanship, child.” 

Crimson-robed Hera cleaved from the crowd and bustled over to Joseph, pecking the boy on the forehead and pinching his cheeks.

“It’s so good to see you, Joe.” She glanced around the bar. “And in such a lovely palace. Your people would be proud.”

“Thank you, Queen Hera,” said Joe, suppressing a wince.

“Queen” was something of a courtesy title these days. Hera had divorced Zeus some time6 after the Trojan War. Not coincidentally, this also coincided with the sky-father departing Mt. Olympus for parts unknown, leaving his throne empty for his favourite daughter.

The split had done wonders for Hera’s temperament, but it’d also made her, well, broody.  

Soon the Sinatra hologram was throwing himself into “They Say It’s Wonderful.” The guests spread out through the bar and into the rest of Lyonesse, Blancheflor directing them to points of interest they weren’t likely to break. Apollo barged on stage and somehow pulled Sinatra’s image into a duet:

The thing that’s known as romance is wonderful, wonderful,

In every way, so they say!” 

Heracles slapped Joe on the back. If he were a human child, his lungs would have exploded out of his chest. The burly god bellowed, “I wanted to thank you again for the sewing machine.” He gestured at the lavender chiton he was wearing. “It’s already come in handy.”

“You’re welcome!” Joe chirped, the first genuine grin in days blossoming across his face. The boy thumbed his own shiny party-outfit. “I did this by hand.”

Heracles rumbled with laughter. “That is a feat, my boy. Your parents must be proud as horses.”

Joe shrunk into himself. “My parents haven’t seen it.”

Heracles frowned. “What? You’re telling me you didn’t invite the Allworths?”

“I didn’t,” the boy admitted. “They don’t even know about here.”

“Why ever not?” Heracles laughed. “Oh. I see. This is a treehouse! I had one of those as a boy. Hollowed out of a grandfather oak.”

“No,” Joe muttered. “I mean. Yes, it’s a treehouse. But they’re being… dumb.”

Heracles tutted. It struck Joe as an awfully aunt-like noise coming from him. “Joseph, we all think our parents are fools when we’re young. I did. I imagine all my children thought so, too…”

Joe had forgotten Heracles was a dad. Palaemon was always griping about his sons by Hebe7.

Then he remembered Heracles’ first children. The mortal ones8. The ones he’d murdered.

That wasn’t fair. Heracles hadn’t been in his right mind when he did that. Thanks to the lady who’d just pinched Joe’s cheeks a second ago. 

Joe nodded as Heracles’ wisdom fell on deaf ears. “Um, yeah, I’ll think about it. Try the crab cakes!”

He fled through the crowd. 

Joe bumped into a wall of black fur. He stepped back to find himself before a god with a face like a hard, glum tombstone. His dark cloak was trimmed with frost and dusted with gravedirt. He regarded Joe with eyes of bleached bone. 

Joe bowed hastily. He’d never met the god before, but there no doubt who he was looking at:

“Lord Hades. Honoured to make your acquaintance.”

Joe was surprised to run into the Rich One. They say he rarely left the underworld. Then again, how often was he invited to parties? 

“Thank you, child,” Hades drawled morosely. “It is a fine abode you have built for yourself.” The god raised a finger. “I sense very little of my wealth in its structure.”

Joe gulped, unsure if that was meant to be a good thing or not. “You’re not wrong. I got most of the materials from the asteroid belt.”

He braced himself, but Hades only nodded gravely. “Most considerate. Mortals scour my coffers so rapaciously these days. I can let it pass most of the time, it all comes back to me eventually, but must they scar the Earth as they do it?”

Joe had never considered that Hades might be a greenie of all things. It was a pleasant surprise. He nodded.  “It’s very rude of them.”

“It greatly upsets my wife.”

“Oh, Persephone? Is she here?”

“I wouldn’t know.”

“You wouldn’t?”

“Child, if our marriage rests on one foundation, it’s giving each other space.”

Hades took a moment to search the bar, spotting a woman dressed in spring-flowers chatting with Iris in one of the conversation pits. Persephone caught sight of the Lord of the Dead and gave a small wave. 

A ghost of a smile played across Hades’ bloodless lips, but he made no attempt to approach his wife.

Oh yeah, Joe remembered. You’re only married because you kidnapped her. And tricked her. And that’s why we have winter now. Or was it summer9?

He also remembered that Hades was Persephone’s uncle. 

Hades looked back at Joe. “You know, godling, subterranean decor is a rare talent. Would you consider renovating my own home sometime? You would be handsomely rewarded.”

The underworld. Would Joe’s mother be there? Would it be better or worse if she wasn’t? Christopher Barberi would be.

It occured to Joe that, someday soon, his mortal mother and father would be in this god’s power.

“…I’ll think about it.”

Joe left Hades behind in his search for a conversation he could stand. 

Hades plucked a martini from a passing pawn, stirring it with a black fingernail. “That always means no.”

Ares and Hephaestus were milling about in front of the stage.

“Amazing,” said Hephaestus. “People made of light.” The smith-god sat in an ornate, rocket-powered throne of a wheelchair—twisted, withered legs dwarfed by his pillar-like arms. Shiny, dark gold burns like dragon-scale armoured his bare chest. “Puts my Khryseai 10 into perspective.”

“Bah. At least they have some substance behind them.” Ares had taken to wearing an anchor beard this century. In honour of their host, he was also wearing the kevlar vest Joe had gifted him during his visit to Olympus. “This is just light. Men made of moth-wings would be deadlier.”

Joseph launched himself between the two gods. “You can make light burn things, you know.”

“Can you?” asked Ares.

Hephaestus tilted his chin. “You sure you’re not talking about fire, young man? They’re quite distinct.” 

“Nope! Just light! You have to focus it through a crystal juuuust right11.”

Ares grinned wolfishly. This was the best news he’d gotten since the automatic rifle. “Do you know how to work this magic, Allworth?”

“I do! I used it to build this place!”

“Could you build me some? Preferably hand-held?”

“I guess!”

Joe wasn’t sure he ought to be arming the god of war. The god of bloody war, at that. But at least he wasn’t making his stomach turn right now.

“Or you could come to my workshop and show me how you do it,” suggested Hephaestus. “I imagine my use for it would be much more edifying than my brother’s.”

Ares laughed. “You only turn your nose up at fighting because you’re useless at it, cripple.”

Joe frowned. “Hey, that’s not nice—”

He was cut off by Hephaestus’ own laughter. “You mock me, but you still pay me for my work!”

Oh, teasing. Joe could deal with that.

Ares clapped his hand down on Joseph’s shoulder. “Pure charity, boy, don’t let him tell you otherwise.” He smirked at the other god. “Which is saying a lot given what he got off me.”

“What?” Joe asked. “Money?”

The brothers both laughed. 

“Only my damn wife12!” cried Ares. “Vulcan here blackmailed our mother and father into handing her over to him!”

Joe looked at Hephaestus. “You what?

“Hey, hey! Don’t go twisting the history, brother. You and Aphrodite weren’t even married.”

“She was still promised to me!”

Hephaestus scoffed. “Like that was an inconvenience for you.” The god stage-whispered to Joe. “They were rutting behind my back as before we finished the wedding wine!”

Shockingly, Joe couldn’t blame the pair. 

Hephaestus looked back at his brother. “At least until I caught them in the act! Well, me and Olympus.” He folded his arms. “Got my bride-price back and more.”

“Sure,” said Ares with a grin. “But who gets to lay with Aphrodite, hmm?”

Hephaestus cackled. “Everyone!”   

To Joe’s shock, Ares laughed too. He was talking about his brother forcing his wife to marry him like it was an old prank. How did he not hate him?

Applause broke out as Apollo finished his impromptu set with Sinatra. 

The god of music spread his arms out wide. “Thank you, thank you…” 

He leapt down from the stage, landing on his feet in front of Joe. “Hail to our host.”

Joe looked warily at Apollo. He dressed more modernly than most of his kin. Specifically, he seemed to be ripping off James Dean’s publicity stills, jacket and all.

“Hi, Apollo,” said Joe, a touch tiredly. 

“I love your musical illusions. Is there any chance you could show me how they work?”

“Sure, sure.”

At this rate, Joe might have done well to start charging. 

“He’s already agreed to show me the secret of his sharp-light,” insisted Ares.

“Actually,” said Hephaestus, “he said ‘I guess!’ I feel there’s a distinction.”

“You two are being very mercenary. It’s unflattering,” Apollo said with a grin. “You’re talking about this boy like he’s your bond-slave!” He took Joe’s hand. “Does this look like the skin of a common labourer? Smooth as milk!” 

Joe’s right eye twitched. He withdrew his hand. “I’ve got to go to the bathroom.”

“You do?”

Joe was already weaving through the crowd. “Yep!” he lied.

Apollo watched the boy as he went. “Strange lad,” he commented to his half-brothers. “Not without charm, but strange. Reminds me a little of Nancy’s boy.”


“Yes,” said Ares. “How is Lucius?”

Apollo tilted his head. “…I don’t know. Should check in sometime.” 

“Hey Joe! Come say hi to my friends!”

Joseph turned at the sound of Palaemon’s voice. The boy was standing with three other godlings: two girls, one male.  

Thank God. Other kids. At least they probably wouldn’t try hitting on him. Probably.

Palaemon brought his friends over. Only the most up to the minute mythographies would have mentioned the young deities. Despite what some mortals thought, the gods were not static in their… relations.    

“This is Kauma. She’s the goddess of…” Pal glanced at the little girl with the translucent, Cherenkov blue skin. “What is it again?”

“Atomic power,” explained Kauma. “It’s the energy you get from splitting atoms.13

Pal grinned at Joe. “Whatever those are, right?”

Joe smiled past him at Kauma. “I know what fission is.”

Thank you.

A boy with comic book panels for skin and sunspots for hair shook Joe’s hand. He was older than either Palaemon or Kauma: maybe twelve or so. 

“Paideikon,14” he identified himself. “God of sequential art.”

“Sequential art,” repeated Joe. “That’s comics, right? Superman and The Phantom and all that?”

Paideikon sucked in a breath. “If you must.” 

Joe examined the boy’s skin. Superheroes abounded, but were narrowly outnumbered by a plurality of other genres. Vampires and werewolves, swooning girls and kissing couples, cowboys and UFOS. 

As he watched, a panel of Batman swinging across a yellow sky blurred and swirled, reforming into Frankenstein’s monster with his arms stretched out.

“I’m going through changes,” explained Paideikon.

Finally, there was Stereulaios, goddess of plastic15. Her skin and hair were plastic, too, giving Joe the unfortunate impression of an older, anatomically correct baby doll.

“Say,” said Joe, “have you guys ever tried pizza?”

The godlings slipped out of the party and trooped up to Lyonesse’s main kitchen. There they feasted on a thirty inch pizza with about half of the animal16 and vegetable17 kingdoms on it.

“Your lot ran Italy for ages,” said Joe through a mouthful of melted cheese. “How did you guys never try pizza?”

“Dunno,” said Paideikon. “I’m barely sixty.”

“You know what’s crap?” said Kauma, waving a slice of pizza around. Flecks of cheese sizzled against her glowing chest. “There’s like, three hundred nuclear bombs out there, and they’re hardly being used!” She thumped her fist against the countertop. “I want more boom!”

“Heck yeah,” said Joe. “America’s full of deserts, just use them!” He grinned at the little goddess. “I watched a bomb test once. Gave me a heck of a tan.”

“Sure,” said Pal, “shame about the tan-lines.”

Joe slapped a slice in Palaemon’s face. “Shut up!”

“I don’t just want deserts!” protested Kauma. “I want cities! Forests!”

“…What.”

“It’s no fun if it’s blowing up nothing! Something needs to be on fire.”

“But—but people live in cities! And animals live in forests!”

Kauma shrugged. “They’re gonna die someday. At least nuclear bombs do it fast.”

“Except when they don’t! Except when they make them sick and sick and sicker. Except when they make babies come out wrong!”

“What,” said Paideikon, “like the Hundred-Handers18?”  

“No! Like babies without brains! Or eyes!”

“…So double cyclopes?”

Joe groaned.

“I agree with you,” said Stereulaios. “Blowing up cities sounds horrid.”

Joe nodded desperately at the plastic goddess. “It does, doesn’t it?”

“Well, yeah. All the plastic would be ruined!”

Joe had no answer to that. He hopped off his kitchen stool. “Enjoy your pizza,” he said sourly, storming out of the kitchen. 

“Wait, Joe,” Palaemon called after him. He scrambled off his seat and ran after his friend. “Joe!”

Joe was heading towards the elevator. What good was running from his own party? There was no escaping the awful.

Palaemon caught up to the bigger boy. “Why are you being so weird?”

Joe turned on his heels and glared. “They’re horrible.”

“Who?”

“Your friends! Everyone!”

Pal kneaded his hands. “Big gods can be…”

“Dumb? Evil?”

“Mean. But my friends—”

“Your friends are evil too!” 

“…No they’re not,” Pal said in a very small voice. “They’re my friends.”

“Have fun then!”

When the elevator door opened on Clark’s, Joe flew over the crowd to the bar, much to the delight of the gathered gods and goddesses. 

Joe ignored them.

He alighted on a barstool. “Lemonade, barman. Ice-cold.” 

“You got it, Mr. Allworth,” said the newly constructed Iszac Steel. 

“About the only thing I got…” 

“You seem down for someone who pulled off the party of the divine year19.” 

Joe looked beside him. There was a woman sitting beside him. She was sipping a glass of whiskey in a white feathered gown. Her face gave a very eagleline impression.

“It’s not unusual, I assure you,” she said. She sounded Scottish.

 Joe narrowed his eyes at the woman. “Who says I’m down?”

“The fact you’re trying to pretend lemonade is booze.”

Iszac slid a tall, frosty glass in front of the boy. 

“Here you go, boss.”

Joe looked miserably at the bar-robot. “Thanks.”

“Come on, tell me what’s the matter,” implored the woman. “Bars are for sharing miseries. We hold them under together until they drown.”

“…I don’t think I belong here.”

The woman considered that. “I mean, it’s a bar. You’re what, seven?”

“Ten! And I built it!”

The woman just chuckled. 

“I mean—I don’t belong with you. Your folk, I mean.” Joe squinted at the woman. “You’re a goddess, right?”

“People have been debating that for a long time. So where do you belong?”

Joe laid his head on the counter. “In space, with my family.”

The woman put a hand on the child’s back. It took some effort not to flinch. “Can I ask you something else?”

“What?”

“Who loved you. You don’t strike me as someone who’s never had that in their life.”

“Couple of mortals. In Canada”

“Aye.” The woman finished her drink. “Word of advice, Mr. Allworth. Mortals don’t have the time we do. Be sure you’re done with them before you leave them. For both your sakes”

The woman stood up and smoothed the front of her dress. “Have a good evening, Joseph. It’s time for me to go.”

“Why? Party’s not over yet.”

The woman shrugged. “Eh, not my crowd. Nothing wrong with that.”

A sunbeam sailed out through the sea-window.

Joseph endured the rest of the night. He even enjoyed himself. The gods weren’t all bad people. They weren’t people, for starters. 

And when the very last guest had hitched a lift home on the sunrise, Joseph went home, too.

“And that was it,” said Palaemon. “Joe went home.” He sighed. “Kinda wish he stuck with us—especially after, you know—but he wasn’t going to fit in. Joe is Joe.”

Penderghast nodded. “He sounds… sensitive.”

Palaemon nodded and pointed at the warlock. “Yeah, that’s the word!”

Linda and Blair were still sitting on the Corvette’s hood. The latter noticed Linda’s face was… shiny.

“…Are you crying, Lin—”

Linda shoved her hand over his mouth and sniffed. “Shut up, Blair!”

“Alright now,” said Howard, folding his arms the way he would with one of his nieces and nephews. “That hint?”

“Oh, um, yeah.”

He had told the wizard he had a hint, hadn’t he? 

The godling swallowed. “I know where you can find his mother.” A heartbeat. “Foster-mother.”

Penderghast stared at the child.

“I’m sorry—I just wanted you to listen—”

Howard hoisted Palaemon up into his arms. “You weren’t kidding when you said you had a lead, were you!” he laughed.

“I wasn’t?”

Howard called over to the other children. “Kids, in the car!”

Less than a minute later, the Corvette roared into the sky. Towards Catalpa.

 

Previous Chapter                                                                                                            Next Chapter


1. A 59 to be specific.

2. Like the vast majority of consumer automobiles at the time, Howard Penderghast’s Corvette was not grudgingly fitted with seatbelts until 1968.

3. Three thousand years was a long time.

4. Specifically Gossamer, who first appeared in the 1947 short Hair-Raising Hare before being recycled into Water, Water Every Hare.

5. He did, with the help of Poseidon. Not that these walls helped much when Heracles sacked the city.

6. Due to the Olympians somewhat loose relationship with mortal timekeeping, practical theologians and historians debate the date of the abdication. With some placing it anywhere from the end of the Hellenic Dark Age to as far as the reign of Augustus.

7. Alexiares and Anicetus, twin sons of Heracles after his ascension to godhood with Hebe, his half-sister and goddess of eternal youth, former cupbearer of Zeus. Like Palaemon, the boys have so far declined to grow up.

8. Specifically his children by Megara, who would later be given in marriage to Heracles’ nephew (and former lover) Iolaus. During his mortal life, Heracles had over sixty children with many different women.

9. First the latter, then the former, as the story travelled ever northwards.

10. The Kourai Khryseai, automatons of gold fashioned by Hephaestus in the shape of human women.

11. This was six years before the term “laser” was formally introduced to the public by Gordon Gould in his paper The LASER, Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation. Some super-scientists who had actualized the concept earlier and coined their own nomenclature are still bitter about that.

12. Aphrodite, goddess of love.

13. Born July 16th, 1945 to Ares and Hestia. Perpetual virginity got tiresome after a few eons.

14. A son of Apollo and Thalia, muse of comedy.

15. Daughter of Hephaestus and an obscure Oread.

16. Especially seafood. Palaemon did the grocery run.

17. But no pineapple. Hawaiian pizza wouldn’t be unleashed upon the world until 1963.

18. Often known as the Hecatoncheires, monstrous, gigantic offspring of Gaia and Ouranous with fifty heads and one hundred arms. This is false however. The hundred-handed ones were built, not born, and had no relation, familial or otherwise, to any of the Olympian gods until their alliance with Zeus.

19. Equal to seven human years.

Blair and Linda Meet the New England Warlock

It wasn’t flying that told Howard Penderghast he was dreaming. That was nothing new. It was that he was ten years old again. 

The skin of his childish hands was pale white, and the locks of hair lurking at the edges of his vision were blond—almost silver in the moonlight. That would have struck him as strange, but right then, the details of his waking life were as relevant as the womb.

The night sky was a mirror for the black sea below. The only way you could tell up from down were the stars flashing and glinting like chips of ice set into the boundless dark. He speared into a broken rosary of moon-pearled clouds, exploding out the other side in a burst of laughter.  

This wasn’t the flight he knew. Howard had mastered five different flavours of flight by the age of thirteen. But those were all negotiations with reality. Bargains with the four winds to hold him aloft, complicated refractions of gravity, or tricking the world into thinking wings had sprouted from his shoulders. This was effortless. Innate. Birds laboured harder to stay in the sky. 

This was no spell. He simply went where he wanted. 

The slow night-thoughts of great whales echoed up from the ocean depths. When Howard (was that his name? It didn’t sound right) looked down, he could see the dim neutrino glimmer of the Earth’s core beneath the waves, nearly lost against the glaring concentric glow of the sun.

For the star-god called Joseph Allworth, the old wives’ tale was true: the sun did rest under the Earth at night. 

Wispy memory haunted him. He’d spent days working miracles under the cold, heavy sea; not with sorcery, but with his bare hands. But he was heading home now. 

He’d left in a ugly mood, riding anger that now seemed both alien and foolish. He hoped his mother and father weren’t worrying about him. They shouldn’t. Nothing on this little planet could hurt him.

(A distant, bitter heat). 

The thin, shadowed coast of British Columbia rose over the horizon like a swelling wave, dotted with town-lights like campfires of old. Within a few seconds, he was floating above the fishing town of Neptune’s Chest. 

He could see the Allworth house standing bright and lonely at the ragged edge of town. Good, his parents were still awake. 

As he flew towards the house, Howard felt himself slide out of synch with his dream-self. Dread strangled his veins like vines. 

Not now! Stay away!

The foreign mind layered over Howard’s own paid him no heed. He landed softly on the house’s doorstep, knocking at the door.

No answer. He frowned. Two panicked constellations moving about behind the oak-wood and frosted glass. 

Leave them alone!

Why was he knocking on his own front door? He opened it and stepped inside, heading automatically towards the kitchen— 

“Um, Mom, Dad, I’m home.”

“Joe! Don’t—”     

His parents were in the kitchen, standing over a young man sprawled beneath an old family picture hanging on the wall. His eyes bulged in his skull. His lungs lay still in his chest. 

His father stared at him, tears running down his narrow face. “I—I didn’t mean—he was going to hurt you, son…”

He looked into the old man’s mind. He saw Christopher Barbieri’s face go purple and his eyes lose sight.

Joseph stared. “…He was harmless.”

“Son, I just—”

Joe Allworth turned and ran back towards the door, pushing it down and taking off into the night again.

As he rose into the sky, he heard his father calling:

“Joe! Joe!”  

The boy didn’t look back, didn’t—

The night fled. The sun rushed up from beneath the earth, blooming around him. Burning him. 

He clenched his eyes shut. The light did not dim. He tried to scream, but the world screamed louder. 

The light went out, banished by black fire. 

Howard Penderghast woke with a scream, trembling under his bedsheets with half-remembered pain.

Howard sat up and breathed rhythmically, blinking away the last shreds of sleep until he was sure he was awake. He was in his childhood bedroom at Penderghast House, grudgingly refurbished by his mother in concession to thirty-four birthdays. Morning twilight melted against his window curtains, carving a slice of dusty green carpet out of the gloom. The black fire had not followed him. 

Pendergast swung his legs over the bed. He shuddered when his bare feet touched the carpet. It was like the floor was wrapping fingers around his ankles. 

It would pass. It always did.

He stepped out onto his room’s balcony, hoping the winter wind would carry away the last cobwebs of dream. The small but rambling Penderghast estate was hidden under a shell of snow, glimmering like powdered diamonds in the brightening morning sun. He could already smell wood smoke pouring from the kitchen chimneys. His father would be taking his breakfast now. The Boston Globe would be screaming about rising tensions between the two Berlins, while The International Magi1 would be covering the panicked flight of witch-clans to Meinong’s Jungle2 and the Super-Sargasso Sea3

Howard hadn’t seen snow with his own eyes in two years. South Vietnam didn’t have a true winter season. Australia claimed it did, but what did they know? Now it felt as foreign to him as fields of steel flowers. Even the elms and sycamores he’d climbed as a boy looked wrong—so scattered and barren-branched.         

Maybe it was guilt. The men he’d served with couldn’t run home to their fathers when their consciences tugged at them. 

Howard stood out there for some time, gazing out over the smothered front lawns like a dead marscape. Even without a shirt on, the cold didn’t trouble him. You got used to it when you regularly toured Hell. And he still preferred it to the black fire.

The dreams bred and multiplied with each passing week. Sometimes Howard found himself falling from the stars encased in warm, wet darkness; sometimes he was chasing a young sea-god through the barrels of waves. It was a new experience for the warlock, being pulled helplessly through scenarios. Like most witches, Howard was a lucid dreamer. What was sorcery, but grabbing the reigns of the waking dream?  

They weren’t always terrible. Sometimes they were exultant. He’d swim through the storms of Jupiter or lie with the queen of the stars. But they always ended with the black fire.

A dagger-sharp bittern took off from a tree-branch, sending a snowdrift thumping to the ground and making time start moving again.

Penderghast sighed icily. If he was going to get a good’s night sleep—if anyone was—he had to find the Flying Man.

They’d said he was dead, but Penderghast could work with that.

It had been fully two months since Blair Wilder had first awoken to find that strange girl jumping on his bed. Had anyone asked him, he would have told them she’d been there forever. Such is time for a child. The important part was that she was there. Linda. Just “Linda”. Every night. Only occasionally jumping on his bed.

Blair thought she was rather silly.

“I wanna bikkie.”

“Get down from the roof4 first. You’re getting mud on it.”

The naked girl with the dark sea-anemone hair scowled down at Blair with her jasper eyes, skin softly glowing with uncanny lemon light. 

“No!”

Her voice echoed. 

Blair quirked his shoulders. “Okay. My bikkie, then.”


“You said we were sharing!”

Blair made a show of tearing the packet of Monte Carlos open and stuffing one in his mouth. “I can’t share if you’re on the roof,” he said with his mouth full, crumbs spilling down his pyjama tops.  

Blair had always been mature for his five and a half years of age. Maybe that was the power Linda kept insisting that he had.

“So what is it?” he would ask.

“Laser breath,” she’d reply. Or “Vampire eyes,” or “Magic thumbs.” Or even, in her most honest moments, “I dunno. I just can’t read your mind. It’s weird.”

Most people can’t read my mind,” he would whine. “That’s not special.”

“But I can read everyone’s mind,” she’d insist.

That seemed like a rubbish power to Blair. Might as well not have a brain. 

He gulped down the biscuit. “S’too bad. They’re crunchy.”

Linda stomped her foot against the ceiling, sending a shockwave of spider-cracks through the rough plaster. 

She looked bashfully at the sole of her foot. “Sorry.”

Blair giggled. “Just fix my roof and you can get a bikkie.”

Linda folded her arms and huffed in surrender. Patches of air puckered and oozed like diseased skin. Flickering, ephemeral tendrils tore their way through into reality with a sound like slimy wind. They licked at the cracks in the ceiling, leaving them smooth as they slithered back out of the world. 

“Wow…” Blair intoned like a Gregorian chant. “How do you do that?”

The girl dropped down onto Blair’s bed, landing on her feet and cramming a Monte Carlo into her face. “I eat the cracks,” she answered, spraying her friend with wet biscuit debris. 

Like most answers Linda gave Blair, it didn’t explain much. That was okay. Linda wasn’t for explaining. She was for… something else that Blair couldn’t name. 

They sat there companionably for some time, Linda bouncing lightly on Blair’s mattress while she rambled about the adventures that constituted her day:

“…I’ve almost got enough pillows to finish my fort on that mountain. You know, the really big one silly people keep trying to climb?”

“…And then the shark swallowed me!”

“…The Moon-People were all grumpy!”

  “And then what happened?”

Blair loved Linda’s stories. They made him jealous beyond belief, but it was satisfying sort of jealousy. 

Linda glanced around the boy’s bedroom. She still found it strange having a whole four walls and ceiling for sleeping in. Usually she found a nice patch of tall grass or a nice iceberg when sleep struck her. 

“Let’s go out and play!”

Blair tilted his head. “…But it’s nighttime. I’m supposed to be in bed.”

Linda hummed. A thin tendri-hairl waved thoughtfully between her shoulder-blades. For some reason, Blair was very keen on doing what the big people who’d made him said. It was funny. Annoying, but funny. 

“Well,” she said, “we could go where it isn’t nighttime.”

Blair gave his friend a sideways glance. “…It’s nighttime, Linda. It’s everywhere.”

Linda shook her head. Sometimes she didn’t know what to make of this boy. It was like he’d never even left this hemisphere. “No it’s not! It’s daytime in…” She tried to figure out a place her friend would know. Talking to people without being able to see their thoughts was hard. 

“…Neverland?” Blair supplied.

“No… America!”

Blair tried to comprehend the idea. Did night just… stop somewhere? Was there a place where the sky was half stars and half sunshine? If there was, Linda would probably know it. She’d been everywhere. She’d brought him a diamond the size of a tangerine5 and toys from China6.  She’d even seen the Beatles on tour. Got their photo took with them and everything7

On the other hand, she also didn’t understand why cars existed.

“…Prove it.”

Linda pursed her lips primly, nodding slowly. “Okay,” she said, getting to her feet. She walked extravagantly towards the black open window, stopping at the edge of the bed. “But you have to come with me to know for sure.”

Blair fretted his duvet. If his mum and dad saw he was out of bed, he’d be in biggest trouble. But then, his mother once walked through the lounge room while Linda was watching TV, naked as usual and holding a bowl of biscuits and a bottle of Coke in a tentacle each, and all she’d said was that she hadn’t seen the cat that day. “Noticing” didn’t seem to be a thing that happened around Linda. Plus, Blair won out either way if he went with Linda. If he was right, he knew something Linda didn’t

If he was wrong, he’d get to see something amazing.

The boy scrambled out from under his sheets. “Okay,” he said, standing up as tall as his three and a half feet would allow. “Let’s go.”

Linda turned around with a big grin, revealing her slightly needle-like teeth. Her hands fluttered against each other. “Yay!”

“How are you gonna take me with you? You gonna give me a piggy-back or… wrap me up in your octopus arms?”

Blair wasn’t sure which he’d prefer. Both ideas sounded weird, but both also had an odd appeal… 

“Nah.” Linda extended a clawed hand. “Just hold my hand!”

Blair took it. “What now?”

Linda kept grinning. Something warm and charged flowed from her hand into Blair. 

Then it went up.

The pair floated two inches above Blair’s bed. 

“Ahh!” Blair flexed and thrashed in amazement. He was flying. Like Linda could. 

Her hand tightened around his. “Hold on!”

They shot out of the window up into the sky.

Blair screamed in pure, joyous terror. He didn’t feel the lash of the wind or the gnaw of the cold. He didn’t even realize those were concerns.

Linda spun the pair of them. Her, the stars, and the moon-glinted waves below swirled together around Blair. 

The journey took about an hour, but adrenaline burned it down to a few minutes in Blair’s mind. The black water caught fire like oil as the sun crept up over the horizon. 

“Okay,” Blair shouted, “you were right!”

“Told ya!”

The ocean under them gave way to coastline. They passed over cities and forests, rivers and mountains. 

“So this is America?” Blair asked.

“Yup!”

“I thought it’d… smell different.”

“It doesn’t?”

Blair answered with another question. “Where are we going?”

Linda pointed towards the ground. “My swimming pool!”

A bright aquamarine eye looked up at the children from rich scrubland. A creek trailed from it like the tears of a great, green giant. 

“Pretty,” said Blair.

Linda hugged the boy close. Tendrils burst from her side and wrapped snugly around him. 

“Going down!”

They descended slowly into the eye. It was a flooded cave mouth. Trees clung game to its upper-lip, the creek rushing over the edge to form a fifty foot curtain of white foam. The water was opaline. Coss coated the roof like the entrance to a vibrant, spring underworld.

The children stood at the shore of the pool, a wall of trees and bushes against their back. 

Blair was staring. “It’s beautiful…”

“I know.”

Linda’s lightly tanned skin turned dark and chitinous. Her hair become a writhing nest of thin, boneless fingers, tasting and stroking the air around her head.

Blair smiled. It’d taken days for Linda to look like that in front of him the first time. She said she didn’t want to scare him. 

He still wasn’t.

His friend ran splashing into the water, calling over her shoulder, “You gonna swim, Blair?”

“Heck yeah!”

Blair pulled off his pyjamas. Those were for nighttime.

The pair spent hours swimming8. They took turns playing shark, trying to pull each other under the water. Despite the obvious advantage of tentacles and… everything else, sometimes Linda even let Blair win. They built sandcastles and tried to stay standing under the waterfall. In other words, Linda took a shower, and Blair got knocked on his back. 

He was never going to sleep again. Not if there was stuff like this out there. Not with Linda. 

Eventually, though, he spotted something on the sand. 

“Linda, was that door there when we got there?”

Linda glanced towards the sand. There was a blackwood door with a silver handle and a Celtic Green Man knocker, standing alone. 

“Um, no…”

The door flung open of its own accord. The children glimpsed a brick path trailing into wide, arcadian vistas. A man was walking with brisk stiffness towards them…

Howard Penderghast slipped hastily through the door. He’d almost shut it behind him when a slender, green-gloved arm got between the door and its frame. 

A voice like gold on silver trilled, “Oh, Howard, you must stay longer when you visit…”

Penderghast imitated a flattered chuckle. “Yes, yes, Lady Nettles. Next time, I promise.”

Luckily for the warlock, Lady Nettles withdrew her arm. He slammed the door shut with his back. 

Penderghast let out a sigh. Show him for taking a shortcut through the Land of Youth and Summer. 

Howard hadn’t expected finding the Flying Man would be easy. He’d tried before, when he was still with the army. The bastard circled the globe and criss-crossed continents on a daily basis. He left etheric traces like cobwebs across the planet. 

Oh, so we’re out of the army now. Finally admitting it, eh Ward?

Howard hated it when his inner monologue talked like his father. 

Then he’d tried again, filled with new purpose. 

According to his best scrying crystals, the Flying Man was there in his study. He was also outside on the grounds. And the capital of Brazil. In fact, it appeared the Flying Man was simultaneously occupying every point of space between Earth and the Moon. Whatever that nuke did to the Flying Man, it had spread his essence across the entire planet.

Howard had almost given up when his sister—the wild talent of the family, whatever their parents thought—managed to pin-point a bright point of new energy streaming into the universe, like an astronomer spotting a star hidden behind a supernova.

Like all good little brothers, he was now cribbing her notes.

Penderghast looked out over the water. The naked children wading in it looked back. One of them appeared to be a space monster. 

The warlock sighed. Either that nuke had done a number on Joe Allworth, or Aurelia’s trick hadn’t worked.

Howard cleared his throat. Mustn’t be rude. “Hello, children. Sorry to intrude. I seem to have gotten myself lost.” He eyed the girl with the tendril hair. Had to be something going on there. “My name is Howard Penderghast. Maybe you two could help me find someone?”  

Linda said nothing, the alien cast of her features receding as they usually did around strange humans. She eyed the new man like a hawk. She smelled hocus-pocus on him. The name was familiar, too.

Blair waved broadly. “G’day, mister Pende-gas!”

That accent. “Hello young man.” First things first. “What’s your name?” 

“Blair Wilder,” the boy recited obediently.

“May I ask where you’re from?”

Blair picked at the tangle of names school had imprinted in him. “Perth!” Oh, country. “Australia!” 

Oh, God, they’re spreading. 

Penderghast turned his attention to the girl. By now she had skin and actual hair. Just looking at her made his wisdom teeth ache. “And your name, little miss?”

“Linda.”

“Linda…” 

“Just Linda,” said Blair. He smiled proudly. “She doesn’t need another name.”

Linda’s face hardened defiantly. “Yeah!”

“Perfectly understandable. And where are you from?”

 Linda spread her legs and gestured expansively at her surroundings. “Here.”

“Here?”

The girl grinned. “Aren’t you?”

“…No—I mean, I’m from New England.” There was a thin line between innocence and being a smartass. This girl was clearly far over the border. “Are you saying this grotto is where you live? Because it is very nice.”

“I’m from Earth,” Linda clarified. “Same as everyone.”

“Anywhere on Earth in particular?”

Penderghast thought he saw the girl’s lip wobble slightly. “Just Earth.”

Blair Wilder appeared to notice too. “She spends most nights at my house!” he added.

Linda smiled again. “Yep.

Howard reached into his overcoat. “One moment, please.”

The warlock pulled out a monocle attached to a silver chain. He fitted it over his left eye and screwed his right one9 shut.  

“Are you rich, mister?” asked Blair.

“Yes,” Howard answered flatly, staring at Linda. 

First came “Linda”. He turned the monocle her way, and—  

That was… odd. Not unprecedented, but odd. Not the sort of odd Penderghast had expected. She had so many forms overlapping on herself. The girl. The aura. The mass of cephalic tendrils stretching out beyond the confines of their cave. Clearly an alien. From where, he didn’t know.  

Then there was the fact that her aura seemed to be grinning at him.

Auras couldn’t normally do that.

At least it answered the question of why the stones had led him here. That girl had a fragment or two in common with his quarry. Maybe their species—or pantheons—had diverged a few thousand generations back. At the very least, she might know how to find a distant cousin. 

He turned his attention to the boy.

Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Just a brown haired boy standing in a pool. No thoughts, no feelings, no interaction at all with any other aspect of the cosmos. He might as well have been looking at a colourful vacuum.  

Either this boy was hiding his abilities on an unprecedented scale, or Howard Penderghast had just encountered the only living thing in the universe that didn’t have a soul. 

The warlock waded into the water, approaching Blair cautiously. He lightly prodded the boy in the breast.

“Um, sir. Is something wrong?”

Penderghast felt skin against his finger. 

Probably not an illusion then. 

He glanced over at Linda. “Is there any reason I can’t see your friend here?”

“But I’m right here.”

Linda grinned. “Freaky, isn’t it?”

Penderghast looked down at Blair in awe. A living mind, perfectly camouflaged against the universe like a cosmic chameleon. Howard didn’t know if he wanted to take the boy as an apprentice or make sure he never so much as looked at a grimoire in his life.

“I may need to speak to your parents some time, Mr. Wilder. In the meantime, try and avoid West Africa, Papua New Guinea, and Kansas. They might try making ointments out of you.” 

“…Okay.”

Penderghast shook his head. Occult finds of the decade could wait. 

He walked over to Linda. 

“So, this might sound like a bit of a silly question, but do you know anything about the Flying Man?”

Linda spun on one foot and rocked on her heels. “Um, I know a bunch of flying men.”

Howard nearly rolled his eyes. He wasn’t terribly practised when it came to young children. And most of the practise he had wasn’t with aliens. More like guerilla fighters and superhuman terrorists. “I mean a very particular Flying Man. He wears a white costume, and until a while ago flew all around the world helping people.”

And making a bloody mess out of everything

“Oh!” chirped Linda. “You mean the dying man!”

Penderghast went a little pale. “Dying?”

Why was he surprised? The poor bastard was nuked

Linda rubbed her chin. “Well, he was dying for a while. But then he got stuck. I don’t think all of him can fit in dead. He wants to, tho.”

“Oh.”

Penderghast didn’t know whether he was relieved or horrified. 

An idea made him change his mind very quickly. So far as he could tell, Joe Allworth was essentially splayed all across the earth like a spilled wineskin. 

Penderghast thought about a bathtub with the stopper pulled out. About all the particles of grime and dirt that got pulled down the drain along with the water.

Deep breath. 

“Do you know where the dying man is, Linda?”

Linda shrugged. “Nope. I bet Pal does, tho.” 

“Your ‘pal’?”

Linda giggled. “No. Pal. Pal-ae-mon.”

Like any good witch or student of the classics (and he was both), Howard Penderghast recognized the name.

He grit his teeth. 

God damn it. More kids?

Previous Chapter                                                                                                            Next Chapter


1. A periodical catering to the global magical community, mainly focusing more on culture and the politics of the day than actual sorcery. As well as sometimes regarded as a gossip-rag, many modern magicians have come to view the magazine as unfortunately backwards looking.

2. A densely forested region of the collective unconscious home to objects and concepts that do not or by definition cannot exist in regular reality, such as the married bachelor or the definitive Western Canon.

3. A similar space that serves as the final destination of all lost things. Intersects somewhat with the realm of Hades.

4. He meant ceiling. Please forgive Blair, he was a child.

5. Mutually dubbed “the sparkle rock.”

6. This being before most toys in the western world were made in China.

7. They decided it was safer to do what the tentacled floating naked child said.

8. The Hamilton Pool Dipping Springs would be barred from public access in 1990, when it was realized that a statistically startling number of swimmers had developed superpowers in the decades since 1967.

9. His “lying eye.”

Chapter Ninety-One: The March of the Superheroes

Thousands of superheroes besieged the ABC Studios at Gore Hill. Their costumes weren’t much to write home about—fishnet stockings, baby-blanket capes, and grease paint domino masks abounded. As for superpowers, the only way this league would be diverting the course of mighty rivers was if everyone picked up a shovel and started digging.

That was, in essence, the basic idea. 

The news that Timothy Valour would be bootlicking the Yank witch-hunters1 on the ABC had travelled down the wire like telepathy. After years of dread, climaxed by two terrorist attacks—the first alone having completely decapitated the Australian government—there was no way the Americans could barge in with another draft. Not even a demi-draft. Not when so many of those demis were children.

That last factor had drawn the attention of Save Our Sons2. Australian supers in Vietnam got the Congress for International Cooperation and Disarmament3 and the Draft Resistance Movement involved. Anything about supers got the Friends of Clark Kent4 up and rearing. The need to scream at a broken world drew thousands more. 

It was probably one of the Friends who raised the idea of dressing up like superheroes. They probably would’ve told you it was a gesture of solidarity with superhumanity. An un-ignorable reminder of all the good supers had done for mankind. 

True enough, but it was also fun. Sometimes you needed fun. 

The two transmission towers were lighthouses surrounded by a gaudy human sea. Tides of beer-gutted Supermen. Waves of frizzy-haired, sun spotted Wonder Women with mismatched bracelets. Even some bold knockoff Flying Men5 (and women) in off-white, sweat-darkened lycra. They broke the banks of the carpark and grounds to flood the surrounding suburb. Enterprising children sold lemon cordial from their front lawns. 

And the sea roared:

Superman stay home! Superman stay home!

Children are not nukes!

Draft pints, not supers!

There were signs, too, of course. A vast forest of them. “REMEMBER THE COMET!” “CHILD-SNATCHERS GET THE ROPE!” and “YANKS GO HOME!” were held aloft in a thousand variations. 

One protestor’s sign was very straightforward:

GIVE US BACK OUR SON!

“The Scarlet Hurricane” wore bright red flannel pyjamas with a dark grey apron tied around her neck. Her face was concealed from the forces of evil under a metal cooking pot, with two triangular holes cut out for her eyes.

Her muffled voice yelled, “No Valour! No Val—” She groaned and lowered her sign. “Ah, bugger it.”

Angela Barnes pulled the pot off her head, panting hard. “Lord help me…” 

Her husband took the pot off his wife. Fred Barnes had chosen to come to the protest in his old dress uniform—in the vain hope someone with sway might see it and feel an ounce of shame— with a green domino mask for that Lone Ranger touch. And so hopefully people wouldn’t throw paint on him. “I told ya the helmet was a stupid idea,” he said, shouting to be heard over the chanting crowds.

Angela brushed a sweat-heavy lock of hair from her eyes. “Oh, be quiet, Fred.” Shaking her head, she raised her sign and got back to chanting. 

Mrs Barnes was still shocked Fred of all people suggested this trip. 

“I thought the only communists raised stinks like that,” she’d said with a tired half-smile.

Fred had grunted, “Better a communist than a Nazi.”

Even if Sydney weren’t the wolf’s lair, they needed to get away from Harvey. Away from the furtive gawking of their neighbours. The smug, tittering whispers hidden behind stage-acted sympathy. And the posters. Their son, staring dazed and scared in scratchy monochrome from every wall and noticeboard.  

They could afford the trip, thanks to what Chen Liu had left in their kitchen. Angela knew that boy was a good lad, deep down. Drew and Sophie could mind the shop for them. They had to keep busy somehow, with baby Julia off with friends on some commune, away from the raptor gaze of the freak-finders.

Angela stabbed at the sky with her sign. “No Valour! No Valour!”  

Hours passed like minutes, punctuated by the occasional gulp from a water-bottle and the dimming of the sky. Valour would be in the studio now, prepping for his two-minute hate. His recruitment spiel.

Angela hoped she never saw it.

An electric current threaded through the crowd. In a shout like a whisper, a woman in a yellow oilskin and a painted blue motorbike helmet asked Angela, “They take your kid, too?”

“Yeah.” 

Mrs Barnes didn’t elaborate. Even in this crowd, she didn’t know what would happen if she admitted to being the mother of the boy who blew up the Prime Minister. 

God help her, she was acting like she was ashamed of Arnold…

“…Fuck ‘em all,” was the woman’s only response.

“Damn right.”

The two women screamed their rage, along with hundreds of other mothers, fathers, and everyone else who dared love someone different. They bore each other’s grief like the Argo on their shoulders. 

This is what it must’ve been like at Jericho.

Eventually, a man in a sequined bathrobe and a purple wizard’s hat started handing out rotten eggs and expired fruit. 

Fred Barnes weighed a stinking grapefruit in his hand like it was a grenade. 

The front doors of the studio opened. Timothy Valour was hustled out between two expressionless Nordic giants in midnight suits, examining his shoes with his shoulders hunched in the universal pose of harried public figures scurrying between their dens. 

Produce arced through the air. Most of it splattered against the orange fluro barricades and police sentries that cut a path through the crowd to Valour’s idling helicopter. 

Fred screamed, “You bastard! I’ve killed men like you! Killed them!”

Valour, of course, kept walking.

“So have I,” he muttered.

Fred Barnes didn’t hear him, though. He was too busy wishing he was more like his youngest son.

Soon, the helicopter lifted off the ground, the chopping whir of its propeller blades forming an underbeat to the chanted insults of the crowd. Timothy Valour was gone. But the protest kept going. It would take hours for that kind of energy to disperse.

Angela, just beginning to feel gentle, distant reminders of how long she’d been on her feet, spotted something. 

She grabbed her husband’s shoulder. “Fred, look!”

Angela pointed at a sign a few rows back from them:

HOW MANY DIED AT NORTHAM?

Fred squinted. “You don’t think—”

Angela was already pushing Fred through the crowd. One small grace to being wheelchair-bound at a mass rally was that you could serve as a human snowplow. 

Fred barked, his tree-trunk arms fending the slower moving members of the crowd aside, “Come on people, out of the way! Crippled veteran coming through!”

Someone shouted, “Piss off, baby killer!”

Fred flipped the bird. “Wrong war, sonny!”

In five minutes they reached the sign. It was being waved about by a young, dirty-blond man in a costume a cut above the standards of the rally. Most of the protestors had just splashed some paint on the brightest cast-offs they could find. This boy was decked out in a ruffled peppermint suit, with a powder blue eye-mask and a feathered stockman hat. The lad on his right wasn’t half-bad, either. He wore a black cloak that made Angela break into a sweat just looking at it, his mouth concealed by a kerchief almost the same shade of red as the cowlick that protruded from under his hood. 

The girl next to them, though, she was the real stunner. Her costume was a pink, bedazzled leotard, paired with enormous horn-rimmed glasses. She was hanging off the arm of a crew-cut boy in old work overalls and laughing into his ear. Hopefully about how bloody out of place he looked.   

Angela cleared her throat. “Excuse me.”

The youths paid her no mind.

Fred let out a commanding shout, “My wife wants to speak to you lot!

The four teens (and a few more people besides) swivelled towards the Barnes like startled owls. 

The boy in the stockman said, “Jeez, sorry mate. We didn’t hear ya!”

The costumeless one raised a finger. “Ain’t exactly a graveyard around here.”

Mrs Barnes ignored the lip. “I take it you’re from Northam? Back in WA?”

The boy in the cloak pumped his fists in the air. “Hell yeah!” 

The other teens exchanged puzzled looks.

His arms wilted. “Yeah, we are,” he said in a much smaller voice.

Angela continued. “So you’d have lived near the New Human Institute.”

“‘Lived near it’?” said the one in the hat. “Lady, we’ve been there!”  He actually started wagging his finger at the Barnes. “I’ll tell you what, there’s a lot about that place the papers aren’t talking about—”

“Our son was taken there,” cut in Angela, evenly. 

“…Oh.”

“Maybe we should find somewhere to sit-down,” said the girl in the leotard. 

The Barnes and the Northamites made their way down to the empty lot of dried-out grass and dirt that lay in the studio’s shadow, chosen as a rest spot by the protest. Belinda Waites laid out a beach towel for them to sit on. Face-painted children ran about them while their parents laughed and conversed over cheap sausages in bread. 

Angela tried to ignore them. It had to have been over a year since Arnold had even been in their home. How much longer? 

“Why don’t you have a costume, son?” Fred asked the lad with the crew-cut.

Eddie Taylor shrugged. “Didn’t feel like it.”

Belinda purred into his ear, “You mean you were embarrassed, love.” 

Bazza grinned and shook his hat at Eddie. “You mean he’s a total Scrooge.”

Eddie waved his hands like he was shooing away flies. “Look, I’m here, aren’t I?” He gestured about at the crowd scattered across the grass. “You don’t see these people dressing up like slopers6, do ya?”

Belinda smiled wryly at the Barnes. “As you can see, my fiancé is a man of great sensitivity.”

Angela noticed a ring flashing on the girl’s finger. She tutted. “Oh, honey, you both are far too young for that.”

Fred glanced at his wife. “It worked for us, didn’t it?”

“Just because we bet it all on black and won doesn’t mean we should go telling kids to do it.”

Eddie curled his lip. “Bit late to tell us now.”

“Technically not…” said Belinda. 

“So, what could your son do?” asked Al, trading one awkward subject for another. “We might’ve met him.”

Fred raised an eyebrow. “Most folks would ask his name, first.”

“Not when we’re talking about the Institute,” pointed out Al. 

Fred and Angela looked at each other. A small, tight nod. 

“He… zaps things away,” said Fred. “Teleportation, I think they call it.”

“Our son is Arnold Barnes,” admitted Angela. “They called him Elsewhere.”

A silence smothered under the chatter of thousands. 

Bazza saw the look on the Barnes’ faces. Like they expected to be spat on.

He broke into a broad grin. “Yeah, we know him! Great kid!”

“He helped us run some supervillains out of town,” said Belinda. “He also ran a lot of our dogs to the Moon, but what can you do?”

Fred smiled. “Was in the papers, that.” The smile faltered. “They didn’t mention my boy much…”

“Wonder why?” said Belinda sourly.  

“Listen,” said Fred. “What you’ve read about our Arnold since then… Canberra and Melbourne… you have to understand…”

Bazza raised his hand. “Hey man, we heard what went on at that place. If I could do a smidge of what Arn and his mates can do, I’d probably be chucking some big fits, too.”

“Yeah,” said Belinda. “I once painted my sister’s kitten with nail polish because she wouldn’t lend me her jumper. Wasn’t even my size.”

“How about we tell you how we met your son?” Bazza offered.

The story was edited somewhat. Eddie couldn’t bring himself to explain what Melusine had done to him, or how they’d been made to forget about it for months. The Barnes didn’t need that clogging their thoughts as well. Also, Eddie didn’t need Belinda knowing why they’d gone to the Institute in the first place.

Best not to mention Melusine at all, really.

Fred was laughing by the end. Angela was trying very hard to keep frowning:

“I’m going to give that boy such a belting…”

“Aww, lighten up woman!” said Fred. He shot a glance at the lads. “No harm no foul, right lads?”

“He’s right, Mrs Barnes,” said Eddie. “Should thank Arn, really. I’ll be dining out on this story when I’m a hundred.”

To Eddie’s surprise, he meant it. Funny what time could do memories like that. 

Then they explained their adventure with the Frightful Three. Those brief golden days when the Institute was actually a part of Northam. 

The stories were like water in the desert for the Barnes. Something of their son not filtered through hateful headlines. 

“We decided to head over here after school was done,” explained Al. 

“Well, Bazza decided. Hard,” said Belinda. 

“Everyone was being so bloody phony.” 

Language,” Angela cautioned the boy.

“Well they were! Folks were acting like those kids were devils, when they’d been giving them free ice-creams last Sunday!” Bazza folded his arms. “Total rubbish.”

“Yeah,” said Eddie. “I used to think they were goblins too, but least I’d never talked to them.”

“Thank you for telling us about all this,” said Angela. “And for coming here. For caring.”

“Least we could do,” said Al.

“No, the least you could do would be nothing. And altogether too many folks are fine with doing noth—” 

Thunder cracked the air.

Everyone glanced instinctively up at the sky. It was summer-barren. Perfect blue.

“Huh,” said Al, “someone’s car backfire?”

Another peal, its echo drowned out by younger thunder. Blast after blast ran into each other. A chorus of cannons.

Fred Barnes reached towards his wife, his expression drawn. “Reckon it’s gunfire?”

Angela put a steadying hand on her husband’s shoulder. “No, Fred. Listen.”

She remembered the thunder. Their son’s thunder.        

It drowned in thousands of shouting voices. 

Andrea pointed up at the sky. “Is that a bird?”

“Nope!” said Bazza. “Looks like a plane.”

It was. What looked like a large, brightly painted passenger-jet was circling low above the studio. How’d they missed that?

There was an all-pervading click. Every radio and stray piece of metal and glass started speaking with a rough, masculine voice. 

…Jesus, McNoll, you’re free to go—I’m on? Christ—just send him off somewhere!

Distant thunder, then a forced cough. 

Good folk of Sydney. It’s me, the Crimson Comet. I’m back.

Murmurs crested over the crowd.

“Holy shit,” whispered Fred. 

Bazza slapped his mates on the shoulders excitedly. “My bloody uncle served with him.”

“Not the time for name-dropping, Bazza,” said Belinda, not taking her eyes from the studio up the hill. 

None of them could make out anything different up there. Just the crowds wiggling and undulating as one, like colourful ants. A super-organism. 

Angela pointed. “Look!”

Two creatures rose above the protestors. One was an angel in silhouette. The other, a sliver of sunlight shaped like a child. 

The Comet spoke again:  

You’re all here for your fellow Australians. Your fellow man. And you came in the uniform of my calling. I’m honoured. The people with me are supers. All of them. Tim Valour had them crammed into a pit in the middle of the desert. I’m sure he’d have a dozen and one reasons why: but don’t matter. He threw them in jail for not being like him.  They—we—just want a fair go. To be allowed to be. And we’re going to get it, if it’s the last thing we do. But we don’t want to hurt anyone. We’re not here to hold the country at gunpoint. We need your help. They can’t say no if they know you’re with us. 

What do you say, superheroes? Want to come and pay Tim Valour a visit?

An explosion of cheers. Applause like hungry flame. 

“Well, let’s get going!        

Angela looked at Fred. “He has to be with them. He has to.”

The crowd in front of the studio started to bleed from the carpark, draining and narrowing down the road that made its way down the hill into the streets. 

The Barnes and the Northamites rushed onto the middle of the road, the rest of the grazers on the lot following like a cargo-liner behind a tugboat. 

Eddie picked up the beach towel as they left, shoving it into his fiancé’s arms. “Tie this around my neck.”

Belinda smiled bewilderedly. “What?”

“Come one, you were the one telling me to get into the spirit!”

Belinda let out a sighing laugh. “Alright, you big kid.”

She quickly and deftly affixed the towel around Eddie’s neck. 

“Call me… the Electrician.” 

Belinda pecked him on the cheek. “The conquering hero.”

Marching in front of the protesters were about two hundred men, women, and children in bland coveralls. The girl dressed in the sun flew above. A white-headed snake with scales of every colour

Leading the procession was the Crimson Comet, new, angular wings outspread. Beside him was an old red haired woman in a black summer dress. She was holding the hand of a brown-skinned boy dressed in water. To that child’s left was a girl dressed in a thousand comic panels, and what appeared to be a humanoid tiger dressed like country-club Robin. 

And then there was the boy at the end. The one in the starry black cloak and the feathered eye-mask.

If nothing else (and there was so much more) there was no chance of Fred mistaking those eyes. Storm-grey, like his mother. 

God, he looked so much like Angela.   

“…Son?”

The boy in the cloak came to a stop with the rest of his companions. The people behind them tried not to collide with their backs. 

The tiger-boy tapped the one in the cloak on the shoulder, pointing at the legless man and his wife staring at them. 

“They—those are your parents…”

Arnold swallowed. All his dreams and nightmares at once. 

Why here? How here?        

Two words, lost in the storm of the mob. 

There was a flash. 

Arnold stood there in his shorts and t-shirt. 

Bazza waved. “Hey Arn! Good to see you all!”

Arnold broke into a run, leaping at his father’s chest and clinging to the man like a drowning child pulled from the sea. 

“Dad, Mum… I…”

The boy trembled. 

“Shhh,” his father sighed. “You don’t have to… anything.”

Angela wrapped her arms around her husband and son, leaning down to rest her cheek against Arnold’s head.

He nestled. “I—I did some bad things.”

Memories of Lawrence lying in his own blood. Kissing David, for some reason. 

Angela’s grip tightened. “Not now.”

Never again, she told the world. Not a prayer but a demand. Never again.  

The sound of small feet against the road. A high, hoarse voice:

“Mr. and Mrs Barnes?”

The elder Barnes managed to look up from their son. Allison Kinsey was standing in front of them, her costume perfect, gleaming white, blending almost obscenely with her pale skin. Her eyes were burning red. 

Angela couldn’t even begin to question either of those facts. “It’s good to see you two have stuck together, Allie.”

It wasn’t a lie, but it would’ve been not too long ago. To Angela’s shame, she’d imagined the girl leading her son astray since Exhibition Hall. 

“My parents, are they here too?”

Fred shook his head gently. “Afraid not, girl.”

The Barnes had invited the Kinseys along. To their shameful relief, they’d said no.

“Oh.” 

Angela sighed and straightened herself, opening her arms. “It’s alright, Allie. We’ll look after you.”

Allison looked around herself, as though worried her mother and father might suddenly appear. Then she gave Angela a quick, tight hug. 

The crowd from the lot quickly assimilated into the march, taking their place just behind the liberated prisoners from Circle’s End. A few lingered up front to pet and fawn over Billy, who made no attempt to deflect the adoration. 

Belinda scratched the boy behind the ear. “Good God, kid. Do you wash in fabric softener?”

Billy beamed, tail swishing. “All natural, ma’am!”

Bazza even got to shake the Comet’s hand. 

“Never thought I’d meet ya. They say my uncle served with you back in the war.”

“What’s your name, son?”

“Bazza Finch.”

The Crimson Comet blinked. “Bazza? As in, ‘Bartholomew’ Finch?”

“Yes…”

The Comet’s smile grew a touch warmer. “Well, you’ve grown.”

“What—”

Bazza suddenly recalled faint, impressionist recollections of a massive fella who’d hung around in the summer sometimes. He felt very dense. 

And so they marched on, pouring out from Gore Hill into the rest of Sydney as a polychrome river. Arnold sat in his dad’s lap as his mum pushed the chair. Probably a good decision. His shoes had gone with his costume. Allison took to the sky again, leading the way like a low-flying Star of Bethlehem. 

She looked back over the human train behind her, taking in the vast soundscape of their songs. She’d never seen so many people in one place, so close together. All there for one thing. 

I made this happen. Me. 

She felt like a grain of sand with the gravity of suns. 

As little houses and corner-stores gave way to tower-blocks and shopping centres, the march came up to a police barricade. Two dozen uniformed officers pointing guns at them from behind metal walls and their own police cars. 

The lead officer barked, “Stay back! Not all of you are bulletproof!”

The Crimson Comet stepped forward. Nobody fired. 

“True,” he said. “We’re not all bulletproof. But I am.”

Slowly, like the beginning of rain, the cops dropped their rifles and pistols. 

Ralph smiled crookedly. “Good choice, mates.”

He looked up at Allison. “Clear us a path?”

Allison cracked her knuckles. 

Green lightning lashed down, banishing the cars and barricades with a boom.

The police shouted and scattered, only to be engulfed as the march fell upon them. Costumed protestors jeered and slapped the officers on the back as they passed.   

For Ralph, it was as if the ground was shoving blood and adrenaline up through his feet. 

Christ, what if Jan sees this? What if she doesn’t?         

For the first time since he put on that costume again, Ralph Rivers felt like a superhero. He kept walking, right out of the past.      

Cars stopped moving as the march approached, allowing the people to flow around them like water around rocks in the sea. Motorists smacked their dashboards as though that was where the engine lived. 

They should’ve looked up at the plane still flying above the march. 

David tapped the window of a yellow Holden, getting the attention of a curly-haired girl in the backseat. They shared a smile. 

The door-lock hammered down. 

The children both rolled their eyes, before Sarah Allworth pulled David forward.

“Don’t dawdle.”

To the old lady’s quiet amusement, she saw some folks hopping out of their cars and walking with them.

Do they even know what this is about? Does it matter?

She looked up at the sky. 

You proud, son? Are we doing the right thing?

How could they not be?

The march turned a corner, slowly, by degrees. Allison spotted the Sydney Harbour Bridge, arching over the boats and blue water like an ornate coat-hanger.

She sighed even as she smiled. It would’ve been brilliant if they’d gotten to cross the bridge. A great picture in a history book.

But their target lay on this side of the water.

⬗  

After the attack at Royal Exhibition Hall, the DDHA found itself in need of a new headquarters. Again. 

It’d been slim pickings. Melbourne wasn’t keen to offer them more office-space, and Canberra still bore the faint scent of ash. 

They’d settled on Sydney. It was good enough for everything else. Some bright-spark had even suggested the DDHA take over the Parliament of New South Wales for the duration. Not like anyone was using it. Pretty much every government function since the start of Black Summer had been held over the phone or in discrete hotel conference rooms. 

They’d said no, of course. As far as the state government was concerned, putting the DDHA in another parliament building would be tantamount painting a bullseye on it. 

Then, to Tim’s dull, uncaring surprise, they offered them Kirribilli House7

It made sense. The house was centralized, set up for communication, and it wasn’t as if Menzies and his wife were using it anymore. 

There were other advantages. The view of the harbour was gorgeous. A security nightmare, as had been pointed out to Tim many times, but gorgeous. Anyone with a boat and a decent rifle could shoot you dead in the back-garden. Not that Tim had been overly concerned: he barely found the time to step outside for fag in the fresh air. Besides, water put him on edge lately. Same reason he had avoided the pool. That and memories one winter old…  

Kirribilli House also had creature comforts aplenty, like bedrooms. Went a long way towards making the all-nighters bearable, even if Tim was still sleeping alone. No way he was keeping Val close by. Not after the bombings.

So yes, in terms of digs, Valour’s life had improved considerably. If only the rest of his circumstances had followed that trend. 

This evening—like every evening the last week and a half—he was sitting in the prime minister’s former office, endlessly mulling over the latest clusterfuck with the DOPO attache.  

“I’m telling you Tim, the SLF was a fraud!”

Tim sighed. “What makes you say that?”

James Lyman glared at the DDHA chief. It was pretty much the only way he could look at people. While he had much the same indermininate middle-aged greyness as most military-intelligence men of their rank, he lacked that common stocky solidity. In fact, Tim thought he looked like an angry stick insect with curly hair. 

“Think about it, Tim.” He also had an unfortunate habit of using names in conversation a touch too often. “These names the guards gave us: ‘Garox,’ ‘Hyper-Hippie,’ ‘Evolvulon.’ Have you ever heard of these guys?”

“No,” admitted Tim. “But that doesn’t prove anything. They are more supers alive now than ever. Maybe they’re just… new.” 

Valour winced as Lyman spat a wad of nicotine gum into a handkerchief. Couldn’t he smoke like a normal fella? Or at least let them set up a spitoon. It put Tim uncomfortably in mind of consumptives. 

“Not a single familiar name? Unlikely. Supervillains are loners at heart. They don’t band together unless they’re desperate or very impressed with each other. The idea that a bunch of freshmen villains trusting each other enough to pull a stunt like Circle’s End? Just to rescue a bunch of other villains? Ridiculous.”

“But we do have familiar faces,” countered Tim. “Allison Kinsey and Arnold Barnes.”

Tim wished he hadn’t mentioned the children. They made him feel like a bastard. An incompetent bastard

He added, “Not to mention Mistress Quickly.”

Valour still wondered about that. Had Lawrence’s children already replaced him?

“That’s an oddity too. Quickly is a definite loner. Also hasn’t been active for a year. As for the children… there’s a certain childishness to the idea, isn’t there? The Supervillain Liberation Front, who want everyone in the world to be supervillains, too. What criminals want more competition?”

Tim had to admit, the attache had a point. 

But he didn’t. 

“You know, that Garox said he was an alien. Maybe they all are? Or most of them, anyway. Would explain why we haven’t heard about him, at least.”

Lyman scoffed. “Tim, do you know how unlikely it is that the rest of the Solar System hosts intelligent life?”

“There’s the Gatehouse.”

The attache leaned over the desk. “Yes there is the Gatehouse, Tim. Don’t you think they would have told us if there was an alien king running around?”

“The Gatehouse doesn’t tell us much of anything.” Tim resisted the urge to remind James of their mutual Physicians. “Besides, where does the Crimson Comet fit into this?”

“Simple. He was in on it.” 

Tim clenched his fists behind the desk. He supposed he couldn’t blame Lyman for paranoia. Reaping and sowing it was his job. The man had been with the OSS back in the war. All blowup tanks and forged intel left on dead men in the sea. These days, they said he had dead Viet Cong drained and strung up near encampments like vampire victims8. Brilliant, stupid schemes were what he was wired for.

But he didn’t know Ralph Rivers. Hadn’t had his life saved by him more than he had fingers. 

“The Crimson Comet is solid, Lyman.”

But then, Valour had known Herbert, too.

Lyman shrugged. “We thought Penderghast was solid.” Maybe not solid enough for some of the more… domestic uses for a sorcerer, but solid. “Nobody knows where the hell he’s been. And at the end of the day, Tim, the Crimson Comet is a super.”

That was one thing Valour had to say for the attache. He didn’t call them bloody ‘sorcerers.’

“It’s perfectly plausible he’d side with other supers”

He was right, Tim realized. Why would he expect Ralph to be alright with a boot on his lot’s necks? Why did he still think he was the good guy?

There was a dull, rising roar. 

For some reason, Lyman sniffed. “Is it raining or something?”

Valour’s secretary swung the office door open. She looked breathless:

“Sir, there’s something you should—”

Windchimes. The walls became transparent. Every single one in Kirribilli House. Electrical wires and telephone cables lay suspended in glassy brick and plaster, as if Henry Gray had gone into architecture. 

Everyone in the office looked through the walls at the front courtyard. It was crowded with a mix of people in white coveralls and knocked together pantomime costumes. Knocked together, that was, except the man with the metal wings and the children clustered around them.

Valour of course, recognized them all.

“Shit,” said Lyman, surprisingly evenly. 

Tim staggered and gripped his desk for support as three voices sounded as one in his head:

Timothy Valour. Come out and speak to us. Alone.” 

Before Valour could take a breath, a lone voice spoke. Allison Kinsey’s:

Oh, and Mr. Thumps.

Timothy collected himself. “Right. Had to happen eventually.”

Against Lyman’s advice, Tim and his manservant left the see-through house to face the mob. The sight of him inspired the crowd to launch into another round of “No Valour!

He ignored the jeers and shouts, looking darkly at the Crimson Comet. “Hello Ralph. You could’ve called ahead.”

Ralph made a pained expression. “Jesus, Tim. Secret identity, mate.”

“You know just how many Ralphs I know?” He looked at Allison standing next to the superhero. 

“Who’s in charge in there? Alberto back for another round?”

“Nope,” said Allison. “But he is laughing right now.”

Without any prompting, Mr. Thumps walked over to the little girl. Gently taking her hand, he said, “Miss Kinsey, what I did to you at the Exhibition Hall…” He lowered his mask of a face. It was the closest thing to an expression that came to him. “Please forgive me. I couldn’t—”

Allison shook her head. “It wasn’t your fault, Thumps. Besides, you saved my life.”

“I did?”

“Sorta. Whatever you did, it was just as good.”

Allison watched the lights behind Thumps’ face grow lilac with relief. She wondered if he could tag along when it was all sorted out. 

Valour was eyeing the ex-prisoners warily. The fact many of them were eyeing him back hungrily didn’t reassure him. 

He looked back at Ralph. “You do know half these people are criminals, right?”

Ralph nodded. “What does it matter? It’s illegal for them to walk around in the light right now. I’m a superhero, Tim not a policeman. Me and the law are only on nodding terms.”

Valour pointed a little desperately at Arnold Barnes, still sitting in his father’s lap. “He’s killed a man, you know. And he’s not the only one!”

Arnold went pale. His father wrapped his arms around him.

“We both know what Lawrence did to them, Valour.”

Tim exhaled. What was the point? There were thousands at his gates. Hundreds of them high-supers. They were seconds away from a riot. A superpowered riot. 

He caught sight of the painted plane hovering above Kirribilli House. He recognized it from some briefings. Probably not a good sign either.

This was a surrender.

“What do they want?”

Why was he still talking like Ralph wasn’t one of them?

Ralph jabbed a thumb towards David and Mrs Allworth. “Well, Davey here still wants you to explode. But we talked him out of it.”

Valour caught sight of David glaring at him with his moon-sea eyes. 

Fair cop, I suppose.

The Comet laid a hand on Allison’s shoulder. “Might want to ask this one here. She got the ball rolling.”

“Alright then. What are your demands?”

Allison remembered something from the Bible. Well, something in a film, from the Bible. 

She stepped forward and grinned, spreading her arms. “Let my people go.”

It was nearly impossible for a hush to fall over a crowd of that size and energy, but for Valour, its roar did grow more distant. 

He took a breath. “I see.” 

He turned and started back towards Kirribilli House. He looked over his shoulder. “Well, are you going to come and witness this? Ensure compliance?” 

Ralph and Allison shared a look, but soon followed the DDHA chief.

One advantage to Kirribilli House’s sudden translucency was that at least nobody was surprised when Valour walked in with the Crimson Comet and a very small wanted terrorist. 

Staff members shouted questions. Tim ignored them. 

James Lyman tried to block his path. “Valour! The hell are you doing? We do not negotiate with terrorists!”

“I’m not negotiating, I’m capitulating.”  

There was an odd freedom to it. He had no choice but to do the right thing. No compromises or politicking. If he didn’t free these people, Sydney would probably be on fire by nightfall. 

And nobody remembered the Pharaoh fondly. 

He found his secretary. 

“Marie, I want you to get on the phone, and get the word out. Emergency order: every demi-human asylum and containment facility is to be abandoned, effective immediately.”

“But sir, what about—”

Marie’s eyes darted to the Crimson Comet and the pale girl.

“The inmates are to be left alone. Completely alone.”

“…Okay.”

Allison and Ralph Rivers watched as the young woman made the call; as mechanically as the computers that would one day replace many of her kind.

Marie lay the phone down on its receiver. “It’ll take a couple of hours for everyone to get the message… I think.”

She winced like she expected the Comet to strike her.

Instead, he gave the woman a small salute. “Thank you, ma’am.”

Marie nodded and smiled queasily. 

Valour pulled a dotted map of Australia down from a chalkboard, rolling it up and handing it to Allison. It was half a head taller than her.

“They’re all marked on there.”

Soon Ralph and Allison were out the front doors again, the latter amusing herself by waving the map behind her like a cape.

Valour followed close behind.

“It’s done,” he told the crowd. “Go get your people.”

Arnold was back on his feet and in costume. Work clothes. “Alright people!” he said, voice amplified by a small metallic patch on his throat. “Orderly lines!”

It took him and Allison a little under ten minutes to whisk away all the supers. All that was left were themselves and the Barnes.

“You sure you’re fine with this?” Arnold asked. 

“We trust you, son,” said Angela, laying across her husband with her arms around his neck.

Fred nodded vigorously. “Been wanting to try this for ages!”

Arnold smiled and pointed. “Three… two…”

Angela looked back out at the crowd. “God bless you all.”

One!

Lightning lashed, sending Fred and Angela away. 

Arnold and Allison took each other’s hands. 

“Want to come with us?” Allison asked Mr. Thumps. 

The drone shook his head with slow graveness. “I have to look after Mr. Valour and Val.”

“Okay. Hope you can visit sometime.”

“This isn’t the end, you know,” said Tim. “I’m sorry, but you’re not making peace here. You’re just robbing us.”

“We know,” said Allison. “Still, better than where we were.”

The children turned to face the part-time superheroes of Sydney. They waved with their free hands.

“Bye!”

A lime brightness, and the supers were all gone.

Tim regarded the costumed tide of people lapping at the courtyard.

“Well, what are you still here for?”

Timothy Valour still slept alone that night. But at least he slept easy. His PSA was never reaired. It was made for a different world.

Allison Kinsey stood at the gates of McClare’s Demi-Human Asylum, her people at her back and standing before her, their collective songs colliding together like two stormfronts. 

The asylum inmates were shouting for release. As Allison remembered, most of them were children. The sun had set and taken the last dregs of daylight with it, but she glowed like the daughter of the moon and sun. 

She called behind her, “I’m taking requests for this one.”

“I can turn metal to sugar!”

“I can turn gravity off!”

The man they called Fo-Fum (still walking with a cane and a limp) shouted, “Use my power, kid! You get to be a giant!”

That sounded fun.

Bassoon. 

Allison’s presence expanded beyond the borders of her body. She clenched fists the size of cars. She could see herself standing twenty feet below her.

The metal walls and gates wrenched themselves out of the ground, hurtling far into the night.

The two crowds merged, before falling upon the asylum in a storm of exultant destruction. 

The supers spent hours tearing that place apart. All throughout, Allison wondered what she would call her town9

Previous Chapter                                                                                                           Next Chapter


1. A term often hurled at the Department of Pyschonautics and Occultism due to their insistence on a purely magical theoretical framework for superpowers. That and some unfortunate early recruitment posters featuring the likeness of Vincent Price.

2. An Australian grassroots movement largely consisting of middle-aged, middle-class women whose sons were old enough to be called up for National Service during the Vietnam War. The group is often seen as representative of a shift in public perception of the war, with opposition no longer limited to the youth and counterculture, but also the “respectable” middle-classes. However, at the time, members of Save Our Sons were often pilloried by the media as hysterical, naive mothers, or “bimbos.”

3. An international pacifist movement heavily involved in the Australian “Vietnam Moratoriums.”

4. A club turned protest group formed by students in Sydney University’s superhuman studies program.

5. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Flying Man’s approval ratings—such as they were—rose considerably after his disappearance.

6. A slur usually referring to people of Vietnamese extraction.

7. The official Sydney residence of the Prime Minister of Australia until early 1966. One might ask why the prime minister needs a residence in Sydney when the national capital is Canberra, but you could also ask why they’re paid more than people who have to work with sewage for a living.

8. Occult consultants had ruled out fielding actual vampires.

9. She settled on Catalpa.

Chapter Ninety: Full Circle

Thunder rolled over the desert dunes as the Crimson Comet was thrown down onto the sand. 

The shadow of Garox, King of Saturn, fell over Ralph Rivers. 

“Surrender, Comet!” boomed the alien. “The day of good and righteousness is done! Now is our time!”

Ralph rolled his eyes. Laying it on a bit thick, Mabel.

The superhero rose back to his feet like he bore an iron crucifix on his shoulders, making sure to take in deep, heavy breaths even as he shouted, “Not bloody likely, Garox! My boys won’t buckle!”

Cheering rang throughout the battlefield, intermixed with roars from the Physician drones. 

Ralph resisted the urge to check his watch. They had to have been fighting for at least an hour. The perfect white disc of the sun was starting to slowly climb down across the empty sky, dulling the yellow sands below. Ralph and Garox had already exchanged three monologues about the struggle between good and evil. The SLF was down to less than twenty members. 

One of the guards had managed to wrench the WAR Correspondent’s camera off him, annihilating villains and the landscape behind them with flash after flash like the world’s worst tourist. “You tell ‘em, Comet!” 

The guard’s comrades had formed a circle around the camera’s owner, beating and kicking him the way Ralph’s old bullies used to. 

The Crimson Comet winced. Prison guards and their ilk always made him uneasy. Partly it was things he’d seen in the war, partly suspicion about what drew blokes into that kind of life. There but for the grace of God went he… 

A splash of paint smacked into the side of Ralph’s head. His vision shattered into bright glassy shards and reassembled into lurid, fractal kaleidoscopes. 

Jagged acid rock blared in his ears, a slow voice droning, “Throw off your chains, man. Become Adam again, free in the garden…

A shot broke through the psychedelia. Ralph found himself trapped in a gooey metallic headlock by the Thing from Venus. Garox was still stood in front of the superhero, but his gaze was turned in horror towards a tye-dyed hippie lying dead in the sand, rainbow paint leaking from a hole in his forehead. 

Garox glared back at Ralph. “Hyper-Hippie will be avenged.”

Ralph groaned.

For fuck’s sake, Mabel.

The Thing from Venus shoved Ralph towards Garox, who knocked down and pinned the superhero under his armoured bulk. 

“This is where your kind belongs, hero! In the dirt!”

The Crimson Comet roared back, “If it’s Aussie dirt, I’ll take it!”

Ralph silently thanked Mabel. He could just lie there and squirm for five minutes if he milked this right.  

Shouts hit Ralph and Garox from all sides. Bullets pinged off the both of them. 

Ralph supposed he should be grateful for the support, though he wondered what the guards would be doing if he weren’t invulnerable.   

He took the opportunity to survey the battlefield. Evolvulon was dead—his great brain splattered across the sand like burst watermelon. The lady astronaut had been gunned down with nary more than a resigned sigh. A human shipwreck, the mechanical Major Malfunction, lay in a pool of oil, shining like blood in the desert sun as it oozed from the tubes and wires spilling from his open midsection.

Ralph would’ve thought Mabel needed to see a shrink, if one hadn’t raised her to begin with. 

One of the Physician’s combat drones stomped over and yanked Garox off Ralph, much to his disappointment. He was enjoying the break.

The drone pulled the villain off his feet up towards his visor and growled, “Surrender!

The creature’s arms were trembling. Garox knew the answer it was was looking for:

“Never!”

Garox drove his gauntleted fist into the drone’s chest. Blood erupted around his wrist. 

The drone shuddered, dropping the alien king. He landed on his feet.

Ralph was getting to his feet, too. 

“Suppose that was a mercy,” he muttered under his breath. “Poor devils.”

There was a noise. Not an uncommon one by any means, but not one often heard. It was the sound of a soap bubble popping, magnified a thousand fold.

Ralph shut his eyes.

A wave of wind and sand blasted over the fighters. When Ralph opened his eyes again, men were coughing and clutching at their eyes.

Finally, one man said, “…What happened to the jail?”

The dust and sand settled. In the distance, you could hear the sound of earth and rock tumbling down a new cliff-face.   

Ralph looked towards Circle’s End Supermax. All that lay beyond the security fence was heat-shimmered air.

He suppressed an urge to hoot. 

They did it. They actually fucking did it.

All at once, the surviving villains broke out in laughter.

Garox let out the hoarse cackle of a long-time smoker. “You fell for it! You all bloody fell—” He cleared his throat and continued. “Foolish Earth-clingers, your attempts to keep us from our prize were in vain! While you struggled against the weakest of our forces, my allies spirited away your flimsy prison to my fortress on Titan, great moon of Saturn! Now, our program of villainy may truly begin!” 

Garox threw his hand to the sky. “Supervillain Liberation Front, away!”

Garox vanished, along with the rest of the SLF, corpses and all.  

“Jesus Christ!” a guard shouted. “Fuckers stole the jail!”

“What about the guys we left back there?”

Ralph dusted himself off and shook his head gravely. “Gone too, I’d expect.” He raised  “I should’ve known this is what they were planning.” He looked around at the guards with counterfeit solemnity. “I brought them to your doorstep. I’m sorry.”

“It’s not your fault, Comet!” someone insisted. “You can’t tell what these freaks have up their sleeves!”

Smooth

“What do we do now?”

The Crimson Comet turned away from the crowd and started walking towards the shadow of Circle’s End. “I get back on the trail. You fellas rest up and get word out to the freak-finders.” Ralph suppressed a grimace. “It’s all I can ask of you.”

Protests.  

Ralph looked back over his shoulder. “Trust me, you’ve done enough.”

The Crimson Comet became a streak of red-gold light, trailing off towards the horizon, leaving the remaining guards of Circle’s End Supermax behind.

Questions without answers. Haltering conversations miscarrying in the desert heat. Angry, frightened curses upon all super-kind—with the rare, unspoken exception of good blokes like the Comet. The hysterical, chemical stillness of the Physician’s sons. 

“…Bugger this!” shouted one guard. 

His fellows turned towards him in ripples. 

The man glanced around at the other men. “The Crimson Comet’s the only reason we’re not stuck on fucking Jupiter or wherever! And we’re gonna let him chase after these maniacs on his own?”

A rumble of offense like an earthquake. 

“I say we help a mate out! Who’s with me?”

Cheering broke out amongst the crowd. No doubt Ralph would’ve been inspired, if it weren’t so bloody annoying.

⬗      

Mabel leaned back against the tree and shut her drawing book, deeply satisfied. 

She’d done good, Mabel thought. Her and Dad. 

“Did we do it?” asked Mrs Allworth.

“Yep,” said Mabel, smiling. “Prison’s all gone. Saw it through like, a dozen sets of eyeballs. Few  robot sensors, same thing really.”

Sarah looked off into the middle distance, blinking at lights that were not there. “Good Lord…”

Mabel looked up at the old woman. “You alright, Mrs Allworth?”

Sarah shook herself. “Yes Mabel, I’m fine. I just—I never saw myself stealing a prison. A whole building, like it was a magazine or a bottle of whiskey! I never even took grapes from the grocery store. Seems more like something my Joe would’ve done…” A chuckle. “I should track down the boy who always tried sneaking chocolates from our store. Show him a real thief.” Sarah pushed her glasses up the bridge of her nose. “Not that I had much to do with it. It was you and Mr. Rivers and Miss Quickly and your friends who pulled this off.”

“Aww, don’t say that. You helped us find Mistress Quickly!”

“That was Blancheflor, if you’ll recall.”’

“But you made him help. We’d probably have had to pick apart his big computer brain if you hadn’t.”    

Sarah smiled and patted Mabel’s hand. “Very kind of you to say, child.” Mrs Allworth’s face grew stern as she glanced around the derelict mainstreet. “Where’s that boy gotten to?”

Mist spiraled down from the sky in front of the pair, solidifying into David bouncing on his heels—still in his costume for once. He beamed at Mabel. “That was amazing!”

He ran over and pulled his friend up by her hands, jumping up and down and trilling, “There was explosions and punches and lasers and you beat up so many dumb humans!” 

“Hope we get to do it again. Got even more villains drawn up I couldn’t fit in.”

Mrs Allworth frowned. “Never hope for more fighting, Mabel. And where were you during all this, David?”

“Watching Mabel’s baddies, duh!”

“Don’t ‘duh’ me, boy! You were supposed to be guarding her with me.”

David scoffed. “I coulda exploded anyone who got close.”

“Don’t talk like that!”

“But I could!” David looked Mabel right in the eye, stating plainly, “You are the most amazing girl I have ever met.”

Mabel grinned. “I know.”

The Crimson Comet came to a skidding stop at the top of the street, bridging the gap between him and the others at a normal run. “Right! Time to go!”

“Did they buy Da—Garox’s story?” asked Mabel.

“I think so?” replied Ralph. He glanced over his shoulder. “Thing is, now they’re following me.”

“What, why?” asked David.

“Didn’t exactly stop to ask them,” said Ralph. “I’m guessing they’re like a bunch of lost baby ducks.”    

The desert quiet was dissolving. A drumroll of trundling engines and distant shouting. 

Icarus.”

Ralph’s wings folded onto his back. He hoisted up Mabel in a bridal carrying, making the girl yelp in surprise. 

“How strong are your arms?” he asked Mrs Allworth.

She hummed dubiously. “…Strong enough.”

The Crimson Comet thundered across the desert, trampling the ground underfoot with the power of a one-man elephant stampede and throwing up a wall of dust and sand behind him. 

In his arms, Mabel cheered. “Whoo!”

“How are we doing, Mrs Allworth?” Ralph asked over the roar of the wind.

He felt the lady’s arms tighten around his neck.

“Remembering why I didn’t let Joe take me flying, thanks!”

David flew alongside the human juggernaut, his body phantasmic mist. Looking back, he felt very silly for not realizing how easy it was to fly. Thinking like a human instead of what he was, he guessed.

Soon, Mistress Quickly’s mobile bunker came into view, rushing towards them as Ralph’s charge picked up speed.

David warbled, “Hey, wasn’t the door supposed to be open for us?” 

Ralph squinted. Maude said the plane would be left ready for them to board. But the stairs were retracted, the cabin door shut.

The Crimson Comet came to a stop as hard as if he’d hit a wall.

Sarah’s grip faltered.  “Oof! Bit of warning next time?”

“You can get down now, ma’am,” Ralph said evenly.

Sarah let go. Ralph set Mabel on her feet. 

“What’s going on?” asked the girl.

“I’m not sure.”

Ralph started walking slowly towards the plane. 

A blast of lightning sent the superhero leaping backwards.

Microphone feedback. A little boy’s voice:

“Stay back! I’m warning you!”

Ralph shook his head. “What the—”

Mabel groaned. “Allison said they might be putting some kids in the plane. One of them must’ve woken up and started playing with the buttons.”

Ralph looked behind him. Tiny, shadowed men and trucks crawling towards them like growing army ants. He was suddenly reminded that this was a plan thought up by a nine year old.

“Boy,” Mrs Allworth shouted, “we’re not going to hurt you! We’re here to help!”

“Shut up! I’ve been pounced on, knocked, and now you’ve shoved me on some weird plane! Just leave me alone!”

A bullet whistled past the group.

Daedalus!”  

Ralph pulled Sarah and Mabel into his chest as his wings unfolded. “Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.”

“Language!”

“Not the time, ma’am!”

“Oh, don’t worry,” said David, still misty. “I’ll sort him out.”

He flew towards the plane, dispersing till he seemed one with the thin air.

Ralph grit his teeth. “Any idea what he means by ‘sort him out’, Mabel?”

“…No.”

It wasn’t easy for David to seep into the bunker cabin. The plane was meant to go into space when Mistress Quickly wanted. But nothing is completely airtight.

He coalesced into ice behind the child plucking away the pilot’s console. 

His molecules vibrated, “Hey, kid.”

The boy swung around and shot at David, blasting away his shoulder with a stolen raygun.

David glanced at the wound as new water flowed over it and froze. “Not gonna work, mate.”

Doc Danny whimpered. He clutched his gun with both shaking hands and fired again, hitting David in the chest. 

David’s neck cracked and creaked as he looked down at the bevelled hole blown through him. A sigh like wind over ice fields. 

His body melted all at once, the water evaporating before it could hit the ground. The cloud drew up and around Doc Danny, plunging the young super-scientist into David’s cold glass-harp voice:

“Stop being a git and give us back our plane!”

Doc Danny squeaked, flailing and swiping at the mist. 

Easiest thing would be to kill him. David seriously considered it. Wouldn’t be hard. Just scramble his brains…

That was what Grandfather would do. Without a question. But doing things the granddad way wasn’t making him happy anymore. And Mabel would be mad at him. Right when they were having fun together again—  

Who cared? This kid was putting Mabel in danger. His Mabel. Screw him!

The mist swirled around Danny faster. Tiny flecks of ice bit at his skin.

She didn’t have to know. David could liquify his flesh and stash his bones on the plane somewhere. He could tell everyone he teleported away. That was something people did, sometimes… 

David felt hot, angry tears leak from Doc Danny’s eyes. The boy screamed, “Piss off! I’m sick of it! I did what everyone told me, because they said I wasn’t a real super! That I should be on their side! Then they say I am a super and throw me in jail to get beat up by the rest of them. Then I try to help them, and they never-never me wherever without asking! What am I supposed to do?”

David’s mist slowed. The ice-shard melted. He condensed into boy-shape again, this time flesh and blood. 

Doc Danny panted, but didn’t raise the gun again. 

“You’re from the prison, right?”

“I just said that!”

David pointed a finger at one of the security monitors hanging above the controls. “Well, the guards are coming to get us.”

Doc Danny swung around to look at the screen. The remnants of the Supermax guards were indeed gaining fast, a phalanx of black trucks ahead of a line of men and drones. 

The boy growled, his freckles bunching together into leopard-spots. “Like hell.” 

He stabbed at a few buttons.

Outside, Ralph Rivers looked up to see a large black projectile arcing from the plane over his head.  

The thing landed a few paces ahead of the guards, before exploding into a baby-blue mushroom cloud.

Screams echoed over the desert, but not quite of pain. 

David looked over Doc Danny’s shoulder at the last button he pressed.

“Mozzie gas.” He squinted at the other boy. “You hit them with bug-spray?”

Doc Danny grinned sharply. “Nope. It’s gas that itches like mozzie bites.”  

David laughed and slapped Danny on the back. “Okay, you’re fun. Mind letting my friends in before the idiots stop scratching their arses?”

“…Sure.”

In less than a minute, Ralph, Sarah, and Mabel were clambering up the bunker’s retractable stairs. David and Danny were standing in the middle of the cabin.

Doc Danny rubbed his arm, eyes turned down towards his feet. “Sorry for locking you out.”

“Yeah, yeah, we forgive you.” Ralph turned his eyes up towards the ceiling. “Auto-pilot, get us to rendezvous alpha, stat!”

An inauthentically placid impression of Maude’s voice said, “Crimson Comet voice-print acknowledged. Please take a seat.”

The antigravity strips under the plane’s wings lit up, buoying up the mobile bunker on a cloud of virtual particles before its jets launched it into the empty sky.

From a white leather chair next to one of the windows, Mabel watched Circle’s End disappear for the last time. She smiled at the site of the deep, wide pit where the Supermax had been.

Mabel Henderson was a lot like her father. Today, they were both miners.

Circle’s End Supermax did not appear on Titan. Instead, it re-entered real-space amongst vast tree-dotted grass plains near the Northern Territory coast, still bright green from the last wet-reason, the air spiced with the faintest suggestion of sea-salt. Just as Maude Simmons had projected, the whole complex loomed over the landscape like a new Leaning Tower, its formerly buried heights now exposed to the sky. 

Clearing out the guards and staff wasn’t hard. Arnold and his new personal guard rose through the complex, scattering resisters to the winds.

One of the canteen cooks charged at the teleporter with a ladle, screaming, “You’re not getting—”

A green flash. The man was gone. 

“Where’d you send him?” asked Andrea, mentally keeping tally. 

Arnold grunted. “Peru.”

Meanwhile, Allison and Maude came across a long, dark chamber, its walls lined with riveted steel coffins with poison-green windows. Songs radiated from each one—tightly ordered notes of pure rage.

Drone storage.

“So, what do we do with them?” asked Allison. “They’re sorta people.”

“Dangerous people,” elaborated Maude.

“Still, killing them might be murder, I think?”

Maude nodded. “Not the image we want right now.” She made a pinching gesture. “Put a cork in it, I think?”

“Agreed.”

They kept Frances McNoll. They had plans for him. Besides, he helped Maude decide who to let out of their cells.

“Harold Franks, no alias recorded. What’d he do?”

McNoll sighed in his chair. “He resisted confinement at Roberts.”

“Right then.” Maude checked Harold’s name on her list. “Vera West, alias Cyclone Sigma.”

“Grand larceny and assaulting a police officer.”

Maude laughed. “Amateur hour.” Check. “Name unknown, alias Ixchel. Bit of an outside reference, I respect that, but what about their resume?”

“Building without a permit.”

A scoff. 

“The building was made out of cats.”

“…Scratch that.”

Just as she said, Thunder-Tiger’s parents were both there. 

“Mum! Dad!”

The little girl ran into the supervillains’ waiting arms, forming a kind of human sandwich.

Her father tried to hold back tears by focusing on Billy and Allison watching from the side. “Told ya, Thunder, in company we’re…”

His girlfriend let out a choked laugh. “Oh, shut up, John.”

Both Billy and Allison tried not to look directly at the scene. It hurt too much.

“So,” Maude said to her latest release. “You were a superhero?”

“Yep,” answered the thin young man. “The Neon Ghost. Was chasing up leads for a book when I got dunked in some concoction… they don’t have our gear here, do they?”

Maude gave the Ghost a flat look. “We both know they don’t. They’re not that stupid.”

The Ghost sighed like one of his namesakes. “Yeah. I just really liked that trenchcoat…”

All in all, they only left ten prisoners in their cells. Soon, everyone who could fly or swallow their fear of heights enough for one of the former to ferry them down was gathered in the shadow of the new tower.

Tom, surprisingly, didn’t need Allie’s help down. He simply turned transparent and walked down through the air like it was a spiral staircase. 

“I didn’t know you could do that,” Billy commented when he reached the ground. 

“Sure I can,” replied Tom. “I’d fall through the floor otherwise.”

Louise jumped down next to the boys and pointed to the sky. “Plane’s coming!”

Mistress Quickly’s mobile bunker descended onto the grass vertically, no runway needed. Ralph Rivers and his companions quickly disembarked and approached the crowd.

The sight of the Crimson Comet drew cheers from most of the prisoners, quickly silenced by glares from the supervillains amongst them. 

Ralph swallowed. He hoped to God he could sell this to them. 

An older man gently cleaved from the throng of people. Even in his off-white prison coveralls, he carried himself with a patrician stride. The wrinkles of his face and his handlebar moustache gave him the air of a graceful, intellectual walrus. 

Ralph smiled crookedly when he recognized the man. “Close-Cut. I didn’t think we’d be seeing each other again.”  

“Nor did I, Comet. The young lady and the children tell me you helped them spirit us away somehow.”

The Crimson Comet nodded. “A bit, yes.”

“Why would you help a prison break? You don’t exactly bat for our team.”

“This place was a concentration camp. I’m a superhero, helping folks is my job. No matter who.”

Close-Cut raised an eyebrow. “Even us criminals?”

“You knocked over a few banks and a fabric store. They’re locking up kids. Who cares?”

The supervillain nodded. “What happens now?”

Ralph took a breath. “We crack open every stinking one of these prisons. Carve out a place where kids like us can be safe. If you and yours want to help.

Murmurs and distant bird-calls.

The two men shook hands.

Previous Chapter                                                                                                            Next Chapter

Chapter Eighty-Nine: The Harrowing

Mistress Quickly landed in soft darkness:

A slide? Who built this place? A kid?

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

Maude gave it a pat. “Good boy.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“This modular holding environment—”

“This cell, you mean.”

Why was she talking to a recording?

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

“No points for guessing which comes first…” 

“As a low-powered, low-risk inmate—”

“Piss off!”

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

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

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

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

Definitely the latter.    

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

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

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

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

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

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

She could still read. Good.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She muted the recording. 

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

“Kitten boy?”

“You know it’s apt, kid.” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s this?”

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

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

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

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

Billy cleared his throat. “Can I try?”

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

“No…”

“Go ahead.”

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

Billy smiled to himself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Feels funny…”

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

Maude shoved her hand into a weapons-pouch. 

Mirth.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Billy waved. “Hey Miri!”

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

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

Maude snapped her fingers. “Focus, girl.”

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

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

“The power room? Yep! Just a sec.”

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

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

“Did you drug him?”

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

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

Miri frowned. “Boy.”

Maude reminded herself to never let Allison touch her.

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

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

Miri was quiet for some time.

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

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

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

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

Maude shrugged.

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

The elevator doors opened before Miri could respond. 

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

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

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

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

The techie groaned.

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

Billy blinked. “Tom?”

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

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

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

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

“…Should I answer that?”

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

“And they are?”

“Armagetcha and Miss-Demeanor!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

It screamed. 

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

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

It put Maude in mind of a drowning chandelier. 

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

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

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

“Shut up.” 

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

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

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

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

Yes.”

Allison sighed. “Can you work with it?

“Oh, yeah. Shouldn’t take—”

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

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

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

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

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

“The hell—”

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

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

“Looking for these?”

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

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

“You asked for it..”

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

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

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

Many out of synch cries of “Mercy!”

Tom golf-clapped. “Nice one, Ann.”

“I try,” said Ann. 

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

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

Languidly, the boy zapped away the guards. 

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

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

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

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

Thunder-Tiger blinked. “Maude?”

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

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

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

Billy gave the thumbs up.

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

Klaxons. Again. But a new message:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Electric guitar.                

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

Xylophone. 

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

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

A bullet whizzed through her wireframe body. 

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

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

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

The girl started walking towards the Warden.

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

McNoll fired again. Allison dodged again, laughing. 

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

“It wouldn’t have worked anyway.”

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

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

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

“See?”

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

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

There was a second of hanging quiet.

Self-destruct cancelled. 

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

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

“It’s what I was supposed to do…” 

“Sounds dumb.”

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

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

“…Can I ask you something, girl?”

“Why not?”

“What’s it like?”

“What’s what like?”

“That power. Having it inside you.”

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

Somewhere, Alberto smiled.

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

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

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

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

She pushed the button. 

And they were gone. 

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1. Technically before she became “Professor Wit.”

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

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

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

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

Chapter Eighty-Eight: The Garden of Earthly Delights

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

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

Tom and Louise both frowned. 

“Ah, sorry. Force of habit.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah,” said Arnold. “We got out.” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ah, you alright Allie?” asked Tom.

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

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

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

The other inmates laughed derisively. 

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

Arnold lip curled. “Chester Fingers?”

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

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

Allison frowned. “The heck—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Allison glared fire at the clown. “Normal?”

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

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

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

“That sounds kinda cool…” murmured Arnold.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arnold grinned. “Bunnies!” 

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

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

The clown winked with an audible twinkle.

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

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

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

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

“Figures,” said Allison.

“We can never tell Billy about this.”

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

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

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

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

“Maybe not.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Weird.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Eww, ewww, eww…”

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

Everyone breathed a sigh of relief.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arnold grinned

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

“Sure. Softie.”

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

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

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

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

“I hear ya.”

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks,” said Allison. 

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

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

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

“Served him right,” added Angela.

Tom looked a touch queasy at that.

“Huh,” said Allison. “Like Daedalus.”

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

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

“Take us to him,” said Allison.

The inmates exchanged looks. 

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

Neither Arnold nor Allison needed to be told why.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Louise stared at the other girl. “What?” 

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

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

“Jesus,” said Tom. 

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

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

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

Tom nodded thoughtfully. “Guess that figures..”

“And now we live in his house.”

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

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

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

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

“Crap.”

“…I killed Lawrence.”

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

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

“I know.”

A second’s quiet, then Arnold shrugged. 

“He was an arse though, right?”

“Totally.”

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

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

A small whimper echoed out from the concrete block. 

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

“Again,” muttered Louise. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Get back here—”

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

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

Oh, yeah, treadmill. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Allison got off him. “Thank you.”

Come on, Comet, get a move on.

The other inmates gathered around the two.

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

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

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

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

Allison nodded at Arnold. “Now!”

The pair struck the most dramatic poses they could:

“Costume on!”

A white flash.

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

Their collars were gone. 

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

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

Hi, Miri. 

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

…Hi Alberto.

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

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

“Wow,” said Tom. “You look neat.”

Louise looked at her friend, surprised. 

“Well, she does.”

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

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

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

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

“I’m smart again!”

“Yep”

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

A murmur of confusion snaked through the inmates.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Everyone get back!”

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

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

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

“Okay,” said Allison. “Now—”

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

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

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

The floor’s like a sliding puzzle.

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

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

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

Arnold looked around. “Allie?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

The inmates exchanged looks. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter Eighty-Seven: The Supervillain Liberation Front

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

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

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

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

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

“Allison.”

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

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

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

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

“Yeah. That’s why I didn’t tell.”

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

“Maybe.”

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

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

“It’s not spooky!”

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

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

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

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

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

“You’ve been hogging him!”

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

“You take that back!”

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

The children both looked at Sarah. 

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

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

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

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

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

David sniffed.

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

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

“I don’t know how to go back there.”

“Me neither.”

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

“Yep.”

“I still love you and junk, Mabel.” 

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

“Okay.”

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

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

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

“Blancheflor, for one.”

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

“Are Maude and the kids in?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mabel nodded. “Okay.”

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

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

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

“It was a sapling when I left…” 

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

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

“I know,” said Mabel.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She sighed and turned a page.

“Ooh,” said Sarah, “I like that one.”

Mabel gave her a small smile. “Thanks.”

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

Or smallpox scars.

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

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

Mabel leaned back against the gnarled bark and smiled sadly.

Go get em’, Dad.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Icarus.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Wings that changed shape…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gross straight guy talk. 

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

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

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

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

“Ah, could the Crimson Comet report to my office? Please?”

Oh, thank fuck. 

Ralph practically tipped over the table in his haste to obey, but he couldn’t resist firing just one jab over his shoulder as he went: “Are you boys really that desperate?”

Frances McNoll was pacing back and forth in front of his space-age desk, plowing a trench in the thick shag carpet.

The Crimson Comet flung open his office door:

“What’s going on, warden? Bloody siren just about popped my eardrums!”

McNoll let out a high-pitched yelp of surprise. The last thing he needed right now was people who dressed like that bursting in on him.

“I—they…” He pointed resignedly at his desk. “Just look at the screen.”

Ralph rushed behind the work station. He whistled at the sight of the inbuilt television monitor. “Wow, colour! Wish I had one of these for the old Fortress of Solitude…”

“Focus, man, focus!”

Ralph made a show of blinking in shock. 

The monitor was tuned to a camera facing out over the raw desert plains between the Supermax complex and the Circle’s End ruins, where a crowd of loudly costumed figures had gathered in a loose rabble. Some of them were only recognizable as people because they happened to be screaming and shouting, albeit mutely  Many were waving bizarre weapons: startlingly streamlined ray-guns, laser-swords, or in one case, an oversized camera with a glowing green rod jutting out of it1. The whole scene was like a Georges Méliès film from a world where colour had come before talkies. 

The Crimson Comet tutted gravely. “Just as I feared—”

By a stroke of kismet, Mrs Allworth chose that moment to switch on one of the gadgets Mistress Quickly left her:

The sirens died, replaced by a gravelly voice heavy with menacing bass notes:

Circle’s End Supermax, your ears are privileged to hear the voice of Garox: Emperor of Saturn and its associated moons, and acting leader of the Supervillain Liberation Front!

If Frances McNoll weren’t completely filled with terror right then, he might have been surprised such a voice belonged to royalty. It sounded more like colleagues he’d known whose life choices could be boiled down to “tradie,” “prison-guard,” or “prison-guarded.” A small part of him dimly recalled hearing that Saturn didn’t have a solid surface, but that was drowned out by the rest of him screaming.  

Ralph, conversely, had to suppress a smile.  

Garox continued, “Listen here, Circle’s End. You are harbouring one of our enemies, the blasted Crimson Comet! He has delivered three of our greatest allies into your filthy human hands: Mistress Quickly, Elsewhere, and the mighty Symphony, sum and total of us all! You have but one hour to hand over them, along with the rest of your inmates!

Frances shook his head. “He can’t be serious…”

“Dead serious, I’m afraid,” said the Crimson Comet. “I barely escaped the SLF with my life.”

A new voice replaced Garox, this one high and wheedling:

I am Evolvulon: man from the year One Billion AD.

“The year One Billion?”

“I think he’s rounding up,” commented Ralph. 

The history crystals of my time reveal that all attempts at resisting the SLF are doomed to failure. We will succeed in transitioning the Earth into a supervillainy based economy. That is all.”

Ralph had wondered during the planning sessions if Evolvulon was over-egging things a bit, but given how McNoll was clutching the sides of his head and cursing at the carpet…

“Shitting fucking Hell!” The warden glared up at the Crimson Comet. “What does ‘supervillainy based economy’ even mean?” 

The Comet shrugged. “I didn’t stick around for a lecture. I think it means everyone gets powers and a costume. Oh, and instead of jobs, people do heists.” The superhero smiled and twirled a finger next to his head. “Wacko, right?”

Mcnoll growled, “You brought them here.”

Ralph’s expression snapped back to solemn. “I’m sorry, Warden. I was sure I’d lost them around Kalgoorlie.” He let out a theatrical sigh. “It’s my fault.”

Frances moaned. “What am I going to do?”

“Well, you could do as they say?”

Worth a shot.

McNoll sputtered. “Are you mad? I can’t hand over a hundred and ten demis to other demis! Valour would shit down my throat!”

Ralph believed him. “Of course not, I was joking.”

“Clearly!” The warden’s knees nearly gave out beneath him. “We’re all gonna die, we’re all gonna die…”

Ralph sighed again, this time genuinely. He walked over to the warden and gently took the man by the shoulders. “Calm down, mate. We can get through this.”

Frances looked up at the superhero. The beginnings of tears were beading in the corner of his eyes. In a very small voice, he asked, “We can?”

Ralph nodded. “You just have to trust me. I have a plan.”

Those words were like pure light to Frances McNoll. Big decisions were the one aspect of authority he could do without. The warden of Circle’s End Supermax was a creature of routine and protocol; carrying out orders from higher ups so distant, they might as well have been God Himself. 

One aspect Frances was very into, though, was deferring responsibility. 

  Within twenty minutes, the Crimson Comet was standing on the access road in front of the prison, preparing to address over two hundred and fifty guards and soldiers. Not a bad turnout. Allison no doubt would’ve liked even more of them out here, but every bit helped.  

For every two true humans, there was one hulking Physician drone, their faces concealed behind armoured black gas-masks. Ralph wondered if they even had faces under there2. He could make out their muscles twitching with anticipation under their Kevlar sleeves. If what Blanchefor had told Ralph about them was true, this was probably like standing at the gates of Paradise for them.

Ralph cleared his throat. “I know you all must be frightened—”

Hundreds of shouted protests. Vain fools. But not strictly speaking incorrect

“…Or not. The enemies we go to fight are fierce! Inhuman! But we are men. Today we fight not only for our lives, but for the future of our country! Perhaps the future of the bloody human race! And are we going to let a bunch of freaks trample on us?

A “No!” like the roaring sea. 

One near the front though raised his hand like a boy in a classroom. “But the future man said he knew we’d lose…”

Ralph glared at the guard. This was no time for  short-term memory.

“Well, of course he’d tell you that, wouldn’t he? Use your head!”

The dissenting guard’s neighbours all started booing and shoving the poor bastard. 

Ralph raised a hand, barking. “Enough of that! We have a job to do! Follow me!”

Ralph turned and launched himself out onto the desert, scorching the road and fusing the sands below him into glass.

Behind him, a siren blared the windowed rim of the prison building closed shut like a frightened clam. Lockdown. Just as McNoll eagerly promised the Comet. Just as Allison had hoped. 

Ralph came to a sharp stop with the help of his new wings. Had to give the men time to catch up. He wished he had a cigarette. 

The Supervillain Liberation Front were still milling about when the Crimson Comet and his conquering army fell upon them. 

Garox roared, “Attack!”

 In seconds, the desert plains burned with combat. A squad of men tried to flank the WAR Correspondent, only to get blown back with the force of a focused hurricane as he manically snapped picture after picture. The villain giggled shrilly. “I’m shoo-in for the Pugilitser with these snaps!” 

Ralph rolled his eyes. He wondered whether he ought to compliment or chastise Mabel for that one later. 

 Bullets bounced off Sam Stretch’s elongated form like raindrops on a trampoline, until a couple of drones managed to grab him by the arms, savagely pulling until the rubber-man tore in half, splattering the surrounding guards with blood like corn syrup.

Most of the guards caught in the splash-zone squirmed and groaned in disgust. A few of the less battle-high ones even screamed. The drones roared in pure, ecstatic triumph.  

Evolvulon was standing serenely in the middle of the fray, fired bullets orbiting him while half a dozen guards thrashed and shouted ten feet above his head. A drone was struggling to escape the heavy liquid grasp of the Thing from Venus.

If any of the guards or dones were in any state to objectively examine their situation, they might have noticed that they’d failed to sustain any casualties. The SLF seemed content to just knock about the forces of the Supermax, even as their own numbers were slowly, painfully whittled down. One side was playing Cowboys and Indians, the other Vietnam. 

Ralph was “dodging” poorly-aimed energy bolts from a lady astronaut’s laser-gun when he found himself being pulled around by his shoulders.

He found himself facing a blue-armoured brick wall of a man with a face made of rock and almost purple eyes. Garox, if Ralph recalled right.

Ralph Rivers grabbed Garox’s hands and pushed him back. Garox resisted, the force of their grappling sending shockwaves through the sand surrounding them. 

The guards were cheering. The “villains” were jeering and snarling like the caricatures they were.

The fictional tyrant shouted, “You’ll pay for this, Crimson Comet!”

Garox winked. Ralph winked back.

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1. Mabel thought of it as plutonium, not that plutonium ever glows green in such a manner.

2. They did. The Physician deemed jaws to be a useful weapon in a pinch.

Chapter Eighty-Six: Purgatorium

Warden Frances McNoll was painfully out of place in his office. He was a stolidly middle-aged civil servant whose slightly oversized midsection could’ve terminated at the waist in a complaints desk. Yet here he was parked behind what resembled a starship’s command console, bejeweled with gently flashing switches and buttons. It’d taken McNoll the better part of a month to figure them all out, with the manual. 

The whole room was the nightmare brainchild of mod mad-science and baroque alien design. The walls were a mess of clashing pastels, holding up a mirrored ceiling reflecting down the pink shag carpet like a hairy sunset sky.  

The decor didn’t bother the warden. He was its boss, goddamnit! 

Circle’s End Supermax was a crime. A place where people were left to be forgotten or rendered down into second hand miracles, where even a life sentence was too finite. A place where the only crimes that mattered were accidents of birth and chance.

A better man would have balked at being asked to run such a place. A worse man could have nurtured it into an empire. Frances McNoll, though, was content with being called “sir.”

The DDHA and Australian prison service could’ve done much worse than put Frances McNoll in charge of the Circle’s End Supermax. He wasn’t a sadist by any standard. But fifteen years at Fremantle Gaol had thoroughly calloused McNoll’s social conscience. He didn’t question that men and women he knew as heroes, and children not ten years old were left to rot in his prison. He was courteous and obliging when Dr. John Smith and his disciples came looking for test subjects.

That was only the bare minimum for the job, though. What made Frances McNoll a perfect fit was his utterly unambitious power lust. It was the same clammy thrill he got being picked for milk monitor1 in primary school. It was what inspired awed jealousy in him watching the prefects march through the halls in grammar school. The simple, pure power to say, “No. Do this.” And wielding that power at the behest of absent authority meant he didn’t even have to think of what to say. 

Not that Frances would ever have put it in those words. Far as he was consciously concerned, the chief benefits of his position were the paycheck and the excuse to not live with his family. He did hope he could retire directly after it, though—Frances wasn’t sure how you put running a secret prison on your resume.   

The television screen built into McNoll’s desk cycled through different camera-views while he sipped his coffee and thumbed through a copy of Women’s Day2. Soft desert plains glowing red like the sea at dusk behind a force-field reinforced fence. Burned out hovels in the Circle’s End Quarantine Zone, empty for the moment of hazard suited scientists waving geiger counters like dowsing rods. The Level 7 holding cells: ten spheres of silver cogs sunk halfway into the floor—each containing a trapped super like a carton of eggs.

The uncertain voice crackled from the speaker on McNoll’s desk. “Uh, sir, there’s a superhero parked at the fence.”

Huh. Frances wasn’t expecting Valour till Thursday. “Buzz him—” His eyes bugged. “What?”

“I mean, fella’s all dressed up in a shiny red costume, so I’d put money on it. He just rolled up in this panel-van—oh, he’s opening the boot. He’s pulling out… some kids? And a naked lady? And they’re all tied up—” A pause. “Are we sure he’s a superhero?”

Mcnoll’s coffee sloshed out of his mug as he slammed it down on his desk. “God’s alive, Menches! Which camera?”

“F-6 should give you the best view.”

His television screen switched to a shot of the prisoners’ gate. The Crimson Comet of all bloody people was waving at the camera from behind the force-field. Except his wings were wrong. They weren’t feathered, but sharp and angular, like an art-deco angel. A little boy and girl were squirming, trussed up like hogs beside his feet. He had his hand clamped hard on the shoulder of an angry woman standing next to him in her underwear, hands bound at her waist. The superhero had placed a placard in front of him:

CAUGHT ALLISON KINSEY, ARNOLD BARNES, AND MISTRESS QUICKLY—LET’S TALK.          

A broad, if confused grin spread across Frances McNoll’s face. He had a feeling a lot more people would be calling him ‘sir’ soon.

“Buzz him in.”

Ralph Rivers was swimming in his costume. He didn’t feel the heat as keenly as some men, but this was the Great Sandy Desert, and the Crimson Comet wore all leather. He bet he squelched when he moved. The weight of his new wings was strange. Too light. Maude said these things could deflect bullets, but he felt like he was wearing foam. 

He was ashamed of his discomfort. It had to be nothing next to what Maude and the kids were in for. 

“You sure about this?” he asked Maude.

Mistress Quickly made a good show of struggling against Ralph’s grip, grunting, “I’m standing in my knickers in the middle of a scorching desert in front of a prison stuffed full of drooly blokes—some of whom have records as long as my arm and superpowers—hundreds of miles from civilization. What makes you think I haven’t thought long and hard about this?” She glared down at Allison. “At least you picked the gay guy for this.”

Ralph looked down at Allison wriggling on the access road. “Remind me why Miss Simmons has to be naked?”

Allison sat up as best she could and shouted. “Everyone knows Mistress Quickly is just an inventor, you big meanie!”

Ralph nodded. “I guess that makes sense.” He turned his head back to Maude, but seemed to look past her. “Stay close.”

Maude felt a brush against her hand. It was reassuring. 

Arnold strained against his bindings, trying to scratch the itch on his neck against the asphalt. “You sure they’re gonna come out and get us, Allie?”

“Yep,” replied Allison. “Only thing I am sure of.”

The next few minutes worth of futures were very consistent. But then the clouds of probability gave way to barren blue sky. 

It was… creepy. Expected, planned for, but creepy. Funny how quickly you could grow accustomed to precognition.

Allison tried to put the rapidly approaching void out of her mind, instead focusing on the overwhelming abundance of music. Since the Institute, she’d had to content herself with the familiar rhythms of her friends. They were powerful. Comfortable. Reliable. But it was lean

Here, song rose from the desert sands like shimmering heat. A buried orchestra of power over a hundred strong. Allison’s kind, trapped beneath the earth. 

There would be silence soon. But not for long.

“Oh, great,” said Maude. “That’s real comforting.”

“Shush up,” said Ralph. “They’re coming.”

A beige uniformed man with a ruddy freckled face was trying to march confidently up to the prisoner’s gate, flanked on both sides by oversized, rifle-toting guards clad head to toe in black. The man in the middle appeared to be struggling to keep apace.  

The guards’ outfits made Ralph wince. He was better dressed for the desert.  

The three reached the gate. 

“Well I’ll be,” said the man in the least painful looking uniform. “The Crimson Comet. Warden Frances McNoll. I’d shake your hand but…” He gestured at the force-field enclosed gate between them.  

Ralph smiled. “Understood, sir. Have some prisoners for ya.” 

Allison writhed on the ground. “You’ll all die! You’ll get the gas!”

Arnold joined in, “Eat your life! Eat skulls!”

For her part, Maude just stood there scowling darkly at McNoll. 

“Is that the Mistress Quickly?” asked McNoll. “Does she always… underdress?”

Ralph forced a laugh and slapped Maude heartily on the back. It felt like smacking tensed steel.  “Well I couldn’t let her keep her utility belt on, could I?”

“Could’ve let me keep my overalls…” 

Ralph said, “Should have thought about that before trying to bring back the Black Death, young lady3.”

God, he felt like a bastard. 

Mcnoll blinked. “The Black Death?”

“Yeah!” Allison cried. “Quickly was brewing it so it’d wipe out all you stupid humans!”

“I told you it was a dumb plan!” Arnold shouted. “We shoulda killed them with our bare hands.”

The warden swallowed. “I think we owe you a debt, Mr. Comet.”

“Think nothing of it,” said Ralph. “I just want them secured before they get up to any more shenanigans.” 

Mcnoll nodded. “We’re on the same page then.”

The warden punched in some numbers on a keypad by the gate. The force-field vanished as the grill of the gate retracted like vines growing backwards. 

The guards stepped forward. They were both nearly a head taller than Ralph, and neither had uttered so much as a word until now:

“We shall restrain the children’s powers.”

The guard’s accent was unplaceable, but there was a tension to it that reminded Allison of her parents when they’d discovered what she’d done to the shower.

She looked into the pair’s minds. The lights of their thoughts were as ordered as she remembered Mr. Thumps’ being, but wobbling with rage like stars being pulled at by gas giants. Blazing fires of anger under cold lakes of sedatives and Pavlovian conditioning. 

Miserable gits. Probably doing them a favour… 

The guards each removed a metal strip from their belts, both adorned with a jewel filled with glowing blue fluid. They bent down and snapped them around Arnold and Allison’s necks almost in unison. 

The collars tightened like second skin. Allison gasped. 

The music fled. The air became thin and empty. The entire world had become the Quiet Room. 

Allison clenched her fists.

Don’t freak out, don’t freak out…   

The guards proceded to hoist the children into their arms like new fathers picking a baby for the first time. 

Arnold screwed his eyes shut. It felt like his mother was carrying him to bed. But wrong

“Would it be possible for me to escort the prisoners to processing?” asked the Crimson Comet. “I worked hard to catch them. Peace of mind, you know.”

“Of course,” replied McNoll. “The men will all be clamouring for a look at you.”

The guards led the way through the gate with Maude squished between them, the Comet and McNoll following a few steps behind. They were bordered on either side by long force-field walls. Guard posts loomed over them every yard or so, manned by snipers. Allison couldn’t guess if they were human or Physician-made. As far as she could tell, they could’ve been store mannequins. 

Ralph was looking ahead at the prison’s main building. It was an odd looking building—like a grounded flying saucer with a rim of glass windows. Well, Blancheflor had said an alien designed it. He also said the holding cells were all underground. A flower with deep, poisonous roots.      

 “Comet, I’m sorry to ask, but how’d you know where to find us? We aren’t exactly in the yellow-pages.” 

“The freak-finders have me on call.” He tapped the side of his nose. “Need to know, of course.”

McNoll nodded warily. It made sense, he supposed. He’d checked the Comet’s file before he’d even stepped outside. The man was sanctioned, but the file didn’t say for what. Still, it was all very irregular. Frances didn’t like irregular. Irregular meant his bosses asking questions. His bosses asking questions meant a reminder that McNoll had bosses. That there were more rungs on the ladder, and people at the top waiting for him to slip.

Still, if he didn’t let the Crimson Comet in, his men would sulk at him for months. And he was giving him the three most wanted supervillains in the country. Tim Valour would worship him as a fucking god.  

Doors of reinforced glass slid open with a hiss. A desert breeze shriveled and died in crisp climate-controlled air. Mercifully human guards immediately fell upon the drones, removing the children from their arms and cutting the ropes around their wrists and ankles. They didn’t replace the bindings with handcuffs, much to Arnold’s surprise. Not Allison’s, however. They were just kids now. 

She let the walking corpses prod and poke at her. One of the men hissed in her ear, “My sister was at Royal Exhibition Hall, you little shit.”

“Was she the fat lady or the one with the wispy little beard?”

The guard slapped Allison across the face. She barely flinched. Everything felt numb right now.

Ralph frowned, resisting the urge to bolt forward and clobber the man. He did allow himself to remark, “A bit excessive.”

McNoll shrugged. “Girl’s a terrorist, Comet. Besides, not like she’s a real kid.”

The Crimson Comet raised an eyebrow. “Why’s that?”

“The stuff these kids can do, kind of disqualifies…” The warden remembered who he was talking to. “I mean—it has to vary, don’t it? For every few weirdos like her and Miss October over there, at least we get one of them that turns out proper like you.”

“Thanks.”

Allison was pushed into a small, lilac-lit room. One of the walls was dominated by a one-way window. Allison felt like she was back at McClare. Or not. At least McClare had music. At least this place probably didn’t have any pianos.

A neutral, female voice filled the room. “Please step into the circle.”

There was indeed a dark purple circle in the middle of the floor. 

Curiosity pricked at Allison. “What happens if I don’t?”

“The floor will be electrified.”

Well, they were better at this than McClare. Allison trudged into the circle.

“Scanning. Please stand still.”

A wall of purple light appeared to Allison’s left, closing in on her.

The girl rolled her eyes as it washed over her. She needed to introduce this computer to Blanchey. Maybe the purple and the blue was a boy-girl thing. 

“Scan complete. Inmate is clean of unwanted technology. Biology shows signs of physical enhancement, adjusting containment parameters.”

A panel in the ceiling slid open, dropping a set of folded, child-sized white coveralls in front of Allison’s feet. 

“Please dress in the garment provided.”

Allison frowned at the mirror. “Doesn’t look easy to go to the bathroom in.”

“Floor will be electrified in sixty seconds.”

“Okay, okay, I’m doing it.”

She quickly stripped off and slipped into the jumpsuit. 

“What now?”

“You will be deposited in the Juvenile Rehabilitation Area.”

“What—”

The circle gave way like a trapdoor beneath Allison’s feet. She screamed as she dropped into a dark tube.

The tube quickly curved beneath her. She was sliding. It was a slide, bending and turning as she built up speen.

Even through the fog of her sudden deafness, Allison had to grin. “Wheeee!”   

She turned a corner and found herself hurtling towards a light. Allison braced herself.

She shot out of the transport slide (the DDHA’s one positive contribution to mankind), landing with a thud in something thick and spongy. 

Allison recovered fast, rolling over and getting back to her feet. She was standing on what felt and looked and felt like a field of grass made out of trampoline, surrounded by boundless hills and skies. But there was a hole in the world just in front of her, a dark mole in the skin of the world. The slide exit, she realized.

She stepped forward to examine it, only for the hole to close, leaving only thin air.

“Huh.”

Allison looked around. The sky was shoddy. She swore she could see paint streaks. The clouds were cartoonishly fluffy and regular, like they’d been sourced from her old bedroom wallpaper. There was a forest in the difference, but the trees were all too-triangular illustrated pine. 

Fake. The whole place was fake.

She felt a sudden urge to set it all on fire.

“Hey, new meat.”

Allison turned around to find a small crowd of children regarding her with wary fascination, all in coveralls like her own. 

At the head of the crowd was an elfin looking girl with dark blue hair, next to a brown skinned older boy with a look of disdainful confusion.

“Tom? Louise?”

“Jeez, Allie, they got you too?” Tom Long squinted. “And what the hell happened to your eyes?”

Small worlds. 

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1. A staff member or student trusted to make sure school children drank their state mandated milk.

2. As in all government buildings, it was seemingly the only magazine on site.

3. Technically speaking, the bubonic plague had yet to be wiped out in 1965.